The Ben Gronow Mystery
Sincere thanks to Sean Fagan [of RL1908.com] for permission to publish the following article and photographs [in conjunction with our very own David Gronow].
Huddersfield's Ben Gronow was one of the best rugby league forwards in the world in the mid-1920s. In May of 1926 the rural town of Grenfell in western NSW secured Gronow as captain-coach.
In the first 50 years of the game in Australia, he would be the only player from an English club to move to NSW or Queensland. How Grenfell secured his signature is a mystery that may never be solved.
Ever since the first Kangaroo tour to England in 1908, there has been a regular transfer of Australian rugby league players to English clubs. Yet it was not until the arrival of the poker machine era in NSW clubs in the late 1950s, that Englishmen seriously contemplated moving to Australia.
Until then there was no financial incentive to sign for a Sydney or Brisbane club. I was somewhat surprised, and slightly baffled, by a few seemingly out of place words in an article from the mid-1920s I recently read.
The article made reference to a then current English Test star playing with a club in rural NSW. What was this all about? In the first 50 years of the game in NSW and Queensland, so every credible source told me, there were no 'pommy imports' playing here.
What would have possessed one lone Englishman in that 50 years to come to Australia?
Well as it turned out the player was Welsh - and even more remarkably he didn't sign with a Sydney or Brisbane club. His name was Ben Gronow and he ventured into western NSW to play for Grenfell.
Why would a current Test player travel from Yorkshire and his current club of Huddersfield - one of the best in the game at the time - to faraway rural NSW?
Surely the Grenfell rugby league club wasn't the holder of vast financial resources. The story seemed to be highly questionable - so I did some digging...
Ben Gronow was a superstar of the game in England. He had been a Welsh RU international fullback and was in fact the man who kicked-off in the first ever game held on the famous Twickenham ground. By mid-1910 he had signed to play rugby league with the Huddersfield club where he quickly established himself as a top forward and prolific goal kicker.
Gronow was a significant part of the famous Huddersfield 'Team of All Talents' that reigned supreme from 1910 to 1920. The team included Harold Wagstaff, Albert Rosenfeld, Stanley Moorhouse, George Todd, Dougie Clark and many other well known players. Former Glebe player Tommy Gleeson was also part of the team.
Ben Gronow was a stonemason by trade. He was by all reports a powerfully built man who stood over 1.8 metres tall. He was also said to have possessed huge hands and slightly elongated arms, which gave him many advantages on the football field. Gronow soon became an English test player and turned out against the touring Australians in 1911.
He would have toured Australia in 1914 but was ruled out after breaking a collarbone. Gronow was still regarded as one of the best two or three forwards in the world after the War and gained selection on both the subsequent Lions tours to Australia in 1920 and 1924.
At this point in Gronow's career, the history books and newspaper archives diverge in their account of what happened next.
Stanley Chadwick's 'Claret and Gold' history of the Huddersfield club tells us that during the 1924 Lions tour of Australia, Gronow was approached by Harry Sunderland (who was the Australian team manager) to take up a coaching offer in Grenfell, in the mid south-west of rural NSW. Chadwick writes that Gronow accepted the offer, returned to Australia in 1926 to play for Grenfell, before moving back to England for the 1927-28 season.
Thanks to the assistance of the Gronow family, Max Solling (Glebe historian), Terry Williams (NSWRL) and the research librarians at the Grenfell and Huddersfield libraries, we can now expand somewhat on Ben Gronow's time with Grenfell - though there are still many unanswered questions!
There are no media reports at all in 1924 of Gronow signing with Grenfell or any other club. Gronow was interviewed by the Huddersfield Examiner in March 1925 which was about six weeks before he sailed for Australia.
Gronow does not mention any deal with Grenfell or Harry Sunderland, however the article notes that it was an open secret that Gronow was 'scouting around' during the 1924 tour of Australia.
It is also clear from the article that Gronow and his young family are emigrating to Australia. He has closed down his business arrangements and is intent on settling in Australia. Gronow says he has three or four employment offers available to him, as well as a similar number of player-coach positions so he won't have to give up his enjoyment of rugby league.
He points out that the decision to move is primarily based on wanting to improve the health of his eldest son who suffers bronchitis and is need of a dryer climate. Gronow is also undecided about where the family will finally settle - he lists Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as options depending upon which is the better environs for his son's well being.
Upon arrival in Sydney the family will be staying with former Huddersfield team mate Tommy Gleeson.
At around this same time, the Grenfell newspaper includes references to the formation of a Grenfell district rugby league club - meaning that in 1924 there was no Grenfell club. There was football being played in the town well before the formation of the district club. The articles also note the club's founders are very keen to secure a prominent coach - to improve playing standards and attract paying customers at the gate.
So with no Grenfell club in existence in 1924, it seems certain that Gronow did not sign to play for anyone while on tour in 1924.
However, the paying of high amounts of money to coaches in regional towns in NSW was rife during the mid-1920s. Many Sydney players took up the opportunities on offer. So it is no surprise that immediately upon forming their club, Grenfell did likewise.
Almost to the day, while Gronow was in England giving the Examiner his final interview before sailing to Australia, Grenfell stunned the rugby league world when they announced their captain-coach would be the great Frank Burge. Their agreement to his high fee had enticed Burge out of retirement.
If Gronow had been promised a position as coach of Grenfell for 1926, he would now have to displace Burge - or at the very least have quite a hard act to follow! The inclusion of Burge in the Grenfell team saw the club gain quite handsome profits from the money taken at the gate to see him play.
