hartlepool history logo

1120 - The History of Rugby Union Football in the Hartlepools

Chapter 1  - What did the Romans do for us!  Where did “football” come from?

“Do you know who made you?” “Nobody, as I knows on” said Topsy” I ‘spect I grow’d” “Don’t think nobody never made me”.

These words from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” probably sums up the response of many people if they were asked, “How did Rugby Union originate” for though the game in the town and the country is well organised, well founded and in parts professional it origins stretch back a long time into history so the story of the history of the game in Hartlepool could not begin without first looking at the origins of Football.

And just where to begin is the question or more likely how far back?  Certainly the Romans had in their sporting life the game of harpastum a game involving elements of the scrummage and the ball being passed by hand and played on a pitch the size of a football field. However it was not until the thirteenth century that we first start to hear of football usually in an effort to ban the sport.  In Edward IIIs time it was seen to lead to the decline of archery, and in the same period people were forbidden to hustle over large balls largely because of the riots that might follow.

Further attempts with penalties were taken by Henry IV and the first Elizabeth to ban football; it was considered rough and interfered with work, sentiments that still have an echo today!  It is Elizabeth’s time that we find some record of how the system perceived the game. Phillip Stubbes, a Puritan, claimed that football may be called a friendlie kind of fight than a play or recreation, a bloody and murthering business than a fellowly sport or pastime.  In fact Stubbes in the same book, extends his view by denouncing football as a bloody and murthering business whereof groweth envie, malice,emnitie, and what not else and sometimes brawling, contention, quarreling, homicide and great effusion of bloode. 

Yet despite official efforts football was still played on holidays although it was half carnival and half faction fight, played in the streets involving at times hundreds and could on occasion last for days. A Manchester Court leet of 1608 records a fine of 12 pence for playing football due to the lewd and disorderly persons playing the game with many broken windows into the bargain. Such was the case in places such as Sheffield, and Derby, days that only faded out in the 1840s.  The level of the violence could be gauged from a record of a football game between a team of twenty from Tynedale and one from Liddersdale in 1790, an International no less, and one of a series played near KielderCastle. No scores or duration of the games is given but several players were so exhausted by the struggle that a few who died soon afterwards dated the commencement of their illness from that date? Even today of course, this area still retains at least one Shrove Tuesday football match of that sort at Sedgefield, Chester le Street and Alnwick held such games until fairly recently.

It was not until the Victorian age that Football started to move away from the disorderly mob and to evolve into the two most distinct codes that we have today

The dribblers who want handling reduced to a minimum and the handlers who wanted to carry the ball as well as kick it.

Events in society itself, seemingly unrelated to football, brought changes within it that would eventually lead to the creation of free time and to enable people to take part and participate in football. As early at 1835 the Highways Act that year banned the playing of football in the street, it didn’t stop it, but simply drove the game into the open fields and then in 1847 the introduction the 10 hours Act restricted work time for people between 13 and 18 years old to only 63 hours! And of course, the Crimean War had a major effect, we had been allies with the French during that conflict but a quickly concluded peace led quickly to the 3rd French scare with Napoleon III making overtures of a French invasion, this being I  believe, the start of the French Monkey Legend hereabouts, the result of the scare was the raising of 100, 000 volunteers drawing 50 percent from the gents, 50 from the others, although we ended up with the Heugh Battery in Hartlepool  as a result, , the scare faded but the result was that this mixing of the classes, and increasing free time spread to a mixing of people and away from the drill field, members met to take part in cricket, athletics and football. And of course, it must not be forgotten that throughout the 19th Century 30 percent of the population of this country was under 15 years of age so a relatively young society for the game to attract players and those with time to spare.

Football was by this time part of the Public School curriculum in the early days of the 19th century and was too evolve from a Schoolboy game via its involvement with the

industrial working masses into mass popularity fired by the foundation of the Football Association of 1863 and the Rugby Football Union of 1871, and later in 1895 of the Northern Union.

The Rugby Code was of course named from the Warwickshire School of that name which developed a set of Rules at various times and by 1846 their Football Rule book was to be the basis for the distinction between the two codes, handlers and dribblers, although various Clubs such as Blackheath, Cambridge University Huddersfield claimed their own rules.

