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Try Again: An Early History of Tyneside Rugby League

Updated: Jan 2

The late 19th century on Tyneside saw the emergence of ball sports as the predominant pastime, leaving rowing and wrestling in the backseat. Though Football may be cited as the sport creating the most buzz, both disciplines of Rugby steadily grew in popularity. However, as James Hoare identifies, Rugby League didn't exactly have the smoothest beginnings.

 

In October 2022, 43,199 people – over half of them from the North East – filled St James’ Park to watch the opening game of the Rugby League World Cup (badged 2021, but delayed due to Covid). Almost exactly a year later, the North East’s sole professional rugby league club, Newcastle Thunder, was relegated from the second tier and faced an uncertain financial future. Based out of Kingston Park, which they share with rugby union’s Newcastle Falcons, the stadium hosted three RLWC group-stage clashes in 2022. The final game, Fiji vs Scotland, boasted an attendance of 6,736 – but this didn’t appear to drive interest in the week-to-week fortunes of Newcastle Thunder.


At the time of writing, they might just cling on, but we’ve been here before. The precarious nature of rugby league in the region is a story over a century old.


Rugby league arrived on Tyneside in 1900, five years after the breakaway Northern Union was formed by clubs from the line of industrial towns that stretched across Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire from the Humber to the Mersey. The code that would become rugby league was born in 1895 amid a bitter dispute over ‘broken time’ – payment for players who missed work. The educated middle and upper middle classes who steered the Rugby Football Union – and viewed the growth of rugby amongst the working class with suspicion – could afford to travel and could go to work with a broken arm. A docker from Hull or miner from Castleford could not, but to RFU any form of compensation was ‘professionalism’ and an affront to the proudly amateur ethos. They scorned the crassness of knock-out competitions and braying crowds, preferring a lazy afternoon of consequence-free friendlies with like-minded chaps.


Shorn of the RFU’s conservatism, the Northern Union reinvented the game with the spectator in mind, jettisoning rules that relied too heavily on the referee’s interpretation and left crowds baffled. The result was a faster and more dynamic game that was free to pay its players – not that anyone was making a living out of it – and fight fiercely for spots at the top of the table or to escape relegation.


But the Northern Union’s iron curtain left the far north adrift. Rugby union holdouts in Cumbria – then the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland – found themselves with fewer local rivals, fewer still southern clubs willing to spend a day or more travelling beyond the Lakes, and the poaching of Cumbrian talent by the ‘professionals’ in neighbouring Lancashire who lured talent south with winning bonuses and promise of work.


Cumbria fell into the orbit of the Northern Union as a matter of survival. Surely Tyneside, caught in the same geographic trap, and having much the same industrial character as rugby league’s birthplace would follow? Whilst Northumberland and Durham had a strong rugby tradition – Gosforth FC, the predecessor to today’s Newcastle Falcons was founded in 1877 – it was showing strain. The rise of soccer, particularly the arrival of Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC in English football’s top flight, saw rugby face intense competition for the matchday affections of ordinary people.


Into this climate of decline came disaffection. In early 1900, the rugby union clubs of Durham and Northumberland bickered over the merits of forming a league amongst themselves to offset the miserable state of their takings. Support for this position was strongest on the banks of the Tyne where colliery and shipyard trades dominated the teamsheet. They believed – with one eye on soccer and the other on rugby league – that a real competition would ignite real interest. The RFU was non-committal and on April 18th, South Shields RFC voted in an “animated” meeting at St Thomas’s Hall to apply for membership in the Northern Union.


In a follow-up meeting on April 20th, the resolution was “rescinded.” They had – reported the Shields Daily Gazette – been under the impression that Wallsend RFC would join them. Chairman John Moralee Jr – managing director of the Moralee Dry Dock Company - assured the members that he had heard from Wallsend that they were going to give the RFU “another season.”


They expected this display of loyalty to see them rewarded with a competitive league, but Moralee’s rhetoric was already echoing the arguments made by the breakaway clubs of 1895 when they castigated the hypocrisy of the RFU in ruling out ‘broken time’ payments with the one hand, whilst claiming expenses with the other. Speaking in front of the Durham branch of the RFU in December 1900, he noted to applause: “It was said by some of the objecting Northumberland clubs that they played solely for the love of the game. Why on earth did they petition their County Union then to present them with donations?”


When the league failed to materialise, South Shields made good on their threat and voted to join the Northern Union in June 1901. There were no takebacks this time. True to their word, Wallsend followed them in November – having petitioned the Northumberland RFU for help with their debts of £50 and been refused. Club secretary Norman L. Dees was quoted in the Sunderland Daily Echo as saying: “The expenditure of the club this season up to the present has been £16, while the income had only been £12 [...] the support they had been getting in late years did not pay expenses, and it was practically matter of the club being abandoned or trying the new venture.”


South Shields RFC, winners of the 1901 Durham Cup. Later that year they defected to the Northern Union. Photograph from the Peoples Collection, Beamish the Living Museum of the North.

