This work is based on cuttings in a scrapbook given to me in my capacity as archivist of Ashbrooke Sports Club in Sunderland, home of Sunderland RFC (founded 1873). The origins of the scrapbook are uncertain but it seems to have been put together during the 1907/8 rugby season and covers most of the rugby related output in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Newcastle Journal and Sunderland Echo with occasional cuttings from the Northern Daily Mail, the Sunderland Football Echo and Athletics News. The content, as with most media sport reporting, exhibits a mixture of fact and comment with two of the main commentators working under the pseudonyms of ‘Touch Judge’ in the Chronicle and ‘Argus’ in the Journal. The subject matter of articles ranges from international rugby union to local junior games with an emphasis upon weekly local rugby in the old counties of Northumberland and Durham.
The scrapbook was put together at an interesting time in the development of rugby football in England and Wales. Already the stronger Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs had broken away to form their own Northern Union (better known today as the Rugby League). This professional game had been going since 1895 although it is clear from all the writing in the scrapbook that the breakaway union was still regarded as a close if errant member of the Rugby Union family.
As for what continued to operate as Rugby Union, there was a clear hierarchy of importance – a pyramid with a base of club games leading up through county and regional trials to internationals. Within this structure, the county level carried much more weight than it was to do in the late twentieth century and early years of the current century. In the counties’ pecking order, Northumberland and Durham County stood high – Durham in particular. The Edwardian period encompassed the golden age of Durham County rugby although much of the county’s success may be attributable to the move of many stalwart players in Yorkshire and Lancashire into the professional league game. In the union system, those considered most talented would represent the North in trial matches and, if chosen, would then appear for England in the annual internationals against Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Durham County was far from an international backwater in this period. The two major clubs in Hartlepool provided players for England during the 1907/8 season while many other sides, including Sunderland, produced England and Barbarian players around the same time.
In the wake of the breakaway of the Northern Union, the officials of the Rugby Football Union were keen to keep their game simple and amateur. The regular format desired consisted of weekly friendly club matches and barely tolerated county knockout cup competitions. The latter usually took place towards the end of the season. For the keen amateur rugby player, the weekly bragging rights of the victor were considered reward enough and were added to by a locally recognised pecking order of strength reflected in the club’s annual fixture list. Despite general recognition of this structure, Northumberland and Durham rugby clubs were prepared to buck the trend and dabble with a league system at a variety of levels.
Union and Association
Before examining the evidence for Union league activity in the north east contained in the cuttings book, it is worth considering some why such a structure may have been attractive. A major reason lies couched in the rise of association football or ‘the dribbling code’ as it was disparagingly referred to by one of the north east’s Edwardian rugby pundits. In the Sunderland area, rugby football had proved dominant in the 1880s and the association club, formed in 1879 on the same south side of the River Wear as the rugby club, struggled prior to a move north of the river which helped it to gather impetus. By the 1890s Sunderland AFC had won the league title three times and stood alongside Aston Villa as a dominant force in English football. The effect on local rugby union in the late Victorian period seems to have been twofold. The first was that it drew the rugby club into considering a change in codes on more than one occasion. The second is its effect on public interest shown in the rugby games. There was a considerable decline in gates towards the end of the Victorian period and on more than one occasion this was put down to an increased interest in and attendance at association matches.
The perceived advantage of a league system for rugby was that it would encourage larger crowds – human nature being to prefer visible competition and success. At the same time it would focus players and give them a goal at which to aim. From individual club’s point of view it could also bring in most welcome income. What frightened the RFU was that such regular competition might encourage clubs to ‘buy their way’ to league success through lucrative signing on fees and underhand payment of players; also that clubs prepared to act in this manner would eventually follow many from Yorkshire and Lancashire by taking up the professional game.
Early Edwardian North East Union Leagues
‘In some parts of the country, leagues are not a new venture’, the writer noted. ‘One such area is Durham County and its neighbour Northumberland where League football was in operation from the first years of the century and at junior club level lasted until the depression years of the thirties’. (Sunderland RFC Archive c.1980s)
Interest in a north east league structure can be traced back to the immediate aftermath of the divide of 1895. In 1896, a junior club from South Shields, Westoe Wednesday, suggested a league structure. The Sunderland club committee rejected this. In the following year, Northumberland club Wallsend proposed a joint Northumberland and Durham counties’ league. A meeting was held and the clubs, including Sunderland, voted for rejection. This was ‘on the ground that’ it was ‘a step in the direction of professionalism’. In 1898, however, the Sunderland club committee accepted a third league proposal by six votes to one. This league, for Durham County alone, would exist at both 1st XV and 2nd XV level. In the words of the club secretary, the move to leagues was ‘quashed’ by the RFU. Organisation of the leagues had clearly been at an advanced stage because the club was told by an RFU official to throw out its proposed fixtures and to ‘make the usual fixtures during the following season’. At the end of the 1902/3 season, however, the secretary of Sunderland RFC noted triumphantly that the club had ended ‘second in the league table’ and that ‘since last season the Durham and Northumberland Union have installed an inter club Championship’. This championship had ‘greatly increased the interest in the matches of the various clubs’. He also reported that the 1st XV had played 19 games in the inter club league, had won 11 and drawn one, scoring 132 points for and 131 against. He also noted that club finances had improved and would have been even better had it not been for the bad weather. In an interesting final analysis he added three other favourable outcomes of the league games –
- Matches started more punctually.
- Matches were more keenly contested
- There was no difficulty in getting players to play on a regular basis
The club minutes for the 1903/4 season back up the continued existence of a league structure. There are references to claiming points for cancelled matches and not playing league games on county days. In 1904, Northumbrian side Old Novos claimed two points because Sunderland had cancelled a game. A pristine copy of the league rules and regulations for the following season has also survived in the archives of Sunderland RFC. The league is disguised as ‘Durham and Northumberland Inter-County Club Championships’ and the regulations for the 1904/5 season stated that at least eight ‘home and home’ matches (presumably home and away) had to be played with two points for a win and one for a draw. Positions in the championship table were awarded on a percentage win basis.
Having withdrawn its 2nd XV from its league in 1904, Sunderland RFC placed it back for the 1905/6 season. In the 1906/7 season there are occasional references in the club’s minutes to the 1st XV, at least, remaining in some form of league system.
*to be continued in a second article later in the year.
About the Author: Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at keithgregson.com and his books can be purchased from Amazon.