Many Rugby players had found it difficult, if not impossible, to play regularly as it meant missing a day's work, with the consequence of the loss in a days earning. "Broken Time" payments was a possible answer to compensate for this loss of income. Generally the southern clubs did not have quite as serious a problem and were less sympathetic.
In 1892 charges of professionalism were made by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) against clubs in Bradford and Leeds, after they compensated players for missing work (although at that time the RFU was allowing other players to be paid (e.g. the 1888 British Isles team that toured Australia)).
In 1893 many Yorkshire clubs complained that southern clubs were dominating the RFU committee, and as all the committee meetings were held in London, this made it difficult, expensive and generally inconvenient for the Yorkshire members to attend. In effect they were arguing that there was a bias by the few southern clubs with "gentlemen" players against the many northern clubs with more "working class" players over the issue of "Broken Time" payments.
The Yorkshire clubs had put forward a proposal that would allow players to receive up to six shillings, if and when they lost a full days work and hence pay because of match commitments. The RFU voted against this and widespread suspensions of Yorkshire clubs began.
These clubs met to discussed a break away, maybe encouraged by the success of the similar action taken in 1888 by the Northern Association football teams.
This meeting was held on Tuesday, 20 August 1895, at a meeting at the Mitre Hotel, Leeds, when the twelve clubs agreed they should form a Northern Union, not as a complete breakaway, but with ties to the RFU. A five-man panel met a sub-committee of the Yorkshire Union to discuss a scheme to settle the 'dispute'. The Union however immediately rejected the proposal out of hand.
On 27 August 1895 an emergency meeting was held by nine Lancashire clubs (Broughton Rangers, Leigh, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan) in Manchester resulting in their support of their Yorkshire counterparts if they decided to break away.
Two days later representatives of 21 top northern clubs met in The George Hotel, Huddersfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, a setting which was to become famous (or infamous) in the world of rugby. These 21 clubs were Batley (established 1880), Bradford 1863, Brighouse Rangers 1878, Broughton Rangers 1877, Dewsbury 1875, Halifax 1873, Huddersfield 1864, Hull 1865, Hunslet 1883, Leeds 1864, Leigh 1878, Liversedge 1877, Manningham 1876, Oldham 1876, Rochdale Hornets 1871, St Helens 1873, Tyldesley 1879, Wakefield Trinity 1873, Warrington 1875, Widnes 1875, Wigan 1872. The reperesentative of the Cheshire club, Stockport, had been unable to attend but had telegraphed the meeting requesting admission to the new organisation and was duly accepted.
The meeting was to discuss, debate and vote on their future. Twenty clubs agreed to resign from the Rugby Union; only Dewsbury did not. A second Cheshire club, Runcorn (1876) were admitted at the next meeting, becoming the twenty-second member in the inaugural season's league.
The following day the Huddersfield Examiner reported: "On Thursday night, a meeting of the representatives of the Senior Clubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire was held at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, to consider the question of the formation of a northern Football Union. The meeting was held in private and lasted close on three hours. At the conclusion, representatives of the press were informed the following men had been present at the meeting: Mr H H Waller (Brighouse), Mr J Platt (Oldham), Mr J Nicholl (Halifax), Mr H Sewell (Leeds), Mr F Lister (Bradford), Mr C A Brewer (Hull), Mr J Clifford (Huddersfield), Mr J L Whittaker (Hunslet), Mr J H Fallas (Wakefield), Mr F Wright (Widnes), Mr E Gresty (Broughton Rangers), Mr J Goodall (Batley), Mr F Dennett (St Helens), Mr J Quirk (Leigh), Mr J Warren (Warrington), Mr G Taylor (Tyldesley), Mr E Wardle (Wigan), Mr A Fattorini (Manningham), Mr W Brierley (Rochdale Hornets), Mr J H Hampshire (Liversedge) and Mr C Holdsworth (Dewsbury). Mr Waller was elected to the chair and Mr Platt was elected secretary. The first resolution adopted was: "The clubs here represented decide to form a Northern Rugby Football Union, and pledge themselves to push forward without delay its establishment on the principle of payment for bona fide broken time only."
With the resolution passed at the George the "Northern Rugby Football Union" (usually termed Northern Union or NU) came into existence.
The RFU authorities took immediate action against clubs, officials and players from the breakaway clubs, together with anyone who played with or against them.
They (the RFU) issued a decree banning the playing of rugby at grounds where entrance fees were charged
In fact any player who had any contact with the Northern Union was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match.
Many other similar and seemingly petty and ridiculous incidents took place including in .
Possibly most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered by the governing body of rugby union, the RFU, not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley.
The NRFU became the Northern Rugby Football League in the summer of 1922
Eventually the "Northern" was dropped from its name in the summer of 1980.
During the first season the clubs competed in one league. For the second season, with the expansion by 8 new clubs to 30, the clubs competed in two separate regional leagues (Lancashire/Cheshire & Yorkshire).
During this second season, the Northern Rugby Football Union Challenge Cup was introduced by the Northern Union. In 1896 Fattorini's of Bradford were commissioned to manufacture the Challenge Cup at a cost of just £60. Fattorini's also supplied winners' medals, 15-carat gold medals £3 3s apiece.
The first competition was held at the end of this 1896–97 season with 56 clubs entering. The first final was held at Headingley in Leeds, on 24 April 1897. Batley defeated St Helens 10-3 in front of a crowd of 13,492
Round 1 involved 20 matches and 40 clubs. 12 additional clubs (Batley, Bradford Church Hill, Brighouse Rangers, Crompton, Heckmondwike, Liversedge, St Helens Recs, Stockport, Swinton Church, Thornton Rangers, Tyldesley and Werneth) were given a bye to the next round.
Round 2 involved 16 matches and 32 clubs.
Round 3 involved 8 matches and 16 clubs.
The quarter finals involved four matches and eight clubs.
The semi finals involved two matches and four clubs. Due to a waterlogged pitch, the tie between St Helens and Swinton was postponed until Monday 19 April.
The final took place on 24 April 1897 at Headingley. The official attendance was 13,492, with gate receipts of £624.17.7d. The cup was presented by Mrs Waller, the wife of the president of the Northern Union.