We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Wagstaff, Harold (1891–1939), rugby player, was born on 19 May 1891 in Underbank, Holmfirth, Yorkshire, the son of Andrew Wagstaff, a painter's labourer, and his wife, Hannah, née Rhodes (1858/9–1904), of Rochdale. After playing junior rugby for his native village team Underbank, he signed for Huddersfield of the Northern Union for 5 gold sovereigns and played his first senior game at Bramley on 10 November 1906, when he scored a try in a 28–11 victory. He was aged only fifteen years and 175 days. He continued to play for Huddersfield until 1925, and became club captain in 1911.

Wagstaff's time with Huddersfield saw the creation of a side immortalized as ‘the team of all the talents’. During his career Huddersfield won the challenge cup three times, the championship three times, the Yorkshire cup six times, and the Yorkshire league championship six times. In the season of 1914–15 he led them to the famous all four cups clean sweep, a feat emulated only by Hunslet in 1907–8 and Swinton in 1927–8.

Wagstaff was ideally built for the centre at 5 feet 11 inches and about 12 stone 8 pounds. He was strong and possessed a fine swerve but was never regarded as quick. His supreme gift was as a playmaker and strategist. He revolutionized the game by adhering to the principle that possession was sacrosanct: kicking was a last resort. In combination with Jim Davies, the Huddersfield stand-off, Wagstaff invented the standing pass manoeuvre following scrums. As a result he took terrific buffetings on his left side but the movement brought his team shoals of tries. Mystified opponents described the subterfuge as ‘scientific obstruction’.

On 17 October 1908 Wagstaff entered the arena of representative rugby when he won the first of fifteen caps for Yorkshire. At seventeen years and 141 days he is believed to be the youngest recipient of a county cap. Within another three months he became the youngest international player in history when he figured in England's 14–9 victory over Australia on 2 January 1909 on his home ground, Fartown. Between 1909 and 1923 he played in twenty-three international and test matches, the majority as captain.

In 1914 Wagstaff was selected as captain of the Great Britain touring party to Australasia. That Ashes series was one of the most controversial in history, with the Australian authorities, despite British protests, deciding to play all three tests within one week. The decider at Sydney on 27 June has been enshrined in the game's annals as ‘the Rorke's Drift test’, in remembrance of a heroic action by a small British force against a Zulu army in 1879. An already depleted British team suffered a series of injuries in the match which reduced them from thirteen men to ten. Almost miraculously Wagstaff led his team to a 14–6 triumph and regained the Ashes. It was unquestionably his finest hour.

Wagstaff again captained the Lions in Australasia in 1920, when the Ashes were retained, and was in charge for a third consecutive series victory in England in 1921–2. His last test match, at Salford on 14 January 1922, a 6–0 victory over the Kangaroos, was regarded as one of the most strenuous games ever played. At its conclusion Wagstaff was carried from the field by the crowd, minus his jersey, which had been ripped to shreds by idolatrous souvenir-hunters.

Wagstaff was the most revered and influential player in Northern Union (later rugby league) football in the first quarter of the twentieth century. To contemporary observers he seemed to embody all the virtues to which sportsmen should aspire. First and foremost he was a centre three-quarter of such consummate skills that he earned the title the Prince of Centres. Yet he was more than merely the greatest player of his generation. He bore himself with dignity, was renowned for his sense of fair play, was the catalyst for new playing methods, and became the most successful and inspirational captain of his era at both club and representative levels.

Wagstaff served in the Royal Army Service Corps as a motor driver in the First World War. On 4 January 1915 he married Ann Battye, daughter of Wilson Battye, of Arrundon, Cartworth, Holmfirth. They had one son, Robert. Wagstaff was the licensee of the Royal Swan Hotel, Westgate, Huddersfield, when on 19 July 1939 he died of cardiac failure and acute gastroenteritis at the Trinity Street Nursing Home, Huddersfield. He was buried three days later in Holmfirth cemetery. His wife survived him.

Robert Gate

Sources  

Sports Post [Leeds] (9 Feb 1935–4 May 1936) · V. A. S. Beanland, Great games and great players: some thoughts and recollections of a sports journalist (1945) · A. N. Gaulton, ‘This was a player!’, Rugby League Review, 90 (1950), 4–6 · b. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1939)

Likenesses  

photograph, 1913, repro. in The book of British sporting heroes, ed. J. Huntington-Whiteley (1998) [exhibition catalogue, NPG, 16 Oct 1998–24 Jan 1999]; priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£3502 10s. 9d.: administration, 11 Sept 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales