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‘Bob’ Oakes – Grand Master of Yorkshire Rugby

When Mr and Mrs Oakes named their second-born son, they may have been prescient in giving him the initials of the sport in which he was to play a larger than life role.

Robert Frederick Oakes was born on 20th December 1872, within the militia barracks on the Hartlepool headland, where his father was serving as a Sergeant in the Royal Artillery (15th Brigade). Years later ‘Bob’ explained, “I still proudly declare myself a Heugher. Born and bred within a few yards of ‘the grey and angry’ sea, that air is the sweetest, finest and most invigorating in the whole world to me.”

To everyone, he was simply ‘Bob’. The Athletic News journalist ‘Mercian’ explained, “The first time you meet him you may call him ‘Mr Oakes’, the second time “Oakes’, and the third time, invariably, it is “Bob”. If you still insist on the prefix or surname you will probably be the first who has not succumbed to the unaffected charm of this whole-hearted, big-framed, bluff, plain spoken stalwart…”

The Hartlepool Daily Mail explained “Bob’s sincerity is his most potent oratorical weapon; from his lips, the worn platitudes of good fellowship and good sportsmanship take on new meaning and new depth; we believe in his words because we believe unquestionably in him. Never a man or a woman or child I dare warrant has met Bob and forgotten him; he is distinguished in any company and is welcome everywhere.”

Yorkshire Post journalist, J.M Kilburn, explained, “No man can maintain and express the forthright opinions Bob Oakes has held without finding a good many people to disagree with him at one time or another. He has known controversy and has learned through experience that the best of all intentions cannot please all the people all the time. Popularity for itself has never been his quest. He has usually known his own mind and pursued his own policy without counting the cost in personal favour or disfavour. Opponents may have scorned his principles, but never his personality, which impresses itself upon a life-long friend or most casual acquaintance with undeniable force.”

V.A.S Beanland in his book ‘Great games and great players – a recollection of a sports journalist explained, “[‘Bob’s]’greatness lies in a simple-minded devotion to the game of games and its traditions and an infinitive love of his work for the cause.”

In 1887, he formed and played for Hartlepool Trinity, before joining Hartlepool Rovers in 1890. “My brother nominated me for membership of Hartlepool Rovers, I was chosen for the thirds, and a very happy and proud boy waited impatiently for the Saturday. And then, just before the match, that boy discovered his pants were missing, and he had to turn out in long trousers. Oh! The shame of it.”

The following week ‘Bob’ was selected for the second XV, then within a month into the firsts replacing an injured established player. Once that player had returned to fitness he dare not ask if he had retained his place, in case it was bad news, and as per the custom of the day, he followed the secretary down the street as he posted the selected team in shop windows around the town. “I waited until the crowd had read the names and had scattered. Then I went up to the window, saw I was not in the team but was the first reserve, and do you know what I did?  Well, I went straight home and up into my bedroom, where I cried myself to sleep. “That was the only time ‘Bob’ was ever dropped by the Rovers.

He was to captain the side for six seasons, during which they won the Durham Cup three times. He made his debut for Durham at the age of 19 and played 28 times for the county.

In 1895 he was led to believe that he would be selected for the North against the South, replacing Yorkshire and England international Tom Broadley, who had declined the invitation.  Broadley believed that the first reserve was another Yorkshireman but when he found out it was Durham’s Oakes, he changed his mind and played.  The committee, however, in view of the fact that an official invitation had been given to ‘Bob’ offered him his North cap, Oakes declined the token with due thanks but was to later win his cap, appearing for the North on six occasions between 1896 and 1899, captaining them in the last three games, which unfortunately all ended up as defeats for the North. He also represented the Barbarians three times in 1897.

He made his England debut in January 1897 in a defeat to Wales and maintained his place in the games against Ireland and Scotland.  The following year he played in all three games, and then in 1898/99, he made his final two appearances. In this season Wales scored six tries and ‘Bob’ noted: “his duty seemed confined to recovering the ball after Wales had scored every ten minutes or so!”

“When I was a kid, I thought life could hold no greater reward than to play for England at Rugby. It was my goal, and although it seemed it was an ambition that I hardly dared confess to myself, leave alone breath a word to anyone else, it was the secret of all my training.  I felt that there was no possible chance of getting a place in an English pack unless I was as physically fit as personal endeavour could make.”

