The earliest strictures against professionalism came from the Yorkshire committee in 1879, when, in response to the influx of working class players and their expectations of payment following the start of the Yorkshire Cup in 1877, they adopted the MCC’s regulations on amateurism. These rules made it clear that a "gentleman” who found himself out of pocket could legitimately claim expenses 1. It is also worth noting that Yorkshire and Lancashire representatives formed the majority of the committee which drew up the RFU’s first amateurism rules in 1886.
Since many of the clubs in the North of England were either started by industrialists or well supported by them. Players were often allowed to leave work early on a Saturday to play without any deduction of pay. Inducements were made to players from other parts of the country to come and play for local teams. Furthermore, the huge match attendances and public support for the game in Lancashire and Yorkshire resulting in some local games getting audiences larger than Internationals held in London. All of this fueled what became know as "Veiled Professionalism".
In 1892/3 the leading gate taking clubs in the North formed leagues, they also operated a longer season, trained their players more thoroughly before key games by means of professional trainers and even introduced special diets for players. All of this was not viewed favorably by the more laid-back South and was seen as a pre-cursor to professionalism.
By 1893 reports of some players in the North of England receiving payments for playing were reaching the Rugby Union on a regular basis. One early incident of note was the professional of David and Evan James on March 29th, 1893. The brothers were both Welsh internationals and played for Broughton Rovers. Both were suspended from the union but the club went unpunished due to no evidence of its complicity.
The South were also not beyond reproach, also inducing players to come to clubs (Poaching) and the RFU itself turned a blind eye to evidence of professionalism when it suited it e.g. as stated by Collins 1, "it took no action whatsoever against the returning 1888 tourists, despite publicly available evidence that they were being paid, in order to protect Stoddart."
Although the North and South were often in dispute over other issues, they did appear to be united against professionalism in principle, so the idea of a North/South divide as the prime reason for the split appears to be inaccurate. The problem of how to define professionalism i.e. what was acceptable compensation and what not, indeed how to identify whether unacceptable practice had taken place at all.
Following a complaint from the Cumberland County Union that another club had lured one of their players away with monetary incentives. The Union established a committee of enquiry consisting of F. I. Currey, W. Cail and A. M. Crook which attempted to obtain evidence. The rugby union was warned that if the club involved was punished, all the chief clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire, from which a large proportion of international players were drawn, would secede from the Union.
The matter came to a head at a general meeting of the rugby union on September 20th, 1893 at the Westminster Palace Hotel. At that meeting a proposal was made by J. A. Millar, of Yorkshire County and seconded by M. Newsome, also of Yorkshire (both members of the RU committee) that "players be allowed compensation for bona fide loss of time". This was opposed by G. Rowland Hill, Honorary secretary of the union since 81/82, supported by R. S. Whalley of Lancashire, a vice president, moved the following amendment: "that this meeting, believing that the above principle is contrary to the true interest of the game and its spirit, declines to sanction the same". This amendment was carried by 282 to 136 votes despite the Northerners traveling down to the meeting en mass in two special trains. H. E. Steed of Lennox F. C. had polled all the clubs in the union and had proxies for 120 clubs against professionalism.
The matter did not however end there and there was another general meeting held immediately afterwards where careful revisions were carefully prepared to crush and attempts to start professionalism in any form. By-law #1 for example was changed to declare that "the name of the society shall be called the 'Rugby Football Union' and only clubs comprised entirely of amateurs shall be eligible for membership, and its headquarters shall be London where all general meetings shall be held."
The issue of "broken time" payments then reached boiling point at the RFU's AGM. Hornby - a true amateur - argued for broken time payments because "the so-called amateur sides ask for large guarantees, publish no balance sheets and distribute expenses far larger than would be paid to a professional player".
Yorkshire complained that, although there are more rugby clubs in the North of England than in the South, more Southerners than Northerners populate the RFU Committee. Also, Committee meetings are held in London at times that are not suitable for Northern folk to attend.
More revisions were to be planned and implemented in 1895.
However, by the end of July 1895, Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury, Bradford, Manningham, Leeds, Halifax, Brighouse Rangers, Hull, Liversedge, Hunslet and Wakefield had announced their resignation from the Yorkshire Union. They were now rugby outcasts.
