Lying on the Eastern side of River Hull and becoming of the biggest names in Rugby League, Hull Kingston Rovers have had a unique history. After early success in the 1920s the club rose once again to become one of the most feared rugby league teams in the country; forming one half of a bitter rivalry which still rumbles on today.
Formation and Acceptance into the Northern Union
The origins of Hull Kingston Rovers actually started on the Western side of the river in the working class districts of Hessle Road. A group of local apprentice boilermakers formed the club in the 1882 and played on a piece of waste ground on Albert Street. They first competed in the Hull and District League as “Kingston Amateurs,” before evolving their name into “Hull Kingston Rovers by 1885. The new team played in red and white shirts, something which has changed little in over 100 years of existence. The club soon earned them a nickname, “The Robins.”
In the 1887-8 season, Kingston Rovers enjoyed their first taste of success, winning the Times Cup after beating Selby A in the final. They even managed to defend this title in the next season too.
The Robins were a nomadic club at first, wandering to different grounds across West Hull, such as Chalk Lane, Anlaby Road and even The Boulevard, which would become home to their rivals, Hull FC. By 1896 the club finally crossed the river to Craven Street, just off Holderness road. It is here they stayed, building up a following on the Eastern side of the city, while their more established rivals stayed to the west. Traditionally, those born on the eastern side of the river Hull support Kingston Rovers, while those brought up on the western bank follow Hull FC.
Despite playing many fixtures against local opposition and participation in the Yorkshire Cup through the late 1880s and 90s, they were not part of the breakaway Northern Union, who famously formed at the George Hotel at Huddersfield in 1895. Instead they were still under the governance of the RFU (Rugby Football Union,) which was the London- based code, Rugby Union.
Hull KR wished to be involved with the breakaway group and not be under the control of the RFU. This was largely for the same financial reasons that the bigger northern clubs broke away in 1895, so they could pay their players and compensate them for their loss of work earnings. Moreover, sanctions were imposed on Northern clubs by the RFU, which banned players from the sport if they received any payment to play. This pushed smaller clubs, such as Hull KR towards the breakaway Rugby League group. In order to help them so this, for a time, the rugby club combined resources with a local football team, Albany, who went on to become Hull City AFC. This enabled the club to grow and now, with a permanent ground at Craven Street, they could start to upgrade their status in the sport.
At this point, KR were still playing in the RFU controlled domestic competition. After another Northern club, West Riding RUFC dropped out of the top division, Rovers were promoted to take their place. Amazingly they did a league and cup double in the RFU Division One. Finally this gave Hull KR the recognition they craved and were invited into the Northern Union for the beginning of the 1898-99 season. This now meant their players could be paid loss of earnings without facing the consequences. They started life in the new code by storming the Second Division, comfortably winning promotion to the top flight of the Yorkshire Senior League. This meant they came face to face with their city rivals, Hull FC. The first ever Hull derby was played, with KR prevailing 8-2, watched by 14,000 people.
At the turn of the century Rugby League, as it was now first termed, underwent a series of changes. The top seven teams from each county formed a “Division 1,” while the remaining teams competed in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Senior Leagues.” Due to a high amount of Yorkshire clubs it meant bizarrely, and for one season only, Hull Kingston Rovers competed in the Lancashire League, in which they finished 5th!
The authorities saw sense the next year, with the County Leagues abandoned and the structure of Rugby League forming two divisions, in which Hull KR started in the top flight. In 1905-6 the two divisions were merged into one large league of up to 31 teams in a given season. Each team would play other clubs from their home county (e.g Hull KR would play all the Yorkshire teams home and away, while a Lancashire team, such as Wigan would only play all the teams from their county. The results would then be displayed in one large league table, with the top four teams taking part in a 4-team play-offs, culminating in a grand final, as is familiar today. This rather unusual regional system continued right up until 1970.
Hull KR appeared in their first Challenge Cup final, losing out to Warrington in 1905. They also lost to Huddersfield in the final of the 1911 Yorkshire Cup.
