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.