Almanac Rugby League – A progressive side of rugby league?

Can’t say I am an expert on rugby league, but I do know it had some good early links with the progressive side of politics. Have read a little bit, and spoken to friends who have an understanding of the game, which has made me intrigued in finding out more.

Correct me if I’m wrong but rugby league’s origins in the UK coincide with big strikes in the northern counties, particularly around the mines and due to the repression unleashed on the strikers, there was a correlation made between the wealthy, and their sporting activities, with rugby union being perceived as the gentleman’s (exploiter’s) game, with the workers requiring their own game, and that’s how rugby league was born: maybe.

In NSW and Queensland, rugby league commenced around 1907-08. Many of the foundation clubs had strong links with local branches of the ALP, and the Labour movement per se.  In the words of Newtown’s WJ Ellis, a man also active in a range of mutual benefits funds, it was considered a means of facilitating working class  improvement and self sufficiency.

One intriguing episode  back in 1917, around the time of the General Strike in NSW. The Glebe club’s best players went on strike, whilst its selection commitee resigned. This was in response from alleged injustices from the league’s headquarters. The reaction from officialdom was swift; one player suspended for life, 14 others suspended until the end of the 1918 season.  After an appeal, these players returned to play the 1918 season.

One of the leaders of the ‘rebels’ was Frank Burge, an active anti-conscriptionist, and staunch member of the Municipal Employees Union. Burge at different times was active for Glebe, both as a player, and on the selection commitee.

Some well know lefties have played rugby league such as Jack Munday was recruited by Parramatta in 1950, earlier Tom Uren appeared for North Sydney. How does that sit with Aussie Rules, and progressive politics? I did an Almanac article a while ago about Frank Hyett , but in terms of links between progressive political causes and sporting bodies there’s more I’d like to know re Aussie rules in this context.

In the corporatised NRL I doubt if there is much that is politically progressive.  In Melbourne our exposure to the NRL is either re players misbehaving, or publicising the NRL’s Murdoch team, the Melbourne Storm. The last really progressive link I can recall from the NRL was Wally Lewis supporting MUA members during the 1998 lockout.

As I said at the start I don’t have a great knowledge of the game,  thus if any almanackers can give me some info on this topic I would be appreciative. The little I have read, like the article of Andrew Moores, the quaintly named ‘Opera of the Proletariat’, starts me thinking.



  1. Mark Doyle says

    I do not believe that there has ever been any formal or official links between the progressive side of politics and both the aussie rules and rugby league football codes in Melbourne and Sydney. It is nothing more than a romantic idea! The fact that some individuals on the progressive side of politics were involved in these football codes was nothing more than either a recreational, community or exercise activity for those individuals and was peripheral to their political activities.
    I believe that the main reason for the formation of the rugby league code was the amateur status of rugby union players; working class people who played rugby union were unhappy when they got injured and were not compensated for loss of earnings because of time off work. I think Dally Messenger was one of the first rugby union players to change codes in Australia because of money; I think he was a rugby union player from New Zealand. I also think that there were some informal discussions in the early 1900’s about merging aussie rules and rugby league in Australia. There is very little difference in the culture of aussie rules in the southern states of Australia and the culture of rugby league in NSW and QLD.
    I also believe that most of the mutual benefits organistions were either trade union or Catholic Church based because of discrimination against working class people and Catholics.
    It is a bit ironic that the elite professional level of both football codes has become nothing more than entertainment for upper middle class people employed in the tertiary sector of the economy. It is also ironic that rugby union has become professional.

  2. John Harms says

    This is an interesting question Glen, and one I will direct at Dr Greg Mallory who may have time to respond.

    I think you’ll find the history books convey a similar argument to Mark’s on the origins of rugby league.

    However, I know those texts are much stronger on pointing out that rugby league at an NSWRL and BRL level, and at grass roots community club level were (and remain?) sites of working class identity.

