A Brief History Of Rugby Union
To understand the history of the game itself, requires an appreciation of the common 'Rugby' ancestor shared by both the two rugby codes.
In 1800's formalities were introduced to football rules in the seven major public schools of England. Six of the seven schools were largely playing the same game (including Eton, Harrow and Winchester) - while the seventh, Rugby School (founded in 1567) at Warwickshire, was playing a markedly different version of football.
The other schools moved ahead refining their rules and eventually their game became known as "association football" - soccer. How the Rugby School's game developed differently is lost in history and the true story is unlikely to ever be known. The Rugby Football Union's (RFU) much revered tale of how in 1823 the young Rugby School student, William Webb Ellis, "in a fine disregard for the rules" picked up the ball and ran with it in a defining moment in sports history is now accepted by sports historians as being fanciful and a gross distortion of what is known.
The RFU had been formed in 1871 by representatives of 21 clubs - all of which were located in southern England and most were within London. By the early 1890's rugby was widespread and well over half the RFU's clubs were in northern England. However, divisions in the "rugby" game were about to see the birth of two new sports - rugby league and rugby union.
As with rugby clubs right across England, the majority of the clubs of the North were created and operated by men of the ruling classes. However, as the majority of the population in Yorkshire and Lancashire was working class, the clubs, teams and crowds quickly displayed a cross-class nature.
The rugby playing working class men though were at a distinct disadvantage to their gentlemen counterparts. Players who were miners and factory workers were not permitted to leave work on Saturdays (match days) until 1pm, while the self-employed and gentry had no such restriction. The working man might have been able to play in a home game without much difficulty, but an away match was out of the question.
Players though were paid by clubs on an expediency basis across Britain and this was largely ignored by the RFU, but clubs in the North were paying working class players to ensure they could take the field. However, this situation changed when the RFU, encouraged by "gentlemen" rugby clubs, determined that such flouting of the amateur rules was to stop.
The reality then facing the Northern clubs was that to remain in the RFU and adhere to amateurism rules would require them to continue without working class players. In the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, such an act would have meant the end of the existence of the clubs and the game. The owners of the clubs had little option other than to fight, as a result in August 1895 the clubs in the working class counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire jumped before they were pushed.
Thus the Great Divide of 1895 produced two new sports from the shared "rugby" parent.