Here I must mention the famous exploit of William Webb Ellis who it is claimed in 1823 picked up the ball and ran with it in contradiction of the Rules of that time, and is claimed as the founder of the game we have today. That date was decided in the 1890s, he never left his own account, the date 1823 is supposition, Ellis was at Rugby from 1816 onwards, he would be a contemporary of one Ralph Ward Jackson, the founder of West Hartlepool, who was a year older than Ellis, and had left Rugby by 1822 a year before the famous date  Is it possible that the famous run took place in 1821 and maybe Ward Jackson was on the field at the time and urged Webb Ellis to run with the ball!   The event is now largely disregarded, Ellis himself left no account of the business, and he lived until 1870 and died just before the founding of the RFU

Ellis went to take Holy Orders and became part of that Christian movement that saw Sport as Muscular Christianity with its values of Teamwork, Courage, Self Discipline and Loyalty and was the guiding spirit behind the Churches involvement with team games.

The Club scene evolved from as early as the 1840s nationally with clubs such as Guy’s Hospital, Blackheath in the 50s, Richmond, Bradford, Manchester, and Wasps all starting in the 60s and still in existence.

Locally, football was played in Grammar Schools such as Houghton Kepier, Durham, Darlington, Richmond and Great Ayton, indeed at Durham School has played Football since 1850 and one Old Boy, Alexander Crombie, started a Club in Edinburgh, Edinburgh Academicals in 1854 and is often referred to as the Father of Scottish Rugby. So with Jackson at Rugby and Crombie in Durham this area has quite a connection with the game on both sides of the Tweed.

Club Rugby in Durham started in 1863 with the formation of Darlington and then by the early 1870s a spate of Clubs was formed in Westoe, Sunderland, University, Stockton and Houghton.  Nationally, the RFU had formed in 1871 and locally the game was becoming organised which led to the formation of the Durham County Union in 1876, to formally organise games with Yorkshire that had been taking place since 1873.


Chapter 2 The game starts in town and reaches its greatest height - 1870 to 1895 –


Here in our home town, by 1870 the town was starting to emerge from the difficulties of the late 1860s with the closure of the Pyle Shipyard and the aftermath of Ward Jacksons troubles, and 1870 was to prove a milestone year for with the Franco Prussian War producing a trade revival and indeed from 1870, the demand for shipping right up to the First World War showed an upward curve albeit with occasional trade dips, to provide the backbone of trade growth for the area, And not forgetting that the Bank Holiday Act in 1871 allied to works paying men on Fridays all added to the cocktail needed for Football to thrive.

By the mid 70s Castle Eden Athletic Club was advertising for games of Football which had all the hallmarks of Rugby Football, teams were not allowed to wear boots with Iron Plates, protruding nails or gutta percha studs (a form of hard Malaya rubber) but a touchdown meant a try for goal and this could be the earliest team in the locality. The rules do not allow for hacking, a brutal form of tackle with players legs hacked from under them provided they were not being held and a rearguard action was fought by some to retain hacking. My favourite tale is of Rev Dilkes, a Durham Schoolboy who used to beat his own shins with a poker as part of his regime for playing Rugby, it must have done some good, he went on to found Leeds Parish Church RFC which eventually morphed into Leeds RUFC in the Premiership, he himself become Bishop of Calcutta!

The game finally emerged in Hartlepool in 1875 when the Hartlepool’s Football Club was formed at the end of the Cricket season at a meeting in the Cleveland Hotel in Brig Open.  Records though are very sparse but there is mention of Hartlepool playing West Hartlepool in 1876 but these times seem days of happy inconsequence when it comes to recording matches, scores etc.

The game did grow at this time, by 1879 a junior side called Hartlepool Albion was formed, a year later they became Hartlepool Juniors and by 1881-1882 they had become Hartlepool Rovers.

Meanwhile across in West Hartlepool the team that played as West Hartlepool had become West End Wanderers and in 1881 a meeting in Steins Hotel in Mainsforth Terrace launched West Hartlepool.  

To form a club is one thing, to play on a field is another, early records show that West played up at Foggy Furze in the 70s but by 81 they were playing on a field in Middleton Grange Lane, where stand the Essoldo Bingo. Like West using Foggy Furze so the early Rovers Club had a similar trek for games. They played on what became known as Old Boys field, on the Central Estate. Not far from the present New Friarage, players having to carry the posts there but a season later they were on a site at Galleys Field School stood bounded by Holman’s Ropery and to the North by Fairy Cove Battery.

Carrying the posts is not surprising for in the early days a pitch required little, two sets of posts, a goal line and the boundary marked out.  Many of the trappings of a field we today take from granted were to be a later invention. The number of players had been reduced from 20s to 15s in 1876 but was not law until 1892. Likewise the emphasis was on goals scored until 1888 when points came in and that only fizzled out by 1898.  Referees were of course brought in only in the 90s, earlier on both Captains settled disputes, later two umpires were appointed and for a spell in 1891 a Referees, two touch judges and two umpires were a requirement?  It was not until 1905 that 25 yard and 10 yard lines appeared, indeed Scotland only allowed numbers on International jerseys in 1931, after all it was a team game why do you need to identify individuals?