    Andrew Moore is a terrific writer and historian. Greg Mallory is a well-known labour historian/rugby league historian and is well worth pursuing.

    I am a collector of anecdotes but having played rugby league and mingled (many times) with the crew on the terrace of the old Lang Park I know that the virtues of working class life were alive and well in rugby league.

    I also know (and have written about this) that rugby league has gone through a process of middle classing. Indeed you could argue that just as rugby league has become more bourgeois so have many of the people who have followed it – so many Australians are working class folk who have assumed a ruling class understanding of the world. And that’s about to get worse.

  3. Murray from Brisbane says

    It is going back a fair while … and it is probably a bit off topic … but i hope of some interest …. Australian Football was the “game of the colony” in Queensland between 1866 and 1885 … one of its founders was an Irish revolutionary … a convict … and a doctor …

    Dr. Kevin Izod O’Doherty followed David Watterston as president of the Brisbane Football Club in 1870. He served in that role for sixteen years until a brief return to his birthplace of Ireland in 1886 where he was elected to the House of Commons as member for North Meath. O’Doherty was to be severely disillusioned with the Irish/English political processes and made his way back to Brisbane. The long serving president of Queensland’s most successful nineteenth century football club was a convict, a doctor, a philanthropist, and a revolutionary. O’Doherty was an Irish Nationalist, a football lover and a ubiquitous figure in Brisbane from the early 1860’s until 1886.

    Kevin O’Doherty (1823-1905) commenced his medical studies in Ireland in 1842 where he was introduced one of the many versions of football that were commencing in the elite schools of Britain. His studies and interest in football were cut short in 1848 when he was moved to join the Young Ireland movement. Passionate, patriotic and committed young Irishmen were being driven to various forms of revolt and protest in search of home rule for Ireland on the back of a devastating famine. O’Doherty was the principal proprietor and co-editor of the radical nationalist publication the Irish Tribune. His love of Irish literature and culture and an earnest desire to assist the poor and starving were contributing motivations to halt his medical studies and football activities. The Irish Tribune was outlawed by the English and after three separate trials (two acquittals appealed by the state), Kevin O’Doherty was finally sentenced to ten years and transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for treason-felony. He remained politically active and some attempts to assist his countrymen in escapes led to periods of hard labour.After serving the best part of five years of his sentence as manager of the dispensary in Hobart, and acting surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital, he was granted a conditional pardon in 1853. Before returning to Europe he tried his hand at gold digging in Ballarat and spent time with Peter Lalor just prior to the Eureka Stockade. O’Doherty migrated to Paris as the conditional pardon forbade him entry to Great Britain. The love of his life, Mary Eva Kelly, was in Dublin and waiting for the true romantic O’Doherty to fulfil a promise of marriage. Kelly was also a socialist and Irish Nationalist, but was better known for her poetry under the pseudonym “Eva of the Nation”. O’Doherty absconded from Paris to Dublin for a short period to secretly marry Mary Kelly as he had promised prior to his transportation to the antipodes. Upon receiving an unconditional pardon the following year he and Mary O’Doherty left France for Ireland and a resumption of his studies. Kevin Izod O’Doherty graduated as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1857.O’Doherty returned to Victoria in 1860 and practiced medicine in Geelong and Sydney. He was an unabashed admirer of football and would no doubt have sampled Victorian rules in Geelong. He arrived in Brisbane in 1865 to become one of the colony’s leading physicians and a highly respected gentleman of the colony. O’Doherty was instrumental in establishing the Queensland Medical Society and carried out extensive honorary work at hospitals and with the Sisters of Mercy. He entered politics as the member for North Brisbane in the Legislative Assembly (lower house) from 1867-73 and the Legislative Council (upper house) from 1877-85. Achievements included instigation of the first Health Act in Queensland. He owned significant sugar plantations and was a promoter of humane use of Kanaka labour in that industry. A prolific “giver of his time” he was involved in numerous charitable organisations and gave evidence to many commissions on medical matters. O’Doherty was active in the Queensland Irish Association and was elected president of the Irish Australian Convention held in Melbourne in 1883. In 1868 O’Doherty became one of the first trustees of the non-denominational Brisbane Grammar School. His four sons (Kevin, William, Edward and Vincent) attended the school and played Victorian rules football. O’Doherty’s affinity with football was acquired in his 1840’s school days in Ireland far from the fields of Rugby and the paddocks of Melbourne. He experienced Victorian rules in Geelong, but his football allegiances led him more so to the ideologies of athleticism and manliness rather than a fixation on a particular code of play. There is no doubt however, that in the early days of the Queensland colony he was pleased to associate himself with a sport that was not spawned in England. His oratories on matters of the colony of Queensland in the areas of health and education were often reported in the Queensland press. One of Kevin O’Doherty’s few recorded football related speeches occurred during the New South Wales rugby tour to Queensland in 1883.

