The story of Skipton RFC

By Ian Lockwood

Whilst not strictly part of the Bradford district – postcode aside – we are delighted to publish this history of Skipton RFC by a new contributor to VINCIT. Skipton’s history is fascinating as one of the many smaller rugby clubs in the area, formed in the final quarter of the nineteenth century but uniquely one that remained members of the Rugby Union after the split in 1895. Skipton’s history contrasts with the likes of the Keighley, Bingley and Shipley clubs further down the Aire valley and one time regular opponents…

SKIPTON’S rugby club was formed in 1874 when 11 men turned out for a fixture against Ilkley on November 7 under the captaincy of A Sidgwick, a member of the family which owned both Skipton High Mill and Skipton Low Mill. Before this date, sides drawn from Skipton were often cobbled together for one-off fixtures but from 1874 fixtures became something more permanent. In the same season, Skipton played Leeds Grammar School, Burnley Rovers, Otley and Bradford.

Reports of those early Skipton games were not carried regularly in the press – unlike cricket, the more gentlemanly game. The match against Otley shows how ideas of Victorian sportsmanship, fair play and discipline might be some way off the mark. The Craven Pioneer reported that “the cursing, the pugilistic attitude and the unfairness of the Otley players” prompted a pitch invasion after a Skipton player called Kelsall was the victim of a nasty kick. In the uproar, the Otley captain was “punched insensible, one of his men had his tooth knocked out and there were some other little pleasantries of a similar kind”. Nor did it end there, as the Otley team was chased back to the Ship Hotel, the club’s base. There was no referee – an umpire from each side decided on the rules in consultation with each captain.

These games were played on a field on the Carleton side of the railway line, somewhere near their home today, and Skipton’s fixture list was very localised in those early years, comprised mainly of teams from Bradford district. For example, in the autumn of 1886 Skipton played Keighley Free Wanderers, Windhill, Saltaire, Bowling Old Lane, Guiseley and Wibsey.

The Skipton club was not the only one playing rugby at the time. Again in 1886 there are infrequent references to matches played by teams such as Skipton Wanderers and Skipton Hornets who took on a team also from Skipton called Middletown and later Skipton Printers. In January 1889 the Craven Herald noted the merger of two of these clubs – the Hornets and Rangers, who would in future play under the name of Skipton Rangers. How long they continued is not known as no reports were submitted. Another club to appear in 1893 was Skipton Rovers, made up of shop assistants who could not play on Saturdays. At least two matches were played, the first a loss by a penalty goal to nil against “the Pioneer Office” (presumably a team drawn up by the Herald’s journalistic rivals at the Craven Pioneer) followed by a victory against “a scratch team”. The Rovers held a ball in January 1894, attended by its president and vice-president, Innocent Fattorini and Baldisaro Porri suggesting a St Stephens base. Other teams sprang up playing occasional matches, such as Raikes Road v Gargrave and a match between the workers at the Alexandra Shed and the Union Shed, and then vanishing into the mists of time.

It was the Skipton club which attracted the main support and key members were the Dewhurst family, owner of Belle Vue Mills, the world’s biggest producer of sewing cotton thread under the brand name Sylko. One of JB Dewhurst’s sons, John H Dewhurst, played for England while playing club rugby for first Cambridge University and then Richmond. His brother Edgar was Skipton captain (and also secretary of Skipton Cricket Club). But in 1889 the Athletic News reported that “It is rumoured that the Bradford Club is about to receive a valuable addition to its strength in the person of (Edgar) Dewhurst of Skipton, a brother of the well-known South and international player. Dewhurst’s position in life, that of a wealthy industrialist’s son, precludes any suggestion of tactics in the transfer deal which will need or would not bear, investigation.” In other words, no money had exchanged hands which would have broken the fundamentalist amateur ethos of the rugby authorities. The move was greeted with dismay by the Herald, who described it as “bare-faced kidnapping”. Dewhurst continued to play for Skipton for the remainder of the season but the writing was on the wall when he resigned as captain and refused all pleas to reconsider. On October 11 1889 in a two line report the Herald tersely noted “Mr EH Dewhurst, of Skipton, played three-quarter back for Bradford in their match against Liverpool on Saturday”.

