My name is Sue Roe and my husband is John Roe, who is very much involved with the Batley Heritage Project at the moment. I am from Sheffield and I’ve not much contact with rugby league, or rugby, for that matter, Sheffield being a football town – two football teams, enough said. But I was a teenage … I used to go and watch Sheffield United at Bramall Lane and I’ve fond memories of that. But not interested particularly in rugby. I mean, I was interested in sport, but didn’t know much about rugby. Apart from Eddie Waring, that was about it.
John’s from Batley, my husbands from Batley and he played rugby league and rugby union and supported as a teenager, as a young man, Batley rugby league team. He taught our daughter, John’s stepdaughter, how to play rugby. My son is not so interested in sport, but Kate is very sporty, playing football, and he showed her how to play rugby. And in the sixth form, she was in the football team and then she joined a local rugby league team, Hillsborough Hawks, in Sheffield. I didn’t go to that many games – I used to take her to training and pick her up, but once she passed her test, she could take the car and she could go herself. And John, you’d always know when he’d been to one of their games, because he’d come home hoarse, you know, from running up the touchline, telling them what to do. “Pass, tackle”, that sort of stuff. But he would say… In fact, he went out to France to see her. She did languages at university and was at Perpignan for a year out and played for Catalan Ladies, because it’s a good way to break the ice, sport. I remember being on the phone to her and John saying, “You’re going to have an extra spectator at the game”. I couldn’t go, I was teaching that afternoon, but, whatever.
What’s got us more involved, because, obviously, living in Sheffield, teaching, we didn’t go to… We came up to Batley to see family, but we didn’t go to many games. But once we retired in 2010, he had more time on his hands, as did I, and I got involved in an oral history project in Sheffield through a colleague I used to work with, and friend. A reading project. And we did some training on digital tape recorders – digital recorders, not tape recorders, obviously – and we went to this training at Hallam and the trainer, in her introduction, was talking about other oral history projects and one of them was about rugby league. So obviously my ears pricked up and I told John about this and it triggered his interest, because he’d been mulling over some ideas what to do, now we were retired. And this project was called Up and Under – what else – and was based at Huddersfield University. So, he contacted them, but the project had actually finished, the Up and Under project, but he spoke to the guy there and that sort of snowballed into the idea that he had of a book based on oral testimony, you know, interviewing the players and former players and spectators, fans, long-term fans. Now I became involved because John eschewed technical support and I was there as his secretary. I was amanuensis, I took the notes – I’m, I wouldn’t say accomplished, but I can take notes quickly. So, he’d go round, interviewing the guys, the former players and spectators, the fans, and that took us, well, quite a few places. We went to Hull, to Cleverly – that’s a land that time forgot – it’s a small town near Blackpool. And it’s very much a retiree’s place, lots of adverts for two course lunch for OAPs and there’s a social club where we met John Etty and Jack Perry. They were also dancing, it was like a tea dance place and Jack Perry did a number – it was a free and easy session, so it was quite amazing. And this bloke tried to chat me up at the bar and it was like a long time ago since that happened. But that was very interesting, and they were very interesting people. And we met George – no not George Northern, George Northern used to kiss my hand, he was very gallant.. And George Palmer, who was a Hull player who played for Batley. And he was a giant of a man. Really, even in his retirement, he was massive. He had a bit of a reputation apparently, amongst the players, in the scrum. Fierce. And what always intrigued me was he was in the submariners’ association, because during the war, he’d been a submariner and I was thinking, how did that work out? Because you know, with his height, it was a confined space, and he was part of the submariners’ association and you know, he’d been on trips all over the place. So, there was some fascinating people who we met, especially the former players. What struck me about them was how modest they were about their achievements. And this is the thing about oral history, isn’t it, this is why it’s important. Cos it gives a voice to people who never have had a voice. Is history the history of dead white males, isn’t that what they say? And these people never thought they’d be interesting enough or that anybody would be interested in what they’d done or what they had to say, and I think that they were really pleased that anybody was. It was fascinating speaking to them and t their wives. Because I used to go along and being a woman there, you’d get chatting. And I remember their names, you know: Pearl and Joan. I remember Joan saying, “I’ll say this and then I’ll shut up”, and then she’d say something else, and then “Oh, and then I’ll shut up”. And they were fascinating women as well. Always very hospitable – the sandwiches out, the Swiss roll. That was Phil Walshaw’s wife, I remember her. And they were always so hospitable, and the men were so modest about their achievements, cos most of them, or all of them, I think, were only semi-professional. They were working, fitting in training, and playing. And actually, they were looked up to, I think, in the community. Because of their achievements. But they weren’t – the contrast with football is amazing. You know, so different. And rugby union, isn’t it?
It was really interesting, I think, being involved in that project and we’re still involved, really. I mean John published the book, Sermons from the Mount, and we had a launch, a book launch, here and that was really good. We had, not Peter Fox, Neil Fox came, because his brother was interviewed – we interviewed Peter. And some of them, you know, were meeting someone who was a hero to them. You know, Neil Fox, the Foxes are famous – even I’ve heard of them. It was good to see them again at the launch and they were really pleased… I think somebody gave a speech? I can’t remember now. But I think it was a chance for them to have their 15 minutes of fame – what Andy Warhol said. Well, fame within a particular niche.
Subsequently, well, I’m still involved in my own oral history project, you know, the reading project that we have on in Sheffield, which has had loads of spin-offs and is still going strong. But also, now John’s got involved in this heritage project, where he’s doing the history, the official history, but also, he’s helping Craig on producing a definitive list to produce the heritage numbers. It never occurred to me that when you see England players, cricket players, with this number on, that’s what it is, isn’t it? I learnt something.