On Tuesday, August 20, 1895, at a meeting at the Mitre Hotel, Leeds, the 12 clubs agreed they should form a Northern Union, but at the same time made it clear they wished to retain their links with the Yorkshire Union. It was decided that a five-man panel would meet a sub-committee of the Yorkshire Union to place before them a scheme for the settlement of the dispute.' The Union, however, immediately rejected the proposal.
The clubs decided to break all links with the union and to form the Northern Rugby Football Union NRFU (on amateur lines, but with the acceptance of the principle of payment for broken time). It was also agreed to hold a joint meeting of Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs at the George Hotel, Huddersfield on Thursday, August 29, when the formation of the NRFU could be officially announced.
George Hotel, Huddersfield 1895 Modern picture
The Huddersfield Examiner the following day stated: "On Thursday night, a meeting of the representatives of the Senior Clubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire was held at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, to consider the question of the formation of a northern Football Union. The meeting was held in private and lasted close on three hours. At the conclusion, representatives of the press were informed the following men had been present at the meeting: Mr H H Waller (Brighouse), Mr J Platt (Oldham), Mr J Nicholl (Halifax), Mr H Sewell (Leeds), Mr F Lister (Bradford), Mr C A Brewer (Hull), Mr J Clifford (Huddersfield), Mr J L Whittaker (Hunslet), Mr J H Fallas (Wakefield), Mr F Wright (Widnes), Mr E Gresty (Broughton Rangers), Mr J Goodall (Batley), Mr F Dennett (St Helens), Mr J Quirk (Leigh), Mr J Warren (Warrington), Mr G Taylor (Tyldesley), Mr E Wardle (Wigan), Mr A Fattorini (Manningham), Mr W Brierley (Rochdale Hornets), Mr J H Hampshire (Liversedge) and Mr C Holdsworth (Dewsbury). Mr Waller was elected to the chair and Mr Platt was elected secretary. The first resolution adopted was: "The clubs here represented decide to form a Northern Rugby Football Union, and pledge themselves to push forward without delay its establishment on the principle of payment for bona fide broken time only." So 22 of the leading clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire met and formed the Northern Rugby Union (later to become known as Rugby League in 1922).
The 22 clubs had been formed some time previously e.g.: Batley 1880, Bradford 1863, Brighouse Rangers 1878, Broughton Rangers 1877, Dewsbury 1875, Halifax 1873, Huddersfield 1864, Hull 1865, Hunslet 1883, Leeds 1890, Leigh 1877, Liversedge 1877, Manningham 1876, Oldham 1876, Rochdale Hornets 1871, St Helens 1874, Tyldesley 1879, Wakefield Trinity 1873, Warrington 1875, Widnes 1873, Wigan 1879. Dewsbury withdrew a few days after the meeting and were replaced by Runcorn (1876). Stockport was also included at the meeting at the George after calling in by phone.
The first matches of the new Northern Union were played on September 7th, 1895: Huddersfield v. Batley, Wakefield v. Brighouse, Hunslet v. Liversedge, Runcord v. Manningham, Broughton Rangers v. Widnes, Stockport v. St. Helens, Halifax v. Oldham, Warrington v. Leigh, Bradford v. Rochdale Hornets, Wigan v. Tyldesley and Leeds v. Hull. Two competitions were to be fought for i.e. Lancashire (won for the first time by Runcord) and Yorkshire (won for the first time by Manningham - the Bradford club).
On September 19. 1895 at a general meeting of the RFU, further by-law changes were made to guard against professionalism which had been growing fast in the leagues of North England. Union clubs were forbidden to play Northern Union clubs and stricter rules against player payments were introduced. It was a very bitter severance of rugby into two rival camps and acrimony continued for close to a century.
The Northern Union was a run-away success with 59 teams being present at the first AGM on August 27th, 1876 and many more applications flooding in.
In the 1896/7 season the Northern Union introduced a challenge cup with all teams allowed to enter which caused great excitement and the final was held on May 1st 1897 between Batley and St. Helens at Headingley. Batley won 10 - 3 watched by between 13,000 to 14,000 fans who paid 620 pounds between them.
From 1895 to 1908 the most significant changes to the rules were made and Rugby League was transformed into an entirely different and unique game.
