The year 1926 is perhaps the most important in the history of the British labour movement. There are other pretenders to that throne, of course, such as 1924 and the first Labour government, 1945 and the first Labour parliamentary majority, 1984-5 and the last stand of the National Union of Mineworkers, or the smattering of less well-known dates. Yet, with its General Strike and Miners’ Lockout, it stands as the only occasion on which the vast majority of the British working class have given their full support to a group of workers for more than a day.
Amidst the turmoil and the hardship that ordinary people faced, it is not surprising that a variety of businesses folded in its wake. In Pontypridd, where miner’s leader A.J. Cook had been a local councillor, the weeks leading into the General Strike were marked by speculation and by the collapse of Pontypridd AFC. Formed in 1911, Pontypridd were successful in Welsh league and cup competitions reaching the final of the senior cup three times (including in their inaugural season) and winning the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA’s senior trophy in 1925. Their great failure, however, was not joining the Football League despite successive attempts to do so. When the club folded in April 1926, their ground having been taken over by a professional rugby league syndicate, the loss was registered throughout Welsh soccer. The local newspaper, the Pontypridd Observer, lamented that ‘the Dragons have come to such a sorry plight’.
Given the bleak picture that historians often paint of the South Wales Valleys in the 1920s – and they do so with justification – there were remarkable moments, windows onto a different kind of experience in which the 1920s and 1930s were years of great change and even greater potential. One such entrée took place at Taff Vale Park on 12 April 1926. As the soccer club were collapsing, their home ground hosted a rugby league international between England and Wales. Watched by 22,000 spectators – the largest crowd for any Welsh rugby league match hitherto – it was a remarkable event that heralded a revival of the sport and a growing diversity in Welsh sporting habits. Just two months later, on 10 June 1926, Pontypridd Rugby League Club (RLC) was admitted to the Rugby Football League (RFL).
The merits of forming a professional rugby club from the ashes of a professional soccer club have long haunted the history of Ponty RLC. That it was a financial failure is not in doubt: distance from Lancashire and Yorkshire along with tenuous support from the RFL itself ensured that was probably inevitable. Yet, the club has a history that tells us much about the possibilities of the valleys in the mid-1920s, its relationship with emerging themes such as Welsh national identity and the Labour movement, and provides an important glimpse at that ‘alternative culture’ that Hywel Francis and Dai Smith wrote of in The Fed.
Playing their first matches at Taff Vale Park in the summer of 1926, Pontypridd RLC made the conscious decision to identify with the miners’ struggle and handed over the profits of their matches to local distress committees. In return the miners themselves formed a supporter’s club, as they had done for the Dragons, and turned up to league matches in their thousands despite not being able to afford the price of their tickets. They sang rugby songs like Cwm Rhondda and Land of My Fathers, waved Y Ddraig Goch in the stands, clubbed together to buy players medals when they were selected for international duty, and by the end of the 1926-7 season even boasted the largest supporter’s club in the Rugby Football League!
This was not, then, a club automatically doomed to failure. It quickly developed strong roots grounded in symbols of local and national identity and popular enthusiasm. Unfortunately, financial realities did strike in 1927 as they did with most sports clubs in the South Wales Valleys and Pontypridd RLC struggled to develop as a business. By October 1927, it was all over and the club collapsed with hundreds of pounds of debt hanging over it. The popular success of Pontypridd, however, ensured that rugby league carried on in an amateur fashion in valleys communities for the rest of the decade.