Each August sees us looking forward to the forthcoming season at Eccles RFC with great anticipation. However, for those preparing for the new season on this day 80 years ago, the uncertain outcome of a far greater, ominous challenge loomed ahead.
PART 1 / THE NEW SEASON
In the summer of 1939, with a newly constructed clubhouse, prospects of raising a 5th team and a formidable First XV defeated only 3 times in the 1938-39 season, Eccles was in a strong position and primed to move forward, only for those plans and hopes to be brought to halt by unfolding events in Europe.
During that summer, Hitler, hell bent on aggressive expansionism, had occupied Czechoslovakia and rejected diplomatic attempts to avoid conflict. Following the Nazi-Soviet pact, Britain committed itself to the defence of Poland on the 25th August.
When the club committee met on Monday 28thAugust 1939 they must have feared the worst when they arranged to meet the following Monday 4th September. One week later life would be set on an irrevocably different path.
Negotiations were ended at midnight Thursday 31st August with Hitler ordering the invasion of Poland to commence at 4am the following morning. On Sunday 3rd September, in a 11.15am BBC broadcast from 10 Downing Street, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the nation that Britain was at war with Germany.
With dark days ahead, Eccles RFC Club secretary Bob Challoner added a new item to the agenda: “The National Emergency and position of our club”. To emphasise the point he wrote “WAR!” in capital letters in the margin of the club’s minute book.
125 fixture cards for the 1939-40 season had already been printed but the committee decided to await instructions from the RFU before making a decision on commencement. For the time being, a notice was posted on the pavilion at Redclyffe Road, Barton-upon-Irwell which simply read “Until further notice, all activities of the club, including training, are suspended. Pro tem.”
To be continued …
PART 2 / DARK DAYS AHEAD
Following the declaration of war on the 3rd of September 1939, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed making all men between 18 and 41 liable for conscription. Exemptions included the medically unfit, students, clergy, and those in reserved occupations like baking, medicine and engineering.
As emergency measures such as the evacuation of women and children from London and other large cities were undertaken, King George called upon “people at home and across the seas to stand calm, firm and united in a time of trial” and warned of “dark days ahead where war was no longer confined to the battlefield”.
Having suspended club activities the previous week, the Eccles RFC committee met on Monday 11th September at the Rock House Hotel on Peel Green Road Barton where it was noted by Club President and County Union Representative Norman Shaw that no official guidance from the RFU had yet been received. It was therefore proposed that the Club Secretary Mr Bob Challoner should write to the Lancashire Union to inform them that Eccles’ ground, on land close to the Ship Canal, had been classified as a ‘Neutral’ area under the Government Evacuation scheme (which divided the country into zones, ‘Evacuation’ ‘Reception’ and ‘Neutral’).
At the following week’s meeting Club Chairman Norman Bisbey read out a letter citing Lancashire County Union’s instructions for the cancellation of all fixtures for 1939-40 season and the duration of the war.
Well aware of the difficulties the club had faced re-establishing itself following the previous war, and no doubt with consideration to maintaining morale of its members, the steadfast club committee discussed the possibilities of arranging friendly fixtures with local clubs. However, Mr Farnworth, owner of Bromyhurst Farm, Redclyffe Road, Barton where Eccles RFC played its games, communicated he would prefer the club not to continue its activities as he anticipated the land being put under the plough for the growth of crops in response to Government requests.
It was therefore agreed that the pavilion at Barton would remain closed and members would be sent their fixture cards for the new season with an accompanying letter explaining the situation and canvassing opinion on a proposal that Eccles RFC play occasional friendly games at away venues only.
On 28th September 1939 the club formally informed its members in writing that subs for the new season would not be demanded however donations to clover the costs incurred in preparation would be appreciated, the sum of 2s/6d being considered appropriate.
Following the abandonment of rugby fixtures, and perhaps with consideration to the imminent threat of vegetable crops on the pitch, the shrewd minds of the Eccles RFC committee decided to offer use of their ground and facilities to the military authorities.
On 2nd October 1939, the Eccles RFC committee minute book records three Army officers and Mr Farnworth joined the meeting to clarify their position. Club Treasurer and Chairman, Messers GIlbody and Bisbey gave a full and detailed report regarding the negotiations with the Army.
The following day, 3rd October 1939, 356th Searchlight Battery of the Royal Artillery took over the occupancy of the pavilion. The Manchester Ship Canal, Salford Docks and Trafford Park were of great importance and searchlights were deployed to illuminate the enemy bombers for the anti-aircraft guns to shoot them down before they dropped their payload. The 356th AA Company (39th Lancashire Fusiliers Searchlight Regiment) also manned Lewis Gun positions at Barton and Irwell Locks and Barton Power Station.
The ever assiduous Arthur Gilbody wrote to Lt. Hilton meticulously listing the articles on loan from Eccles RFC and enclosing ‘conditions’ for the army’s occupation! The items included 1 notice board, 1 card table, 1 oil lamp and 1 enamel tea-pot (tea rationing did not begin until July 1940). In his response Lt/ Hilton expressed his appreciation for the generosity of the club and reassured him “that there would definitely be no use of the pavilion as a dance hall or cinema by the army whilst in use”!
What did take place is for the next episode.
To be continued…
A story in instalments, by Sheila Thomas and Chris Gaffey