BY ANGELA POWERS
It’s impossible to separate the sport that is rugby league from its history. How it came about has shaped its nature and attitude, and that is a good thing. Our rebellion in 1895 said as much about class, justice and northern stoicism as it did about our desire to play a simple game without silly rules (on and off the pitch).
Sadly though, we haven’t looked after our history as we should. There is no longer a museum at the famous George Hotel. It was stuffed into a basement room, its exhibits crammed into a space no bigger than the average parlour…but it was there, bright and proud and wonderful. (Kudos to Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson for that. It was mostly his collection, and items donated to him.)
But all is not lost. At Heritage Quay, inside Huddersfield University, they are curating a collection of league memorabilia that might otherwise be consigned to the dustbin. Some of it should be on display in cabinets, lots of it will be a proper historical resource, made of documents and videos (yes, on tape) and photographs. At Heritage Quay they have the space to store it as well as the desire to preserve it for generations to come.
At the first Women in Rugby League event at Heritage Quay, I met the man who is charged with overseeing this collection, and his enthusiasm for its preservation is commendable. Here’s my interview with David Smith, pictured below with me and a small collection of Women in League memorabilia.
What is your role at Heritage Quay?
My job title is Participation and Engagement Officer – what I do is to run events, workshops and activities inspired by Heritage Quay’s collections. Because we are an archive, most of the amazing collections we have are kept in (environmentally controlled) storage so I create opportunities to get archives out and seen. That includes events exploring the history of rugby league and working with the RL history family to share knowledge and contacts and celebrate the stories and heritage of the game as widely as possible. My post is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund project which created Heritage Quay.
What is in the Rugby League ‘store’ at the Quay?
Heritage Quay looks after the Rugby Football League archive, which is the RFL’s own collection. This includes documents and paperwork generated from the business of the RFL from the 1890s to the modern day. We also have the Mike Stephenson Collection (which are the objects Stevo collected for display at the George Hotel), items relating to Huddersfield’s RL history and a range of smaller collections.
What are your plans for the collections?
Over the past three years, we have been working hard to sort and catalogue fully the rugby league collections and put the information online. In the immediate future we will be running more events about the history of the sport and supporting Rugby League Cares in their bid to create a rugby league museum in Bradford.
What was the aim of your Women in Rugby League event ?
The Women in Rugby League event formed part of our International Women’s Day 2017 celebrations and the aim was to explore the history of women in the sport, celebrating their successes and talking about the challenges.
What were your thoughts on the archive material that is available with regard to women’s rugby league specifically?
At the moment there is very little material relating to women’s rugby league in the archives and we are very keen that this situation is improved. More programmes, photos and personal items about women will help historians to research this history and ensure it’s not forgotten about in the future. As the event showed, the stories of women such as Julia Lee and Pat Crawshaw and yourself can also inspire others to break down barriers and grow the women’s game in general.
The material you have at Heritage Quay is far from just match programmes and photographs…what else is there, and what use do you think it will be to the wider public, now and in the future?
The archives feature a whole range of objects about the game. There is everything from ‘club’ boxes, which include ground, player and club histories and game statistics for budding statisticians, to first player registers and yearbooks reviewing the previous year’s events. We have match tickets, shirts, medals and trophies, books, boots and even a boomerang! There are hundreds of photographs of players, games and venues which bring back so many memories for fans and we have a huge collection of VHS cassettes of old matches which we are currently listing. All these collections help tell the story of rugby league which make them essential for historians and any interested in the game. One of the great things is to look about and see how much has changed over the years.
Huddersfield’s links with the history of the sport go back a long way…do you feel that’s why historical resources and material have a natural home at Heritage Quay?
When Rugby League Cares was looking for a home for the collection Huddersfield’s link to the birth of the game was an important part of their decision and we certainly appreciate that connection. It’s a link that remains very important to RL fans in Huddersfield, and we enjoy spreading that message to fans beyond the locality who come to explore and ask questions about the collection!