Hull FC have been in existence for 150 years and one of their club records has stood for 100 of those years.
Jack Harrison was born on 12 November 1890, he was the fourth out of what eventually became seven children to John and Charlotte Harrison. The family lived in Williamson Street and Newbridge Road in East Hull, near to Hull KR’s home ground on Craven Street, Jack even attended Craven Street School.
John (born in 1861) was a plater and boiler maker at Earle’s Shipyard so Jack came from a very humble, but well-to-do, background and his parents were determined to give him the best possible start they could in life so worked tirelessly enabling Jack to gain a place at York St. John’s University at a time when university places were the exclusive right of the wealthy.
While studying there Jack represented the college at swimming, cricket and rugby league, it was this that attracted the attention of York rugby league club and persuaded them to sign him as an amateur. Jack played 5 times for York and scored 3 tries for them.
In 1912 Jack qualified as a teacher and returned to his hometown where he would teach at Lime Street School, everyone expected he would sign for Hull KR because of his East Hull roots and the fact that his father supported them, indeed York had grounds for suspicion that Rovers had made an illegal approach to try and sign him while he was playing for them, but Jack scotched the rumour saying they had approached him before he turned out for York, so it was a big surprise to everyone when he signed professional terms with Rovers hated cross-city rivals Hull FC.
He made his debut for the black and white’s in September 1912 and went on to score 17 tries in his first season for the Airlie Birds. At the time that Jack signed Hull were in the process of putting together a team with the express purpose of winning the Challenge Cup having suffered the fate of being the first team ever to lose 3 consecutive finals in the most famous rugby league competition in the world.
In the 1913-14 season that aim was achieved as Jack scored the second, and decisive, try in the final played at Thrum Hall in Halifax against Wakefield Trinity which Hull won 6-0.
On 1 September 1914 Jack married his sweetheart Lilian Ellis and they set up home in Wharncliffe Street and then Chanterlands Avenue in West Hull. Married life obviously suited him as he then embarked on his record breaking season for the side from The Boulevard scoring 52 tries in the 1914-15 season (not 1913-14 as some publications would have you believe.)
Jack never played rugby league again after that season feeling his place was in the classroom and with Lilian and their new son Jackie before he enlisted for the East Yorkshire Regiment on 4th November 1915 and he was selected for officer training at the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps and was subsequently commissioned as a probationary 2nd Lieutenant.
On 25th March 1917 he won the Military Cross, the citation for this award reads as follows: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He handled his platoon with great courage and skill, reached his objective under the most trying conditions and captured a prisoner. He set a splendid example throughout.
Jack’s battalion of the Hull Pals were then sent to the fight at Oppy Wood in northern France and it was here, on 3 May 1917, that Jack was killed in action. Seeing his men being pinned down and systematically slaughtered in No Man’s Land by fierce German machine gun fire Jack, showing total disregard for his own safety and armed only with a pistol and a mills grenade, dashed single-handed towards the machine gun nest, tragically he was shot dead but only at the time when he threw the grenade at the machine gun which subsequently fell silent and never fired again.
As a result of this outstanding piece of bravery Jack Harrison’s number 6 platoon were able to get to safety and regroup. Unfortunately his body was never found having either sunk into the quagmire of mud that was the battlefield or been blown apart by the heavy artillery shells that hit the battlefield constantly.
His wife was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George 5th in March 1918, the citation for the award which appeared in the London Gazette on 14th June 1917 reads: For the most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice in an attack. Owing to darkness and to smoke from the enemy barrage and from our own, and to the fact that our objective was in a dark wood, it was impossible to see when our barrage had lifted off the enemy front line. Nevertheless 2nd Lieutenant John Harrison led his company against the enemy trench and under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, but was repulsed. Re-organising his command as best he could in No Man’s Land he again attacked in darkness, under terrific fire, but with no success. Then turning round, this gallant officer single-handed made a dash at the machine gun, hoping to knock-out the gun and so save the lives of many of his company. His self-sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all. He is reported missing; presumed dead.
He is the only professional rugby league player to have won the Victoria Cross and it seems highly unlikely that his record of 52 tries in a season for Hull FC will ever be beaten so his name truly belongs in rugby league folklore but not just for his record-breaking try scoring exploits, hero is a word used far too often and easily these days but, in my humble opinion, Jack Harrison defines the word hero.