A third team, the much smaller St. Paul’s – described as “practically the South Shields reserve team” by the Northern Guardian – also joined but seemingly had little existence outside of their benefactor. The South Shields Gazette mused in February 1903 that “[St. Paul’s] comes and goes in a mysterious sort of way, but possesses the rare virtue of always being available when its services are requisitioned [...] chiefly when there are vacant dates to fill in the card of the South Shields club.”


In their absence, the remaining rugby union clubs in Durham and Northumberland – the latter left with only three active senior clubs following the defection of Wallsend – had decided to form a combined league without the sanction of the RFU, which Moralee noted archly “was very flattering.”


South Shields’ Horsley Hill home had been scheduled to host a county clash between Cumberland and County Durham on October 18th, 1901, but with their defection, the RFU pulled the fixture and moved it to Sunderland RFC’s Ashbrooke ground instead. Seizing the opportunity to announce rugby league’s arrival with a bang, the Northern Union quickly set about organising a rival Cumberland vs County Durham match at Horsley Hill on the same date. Cumberland’s narrow victory by six points to five under rugby league rules was watched by an estimated 6,000 spectators. “In striking contrast,” noted the Sunderland Daily Echo, “to the gate obtained for the rugby union contest [...] at Sunderland.”


This apparent coup belied the structural weakness of rugby league on Tyneside: the County Durham side was simply South Shields playing under another name.


Whilst the pitch initially seemed greener – South Shields claimed a continued bump in attendance and takings – the learning curve was steep. The Shieldsmen had enjoyed a reputation for excellence in the Durham RFU as two-time senior cup champions, but winning ways proved more elusive in the Northern Union.


‘Durham County Team’ – in actuality, South Shields playing under another name. Photograph from the Peoples Collection, Beamish the Living Museum of the North.

Admitted to rugby league’s Second Division, they finished 14 out of 18 in the 1902-3 season and a string of successive defeats saw supporters’ initial interest in rugby league fade. Writing after their fifth loss – at home to league-leaders Barrow in November 1902 – the correspondent for the Shields Daily Gazette noted ominously: “I had always thought the Shields supporters loyal to the backbone [...] but evidently the big bulk of them are like the rest of the so-called football enthusiasts, their enthusiasm needs to be constantly stimulated by success and victory or it droops and dies.”


Distance had become a sore spot in their away defeats, with players often unavailable for the long journey to Yorkshire or Lancashire which could involve multiple trains and stretches by motor car or even horse-drawn cart. In some cases, players waited until the morning of the game before sheepishly ruling themselves out.


South Shields fell to 15 out of 17 for the 1903-4 season – winning only six games of the 32 played. Under the competition’s rules, the three lowest-ranked clubs – South Shields, Morecomb, and Normanton – had to apply for re-admission. Representatives of the Northern Union gathered in Huddersfield in June 1904. They voted to reduce the number of clubs in the Second Division to 16 and to re-admit Morecomb and Normanton, but not South Shields. Off-field factors – geography – had won out over on-field results. Not that the Shieldsmen had much to be proud of for the 1903-4 season, but surely coming in ahead of Normanton – a club from the outskirts of Wakefield, deep within the rugby league heartland – was it.


“The decision to discard the South Shields club will not come as a surprise," wrote the Shields Daily Gazette, "as it is an open secret that a dead set had been made against its re-admission on account of the heavy travelling expenses entailed upon visiting club. Yet in this respect, the burden necessarily fell much heavier upon the Shields club itself.”


Dumped by the Northern Union and unable to return to the RFU, the club was finished.


Wallsend fared just as poorly and a fixture with South Shields at their Avenue Ground home in February 1902 received an embarrassing reception. The Shields Daily Gazette reported: “There would probably be little more than 100 spectators [...] the mid-river town has long been only lukewarm in its interest in rugby football, and the promise of ‘a grand match under Northern Union rules’ did not appear to have increased its taste.”


Rather than join South Shields in the Second Division, Wallsend was admitted to the provincial Cumberland Senior Competition but their perilous finances found no relief west of the Pennines.


"Wallsend failed to journey from Tyneside to fulfil their return matches in the Cumberland Senior Competition, their excuse being that they had not met with that support which they expected and funds were nil,” reported the Lancashire Evening Post in April 1902. “Doubtless this means the club becoming defunct…”


As they hadn’t played their away fixtures, Wallsend were hit with a bill for the visitors’ travel. By June, Wallsend had folded – failing to complete even a single season – and their fate was being openly mocked at the Cumberland committee meeting.


“The chairman [...] said the inclusion of a distant club like Wallsend had increased the club expenses,” reported the West Cumberland Times, “and Wallsend had gone to the wall.”

“To the Walls-end,” added the representative for Whitehaven Recreation to laughter.

 


James Hoare is a writer, editor, and adopted Geordie. He supports Newcastle Thunder and you should too.




 

You can read further into the history of Rugby in the North East on the Sports Archive, where we have recorded a number of grounds in the region.

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