‘You’re Just a Rugby Town’: The Formation of Footballing Identity in Huddersfield Between the Wars

Peter Wilson

Peter Wilson

21 min read

Huddersfield has a proud and long-standing sporting heritage. Go back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and you’ll see the beginning of it: playing fields full of amateur athletes buying into Victorian ideas of muscular Christianity; working class men given the chance to exercise and enjoy sports in their new home, having moved from the country to the growing industrial landscape of West Yorkshire. These sporting clubs played an important part in making Huddersfield more than just a town of industry; they played an important role in forging an identity for Huddersfield beyond the factory. 

 

There’s a reason why historians repeatedly return to these athletic societies in Huddersfield in their work. By the close of the nineteenth century, a sporting identity had already been formed within the town. Problematic for historians of football, however, is that the identity that had been formed was intrinsically tied in with rugby. In Northern towns like Huddersfield, working class sporting identity quickly connected itself with rugby, with clubs sprouting up around the area. Indeed, it was this working class identification with rugby in West Yorkshire that led in part to the breakaway and professionalisation of the sport that was known as the Northern Union in 1895 at the George Hotel. Association football was a niche sport, played in Lancashire and South Yorkshire. West Yorkshire and Huddersfield were synonymous with this professional form of rugby. 

 

So how did Huddersfield become a town where association football overtook the importance of the Northern Union in the consciousness of the working class? Why is it that in other, similar towns Northern Union kept its stranglehold? Why is Huddersfield almost unique in towns of its size in being able to support a modern professional football club and a top-flight rugby league club? The answers can be found before 1930.

 

Kicking and Handling in West Yorkshire and Lancashire

 

The unique place Huddersfield has in sporting heritage must be emphasised. In no other town of its size has there been a successful professional association football club and a successful rugby league (formerly Northern Union) club. In other towns the equation has been simple: either there is a successful rugby club or there is a successful football club. The exception to this arguably proves the rule. 

 

Wigan in recent years has played host both to an established Super League club and to a football club who have had an extended stay in the top two divisions of the English league system. Until Dave Whelan’s takeover of, investment in and development of Wigan Athletic, however, association football had been distinctly unsuccessful in Wigan, with the club only gaining Football League status in 1978 and being confined to the bottom tiers of the league until after the millennium. Despite being a Football League club, the Latics were a poor relation to Wigan RLFC (now Wigan Warriors). It took a prolonged, sustained investment in association football, followed by a prolonged, sustained period of relative success in order to pull the football club up to the same level of popularity as its rugby-playing contemporary. By comparison, the list of Lancashire and West Yorkshire towns with either a professional football club or a professional rugby league club is extensive. Preston, Blackburn, Burnley and Blackpool—notably all in Lancashire—have no professional rugby league club. Wakefield, Warrington and St Helen’s have no professional football club. Huddersfield stands alone among towns of its size as supporting both kicking and handling codes.

 

It is only in larger cities that both sports have enjoyed support, but even then, Huddersfield’s experience must be distinguished from those. Leeds has enjoyed a long association with rugby success. The Headingley-based Leeds RLFC are the most successful of several clubs across the city. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were four professional Northern Union clubs competing for the locals’ affections: Leeds, Hunslet, Bramley and Holbeck. Three still play the sport, although Hunslet and Bramley have been consigned to the lower leagues by the financial realities of professional sport. The fourth, Holbeck, recognised that it faced too much competition—in particular from Hunslet—and switched codes to become Leeds City AFC. 

 

With this change came support from across the city rather than just the south. Association football may have been a niche sport in the rugby-mad area, but the size of the area meant that football aficionados could keep the club going and growing until its closure and subsequent rebirth as Leeds United in 1919. Leeds City could also rely on the support of many supporters of Holbeck, providing a steady income through established channels that allowed the new club to gain election to the Football League in 1905, just a year after the switch in codes. On the field, however, mediocre performances meant the association club failed to attract as many fans as may have been expected; before the First World War, attendances averaged around 10,000. Although this is not an insignificant number in the context of crowds of the time, which tended to be much lower than their modern equivalents, it is also apparent that the sporting public of Leeds did not really buy in to their new association club, and maintained their affiliations to the Northern Union; at the same time, Leeds RLFC regularly pulled crowds in excess of 16,000 as one of three Northern Union clubs.