Edgar Dewhurst, Bradford FC 1895 (Typo likely attributed to the fact that ‘Dewhirst’ was an historic Bradford name)
John Dewhirst collection

Skipton were one of the clubs at a meeting at the Commercial Hotel in Bradford in 1877 when the Yorkshire RFU was formed and the Yorkshire Cup inaugurated. This knockout competition pulled in big crowds. In 1889, when Heaton were the visitors to Sandylands, the crowd was put at 1,500 but this was seen as disappointing. Such attendances were rare, however, and Skipton was very much in the lower tier of fixtures before the 1895 great split in the game over professionalism. For example, its fixture list in 1894-95, the last before northern clubs broke away to form what would become the rugby league code, Skipton’s fixture list comprised of home and away fixtures against Yeadon, Farsley, Stanningley, Idle, Bingley, Saltaire, and Silsden plus single fixtures (although a prolonged freeze caused the postponement of some unnamed fixtures) against Kendal Hornets, Tadcaster, Horsforth, Windhill, Harrogate, Guiseley, Hunslet and Bury.  Most of these clubs were junior sides from around the Bradford area and only Harrogate and Hunslet (as a rugby league club) survive today. The club’s annual meeting was held, interestingly enough, in the Temperance Society’s “coffee tavern” on Sheep Street. Gate receipts provided half the club’s income which in 1889-90 was £110 but the outgoings were £121, of which £39 was in rail fares to take players to matches.

There was a tragedy for the club in November 1892 when T Lister complained of neck pains as he came off the field after a match. He fell ill the next day and died three weeks later. A meeting of the Yorkshire RFU in March 1893 heard an application from the club for a £5 grant from club funds to be paid to Lister’s widow and her two children who were living in great poverty. Club secretary Mr Milner wrote to say that Lister was “very averse to complaining about an accident, his family being opposed to his playing football”. However, the union noted that the death certificate had made no mention of death being due to a rugby injury and decided to take no action unless they could question the doctor who attended to him. They were fearful of bad publicity about the vigour of the game and a number of rugby-related deaths elsewhere.

The club did come back, through the Craven area representative on the Yorkshire RFU, a Mr Hartley, who was a member of the Bingley Club. He said he had not spoken to the doctor but had received a note from him stating that the death was due to “either a chill or a blow received through playing”. This was deemed too vague by the county RFU, which left the matter in the hands of a sub-committee which allocated any surplus the county had at the end of the year to charities, mainly hospitals. That year the county had £480 to distribute and gave £5 to Lister’s widow. Interestingly, Lister’s name was mentioned at neither the club’s annual dinner nor its annual meeting. There is no record of any club donation to the bereaved family. It as is if he was whitewashed out of the club’s memory – although there are notes that the number of players was down considerably that year may signify that Lister’s death had some deterrent effect upon players and their families. Incidentally this was not to be the only rugby-related death in Skipton. In 1930 Clifford Briggs, a 25 year old centre who lived in Silsden suffered a head wound in a match against Manchester University (accidentally by all accounts). He was taken off and stitches were inserted but the wound became infected and he died of septicaemia a week later.

At the same county meeting which ducked the issue of Lister’s compensation, the Skipton club also proposed that players who attended Yorkshire practice matches should be allowed “small presents” to compensate them for the expense. It was robustly turned down by the county committee on the basis that it was the thin end of the wedge of professionalism, a forerunner of the professionalism issue which was to create a schism in the game three years later.

On August 29 1895 northern rugby clubs held a meeting at Huddersfield’s George Hotel over the Rugby Football Union’s refusal to allow “broken time payments” – compensation to workers who lost wages when turning out for their club. It was seen as breaking the sport’s strict amateur rules and 22 clubs split to form The Northern Rugby Union, later to become the Rugby Football League. Less than two years after the split, on April 29 1897, there was a second meeting of Yorkshire clubs which included Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Elland, Pudsey, Normanton and Birstall to decide whether or not to join the breakaway Northern Union. The decision of clubs such as Hull Kingston Rovers, York and Featherstone to join the NRU moved Skipton up into the higher echelons of the YRFU rankings as members of what was known as the Number One competition which also included Otley, Bingley and Keighley. However the best players flocked to the NRU and the Skipton club was rocked when its captain, Alec Ross, defected to the Northern Union in 1903, an action which was described as “unsportsmanlike”. He officially became a ‘non-person’.

