Scrum, Ruck and Tackle: Rugby Football League Archive
Huddersfield Giants' Match © Image courtesy of the Rugby Football League and The University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections
This month we highlight the archive of the Rugby Football League based at the University of Huddersfield. There are some photographs and ephemera, from the RFL Archive, oral history recordings from the Up and Under Project, links to popular Rugby League websites and a bibliography.
Almost alone among all other sports, the birth of rugby league has a precise date: Thursday, 29 August 1895. It was on this date that twenty one of the leading rugby clubs in the north of England met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to found the Northern Rugby Football Union (better known as the Northern Union). A letter to the Yorkshire Post on 21 September 1895 summed up the feelings of the Northern Union’s supporters “I say with Mark Twain’s bold bad boy, that we glory in the sentence of outlawry pronounced on us, as freeing us from the tyrannical bondage of the English [Rugby] Union, and we breathe pure air in being freed from the stifling atmosphere of deceit in which we previously existed”. The Northern Union’s heartland was the industrial powerhouses of the Victorian era; coal and textiles in Lancashire and West Yorkshire, shipbuilding in Barrow, docks in Hull, chemicals in Widnes and glass manufacture in St Helens and the Wakefield area. Its players, spectators and officials were drawn from these industries and the communities that had grown up around them.
After the split with Rugby Union the Northern Union began to transform the game from purely a professional version of rugby union into a separate and distinct sport with its own rules and playing style. By 1922 the Northern Union had changed its name to Rugby League. The inter war years saw the first Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in 1929 and the establishment of Rugby League in France. Rugby League has always looked outwards. The Northern Union first toured Australia and New Zealand in 1910, a tour which marked the beginning of modern Rugby League. Within the RFL Archive is a rich collection of memorabilia, photographs, reports and correspondence charting overseas tours made by the British Lions and reciprocal visits to Britain by international Rugby League teams. Highlights include the 1946 ‘Indomitables’ Tour of Australia and New Zealand, which saw the British Lions triumphantly return with the ashes. The post war years witnessed a surge of enthusiasm for the game, although (as with many spectator sports) by the late 1970s and 1980s attendance fell dramatically and even die-hard supporters feared for the future. Radical changes were made in the 1990s with the advent of the Super League, a soccer style premier league of 12 top teams with three divisions below.
Rugby league is also a popular amateur game. In 1973 the British Amateur Rugby League (BARLA) was formed and after only two seasons could claim 300 member clubs organised in twenty district leagues. Today Rugby League is played in over fifty countries around the world. The game is enjoyed and played by men, women and children from all walks of life. There are leagues and cups at club, country and international level. Despite the tremendous changes in the playing of the game, rugby league still has a culture of its own; a distrust of the ‘establishment’, whether it be rugby union or the media, and a deep self-identification as a democratic sport.
For a fuller account of the history of rugby league see: The Supreme Code by David Thorpe.
© Images courtesy of the Rugby Football League and The University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections. These are links to larger images and additional information.
Oral history links
Between 2007 and 2009 the ‘Up and Under’ Rugby League Oral History Project at the University of Huddersfield collected the memories of over 100 people from the West Yorkshire Rugby League community (ex-players, supporters, referees etc). Here are a few highlights
Like all professional sport, Rugby League was severely affected by the Second World War. For Frank Wagstaff’s recollections of playing during war years. See: http://rugbyleagueoralhistory.hud.ac.uk/subjects/view/playing-during-the-war
Although the 1980s was a time of almost constant despair for Huddersfield RLFC’s diehard supporters, the decade ended with an air of renewed optimism, hear Keith Burhouse on Huddersfield and problems at Fartown. See: http://rugbyleagueoralhistory.hud.ac.uk/subjects/view/turning-the-corner
One of the defining features of Rugby League during its 100 or so year existence has been the readiness of administrators to make innovative rule changes in a continuous drive to improve the sport. For an audio clip of Ken Senior on rule changes in the 1960s. See: http://rugbyleagueoralhistory.hud.ac.uk/subjects/view/rule-changes
Cora Haley was secretary of Overthorpe Rangers in the post second world war period. To hear Cora’s recollection on the amateur game just after the war. See: http://rugbyleagueoralhistory.hud.ac.uk/subjects/view/early-days-at-overthorpe-rangers
The 1954 Odsal Challenge Cup final replay drew crowds of well over 102,000 spectators beating the record crowd for any Rugby League game at Wembley. For an audio clip of Ken Dean on Odsal 1954 (post war boom). See:
Links to RFL websites
1. www.therfl.co.uk: The governing body for Rugby League in Britain with links to all professional clubs, the community game and international bodies.
