Thu 14 Nov 2019 21:33

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

PART 3 / ENLISTMENT

In October 1939, as the situation escalated in Europe and the BEF assembled along the French-Belgian border, the Eccles RFC committee focused their minds on matters closer to home. Fixtures for the new season had been abandoned and the 356 Searchlight Battery company (39th Lancs Fusiliers AA Bn) had taken over the club pavilion and ground at Redclyffe Road in order to guard Barton Power Station.

Coal-fired Barton Power Station (situated on the Bridgewater and Ship Canals near the swing bridge and All Saints RC Church, where B&Q now stands today) had its fuel brought by barge and was one of the most advanced of its time, using equipment by Metropolitan-Vickers and Mather & Platt to provide Trafford Park and the City of Manchester with power. The aerial photographs below show the area as it was in 1933. The striped rugby posts are faintly visible in the field next to the switchgear. 

Although Eccles’ facilities were officially off limits, the enterprising committee members wasted no time in arranging unoffical friendly away fixtures against local opposition and promptly recruited the Searchlight Battery to form a rugby team!

The committee minute book records a result for Saturday 21st October, arranged by invitation of the Royal Artillery, "Eccles vs Army XV, WON 20 - 6".  Many such matches were to take place on the ground between various military personnel, with a good fraternity existing between the teams and players loaned to even up the contest. It would appear Eccles were ahead of the game.

On 11th November 1939, perhaps recognising the potential boost to national morale and the predicted enlistment of players, the RFU issued a statement recommending that county committees should encourage clubs to arrange fixtures with service XVs. Of particular interest to Northern Clubs were resolutions regarding ‘outlawed’ Rugby League Players. 

Resolution 1 - A Rugby Union XV may play against a Service team containing players who have played Rugby League Football. 

Resolution 2 - A Rugby Union XV may include Rugby League players belonging to HM forces, when playing matches against Service teams. 

The war was to make an impression on all aspects of life, including the reporting of sport. The attached article was published in the Eccles Journal, 8th December 1939, reporting a game between Eccles and Ashtonians and confirming a future fixture against an Army XV to be played “Somewhere in Barton”!  No giving away the position to the enemy here!  

As the unofficial 1939/20 season progressed more players were called up and the club endeavoured to carry on as best it could. Following the outbreak of war Eccles played 15 away matches (W8, L7) against teams including Tyldesley and Old Salfordians - commendable in the circumstances.  The final recorded match was on 27th April 1940 which Eccles lost 23-6 at Warrington. This was to be the last game played by Eccles RFC until 1946. Six years of war would cut short many promising playing careers . 

Members of Eccles RFC were to serve in all branches of the Services and Civil Defence. Today, on 11th November, 80 years on, we remember them and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the security of our nation.

A story told in episodes by Sheila Thomas and Chris Gaffey 

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