It was however to be events beyond the town that sparked the boom in Rugby Football, in 1878 the Yorkshire Union had put up the Yorkshire Cup for competition between Clubs, the Durham County Union decided to do the same in 1881 and this had a startling effect on Clubs.

Gone were the days of happy inconsequence playing for the Cup meant playing to win

Clubs became more organised, crowd interest increased and the game took off in the Hartlepool’s and indeed throughout Durham County which saw the game transformed. 

The quest for Cup glory resulted in the disappearance on the Hartlepool Club of 1875 for in 1881 they were taken over by the Hartlepool Rovers Club, took up residence on the Friarage Field and sprang immediately into prominence By 1884 they annexed the Senior Cup for the first of many occasions and started to provide a stream of players to the County, England and British Lions XV over the next century and more.

Incidentally, the first County players from the town was Arthur Hill, originally with the Hartlepool’s Club who oversaw the amalgamation of the two Clubs and who family is still involved with Rovers. Another forgotten character of those times was C.H.Newman who played for and Captained Wales, in ten games in the eighties and was a vicar in Gateshead for all of his working life.

West meantime were as popular playing early on up at Foggy Furze by 1887 they had moved onto the Tip site in Lancaster Road and at a great cost of £600, and as the year was Jubilee year the name Victoria Ground was given to the site.

It was in 1884 that the 3rd big club, a feature of the local scene for the next Century until the arrival of Leagues re drew the Rugby Map of the World, came into being when Hartlepool Rangers were formed and took up residence in their Cherry & White strips on the field “Near the Trams Sheds” at Greenland. This long forgotten club reached the Final of the Senior Cup in 1890 but folded in 1893 a point I will return to shortly.

This period of development was also noteworthy for 1888 saw the visit to the Friarage of the first overseas tourists when the New Zealand Maori XV beat Rovers by a try to nil. This tour involved the visitors in no less than 76 matches over six months. The first of quartet of overseas visitors to the town in the pre First World War days.

The crowds in these times are worthy of remark for they have never been beaten, gates of 10 or 11000 were not uncommon for West-Rovers derbies and for Charity matches. Games between the two side produced profits for the Hospitals, for St Josephs Church, for the Cricket Club and on one occasion for the families of those lost when the WHSN vessel “Coral Queen”  collided and sank just after sailing from West Hartlepool. On the reverse side crowd trouble was not uncommon at these times; the County closed the YMCA ground in South Shields following one game. When the Advantage Law was introduced in 1896, , Mr W. Humphreys of 9 York Road, West Hartlepool as County Sec. had a Poster published detailing the new Law, appealing for people to respect it and advising Clubs to call the police if trouble ensued!

Little surprise then when the Durham Referees Society was formed in the 90s Mr Charles Boddy in Church Street, it first Honorary Secretary, instructed Referees to report on Crowd Behaviour as part of their duties.

The game though continued to grow, and that other remarkable feature of Hartlepool Rugby also emerged at this time in the large number of Junior Clubs that flourished.

Many lasted for years and have long faded from the memory but they often brought home the County Junior Cup, such as West Hartlepool West End who played on a field where Wilson Street now stands. Later playing at the Racecourse at Foggy Furze, they were treated to a Concert and given medals on their return with the Junior Cup. Throston Wanderers were also prominent at this time and these clubs often reflected the district names that made up the Town at that time. Beside Throston Wanders, Tips Rangers, New Stranton Celtic, Egypt Wanderers, Seaton Harlequins, who played at the bottom of what in now Stanmore Grove and Howbeck all appear. As we have a West End there was also an East End playing I believe on Carr House Field, opposite where the Seaton Baths stood.

Church teams such as St.James, Trinity, St. Hilda’s were common at this time and they all played in the Hartlepool’s Junior Cup a trophy that was placed in an attic in 1914 and only revived as a competition when discovered in 1964 to become for a while the R.L. Harrison Sevens Cup

The minor clubs they had a grip on the public imagination, West Hartlepool Vulcans on winning the Junior Cup in 1897 for example alighted from the train in

Church Street and led by a local band. Paraded along Church Street, Lynn Street then Hope Street to their HQ at the Fleece Inn, next door to the former GPO building.

