By 1874, representatives of the Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds Athletic and York clubs were meeting as an informal committee to organise rugby affairs across Yorkshire’s broad acres. From that small grouping arose the more formal Yorkshire County Football Club.
It was at a meeting of that Club in 1876 that Arthur Hudson (Leeds) in conjunction with H.W.T. Garnett and Fred Schutt (Bradford) originated the Yorkshire County Football Challenge Cup, English Rugby Union’s first open club competition. Legend has it that the five clubs comprising the original County committee – Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds and York – presented a silver cup worth 50 guineas (£52.50) for annual competition. Although the names of those five clubs were engraved on the trophy, it was not a gift from them, the cost being met from the proceeds of the first final. That original trophy is still presented annually and is considered to be a masterpiece of the silversmith’s art.
Entry in the first season was restricted to 16 clubs. By playing the rounds over successive weekends public interest was quickly stirred and an attendance of 2,500 for the semi-final between Bradford and Halifax at Apperley Bridge was described as ‘stupendous’. The crowd hardly got value for money as due to Halifax arriving late the match only lasted 40 minutes. The first final was set for Saturday 29 December 1877 at the Fieldhouse ground in Huddersfield, but the effects of a heavy fall of snow caused it to be transferred to the Holbeck Recreation Ground, Leeds. Halifax had trained specially for the match whereas York made no such preparations. In fact, one York player revealed that he “and a colleague were at a dance in Harrogate the night before”. Ignoring the damp weather, a crowd estimated at 2,000 saw Halifax win easily by 1 try and 9 minors to nil. Nothing was presented to the players so Halifax members and supporters subscribed to a fund, which provided a gold medal to each member of the winning side.
The Cup had been launched and two seasons later the entry was expanded to 32 clubs. There can be no doubt that the Cup’s popularity contributed greatly to the formation of new clubs in its early days. By 1879, the competition was generating sufficient revenue for the County committee to be able to donate £100 to medical charities. On the down side, it rapidly became apparent that some clubs would do all in their power to possess the Cup and it was not long before the Yorkshire County Football Club had to take action to curb the more worrying trends. In November 1879, the County Club ruled that
‘no player who is not strictly amateur shall be allowed to play in the Challenge Cup ties.’
While payments for playing were out of the question, presents for winning were certainly possible as Dewsbury’s team discovered after their victory over Wakefield Trinity in April 1881. None of the team probably ever forgot the reception they received upon their return home from Leeds with the Cup. As part of the celebrations, a collection was hastily organised and a sum of £133 was raised. Clocks and watches were purchased and presented to each Dewsbury player as a memento of their success.
A.E. Hudson, having already tried and failed to get the competition abandoned, took his opposition to the Cup and its effects onto the pages of ‘The Football Annual’ in 1881, stating that ‘the friendly rivalry which used to exist between clubs has now, in some cases, given place to unconcealed animosity, and certain players in the Cup Ties behave in such a brutal manner, that they have not only disgraced the clubs which still tolerate them, but have brought the game itself into disrepute.’
Wishing to reduce the ferocity without removing the spur of competition, the following item was added to the Challenge Cup’s rules
‘In order to prevent a rough style of play in cup contests, the committee shall have the power (on an unanimous report of the referee and umpires) to disqualify a team for rough play, even if that team win their round.’
Against this background, Hudson’s club, Leeds Athletic, announced that it would not enter the Yorkshire Cup in 1881/82 as the matches had become too rough and unsporting.
Those not entering due to roughness were soon joined by those not entering over money. After the County committee decided that the proceeds of the semi-final and final would revert to themselves, Dewsbury declined to enter the competition in 1881/82. Halifax also refused to enter the Cup that season as the players were concerned over rumours that ‘betting men’ had offered rewards to other teams to injure them.
Both Halifax and Dewsbury re-entered the competition next time around and they were drawn against each other in the semi-final. A dispute over an ineligible player caused the match to be replayed and this time Halifax won, going on to meet Wakefield Trinity in the final. Some idea of the changes in physique over the last century can be gained from the statistic that the Wakefield Trinity side in the Cup final had an average weight of only 10st 10lbs. Trinity, nevertheless, won emphatically by 1 goal, 2 tries and 11 touch-downs to nil. G. Rowland Hill, the RFU secretary, watched the match and commented afterwards that ‘the Trinity club was second to no other Club in England.’
Success was becoming more and more important. The draw for 1883/84 gave Manningham the chance of a third round tie against its mightier neighbour, Bradford. Manningham duly won through the first two rounds to turn that possibility into reality in mid-March. Keen to put up a good show in the first local derby Manningham’s committee decided to follow the example of the ambitious northern soccer clubs and dispatched the team to Blackpool for a four day break. It was said to be a first in northern rugby circles but the ozone did not provide the hoped for stimulus, Bradford winning before a huge crowd at Park Avenue.