At the time, Grenfell played local teams (within a radius of 100kms!) on Wednesdays and Sundays. Sunday games were for the Garden of Roses Cup.
The 1925 season in Australia continues as Gronow sails from England, arriving mid-August.
It is not clear what happened to Gronow and his family over the spring and summer of 1925/26. It must be presumed that they stayed with the Gleeson family in Glebe as stated earlier.
The autumn of 1926 began to see arrangements for the coming season put in place. Grenfell made an offer to Burge to return again as coach asking him to confirm by 18 April 1926.
A furore erupted at the end of April when Claude Corbett, writing for the Sun newspaper in Sydney, took on the issue of country clubs continuing to sign-on big name player coaches - apparently some rural clubs in 1925 almost went for broke trying to keep up with the Sydney players (and some even from New Zealand) being signed by rival towns.
Claude took Burge at Grenfell as 'the centre of this cancer on the game' and bemoaned the player drain being suffered by Sydney clubs as a result. The Grenfell Record fired back at Corbett over his article, pointing out there was apparently no problem if Glebe signed a top player to get the advantage over other Sydney clubs, but Grenfell wasn't allowed to do the same thing in its competition.
Whether Corbett's attack was the reason for it or not is unknown, but by the end of May the Grenfell club and Burge had parted.
There was probably only one other rugby league player in the world that Grenfell could have signed that would have been bigger than Burge - or at least the equal - and that was the signing of Ben Gronow.
What-on-earth Mr. Corbett made of the news in mid May of 1926 that Gronow had been appointed player-coach at Grenfell one could only imagine!
How Gronow was signed by Grenfell is still a mystery. It seems to have transpired very quickly. However, given Gronow was not aligned to any Australian club he obviously had no ties to sever elsewhere. But surely he would have been 'on the look-out' for a club earlier in 1926?
There are reports that Gronow was listed to play for Glebe in 1926 however it seems this didn't eventuate. Gronow had no need to hide his name and his taking the field would have created paragraphs of coverage in Sydney. There is none.
Perhaps it was his intention to play for Glebe and it was curtailed when the Grenfell offer came forward. The timing would have coincided with the start of the Sydney competition.
The connections between Glebe and Grenfell are numerous - these point to an easy transition being possible between when Burge stands down and Gronow arrives. First of all, Burge was a Glebe player and a prominent club man. He would have been well aware of Gronow's presence in Sydney and they had met on the field during the Lions 1920 tour.
Gronow was staying with former Glebe player Tom Gleeson. A prominent player at Grenfell was D. Brolly - his brother E. Brolly was secretary of the Glebe club.
On May 30 1926 Ben Gronow played his first game for Grenfell (wearing royal blue jerseys) against Caragabal in a friendly match. With 'Mr. Gronou' in charge Grenfell won by 37-3. It was reported: "Gronou was the man on whom all interest was centred. The big fellow showed great form with the boot, landing five goals in conditions much against goal-kicking. In view of big matches ahead he was content to watch his men, and to instruct them, and never really looked a trier. It looks as though Gronou will find a team of our chaps."
On the wing that day for Grenfell was young Ernie Mills who scored two tries which were reported as "his tries streaked away from the opposition". Mills made quite an impression on Gronow.
Unfortunately there are few other match reports to work from, one though that is recorded is a late season visit to Grenfell by the famous South Sydney club. The Rabbitohs had accepted an invitation to visit Grenfell and play two matches.
In the first game (Saturday) Grenfell had the edge over the Rabbitohs, who seemed weary from the train trip from Sydney, winning by 27-6 to the delight of the huge crowd. The game was apparently closer than the final scores would suggest, but Grenfell was advantaged by "Gronow (who) often relieved a dangerous situation by a long kick down the ground" and also by his kicking "of a beautiful field goal".
In the second game (Sunday) Grenfell took the lead with fifteen minutes to play by 12-10. However, the Rabbitohs rattled home with two late tries to win 20-12. The Souths side was sparked by the brilliant centre play of Sid Harris. A few seasons later Harris played for Gronow's former club Huddersfield before mysteriously disappearing from Fartown and returning to Australia.
While Gronow was at Grenfell in the winter of 1926 it is not clear where his family was staying. Given the football season was over by mid-August it is possible they remained in Sydney.
However, wherever they were staying had its effects as homesickness took hold amongst the family members and the decision was soon made to return to England.
Before leaving Gronow convinced Grenfell's winger Ernie Mills to travel with them back to England with the offer of a contract with Huddersfield.
Mills went on to be one of Huddersfield's most prolific try scorers and a member of many successful club teams for the 'claret and amber' side between 1927 and 1935. Mills was a school teacher and after retirement from football moved to South Africa where he spent the rest of his life.
Ben Gronow played on in England for a few more seasons turning-out for Huddersfield, Batley and Featherstone Rovers.
And that is as much as we know of Ben Gronow's time in Australia - the first and only player from an English club to play for an Australian club between 1908 and the following 50 years.
Did he have a lucrative deal from Harry Sunderland in 1924? It would appear unlikely, even though Burge's sudden vacating of the Grenfell position could be seen as 'convenient'.
However, given the proliferation of paid coaches in the game in rural NSW at the time, moving to Australia was not a high risk. Gronow though would have earned more money staying in England.
Perhaps his visits in 1920 and 1924 to Australia had ignited a desire to live here. Fuelled by the needs of his son's health for better weather, perhaps football was secondary in his decision to emigrate.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that the most famous forward in the world - Ben Gronow - played for Grenfell.
Ben Gronow in his Lions shirt