Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Yorkshire Rugby Union in the 1940s

World War Two had a massive impact on all sport in the County and although a number of Yorkshire clubs did manage to play regular fixtures during the War many closed down as soon as War was declared. Some clubs that had initially closed down found, at the end of September that they still had sufficient players available and keen to play and so they organised fixtures for the first part of the 1939/40 season. However, the terrible winter weather of early 1940, the impact of petrol rationing and probably the loss of some of their leading players to the forces caused many of those clubs to close down for the duration of the War. The clubs that did play all the wartime seasons often depended on players from other local clubs. A Serviceman home on leave who wanted a game of rugby on a Saturday would be welcomed with open arms irrespective of which club he had played for pre-war.

Harrogate Old Boys 1940

There were only eleven Yorkshire clubs that played in all six wartime seasons. Those clubs were often kept going through the enthusiasm of one or two officials or because of a merger with neighbouring clubs. The merger usually meant they had a bigger pool of players to call upon and probably some additional officials. Organising regular fixtures in wartime wasn’t an easy task. In the case of the York club that task was made even more difficult when its ground was requisitioned and ploughed up to grow crops. York lost its ground in October 1939 but despite having no home ground York played in every wartime season by borrowing any pitch that was available in the City, including Clarence Street, the home of the local professional rugby league club. There were two clubs that only played during World War Two. Wakefield Old Boys and Hunslet Engine Company hadn’t existed pre-war but had full fixture lists right through to April 1945 when they both disbanded and the players returned to the clubs they had played for pre-war.
When the War in Europe ended in May 1945 it left insufficient time for many of the clubs that hadn’t played during the War to get ready to re-start in September. After six years of inactivity some grounds were in a terrible state and needed a great deal of work in order to get them ready. Many players were still in the forces and would not be returning home in time for the start of the new season. Finding playing kit was also a major problem as rationing meant that new rugby shirts were in very short supply.
Despite having all those hurdles to overcome twenty six clubs did manage to put together fixture lists and find enough players and sufficient kit and equipment in order to start their season in September or October 1945.This was a remarkable achievement given the short time since the end of the War in Europe and the fact that the War in the Pacific didn’t end until August 1945. The majority of clubs that did publish fixture lists for the 1945/46 season were those that had played right through the War or had played in some of the wartime seasons.

Huddersfield RUFC

Surprisingly, Headingley who only played three games in late 1939 before closing down had organized a nearly full fixture list and planned to start their season on 15th September with an away game at Waterloo. The majority of the clubs were planning to play their first fixture on either the 15th or 22nd of September 1945 and had gaps in their fixture list that they hoped to fill as the season got underway. There were also four additional clubs that had indicated to the Yorkshire R.F.U. that they were organizing fixtures and planned to play in the 1945/46 season.

September 1946 saw a large increase in the number of clubs returning to action. In the County handbook for the 1946/47 season sixty nine clubs were listed as having managed to organise and publish a fixture list. Some of the sixty nine were Army or RAF bases that were still well staffed and able to play regular fixtures. Most of the clubs preparing to play in 1946/47 were only fielding one team but as the season got underway were probably hoping to raise a second team on occasions. There were twenty eight clubs listed in the handbook that hadn’t re-started or hadn’t submitted a fixture list in time for publication. Sadly a number of those clubs never returned to action after World War Two, Batley, Bohemians and Cross Gates are examples of clubs that weren’t able to re-start. The three clubs were listed again in the 1947/48 handbook but there were no fixture lists or club officials named. When the 1948/49 handbook was published all three club names had disappeared.
The 1949/50 season saw ninety one clubs publish fixture lists a figure that was nearly back to the numbers involved in the 1930s. Many of the clubs had established second and third fifteens and what Yorkshire Secretary Bob Oakes predicted in his message to clubs in the 1946/47 handbook had taken place.
‘So season 1945-46 saw the re-start of the game proper in Britain. Although play was not actually up to pre-war standard, it was clear to any observer that the old time keenness was still manifest, and today, all Clubs, Counties and Countries are looking keenly forward to next season and if perchance there is still hard spadework in plenty before all, it is felt that the game will quickly recover its old-time glory.
Bob Oakes August 1946

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Yorkshire Rugby Union in the 1930s

