More than 125 years ago, representatives from several northern England rugby clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield. The meeting resulted in the formation of a new sport, known today as rugby league. Now a row between the local council and those who want to honor the sport with a museum at the site of its formation threatens to overshadow the sport’s legacy.
The idea began harmoniously when, several years ago, rugby league’s leading charity, Rugby League Cares, announced plans to establish a National Rugby League Museum. Towns and villages in the sport’s traditional northern heartland were invited to apply to host the project. Huddersfield won the tender process in 2020, beating competition from Leeds, Bradford and Wigan, with Kirklees local council proposing the George as the location for the new museum.
It was a deliberate offer with deep significance for the sport. The fact that Huddersfield’s bid was centered on the George was seen as crucial by many insiders to explain why Kirklees Council beat out competition from other towns and cities which were arguably better equipped to undertake a cultural project also important.
“There aren’t many sports where you can identify the exact place where it was founded,” said Professor Tony Collins, social historian and chairman of the independent jury that awarded the museum to Huddersfield.
However, the council has now decided not to use the George for the museum, instead offering a different location in the town. This was met with horror by many league supporters, Rugby League Cares and the Rugby Football League (RFL). It even led to calls from local politicians for the resignation of council leader Shabir Pandor.
“A lot of people feel betrayed by the Kirklees council,” Collins said. “Because of what they originally promised, but also the importance of the George not only to the legacy of the game but also to British sport. It highlights a bigger issue for Huddersfield’s heritage. , as much of the real history of the town is in danger of being lost.One of the town’s main claims to fame is as the birthplace of rugby league and which now risks being left accounted for and abandoned.
Talks continued late last week between the council, the charity and RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer, and the possibility of an alternative venue in Huddersfield was mooted. But the Observer understands that there is little appetite for a different site from the governing body or charity.
Last night RFL said: “Rugby League Cares and the RFL continue to seek clarification from Kirklees Council on both their about-face on the viability of the George Hotel and the actual location of an alternative venue. .”
Collins also scorned the idea of a different venue in Huddersfield. “The council has no viable alternative, nor has it proven itself in suggesting it has the capacity to support a museum elsewhere. To say it’s disappointing is an understatement and it’s such a shame for the sport.
The George housed a predecessor to the proposed museum, the Rugby League Heritage Centre. This project was the brainchild of former UK international Mike Stephenson and opened in 2005 to much fanfare among the sport’s supporters, but closed several years later.
Prior to its closure in January 2013, the George was regularly visited by fans of the game from around the world, for its importance in shaping the sport. The building was purchased by Kirklees Council in 2020 for £1.8million.
Pandor has previously claimed that failure to pull out of the deal would have cost local taxpayers over £20m. Kirklees council did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer.
All of this suggests that the National Rugby League Museum will likely end up somewhere other than the sport’s spiritual home. the Observer was informed that at least three cities from the heart of the sport would be interested in submitting a bid if the project returned to the tender.
Wigan’s initial bid, for example, was seen as so strong in the initial bidding process that only the museum attraction hosted at the George stood out and saw Huddersfield win the project.