Success during the Inter-war years
Suspension of professional sport during the Great War years extended to both rugby codes. The two separate county leagues re-appeared for the 18-19 season. At the resumption of full competition in 1919, Hull KR finished 19th out of 25, with their fans having to endure celebrations from across the river. The following season they topped the table, but lost 14-16 in the playoff final at Headingley against their local rivals, who were enjoying a golden post-war period.
In 1922, Hull Kingston Rovers moved once again, this time further down Holderness Road to “old” Craven Park. This change of scenery seemed to do them some good, as they swept to their first ever Rugby League title, by beating Huddersfield 15-5 in the playoff final.
The 1924-5 season saw KR win both the Yorkshire League Cup, the League Championship Cup and finish runners up in the Challenge Cup. In 1929 they repeated their Yorkshire Cup success, beating Hunslet 13-7 in the final.
Despite their on-field successes during the previous decade, the 1930s saw the club face financial difficulties, as most of the country felt the pinch during the Great depression. Things came to a head in 1938 when they were forced to sell Craven Park to a Greyhound racing company and become their tenants. The war years saw once again the suspension of the normal leagues.
Hull KR continued to struggle after the war and finished more often than not in the bottom half of the first division. It took until the late 50s for Hull KR to smell the success they had enjoyed now over a generation ago. Finally in 1962 the trophy cabinet was dusted down to house another Yorkshire Cup, this time after a 13-10 win over Huddersfield. As the 60s rolled on Hull KR improved further, culminating in two back to back Yorkshire Trophies in 1967 and ’68, plus a second placed finish in the Yorkshire League. They finally succumbed to Wakefield Trinity in the playoff semi-final, but this run meant that Hull KR were back among the elite of Rugby League once again.
Return to the top
In 1970s the structure of Rugby League changed. After a short re-appearence of a two division structure from 62-64, before reverting back to the big 30 team league at the end of the decade. In 1970 the Yorkshire and Lancashire separation finally ended, meaning that all teams from the two counties played each other during the regular season.
In this brave new world Hull KR were once again challenging for honours with their fellow Yorkshire teams. By ’73, the league structure had reverted once again to two divisions, with promotion and relegation introduced. KR were competing in the top flight, but were one of the first clubs to lose their top flight status, after falling through this new trapdoor in ’74. They finished second in the second division and were back among the elite the following year.
Then, Hull Kingston Rovers enjoyed one of the most successful periods in their history. They also had one of their most famous players in the team, Roger Millward. The Castleford born stand-off had been on the club’s books from as far back as 1966, when he joined for £6,000 and helped Rovers to consecutive Yorkshire Cups in the late 60s. He was made captain at the age of 21 and tallied a total of 1825 points in 413 matches, over a glittering 14 year career in East Hull. After a short sabbatical to play for Aussie Rugby team, Cronulla Sutherland Sharks he returned to Hull as player-coach in 1977 after the untimely death of coach Harry Poole.
The returning Millward saw him join up with other rugby league stars who would equally become legends of the club. Speedy winger, Clive Sullivan, who had also played for Hull FC crossed the river in 1974. Loose forward, Phil Hogan, a then world record signing of £33,000 from Barrow joined in 1978 and other experienced pros, such as Phil Lowe, Steve Hubbard and Paul Rose formed to create a winning team.
Under Millward’s leadership, Hull KR went on to briefly dominate English Rugby League in the late 70s to the mid-80s.
It all started with Rovers’ first title in 54 years in 1979, when they finished top of the league with 46 points. The pinnacle would come in the following year..
The Battle of Hull May 3rd 1980
The Challenge Cup Final of 1980 was a massive sporting occasion when Hull KR and Hull FC clashed at Wembley.
