Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History

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Home Period Victorian The history of rugby: when was the sport invented?


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The history of rugby: when was the sport invented? September 24, at am. Margaret Beaufort: mother of the Tudors. General Modern. Prince Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance. Try our range of BBC bestselling history magazines today! Mindful of these developments, those who ran the Rugby Football Union set out to keep their sport a preserve of the middle classes.

These efforts culminated in the split between the old southern based establishment and the increasingly powerful big northern clubs, through which the Rugby League initially called the Northern Union was formed. Rugby league immediately distinguished itself from rugby union by its comparative vibrancy. For instance, in the decades leading up to the split, rugby had been in a process of development into a faster and more spectator friendly sport, a tendency which included a reduction in the size of teams from 20 to 15 a side. However, after the split, and in an attempt to claim for itself the mantle of tradition, the Rugby Union essentially ossified around the rules of , while the Rugby League instituted, among other reforms, reductions in the size of the team, first to 13 then to 11 and back to 13 again, in an attempt to extend the pre-split tendency to foster a faster and more open game.


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If the main aim of these reforms was to create weekly spectacles which would make money for the owners by attracting large crowds of hard working, fee paying fans, they also fostered the creation of a game through which generations of northern working men could find some outlet for their creativity. Fearing that developments in association football pointed to the future of rugby, the Rugby Football Union focused all its attention on ensuring that rugby did not follow football down a route that would lead to mass working class participation.

For the authorities who ran the game, however, this was anathema, and they insisted that only those who could afford to play without pay should be able to do so. It was, for the most part, a game for the middle classes and they wanted to keep it that way. Moreover, as they saw it, the alternative was to foster working class idleness by providing an easy way out of industry.

The result was a stitch-up, which meant that for a century after the split with slight relaxations during the two world wars just about any contact on the part of members of the Rugby Football Union with anyone associated with rugby league meant an automatic ban from rugby union.

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It was this pariah status that helped give rugby league its sense of identity — not just northern and manly, but also resolutely working class. And the story he tells is a fascinating one. In the late s, for example, the Albemarle Committee generated plenty of worthy suggestions, yet never thought to consult anyone under the age of To be fair, although reluctant to immerse himself in sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, Hill does demonstrate his talent for offering a fresh perspective on familiar territory.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when exploring gender issues, for example his argument that for much of the past fifty years youth culture has been a male-dominated phenomenon. Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain fulfils a useful role in tackling a presumed undergraduate deficit in cultural capital. Jeffrey Hill pulls off a difficult task, prompting debate among his peers in a number of key areas, while at the same time convincing his student audience that the story of a nation at play can be both interesting and intellectually challenging.

Provocative and illuminating, polemical and instructive, Hill's book is genuinely engaging, sending the reader off in a number of different directions. In this respect it fulfils its remit admirably, and the author is to be congratulated on his skill in maintaining throughout the volume a rare blend of empirical inquiry and postmodernist commentary. I am grateful to Adrian Smith for a review that is not only perceptive, but also generous and constructive. Indeed, I am tempted to fall back on one of the options offered by the editor of Reviews in History : 'the author is pleased to accept this review without any further comment'.

The only matter on which I disagree fundamentally with Dr Smith is one of fact. But this is a matter of detail. As for the bigger picture, Dr Smith deserves more recompense for the comprehensiveness of his review than simply a quiescent silence. Much of Dr Smith's comment concerns what I might term the 'architecture' of the book. This was not without problems. Getting the balance right was difficult. The result was perhaps a procrustean compromise between too many short chapters, and too few detailed ones; a superficial survey, as against over-focused detail which lacked panorama.

But for a book in which the spirit of Gramsci hovers, it was perhaps appropriate that a degree of 'negotiation' should attend its construction.

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Paul Blackledge: The struggle and the scrum (Spring )

My then editor at Palgrave, together with the reader of the initial proposal, persuaded me that a broader coverage of topics was needed, with a longer chronology. With Polley's book imminent, and Holt and Mason in the offing, it seemed in any case sensible not to overload that particular period, and to offer something with a different chronology.

I was only too happy to look back into the earlier years of the century but as Dr Smith rightly points out, this has detracted from contemporaneity. It is probably the book's weakest feature, not absolved by my protesting that I sought to avoid being 'whiggish'. This, though, is a serious point.

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The danger of present-mindedness is not always absent in the historical approach to sport. It is all-too-readily apparent in the minds of many students of sport, especially those from the so-called 'hard' end of the subject.

Richard Coopey and Peter Lyth

Here, history's value is frequently misunderstood. At worst it is seen as a dallying with oddities from the past whose contemporary relevance is slight. I well recall, in the mids, being rebuked by a sports science undergraduate for recommending an 'out of date' text; it was Richard Holt's Sport and the British Clarendon; Oxford, , published some five years earlier, though clearly regarded as outmoded by someone on the look out for 'up-to-date' information and interpretation.

At best, in this milieu, history's uses are justified by their serving to explain the origins of the present state of affairs, as if this is definite, destined to last forever. History becomes a tool of teleology. Quite apart from the perils of viewing the past in the light of the present, this perspective on history overlooks the great and simple truth that any study of the subject brings out: things change. Thus what exists now will soon itself be history. Be that as it may, I should have been more alert to the contemporary, and especially I now think to web sites, both as sources of information and as objects of enquiry in themselves.

My neglect of the internet as a popular pastime reveals me for what I am - a bit of a technophobe who thinks that there are better ways for people to spend their waking hours than fiddling with computers.


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  4. This, of course, is no longer a defensible position. The treatment of youth also suffered, and Dr Smith regards my neglect of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll in print at least as little short of criminal. Younger readers and some ageing rockers too, have a right to take me to task over this. The reason for the omissions here, however, had more to do with word limit than any predilections on my part about what was and was not important. I decided to focus on the 'problem' of youth, a focus which involved thinking about who constructs the problem, and what solutions are brought to it.

    It is a 'top down' approach, I agree, and by no means the whole picture. But is does reinforce what broadly speaking we may term the 'political' nature of youth, and at least casts matters of leisure and culture within a context of power relations.

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    In my view the study of popular culture should always do this. What I should have done, had space permitted, was to look at aspects of resistance to attempts from above to shape and control the lives of the young.

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    On the other hand, I was pleased that Dr Smith felt the chapter on holidays had some value. Perhaps it worked because it was written from the heart. But its presence in the book is the result of Terka Bagley's good judgement as my editor during the final couple of years.

    It was Terka who persuaded me that it should go in. Once in, the chapter owed a great deal to John Walton's research on leisure and tourism.

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    His influence is writ large in the chapter, and I must acknowledge my debt to him. It is common for writers of textbooks to pretend that their oeuvres are something more than just run-of- the-mill exam fodder. Arguing for inclusion in an RAE submission they often seek to persuade colleagues that they are 'works of scholarship'.