Many of you reading this will be surprised to know that Barrow Rugby League Football Club has been in existence for more than 130 years. Founded in 1875 (exact date not known), it is thought to be amongst one of the oldest clubs in the UK that is still surviving and continuing to play in the Rugby League today. It is impossible to go into great detail on a Web Site with so rich a Club history, so we have endeavoured to put together a very brief outline of some of the key facts and events below
It is thought that a clerk, by the name of Tom H. Baynes (working for a local shipping firm, James Fisher), was the driving force around the formation of the club and, as well as being a player, was probably also the first coach of the Barrow team. Games were mainly played at that time at Cavendish Park, an area of grassed pitches which still exist today and are used by local amateur Rugby and Football Teams.
The game was played in these early years under the Rugby Union Code and it was not until April 1897 that the team switched to play the League Code. Barrow’s journey began in the Lancashire Senior Competition Second Division and were fortunate enough to become champions at the first attempt. However they failed to gain promotion when they lost to Morecambe in a challenge match (Morecambe were the bottom club in the First Division). They finally gained promotion in the 1899/1900 Season, by defeating Tyldesley in the Challenge Match.
The War Years
With Cavendish Park requisitioned by the Authorities for the war effort in 1914, Barrow was forced to relocate and Little Park, Roose (on the outskirts of Barrow), was chosen as the new Club Headquarters. The League at this time (Northern Rugby League) was suspended and clubs were forced to arrange their own fixtures in an unofficial war League. Barrow chose to compete in this League and in 1917/18 were convincing Champions, losing just twice in 22 Matches! (If only we could repeat this form this Season!!) In the immediate years after World War I, Barrow’s Team had mixed fortunes and when the Northern Rugby League Resumed in 1919/20, they managed to finish a creditable 5th. However, over the next decade, despite having several County and International Players, Barrow’s form suffered and its League position was poor.
August 1931 saw Barrow move to its current home ground, Craven Park, named after Commander Charles Craven (Chairman of Vickers Armstrong Ltd), who was the major driving force behind the funding and building of the new Ground. The land was purchased for the sum of £2,500, assisted in no small way by the Mayor, Alderman John Whinnerah. Labour to clear and level the site was mainly undertaken by the unemployed and volunteers, who moved more than 40,000 tons of tipping material from the site and laid around 92,000 sods of turf (taken from the Little Park Site),. Total cost of the building project came to £7,500 which was an unbelievable figure in those days. It was with the assistance of Charles Craven and a fund raising Committee that the majority of the costs were met, leaving sufficient funds for the Directors of the Club to start to build a better Team, and that they did……
1937/38 saw Barrow reach the finals of the Lancashire Cup for the first time, losing narrowly (4-8) to Warrington. This particular Season proved to be a time of great opportunity for the Barrow Team but was to end in bitter disappointment, when upon reaching the final of the Rugby League Challenge cup at Wembley; they lost 7-4 to Salford and also in the Championship play off Semi-Final they lost to Hunslet (13-7). It is thought that the punishing schedule of League games prior to the Wembley match led to Barrow’s defeat, playing an astounding seven matches in just ten days. Despite having one of the best teams, if not the best team, they finished the Season winning absolutely nothing. It was written of them at the time, “The System, not better teams, robbed them of full honours.”
The Second World War and the Golden Era
The league was again abandoned and only restarted in 1945/46. Many of the pre-war players by this time had retired. So this was an era of rebuilding and recruiting, some of whom went on to become star names, such as Willie Horne, Jimmy Lewthwaite, Phil Jackson, Dennis Goodwin, Frank Castle, Reg Parker and many, many more.
The 1955 Challenge Cup semi-final side captained by the legendary Willie Horne.
From Left to Right, Back Row: Frank Hill (Trainer), Frank Barton, Jimmy Lewthwaite, Les Belshaw, Reg Parker, Phil Jackson, Vince McKeating, Dennis Goodwin, Wally Bowyer (Assistant Trainer). Front Row: Jack Grundy, Frank Castle, Willie Horne (Captain), Ted Toohey, Clive Best, Bill Healey.
Willie Horne played 461 matches for Barrow, scoring 113 tries and 739 goals which was the club record, until it was surpassed by Darren Holt. He captained Barrow to 3 Wembley cup finals (including the 1955 Barrow cup winning side). He captained Lancashire, England and Great Britain, including the 1952 winning Great Britain Ashes side. Willie became a Rugby League legend and in recognition of his service to Barrow RLFC and the town of Barrow -in-Furness, a magnificent statue was erected near to Craven Park (picture – left). The 1954/55 season was the greatest season in the history of Barrow RLFC, winning both the Challenge Cup v Workington Town 21-12 and the Lancashire Cup v Oldham 12-2. Barrow were a force to be reckoned with and always finished in very respectable places in the Northern Rugby League table.
