The Great Rugby Schism - 1895: Union or League?

After more than two years working on The Football History Boys, it came to our attention that our readership were beginning to really engage with the history of sport. From this we sent out a recent survey asking whether or not TFHB should branch out to look deeper into other sports like rugby, tennis, cricket etc. The feedback was overwhelming and so from today The Football History Boys is to be joined by a secondary site - The Sporting History Boys.

Within numerous blogs for TFHB we mentioned our fascination with a university module - British Sport and Society, 1860-1960 - The course provided us with a plethora of stories from the world of football but also from other sports - one of which was Rugby. Growing up in Wales, you are never too far from talk of the Six Nations or actually playing the sport on a cold Monday morning in P.E. The game in Wales is of course Rugby Union - one of two codifications which the sport offers, the other being Rugby League. But this was not always the case, for until c.1890 there was only Rugby - so why did the sport split into two distinct factions? Let's find out! 

To write about rugby's split is to first understand how the sport got to that point, how was the game invented? Popular culture will often tell us the romanticised story of how William Web Ellis picked up a football in a match at Rugby school and ran with it - but this is sadly not true. It is true that rugby was invented from football but in wholly different circumstances. The sport can trace its origins to the formation of the Football Association in 1863, when eleven public schools and clubs joined together to agree on one particular set of rules. The greatest debate in the meeting was whether to include handling and 'hacking' in the game - something Cambridge and Sheffield managed to convince the majority of schools to drop (pardon the pun). The schools they couldn't persuade eventually formed a new sport - Rugby.

It was eight years after the universal codification of Association Football that Rugby was officially established. Under the 'Rugby Football Union' the sport could start to grow and incorporate wider areas of the nation. In fact, given Rugby's adoption of 'football' in its name, this is where we see the first mentions of 'soccer' as an abbreviation of the 'association' game - sorry USA but we came up with that name too! The first rugby international took place between (surprise, surprise) England and Scotland, with the Scots emerging victorious by a goal and try to a try. There was no official scoring system in the sport until 1890.

"Yesterday, the great football match England vs Scotland was played at Edinburgh in the presence of a large number of spectators. The twenty pitted against each other were the representatives of the best clubs in the two countries. The game was keenly contested, and during the first fifty minutes both sides touched down. After changing sides, the Scotch twenty invaded the quarters of the English, and became entitled to a "try.'' The kick off resulted in goal being obtained. The English twenty afterwards got a try, but failed to obtain a goal. Time being then up the Scotch were declared the winners by a goal and a touch down." [1]

Looking deeper into the earliest forms of rugby, it comes clear that the idea of class plays an integral role when looking at who played and who watched. Due its formation out of the public school system, rugby like many other sports of the Victorian 'sporting revolution' was dominated (at least initially) by the upper-middle-classes. However, football had by 1894 become the sport of the working-class male with rugby not too far behind. Both football and rugby had similar origins pre-1863 with 'folk-football' almost being a combination of the two games, a pastime played predominately by those of a working background.

Early games of rugby were just as physical

We know now that following the split two codes of rugby were developed - one union and one league, originally under the name - Northern Union. The first signs of a schism within the game could be found in the establishment of the Yorkshire Cup in 1877 - a knockout tournament which brought rugby and civic identity together. Playing to win a competition and trophy appealed in great length to the working-classes but appalled the 'gentlemanly amateurs'. Historian Tony Collins cites the growth in popularity of rugby as 'slowly but surely being a perceptible threat to middle-class exclusivity' - creating a problem for the next two decades.[2] The gradual development of working-class participation meant the RFU believed that they needed to draw a line 'beyond which they were not prepared to compromise'

" It is claimed in the North that the Northern Union has worked wonders for Rugby football. By its new laws it has, so it's claimed, improved the old-fashioned Rugby frame...There are two reasons why the game has become so popular in the North, where the Union holds much sway one the formation of leagues or competitions, and the other the alteration, of the rules. Spectators like an open game with but a modicum of scrimmaging, and this has been secured by the abolition of the line-out and the alteration of the ha-If-back rule."[3]

Victorian Superstar W.G.Grace
So why the split? One major factor was 'professionalism'. As we have already read, the sport was generally one for the middle-classes at least when played at a national level or in the south of the country. Other sports like Football had seen the 'disease' of professionalism take hold in the 1880s much to many an amateur's distaste. Richard Holt writes that neither football nor rugby anticipated the problems professionalism would cause them. Gentlemen players did not expect the two sports to receive such universal popularity so quickly - if money became involved the sports would be played to win, not just to take part.[4] There is no shortage of newspaper articles from the time which voice opinions on the matter of receiving payment to play the game. A circular letter found in the Gloucester Citizen mentions that the "majority of union clubs strongly wish to put down professionalism in every form."[5]

