Where did rugby league originate?
What is the difference between rugby league and rugby union? And where did rugby league originate? The answer has its origins in the divisions between the upper and working classes in Victorian England
Rugby’s origins are murky, and the tale of pupil William Webb Ellis (1806–1872) scooping up the football in a moment of inspiration and singlehandedly birthing rugby on the grounds of Rugby School in Warwickshire owes more to fancy than fact. Nevertheless, the game played at Rugby spread rapidly across the 1860s. Former pupils (‘Old Rugbeians’) took the rules with them to Oxford, Cambridge and other grand universities, and then into their professional networks. In 1871 the Rugby Football Union (RFU), rugby’s governing body, was founded. Rugby union was widely seen as the sport of upper-class men.
The first clubs in the north of England were founded in the manner of their Southern counterparts – both Liverpool Football Club (established 1857) and Manchester FC (1860) were formed around Old Rugbeians. The clubs that followed remained resolutely upper middle class, but increasingly their members had been educated locally. For example, Bradford FC was formed in 1863 by former students from Bramham College in West Yorkshire.
Hull FC was one of the earliest ‘open’ teams that allowed prospective players from all walks of life, and by 1871 the squad included a plumber, a glazier and a gas-fitter. Appalled by such disregard for social boundaries, Manchester FC refused to play them. This was the first rumblings of the split, which at its fiercest wasn’t between southern ‘toffs’ and northern ‘proles’, but between the northern bourgeoisie and their working-class neighbours.
Local rivalries saw rugby grow rapidly. In Yorkshire, a countywide body the Yorkshire Football Rugby Union was formed and a countywide competition was instigated – the Yorkshire Challenge Cup.
The cup competitions represented an attack on what became known by the Rugby Football Union as ‘amateurism’ – generously defined as the belief that sport should be played for its own sake, and not for trophies or financial reward. Less generously, this was a cloak for snobbery. One major schism in the sport of rugby was around ‘broken time’ payments – compensation to players who missed work to play, something that excluded working-class men from the game.
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In September 1893, a motion to pay for broken time was put in front of the Rugby Football Union at a meeting at Westminster Palace Hotel in London. It was quashed by a resounding 282 votes to 136. The Rugby Football Union was not magnanimous in victory, and teams and players were prosecuted with growing frequency. Then, on 12 August 1895, the Rugby Football Union introduced a hardline diktat: any club or player accused of ‘professionalism’ would be suspended indefinitely until they proved otherwise.
It was the final straw. On 29 August 1895, representatives of 22 rugby clubs met at the George Hotel, Huddersfield to form the breakaway Northern Rugby Football Union. The clubs were Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Halifax, Huddersfield FC, Hull F.C., Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, Runcorn, Stockport, St Helens, Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan. The Northern Rugby Football Union, which changed its name to the Northern Rugby Football League in 1922, instituted a fully professional league - the Championship, which is still in contention over a century on – and developed the rules of rugby league that are still played today to make the game more entertaining for the crowds that they depended on for revenue. The size of teams was reduced from 15 to 13, the drop goal devalued to emphasise the scoring of tries which were far more popular with the crowd, lineouts dropped altogether, and the use of scrums reduced because spectators couldn’t see what was happening. The game slowly transformed into something recognisable as modern rugby league, adored for the speed of play and the sense of continuity, community and civic pride.