Another milestone was achieved in 1890 with the formation of the Barbarians Football Club who played their first Fixture against Hartlepool Rovers. One of the founders being the Rovers Captain F.H.R.Alderson a Northumbrian and Cambridge Blue who had the distinction of being the first of several England Captains from the town.  He received the telegram of his appointment as Captain on the field!

Another remarkable Victorian at this time was Dr A.E.Morrison, a local GP and surgeon and a founder of the 1st Company Boys Brigade in 1884, the first Brigade Company in England and formed just a few years after the movement was founded in Scotland.

In addition to his Brigade work he held Bible classes in his Brougham Street home and holding ‘At Homes’ for the boys. He acquired premises in Prissick Street in 1891 to form the Old Boys Association and started a thread in the life of Rugby in the town that stills exists.   The Old Boys of the Association formed what became in 1893 Hartlepool Old Boys RFC and with the demise of the Rangers Club the pitch was taken over at Greenland to become Old Boys Field. The current Club at MayfieldPark traces in start from 1893 but records show they were playing as early as 1891.  Later in the decade the Old Boys Institute entered a Junior side in the local competitions and these were the forerunners of today’s BBOB sides. As seemed the norm I those days Old Boys became a force producing County players and indeed several Internationals at the time.

The progress made by the booming town in little over a decade can be gauged from two events alone, in 1892 Rovers Dinner was featured by the loan of the Calcutta Cup, valuable then as now. It is recorded that Bob Tate the Rovers Secretary slept with the Cup under the bedclothes for safety?   Secondly, 1895 saw a full England Trial staged in the County for the first time ever when the North played the South, for which Caps were awarded and much prized. Receipts totalled £255 and a donation of £25 was given by the RFU to the Hartlepool’s Hospital.  It was hoped that a full England game might be played in the County following such a success but 1895 is a fateful date in Rugby and Town History and is well worth a few moments study.


Chapter 3  Broken Time & the system breaks-  1895 to 1914


Since the 1870s the question of payment for broken time had circulated in the Lancashire-Yorkshire area with allegations of illegal payments, fixing jobs and attracting players by underhand methods. The game became divided between the Public School ethos of playing for playing alone whilst the perception of the working man was that his pastimes were orientated around the pub with quoits, knur and spell and pigeon shooting all games that could involve payment. The pressure for broken time payments for time lost at work whilst playing for your club grow throughout the 80s especially when the FA recognised professionalism in 1885 even in 1886 the Yorks. Post was asking why no members of the cloth or Professional were in our Senior XVs and more questions when Brommett, an Oxbridge man was given the Yorkshire Captaincy instead of Lockwood “a working man”?  In addition social agitation for Trades Union recognition, growing confidence among the working classes fuelled demands for universal suffrage and in the early 90s a whole series of strikes including Dockers in Hull where a gunboat was sent to maintain order,, Gasmen in Leeds whose demonstration was dispersed by a cavalry charge, Miners in the Wakefield area, Mill workers in Leeds had produced social upheaval. These had led to the deaths of two miners, Shaw and Gibb and a number of people injured in Featherstone. In addition this period of time saw several Yorkshire Clubs such as Wakefield Trinity, Cleckheaton Huddersfield and Brighouse suspended for payments to players.

So by 1893 the AGM of the RFU was faced with proposals to allow broken time, some attempts had been made at the AGM of 1886 which had not resolved the matters, with the 1893 AGM taking place on the day that a Royal Commission was announced into the shootings in Featherstone.  It is easy when looking at those times to imagine the Rugby establishment seeing themselves staring into the abyss of social disorder, in the event the motion on broken time was defeated largely on a postal ballot. The Lennox Club in Surrey being the main organiser of this ballot, Arthur Murrell a local Ship-owner and for many years Rovers President played for the Lennox Club whilst in London.

So the die was cast and by 1895, Huddersfield RFC were been suspended for enticing two men from  Carlisle men George Boak and John Forsyth to leave their work and Club to join Huddersfield, George Boak’s descendants, the Hind family are today involved with Hartlepool RFC. The Huddersfield business proved the final straw for those wanting broken time payments known as the Fifteen Bobbers, and 12 Clubs in Yorkshire 9 in Lancashire broke away from the Union to form the Northern Union has today grown into the new style summer time Rugby League.

Of course this meant the loss of some powerful opposition both for the town and for the County as many famous Clubs joined the Northern Union in addition it meant the demise of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Unions as powers in the Rugby land. Its effect on the England XV was as dramatic for the National XV was not win a champion ship until 1910. Had it not happened it is likely that Rugby would have now had its headquarters in Leeds or Manchester, instead of Twickenham?

