A heritage display at the George Hotel in Huddersfield - the birthplace of rugby league.
A heritage display at the George Hotel in Huddersfield - the birthplace of rugby league. Yorkshire Tourism

Timing crucial at home of league

OUR pilgrimage to the home of rugby league, the place where the game for the workingman was founded 115 years ago, was a bit like trying to get past Manu Vatuvei.

The Rugby League Heritage Centre, in the George Hotel in Huddersfield, where the game's foundation meeting took place, was firmly locked.

"Ee only cooms Saturdays and Sundays," said the hotel receptionist, without looking up from her magazine.

"Ee" was the curator, who had the only key and lived some distance away.

Any chance of a sandwich after a lengthy journey for what was looking like not much at all?

"Chef goes at 2." That is, 15 minutes ago. Timing, they say, is everything and ours was off.

"You can'ave a look round the walls though."

So we did, and if you're a league fan it's worth the effort. Photos and yellowed newspaper clippings tell the story of how from its small beginning in a room of this hotel the game began, and grew.

Huddersfield has a few claims to fame - it played an important role in the Industrial Revolution, was a global textile hub and the home town of Britain's 1960s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson - but probably the greatest is as birthplace of rugby league.

No self-respecting 13-a-side fan should fail to make Huddersfield a port of call on a trip to Britain.

But, be warned, it's not an easy birthplace to get to. Arriving on a Thursday mid-afternoon it took us an age to find a parking spot remotely close to the George Hotel.

The view from the entrance wasn't especially inspiring either. But use a bit of imagination and the five-storey building must have been a sight in its day.

Wilson's statue stands looking across at the hotel, and the outlook is, ahem, downbeat: pawnbrokers, bookies, insalubrious bars provide downmarket surroundings for a place which holds an important place in a sport near and dear to many New Zealand hearts.

A brief history recap: on August 29, 1895 a group of rugby clubs, unhappy at being unable to pay players under the strict amateur rules, met at the George and formed the Northern Rugby Football Union "and pledge themselves to push forward without delay its establishment of payment for bona fide broken time pay".

Twenty two clubs broke away, "a rebellious child of an autocratic parent" as it was put in the newspapers of the day.

It was momentous. Some of those founding clubs are long forgotten - Liversedge, Naningham, Tyldesley - but others are still going strong, such as powerhouses St Helens, Wigan, Leeds, Hull and Warrington.

The George, in its day doubtless a grand sight, boasts a museum tracing the history of the game and it seemed well worth a look. But, like I said, it was locked and the key was far away. Still, the league memorabilia in the hotel itself was interesting, though it has a solid British leaning.

Going in search of a New Zealand photo led us down some stairs and there, round a corner neatly positioned beside the ladies' toilets was Albert Henry Baskerville, founder of international league and organiser of the original All Golds of 1907, the first tourists to Britain.

They won the first test series, 2-1, but in a sad postscript, Baskerville died of pneumonia in Brisbane on the way home at the age of 25.

The 1925 Kiwis tourists were up there on the wall. So too Kevin Iro, Wigan and Kiwi hero of recent times. International jerseys adorn the walls, but no black and white Kiwi one. Perhaps it was locked away with other treasures.

Old, and perhaps not so old leagies would relish the trip down memory lane. Just make sure you go on a weekend and before 2pm when "Ee" is around to let you in.

David Leggat visited the home of rugby league with help from Air NZ and Visit Britain.

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