Huddersfield scrum: row over siting of new museum engulfs rugby league
Fans and sport angry after council U-turn on plan to house project in hotel where the sport began
More than 125 years ago, representatives of a number of rugby union clubs from the north of England gathered at the George hotel in Huddersfield. The meeting resulted in the formation of a new sport, known today as rugby league. Now a row between the local council and those wanting to honour the sport with a museum at the site of its formation threatens to overshadow the sport’s legacy.
The idea began harmoniously when, several years ago, leading rugby league charity Rugby League Cares announced plans to create a National Rugby League Museum. Towns and cities from across the sport’s traditional northern heartlands were invited to apply to host the project. Huddersfield won the bidding process in 2020, beating competition from the likes of Leeds, Bradford and Wigan, with the local Kirklees council offering the George as the venue for the new museum.
It was a deliberate offer with deep significance to the sport. The fact that Huddersfield’s bid was centred on the George was seen as crucial by many insiders as to why Kirklees council beat off competition from other towns and cities that were arguably better resourced to take on such a significant cultural project.
“There aren’t many sports where you can pinpoint the exact location it was founded,” said Professor Tony Collins, social historian and chair of the independent panel that awarded the museum to Huddersfield.
However, the council has now decided it will not use the George for the museum, instead offering a different location in the town. This was greeted with horror by many league supporters, Rugby League Cares and the Rugby Football League (RFL). It has even led to calls from local politicians for the resignation of the council’s leader, Shabir Pandor.
“A lot of people feel betrayed by Kirklees council,” said Collins. “Because of what they promised initially, but also the importance of the George to not only the heritage of the game, but also British sport. It highlights a bigger issue for the heritage of Huddersfield, because a major part of the town’s real history is at risk of being lost. One of the town’s key claims to fame is being the birthplace of rugby league and that’s now in danger of being left behind and abandoned.”
Talks continued late last week between the council, the charity and the chief executive of the RFL, Ralph Rimmer, and the possibility of an alternative venue in Huddersfield has been raised. But the Observer understands there is little appetite for a different site from either the governing body or the charity.
Last night, RFL said: “Rugby League Cares and the RFL are continuing to seek clarification from Kirklees council about both their volte-face on the viability of the George Hotel and the actual location of an alternative venue.”
Collins also poured scorn on the idea of a different Huddersfield venue. “The council don’t have a viable alternative, nor do they have a track record of suggesting they have the capability of supporting a museum somewhere else. To say it’s disappointing is an understatement and it’s such a shame for the sport.”
The George was home to a predecessor of the proposed museum, the Rugby League Heritage Centre. That project was the brainchild of former Great Britain international Mike Stephenson and opened in 2005 to great fanfare from the sport’s supporters, but closed several years later.
Before its closure in January 2013, the George was regularly visited by fans of the game from across the globe, for its significance in the sport’s formation. The building was bought by Kirklees council in 2020 for £1.8m.
Pandor has previously claimed that failing to walk away from the deal could have cost local taxpayers in excess of £20m. Kirklees council failed to respond to requests for comment by the Observer.
All of which suggests the National Rugby League Museum is likely to end up somewhere other than the sport’s spiritual home. The Observer has been told at least three towns across the sport’s heartlands would be interested in putting together a bid if the project went back to tender.
Wigan’s original bid, for example, was believed to be so strong in the initial tender process that only the attraction of the museum being housed at the George made the difference and saw Huddersfield awarded the project.