 

A similar story is true in Bradford. Association football was built on the foundations provided by Northern Union clubs when Manningham switched codes from handling to kicking in 1903 and became Bradford City AFC. On seeing their financial success, Bradford Park Avenue followed suit 4 years later, switching from Northern Union to association football. One key reason Bradford City made a success of the switch was their instant election to the Football League; in something of a chicken and egg situation, the Manningham club had been promised entry to the Football League before the switch, so it is difficult to judge just how successful the club would have been without instant admission to association football’s elite. Was the switch a success because the club was in the Football League? Or was the fact the club was in the Football League a sign that the switch was a success?

 

Bradford Park Avenue also benefited from a swift admission to the Football League, being elected to the Second Division in 1908, just 12 months after formation. However, Park Avenue (who prefer even now to be known simply as Bradford, but are referred to as Park Avenue here for clarity’s sake) lagged behind their city rivals almost from the first. By 1908, City were in the First Division; in 1911, they won the FA Cup and were enjoying a 14-year stay in the top flight. Although Park Avenue did reach the First Division in 1914, they would only spend 3 seasons competing in the top division before plummeting to Division Three North in 1922. It is worth noting that taken as a whole, Bradford’s association football clubs enjoyed real success on switching codes, quickly gaining admittance to the national elite and competing at the highest level. This success is even more readily apparent when the fortunes of the city’s remaining Northern Union club are examined. Bradford Northern had been formed to replace the outgoing Manningham and Park Avenue clubs, but they struggled to make any impact on the sport. The previously enthusiastic Bradford public simply did not connect with the new club, although a significant reason for this may have been the lack of sporting success; from the club’s formation, it spent more than a small proportion of its time propping up the Northern Union table. 

 

This lack of success was hardly palatable to a public who were used to seeing the city’s association football clubs compete—and often beat—the elite, and crowds at Birch Lane rarely exceeded 2,500. It was only when the club moved to Odsal—which was trumpeted as a significant achievement for Bradford itself—that fortunes on and off the pitch began to change and rugby began to be associated with Bradford as much as football. The on-pitch decline of both City and Park Avenue at this time, with both slipping out of the First Division and as low as the Third, can also be connected with this shift in public consciousness.

 

Sporting Success and Civic Pride

 

The connection between sporting success and civic pride must be remembered. The connection is far older than the professional game, stretching back to the days when rival villages would play an early form of football on Shrove Tuesday or another holiday. The shift that came with the Industrial Revolution was that the average denizen of a town—rather than a village—came to take pride in their home town’s success vicariously, as a spectator, rather than as a participant as in pre-Industrial Revolution days. Saturday afternoon recreation through spectator sport became easier after workplaces began to close for a half-day on Saturdays in the 1880s. In different places different sports came to dominate for a range of factors, and once the sport and the local club became linked to civic pride within the town—particularly at times of success—they were almost impossible to dislodge. 

 

Part of this is no doubt down to the sense of community that working men felt in being a part of this Saturday afternoon community, as described by J.B. Priestley in his 1929 novel The Good Companions:

 

“It turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, dole, sick pay, insurance-cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into yet another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art. Morevover, it offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ’t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.”

 

Fictional although Priestley’s description is, it contains more than a kernel of truth when it comes to its portrayal of professional spectator sport, particularly in that last paragraph. Sport wasn’t just about Saturday afternoon: it was a key social part in the working day for the working classes, and this was as true in Huddersfield as it was in any other place. The dominant sport, whatever it may be, would be difficult to knock off its perch, and unless there were enough enthusiasts it may even be tough to establish a competitor to the status quo. Add to that, the financial difficulties in setting up a competitive professional football club, and it’s little wonder that the more financially lucrative association football struggled for the most part to gain a foothold in Northern Union areas; towns simply could not support both, and where one sport was established the other would seemingly always have to be content with a place in the amateur or semi-professional shadows. 

 

Association football was able to get its hold in Bradford as the change in code represented a complete change away from Northern Union, with the older sport marginalised. Leeds, meanwhile, was big enough to support both sports to a good level, but association football could not take off in the public consciousness in the way it had in Bradford. What was needed was a dose of success to spark civic pride in Leeds City’s achievements and connect the people of the city to the club, something that was not forthcoming until Leeds City became Leeds United. As can be seen in Bradford, success led to both clubs becoming well-supported, with the local newspapers directly linking their success with prosperity and a feel-good factor within the city that people wanted to share in.

