March 1897 was a particularly cold, wet and windy month in Manchester. The evening of 15 March was no exception and people on their way home from offices and shops struggled against heavy, gusting rain. There were groups all along Deansgate huddled against walls and shop-fronts as they waited for the horse-drawn buses to take them home. Some fought a losing battle with their umbrellas against the wind but most stood and waited, resigned to the cold and soaking rain.
In contrast, the Deansgate Hotel looked bright, cheerful and welcoming with a procession of hansom cabs depositing their fares. In a flurry of coats, hats and umbrellas, people, mostly men, scurried into the foyer of the hotel, peeling off their heavy coats before moving into the main lounge. There, although only just after six o'clock, it was quite full with people sitting at tables, standing near the curved bar at one end of the room or sitting in the alcoves which were dotted around the room. Each alcove had its own fire-place in which burned a cheery, blazing fire; also a table about six to eight feet in length with a leather and green baize top. Some of the tables were being used for card games whilst others held papers and ledgers for impromptu meetings. There were white-aproned waiters everywhere. In one of the alcoves sat a group of men in earnest conversation, well dressed, well-to-do, with an aura of the professional businessmen, the accountant and the lawyer. Their topic of conversation was football, rugby football and the formation of a new rugby football club.
Was it really a cold, wet, windy night that 15 March 1897? Did that group of men, in fact, sit in the main hotel lounge as has been suggested? It doesn't really matter, of course. What is significant and intriguing is that they were there and that they agreed to establish a new club. There are many questions, which come to mind. Why a new rugby club? Were there not enough already? Indeed, more questions than answers. It is not that memory has been blurred with the passage of time; it is not that records, memorabilia, photographs are mixed, jumbled and open to misinterpretation. After almost a hundred years there are, of course no people and everything else from those early days is sparse and insubstantial. Instead of piling up tedious questions it might be better to look at what we know about England, Manchester in 1897 to see whether the social and sporting backgrounds of the times provide any of the answers.
Queen Victoria had been on the throne sixty years; indeed, the year was the Diamond Jubilee of her reign. Manchester was already a splendid Victorian city in which the population had almost doubled in fifty years to about half-a-million. The city was the hub of the sprawling industrial mass of the North West with a jumble of towns - linked by chains of canals and railways. The Manchester - Liverpool Ship Canal had been open for two years turning the city into a great port as well as an industrial centre. The city was not, however, only a place to work but was also a centre for leisure, a centre for music, and for the Arts. And, Sport? Yes! Sport, too!
The most popular mass sport was Association Football, which had flourished amazingly since the formation of the Football Association in 186S. The FA Cup Competition had started in 1872 with Leagues and paid professional footballers following in the 1880's. There were clubs everywhere. The most famous of these was the Newton Heath Club from which eventually Manchester United was to evolve. Cricket, too, had been gaining strength steadily following the formation of the County Championship in 1873. But what of rugby....?
The Rugby Football Union had been established in 1873 and had also become a national sport within twenty years, with over 400 clubs, and was especially popular in Yorkshire and South-West Lancashire where the sport had caught on with the working man. Most games were played on a Saturday afternoon. The working week in mills, mines and factories was six days; if men took Saturday afternoon off to play rugby they lost money they could ill afford. In many areas, to encourage men to play and take time off regularly, as opposed to the occasional loss of a shift as with most of the spectators, the call was to recompense players for loss of earnings. In addition, the northern clubs had formed Leagues and established Cup Competitions in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Rugby Football Union, with its London based headquarters, did not agree with payment, with leagues nor with the competitions. The show-down had come in 1895 with the formation of the breakaway Northern Union of Clubs which allowed "broken-time" payments of six shillings. The Rugby Union forbade its member clubs to play against any from the Northern Union and introduced even stricter rules against payments to players. The rift in the sport of rugby between the RFU, on the one hand, and the Northern Union, on the other, was to bedevil the handling game for the whole of the following hundred years.To give some idea of the support for the various sports - some 2000 people watched the first FA Cup Final at Kennington Oval in 1873; some 6000 crossed the Pennines in 1893 to see Newton Heath beat Sheffield at Bramall Lane. There were 10,000 at the rugby union game between Heckmondwike and Manningham (Bradford) on Christmas Day 1888 when a boy was killed and three other children were injured when railings on one side of the ground collapsed due to crowd pressure. At the first final of the West Lancashire RU Cup in 1888 there was a crowd of nearly 15,000 at Warrington when Tyldesley (The Mighty Bongers) defeated Widnes by a goal to nothing. There was a record attendance of 27,564 at the third round Rugby Union Yorkshire cup-tie against Halifax in 1892.
THE SPORTING SCENE
To return to Manchester sport; an examination of the way the various sports were spread across the city in 1897 would show that the Soccer, Northern Union and Rugby Union clubs tended to exist within the orbit of the central industrial city zones - Moss Side, Trafford, Whalley Range, Swinton, Broughton and Fallowfield -each sport competing for support and players from vastly differing sections of the community. Manchester FC (Rugby Union) played in Whalley Range . Their players met and changed at the Queen Hotel in Portland Street and travelled to the ground by coach and four! This core of clubs was circled by municipal parks, with their cricket clubs, athletic clubs and cycling groups. On the periphery we have the residential homes of the cotton magnates, the Cotton Exchange businessmen together with their tennis clubs, golf clubs and, occasionally, a rugby club. If, therefore, you wanted to play rugby or establish a new club, that is rugby union, and wished to be away from soccer and Northern Union rugby then you would have to do so more on the perimeter of the city - Prestwich, Sale or Bowdon, out in the country. The turn-over to Northern Union was so great in 1897 that Lancashire were worried that Rugby Union would not be able to set up a proper programme of matches in the following season. There was "arm-twisting" going on to persuade clubs not to turn to Northern Union as well as pressure to expand the number of rugby union clubs. We are beginning to see the answers to some of the questions which were posed earlier by the meeting in the Deansgate Hotel asto why that group were planning a new rugby club and where they might look for a site to play and where they might find the players for the new club. At the meeting in The Deansgate Hotel good progress had been made. They had decided that a club should be formed; they elected a Captain of the Club, a Secretary, Treasurer and six others to form a General Committee. They also decided that the annual subscription should be ten shillings and sixpence and that they would seek the use of land in Myrtle Grove, Prestwich as their playing field. They also agreed to meet again in a week's time. It was agreed that they call the club - The Kersal Rugby Football Club.