In 1901 the club’s elevated status was shown when it hosted the Yorkshire v Lancashire match (Yorkshire won 21-11). Although the crowd was a healthy 1,400, before the split this had been a major sporting fixture hosted at one of the north’s biggest grounds attracting many thousands of spectators. The Craven Herald commented on how rugby union was struggling: “Rugby outside the northern Union is treated with indifference while association football is simply worshipped”.

On April 18 1903 360 Skipton supporters boarded a train bound for Harrogate to see their club in its most important match to date, the Yorkshire Cup final against Castleford. However, the final was to prove a hugely contentious affair. The match was drawn 6-6, a feature being (according to the match report in the Craven Herald) the somewhat vigorous play of the Castleford team, particularly against Skipton’s star player, John Knox, and their “unbecoming exhibitions of temper” resulting in a general caution to the team. The match was replayed the following week, starting rumours that Castleford would play an England international centre, John Taylor. The only problem was that Taylor, who would win 11 caps for England, had not played for Castleford that season. Indeed, on the day of the first final he had played in the Durham Cup final for his club, West Hartlepool.

On the day of the replay, the rumours proved true as Taylor was named in the Castleford team. Before the game Skipton captain, Alec Ross, and secretary, T Milner, submitted a formal protest. It was their second of the week, the first objecting to the venue, Wakefield, because of its proximity to their opponents. The Skipton team were beaten 6-0 but the bitterness overflowed. Ross, presented with the runners-up trophy, remarked that “we do not consider ourselves beaten by a representative Castleford team”.  The beaten Skipton side were welcomed back to Skipton by a brass band at the station and Milner addressed a large crowd from the first floor window of the club’s headquarters, the Ship Hotel. Two days later at a special meeting to decide upon the Skipton objection, the Yorkshire committee ruled that Taylor was not a bona fide member of the Castleford club and ordered the replay to be replayed. By Thursday word had got back to Skipton that Castleford did not accept the ruling and would not be turning up for a third match.

The dispute grew even more bitter when a disciplinary meeting stripped Castleford of the cup and ordered it to be handed to Skipton, only to find that Castleford had already had their name inscribed on the trophy as winners. The hurried inscription was heavily criticised, Castleford secretary Cooper being asked why he had carried out an ungentlemanly act only to receive a truculent reply including the question: “was it gentlemanly for Skipton to object?”. The Yorkshire president H Brown had harsh words: “the conduct of the Castleford club was a gross illegal fraud”. The committee ordered the Castleford name to be erased and replaced with Skipton’s, the bill to be sent to the Castleford club, the subscriptions records of the Castleford club to be submitted to the county committee for scrutiny to check Taylor’s involvement with them and for secretary Cooper to resign his post. It was not quite the end of the affair. Castleford’s response was to demand an apology for the comments made by the Yorkshire president. He refused and at yet another disciplinary hearing added that the affair was the “most disgraceful he had ever heard of in the world of sport”. Castleford were suspended from the Yorkshire Union – and their website still proudly bears the honour ‘Yorkshire Cup winners 1903’.

The Yorkshire Cup was retained in 1904 with a 3-0 win over Mytholmroyd in the final, the club’s website describes this pre-war period as “the golden years”. One of its players, John Green, was an England international regular, winning eight England caps between 1905 and 1907 and another, John Knox, represented Scotland. However off the field things were not quite so healthy. Indeed the rugby club came close to folding. True, it might have a current England international, John Green, on its books and it may have been considered one of the strongest sides in Yorkshire, but the club’s association football team was proving more popular. The rugby club was having trouble attracting players, attendances were well down and the decision of most of the North’s top rugby clubs to join the Northern Union meant more travelling with the additional expense. A special meeting was held in June 1906 to decide whether or not to cease playing rugby and turn the club into a “soccer” stronghold. Doubtless the example of Manningham was in the committee’s mind.