Fitness was the key to ‘Bob’s’ rugby progress. A dozen circuits of the Hartlepool Rovers ground three or four nights a week; a game on Saturday; a twenty-mile walk on Sunday morning; a portion of Sunday afternoon devoted to gymnastic exercises, including lifting 28lb dumbbells 600 times. (He also boxed, rowed and was noted as the smallest and strongest member of a gun team of the 4th Durham Volunteers.)

“No wonder Oakes has got a right arm that bears comparison with many a village blacksmith” explained ‘Mercian’. Fitness was one thing that ‘Bob’ tried to instil into others and he said it was no good playing rugby unless they were prepared to make some sacrifice to get fit. Mercian clarified, “Oakes has no room for the slacker; to use his own words, “The half-fit doesn’t know what living means.” He once explained, “Napoleon said there was a field Marshall’s Baton in every soldier’s pack. I’ll go as far and say there’s an international cap in every player’s bag if he keeps himself as fit as possible. Training and fitness are the only means of a player doing his best.”

As well as being fit the Hartlepool Rovers team met before the game to discuss the tactics when the best methods of opposing the strength or playing on the weakness of the next opponents were agreed on. “Our object was to make ourselves into one fifteen instead of fifteen ones!”

A forward in the days of “first up, first down” principles of scrummage play, ‘Bob’  was an advocate of returning to that style, “which would recapture a good deal of old-time glories of  Rugby Union forward play.” He continued, “Modern scrummaging had done away with the forwards for which Yorkshire had been famous and it was a terrible tragedy that such forwards could not be produced now” explaining “a hooker is nothing more or less than a cheat, and he knows it, and you know it too, but a blind eye has been turned to that”

He was to leave Hartlepool and Durham in 1900 due to business – he worked for timber merchants Messrs George Horsley and Co Ltd, rising to become a director – and settled in Yorkshire, joining Headingley whom he captained in 1903/04.

In 1907 he became honorary secretary of the Yorkshire RFU, a role he was to retain until his death. The story of his tenue is the story of patient recovery from the shattering blows of the schism of 1895 to the rebuilding of the county from 14 to over one hundred clubs in membership of the county and a burgeoning school’s game. Yorkshire also reached the County Championship final five times, losing the first three games in 1910,1911 and 1920 but finally taking the title in 1926 and 1928.

After the First World War, he produced a book to commemorate the Yorkshire players who had died during the war.  It was his magnum opus, containing, where possible photos of the fallen, together with eulogies of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

He served as President of the county in 1922/23 and the following season he was appointed as an England selector, serving for ten seasons as chairman. The Leeds Mercury noted, “He knows all that is worth knowing about Rugby football and its players, and a better man for the selection committee could not have been found.” Old Ebor writing in the Yorkshire Evening Post in October 1929 noted the duties of an England selector necessarily entail much travelling and I feel certain it is only through loyalty to the union and the game that Bob Oakes has been induced to add this to his labours. As to his qualities for the job – there are none better and very few so good.

Upon becoming RFU president in 1933 former RFU president W.T Pearce said “You must spare him as much as possible for those duties of the Rugby Union office. He brings to this high office a record as a player and administrator equalled by few if any. His love for rugby is regnant and unquenchable; perhaps too deep for words. That is because he never underrates the verities of the game. Legions of past and present rugby men will wish him well. Nor are they confined to Durham, Yorkshire or the North.”

J.M Kilburn explained, “To every office – club, county or national – he brought the devotion of his tireless enthusiasm. He undertook the most awkward journeys, kept the most inconvenient appointments. He was heard at international conferences and heard at tea time after schoolboy matches.  Much of the good he did lies hidden in private correspondences and conversations. Only the clock and the calendar set a limit to his work, yet however, time-pressed upon him there was always a spare minute for his treasured. “Hello, how are you?”

Harry Wilkinson, President of Yorkshire and former England forward, said “Only those nearest to him can appreciate the tremendous amount of time and work which he gave so freely over so many years. However busy he may have been he never failed to find time to write a letter of congratulations or condolence as the occasion arose. “

‘Sentinel’ writing in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail commented “Oakes must be one of the breeziest of letter writers “and Lysander of the Lancashire Evening Post explained, “I have known him sit down after midnight at the end of a day’s travelling from six o’clock in the morning and write me a chatty letter a column in length giving me every bit of football news at his disposal, merely because I have sought some little first-hand information during a period of leanness. What a wonderful rugby enthusiast he is, and what a friend.”

