Rugby’s working class rebellion

It was as big a clash off the field as it was on – the ordinary working class lads from the mining and mill towns of the newly industrialised north versus the gentleman players and middle class privilege of the south. They called it the great schism and by 1895 it split rugby completely in two almost exclusively along class lines.

By the end of the 19th century the Rugby Football Union (RFU), which became the official regulating body of the sport, was firmly based in the public schools and the privilege of the educated middle classes. Conceived as a game of “recreation – a relaxation for the body and mind, played for honour and not for gain” it was designed, as much as any other formal sport of the day, by the wealthy and social elites to instill certain traits of individual self-betterment.  Having feared they had already lost ‘association football’ to the mob the administrators and executives wanted to keep rugby within their control. What they didn’t reckon on was the huge popularity rugby was gaining amongst the northern working class, particularly across the rapidly industrialising towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Matches would see thousands of people come to cheer on their team, it became a point of local pride and working class players, from the very streets and factories the spectators themselves lived and worked in, began to dominate the game.

As the labouring classes, both as spectator and player, flocked to the sport it created massive class antagonisms on and off the field, as the middle class guardians and governing bodies attempted to stem the tide of working class influence, which they considered would somehow debase the original ethos of the game. This came to a head with the ‘broken time’ payments.

During the 1880s northern clubs began to make informal payments to manual workers as compensation for the loss of income for playing a match on Saturday. Without these payments working class players would essentially be excluded from the sport. The RFU refused to acknowledge such payments as legitimate and began suspending players and clubs who engaged in the practice.  This led to 21 clubs leaving RFU to form their own breakaway Rugby League. It would take a hundred years before the two sides would be reconciled with Rugby Union formally going ‘professional’ in 1995.

We shouldn’t over romanticise the working class fight against the traditions of a sporting aristocracy. A lot of what fuelled the breakaway northern league clubs was economic expansion, with profitable gate receipts generating a new kind of capitalism – the leisure industry, benefiting the club owners and industrialists who funded them. The schism in English rugby was an important time, though, when the working class recognised itself as a body acting collectively in its own interests, even if it was at play. Rugby retains its class heritage mostly as a document of historical change. For those ordinary working class people, especially in the Lancashire and Yorkshire mining and mill towns, they can still say with a degree of nostalgia and a degree of pride – this was our sport.

Wales had it’s own massive working class tradition in rugby union, a history that is as complex and compelling as their English counteparts


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