Although no DurhamCounty club joined the Union immediately, it is from this time that shamateurism rose to prominence and even changes in the game have not dispelled the rumours. 

The Yorkshire Union though was to gain an outstanding personality in Bob. Oakes, who played for H/pool Trinity, Rovers, Durham and England before his job with Horsley’s Timber took him Leeds where he eventually became Yorkshire Secretary.  He also held the post of Chairman of England Selectors for many years and was its President in 1933.  The Oakesway Estate still carries his name as does the Oakes stand at Hartlepool Rovers ground and the memorial porch in St.Hildas.

It was at this period as the 19th gave way to the 20th century that West Hartlepool rose as the stronger of our two leading sides, and the Victoria Ground was to feature several of the County Finals that Durham County played in the period 1900-1910. This presumably led to that portion of Hart Lane behind the Victoria Ground being named Rugby Terrace.

That winning run is unlikely ever repeated for Durham County played in every Final in the decade winning 5 losing four and sharing one. In addition they played in the last Final before the Great War.

Although the game was popular in the town with an outstanding County side, the period 1900-1914 in one of great contradictions.  Demand from Clubs in the wake of the split with the Northern Union led to the formation of Leagues, town clubs being prominent in the Durham and Northumberland Leagues. However, the Rugby game had succumbed largely to the rise of Professional Soccer and it was hoped that the visit of the First All Blacks would revive an interest in Rugby Football in the two towns. For this  period saw the visit to the Friarage Field of  the 1905 All Blacks, mis-named by a local Newsagent as All Blacks instead of All Backs against a West/Rovers XV on the Friarage Field , followed by the 1906 South Africans on the Victoria Ground and then in 1908 the Australians again on the Friarage.   This latter game in expunged from most records as the period was marked by upheavals over money. The 1905 All Blacks tour income had resulted in a dispute which meant that Ireland and Scotland refused to support the 1908 Lions tour, which went as an Anglo Welsh XV.  The team included Dr. Freddie Chapman, later to play for Rovers and the first man to score a try, conversion and penalty on Twickenham, when it was opened in 1910.

Yet at major club level virtually every season of the 1900s saw an Area Club disappear, South Shields joined the Northern Union in 1902 and folded in 1904 as the Northern Union voted them out of the League when they finished bottom of Division 2 and no club wanted the expense of travelling to this North East outpost, due to the finance involved., Tudhoe ceased when Furness Withy closed its Ironworks there to open new facilities at Cargo Fleet and to start the S.D.S.I.   Tyne Dock went in 1907 and in 1906 Hartlepool Old Boys had ceased playing and by 1908 West Hartlepool themselves in financial difficulties and a meeting at the Grand Hotel resulted in them forming the semi professional Hartlepool’s United FC. And so the town’s now fully professional Soccer club was formed. Pressure had been growing for one since the 80s when West Hartlepool Amateurs had been formed and of course won the Amateur Cup in 1905, they played on the site now partly occupied by the Park Hotel, in Park Road.

So by 1908 the game at senior level was reduced to just the one club, Rovers. The West prominent players such as Jack Taylor, who had captained England in 1901 as had Bernard Oughtred of Rovers in 1903, along with another International Jimmy Duthie joined Winlaton Vulcans, the Priestman Collieries there were booming at that time.  The remainder joined Greatham, where Matthew Gray was President, the village club had played Rugby since he 80s and the influx of talent caused them to emerge to become a Senior Club in the albeit for a few seasons only.

The Club won the Pyman League which had been formed in 1903 as part of a general movement to League Rugby.  The instigator was H.E. Pyman, a well-known Ship-owner and Referee and all the Junior Cubs played in the Competition. Standing just 5’4” he was a martinet on the field.  Maybe that was the type of man they needed in the middle in those days for disputes were commonplace.  Pyman had charge of one such dispute when he refereed West Crusaders against Stranton Vulcans who disputed most decisions and eventually walked of the field?      Hartlepool Rangers were strong in the early days of this century but not to be confused with the earlier club of the mid nineties. With the demise of West, Greatham came to the fore winning the League in 1910 after a dispute with Rangers.

This led to the decline of Rangers and Hartlepool Red Rose emerged in  1910 and dominated the League up to 1914, indeed becoming a Senior Club and providing several players to the County XV in the restart after 1919.

With the loss of West, County games were switched again to Rovers and the 1909 CountyFinal with Cornwall and the visit of the 1908 Australians were staged on the ground.

1909 was also a remarkable year in that first Schoolboy from the town played for England u14’s as it was then, the first of a long line of quality youngsters produced by local Schools.