 

Huddersfield as a Rugby Town


Yet despite these difficulties to overcome, professional football developed and eventually thrived in Huddersfield. Quite what sparked this success, when compared to other, similar towns, will always be a cause of debate, but it is clear that there are a number of factors that have led to Huddersfield being a town with a foot firmly in the elite of both kicking and handling camps. This is despite not having some of the advantages that the new association football clubs had in Leeds and Bradford. Huddersfield had a much lower population —and therefore commercial potential—than both; and the professional club could not rely on the existing support base of old clubs switching codes or a clean break from the old sport. Unlike Leeds City or either Bradford club, Huddersfield Town were an entirely new club, formed by enthusiasts without an existing supporter base. Northern Union was deeply ingrained in Huddersfield in a way it wasn’t in the less successful Bradford. Not only had the Northern Union itself been formed in Huddersfield, the town’s club had a record of sustained success that had imprinted itself on the identity and consciousness of the town’s working class. 

 

As early as 1890 music halls in Huddersfield were making connections between the side’s sporting success in the Yorkshire Cup and pride in the community:

 

 “The followers of football in Huddersfield are proud/Our team the Yorkshire Challenge Cup has won… Let all stick to the colours of the Claret and Gold/And the Championship of Yorkshire never yield.” 

 

In the run-up to the First World War, the club won no fewer than thirteen trophies, establishing themselves as the premier sporting attraction in the town. Perhaps a part of the attraction was that Huddersfield was beating its northern industrial rivals in the Heavy Woollen District. the geographical scope of the Northern Union was—and remains—the modern M62 corridor. Huddersfield had the team of the age on the field, while off it her industrial rivals in the wool and textiles trade were left in the shade. The same was less true of Huddersfield Town AFC. Why expend energy on taking pride in a team in the middle of the Second Division in the twilight years of Edwardian Britain?

 

Huddersfield Town AFC in Crisis

 

That Huddersfield Town were playing Second Division football at all was not as a result of great sporting merit. The club were elected to the Football League in 1910, two years after formation. The pattern of swift elevation to the elite footballing competition can be seen across West Yorkshire. Bradford City had never even kicked a ball before they were elected, and at least Town had some pedigree, having competed in the North-Eastern and Midlands Leagues in the two years before election. In fact, Huddersfield had to wait the longest of the West Yorkshire towns after the formation of its club until it could host League football, but it could hardly be said to have been a long wait. Huddersfield got a Football League club because of the League’s own policies: it wanted to stamp out commercial competition to association football. Its approach was to sow the seeds of the sport in previous rugby areas, hence the elevation of the West Yorkshire clubs to League status. 

 

This policy was of mixed success; in many of the evangelised Northern Union areas, the new competition struggled for attention—and therefore the finances—needed to compete, particularly in the Second Division, without the glamour of the First. Town were not the only club to suffer from financial problems, being liquidated in 1912, before the biggest crisis of all in 1919, which saw the proposal of the club being moved ‘lock, stock and barrel’ to amalgamate with the newly formed Leeds United.

 

At the root of these financial problems was the fact that, before the First World War, the association football club were undoubtedly the poor relations to the ‘team of all the talents’, the all-conquering Fartown side who won all there was to be won. This isn’t to say Town didn’t have goodwill in Huddersfield: crowds when Fartown were away frequently topped 7,000 and 8,000. Cup games could attract double this. But the rugby club’s crowds remained bigger, averaging over 9,000 before the war. When fixtures clashed, it was inevitably the mid-table Second Division side who shed thousands at the gate as Huddersfield’s people flocked to see what, at the time, was one of the greatest rugby sides ever to play the game. People wanted to associate themselves and Huddersfield with the almighty success of Wagstaff and Rosenfeld. The town’s preference for Northern Union is obvious on closer study of the Huddersfield Examiner on Mondays after matches; Fartown’s coverage took the most prominent spaces, with more column inches devoted to them than to Town. The only way Town could compete with Fartown was if success came on the field, and the price of success was more than the club could afford, more often than not.

 

Hail! Town! Thrice Champions!


