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

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