At Gallery Oldham we are delighted to have many items from the Oldham Rugby League Heritage Trust in our collections. Oldham has a long history of playing Rugby League football.

This week we are focusing on one of their star players – Joe Ferguson – and the selection of caps he was awarded over the years.

Joe joined Oldham in 1899; he made over 600 appearances and played his last game in April 1923 at St. Helens, aged 44.

According to The Standard newspaper, the secret to his long career was that ‘he is a non-smoker, teetotaller and further he has always looked after himself and has done his training in a regular way.’

Joe represented England at 15, 13 and 12 a-side rugby football. Surprisingly, he never got to play in a test rated international, but he did captain the England team during the 1907 victory against New Zealand.

He was selected for the 1910 Great Britain Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand but declined to go ‘for business reasons’.

Joe was playing in a new era of rugby. In 1895 twelve Yorkshire and nine Lancashire clubs, including Oldham, resigned from the Rugby Football Union to set up the Northern Rugby Football Union (later renamed the Rugby Football League).

This was so that they could pay their amateur players a set amount of money to make up for any wages they lost from their day jobs.

Although Northern Union players were paid a small amount to play – it didn’t cover the costs of living and most continued to work. Often, they were offered jobs to entice them to join professional Northern Union clubs.

Joe was a groundsman at Watersheddings for some of the time he was at Oldham but there is also evidence that he was a coal miner.

During the First World War his brief army experience was cut short so that he could return to the mine to help reduce the coal shortage.

Sportsmen had to balance rugby with other work commitments. In an age before aeroplanes, travelling across the world to Australia to represent your country would have required several months off work. Some employers would not have looked upon this favourably which may explain his decision not to go on the Great Britain Lions tour of 1910.