Potovens women’s rugby team on the other side of the world

It was surprising to see Potovens, the old name for Wrenthorpe, crop up in of all places, Papua New Guinea. This account from over 80 years ago speaks volumes of  imperial attitudes to the indigenous people. But also outlines the life of a redoubtable woman who introduced rugby league to Papua New Guinea. Janet Cowling taught the natives rugby following the death of her husband in 1929.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
Friday 21 January 1938


I like the story of Mrs Janet Cowling, the West Riding woman who has taught the natives of Papua to play football as a method of keeping them out of mischief. Since it first appeared I have learnt further details of this epic of South Seas.

Mrs Cowling must be one the most remarkable women to represent the Yorkshire spirit and tradition in this far-flung Empire of ours. She left the Spen Valley district, something like 20 years ago for Papua, otherwise New Guinea, one of the South Sea Islands, to become housekeeper to a planter on the Fly River. Later she married him, and when he died a few years ago she inherited the estate upon which she now rules like a queen – every ounce a queen, I should say, since she is reputed weigh 20 stone, and is tall in proportion.

Even for woman of Mrs Cowling’s bulk, stature and mental calibre, the job keeping the natives in order upon her extensive plantations is no easy matter, as can be imagined when one recalls that within this present century inland tribes were known to be savage and addicted to cannibalism.

Keen Rivalry

That was why she hit upon the idea or teaching them to play Rugby – rather upon Rugby League lines, I suspect. Anyhow, she has organised four men’s teams, which she has named Bradford, Sheffield, Wakefield and Leeds. They play league matches every week, and, visitors say, the rivalry between teams and followers is as keen as anything you ever heard or saw on grounds ’twixt Trent and Tweed.

It appears that the enthusiasm engendered the male teams induced Mrs Cowling to organise two women’s teams, which, doubt in memory of happy days at home, she named Heckmondwike and Potovens. Unfortunately, however, the women’s teams and their supporters permit the combative spirit to overcome decorum, and matches had be suspended for a time by way of necessary discipline until the players learned not to fight one another for possession of the ball.

There is trophy for the winners of the men’s league championship – a sow. Friendly matches, I gather, are fairly friendly, but the final for the trophy rarely ends until one team or the other is completely disabled.

I don’t know the name of the referee. They apparently want one with a loud whistle and a strong hand.

Four years later, following the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, the Evening Post expresses its concern as to her safety.

Yorkshire Evening Post
Thursday 29 January 1942


All this news from New Guinea raises speculation about Mrs Janet Cowling, Yorkshirewoman who managed a big rubber estate and controlled large native population In Western Papua…

Mrs Cowling was a busy, modest woman who would say very little about herself, but she described how, with her baby daughter, she had gone trading in a small sea launch in all weathers, and how alligators meandered under her house. I hope all is well with her.

Presumably Cowling and her daughter spent part of he war in a Japanese internment camp. A quick bit of Googling turns up a photo of her grave. She died in November 1945.