“The old code has lost much of its lustre and each year has seen a diminution of interest a decrease in gate money and consequently a keener struggle for existence,”  said the Craven Herald.  Skipton’s association team had been accepted into the West Riding Football League First Division, despite a less than convincing display in the inaugural Craven Football League. One of the oldest members of the club, W Boothman, said football was “undoubtedly the coming game” but thought the club should decide between the two. “Play either rugby or association but play one properly,” he urged. Another old member called Smith said rugby union was in a bad way, most clubs had gone over to the Northern Union and he felt Skipton could field a strong soccer team. What may have swayed the meeting was the revelation that the West Riding Football League would insist on preference for their fixtures on the ground or the Skipton club could be fined. This was too much for many and it was decided to continue as they were. Another attempt to scrap rugby in favour of soccer was made in 1908 but was robustly seen off. Apart from the proposer and seconder of the motion, only two others voted to abandon rugby. The views of member R Harragan seem to sum up the mood: “everyone knew that during the last few years the association team has simply fed on the profits of the rugby section and now they desire to confiscate the whole of the rugby section property”. The football team folded soon after.

Ellwood Rowley collection

In 1909 another threat came to the rugby club’s existence in an affair which plunged the club into crisis and earned them intense criticism. The fiasco resulted in all but two players banned sine die and the club shamed. When the Skipton team set out for Ilkley to meet Headingley in the final of the Yorkshire Cup in April 1909, no doubt spirits were high. But just before half time, with no score on the board, referee Mr Bell awarded Headingley a try which the Skipton captain, Bob Duckett, disputed, claiming the ball had been grounded over the dead ball line rather than in the try zone. After consulting his touch judge, Bell stuck by his ruling stating “I shall give a try here” adding somewhat tactlessly that if the captain did not like his decision he could leave the field. Which is just what Duckett did, with his team in tow. Any chance of a prompt return was ended when the Skipton fans invaded the pitch, booing and jeering. Fights broke out and the officials needed a police escort from the pitch. Of course, Headingley were declared the winners and the Skipton team were roundly condemned from all sides. Even the local paper could not offer any support: “An unbiased and unprejudiced onlooker might admit that no matter what the Skipton team’s grievances – and apparently they were not few – to show the white feather by leaving the field of play was unworthy of the traditions of the rugby game in Skipton and an action that reflects upon the town itself”.

The Skipton defence began to take shape: Headingley had been favoured from the start, right from the choice of hotels where the teams were based and changed – Headingley in the spacious Crescent close to the ground, Skipton in the cramped and distant Ship; before kick off the referee had delivered a general warning about foul play to the Skipton team in front of the main stand while nothing was said to the other side; that a Skipton player [Horner] had been sent off without any warning, which was customary; that the Headingley player had tried to touch down nearer the goalposts and clearly been tackled into touch; that the referee should have been from outside the county; that the referee should not have invited the Skipton captain to walk off; that Duckett had been caught up in the excitement and regretted his actions. It was all rejected by the Yorkshire committee, one of whom, Miller, moved to expel them from the RFU saying “I prefer that Yorkshire should have only one club rather than a dozen clubs capable of playing such unsportsmanlike football as the Skipton team have done.”  Sentence was postponed until the Skipton case was heard.

Meanwhile Duckett gave an interview to the Craven Herald: “Our men were all of one mind and we did not need asking twice, we came off. Most of our committee were in the stand and when we reached them they too thought we had acted right….We did not come off because we were losing because we had a grand chance of winning if we stayed. We considered that Headingley had been favoured all through the cup tie and, well, we hadn’t to win the cup – they had”.

The disciplinary hearing into what to do about Skipton received a report from referee Bell, who also accused Skipton players of foul language. The decision was to suspend sine die 13 of the 15 Skipton players – two who were deemed not to have left the pitch being the exception. The verdict was considered extremely harsh, robbing Skipton of its first team. The club president, Every-Clayton appealed for a rethink on the grounds that it placed the Skipton club in jeopardy. Indeed there was talk of giving up rugby altogether and sticking with football, or even forming a breakaway rugby competition with other Yorkshire clubs who had gripes against the Yorkshire committee. What seems not to have been an option was switching to rugby league. Every-Clayton’s submission to an appeal hearing that the players had made a “tactical error” and there were “aggravated circumstances” did not change the decision, although a hint was dropped that if the players made individual personal appearances, they might be treated more leniently. And so the 13 banned players made a personal appeal, at which they were forced to admit their stupidity. Eight were reinstated but the lifelong ban on five, including Duckett and Horner, was upheld.  The Skipton club dropped any thoughts of leaving and turned its thoughts to filling the five gaps in its team for the new season.