    “He then recounted in a humorous vein his own football experiences forty years ago. He knew no game in the world to compare with this royal old game of football. (Applause.) And whenever he came across a first-class football player he felt bound to shake him by the hand. He exhorted those present to cultivate football … He liked to see a manly game where hard knocks were given and taken in no unfriendly spirit. (Applause.) … Mr. T. Finney, in proposing the toast” Athletics,” referred to the athleticism of Dr. O’Doherty, who had immense staying powers even at the close of a banquet (Laughter.)”

    Australian nationalism was in its infancy in 1883 but colonial identities were certainly evolving. O’Doherty’s 1883 football speech went onto to espouse some hints of an emergent Queensland identity. In 1883 the bifurcation of the co-existing rugby and rules codes had yet to occur.

    “He said he must confess that he regarded the occasion as one of the most important that had occurred in the history of our young colony of Queensland since he had come here twenty yean ago. He saw with pleasure around him a crowd of fine young fellows representing the blood, bone, and sinew of New South Wales and Victoria, and also, he must add, of Queensland, a colony every whit as good as the others. (Applause.) The visitors from New South Wales must not take in a bad spirit what he was going to say. He had a great admiration for New South Wales, for our young fellows had learnt all they knew from their elder brethren in that colony. (Applause.) The game they had played that day was a credit to them every way, though they had suffered defeat. But the game to take place next Thursday was not yet decided, and his sympathies were entirely with the youngest colony—he hoped that the youngest son would turn out to be the best of the family. Old footballer, as he was, he looked forward to the struggle on Thursday with the most intense anxiety and pleasure combined. If New South Wales won, well and good, he would not grudge them the victory: but if Queensland won he—well, he would throw his hat into the air. (Loud applause.)”

    His radical politics of the late 1840’s had mellowed by the 1880’s. O’Doherty believed that colonial governance like Queensland was the way forward for the Commonwealth and his beloved Ireland. He was a socialite and enjoyed a good time in the true Irish spirit. In his later years he joined the Queensland Turf Club and the Royal Society of Queensland. His like of a drink and a good time were infamous and he entertained the men of the Brisbane Football Club at his Ann St. residence Frascati on many occasions. O’Doherty was a raconteur, a manager and an organiser who got things done. He was affable and well liked throughout the colony. The young Tom Welsby was also a popular man in Brisbane. Both were men of letters with passionate appreciations of literature and culture. Welsby (Secretary/Treasurer 1879 – 1884) and O’Doherty (President: 1870-1885) were to serve together on the executive of the successful Brisbane Football Club (Invincible Reds) between 1879 and 1884. Together they managed the affairs of the club like no other sporting organisation in Queensland up to that time.

