The Forgotten 48
The Forgotten 48
Who are ‘The Forgotten 48’? And what part do they play in the history of the club now known as Warrington Wolves?
In 2012 Warrington Wolves were the first rugby league club to launch Heritage Numbers, recognising the players who have entertained the fans through the years. Already established in some international sports, the numbers are awarded to first team players, in sequential order of when they made their debut for the club.
Heritage Numbers have been awarded to all players playing in competitive games (as defined by the Rugby League Record Keepers Club (“RKC”)) from the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union (“NRFU”) following the split from the Rugby Football Union in 1895.
Warrington Football Club, as they were known at the time, were a well-established team by this point, having been formed, as Warrington Zingari, some 19 years early. Why then were the players playing for the club in its formative years overlooked when awarding Heritage Numbers? There’s a number of reasons why this was the case.
A complex set of circumstances…
The conventional view of many in the rugby league community is that 1895 was a ‘Big Bang’ event, and the point at which a new sport was born; in many respects it is not immediately obvious that clubs have a history extending back beyond this point.
Heavily influencing this perspective is the availability of statistical records. The RKC did a superb job of documenting the historical records of all rugby league clubs, but they understandably elected to do this only back to the formation of rugby league in 1895. There is therefore no readily accessible source of data for clubs before this period, and no consensus on matters such as exactly which games to include.
This latter point is another crucial factor in applying an 1895 cut-off point. It is a fact that officially organised competitions were organically developing in most sports in the late Victorian era. Perhaps most famously, association football introduced its Challenge Cup (most commonly now known as the FA Cup) in 1871, and the Yorkshire Challenge Cup for rugby playing teams in that particular county was inaugurated in 1877. It wasn’t until 1886 that a cup competition was introduced that Warrington was eligible for, when the West Lancashire Cup was started. League competitions followed soon after, and by the time of the breakaway Warrington were competing in a 10 team Lancashire-wide tournament.
During the early years of these teams’ existence though, the fixture lists were dominated by ad hoc matches arranged between the secretaries of the respective teams. They typically started with matches against teams of a similar standing in the close locale, but the stronger teams soon had to look further afield to test themselves against better opponents in adjacent counties and beyond. Nevertheless these games were not part of any centrally arranged structured competition, simply as this wasn’t the initial convention.
This evolutionary period presents a problem for statisticians and historians. One of the criteria for inclusion of games adopted by the RKC was that this must be part of an officially sanctioned competition. From 1895 this means that the majority, but not all, games played by teams are included; for example, matches such as the Wardonia/Locker Cup, played for between Warrington & Wigan for over 50 years, are not included. However, when applying this criteria to the early years of a club’s existence, it means that most games are excluded. Using this interpretation means, for example, that Warrington played no ‘official’ games in the first 10 years of their existence, simply because there were no centrally organised competitions to take part in.
Further consideration is then required over the standing of competitions, and which are classed as ‘first class’ ones on a par with those that are included in later years.
It must also be recognised that available information typically becomes increasingly sketchy the further back in time one looks, and the closer to the formation of a club you are, the less widespread are reports on matches.
It is obvious therefore, that when looking at compiling records for a club such as Warrington in the pre-1895 period, many complexities exist.
…which can be dealt with
Whilst there are challenges presented by the above factors, they are not insurmountable, and there are established rules for dealing with these, and indeed precedents from other sports that can provide inspiration.
The formation of the NRFU was an evolutionary step, and fundamentally little changed in the immediate aftermath of its creation. Whilst broken time payments were of course now legal, the most visible impact to fans was the expansion of the fixture list, to include teams from a wider geographical area, as cross county games between the clubs of Lancashire & Yorkshire formed the basis of the league competition (though this reverted back to a county based league in 1896/7). However, the rules played were the same as the previous season, the players and officials of clubs predominantly continued as before, and generally it was a case of business as usual. Only as rules diverged from rugby union over the next decade or so did a distinct sport emerge, but again, this was an evolutionary process. Consequently, there seems no real rationale for treating the period before the breakaway differently to the years after, as essentially only a change in governance occurred; indeed, parallels can be drawn in this regard with the formation of the Northern Rugby Football League to establish a new league competition in 1901, but this matter is rarely commented upon in comparison.
Whilst ignoring ‘non-competitive’ games pre-1895 results in only a minority of matches being recognised, this situation is not unique to the northern rugby clubs; indeed, clubs playing under association rules have a long established way of treating this, entirely consistent with this approach. Whilst these clubs do not have the complication of the split seen in rugby to deal with, the Association of Football Statisticians have applied the same basis for classification of games throughout the history of their sport. Their excellent website, illustrates this well, and can be seen through the statistics of Manchester United: they are recorded as playing no games until 1886, despite being formed in 1878, and even then it is only their sole FA Cup game from that season which is counted. They then play no ‘official’ games (due to a self-imposed exile from the FA Cup) until 1890 & it isn’t until they join the Football League in 1892/3 that the majority of games played are recognised.
