Torn shirts and bruised faces – see the oldest film of a rugby match

This Saturday the Rugby League World Cup gets underway. From England’s imminent battle with Australia until the Old Trafford final on 30 November, the TV schedules are likely to be dominated by rugby, yet the history of filming sports goes back over a century.

Updated:

On the eve of the Rugby League World Cup, we take a look back at the earliest known surviving footage of rugby on film, available to watch for free on the BFI Player.

Just over 100 years ago, filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon roamed Britain filming the everyday lives of people at work and play. For around 70 years, nearly 900 rolls of this early nitrate film sat in sealed churns in the basement of a shop in Blackburn. Miraculously unearthed, and then painstakingly restored by the BFI, this film discovery ranks as one of the most exciting of recent times.

Mitchell & Kenyon’s sports films offer an unparalleled opportunity to explore sporting action at the turn of the century. While Rugby Union remained the domain of public schools and the genteel South, by the 1900s the breakaway northern game had become the dominant winter sport in the mining and textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, garnering an enormous working-class following. The films capture the sport’s transition into the modern era of Rugby League, still mid-way through a decade-long period of rule tinkering, when the game became faster and, as these films show, more entertaining for spectators.

From the earliest known (and gloriously violent) film of rugby on screen, to remarkable footage of the enthusiastic crowds lapping up the action, these wonderful films are now available to watch for free on the BFI Player. Here are three to get you started:

Dewsbury v Manningham (1901)

This is the earliest known surviving footage of any form of rugby. You might expect an Edwardian rugby match to be a gentlemanly affair, but not on the evidence of these torn shirts and bruised faces. After the players ceremoniously trot on to the pitch, the film is almost pure sporting action.

Manningham won the inaugural Northern Rugby Football Union season back in 1896, but the club’s life in competitive rugby was to be shortlived. The Bradford side would play just eight seasons of the infant rugby league game before defecting to the round ball and reinventing themselves as Bradford City Association Football Club in 1903. This film appears to be the only surviving footage of the club’s rugby past.

Watch Dewsbury v Manningham for free on the BFI Player

Halifax v Salford (1901)

Though the camera can’t always follow the pace, this record of a Yorkshire v Lancashire contest is one of the best of Mitchell and Kenyon’s rugby films. Shot on a bitter February day, it boasts sharp, lively images of play and camera positions that bring us almost nose-to-nose with the players. Spectators are packed tightly on the terraces, which may at least have helped keep the cold at bay.

Watch Halifax v Salford for free on the BFI Player

Warrington v St. Helens (1901)

Lancashire’s St. Helens, in hooped shirts, visited Yorkshire rivals Warrington for this early Edwardian game. As in other Mitchell and Kenyon rugby films, we can see an early phase of the evolution of Northern Union rules: note the quickly-formed scrum after each tackle. Shots along the touchline show officials and spectators transfixed by the play, while others are distracted by the camera.

The Northern Rugby Football Union, better known as Northern Union, was formed in 1895, when prominent Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs resigned from the Rugby Football Union in a dispute over compensation for players taking time off work. All the major differences between the two codes would be established by 1907.

Watch Warrington v St. Helens for free on the BFI Player

Back to the top