Birth of Rugby League
Society in Victorian Britain was organised on very clear class rules, with the British upper classes confidently expecting the rest of the country, indeed the rest of the world, to acknowledge their effortless superiority. It came as something of a blow to this world view when the sport of rugby gained in popularity in the North of England, and working class men joined clubs, often hammering their public school educated opponents. The Southern clubs had seen the same thing happen in soccer, and feared losing ‘their’ game to these miners, factory hands and labourers.
Gentlemen rugby players of independent means had no difficulty in attending training gatherings, and participating in both home and away matches on Saturdays, away fixtures often requiring them to travel early on Saturday mornings or even on the day before. Working class players had no such freedom: if they left work early they lost money, and risked being the first out of the door when trade declined. Most worked to 1pm on Saturdays. Thus ‘broken-time payments’ began for some, to make up for lost earnings. To raise the necessary funds some clubs began to charge entrance fees to their matches. This situation horrified their ‘social betters’, who espoused a strictly amateur ethos while often claiming expenses in excess of those incurred.
In 1886 the Rugby Union authorities, still dominated by Southern clubs, imposed strict amateur rules on the game, but payments continued under the table. When the county championship began in 1889 Yorkshire won it, as they did for seven of the next eight years – only Lancashire breaking their dominance.
In the 1890s the Rugby authorities got tougher, expelling some players and even clubs for the taint of professionalism. Many thus stopped the secret funding of stars, often with the loss of their services. Club members were angered by this, and consequent poor results. Finally in 1895 Northern clubs pushed for ‘broken-time’ payments to be allowed, and were rebuffed. Thus a meeting of major Northern rugby clubs was called for August 29 1895 at The George Hotel in Huddersfield, conveniently located opposite the railway station. Representatives from 21 clubs attended (and Stockport participated over the telephone!). Among them were names still revered in the game: Wigan , Widnes , Bradford , Warrington , Huddersfield ... By a majority of 20 – 1 they voted to leave the Rugby Union, and form the Northern Rugby Union, which in time became the Rugby League. They arranged a championship, with Manningham of Bradford the first winners in 1896.
The George Hotel is something of a place of pilgrimage for Rugby League fans, and contains a museum dedicated to the game in its basement. The Founders’ Room where the inaugural meeting was held is also kept as what amounts to a shrine.
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