Bob Seddon embodied both the spirit and the tragedy of Mancunian rugby in the 1880s. He was an orphan boy who became a Broughton Rangers legend, and just the second Ranger to play rugby union for England.
In 1887, however, he fell out with the club after using club money to purchase a dinner suit. Seddon insisted he had been given permission to do so, but to avoid accusations of professionalism (the issue that would eventually tear the sport in two), Broughton Rangers sacked Seddon.
He was quickly snapped up by Swinton, and the following year he was invited to captain the first British team to tour Australia. It was there he met his sad end, drowning in the Hunter River after his rowing boat capsized. He was just 28. Since that day, few players from the Manchester district have matched Seddon’s achievements.
The First Broughton Ranger
Robert Seddon was born on 21st October 1860 in Salford. He and his brother were orphans and were educated in Manchester, before Bob got work at “a large woollen establishment”. He started turning rugby heads as a teenager, playing with Hightown, a club that in 1877 provided the raw material for the newly-formed Broughton Rangers. Seddon played in Rangers’ very first game, against Birch Hornets in Rusholme, on the 13th October that year. They won.
Seddon’s youth and power epitomised the early, raucous days of the Rangers, tenacious both on and off the pitch. A full back in his youth, he quickly transferred his services to the forward pack, and never looked back.
However, like many of Mrs Boardman’s Boys, he could not resist the charms of their more famous neighbours next door, and in 1882, Seddon joined Broughton. Two years later, however, he was back with the Rangers, and remained there until 1887. In these years Seddon made quite the name for himself.
“Untiring and brilliant”
“A splendid dribbler, a capital tackler, and a wonderfully good judge of the game.”
“One of the best forwards in the North.”
Dinner Jackets and Dark Blues
That year, Seddon was selected by England for their match against Ireland in London. Under the strict amateurism then imposed by the RFU, players were allowed to claim expenses from their club for international fixtures, but could not (officially) accept any other payments from their team. Seddon asked the Rangers to fund his travel, some new kit, and a dinner jacket for the post-match feast.
Bob Seddon, as depicted in Athletic News 20th August 1888
Seddon might have been trying it on, but he claimed (plausibly) that the Rangers had signed off on his request, so he went ahead and bought the jacket. The club, however, later alleged that they had said no such thing, and sacked Seddon. Their extreme reaction was likely done to assure that they did not fall foul of the RFU’s anti-professionalism crusade.
The whole affair played out in public. Soon after leaving the Rangers, Seddon was “court-martialled” (as the Athletic News put it) by local RFU bigwigs J McLaren and JH Payne and, found not to have breached the rules, received no ban. Contemporary onlookers, however, could not help but feel that Seddon had been hard done by, especially when considering his years of service to the team. Broughton Rangers’ public derision of Seddon was very rare and unusual for a club that had always taken great care of its players.
Their loss. Seddon joined Swinton, and fit right in with the Dark Blues, who were then feared across the country. Rangers, without their leader, struggled, as the Athletic News quipped:
“Swinton and Salford have each given the Broughton Rangers a dressing gown – beg parden, I mean a dressing down. Soon they will have no use for dress suits, and will prefer to be clothed in the proverbial ‘sackcloth and ashes.'”
In January 1888, the cricketers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury were putting together the first squad to tour Australia. They asked Seddon to join them, who was initially cautious, having recently married and with a child on the way, but he eventually accepted. He took the train from Manchester Central Station for the last time, and boarded the boat at Plymouth.
It is said that on the voyage out to Australia, he was nearly washed overboard in choppy waters, and remarked “I don’t think I was born to be drowned.”
The tour is often retroactively referred to as the first “Lions” tour, but that isn’t quite right. For starters, there were no Irishmen. Secondly, they didn’t just play rugby, but also “Victoria Rules”, now known as Aussie Rules (and they did quite well!). Lastly, the tour was never sanctioned by the RFU, deemed a money-making exercise not in keeping with the Corinthian spirit within which they thought the game existed.
Bob Seddon was made team captain, and was well received both on and off the pitch by the Aussies. As captain, he criticised the RFU’s decision to ban Halifax star Jack Clowes, and defended his players against accusations of professionalism.
After their twentieth fixture, the team remained overnight in Maitland, NSW. The next day, Bob Seddon went sculling on the Hunter River. He was a strong rower and swimmer. 200 yards out from the docks, he capsized, and was for some reason unable to swim himself to safety.
“Poor Bob Seddon”
Seddon’s passing devastated the touring party, and the rest of the tour took on a sombre mood. The sadness was such that Shrewsbury failed to telegraph the news back home, and his friends and family in Manchester only learned of his death weeks later when it was reported in a minor London sports page.
Illustration of Bob Seddon’s memorial stone, in Athletic News, 20th December 1888
His death sent shockwaves through the Manchester rugby community. Broughton Rangers and Salford both expressed their condolences. Upon the tour’s return, Swinton organised a benefit match between the Lions and the “Lions” – that is to say, the touring team versus Swinton – to raise money for his brother and his family. 6000 came to watch.
Bob Seddon was buried in Maitland Cemetery, Australia His funeral was organised and funded by the Maitland community and by well-wishers from across Australia. His grave is marked by a large memorial stone, and is kept in good condition by the locals.
It was tragic and short, but Seddon’s life was one of the most remarkable, interesting and important in Manchester rugby.
With thanks to the World Rugby Museum for assistance
Read Bob Seddon’s obituary in the Otago Witness, 31st August 1888