A recent addition to the Museum’s archives throws some fascinating light on a controversial part of rugby’s history.
1908 marked a difficult time for English rugby. The formation of the Northern Rugby Union (later to become the Rugby League) in 1895 had led to the ‘defection’ of thousands of players to the new professional game. The English national side had, as a consequence, endured a dreadful run of form – failing to win the Home Championship for 16 years and being defeated at home by New Zealand and South Africa.
Many people feared that the amateur game would become extinct. Particular concern centered around Leicester, which had emerged relatively recently as a rugby power and was strategically located between the professional north and amateur south. Leicester’s success was often alleged to be the result of veiled professionalism.
In 1908 three of Leicester’s players were touring Australasia with the Anglo-Welsh team when they were suspended for professional activity. All three later went on to play league, but Leicester as a club was found not guilty of any misconduct.
The archive has recently acquired the collection of one of the suspended players, Tom Smith. Included is a letter at which he describes how the Secretary of Broughton Rangers attempted to lure the three players to the professional code.
Early in August last year Hardman and Jackson, who had been playing ¾ for Leicester informed me that they were in negotiation with Fernley the Secretary of the B. Rangers at this time … I was … only too glad to get a bit of excitement so when Jackson called on me I thought I should get a bit of amusement out of Fernley by seeing him and making him believe I intended going north. In a fit of devilment I went over with Hardman and Jackson to Nuneaton where we were met by Fernley who drove us in a cab to our hotel, arriving there between 7 and 8.
I paid my own fare over.
Needless to say at the hotel we were well supplied with liquor and I treated the whole affair as a joke. I believe it was arranged that £105 would be paid if the 3 of us went over …
When the question came to signing forms I distinctly remember asking Fernley what affect it would have on my playing for Leicester should I not go and he stated that it would not in any way preclude me from playing but that the effect was only in case I ever did go north when BR could lay first claim on me.
I assure you that I was quite unaware of the effect of signing a NU form.
I suppose it would be about one o’clock when I did sign two forms put before me by Fernley. I did not receive one penny piece for signing it or for going over.
The history books show that the following season Tom Smith of Leicestershire turned out as a professional sportsman for Broughton Rangers.