The 3rd of May 1980 is one of the best known dates in Hull’s sporting history. It is the time when an entire city made the journey 200 miles south to Wembley Stadium in London for the Challenge Cup Final. Famously, a temporary road sign on the A63, leaving Hull was graffitied with, ” the last one out please turn the lights off!” The ancient river rivalry, which had simmered away in a corner of East Yorkshire for nearly 100 years was being brought to national prominence for the first time ever. This was the only time before or since that both the Hull clubs had battled their way to the final of this prestigious knockout tournament.
In the black and white corner were; Woods, Bray, Walters, Wilby, Prendiville, Newlove, Pickerall, Tindall, Wileman, Stone, Birdsall, Lloyd and Norton,
For the Red & Whites were; Hall, Hubbard, Smith, Hartley, Sullivan, Millward, Agar, Holdstock, Watkinson, Lockwood, Rose, Lowe and Casey.
At the first whistle, the two tribes tore into each other urged on by vociferous fans and a cauldron-like atmosphere. North London had never seen anything quite like it- not even for an FA Cup Final. After seven minutes, the deadlock was broken. Holdstock fed Agar, who released a pass to the onrushing winger, Hubbard, who burst past three FC defenders and touched down to send the Robins fans into raptures. A conversion was failed, but another penalty was converted soon after to give KR a 5-0 advantage.
Hull FC were on the ropes yet again, when during another KR attack, the ball landed in the hands of their star turn, Millward, who released a pass to Phillp Lowe… Crunch! A high arm smacked Millward in the jaw, breaking it for the third time that year. The resulting penalty was converted, 7-0 to the Robins. Hull FC hit back, with constant pressure on the KR tryline resulting in Tim Wilby crossing to reduce the deficit to seven points to three. The conversion was missed.
Up the other end and the experienced Millward, still in pain from his broken jaw, knew just what was required- a drop goal, worth only one point but in a tight, bruising affair such as this; could make all the difference. Hull KR 8-3 Hull FC at the half-time hooter.
The tight, bruising affair continued after the break, with Hull FC enjoying most of the possession and sets of six tackles. A penalty from Sammy Lloyd reduced the deficit even further to 8-5. Then, with minutes to go Hubbard kicked one last final penalty to seal the Challenge Cup for Hull Kingston Rovers for the first time in their history. The thirty-two year old Roger Millward lifted the trophy and sent the Rovers fans home jubilantly to East Hull. Nursing his broken jaw, it would also be the last time Millward would play rugby again.
The 1980s- Boom Time!
Roger Millward retired to concentrate solely on management after the Challenge Cup final win. George Fairburn arrived in the summer of ’81 for a record £72,500 transfer fee and Clive Sullivan finally left Hull to wind down his career at Oldham; as Hull KR pushed for honours. They were the early 80s nearly men, losing a Challenge Cup Final to Widnes and then finishing runners up in 1982/83 season behind Hull FC. Then a breakthrough.
In 1983/84 new rules were applied to Rugby League. After a set of six tackles, the “handover” was introduced, instead of a scrum, along with the number of points for a try increasing to four points; in order to encourage more attacking rugby. Hull KR were the quickest to adapt to these rules, pipping their local rivals to the first division title by one point. KR retained their title in 1985, winning the league by three points over St Helens. The legend Millward had managed to make the East Hull side one of the most feared team in rugby league.
The path to obscurity
Part of Hull KR’s sudden fall from the pinnacle of English rugby league to second division obscurity by the mid Nineties had a combination of reasons.
On May 11th 1985, as Hull KR were still basking in the glory of back-to back titles, around 65 miles away at Valley Parade in Bradford came the worst day of this football’s club’s history. The Bradford fire shocked not just football, but the sporting world in general. Clubs large and small of all codes began looking at the safety of their own grounds for spectators. Hull Kingston Rovers’ ground, Craven Park had changed little since they’d played their first match there back in 1922. While the club had managed to retain ownership of the ground by buying out their greyhound racing landlords back in the 70s, many of the facilities needed upgrading to meet the new standards set for ground safety, after the Bradford fire.
