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Fred Bonsor: The first Yorkshire player to captain England

It is a paradox that the first Yorkshire player to captain England was born in France, to a father also born across the English Channel, but who was a British citizen due to his grandfather being born in Leicestershire.

The Reverend Marshall in ‘Football – The Rugby Union game’, “Bonsor was without doubt, the best half back that Yorkshire has produced. Limby, with a clutch like that of an octopus, he always grassed his man, whilst he possessed of weight, speed, and strength, combined with dodging powers, he was a most dangerous player on the attack. His feeding of the backs and judgement in play were of the highest order. Fred Bonsor at his best was the half back of an age.”

Fernand Bonsor moved with his family to England sometime after 1871 when his father took up employment in a dye-works in Bradford. The family settled in Shipley and young Fernand anglicised his name to Fred.  He was the middle child of three sons, the youngest Morris, also played rugby for Yorkshire – they played in the same side against Northumberland during the 1885/86 season.

The 1881 census shows Fred was studying for the Civil Service examination whilst the following census shows him as a Wholesale bottler and agent. In 1894 he was described as a ‘Traveller’ in newspaper reports.

In 1885 he married Fanny Milnes, a relationship which can be described as stormy and in which Fred, in 1894, was found guilty of aggravated assault and fined £10 plus court costs or the alternative punishment of a month in prison.   He appears not to have divorced but left Fanny behind when he later emigrated to Canada.

He played his club rugby for Bradford and was captain of the side when they won the 1884 Yorkshire Cup. He also scored a try in the game, “Immediately after Bonsor got possession, succeeded in evading the whole of the Hull men, and gained a well-deserved try near the corner flag.” After the game he was carried to Bradford’s post-match celebrations by the club’s supporters.

In 1886 he was awarded a testimonial by the club and presented with a keyless demi-hunter gold watch and a purse of £80.  He later fell out with the club. He formed a new side Bradford Old Boys which included some of his former team mates but the venture didn’t last and he joined Skipton, with whom he maintained an interest after retiring. He also made guest appearances for Manningham and Saltaire.

Bonsor made his Yorkshire debut against Midlands in November 1881, and over the next ten seasons he was to represent the county 33 times. He first captained the side against Northumberland during the 1887/88 season, and then was permanent captain the following season. He remained unbeaten in the role, as Yorkshire won the County Championship.

He was close to a comeback for Yorkshire eight years later, but a broken collar bone ended his chances. The Yorkshire Evening Post commented, “Those who had seen him play were astonished at his vitality and skill and I am told that Bonsor meant to show his fitness.”

His career was interrupted by the Boer War. He had served four years in the Yorkshire Hussars, and six years in the 2nd West Yorkshire Yeomanry, the latter as a corporal, when he was called up.  The Yorkshire Evening Post noted, “He is quite looking forward to a scrummage with the Boers.”

He served part of his tour of duty as a Military Policeman and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He reported back from the war. On being sent to “that infernal hole” Lindley (a South African town that saw a number of ‘skirmishes) ’he noted, “We burnt and looted every farm or building in our track.”, but in a later letter noted, [Under a new officer with a mania for night attacks], “We had to turn out at all times of the night and looted and burnt any suspected farm, making a few prisoners, but generally only finding women and children at home. The sight of poor beggars being out in the dead of night with a few of their most needed pieces of furniture, and the firing of the whole show is one I am not likely to forget as long as I live.”

He represented the North in seven ‘North versus South’ games which were trials for the England side, between 1884 and 1889.

He made his England debut against Wales in January 1886, a game in which fellow half back Alan Rotherham and Bradford team mate Edgar Wilkinson also made their first appearances wearing the Red Rose. Both half back positions were interchangeable at this time and Rotherham was credited with revolutionising half back play by acting as a link between backs and forwards. Bonsor went onto play for England a further five times, including in the two pointless games against Scotland and Wales in 1886 and 1887 respectively.

In 1888 he was selected for England in a season in which they played no internationals due to a dispute about the formation of the International Rugby Board, each of the 15 players were awarded caps.

The following year he captained England in the win over the New Zealand Natives. The week before England’s game against Wales at Dewsbury he injured his knee playing for Bradford against Blackheath and therefore missed another cap. He was replaced by his Bradford half back partner J.G Wright.

The press reported Bonsor received a telegraph from RFU Secretary, G Rowland Hill, “asking him if he would be fit to play  [against Scotland the following month] , but before replying Bonsor decided to give himself a fair trial. He is said to go safely in a straight run but cannot dodge on account of his injured leg. If after a trial he thinks himself fit he will at once wire Mr Hill to that effect.” However, this did not happen but controversially he “obtained permission from the authorities” and turned out on the day of the international for his club side Bradford in a Yorkshire Cup game against Dewsbury. It was said he was “wishing to help his club” and he features heavily in the match report with just the one mention that his “leg had given way.”

In 1888 he was interviewed by Alfred Shaw about becoming a member of an English touring team to Australia and New Zealand. He turned down the offer but only after enquiring about the terms. This team was later recognised as the first British (and Irish) Lions.

In February 1908 he emigrated to Canada settling at Clyde, North Alberta. Before his departure his former colleagues organised a veteran’s game. As the Leeds Mercury noted, “Fred Bonsor has always been the first to organise and carry out these testimonial matches for old colleagues or opponents and I am sure many of his friends will rally around him now that the opportunity to return something in kind. The game between teams representing Bradford and Halifax raised £45 in gate receipts plus a subscription list was raised “which will considerably augment” the ticket sales the local newspapers explained.

He explained, “I went out to Canada of my own free will … to farm and carve myself a home out of much advertised free government lands of Alberta.  160 acres, 12 herds of cattle, a fine team of horses, a few pigs, a big flock of hens, 35 acres of rich land all ploughed and ready for seeding. I also rented 160 acres of grass land for hay and pastures”

Whilst in Canada he wrote a series of letters to the Yorkshire press where he gave honest summaries of the work involved in farming, from the fluctuating weather – “I myself can stand the cold far better than the heat” to the work involved – “ that by going to Canada he is not going to the El Dorado or ultra-moral country of the Canadian boosters, but to a good big country where with patience, hard work, and good health, he may perhaps in time find the life of his cherished hopes and dreams.”

He was critical of the British government seeking single men for the settlement programme when he felt families would be a better choice, relying on each other for support and assistance in farming.  He explained why he returned to England, “A time came when the work proved too much for one man. The loneliness, added to the want of help and capital made me realise that I was at a standstill and struggling to no great purpose. My health failing too.” He sold out and took a year to return to England, hiking it back via New York. On his return to Leeds in July 1919, he was repeatedly asked, “Are you not Fred Bonsor?” He told the press, “Really I shall begin to think there is something in football fame after all”.

He settled in Kent where he continued to farm before dying, at the age of 70, in April 1932. He is remembered, as the Leeds Times noted, “as the brilliant half back.”

Richard Lowther