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First to Fifty: Jack Toothill

John Thomas (Jack) Toothill was the first Yorkshire player to play fifty times for the county appearing between 1888 and 1895. Reverend Marshall in ‘Football – the Rugby game’ explained, Toothill “is a forward of the old type, and has been in some years the centre of the Bradford pack, and one of the mainstays of the Yorkshire scrummage. A determined player, with no undue roughness, and with any amount of pluck, and capacity for hard work, Toothill is a grand specimen of a Yorkshire forward and has done great service for England.”

Born in Thornton, Bradford on 15th March 1866, his father Thomas was a wool washer and his mother Ann was a weaver before her marriage. He had elder siblings Joseph and Harriet Hannah. He was married twice. His first marriage ended in divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery. His second marriage resulted in a step son.

He explained in an interview with the Clarion newspaper in 1892, “As a boy I was very fond of watching football. I started playing eight or nine years ago with St Mary Magdalene – a Manningham club. I played as a forward. I played one season with them, and then, having been asked to join the Manningham Rangers, I did so. I played one season with them, when I was asked to play with Manningham. I played with Manningham one season and about six matches in another.” He added, “I was asked by Joe Hawcridge to join Bradford, and did so in November 1887.”

He continued to play for Bradford until the turn of the century. He captained the side during the 1892/93 season. He was also a member of the Bradford committee. In November 1895, he found himself in dispute with his own committee, when, after working a Friday shift in a dye-house, to “oblige his former employer” he stated he was unfit to play for Bradford the following day at Halifax. The committee asked for his resignation and Toothill said he would appeal to the Northern Union for permission to play with any club he liked should he leave Bradford, “and if the committee do not set him free he will remain a member until they expel him.” However, none of these actions transpired and he continued both playing and on the committee.

In 1892, he supported the idea of broken time payments, “I don’t agree with wholesale professionalism. But if a working man loses time off his work in order to play, either in international, county or club matches, he ought, I am of opinion to be paid. [Working players] on ordinary weekdays have to lose time off work for the matches, and get nothing for it. That, I think, is unfair.”  Toothill was a publican in Bradford, an occupation often considered a sinecure job offered by Breweries hoping to benefit from the popularity and fame of the player, with the pub often near to a rugby ground and frequented by supporters of the team.

He expanded on the subject, “There is a feeling among players in favour of openly-avowed professionalism. But, on the other hand, therefore many players who wouldn’t like it. As to its results on the game it might improve it; but of course, that could only be told from experience.”

He appeared in Bradford’s first Northern Union game as a back (usually he was a forward) and he played in the 1898 Challenge Cup final, which Bradford lost to Batley.

He made his Yorkshire debut in 1888 and barring injuries was an ever present until retiring, after fifty appearances, in 1895. In these games he was only on the losing side three times – once to Lancashire, and twice to the ‘Rest of England’ side. During this period, the County won six County Championship titles.  As captain (1892/93 and 1894/95) he didn’t lose a game – nine wins and two draws.

He is portrayed in William Barnes Wollen’s painting of Yorkshire’s 11-3 victory over Lancashire during the 1893/94 season.

In May 1895 the Athletic News reported “This is generally the time of the year when one hears of the contemplated retirement of prominent players from the football arena. Some folk may therefore imagine that the statement that J.T Toothill has played his last match in first-class football is simply one of the “hardy annuals” of off-season gossip. I may say, however, that the Yorkshire captain meant what he said when he remarked, on the night of the Rest of England match, that he had taken part in his last championship engagement. No doubt the Bradford club will have the benefit of his services in a quiet way but next season he will not stand as a candidate for further honours.” The writer noted, “This decision is to be commended. Toothill has been well worth his place in the team as a player alone during the past season; as a captain no one has been more popular since the retirement of Fred Bonsor. It is better, therefore, to retire with honours untouched than to run the risk of meeting with the uncomplimentary though unavoidable remarks of trading upon a reputation.” It was reported that he was to receive a special medal set with diamonds.

Toothill played five times for the North in the annual North versus South trial game, during which he scored four tries, including in the 1889 game played on his own ground at Bradford, and in his last game at Fallowfield where the press noted, “Toothill came through a scrummage, and picking up the ball astonished everybody by skittling opponents and getting over the line. He crossed the crease far out, but handing off a Southerner he ran behind the posts. It was a brilliant effort, and, of course, there was great cheering.”

He made his England debut in March 1890 against Scotland and missed only one of England’s next twelve games due to a back injury. He scored against Ireland in February 1891, the York Herald reporting, “Toothill, who was lying handy, picked up and scored a very soft try”

After retirement, he continued to turn out in veteran’s games – usually for charity endeavours. In 1903 he was “to the fore with nice bursts” whilst playing for an Old Bradford side against an old Manningham side, and in January 1908 he played alongside former teammates in a Bradford Veterans side to raise funds for former Bradford, Yorkshire and England player Fred Bonsor who was emigrating to Canada.

In 1905 he watched the touring All Blacks easily defeat Yorkshire. He told the Bradford Daily Telegraph that he “thought that more than one team in the Northern Union would be a match for them.”

He stood, together with former international team mate Tom Broadley, unsuccessfully for election to the new Bradford (Park Avenue) Association Football club after the ‘great betrayal’ of 1907 which saw the former Bradford rugby team turn to soccer.

He died, aged 81 on 29 June 1947 in Bradford.

Richard Lowther