2. www.rugbyleagueoralhistory.co.uk: Oral reminiscences of the Rugby League community in West Yorkshire and images from the rugby League archive.
3. www.rlheritage.co.uk: The Rugby League Heritage Centre based at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, the birthplace of Rugby League.
4. www.rl1895.com: Articles exploring the formative era of English Rugby League history.
5. www.rugbyleagueheritageproject.com: Historical information about the global community of Rugby League.
6. www.barla.org.uk: The amateur game in Britain.
7. www.rugbyleagueplanet.com: The international game from Catalonia to Cuba.
8. www.rl1908.com: Articles exploring the history of Rugby League with an emphasis on Australia.
9. www.centenaryofrugbyleague.com.au: 100 years of Rugby League in Australia.
10. www.rugby-pioneers.com: The early days of both Rugby League and Union.
11. www.australianrugbyleague.com.au: Rugby League in Australia.
12. www.britishpathe.com: Video film archive including the first ever Wembley Cup Final in 1929.
13. www.bfi.org.uk: 'Mitchell and Kenyon Edwardian Sports is available from the BFI. It includes highlights of nine Northern Union matches between 1901 and 1903
14. www.yorkshirefilmarchive.com: Includes footage of Rugby League wartime matches at Odsal Stadium.
15. www.jottingsonrugby.com and www.rugbyreloaded.com: Blogs by leading sport historians Sean Fagan and Tony Collins.
16. www.eraofthebiff.com: Rugby League from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. A celebration of the tough men of the game.
17. www.colonialrugby.com.au: The early history of rugby in Australia and New Zealand.
Bibliography used to compile above description and links to their records in Copac.
1. The Kiwis: 100 years of international rugby league / John Coffey and Bernie Wood. 2007.
2. Rugby league in twentieth century Britain : a social and cultural history / Tony Collins. 2006.
3. Rugby's great split: class, culture and the origins of rugby league football / Tony Collins. 2006.
4. The international grounds of Rugby League / by Trevor Delaney. 1995.
5. The grounds of Rugby League / Trevor Delaney. 1991.
6. The rugby rebellion: the divide of League and Union in Australasia / Sean Fagan. 2005.
7. Rugby League Hall of Fame / Robert Gate (2003)
8. Gone north : Welshmen in rugby league. Vol. 1 / Robert Gate. c1986.
9. Gone north : Welshmen in rugby league. Vol. 2 / Robert Gate. c1988.
10. All Blacks to all golds : the remarkable story of Rugby League's international pioneers / John Haynes. 2007.
11. A Centenary of Rugby League 1908-2008 / Ian Heads and David Middleton. 2008.
12. No Sand Dunes in Featherstone: Memories of West Yorkshire Rugby League / Robert Light. 2010.
13. A people's game : the centenary history of rugby league football, 1895-1995 / Geoffrey Moorhouse. 1996.
14. At the George : and other essays on Rugby League / Geoffrey Moorhouse. 1990, c1989.
15.The forbidden game / Mike Rylance. 1999.
16. The original rules of rugby / foreword by Martin Johnson ; introduction by Jed Smith. 2007.
17. Rugby League: the great ones / by Eddie Waring. 1969.
Feature of the month courtesy of Janette Martin, University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections.With special thanks to David Thorpe, Rob Light and Tony Collins.
Archives Hub Collections
- Rugby Football League Archive: held at the University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections
- Up and Under Rugby League Oral History project: held at the University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections
- You can also find rugby league materials, including the records of the British Amateur Rugby League Association, held at the University of Liverpool, Special Collections and Archives.
- How to Play Rugby League Football, etc. / [by Risman, Gus]. [1938.]
- Another battle for Britain. [The story of the second Rugby League football test match at Brisbane, July 5, 1958. With plates, including portraits, and illustrations by "Fox".] / [by Manson, Bennett]. 
- Glory in the centre spot. [With plates, including portraits.] / [by Ashton, Eric]. 1966.
- The encyclopaedia of Rugby League football / compiled by A.N.Gaulton. 1968.
- Barbarians, gentlemen, and players : a sociological study of the development of rugby football / Eric Dunning, Kenneth Sheard. 1979.
- The master : the story of H.H. 'Dally' Messenger and the beginning of Australian rugby league / Dally R. Messenger. 1982.
- Headingley rugby voices / compiled by Phil Caplan. 1999.
- 100 years of Rugby League / Ray Chesterton. 2007.
Titles taken from extensive Rugby League bibliography provided by Janette Martin, University of Huddersfield Archive and Special Collections.