Judgement is though required for which competitions should be included. For example, Manchester United’s early games referred to above do not ‘officially’ include their matches in the Lancashire Cup, or even the Football Alliance (an early rival to the Football League), which are deemed secondary competitions. In Warrington’s case, the club has always competed in the top class competition of the day, although initially these were very localised. However, even in the first competitive matches against opponents from the West Lancashire region, it is striking how familiar some of the names of opponents are: during 1886 & 1887 Warrington faced Widnes, St Helens & Wigan in competitive games, just as they have in the current season, over 130 years later!
Unlike association football, rugby league continued to see regionalised competitions continue at the top echelons of the sport until relatively recently; only in 1993 were the Lancashire and Yorkshire Cups abandoned for example. Given that the make-up of the Lancashire Senior Competition of 1896/7-1900/1 was similar to that of the First Class Competition played under the auspices of the Rugby Union from 1892/3-1894/5, and that games played in the South West Lancashire League in the post-breakaway era were classed a ‘first grade’ matches by the RKC, there’s seems little ambiguity over the classification of Warrington games in the West Lancashire Cup/League, or First Class Competition as being of a similar standing, and therefore ‘competitive’ matches.
One point of contention could be raised over the match played against the New Zealand Native team which toured the UK in 1888/9. The tourists game against England was awarded test status, but this is anomalous, and in part a political play that is a function of the RFU’s dispute with the other Home Nation Unions amid the power-struggle for control of the International Rugby Board. The tour was not officially sanctioned however, and it was up to secretaries of clubs to arrange a match with the visitors, so should not be considered ‘competitive’ as per the general consensus.
Although not as widely available, as there has been no systematic process of collecting data for these games, the competitive era pre-1895 is well reported and recorded in contemporary newspapers. By 1886 there are detailed reports of all Warrington games, so information relating to matches is easily obtainable (though not without requiring a significant investment of time!). It is only before this period, in the initial formative years of the club that details of games are incomplete.
So, who are The Forgotten 48?
In total 48 players [note 1] represented Warrington Football Club in competitive matches between 1886 & 1895, and did not go on to play in the Northern Union. As such they are not officially recognised by the club through the award of a Heritage Number, despite the part they have played in the team’s history.
Amongst the players not recognised are the members of the West Lancashire Cup winning team of 1886, including Tommy Barnes, who scored the winning drop-goal, and captain Harry Ashton who served with great distinction for over 10 years. Ironically, the club list this trophy in its honour list.
Also included in the unfortunate group are Will Dillon, John Bate & James Jolley who all gained county honours for Lancashire.
It is my view that these players deserve recognition, and to be placed on an equal footing with those who have played since 1895. Unfortunately, the club have confirmed they do not intend to award these players Heritage Numbers. On this site though, these players are given equal prominence, and as explained on the main players page I have taken the liberty to award these players Heritage Numbers in a format different to the official club numbers to recognise their place in the club's history.
As well as leading to the inclusion of an additional 48 players in the all-time records, the recognition of competitive matches pre-1895 also changes the appearance & scoring totals of the 30 players who played for the club both before & after the split, as well as bringing forward the debut game for them.
Unfortunately, as noted above, the inclusion of only competitive matches does not give credit to others who also deserve to have their names alongside The Forgotten 48. These include men such as the seven Founding Fathers, and JE Warren, captain and later secretary of the club, and a prominent figure for both the club and the sport around the time of the formation of the NRFU. It is my intention to one day supplement the ‘competitive’ lists on this site with those including ‘friendly’ games too, but this is a significant task, and at present other areas are a higher priority.
In the meantime, if anyone has any views, either in favour of or opposed to those expressed above, I would love to hear them; please use the form on the contact us page to get in touch.
 When originally published, this article referred to the Forgotten 49. As the source of the error, I could point to the difficulties in sourcing accurate player information before the turn of the last century, trickiness of deciphering text in 19th century newspapers or complexities of dealing with players with similar names. The reality is having invested a significant amount of time navigating all of this successfully (hopefully), I then made a simple typo when entering the information into my records, accidentally creating a mythical new player T Boscow, when I should have been entering T Barnes. This simple mistake created a 49th player where one didn't exist. Hopefully this doesn't undermine the point being made, but rather serves to illustrate that collation of such records is never straightforward; as the other comments on the players page highlights when discussing the official club Heritage Numbers, there are a number of errors already identified, and unfortunately, I would speculate more than will be uncovered in the future.