Rugby museum looks set for library site instead of George Hotel

Council chiefs have revealed that hosting the much trumpeted National Rugby League Museum within Huddersfield’s iconic George Hotel may not be “compatible” with bringing the building back into use as hotel accommodation.

Monday, 13th December 2021, 9:00 am
The George Hotel at St George’s Square in Huddersfield

The shock admission came at a full meeting of Kirklees Council at Huddersfield Town Hall.

The shift in direction has been criticised as “a U-turn” and “a monumental mistake”.

Huddersfield won the bid to host a museum in June 2020 following a close-fought battle with rivals Wigan and after the council said it was to buy the building for £1.8m.

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A plaque on the exterior of Huddersfield’s George Hotel detailing its unique link to the origins of rugby league

The George was seen by many – including the charity Rugby League Cares, which will run the museum – as clinching the deal.

In her first visit to the council, West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin said she understood the museum would be part of the £250m regeneration of Huddersfield town centre and that it would go “into what was the library”.

She was referring to Grade II-listed Huddersfield Library and Art Gallery on Princess Alexandra Walk.

Later in the meeting senior councillor Peter McBride appeared to confirm what Ms Brabin had announced.

He said: “The extension of – and very expensive work on – the George suggests that relocation of the museum and rebuilding of the hotel may not be compatible objectives.

“If that not be so, our priority must be the re-opening of the hotel.”

He said the council’s commitment in 2020 – that the George would be the home of the museum – were given “in good faith”.

He added: “We honestly made a commitment to presume we could do that. It would appear, from the evidence I’ve been given now, that may not be possible.”

He said the primary objective of the council’s purchase of the George was to provide “a first-class hotel” and that that “must take precedence” over the museum.

He said moving the museum to what has been dubbed the “cultural heart” of the so-called Huddersfield Blueprint “would be most fitting if not the perfect location from a rugby league perspective.”

Questions to Ms Brabin and Coun McBride came from Coun Andrew Cooper (Green, Newsome), whose ward includes Huddersfield town centre.

He has set up an online petition calling on the council to honour its promise to make the George the base for the museum.

It has been signed by almost 8,300 people.

Coun Cooper pointed out that money to help restore the Grade II-listed George Hotel, where rugby league was founded in 1895, had been provided by West Yorkshire Combined Authority through its Getting Building Fund.

Speaking after the meeting he said he was astounded that the council received cash from WYCA, which is chaired by the mayor, “on the basis that the refurbished George Hotel would be the home to the Rugby League Museum.

“Millions have been committed to this project and we will get something quite different. This is a monumental mistake by the council on so many levels.”

He asked whether Rugby League Cares was aware of the change in the council’s plans given that it backed a Huddersfield bid on basis of a museum being within the George Hotel.

Coun Cooper added: “This doesn’t look like a partnership of equals at all. It very much looks like the council calling the shots with a ‘take it or leave it’ approach.

“The Labour leadership have clearly lost control of this issue and are floundering. Having promised one thing, now they are proposing to deliver something quite different.

“It is clear that Mayor Brabin inadvertently revealed the council plans to put the Rugby League Museum [in an] alternative venue. It is sadly a further example of an increasingly secretive council.”

The Conservatives’ Coun Martyn Bolt has previously asked the council if it has created a business plan for the George.

He said: “I am very disappointed that despite requests and promises we have not seen a business plan to show how much the council taxpayer will have to pay out to restore the George and subsequently how cabinet hope to make it pay.

“Otherwise we risk following Labour-run Croydon Council into financial ruin.”

Academic Professor Tony Collins, one of Britain’s leading experts on sports history and heritage, said the council had changed its mind “without any consultation at all”.

He said: “The George Hotel was derelict for years, and it was only the prospect of rugby league returning to its spiritual home which breathed life back into the building.

“But now the council has done a U-turn and kicked out rugby league. Why is the culture of ordinary people always the first to be sacrificed?

“The past few weeks have demonstrated the hollowness of the national government’s commitment to Northern England.

“Now it seems Kirklees Council has also abandoned its commitment to one of the North’s most important cultural institutions, rugby league, and its iconic home.”