From 1880 onwards, the final took up residence at Cardigan Fields, Leeds. Once settled there, attendances grew rapidly and the final between Bradford and Hull at the start of April 1884 drew a crowd of 15,000. Three train loads of supporters were said to have travelled from Hull to watch that match. Apparently, Hull’s committee asked the team not to work on the Saturday morning, a sacrifice for which they would obviously be compensated. (When Hull’s accounts were presented later in the year it showed payments totalling £18 for loss of earnings over the season) Bradford had fewer concerns on that score having a shorter distance to travel and a team that was said to contain several businessmen, a partner in a scrap factory, a wool trade commission agent and an iron merchant. Support continued to grow and the 1886 final between Bradford and Halifax produced the best ‘gate’ receipts, thus far, of £750.
Cup-ties certainly produced their share of controversy in the 1880’s. A quarter-final in 1885 between Dewsbury and Wakefield Trinity at Crown Flatt was never finished. In the dying minutes of play, Trinity scored an equalising try with the conversion kick to come. But the kick was never taken as spectators invaded the field. The kicker was knocked over as he placed the ball, the ball was carried-off downfield and the referee, fearing for his safety, disappeared. The result was left to the Yorkshire committee, who received a report from the referee stating that the kick had been charged down! Dewsbury gained the committee’s verdict and with it a place in the semi-final.
Batley met Halifax in one of the semi-finals of 1885/86, before 15,000 spectators, at Crown Flatt, Dewsbury. It was an encounter which led to a landmark decision by the RFU. The referee noticed an offence by one of the Batley men and believing he had heard an appeal by the umpire blew his newly legalised whistle. Halifax stopped, Batley played on and achieved what they believed to be the winning try. Needless to say, a dispute arose and the match was eventually awarded to Halifax by the County committee. Unhappy with the outcome, Batley referred the matter to the RFU who ruled that teams must always play to the whistle.
Almost in spite of the appeals and a style of football heavily dominated by forwards, the Cup had never been more popular. Arthur Hudson, the County secretary, was able to report in 1887 that an estimated 350,000 spectators had watched the 63 ties staged that year. As a result, his committee were able to make donations to charity totalling £1,000 for the first time. Finally, in June 1888, a truly open and representative Yorkshire Rugby Union was formed. All members of the County Union had to be members of the RFU and were eligible without further subscription to take part in the County Cup. The Yorkshire County committee also announced its intention to introduce the Challenge Shield for competition among the County’s junior clubs.
Under the new Union’s jurisdiction, the Cup’s entry rapidly expanded to over one hundred and twenty clubs by 1890. Doubling the size of the entry could have diluted the competition, but within the limited, scrummage dominated confines of Cup football even village sides were capable of mounting a serious, if sometimes over-physical, challenge.
An acrimonious dispute with Manningham over a Cup tie in March 1887 led Bradford to refuse to enter the competition in 1887/88 and 1888/89. When Bradford did return to the competition in 1889/90 its prestige fixture list was said to be the club’s main priority not the Yorkshire Cup.
The Headingley Grounds in Leeds were opened in 1890 and provided a very welcome and prestigious new home for both the Leeds Rugby Club and the Yorkshire Cup final. When Leeds met Halifax in a third round tie at Headingley on 2 April 1892, an attendance of 27,654 was recorded; both a ground and competition record. Leeds went on to reach the final where they lost to near neighbours Hunslet. Physique was improving with the heaviest man on the field that day being J.H. Potter at 13st 9lbs and he was the Leeds half-back.
It was the arrival of the four-threequarter formation from south Wales in the early 1890’s which greatly enhanced the attractive and scientific features of the rugby game. Slowly, the new formation, popularised by a superb Newport team, spread into England and found new exponents such as Halifax. Regarded as one of the top passing teams of the day, Halifax was complimented as the ‘Newport of the North’. Castleford had no answer in the 1894 final as Halifax, fielding a threequarter line which included two English Internationals in Fred Firth and Walter Jackson, thrilled the 16,000 crowd by running-in eight tries to take the Cup for a record breaking fifth time.
The following season turned out to be a traumatic one for the Rugby Union game in Yorkshire. After Hunslet’s unexpected fourth round home defeat by Brighouse Rangers in April 1895, some of their supporters attacked the referee. No harm was done to the official thanks to swift action by the 21 police on duty, but that did not pacify the Yorkshire committee who ordered the closure of Hunslet’s Parkside ground until the end of November 1895. That decision never took effect as Hunslet along with six other former Cup holders – Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Halifax, Huddersfield and Wakefield Trinity – voted to leave the Yorkshire Rugby Union for the new Northern Union in August 1895.