The maintenance work which took place at Craven Park during the late 80s led to stands being closed off to fans and therefore reduced attendances. Coupled with the mounting costs of this maintenance work it had an effect on the club both on and off the field.
In the end it was decided that a new purpose built stadium would be built- new Craven Park, further along Holderness Road. On 9th April 1989 Hull KR played their last game at the old stadium. The old ground is nowadays a branch of Morrisons.
These haunting photos show the old Craven Park, which was home to Hull Kingston Rovers between 1922-1989.
By this time, the unthinkable had happened, Hull Kingston Rovers had been relegated and they started life in their new home in the second tier of English rugby league. The new stadium urged on by increasing attendances won the Second Division title back to the top flight once again. A couple of seasons later, Kingston Rovers were relegated and then, crucially missed the boat in qualifying for the biggest transformation that Rugby League had ever seen- the dawn of Superleague. In the 1994-5 season they finished 8th, meaning the club was condemned to the newly formed “Second Division,” which was now to become the third tier of English rugby league. It was a dramatic fall from grace. Instead of Leeds, Wigan, Widnes and Castleford coming over to East Hull, they found themselves hosting the likes of the ailing Bramley, Ryedale York and that rugby league powerhouse, Carlisle.
The centenary season from the first Rugby League season was more a preparation for the new superleague era. Wigan, who had dominated through much of the late 80s and 90s won the last ever title of 1995, but it hardly mattered as the pom pom girls were in rehearsal for a brave new world.
The new Craven Park became the home of Hull Kingston Rovers in 1989. Source: Peter Church (Wikipedia creative commons)
Hull KR in the Superleague era
As the elite of rugby league turned to the blue skies of summer, Hull Kingston Rovers were left in the doldrums of the newly created Second Division. To make matters worse as part of the new superleague franchise requirements several mergers were mooted across the sport to make them more competitive and of course more marketable. The idea of Hull Kingston Rovers merging with their great city rivals was about as popular as banning Christmas. Hell indeed would have to freeze over before “Team Hull” or even WORSE, “Team Humberside” ever crossed the white line of a rugby pitch as a united force!
So the Second Division it was as Hull Kingston Rovers, the once great force in Rugby League reduced to playing the lesser lights of the game. Just over ten years since they won back to back rugby league titles they repeated the same feat in the dead end 1995-6 season and in the inaugral year of Superleague in 1996; albeit in the lower league. Their second title at least gained them promotion to the second tier of English Rugby League.
Playing against lower quality opposition at a new stadium, which was further out of town and less popular with fans saw attendances fall dramatically. This loss of income meant severe financial problems took hold of the club in 1997, forcing them to call in the administrators.
Then, out of the blue, a cup final and a trophy- The one and only Silk Cut Challenge Plate, a sub-tournament competed by teams who were knocked out in the early rounds of the Challenge Cup. Hull KR thrashed Hunslet 60-14 in the final to restore some pride in the club and mark their first Wembley visit since that famous game in 1980. The result was thanks to a fantastic hat trick from Papua New Guinea international, Stanley Gene.
The club was eventually saved by former Hull City FC chairman, Don Robinson in 2001 and the club managed to avoid closure.
The early Millennium saw further progress at the club and a 18-16 Northern Rail Cup final victory over Castleford in 2005, where they managed to overturn a 10-2 half time deficit.
Then in 2006, Hull KR won the second tier of rugby league and a place in that division’s Grand Final, of which they overcame Widnes Vikings 29-16, to seal a place in the Superleague and back among the elite of Rugby League once again.
Over the past ten years, Hull KR have maintained their Superleague status, with Craven Park proudly hosting top class rugby league once more. They made another Wembley appearance in 2015, but were thrashed 60-0 by the all-conquering Leeds Rhinos side, who won the treble.
The 2016 campaign started with a 16-16 draw against Castleford Tigers, as once again the rugby team from East Hull seeks to challenge for major honours once again and get one over that other team from across the river.