The decade began with a hundred Yorkshire clubs playing regular fixtures. That number hadn’t increased by very much at the end of the 1938/39 season but the number of clubs fielding more than two teams had. When the handbook for the 1939/40 season was sent to print eight clubs hadn’t submitted a fixture list in time for publication which meant that there could have been in excess of a hundred clubs playing fixtures. However, when the Second World War began on 3rd September 1939 all the fixtures listed in the handbook were cancelled and even when permission was given, later in the month, for clubs to organize games many Yorkshire clubs had decided to close down for the duration of hostilities.
When you flick through the County handbooks for the 1930s you get a picture of a sport that had recovered from the terrible impact of World War One and is now thriving. The ‘rush to rugby’ that had occurred in the 1920s had a big impact on participation in the sport. In most seasons entries in the Yorkshire Cup approached a hundred and the majority of Yorkshire clubs were able to field at least two teams regularly, with three or four sides taking the field at some clubs. Headingley, probably the strongest club in Yorkshire, would on most weeks of the season be able to turn out a fifth team. Many of the players who featured regularly in the junior teams were very unlikely to ever progress to the first XV although there must have been some young players in those teams who did hope to eventually play first team rugby. If there was no real prospect of ever playing in the first team for the majority for players at the senior clubs why did they turn out every week? I think the reason many young men were happy, in the 1930s, and probably right up until the formation of the leagues in the late 1980s, to play thirty plus games of rugby a season may well have been because the choice of leisure activities was much more limited than it is today. There is probably little doubt that once a young man started playing for the club of his choice he probably remained loyal to that club irrespective of which team he was playing for. He would probably build his social life around the rugby club and expected to play rugby every Saturday from the beginning of September until the end of April. The ambitious players and those that had played first XV rugby at the top public schools generally gravitated to clubs like Headingley, Bradford or Otley as those clubs had fixtures outside the County and often provided a majority of players for the Yorkshire team as well as some players who received international caps. The majority of players at the top clubs were also loyal and many remained at the same club their entire playing career taking on administrative and committee roles after they retired from playing.
In the days before leagues were introduced into Rugby Union, clubs organized their own fixtures. The club fixture secretary would negotiate with other club fixture secretaries and agree dates and venues for the forthcoming season. In some cases, where two clubs had a long standing arrangement, fixtures would be agreed for more than one season. Ambitious clubs were always looking to improve their fixture list by agreeing a fixture against one of the senior or big clubs. Headingley, in Yorkshire, was seen as a senior club as were clubs outside the County such as Leicester or Northampton. If a club trying to improve its fixture managed to agree a fixture with one of the stronger clubs the game would need to be competitive and played in a good spirit for regular fixtures to be agreed in the future.
The club scene in Yorkshire was healthy in the 1930s with the leading ‘senior’ clubs continuing to look for opportunities to improve their fixtures. Headingley had a number of big names in their fixture list. Clubs like Leicester, Bedford, Northampton and Oxford University were happy to travel to Clarence Field to face Yorkshire’s strongest club and there is little doubt that the visits of those big names were eagerly anticipated. Roundhay, the other strong club in the Leeds area, hadn’t got a fixture list to match that of Headingley but did play clubs outside the County such as New Brighton, Heaton Moor and Instonians. Otley also had an impressive fixture list with Hartlepool Rovers, Sale and Durham City all playing regular fixtures against the Cross Green outfit. Bradford, probably vying with Headingley to be regarded as the top Yorkshire club, attracted some big names to Lidget Green such as Edinburgh Academicals, Birkenhead Park and Blackheath.
The majority of Yorkshire clubs rarely played opponents from outside the County apart from perhaps on an Easter tour, a very popular feature of most clubs fixtures right up to the 1980s. There were ambitious clubs, Wakefield being a good example that arranged fixtures outside the County and usually managed to attract Broughton Park, West Hartlepool  and Durham City to College Grove. Huddersfield Old Boys, probably because of their geographical location, were another club that looked for fixtures further afield, Tyldesley, St Helens, Sale and Heaton Moor featuring regularly in the Old Boys fixture list.

Some of the leading Yorkshire clubs in 2020 such as Rotherham, Doncaster and Upper Wharfedale had in the 1930s, fixture lists that included only the second and third teams of some of the senior clubs in the County. While, in contrast, Hornsea ,who now play in the Merit leagues, ran three teams most seasons and had clubs like Roundhay, Hull and East Riding and Scarborough in their fixture list.
At the end of the decade and the outbreak of World War Two more than half the Yorkshire clubs decided that they wouldn’t be able to find sufficient players in order to play regular fixtures. Of the clubs that did play in the 1939/40 season a number only played a handful of games before deciding to close down. The beginning of the 1940/41 season saw less than thirty clubs attempting to play regular fixtures. The 1930s, a decade that began with such optimism for the sport based on the massive increase in participation, ended with many people fearing that rugby and the Country they lived in would never be the same again.