Rewind: Dicky Lookwood - English rugby union's forgotten hero
Huw Richards
November 10, 2015
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not every rugby death in 1915 was attributable to World War I, although there were all too many that were. But the death of a famous player on November 10, 1915 was also untimely.

Dicky Lockwood, former captain of England and one of the outstanding players from any country in the 1880s and 1890s, died of cancer in Leeds, one day short of his 48th birthday.

Lockwood, who played both wing and centre, played in a time of outstanding threequarters. They account for the bulk of the players from before the dawn of the 20th century who are known as more than whiskery sepia images and names on lists -- men like Arthur Gould and Gwyn Nicholls of Wales and Andrew Stoddart of England. Lockwood belonged in their company.

Each has attracted a modern literary champion whose words and research have burnished their reputations. Alun Richards and David Parry-Jones spoke for Gould and Nicholls respectively while the cricket historian David Frith published this year a greatly revised and expanded edition of his biography of Stoddart, whose suicide on 4. Apr 1915 was another of that ill-starred year's premature deaths.

Lockwood's champion over a decade and more has been Tony Collins, whose The Oval World makes highly effective use of his career to illustrate the triumphs, troubles and conflicts of the English game in the era around the schism of 1895. Collins' challenge has perhaps been the greatest. Gould and Nicholls were already unchallenged members of the Welsh pantheon, while Stoddart's fame from cricket -- a game much more concerned with its history -- was by itself sufficient to sustain his memory.

Lockwood was different. His triumphs over handicaps of both physique -- while men of 5-foot-4 were much more usual among the Victorian working class than in the better-fed population of today, not many of them played international sport -- and of social class, as a working man in a game still dominated by the middle and upper classes, form a remarkable story.

His ascension in 1894 to the captaincy of England has been likened by Collins to "a conscript private taking charge of an elite cavalry regiment". But his role as one of the lightning rods for controversy over professionalism in the run-up to 1895, and his decision to opt immediately for the new Northern Union when the game split, made him a tricky subject for conventional union chroniclers.

As Collins points out, England's first working-class captain is mentioned only in passing in OL Owen's history of the RFU and not at all in the union's official centenary history. While the powerful 'Yorkshire forward' was the archetypal northern contributor to the England teams of the era, Lockwood was proof that they could also offer subtlety and imagination.

He was a prodigy who made his debut for Dewsbury at 16, for Yorkshire at 18 and for England -- against Wales at Llanelli in 1887 -- while still in his teens. The Yorkshire Post described him as "a bright and shining light" in a 0-0 draw in foul conditions, a verdict evidently based on more than local pride, since the Swansea Cambrian News called him "the invaluable Lockwood" and another divided credit for England's survival that day between him and Swinton fullback Sam Roberts.

Townsend Collins, the long-lived Welsh chronicler, recalled Lockwood as "a rather tubby little man who in quiescence did not look in the least like a great footballer, but revealed the marks of 'class' as soon as a game started." His fellow Yorkshireman Frank Marshall reckoned him as "combining in one person to the highest degree all the essential qualities of a centre threequarter...of almost infallible judgment, turning up at the right time and invariably being in the right spot, he always does the right thing."

But this admiration did not stop Marshall, the Yorkshire union's Witchfinder-General in the fraught years of the 1880s and 1890s, initiating an investigation of Lockwood's move from Dewsbury to Heckmondwike in late 1889. It was alleged that Heckmondwike, an ambitious upwardly-mobile club, had offered him one pound per match and the tenancy of a pub in the town.

Lockwood successfully stonewalled during a three-day hearing, and Marshall was unable to prove his allegations of professionalism, but the inquiry cost him his place in the England team which played Wales at Dewsbury in January 1890. The local hero's absence was no help to England, as they went down to Wales for the first time following a smart piece of opportunism by another ill-fated Dewsbury player of uncertain amateur credentials, William 'Buller' Stadden.

Lockwood was also the shining light in dominant Yorkshire teams, winners of six of the first seven county championships -- rising to the captaincy in 1892 and winning a hat-trick of championships after adopting the Welsh 'four threequarter' formation. As a certain choice for England and captain of the dominant county, he was an obvious contender for national leadership. But he would later say of the game's rulers that "there was always a strong feeling against us".

It took another two years, until England played Wales at Birkenhead Park in 1894. England also adopted Wales's threequarter formation, and slew them with it, winning 24-3.

The Yorkshire Post reported that Lockwood had "never played with greater judgment or effect" and that he had blotted out the formidable Gould. It was his 13th cap and a 14th , equalling the previous all-time England record held by Charles Gurdon, followed against Ireland.

The record would long have been his but for England not playing any Home Nations matches in 1888 and 1889 because of the dispute that led to the creation of the International Rugby Board, and that missed match against Wales in 1890. But it was never to be. Lockwood informed the RFU that he could not play in England's final game that season -- the Calcutta Cup match -- because he could not afford to take the time off work to travel to Edinburgh, but asked permission to play for Heckmondwike on the same day. The RFU refused.

The previous season the RFU had allowed half-back Cyril Wells -- a Cambridge double blue and Eton schoolmaster -- to play for Harlequins after pulling out of a representative match. Furious at this unsubtle social discrimination, Lockwood quit international rugby -- and 18 months later exiled himself permanently from rugby union when he left Heckmondwike, which hesitated at the time of the schism, to join Wakefield Trinity in the new Northern Union.

He never quite shone in Northern Union as he had before the schism. Though he was only 27 at the time of the split there were plenty of 'miles on the clock' after more than a decade of tough, competitive club rugby, 14 caps and 46 matches for Yorkshire. And there were misfortunes off the field. He was declared bankrupt in 1897, with debts of £300.

Lockwood ended where he had begun, returning to Dewsbury in 1900 and appearing briefly in Mitchell and Kenyon's still extant film of their match against Manningham (now Bradford City FC) in 1901. The extent to which his treatment by the union authorities epitomised the grievances which led to the split of 1895 and his importance as a high profile early recruit mean that Dickie Lockwood is remembered as a founding father of rugby league.

But he belongs equally to both codes, and his greatest achievements were in the united game played before 1895. In writing him out of their own history, union's chroniclers denied the game one of its most compelling narratives. But 100 years on from his death, Dicky Lockwood's place in the pantheon of both games is impossible to deny.

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