Further reading continues the idea of a genuine split in opinion on the subject. Professionalism was by no means a modern idea - indeed Cricket had seen 'shamateurs' like W.G.Grace earn a massive amount despite technically being an amateur player - mainly through expenses. The Northern Union was quick to remove themselves from any accusations of shamateurism by attempting to legalize 'broken-time payments'. This would cover the more working-class northern player when not at work - in fact, it was an essential requirement of 'league' for players to still be in employment. In a letter found in a number of newspapers - the writer makes clear just what this 'professionalism' really means,

"The people who talk so much about modern gladiatorial exhibitions forget that the mobbing of referees, and the riots and so forth, are the fault the crowds and not of the players—of the gambling and not the professionalism. This a very bad feature of modern sport, but seems to be the curse of all its forms. However, these arguments are really beside the matter. What I mostly want to point out that Yorkshire and Lancashire do not ask for the recognition of professionalism, but for fair play towards the accused clubs and their members. If the Rugby Union Committee choose to aggressive in the face of fair protest, considerable responsibility will be upon them." [6]

Now comes the question of Wales - Wales in the late 19th Century was a nation predominately working-class with most of its socio-economic development coming from the coal industry. What we have seen so far is that the schism has its roots deep within the subjects of class and identity, and in Wales it was no different. However, being working-class it would be understandable to relate the Welsh to rugby league, but as we know this is not the case, so why? It is simply a question of identity. Unlike the rest of the country, rugby established itself in Wales as the number one sport ahead of soccer and too much pride was already tied up in union - a sport which they could openly compete with their English rivals.
Is there any greater symbol of Welsh National identity?
Despite obvious cultural and political reasoning for staying amateur - Holt recognises the financial reasoning as one which cannot be overstated. Some amateur players were indeed the recipients of expenses - possibly becoming 'shamateurs' in the process. For many a Welsh player there was little incentive to move North as in practice they could earn as much playing union as their Northern counterparts could in league. Rugby Union in Wales has become one of the greatest symbols of Welsh national and cultural identity, as much so as the Dragon on the flag or the daffodil. It is clear that from wider reading that there was a genuine North/South divide between amateurs and professionals. It can be argued that the notion of 'northerness' developed after the schism as a sport played entirely by the working classes now had a distinct geographical border with the southern amateurs.

A piece in the Evening Express in 1898 proved Rugby's popularity amongst thousands of Welshmen and women,

"Some people say that interest in (Rugby) football is gradually decreasing in the district, and that in another three or four years, perhaps, a couple of thousand people at the outside will go to see our matches. Well, the little affair of Monday night, when the Cardiff contingent of the Welsh team got such a grand reception, does not look like anything of the sort. There must have been quite seven or eight thousand present, and the manner in which they escorted the players up St. Mary-street reminded me of the reception at Limerick, where, as I wired on Friday, there were about 6,000, with breaks, four in-hands, brass bands. &c. Cardiff's reception was, if anything, a trifle more boisterous, but nonetheless sincere. They would not be denied, and shouldered the players in very vigorous fashion."[7]

Following the schism how have the two codes fared? Rugby League has remained largely played in the north of the country, but did manage to attract the might of New Zealand and Australia to its cause. Rugby Union is the choice of most - as a sport it has encompassed a great deal of the globe. In countries like Wales it began to form part of their very culture leading to notions of national identity. Union's increasing popularity which led to the formation of the Five and later Six Nations tournaments eventually brought with it professionalism, albeit 100 years later. Players have even made the step across the divide and performed in both codes. This year will see the Rugby Union World Cup come to England and no doubt countless stories of this schism over a century ago. Perhaps if Rugby did not split, the sport could have rivalled football as a game truly representative of the sporting world.

Not long now....

The schism has become one of sports history's most fascinating topics of discussion. By bringing ideas of class and identity to the forefront of debate we have a subject we can all relate to in one way or another. Rugby has since shown that it can undoubtedly thrive even under two codifications - albeit with Union being the universally more popular game in the modern day. So there we have it - the story of how rugby split in two before Victoria was even off the throne - it is a story which offers even more chance to research as we continue our look in to the history of sport!

By Ben Jones - TFHB - (Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J, @TSHBs or @TFHBs)


[1] Sheffield Independent, 28 March 1871
[2] Tony Collins, Rugby's Great Split, 2008
[3] Evening Express, 18 October 1898
[4] Richard Holt, Sport and the British, 1989
[5] The Gloucester Citizen, 15 December, 1894
[6] The Goucester Citizen, 15 December, 1894
[7] Evening Express, 22 March 1898


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