How do you tell the story of someone you have never known? Dyce had sat comfortably in his armchair many times, wondering about his grandfather. It’s a hundred years ago, he thought, still casting its spell. He had some facts: certificates of births, deaths and marriages, a little collection of joy and grief that accumulates, a bit like building society interest, steadily away. There were history books of course, and he had plenty of those. Old newspapers were a great read too. But mostly he had the family myths passed on to him by his mother. She was an incurable romantic, so in her eyes it was a love story.

She was born just after the First War. Now grandad died in 1939 and he was sixty four then, so he would have been born in 1875. He’d’ve been well into his thirties when mum came along . . .

‘What was grandad like, mum?’

‘He was kind and gentle. He would’ve loved you to pieces.’

They were in the back kitchen, 5 Willow Lane. Dyce was on the floor, moving cardboard indians and canoes around. His mum was sat, watching, keeping warm by the fire.

‘You always say that.’

‘Because it’s true.’

‘But what did he do?’

‘He worked for the Coop.’

‘What’s a Coop?’

‘It’s where we get food from, bread and butter, up Bradford Road, you know. Where that nice lady weighs out things on big scales.’

‘Oh, yer. Did grandad sell butter then?’

‘He was a coalman.’


So going back to the beginning. Kids have played with footballs for hundreds of years, as part of religious and agricultural practice, and representing the village or the guild was part of becoming an adult. In the Victorian era, public schools, mostly in the south of England, used games, one of which was football, as a way of building character. Carrying the ball was said to have started at Rugby School in 1825. So that boys could continue sports after leaving school, a network of “Old Boys” teams developed. One of these “OB’s” teams was Huddersfield RUFC, founded In 1870, as part of Huddersfield Athletic Club. They played at Rifle Field, just west of the town centre. In 1879, The Athletic club merged with St. John’s Cricket Club and the rugby team moved to Fartown and played in the Yorkshire Senior competition. Competitions like this weren’t possible without a common set of rules, so, in 1871, the first laws of rugby were written, by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), who were themselves middle class ex-public school men.There were nine other rugby teams in Huddersfield at the end of the nineteenth century. Junior clubs, they were formed around local institutions like churches (priests having been mostly educated in public schools), pubs and working men’s clubs. Working class in origin, they formed their own Huddersfield District RU.

So young public school gentlemen and urban backstreet working class youth developed the same needs to compete, achieve, be together and behave badly. They shared the same sporting male values of sticking to the task, not letting mates down, skill, cunning, hardness, stamina and loyalty. Despite the traditional view of public schoolboys as characters of self-regulation, fairness and good manners, they were no stranger to partisanship and disorderly behaviour. Whilst these attributes were apparent in masters and parents, they had yet to develop in the boys.

Working class youth had an additional motive for getting involved in rugby. It helped build community spirit and a sense of meaning in times of unprecedented urbanisation – ‘industrial production cut loose from the intimate and human scale of the past’. The children of the bosses may not have felt this. Many would have lived in the country, unaware of people in the cities, other than as sources of labour.

In the years between 1850 and 1890, rugby clubs began to attract spectators as well as players. Such turnstile revenue made the paying of players a possibility, essential to working class men, who, because of long hours in the factories, could only develop and excel in rugby by being off work and losing their pay. The RFU declared professionalism illegal in the late 1880’s, ostensibly to safeguard fair play. It didn’t stop underhand methods of payment (“shamateurism”) and player-poaching. Indeed, in 1893, Huddersfield poached once too often, resulting in a suspension from the English RU for eight matches. Declaring professionalism illegal also protected the RFU’s middle class power, status and money. They were already successful and intended staying so.

These differences were unreconcilable and “The Northern Union” was born in The George Hotel, Huddersfield on August 29th, 1895, when rugby was split between middle class and amateur in the south (continuing as rugby union) and working class and professional in the north (the forerunner of rugby league). Those working class players without the talent to make the new professional teams or who could not afford to remain amateur stopped playing, and Huddersfield District RU declined as a result.

Since 1995 there has been no distinction between amateur and professional. The elite players are full-time. Some say they are entertainers, private profit the primary motive, pride in personal achievement occasionally appearing to be of secondary importance. There can also be a “win at all costs” attitude, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The top RL and RU clubs are competitive businesses, with interests in night clubs and conference venues. Rugby income is generated through the turnstile, advertising, sponsorship and a share of TV deals, allotted by the RL and RFU. Additional commercial initiatives include Sunday RL, summer RL, joint use of stadia with soccer clubs (eg. The McAlpine Stadium, 2001) and high quality catering.

At the other end of the scale, amateur rugby is thriving. For example, Huddersfield YMCA actually field very successful teams in both RU and RL. Amateur RL however, neglected by the professionals, might have died in 1973 without the Huddersfield based British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA). Despite sponsorship (BARLA itself is sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels), supplemented by grants (eg. Sports Council, Local Authority) and the National and local lotteries, BARLA and most amateur rugby clubs are funded by member subscriptions and donations from benefactors.

