A new book celebrates 125 years of rugby league but shines a light on a world that the sport has left behind
It is May 1934 and early morning rain puts King George V and Queen Mary off attending the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. In their place, Lord Derby is the guest of honour as Hunslet defeat Widnes in front of 40,000 spectators.
While the prospect of a rain-sodden afternoon at the rugby proved unappealing for King George, the events of that afternoon would have a profound impact on one fifteen-year-old boy from Hunslet. Richard Hoggart was part of the “crowds of lads” who took to the streets the following day to watch the players return with the cup on “top of a charabanc”, following them from pub to pub “staying out hours after their bedtime for the excitement of seeing their local champions”. When the scene was recounted some decades later in his hugely influential book on working-class life, The Uses of Literacy, rugby league was identified as a most “important element in the group life” of the town.
Just a few months after Hunslet’s triumph, in early 1935, George Orwell set out on his own task to understand the state of the English working class. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he encountered a group with very little to live for but “cheap luxuries”, such as fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon and gambling on the football pools. All of which, he concluded, had helped avert a political revolution. But had Orwell taken a fifteen-minute walk across town on his first weekend in Wigan, he would have encountered a very different scene. At Central Park, 15,000 people – a curious mix of miners, professional workers, factory girls and the unemployed – were escaping from the grind of daily life to see “their boys”, the town’s rugby league team, in full flow.
Orwell is not alone in his blindpsot to the importance of rugby league on a town like Wigan. Indeed, entire histories of sport and politics, of Britain and the North of England, have been undertaken without a serious engagement in the pastime that has sustained its people. Rugby League: A People’s History by Tony Collins can be seen as the antidote to this, with the sport elevated to its rightful place at the centre of the social history of the life and times of northern England.
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