These major differences were:
- 13 players per team as opposed to 15 in union (the two "missing" are the flankers)
- The "play the ball" (heeling the ball back after a tackle) rather than a ruck
- The elimination of the line-out
- A slightly different scoring structure, with all goals only being worth 2 po
The battle within rugby was not based upon geographical lines i.e. some sort of a North v. South divide, but rather on class lines, focused on differing attitudes towards working class players by the administration of the game. In the industrial North of England many working class men started playing the game, especially mill workers and miners. The loss of earnings that such a worker experienced whilst playing rugby on a Saturday was considerable and so became a major inhibitor. The clubs began to make 'broken time' payments as compensation for the loss of income and many in the RFU (North and South) simply refused to accept the concept of broken time payments. In fact many of the Northern administrators were ex-public school and strongly defended amateurism too.
1895 was a split within Northern rugby, not simply between exclusively middle class clubs and open clubs but also within the clubs themselves: Castleford, Morley and Dewsbury to name three. Many other clubs which joined the Northern Union lost key administrators and players. If class had been the fuel which drove the exclusivity of Rugby i.e. to be the reserve of "gentlemen" to the exclusion of blue collar workers then the fact that after the split, the England Rugby Union team took nearly 18 years to regain the international championship title due to the absence of many of the best players must have widened and deepened the acrimony between the codes.
The real cause of the 1895 split appears to be how the administrators of the game handled the influx of working class players into the game during the 1870s and 80s. By not making provisions for them which would have allowed them to participate to the same level of the middle and upper classes, they established a situation which could only resolve itself with a split of the game into differing codes and a freeze on professionalism for Rugby Union which would last a hundred years.
It was the BBC's Rugby Union correspondent, Ian Robertson,who reporting on Radio Five Live that the International Rugby Football Union Board, meeting in Paris in late August 1995, had taken the historic decision to allow professionalism in the Union game. This decision came 99 years and 364 days after the 1895 decision to break away. The IRB did not really have a choice, with so much money beginning to flow into the game from advertising and TV coverage it was a complete injustice that the players themselves were not able to share in this bounty. In fact many of the top Union players were indeed getting their share and these underhand dealings became known as "Shamateurism" and an IRB working party reported that "breaches of the amateurism regulations were wholesale" in March 1995. So the August announcement was inevitable.
I do not regard the end of amateurism as a victory of Union over League, nor do I believe that this represented the end to 100 years of middle class oppression of the working man preventing him from participating in the game to keeping it for itself. After all, most clubs I know of have always consisted of a complete spectrum of people from all walks of life.
Rugby could and would have been a single code and it's only the fact that the officiators of the Union game staunchly stuck to the amateur ethos introduced in 1886, come what may that created and maintained the split. The labeling of the Northern clubs as rebels or splitters when they were really left with only one course of action open to them is an injustice which can never be undone.
It therefore seems to me that the blame, if blame has to be apportioned, needs to reside with the higher levels of Union administration who precided over the game for 100 years where little was done to improve the game in terms of coaching, spreading the game, encouraging competition, developing referees, allowing participants in the sport to profit from writing books, etc. and for what?, the principle of 'amateurism'. What seems to be forgotten is the fact that sports are usually amateur at a grass roots level and only in the upper levels of the game is the necessary sponsorship, TV broadcast money and attendance money available to provide player remuneration.
The Unions e.g. IRB, RFU, SRU, WRU and IRU etc. had a marvelous opportunity to introduce professionalism into the game in a controlled manner which could create a healthy environment in which the game could develop and expand but wasted this opportunity by fighting against the inevitable. Condemning the game into many years of wrangling to sort out the structure of Professionalism and how it interfaces with the rest of the game e.g. semi-professional, amateur and how the international game interfaces with the club game.
Once the announcement that professionalism was permissible had been made, the pressure has started building upon Rugby League since it is only played in certain countries and does not have anywhere the same depth in player numbers and clubs as Union. How this will unfold remains to be seem.
1. Myth and Reality in the 1895 Rugby Split - Tony Collins, The Sports Historian No. 16, pages 19-27
2. Rugby's Berlin Wall - League and Union from 1895 to today. Graham Williams, Peter Lush and David Hinchliffe. ISBN: 1-903659-23-X
3. The History of Rugby League Football - Keith Macklin. Syanley Paul &Co Ltd 1962.
4. Midnight Rugby - Triumph and Shambles in the Professional era. Stephen Jones. ISBN: 0-7472 7230 1