The struggle and the scrum

Issue: 114

Paul Blackledge

Tony Collins, Rugby League in the Twentieth Century: A Social and Cultural History (Routledge, 2006), £23.99

Tony Collins’s excellent history of rugby league, from the split with rugby union in 1895 to the emergence of Rupert Murdoch’s Super League a century later, couldn’t be further removed from traditional histories of sports, which seem to consist largely of lists of match statistics flavoured with a few choice biopics of the stars. For this is not simply a story of a sport: rather it uses rugby to illuminate the broader history of (northern) English society in the 20th century.

Modern football can trace its roots to late medieval England, where it was generally played by large groups of young men in a myriad of local forms. Our knowledge of the sport is largely confined to odd reports of the death or injury of participants. All we can say with certainty is that by the time of the industrial revolution football was perceived to be a source of social turmoil, and was consequently suppressed from above. But just as it looked like football was on its last legs, it was taken up enthusiastically within the public schools. From here it returned, in a changed form, to the English working class from the mid-19th century onwards through the medium of ‘muscular Christianity’. Ex-public schoolboy clergymen set up football clubs in the towns and cities with a view to instilling team spirit and godliness into the hearts of young workers.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite as the middle class reformers had hoped. Indeed, almost from the first football developed a dynamic of its own. On the one hand, as it became increasingly formalised, the two codes of rugby and association football (soccer) initially diverged and then split; on the other hand, class tensions grew within both codes. The middle classes were increasingly excluded from participating in association football, either as players or spectators (of course they maintained a crucial role as club owners, etc). Mindful of these developments, those who ran the Rugby Football Union set out to keep their sport a preserve of the middle classes. These efforts culminated in the 1895 split between the old southern based establishment and the increasingly powerful big northern clubs, through which the Rugby League (initially called the Northern Union) was formed.

Rugby league immediately distinguished itself from rugby union by its comparative vibrancy. For instance, in the decades leading up to the split, rugby had been in a process of development into a faster and more spectator friendly sport, a tendency which included a reduction in the size of teams from 20 to 15 a side. However, after the split, and in an attempt to claim for itself the mantle of tradition, the Rugby Union essentially ossified around the rules of 1895, while the Rugby League instituted, among other reforms, reductions in the size of the team, first to 13 then to 11 and back to 13 again, in an attempt to extend the pre-split tendency to foster a faster and more open game. If the main aim of these reforms was to create weekly spectacles which would make money for the owners by attracting large crowds of hard working, fee paying fans, they also fostered the creation of a game through which generations of northern working men could find some outlet for their creativity.

In an earlier study of the class dynamics at the heart of the division between rugby’s two codes, Rugby’s Great Split (1998), Collins showed that it is impossible to understand the events of 1895 outside the social, cultural and political context of the 1890s in general, and the class struggle of the period in particular.1 In fact, rugby’s split occurred in the wake of the emergence of the upsurge of working class struggle known as the New Unionism, and a decade after a team made up of northern workingmen beat the last team of amateur ex-public schoolboys to make it to the FA cup final.

Fearing that developments in association football pointed to the future of rugby, the Rugby Football Union focused all its attention on ensuring that rugby did not follow football down a route that would lead to mass working class participation. This had in fact already occurred in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the demand for ‘broken time’ payments—to pay players for wages lost when playing for a team—was taken up by the small businessmen who ran the big clubs to ensure that they got the best possible team on the pitch, and therefore the highest possible take at the gate. For the authorities who ran the game, however, this was anathema, and they insisted that only those who could afford to play without pay should be able to do so. It was, for the most part, a game for the middle classes and they wanted to keep it that way. Moreover, as they saw it, the alternative was to foster working class idleness by providing an easy way out of industry. The result was a stitch-up, which meant that for a century after the split (with slight relaxations during the two world wars) just about any contact on the part of members of the Rugby Football Union with anyone associated with rugby league meant an automatic ban from rugby union.