By 1912, West were back in business, a meeting at the Travellers Rest a ground at Foggy Furze, where else and West Hartlepool was reformed.  By chance the Cricket Club was vacating its premises next to Victoria Ground and West went back on to the site which became known as the Greyhound Stadium.    1912 also saw Rovers in a vintage year create a remarkable record on Points scored in a season and to ensure they made the record Bob Oakes brought the Yorkshire XV to the Friarage.  These games continue to this day at the end of the season and it is worth noting that in the record winning season Rovers first game was in August against the Pyman League XV and its last in May against the Yorkshire XV. Many famous players have featured in these games

And one youngster you will all have heard of is Will Carling who played whilst still as Sedbergh.  Rovers had used the Kings Head in the High Street as their HQ for many years the fateful season of 1914 saw them move to Greencroft in Moor Terrace, which stills stands. 

Old Boys also made a recovery at this period and entered into the Pyman League but as with all other official rugby, matters came to an end in 1914 although rugby continued to be played throughout the War with teams such as Blandford Swifts, Alma Rovers, Saracens and Old Boys.


Chapter 3 Good bye to all that and struggling on.    1919 – 1939


Matters restarted in 1919 but with depleted ranks, the War took many fine players and there are many remarkable stories from that period Dr.Dundee Robertson joined the RAMC served throughout rejoined in 1939 and died in captivity. Another was D. Blakey Vulcans who was signed for Leeds in Northern Union in 1914, played in 1915 and was killed in 1916 on the 1st day of the Somme, posthumously awarded the MM. He was scouted by Leeds in 1914 and became a professional, his body was finally found in 2014 and buried at Theipval in October 2015.

Local Rugby put all these events behind them fairly quickly in 1919, Rovers met in their new Club at Greencroft to get the club going, West’s meeting at the Seaman’s Institute put them on their way whilst Old Boys commenced operations from their HQ at the Old Mill in High St.

The early twenties are one of the most remarkable periods for the strength of Rugby in the town especially as Junior Level where the Pyman League boomed with two divisions, indeed by 1923 there was talk of a Third Division.  So strong was the game that it was possible to walk from the Fish Quay to ThrostonBridge and pass the HQ of no less than 10 Clubs. Red Rose at the Union Hotel, Laurence St., YMCA in Southgate, Seaman’s Institute on the Town Wall, Brigade at the Old Mill with Old Boys, Brotherhood at Northgate Methodists, St Mary’s in Darlington St. Heortensians at the IndependentChurch and Throston Wanderers at the Brunswick Hotel.  Plus of course Rovers in Moor Terrace.  All this and a chronic shortage of  Pitches, games taking place on West Hartlepool Rec. (or before Rovers games) to get there for many was made by a tram to Foggy Furze and walk or a bike or a ride on your mates crossbar, was the way they did it.

The 20s also saw the opening of Grayfields by the Gray family, in 1920 this became the home of Old Boys (and most of the towns Rugby Clubs since at various times)  and Grays Athletic played their games there.  The pavilion was opened then at a cost of 2000 guineas but sadly the scheme ran at a loss and the West Hpool Corporation took over the ground in 1926, which is still a bone of contention for many people. However, the action of the Gray family and the Grays workmen gave the town a facility that has been the backbone of sport in this town ever since.

West’s progress in the twenties was assisted by it taking over two prominent junior clubs St.Lukes and then Tech Old Boys which saw Gordon Arthur join the club which he served for many years and of course his son Terry went on to play for England. I am told that West’s strip at this time was tangerine & white?

The 20s as we all know were difficult days, the County Rugby standard especially suffered as can be gauged from the fact that the County Champions for the period before the Great War failed to win a game between 1924 and 1928. This period also saw the collapse of the Pyman League, Red Rose folded after internal disputes, YMCA and Seaman’s Institute amalgamated then folded. So by 1928 the League reverted to a knockout Cup. 

Meanwhile Old Boys had used various Headquarters after the Old Mill including the Town Hall and above Ord Print in Middlegate.  Here again internal disputes lead to the Club splitting, one side has today become Hartlepool RFC, the other operates as BBOB on the Old Friarage and they date their inception from 1931.