Have the personal and social perspectives changed? Socialisation has moved with the times. Many men are aware of their caring feelings and skills in addition to traditional maleness. Similarly many women have learned that their place is not necessarily in the home. The need to compete in a team is as strong as ever, but it is not as exclusively male as in Victorian times. A Sports Council report on “Sport for all” suggested that certain subgroups don’t play sport (Coghlan – 1990 – p.209), for example women, ethnic minorities, school-leavers, unemployed youth, the low paid and low skilled and parents with young children. It might be argued that, whilst there is change, women and ethnic minorities are not socialised in sport. But, as always, if men are not good rugby players or cannot afford to join in, they continue to be excluded.

The bigger social picture comprises free market economics, democratic politics, bureaucratic administration and a rational scientific culture. Factories are disappearing. Inner cities are decaying as suburbs grow. Individuality is favoured at the expense of community. Rugby as a business fits well with unfettered capitalism. Whilst not at the very top of their respective leagues, both of Huddersfield’s professional rugby teams nevertheless offer full or part-time employment opportunities to talented players. There are “losers” as the less wealthy clubs are failing, witness the small number of professional RL clubs who have been defeated by amateur teams in RL’s Challenge Cup, and it is likely that a number of teams will be forced to change their status from professional to amateur.

Despite government rhetoric to the contrary, this free-for-all applies across the board. There has never been enough money from central funds, and local government has struggled manfully to enable sport, as an extra social service, to help balance the problems of inner city deprivation.  “Clubs will form and expand – people are prepared to pay more as long as they are in employment” (Coghlan – 1990 – p.209). In other words, if individuals cannot pay for themselves they will be excluded and alienated, regardless of innovative bureaucracies like BARLA.

Thus, beliefs and values, learned early in life and perhaps further verified at school, in games, in the family and in the workplace, are very strong influences on behaviour throughout life. For men, rugby is an important source of masculine cohesion in times of major urban and industrial change. Good players will do well in any era. Players with neither skill nor money will be denied this mode of expression.

Dad said they lived in Birkby, but was either Hillhouse or Newtown. Dyce suspected Birkby started just the other side of the railway bridge. It had  walls that held it up like a triangles. Dyce and Stuart Gibson used to slide down them and get holes in their trousers. A man took a picture of them once. Dad said it would be in the local evening paper, but no one ever saw it.

Most of the Hillhouse streets were named after trees or bushes. Names only, very little was growing. Willow Lane had houses just down the one side. A long, uneven, interrupted terrace, from “The Slubbers’ Arms”, at the Bradford Road end, all the way to the railway bridge. It looked like the teeth on a saw that needed repair. The other side of the lane was a large stone wall, stopping small boys from straying onto land owned by the railway. The lane ended at the black bulk of St. John’s church looming above the chimneys of Ben Shaw’s pop factory.

The land between the wall and the railway track was a wilderness. Before the first war the Midland Railway Company were going to build a station here, with a big hotel, but it only ever was Newtown coal sidings, supplying the gas-works. Boys weren’t supposed to go on this waste land. Dyce’s Dad could go. He had a special pass to cross the track to get to his chicken-run. But it was a good place to play. And safe enough, one slow coal train a day that gave plenty of warning. Dyce’s big brother flew his first rubber-band powered, balsa-wood, paper plane there. Or rather he crashed it several times, until it dawned that it didn’t work. Spent ages building it, struts all pinned out for days on a drawing.

The wall at the bottom of our backyard was shared with “The Engine Tavern”. Dad said men got drunk there, but that didn’t stop him hopping over the wall and touching the Rugby League Challenge Cup one Sunday night in 1953. Huddersfield had won it at Wembley the previous day and Dad and big brother were keen. Dyce was too small and couldn’t go because the crowds were too big. He used to count the buses bringing supporters in from the surrounding districts, parked up all round Hillhouse. Family myth had it that grandad Addy was a fanatical supporter. He even watched them practice. He died at sixty-four in 1939, so Dyce never met him. He was a “Coop” coalman down at Hillhouse railway sidings and his days work started catching his horse. In 1895, when the Northern Union broke away from The Rugby Football Union, he would have been twenty. It’s said he worked with Douglas Clark, one of the best known Cumbrians playing for Huddersfield. Poaching and paying such players had lead to the split, and grandad lived through it all. And Huddersfield won almost everything pre war. They then had a bit of a lean spell until dad and big brother started going in the early fifties. “The Cup” in ‘53 and the league title in 1963.

A lot of Dyce’s life was spent in kitchens, his and granny Addy’s. In 1953, they had a “Coronation” street party in theirs, the only family in the lane with a television. Grown-ups kept popping in to peek at the TV while the children sat round the table, eating sandwiches and jellies. The kitchen fire and oven was a big, black range that filled most of one wall. Next to it was a sink in a cupboard. The back kitchen window and back door looked down on the grassy communal backyard and outside toilets. The front door opened straight onto the lane, but Dyce had to climb a flight of stone steps to get in the back. He played, ate and got washed in that kitchen. Granny Addy soothed his earache there, with a glove warmed on the range and Dad cut his hair in the middle of it. A chair on a square of newspapers, mail-order mechanical shears and “short back and sides”. He looked like a ginger coconut. There was another downstairs room. The family walked through it everyday, to get to the bedroom stairs from the kitchen. But it was only ever used it as a room on Bank Holidays or when someone came for Sunday tea.

