This week’s Picture Post extract, from 29th July 1950 (66 years this Friday) focuses on a then little known summer sport, rugby netball “a game that can be as exciting as the best football that could have a great future. They play it on the London Commons. Up in Lancashire, they talk of starting a new league.” The discovery set me on a challenging little internet research journey to find out more about a game they now call Netrugby.
The best introduction I have found is a 1937 British Pathé film of a match, in the old Wimbledon Stadium, between the then two leading proponents of the game, the Wayfarers and Russell House. Listen for the commentator’s cheeky suggestion that the 9 point winning margin might have something to do with “being one over the eight.”
“A patriotic duty”
Picture Post Sports editor Denzil Batchelor begins “You will agree that it is our patriotic duty to discover a new game at which we haven’t been beaten by every other country in the world. It is a game for men – fast, open, spectacular. Though 43 years old it may count as new, for hardly anyone knows it exists, except for the crowds (up to 4,000 for a big game) who gather to watch it, free of charge, on summer evening on Clapham, Wandsworth and Mitcham Commons..”
I loved the picture editor’s subbing: “Spectators don’t feel cheated of the entertainment tax they haven’t paid.” The pictures for this article were by W G Vanderson ( a distinguished war photographer) and John Chillingworth -a collection of his Picture Post work – one of the magazine’s star photographers – was released in 2013.
Have you heard of it?
Well, until I opened my Picture Post that has lain in family attics for 66 years, I’d never heard of it either. Quick googling will tell you it is still played each summer at least on Clapham Common. Do they still have 4000 watching? Only two weeks ago intrepid photographer David Tett took some great shots on Clapham Common: calling it “one of the most exhausting sports I’ve shot so far.” Not sure if he meant himself or the players. Doesn’t look like the crowds needed many stewards.
They say it was invented around 1906 to give rugby players some off-season exercise. No kicking. Forward passes allowed. 10 a side, positioning like soccer, but no goalie. Oval rugby ball. No offside. No scrums, just a ball bounce by the referee (yes there is a referee). Jersey tearing is a special offence. The first league was founded in 1909.
Rebranding …. at last
Back in 1950 Denzil Batchelor suggested two things were keeping the game back. The first thing was the second half of its name. “Though America considers basketball the most virile of all sports, the word netball has a feminine ring to British ears, which does an injustice to a game tough enough for Wembley.” I’m quoting verbatim, I didn’t write that, this is 66 years ago, remember.
Well, looks like this first bit of advice finally kicked in: in the early 21st century it was rebranded as Netrugby. Which is why googling Rugby netball doesn’t get you as far as it might. But there doesn’t seem to have been a tweet since 2010. Netrugby News back in 2014 kept up the hard man’s image with its subheading “no pulling of shirts, and absolutely no skirts.” Not quite sure who that is supposed to appeal to. Not going to get the beach volleyball crowds in either.
For a moment my research suggested it was catching on Down Under, when I googled the Suburbs Rugby Netball Club, but that looked like netball played at a rugby club in New Zealand. What gave it away was the abundance of skirts and the round ball. Just as well, for if the All Blacks take it seriously, goodbye to the patriotic ambition of finding a new sport with which we can dominate the world. And I found a further false trail in South Africa, when Net Rugby seems to be about talking about rugby on the internet.
Netrugby’s second handicap was “the sport is coyly amateur. It doesn’t advertise, collect subscriptions, or charge for admittance. The four leagues in existence finance themselves from an annual dance in Lavender Hill which brings in as much as £40 or £50.” – when I suppose some were “one over the eight.” As Batchelor put it “Not much to support a game that might be made into a major sport of tomorrow.” Do they still have the dance?
It seems to be still strictly amateur. I can’t find any evidence that the 1950s talk “up in Lancashire” about a new league has got very far. Maybe Rugby League was too well entrenched. But it looks like those who play this “alternative sport” enjoy themselves and for those on the treadmill of today’s professional sports it would be a welcome break in the summer. If they still get any days off that is. So if you want to have a go, here’s how. See you this summer on Clapham Common?