    Three of O’Doherty’s sons (Ned, William and Vincent) were to play for the Brisbane Football Club during this period. Vincent, a banker, was arrested and jailed in 1889 for larceny involving the sum of 110 pounds. O’Doherty senior’s financial situation deteriorated as large English sections of the burgeoning Brisbane population turned on any Irish with Fenian connections. Dr Kevin Izod O’Doherty died a poor man in 1905, aged 81, in his rented Brisbane home in the suburb of Rosalie. Only his wife Mary and one (his only daughter) of his eight children outlived him. The death of his children, his financial ruin and the tragedy of his life long passion for Irish independence left him sad and depleted. After his return from Ireland in 1886 he took less interest in public life and he disappeared from the football scene.

  4. Greg Mallory says

    Hello Glen,
    I note you have read Andrew Moore’s excellent article in ‘Labour History’ titled ‘Opera of the Proletariat”. that gives a fairly good account of the relationship between Rugby League and the labour movement. Yes Jack Mundey was recruited from the Atherton Tableland to play for Parramatta, a little later he was recruited to the Communist Party & as they say the rest is History. The book you should get hold of is Professor Tony Collins ‘Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby Football League’. Collins argues that it is not as simple to argue that the origins of Rugby League came about by the over ‘broken time’ i.e. the fact that workers in the north of England needed to be compensated for playing rugby union on Saturdays. Collins argues that the ‘southern establishment’ was happy to see them go as they were not keen in mixing with such folk as miners and dockers from Lancashire and Yorkshire. A meeting was held at the George Hotel Huddersfield in 1895 and the Northern Union was formed. They decided to pay their players which meant a division with rugby union which was amateur. Initially they kept the same rules as union but when they decided that they needed to charge spectators to attend games they modified the rules to eventually drop 2 players off to make it a 13 a side. Over time they cleaned up the ruck (play the ball). The English did not call it Rugby League until 1924, however in Sydney in 1908 JJ Giltinan & Victor Trumper formed Rugby League over somewhat similar conditions.
    In relation to Rugby League’s relationship with the working class Collins argues that the players maintained a somewhat socialist attitude to the game as they were primarily working class ‘lads’, miners, dockers etc. The entrepeneurs were the managers, owners who developed a capitalist approach as they had to keep the game going as a business venture. There are 2 notable clubs in the north of England which are still running around in minor grades i.e. Hull Dockers and Leigh Miners. Can’t get more working class than that. And don’t forget Lithgow Workies who play in Group 10 in the NSW Country RL
    Yes Wally was att he MUA picket, I saw him there. His wife Jackie’s father was a wharfie and SPA then ALP member. I have been told Jacki was a member of the ALP.

  5. Greg Mallory says

    I failed to mention that in order for the Northern Union to succeed it needed money and it was necessary to enclose grounds and thus charge the public. However the game had to be made more attractive for spectators to attend. This eventually meant having less players on the field & hence the game of 15 became the game of 13.
    Another point I failed to mention about ths history of Rugby League was the situation in France. During the Second World War Rugby League was banned by the Vichy government. It was seen as being too close to the ‘left’. Rugby League’s grounds were taken away and their assetts seized. Eventhough there were great French touring teams in the 1950s, Rugby League in France has never really ever got over it.

  6. Thanks for the fedback, it helps me expand my knowledge of this game. Currently i am here in chilly Christchurch, heartland of Rugby Union, and the only sport you hear about/see, is yes, Rugby Union. None the less re my original posting some of the feedback raises new questions for me. Victor Trumper, i have scant knolwedge of his role beyond cricket, need to research more about him, and re the Glebe strike of 1917, still would like to know more about the specifics of the original fallout with league heirachy


  7. Greg Mallory says

    I don’t know anything about the Glebe strike in 1917, I am fairly interested in finding out more. In Brisbane 1918 was a significant year as Wests played an unregistered player, Ricketty Johnston, and the points were taken off them. This led indirectly to the formation of the Brisbane Rugby League which was a breakaway from the Queensland Rugby League.
    Can I suggest you contact Andrew Moore at [email protected] & he could possibly point you in the right direction in relation to the Glebe strike.

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