A History of Roses: Across the Decades

Various sports at Roses alongside the Roses logo

For York students, Roses is the absolute highlight of the sporting year. Resurrecting the spirit of the Wars of the Roses, the weekend-long tournament brings together sporting teams, student media, and crowds of supporters to pit York and Lancaster against each other in an epic battle to see who will win. 

In spite of York’s defeat this year, we take a look back across the decades to see how students have battled it out and made countless memories in this iconic tournament for nearly 60 years. 

1960s

Thanks to the work of York and Lancaster students alongside the cooperation of the Vice Chancellors Lord James of Rusholme and Sir Charles Carter, the first ever Roses matches took place in the 1960s, with the first official tournament on the 15 May 1965.

The sporting matches encompassed several days filled with rowing, table tennis, relay race, mixed field hockey and even tug of war. The ‘Carter-James’ trophy, aptly named after the chancellors, became the much sought out reward for the universities’ triumph. Tug of War was also quite the sensation, and as Nousport commented in 1967: “Two strong tugs by York were more than a match for the Lancaster eight who slithered and slipped before falling to the ground like so many jellies.” 

  • The headline from News of the North, 'Roses 'War' for sports only next to a view of the boats on the river
  • 'Tug o war Lancaster Wobble Out'
  • Lancaster versus York, 11.30 am Saturday 4th May 1968

One alum, Roy, remembers organising one of the first Roses’ balls: “Creating the ball involved making the main entrance of Heslington Hall the only way in, turning the Dining hall into a night club, and a full buffet eating area. A giant marquee was erected over the fountains at the rear of the hall.”

1970s

The York Rowing team ushered in the new decade with success at Roses in 1971, and York continued on to win the tournament that year. As one rower remembers it: “That year the Roses week was at York, and we opened the Boat House before the race. We beat Lancaster (two lengths) in front of the VC, Lord James, who was very pleased.”

This decade also saw the only time that Lancaster and York drew against each other. 

“It was somewhat humorous to see that the Carter James trophy, is in fact one of the smallest of the 29 trophies that were presented.”

Commentary on Roses 1975, featured in ‘Nousport’
  • 'Dear Lancaster we'll be back! Regards York' surrounded by 'Roses 77' logos
  • Various women wearing Hockey uniform are running along a field with hockey sticks
  • two rowing boats filled with rowers are racing along the River Ouse
  • A poster describing Roses weekend 1971 in York, York University v Lancaster Friday 30th April to Sunday 2nd May
  • Two rows of men are stood together and wearing white cricket jumpers on a field

Overall Lancaster came out on top across the 70s, avoiding defeat for the 6th successive time and scoring an away victory in 1977. The 1977 Roses report from York was grief stricken: touting headlines such as ‘apocalyptic golf’, ‘hot air fails’ and ‘dashed hopes’. But York bounced back stronger than ever, and went on to win in 78’ and 79’. 

1980s

By the 1980s over 30 sports were taking part in the tournament, from golf and rowing, to football and croquet. As for the scores Lancaster won 6 times across the decade, while York 4. For the Roses 21st birthday weekend the Tug of War was resurrected, where it took place as a mixed event with 4 men and 4 women on each side. Roses also celebrated its 25th anniversary (silver jubilee) in 1989!

“1989 saw the exciting prospect of Women’s football five-aside and eleven-aside, an unusual treat for the ladies of York for whom tennis and badminton were still the predominant choice.”

History of the Roses feature in 2003 Roses programme. According to another 2003 Athletic Union Handbook, it’s this football match in 1989 that we have to thank for our successful Women’s Football Club.
  • A group of women playing rugby at Roses, underneath details of how York took an early lead and eventually scoring 13-4
  • 'Roses us versus them' Explaining the tradition of Roses and details of a Roses film
  • 'The 21st Roses weekend', explaining that it's Roses 21s birthday and a tug of war match will be held

1990s

York stormed into the 90s with a historic three win streak at the start of the decade, and a dramatic away victory was secured for only the second time since 1978 in Lancaster.

As the tournament got bigger, so did the accompanying festivities. The weekend featured club nights across the cities, a beer tent, and even a York vs Lancaster Bungee run in 1997! Fundraising has also remained a mainstay of the tournament, with thousands of pounds being raised for charities over the years, alongside regular community activities. All the extra activity didn’t come without a lot of hard work behind the scenes from students, staff and a Roses committee.

  • 98 Roses cover with Lancaster University Athletics Union holding a banner on the front
  • A male cricket team are sat together on a pitch, wearing white uniform
  • 'It's not just a load of balls' next to a Roses themed beer and details of non sporting events

2000s

Despite losing in 2000, the White Rose returned stronger and in 2002 York won by just a single point. And as the millennium ushered in the digital age, so came new ways to watch Roses – with large screens broadcasting the matches across campus. There were even options to ‘text in’ a message to the big screen, or receive score updates via text message.