By 1933, the game was structured in the town very much as we see it today. The end of the 20s saw the emergence of West players such as C D Aarvold who played for the County England and the British Lions. Durham reached the County Final in 1932 with Cliff Harrison another remarkable International playing in the revived County sides of that time which included G.S.Conway and Herbert Wade, who later captained the 1935 Springboks Cricket side.  Even at minor level the town still made its mark, Throston Wanderers won the Third Teams Cup in 1933 defeating Boys Brigade at Stockton,  and were met at the Station by the mayor for speeches of welcome and a procession led by the Old Boys Band playing “Hail the conquering heroes come”.  The Senior Cup still caused great interest, Rovers won the Cup for the 25th time, in the Clubs Diamond Jubilee Year, in 1938 and such was the press of people outside the Hartlepool Railway Station that traffic was delayed and crowds still did not disperse when the teams was led to Moor Terrace.

The lean years of 1926-1933 had had their effect, Rovers, West and Old Boys were still on the go but the junior clubs were decimated. Brigade, Secondary Schools Old Boys, Elwick Road Old Boys and Horden made up the Pyman and Junior Cup ranks often with good effect.

The Pyman League though had been disbanded by the County Union due to an honorarium being paid to the Hon Secretary and clubs not sticking to regulations on transfers. Draconian as it sounds, it reflected the amateur ethos that still prevails in the Game for Soccer also was swept in the area by allegations of illegal payment to players and many soccer sides were disciplined.


Chapter 4  War and Peace 1939 to 1979


As with 1914, Rugby in the town officially ceased on the outbreak of War in 1939 although Rovers and Old Boys did keep going as best they could.  Rovers found out they would have to come off their Friarage field held on lease from Durham County Council so the early war years were spent selling off the fixtures and fittings and looking for somewhere new.  This they achieved when they purchased Low Warren Farm in 1948 and still hold today whilst West were able to revive activities at the Greyhound Stadium and their early effort were crowned with their first win in the Senior Cup for 40 years.  The win of 48/49 still remembered for the crowds that followed them to Sunderland and the scenes outside the Raglan Hotel when the team displayed the trophy. Later they were able to open their own happily remembers HQ in the two houses in Hart Lane.

Unlike the Great War, wartime rugby was restricted with Rovers and Old Boys managing Games during the four years of conflict, remarkably one Club was formed during the War and in unique circumstance when five players including Fred Jacques and Jackie Hand agreed to form a Rugby Club in 1943, whilst talking in the bus shelter at the top of Durham Street!

Hartlepool Athletic was the result, motto Solo Merito, sadly no longer with us as they ceased playing in 2010, after 67 seasons of contributing some fine players, referees and administrators to the Game

Of course, the Education Act of 1944 gave the game a boost in the town with a stream of quality players from WestGrammar School and Henry Smith guaranteeing that Hartlepool Rugby built in strength as the post war years and the sixties rolled on.

These years saw some excellent footballers from both Schools achieve many honours in the game and of course West GSOB (formed out of the SSOB & Tech OB sides) achieved a similar status to the Red Rose and Greatham sides of the pre 1914 era.  The Technical side of the education system also saw the formation of another Club when TDSOB was formed in Coronation year and has lately returned to playng after losing its players in 2008.

Something of the flavour of the pre 1914 days was also recalled when so many Hartlepool players such as Keith Baggs and John Dee were part of the wonderful Durham XVs under Mike Weston, that dominated Northern Rugby in the golden period of the 50s and 60s.  Many still recall famous crowd of around 10,000 crammed in to the Friarage in 1967 for the Durham-Surrey replay, which ended at nil all, and the Championship shared. The first time since the Durham-Devon result of 1907 and the home semis with Warwickshire, then a powerful outfit and Oxfordshire

A year before that the towns had amalgamated which was to set the scene for the strengthening of Rugby in the area.  West had been given notice to quit their Greyhound Stadium site in 1962 and by the end of the sixties were playing at Brierton Lane and transporting teams by the well remembered Bee Line workmen’s bus.

But 1971, both West and Hartlepool Old Boys were able to open new grounds at Brierton Lane and Mayfield Park respectively, within 24 hours of each other in September of that year to add to the County ground facilities at Hartlepool Rovers. These had been enhanced with a new Clubhouse in 1967 to replace the Nissen Huts acquired by Fred. Peart in the 1950s.

Then in 1974 GSOB folded to become Seaton Carew on their new facilities in Elizabeth Way.


Chapter 5  Brave New World  Life changing events 1979 onwards.


The last 50 years have some of the most interesting and life changing in the long history of town Rugby, the cessation of Grammar School Education in the 70s had an obvious effect on numbers but the Teachers Strike of 84 which almost ended School Sports has been most dramatic. 

Whilst the election of the 1979 Conservative government heralded the end of the heavy industry and manufacturing from where so many players were recruited and which introduced players from outside the area to add to the game at every level. Plus of course, industrialisation in the 19th Century went in tandem with the growth of Football, so the disappearance of the former was bound to have an adverse affect on the latter.