Ellwood Rowley collection

By 1912 the club’s quarrels with the Yorkshire committee were behind them and the club won the Yorkshire Cup for the third time when they beat Otley at Ilkley by 7-0 in front of a 4,000 crowd. To show there were no hard feelings, the Yorkshire president was guest at the club’s dinner where he gave fulsome praise of the Skipton players and supporters. The extent to which rugby was struggling in the county can be shown by the fact that there were so few entries that Skipton won just three games to lift the cup. As the first side to win the trophy three times they were allowed to keep it – although in 1948 they returned it to the Yorkshire RFU with the proviso that it should be presented to the runners-up in the county cup. How ironic then that the first club to receive this runners-up trophy was Skipton! So the trophy, which had been lying around the club for 36 years before being returned, was to spend another year in Skipton.

The club was considering suspending operations for the duration of the First World War in 1914 when the RFU took the matter out of its hands and suspended all fixtures. A total of 57 Skipton members, many of them players, volunteered and 18 of them were never to return. The club was not to resurface until 1919 when a meeting was held to try to resurrect the club. It had a small debt at the bank but its stand appears to have been cannibalised for parts (the stand was “getting less week by week” said the Herald). Moreover the club had no kit, having given it all to the Duke of Wellington’s regiment. Around £300 was needed to get the club back on its feet and the fund raising got into full swing. By September 1919 the club was back in action, taking on Otley.

Ellwood Rowley collection

Its supporters were vocal. In October 1922 two policemen had to be summonsed to escort the referee back to his changing facilities at the Midland Hotel after he sent off a Skipton player. The police were assaulted by two fans, both called Doyle and so presumably related, which ended up with a court appearance for them and a hefty fine.  In 1923 the club decided to build the new wooden grandstand which survives to this day, with changing rooms underneath to avoid the long walk after a muddy game to baths and rooms at the Midland Hotel. A coke stove provided heating in the rooms and players emerged from a central tunnel, now removed but its existence is still traceable. The original cost of £750 had risen to £1,000 and the club had to rely heavily on members’ contributions. Two former players, T Chapman and R Duckett built the stand which was officially opened by the club’s president Sir Donald Horsfall at the first home match of the 1923 season, against Bradford.

There was to be one flourish for the club soon after World War Two when the team reached the Yorkshire Cup final where they played Harrogate at Otley in 1949. Fourteen coaches took 450 supporters and a special train took a similar number. With many more travelling by car, around 1,500 Skiptonians made the journey eastwards only to be disappointed by a lacklustre performance resulting in a 20-6 defeat. “Skipton were at fault for adopting too negative a policy in the first half” (when they had the strong wind at their backs). Even so, their skipper, Donald Cooban, had the honour of being presented with the Yorkshire Shield prize which they had donated to the Yorkshire RFU at the start of the season.

The post war years have been undistinguished on the pitch, but off it the Skipton club has prospered and grown. By 1952 the club finally had its own clubhouse with a bar, something which most leading clubs had long before Skipton. This has been enlarged and improved in the intervening years so that its facilities are ranked highly. In 1955 the club was offered the purchase of its ground, which had been leased from the LMS railway. The £1,000 asking price was beyond the club’s means but the land was bought by the Coulthurst Trust, set up by the late John William Coulthurst and his widow in 1947. The site is administered “for the purposes of rugby, cricket and other kindred sports” with four rugby club officials on the eight man board of trustees.

Today Skipton plays in the lower reaches of the Yorkshire but financially it is buoyant, with several lucrative revenue streams. Its ground is superior to many of the clubs it competes against with a stand on both sides of the touchline and is used for representative matches and county finals.


Related features on VINCIT:

The story of Shipley FC and other smaller rugby clubs in the Bradford district by John Dewhirst

The formation of the Northern Union in 1895 examined from a Bradford perspective by John Dewhirst

Bradford’s rugby heritage by John Dewhirst

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