Conversely, it may have been just these struggles that finally began to convert the people of Huddersfield to association football. The proposal, in the autumn of 1919, to transfer Huddersfield Town—playing record and all—to Leeds proved to be just the rallying cry that the town needed to get behind its football club. The idea of losing even a fairly average football club to a city Huddersfield and its residents saw as an industrial rival was too much. The efforts made to save the football club saw shares issued to the working classes. Whip-rounds in the mills raised money to keep the club going. Perhaps most tellingly, crowds began to increase. On-field success helped—in 1920 the club were promoted to the First Division for the first time, while also reaching the FA Cup final—and by the end of the 1919/20 season the average crowd had doubled from 6,000 to nearer 12,000, aided by some truly huge FA Cup crowds. 35,500 turned up in an early round against Plymouth, hardly a local rival against whom you would expect a bumper attendance. 

All of this represented a quite literal buying-in of the town’s people to the football club and its fortunes; what had previously been a minority sport became embedded in the town’s identity. With First Division football came a further increase in crowds as people flocked to see Town take on the nation’s best: 1920/21 saw an average crowd of over 22,000, comparable with recent seasons in the topflight.

 

What should not be underestimated is the effect that success had on the sporting affections of the people of Huddersfield. Neither should the idea that Northern Union was a local sport, whereas association football was a national one. For all the Huddersfield Daily Examiner reflected the town’s tastes, people still consumed the national media, where the focus was on the more universally popular football. When the rugby club was a success, it was a local success; when the football club rose to prominence, the profile of the town was raised nationwide. There was more vicarious glamour in supporting the association football club than there was in the rugby club once the football club went from Second Division also-rans to the dominant footballing force of the 1920s; add to that, the great team of all the talents was no more. 

 

After the First World War, Fartown went into something of a decline. Having won thirteen trophies in the years immediately before the First World War, supporters of the oval ball had to wait over a decade for the league championship. This was despite the Challenge Cup success of 1920, the last hurrah for the greats of the side. By contrast, Town delivered three successive League championships between 1924 and 1926, winning the FA Cup in 1922 and also appearing in a further three finals between 1920 and 1930. Had the modern system of European qualification been in place, between 1920 and 1930 Town would have qualified for the Champions League on no fewer than six occasions. This success wasn’t fleeting; it was sustained and came at a crucial time. When Huddersfield’s people had bought in to the football club, the football club went on a run of unprecedented success. The connection between club and supporters was crucial, with crowds remaining high on a consistent basis, and football replacing rugby as the sport of choice of the town.

 

Smile Awhile

 

The pride that people took in the club—and the civic connection between club, people and town—can be seen in the club’s unofficial FA Cup anthem. First sung during the run to the final in 1920, the paraphrasing of music hall hit ‘Smile Awhile’ became known as the Town Anthem makes clear that the club had come to be identified with the town, and was something that people took real pride in:

 

There’s a team that is dear to its followers,

Their colours are bright blue and white,

They’re a team of renown,

They’re the pride of the town,

And the game of football is their delight.

All the while upon the field of play,

Thousands loudly cheer them on their way.

Often you can hear them say,

‘Who can beat the Town today?’

Then the bells will ring so merrily,

Every goal will be a memory,

So Town play up and bring the Cup,

Back to Huddersfield.

 

It was a far cry from the days when Northern Union relegated the kicking code to a secondary role within the town itself. A combination of factors had led the sport—still marginalised in similar towns elsewhere—to become the most popular form of public entertainment. It was this time that led to Huddersfield supporting not one, but two first-class sports teams in different codes, a state of affairs closer to much bigger towns and cities like Leeds. The extent to which success influenced this affinity between town and sports should not be understated, however, and it was this success, along with the unique factors that influenced civic pride in the newer code, that solidified the supporter base within the town and allowed a footballing identity to emerge contemporaneously to the existing rugby identity.

 

Further Reading

Beaven, B., Leisure, citizenship and working-class men in Britain, 1850-1945 (Manchester, 2005)

 

Birley, D., Playing the Game: Sport and British Society, 1910-45 (Manchester, 1995)

 

Collins, T., Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football (London, 1998)

 

Hill, J., Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2002)

 

Russell, D., Football and the English: A Social History of Association Football in England, 1863-1995 (Preston, 1997)

 

Taylor, M., The Association Game: A History of British Football (Oxford, 2008)

 

Taylor, M., The Leaguers: The Making of Professional Football in England, 1900-1939 (Liverpool, 2005)

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