Barrow have reached the Challenge Cup final on 5 occasions, winning only once in 1955 v Workington Town
1938 – Lost to Salford 4-7
1951 – Lost to Wigan 0-10
1955 – Won against Workington 21-12
1957 – Lost to Leeds 7-9
1967 – Lost to Featherstone 12-17
1957 really signalled the end of the golden era of the Club history and most of the star players retired after this time.
The Yo-Yo Years
1961/62 saw the League split into two divisions and unfortunately because of the poor league position Barrow achieved at this time, the Club was forced to play in the Second Division.
The 1960’s saw the Barrow side sign on Bill Burgess, a genuine world-class performer who was on his day one the greatest Rugby League wingmen of all time (he was also the son of Bill Burgess Senior who played for Barrow in the 1920’s and 1930’s). He played 222 times for Barrow and scored 179 tries. He played 11 times for Lancashire, had 13 appearances for Great Britain and one appearance for England.
1973 saw Barrow appoint a former player, Frank Foster as coach, who was to spend almost ten years in charge at Craven Park. He built a side which won a Second Division championship in 1975/76, (the first piece of silverware to be won since the Challenge cup final in 1955) and reached a John Player Trophy final in 1981 only to lose to Warrington 5-12.
In the early period players such as Phil Hogan who was transferred to Hull KR in 1978 for a then world record fee of £33,000, Colin Tyrer from Wigan, John Cunningham and many more helped put Barrow back on the Rugby League map during Frank’s reign.
Latterly with good ‘hard’ forwards and fast talented ‘union’ backs this team were known as the ‘Harlem Globetrotters’ of Rugby League, always trying to keep the ball alive and exciting to watch. Eddie Syzmala, Malcolm Flynn, Smiler Allen, Steve Tickle, Ian Ball, David Cairns, Mel Mason, Ralph McConnell, and Derek Hadley were all performing to their peak. The only problem was inconsistency and stabilising the club in the ‘Premier league’ was too difficult to achieve. Unfortunately promotion and then relegation was the order of the day and the ‘yo-yo’ tag was firmly placed upon the Barrow team. Frank was eventually sacked in 1983 and replaced by Tommy Dawes, but with the addition of some seasoned league pro’s, it was felt by all that Barrow could go places. And so it proved!
The season 1983/84 saw Barrow win the Second Division title and the Lancashire Cup against all the odds against favourites Widnes 12-8. A fantastic achievement with the experience of Alan Hodkinson, Les Wall and Steve Herbert and the youth and talent of Frank’s boys, the formulae for success had been found. Or so we thought!!
Lack of investment on the playing side cost dear. Instead of onward and upwards, it was the beginning of a downward spiral that has been difficult to turnaround ever since. Rugby League moved on and we stood still! Tommy Dawes despite his initial success, was sacked in 1985.
Apart from promotion in 1988/89 under the Australian test star Rod Reddy, the last 20 years have been very disappointing and many different coaches have come and gone. The best of local talent were lured away by the clubs with the money, we had none left!
Les Quirk to St. Helens, Tony Kay to St. Helens, Paul Burns to Workington, Dean Marwood to Workington, David Cairns to Salford and the most recently, Ade Gardner to St. Helens. 1996 saw the introduction of Summer Rugby, a move that hasn’t done Barrow any favours in the crowd stakes with attendances averaging about a 1,000 during this period and with no real success on the pitch. However in the recent 2004 Season they did manage to gain promotion to Division 1, under the coaching of Peter Roe, however, as has happened time and again in the last 25 years, they were to yo-yo down again to Division 2 and that is where we are today.
After interviewing several candidates the board decided to stay ‘local’ and appointed ex player and assistant coach to Paul – Dave Clark. Dave has been at Craven Park for almost a decade since arriving from Australia and is looking forward to the challenge ahead. Ex favourites Dean Marwood and Darren Carter have been added to the coaching team and together with ex Wigan and Widnes legend Mick Cassidy are getting the players fit for what promises to be a competitive division. Promotion is the objective and there is a sense of optimism around the club that this will be achieved and that we can begin the process of trying to rekindle the golden era and get this sleeping giant back to where it belongs. Only time will tell!
At this point I must apologise for not mentioning more of the great players that have given their careers to the Barrow club, but there are far too many to mention in this “potted history.” If you wish to gain further insight into the real characters and issues, there are several good books on this subject by our local club historian Keith Nutter (which can be purchased from the Club shop) which will go into much greater detail than we can hope to fit on this page. Let’s also hope with the start of this new Season, with a new Coach and a new Team we can bring back some of the Golden days to the Club once again!