Not everyone found ‘Bob’s’ letters to their satisfaction. In April 1935, Burley, Otley and District Band asked for permission to play before the Yorkshire Cup final at Otley in return for a voluntary ground collection.  Permission had to be sought from the Yorkshire RFU as the competition fell under their remit and they wrote to ‘Bob’ as Secretary. His reply left the Band puzzled, “If you chaps can stand the row and noise of your own blowing, the Rugger men can, I suppose. So, bring along your big drum and little ones and all those other things which people know of ‘instruments of torture’. We kick off at 3.30 – so you can be on the ground any time after midnight, Friday. If you show this letter to the gateman, they will probably not charge you more than a guinea each for admission.” The band’s reaction was mixed. Some considered it a joke, others described it as “a heap of sarcasm”, and others were insulted by it – especially the line ‘instruments of torture’. The result was that the band did not appear and ‘Bob’ had to defend himself of the criticism. He said, “It’s absolutely ridiculous. Anyone who knows me knows perfectly well I have never written an insulting letter in my life. It was simply written in a jocular fashion. It is too silly to talk about to say I was insulting. The letter was intended to be funny, and if they have taken umbrage at it, then it simply means they have no sense of humour. I wrote it in a humorous strain and never gave it another thought.” An Otley club official described it as “Typical of Bob Oakes’s racy style.”

In 1912 he started what has become his continued legacy for the game, an annual match between Hartlepool Rovers and a team selected by ‘Bob’. The proceeds went to fund the local Hartlepool hospitals in an era before the NHS.

The match had its origins in a game he arranged so that Rovers could beat the World points record, which the 1905 All Blacks had set at 830 and which Rovers equalled at the end of their normal fixtures in 1911/12. After the initial Oakes game, they beat the record by 30 points. It became an annual fixture, continuing after his death to mark his memory and his importance to the game. It continues to this day. ‘Bob’s’ personality and influence attracted the best players to the game including British and Irish Lions, Internationals and County players. A list of participants would read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of rugby.

In addition to this game, he also raised hundreds of teams for charitable or commemorative occasions including opening new grounds, to help the deserving, to spread interest and knowledge or to serve as unofficial trials for young players. However, this wasn’t the easiest of tasks as he explained in a letter to Eric Watts Moses, Durham County Secretary, in September 1936, “It is not often I get the wind up over Rugger. Goodness knows, but all last week I was simply worried to death, case I had many backwords, as I certainly did not wish to let my old County down. Somehow, I lost all my sleep and was most awfully tired the whole time, until I saw every player of my side turn up. And it is to their everlasting credit that they were all so damned decent, and put up so fine a show. It is just these little things which helps me so materially to keep a fellow going, and bucks him up so marvellously. It does with me, and although I admit I sometimes grow tired and weary getting teams together, standing the disappointment of backwords, piles of correspondence and the general worry which attaches to this kind of work, I count it all a very great joy and pleasure, as I feel I am humbly trying to put back into the game a little of the infinite joy the game has given to me. But isn’t that the innermost feeling of all we old “has-beens”? Of course, it is, and actually, we are all very proud to be in the happy position of being able to do something. ”

In 1913 he was presented with a case of pipes and cigarette case by his Yorkshire committee colleagues and members of the county team.  The Yorkshire Evening Post explained, “It marked the keen appreciation which all present felt of Mr. Oakes’ wholly disinterested, loyal and enthusiastic services, and was also a tribute of comradeship and goodwill. The County Secretary will value the gift more highly, probably, than anything of the kind he has ever received, likely to receive.”