It was this pariah status that helped give rugby league its sense of identity—not just northern and manly, but also resolutely working class. By examining this identity, Collins’s social history of rugby league acts as a study of the northern working class through the lens of sport. And the story he tells is a fascinating one. There are informative asides aplenty including an account of the emergence of French rugby league as a class split from their union at the time of the Popular Front in the 1930s, and the story of how Wiganers became known as pie-eaters—miners at a few of Wigan’s pits went back to work before the end of the seven month lockout in 1926, leading fans of St Helens to accuse them of eating humble pie.2 You don’t have to be a fan of rugby league to read this book.

Throughout the book Collins compares the consciousness of rugby league’s sense of otherness with social democracy. Both were ideologies, rooted in working class life, that were critical of existing social hierarchies, but which essentially naturalised the status quo. So while rugby league proved its patriotism in both world wars, its sense of democratic egalitarianism meant that on many issues it was much more progressive than other British institutions. For instance, the first black man to play for the national side, Wigan’s George Bennett, won caps in the 1930s. (He had left Wales because the racism of the Welsh Rugby Union acted as a bar to his selection to their national team—no black person played for that team before the 1980s.) In 1972 Clive Sullivan became the first black man to captain a national British sporting team. Indeed, Wakefield Trinity attempted to sign John Carlos, America’s 200 metre bronze medal winner at the 1968 Olympics, after he’d been sent home in ‘disgrace’ for giving the iconic black power salute during the medal ceremony. Nevertheless, if racism was kicked out of the front door, Collins is unafraid of pointing to how it returned through the back. Coaches thought in stereotypes, and blacks almost universally played centre or wing. Moreover, the parochialism of those who ran the sport meant that, while there was always a smattering of Jewish players—particularly in Leeds—they never reached out to the Asian communities which grew up across the north in the post-war period.

This reflected broader contradictions. Rugby league was egalitarian, but it was also manly and hard; it was democratic, but it was also parochial and inward looking. Just like social democracy, therefore, it reflected the fact that working class life exists both in and against capitalism. This is nowhere truer than in the dialectic at the core of the game between those who ran the sport—largely small businessmen in general, and publicans in particular—and those who played and watched the game—largely members of the manual working class. It was this tension that fuelled the popular upsurge of supporters against Murdoch’s Super League in 1995, but which undermined this movement as rugby league’s authorities couldn’t imagine an alternative to his plan (or, more importantly, to his money).

Collins is right to point out that rugby league reflected a sense of northern working class identity, but he mistakenly suggests that this was a working class culture. This point is easily countered with evidence deployed by Collins himself. The strength of rugby league teams when compared to their rugby union alternatives is best understood, he argues, as a reflection of their work situation. Writing of the dominant team of the inter-war years, Collins points out that ‘for spectators whose day to day lives were based on synchronised, collective labour of the town’s textile mills, the Huddersfield side was the embodiment of working class industrial collectivity at play’. One has only to think about this statement for a moment to realise how misleading is the concept of working class culture. The fact that the discipline of the team reflected the capitalist discipline of the workplace suggests that we are talking about bourgeois culture, understood not as something that the bourgeoisie does, but rather as the culture of a capitalist society. As Edward Thompson insisted in a criticism he once made of Raymond Williams’s early work on culture, this is not so much a static ‘way of life’ as it is a dynamic ‘way of struggle’. The great strength of Collins’s book is that in practice he neither loses sight of this process of struggle nor romanticises it. The result is a wonderfully readable account of a century of our history.


1: A slightly revised edition of Rugby’s Great Split was published by Routledge in 2006. I made friendly criticisms of this book in ‘Rational Capitalist Concerns: William Cail and the Amateurism of the Rugby Football Union in the 1890s’, in International Journal of the History of Sport, volume 18, number 2 (2001), p35-53.

2: As a Wiganer it irks me to tell this story, so to counter it I’ll repeat a story my dad told me of his first day at work as a 14 year old on the railways in Wigan in 1957. After sharing a cup of tea with an old bloke during his first break he was pulled to one side by one of his workmates. ‘We don’t speak to him,’ he was told, ‘ever since he scabbed in ’26.’ Apparently no one had spoken to him for 30 years—not much humble pie there.