Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Rugby league legends were true Dewsbury greats

Every now and again a picture lands on my desk which brings back heart-warming memories reminding me how lucky I was to have known those pictured.

Monday, 1st July 2013, 12:16 pm
MAYORAL VISIT Alderman R S Roberts at the opening of a boys club in the Craven Heifer Hotel. Picture kindly supplied by David Smith.

Two people stand out on this one – Harry Royal and Harry Smith – both local rugby league legends.

It is appropriate we show it now because tomorrow Dewsbury is celebrating one of its greatest sporting achievements – the 40th anniversary of Dewsbury becoming rugby league champions.

Photographs like this are part of our social history and should be treasured, and I am indebted to Harry’s son, David, for sending it to me.

It was taken in Springfield, where I spent the first 11 years of my life, and many of those on the photograph were neighbours of mine.

The Mayor of Dewsbury, Alderman R S Roberts, is pictured at the opening of a boys club in the upper room of the Craven Heifer Hotel in Victoria Road.

The bag of coins being handed over were proceeds from a mile of pennies raised in the village to support the club.

It was a rare honour for Springfield to have a mayor visit them but I’m pleased to report one little boy who went to the club, Eric Firth, grew up to be Mayor himself.

The club was formed by Harry Royal, licensee of the Craven Heifer, who was supported in his endeavours by Harry Smith, who many will remember became the school bobby.

Harry, who did a considerable amount of work for the Heavy Woollen amateur rugby league and was also a professional wrestler, is pictured on the right, wearing his familiar trilby hat.

I feel privileged that I knew both men, Harry Royal when he had the Craven Heifer, and Harry Smith who lived just up the road in Hartley Street.

Harry Royal gave great service to Dewsbury as scrum half and also as captain of Dewsbury Rugby League Club, and a social room at the Rams’ club is named after him.

He opened the boys club, helped by Harry Smith, to give youngsters an opportunity to build themselves up and keep them out of mischief.

Harry Smith was instantly recognisable in Dewsbury and his memory lives on in the world of rugby league.

There used to be a plaque in his honour above the central entrance to Dewsbury RLFC’s main stand at the old Crown Flatt.

It was erected after his death in 1966 by his friends in the rugby world in recognition of more than 30 years as an outstanding Dewsbury ‘sporting great’.

Harry was undoubtedly one of the best known sportsmen of his era. His lifelong obsession with Rugby League began when he joined Westborough Boys Club in 1920.

He later became a coach, serving at Dewsbury and Leeds.

During this time he joined Chickenley Weight Lifting Club before turning his attention to professional wrestling, and the old Batley skating rink it was always full to capacity whenever he appeared.

Many of his shows were charitable functions and during the war he raised thousands of pounds for the war effort.

He also taught unarmed combat to military and Home Guard personnel, and became a physical instructor in the Royal Navy.

After the war he started re-organising local amateur rugby, and by begging, borrowing and buying equipment, he got the league going.

And as organiser of the newly-formed Dewsbury and Batley Amateur Rugby League, he arranged for grounds and equipment.

Harry helped to form many local teams, acted as referee – sometimes twice in one afternoon – paid bills, sponsored clubs and did everything to get the local game going.

Many of the youngsters he coached were attracted to the professional game, the most notable of which was Mick Sullivan, former Great Britain star, who spent his weekends at the Smith household when he was a pupil at Dewsbury Technical School.

Many of the local youngsters Harry brought into the game, gained international and county honours, and Harry himself was honoured with life membership of the local league and the Referees’ Society, and the HV Smith Memorial Trophy nine-a-side competition which was played at the end of each season.