However, in 1941 he received the honour that probably made him happiest – although he wasn’t one to show it – when he was elected a Freeman of the borough of Hartlepool, conferring upon ‘Bob’ “the most honourable distinction in our power to bestow in recognition of the conspicuous services he has rendered to the borough.” At the service, the reasons for his nomination were discussed by the Mayor, “Several reasons have been advanced, the principal ones being because of Mr Oakes’ work on behalf of the hospital, and also because of the fact that he brought a team of Rugby internationals here every season. Well, in my opinion, both of these reasons are wrong. Certainly, they are factors in the case, but the real reason,  is that there has never been to our knowledge a parallel case where a Hartlepudlian who was compelled to leave us retained such an abundance of love for his native place that he never forgot it, and who put that love forward always with only one thought: How can I help old Hartlepool?” He continued, “I do wish that all of you could be privileged, as I have been to read some of his letters. Therein you would find the true feelings of a proud son for a worthy mother. Every word of his simple and direct language fairly bubbles over with a love for Hartlepool, telling a story of beautiful and beloved memories and making you wonder if it is the same Hartlepool that you belong to. If his words can have that effect upon a native, is there any wonder that he has made the name of Hartlepool known in every part of the world where Rugby football is played?”

Five years earlier, he had explained, “Durham is my own County where I was born and reared in the atmosphere of Rugby. To Durham, I owe a debt of gratitude deeper than the sea, for it was where I was taught what little I know of the game and if there is one small grain of sportsmanship in my body it was in Durham where that seed was planted.”

Although a strong advocate for the amateur game, ‘Bob’ was friends with many in Rugby League including John Wilson, the Rugby League secretary whom he shared masonic connections and he had great respect for Rugby League players and those who turned to the game.  Beanland explained, “In the days when the Yorkshire team was making its uphill fight and every good player was urgently needed, three young men of promise were induced to sacrifice their amateurism to become members of Rugby League clubs. Not one word of reproach from the man who was toiling so gallantly to restore the fortunes of his adopted county, but just an excuse for each. Of one he wrote, “The lad had been out of work for months and was married. Nothing coming in, and very very hard up. The club came along with a cheque at the moment when he didn’t know which way to turn, and he succumbed. And so, for each of these three boys the kindly word. The grand sportsman who had nurtured and encouraged them and who watched their departure with real respect saw only the human side, the temptation and all that it meant.”

During both wars he supported the right of rugby league players to play Rugby Union, explaining “If these chaps are good enough to fight with, then I am quite sure they are good enough to play with.”

He died, aged 79, on 22nd October 1952 after a long illness. When he was unable to attend the 1952 annual Oakes game dinner, one guest commented it was like “Hamlet without the Prince.”

Tributes poured in, an example came from the Belfast Telegraph who explained that his death had “deprived the rugby game of a man who had served it with conspicuous fidelity and enthusiasm, “ adding “Bob Oakes was an unusual man in many ways and towering strong in his friendships of Ulster. Of Ulster and the whole people of this province he was sincerely fond.”

His funeral was well attended, with a large number of mourners having to remain outside the church during the service. The Rector of St Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool paid tribute to Oakes. “In the Northern Counties, Oakes and Rugby were almost synonymous terms.”

As well as family and personal friends, the funeral was attended by the great and good of Rugby Union. The RFU were represented by amongst others, President F.D Prentice, together with the Yorkshire and Durham RFU and representatives of clubs from both Yorkshire and Durham and further afield.  Representatives of the Scottish and Irish RFU’s were also in attendance. Non-rugby mourners included the Deputy Lord Mayor of Leeds and Chief Constable of Leeds.

He’s buried at St John the Baptist church, Adel, Leeds.

His wife Christina, whom he had married in 1903, died in 1935. He left behind a daughter Marjorie Annie. His son Flight-Lieut Robert Henry Lyness Oakes had died during World War 2 aged 35. He had returned from the Middle East after being wounded in the leg and died suddenly at his R.A.F base. He was an old boy of Leeds Grammar School, a one-time captain of Leeds Bohemians, and also played for Headingley Old Boys and Yorkshire.

After his death, a memorial fund was started to provide an inner porch at St Hilda’s and for the advancement of schoolboy rugby – a role that he had championed. In 1954 his daughter Marjorie arranged for a tablet to be placed at St Hilda’s.’ Bob’ had earlier noted, I can never pass St Hilda’s without a lump in my throat, and I am not ashamed to say so. My parents were married there. I was christened and married there too and I cannot enter it without tears welling into my eyes. The tablet read,  “In memory of Robert Frederick Oakes, a native and Freeman of Hartlepool, 1873 – 1952, a humble Christian, a devoted father, a worthy citizen, and honoured sportsman.”

‘Bob’ was fond of quoting the phrase, “And when the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game.” It seems such an apt epitaph for the man who did so much for the game.

Richard Lowther