So, what I do, I’m helping John, cos I like looking at old newspapers, even if it is microfiche. So, I go down to – after this, I’m going to go down to Batley Library and check the – he’s got some records – and I’ll check the records for each game against the match report in the Batley News. But it’s so tempting. You’re scrolling through and you think, ooh, this is interesting, so you get side-tracked. John goes much quicker than me. I think, ooh, that looks good. But it is, as you move through the decades.. You know you start about the Boer War and now we’re in the 1920s, so it is fascinating. And it’s something John’s become more involved in. The thing is, before we retired, we just didn’t have the time. We were both teaching and family, and Sunday, if you fitted a walk in, you know you had to do some marking in the afternoon, so again, obviously Batley was not on the cards. I mean, I used to watch games more regularly, but now, I don’t know, I’m a bit nesh, as they say in Sheffield. I feel the cold and Mount Pleasant is a bit exposed, so unless the weather’s really good and I know they’re going to win. I don’t like watching it when they lose – I’m a fair-weather supporter, literally and metaphorically. But I do come and it’s nice to see the regulars and they’re always very friendly and very welcoming. All the people we’ve encountered, they’ve always been very welcoming, they always say “ooh, love, so has he let you come back?”. So, it’s that Yorkshire humour. I’ve felt very welcome here and I’ve enjoyed doing that. But you can only do so much. Thursday morning is, I go to Chesterfield market for the flea market, so I can’t do anything else that day.
What is sad is because people we interviewed, former players, were not young, put it that way, we have been to several funerals. Not unexpected, but still sad. And when you talk to their family and friends, some of them have mentioned how pleased they were to be in John’s book. When we went to George’s, George Palmer, the submariner, we went to Hull for the funeral. I thought, oh, he’s getting old, there won’t be many people there. How wrong can you be? Because he was in a naval association, you know, being Hull, and there was a local naval… You know, they were ex-forces, with the banners and the flags and the uniform and it was packed. And because he had been a publican – I don’t think anybody had messed about in his pubs: he’d jump over the bar and sort them out – and they did play, what was it, a white sports coat and a pink carnation? So, it is quite emotional when you go. And I think he was a widow, when we met him, widower should I say, but we’ve been to several other funerals and met the women again we met before and it is poignant, I think. But as I said, I think they appreciated the opportunity that was given to them to get their names in print, their photos in a book. I think they were really pleased with it and I was. It is, as I say, given that people are so often overlooked, ordinary working-class people, just doing something they love doing, playing rugby and not getting much. Cos rugby union has this reputation of being a middle class, upper middle-class game – solicitors, blah blah blah… But these are just ordinary guys.
I love meeting the people and doing the research. Cos that’s my two loves. I like meeting the people, but I’m a history graduate, I’m not sure whether that’s relevant, but I’m interested – still interested, having taught it for 38 years – I still love the research. I think I’m a frustrated researcher. I love doing that. Both in my own project – and the internet is a godsend for that – and being at the library, I just love doing that. It’s just an entrée into a world that’s gone. And forgotten by most people. But these are real people, aren’t they? And their names keep cropping up. Like Jim Etty, I came across his dad, Jack Etty – because it’s getting nearer, nearer to the present time. Not that much nearer, but we’re in the 1920s. And I do enjoy that. It combines my two interests, really. I like meeting people and I like the research side to it. I love being near solid people.
And also, because Kate, it’s something we can share with Kate. My sons not particularly interested in rugby, he’s not as sporty as Kate. She’s been to the game. We come up on Boxing Day, of course, for the match against Dewsbury and that’s always fun. Cos Kate loves coming over. I remember we once came – cos she lives in Holland – and we came with her Dutch boyfriend, Dan, who was fascinated by it, because, you know, almost from an anthropological viewpoint. And he was taking photos of the crowd, I was thinking someone’s going to chin him in a minute! And we went to Nash, you know, the Irish Nash, cos John’s family, Irish Catholic family, so we go in there, he’s a member. So, we were sitting there, having a drink, Boxing Day, with the turn on, oh, god, they’re terrible. Anyway, Dan went to the loo, this Dutch guy, and he came back, and I saw him stopping and talking to some woman sitting there and when he came back, I said, “Oh, what did she say” and he said, “I don’t know, I didn’t understand a word”. And his English was tremendously good, so it’s the accent he struggled with.
So, we try and come on Boxing Day and even go to Dewsbury’s round, which some people won’t do. But we came last, not last year, but the year before, with John’s friend, who’s retired to Crete, that he was at school with in Batley. So, we came with him. It’s always good and what I like about the matches, rugby league matches, the ones where I’ve been to, anyway, is they are truly family affairs. I don’t know whether I can say this on tape, somebody was shouting about the referee being a wanker and the steward said, “Well, we’re not having any of that language here”. And it is very much a family sport. When I come to the games, I’m always amazed about the age range. You know, you’ve got youngsters there, you’ve got young women with prams, you’ve got all the people and it is truly a family… It’s just a shame it’s not got bigger crowds, but perhaps it will change. They’re working hard, I think to get the community involved, but it is difficult. Football has such a grasp, you know, such a reach, that rugby league hasn’t. But it’s more fun and there’s less of this writhing about and playacting and all that rubbish that you see in football.
You may have refereed a game Kate was in? It’d be good if you could talk to her because she is a good sportswoman, but not brought up from a small child with that, in that rugby culture. You know, if you live in Hunslet or Oldham or whatever, so it is interesting. And the women she played with, they were solid…