Granny Addy, mum’s mum, had two kitchens. Her house was another stone end-terrace, shared yard and outside toilets, at the bottom of Whitestone Lane. Since grandad’s death in 1939, she’d lived there alone, five minutes from Willow Lane across Bradford Road. Close by were the noisy Hillhouse railway coal sidings, where grandad had worked. The night shift worked under strong electric light. Dyce had restless nights the few times he slept there. A massive toilet key was kept on a string and cotton bobbin behind the door with a candle and some newspaper. She had niffy guzzundas in the bedrooms. One kitchen was at the back, a cellar really, dark and damp with bare stonework and a permanent smell of gas coming from the stove. Her proper kitchen was the one downstairs room, a single window with blackout curtains, a view of the yard, and another long black range and a sink in a cupboard.  She also had an upright piano, which Dyce’s mum could play, and an amazing wooden sideboard. Floor-to-ceiling, mirrored and pillared, it looked like a fairground organ. A large wicker armchair stood next to the table, in front of the window. Dyce’s mum grew up here and he had his first Christmas Days here.

The story went that granny Addy’s mum eloped from Connemara with Patrick Malone, my great grandad. They lived with other irish immigrants, in the yards off Upperhead Row in town. Mary, my granny, catholic, and one of five brothers and sisters married Edward, the rugby fanatic, and moved to Whitestone Lane. His family originally came from Shepley, six miles away. Edward’s dad was a local railwayman. In 1919, at the age of thirty nine, she had mum, her last and third daughter. They all married and had kids, and Dyce was the smallest and youngest of the lot, tagging on, at the end of the line. Sitting in the wicker armchair was a prize worth fighting for. Dyce sometimes got it when the fight was over, winner and loser disgraced.

In 1953, granny Addy was seventy three, and looked it, round wrinkled face and hair in grey braids wrapped up around her head. Dyce didn’t recognise her one morning, with her hair down, younger somehow. Whatever the weather she wore thick stockings and a hat and coat. And her toast was like eating a crisp biscuit. Mum worked, so granny looked after Dyce when he was ill or during school holidays. Dyce had earache a lot, and dreadful injections and finally the operation, and older brother broke Dyce’s. Older brother always had his nose in a comic or a book and an easy way to get at him was to hide them. That morning Dyce threw one down the stairs and hid under his bed. Big mistake. The bedsprings got very close to my face each time big brother bounced. Dyce used his arm as a pitprop, wedged between the floor and the bed. We were on our own, mum and dad at work and granny not yet arrived. Both bones broken in two places, so the doctor told mum.

Mr. Ironside took out Dyce’s tonsils at the old infirmary. His arm was still in pot. Dad moved the television out of the kitchen into the room where Andrew could see it from the settee. He ate jelly and ice-cream for a week, and watched Denis Compton beat Australia at cricket.

Big brother passed his eleven plus in 1953, high enough to go to “The College”. He was on his way. Andrew was at the primary in Birkby.

We moved in 1953. The house on Willow Lane was rented from a Mrs. Turk. Dad went to her with the rent every week. Dyce never saw her but she must have been dressed in black with a black hat and a broomstick. Apparently renting was the usual way to get a home going. Wages varied a lot and unemployment common. When times were good you rented something grander and if not, then the family moved to more affordable housing. To get a mortgage, you needed a settled occupation and prospects. With an army pal’s help, Dad somehow managed to convince a building society that he was good for £4 per month.

So all in all 1953 was a turning point. Dyce and the family left for the suburbs, houseowners. And one son at grammar school. Dyce remember the day we moved. Granny took him on the bus. Two buses actually. Dyce struggled back to his old school for a few weeks, but then changed to the new local primary.

The coal trains stopped a long time ago. The bridge is dismantled, only the supporting brickwork remains, like bookends. Number five has been a few things since our time. A family home, empty, a designer clothes shop and now a sandwich bar. The corner shop rents Bollywood videos. The gas-works has been blown up, people came from all over just to watch. The railway wilderness is Newtown industrial estate, with the pop factory’s beer and wine outlet.

“Fartown” are now the “Giants”, some might say a subsidiary of a foreign newspaper. Dad stopped going when they started playing on Sundays and Dyce never got the hang of summer rugby.

Mum, dad and Dyce were all youngest children, with elder sisters and brothers. All post war babies with large gaps between them and their sibs, none of your two years.

At six, I walked easily around my square mile sized world.  Forty years on and I would drive through that childhood world to see my patients at the private hospital.  Kind people said I did it to keep my successful life in perspective.  Five years from then, the success had gone.  Five years.