The arrival of Leagues in Rugby in 1987 finally ended the old patriarchal system in England, clubs are now finding their level, for some greatly to their benefit, some particularly our most prominent clubs that had led the Game for many years, it has had a disastrous effect, with many famous old names now in the lower reaches of the Game.

1987 also the arrival of another development with the Rugby World Cup being instituted and now a major part of the Rugby Calander.

Undoubtedly the most significant date, occurring 100 years after the events of 1895, was the decision by the International Rugby Board in August 1995, to allow the Game to go “open” and abandon its most cherished principle, of not paying anyone for playing a part in the Game.

The last 20 years (these notes are dated 2015) has also seen major changes in society with major changes to Leisure time and so much competition for players time, from home, work and other and more individual pursuits.

Clubs are now engaged on a recruit or die campaign, with the spread of Age Grade Rugby, Women and Girls and shorter versions of the game allied to first class clubhouses and facilities, to ensure the continued health of the Game.

Events in 1995 also lead to major changes in attitude towards, the County Cup Competitions and County Championship, Leagues are all,  but Competitions  have survived and look like returning to favour among clubs.

So where do we stand in autumn of 2015 with the Rugby World Cup about to reach its climax here in England, 

We still have 8 clubs operating, albeit at the much lower levels of the Game than at any time in the past, West Hartlepool, current Senior Cup holders are leading the pack at Level 6 now at a new base in Catcote Road after losing their Brierton Lane site in the wake of the 1995 upheavals then ground sharing spells at Victoria Ground and Rovers on the New Friarage, below them Horden, part of the district scene since they were formed in the 20s, about to move to new facilties and Hartlepool Rovers are in Level 7, Seaton Carew and Hartlepool at Level 8 with TDSOB and BBOB at Level 9. West Amateurs, formed in 1997 as a counter to the West Hartlepool professional era, operating on an ad hoc basis.

The County Championship, scheduled once again for this season, but no longer the feature of the autumn programme, that slot in the Season is taken with the Autumn International series,  now in its new late Spring slot in May with Rovers and West as usually bidding to host homes games.

The District Clubs also provide a part of the social scene with six running clubhouse facilties open throughout the week and available to all sections of the Community.

Over the years, the Game has had it high days and lows, but whatever the circumstances, the clubs have kept the Game and its values close to heart and this has carried them through many difficulties, long may that Spirit and endeavour continue.

Researched and written by Chris McLoughlin, Hon. Sec. of the Hartlepool & District R.F.U. and Past President & Sec. of Durham County R.F.U. 


Recommended Further reading:-

Durham County Rugby Union 1876/1936 E Watts Moses & C Berkley-Cowell            Reid

Durham County Rugby Union 1936/1976 Authorised.  1976             

Hartlepool R.F.C.  1893/1993   John Bradley           1993      Ordprint

Hartlepool Rovers FC The 1st 25 years F J Theaker 1901      B T Ord

Hartlepool Rovers 1879/1979.  Fred Lister    1979   Ordprint

Jackson’s Town Waggott   1978  Northumberland Press.

Rugby’s Great Split  Tony Collins   1998    Cass

The Association Game Matthew Taylor 2008 Pearson

The Code War Graham Williams 1994 Yore

Up the Pool’s    N.Watson & R.Kelly           1991      Ordprint

West Hartlepool               Robert Wood                    1964                     West Hartlepool BC

West Hartlepool RFC 1881/1981   Steve Smith       1981      Inkerman

Further research can be carried out in

“Mail Hartlepool” Archives at the Central Library, York Road, Hartlepool.

Robert Wood Collection containing Rugby ephemera, , Museums Service, Hartlepool

The Clubhouses of the following clubs contain many annotated photographs and honours boards covering their individual histories:-

Hartlepool BBOB RFC at the “Cosmopolitan Hotel”, Durham St Middlegate, Hartlepool TS24 0HY

Hartlepool Rovers FC, New Friarage, West View Road, TS24 OBP 

Hartlepool RFC, Mayfield Park, Easington Road,  TS24 9BA click here for website

Horden CW RFC, Welfare Park, Northumberland Avenue, Horden, SR8 4PX click here for website.

Seaton Carew RUFC, Hornby Park, Elizabeth Way, Seaton Carew. TS25 2AZ click here for website. 

West Hartlepool RFC, Catcote Road, TS25 5PF click here for website. 

West Hartlepool TDSOB RUFC, Wiltshire Way, TS26 OPB

Durham County Rugby Union click here for website. 

Related items :