On this day – when Rugby League was hit by a smallpox epidemic

On this day 113 years ago, on 10 December 1904, Huddersfield and Dewsbury drew 3-3 in what, under normal circumstances, would have been a relatively unremarkable game. But Richard de la Riviere explains why it wasn’t.
In fact the game was played behind locked doors, with only members allowed in, because the town of Dewsbury had suffered an outbreak of smallpox! And it caused havoc with the entire second-division campaign.
The epidemic occurred a couple of games into the new season. Bramley, Dewsbury’s third opponents of the season, refused to travel, even though Dewsbury offered their players a special isolation tent.
The Northern Union, rather unsympathetically, ordered Bramley to pay Dewsbury £7 in compensation, and when Rochdale refused to go there in early October, they fined them £20, citing the fact that Birkenhead and Brighouse Rangers had played at Dewsbury in the meantime.
Dewsbury still managed to play away games at Castleford and York, but the problems that the latter game caused were typical of the panic that had set in.
York’s Public Health Committee asked the club to postpone the match, but it refused, prompting Alderman Border, the committee’s Chairman, to resign as vice-president of the club.
“In this depressing, mild, humid weather there is the very greatest danger of the further introduction of the dreaded scourge by the presence of a large number of Dewsbury players and spectators at a crowded football match in York,” argued the Yorkshire Herald.
“The York football club has exhibited a lamentable lack of public spirit and a regrettable disregard of the claims and obligations of good citizenship.”
Crowds stayed away, with Castleford and York reporting disappointing attendances, and Dewsbury’s match at Lancaster on 28 October was called off. It appeared that they wouldn’t play again until the epidemic had gone.
But with fears the club might fold, the League Management Committee met with clubs and concluded that clubs backing out of games with Dewsbury would be fined.
In their first game for a month, Dewsbury lost 8-3 at Barrow and the club’s campaign was unaffected until the end of the season, other than Huddersfield’s insistence on locking out the fans.
Dewsbury caught up on their league games in spectacular style, winning 17 in a row at one point, with only a try and a goal scored against them in that time.
They were crowned Champions, winning 22 of their 26 games, two points ahead of second-place Barrow.
Check out tomorrow’s edition of League Express for Richard de la Riviera’s latest ‘On This Day’ column that will cover events on 11 December through the years.