Fans continued to support York devotedly (which included reports of ‘streakers’ some years!). One BBC article we came across hilariously notes that during the 2005 match:

“The side of the hockey pitch endured a hailstorm that caused the men’s 1st XI game temporarily suspended as the pitch turned white. Not letting the weather dampen their spirits, one group of York supporters formed a pitch-side band, including a guitar, bongo drums and a didgeridoo.”

  • A supporting wearing a white face paint, and sunglasses
  • The Roses 2000 logo next to people playing table tennis, football, basketball, and pool - with details of the various matches.
  • A poster with the Roses 2008 logo and 'The Battle Continues! 2nd - 4th May York v Lancaster'
  • 'Once more into the breach dear friend, once more' William Shakespeare quote next to a woman holding a netball and wearing a yellow uniform bib

Roses 2009 was particularly notable for championing the Roses’ historic origins, with advertisements quoting Shakespeare, boasting a hog roast and offering foam swords and helmets. Check out York Vision’s pre-Roses edition from the year.

2010s

The 2010s brought a wave of exciting milestones for the tournament. 2014 marked Roses 50th anniversary with a huge celebration – including a purpose built stadium for Lancaster! 2015 was an equally eventful year as the tournament was opened by England football team manager Roy Hodgson and alumnus, and former Chancellor Greg Dyke. E-Sports were also first introduced in 2016 with the opportunity for players to compete in League of Legends, CSGO and Dota 2.

  • Five people are holding up various flags cheering York on at Roses
  • A team of four male rowers mid racing along. a river
  • 15 Hockey players have their arms around each other on the pitch
  • A woman is on a bike in the air while people watch on
  • In front of a crowd inside a sports hall, a woman lunges and holds a badminton racket
  • The red and white roses logo spray painted onto the grass

Of course, the pandemic struck in and in 2020 and 2021, where both in person tournaments were cancelled. This didn’t put an end to the fun however. Both universities persevered by hosting an online tournament in 2020 and 21, where teams completed challenges remotely (and over £5000 was raised for charity!)

This year’s Roses…

Unfortunately, Lancaster took the trophy this year and beat York with a landslide of 217.5 points. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – highlights included the York Boat Club winning a staggering 14-2 on Lancaster’s Lune river (their first away victory in years), Tennis Club who won 23-10 matches, and Trampoline club – who won against Lancaster for the first time since 2017! Not to mention the many other clubs who beat Lancaster on their soil, and the brilliant reporting from YSTV and URY.

As it stands, York haven’t won the tournament since before COVID – which means there’s all to play for next year. Bring on Roses 2025.

Many of the photos in this article are taken from the Borthwick Archives at the University, which is currently looking to expand their collection of Student Life Material. If you would like to find out more or donate material, head to the Student Life Collection webpage. 

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5 Comments

  1. Neil Julian Gershon

    The delightful nostalgic review of the Roses weekends omits mention of the infamous President’s XI football match of 1972 which ended five all, York claiming the win on the away goals rule. This match marked possibly the first public appearance of Greg Dyke in footbal kit and may well have contributed to his future sucess as a non-footballer. The game was slightly hampered by the Lancaster tactics of providing a serious amount of beer the previous evening, albeit hosted by a crowd of non players from Lancaster. Somewhat hampered by the late arrival of the York manager (Steve Crook, sadly now deceased), who had to stopped off to ensure supplies of wine and smokes for half time, the York team devised their own tactics including the now disused “Dead Ants” ploy. The team photo was published in the Sunday Mirror in the late 1990’s when a certain Mr Dyke was being proposed as DG of the BBC.

  2. John Barrie Dearing

    Have to say that the Wars of the Roses was never the highlight of my sporting year at York but then the only sports I ever indulged in were bar billiards and bar football! It was not all in vain for in 2006 I was the runner-up in the Reading and District Bar Billiards League B&C Division Singles Competition, losing the final 2-3.

  3. During the last two decades I have informed more than once the Alumni office of the origins of the War of the Roses sports events between Lancaster and York universities, but the details and accuracy have not been processed to date. I was with (York) Richard Miles, David Wood, Barry Tyrell, Peter Pexton and (Lancaster) David Cooper having two discussions in York in 1964-65 about starting the War of Roses event, the first discussion was when Cooper came to YCRC to buy some s/h blades. Initially we were all rowers but through the internal student newspaper Nouse further developments were suggested. Lord James was very supportive, VC Carter at Lancaster also but they were not involved in the implementation. I remember the keen interest of James in the details, a VC who was pro-active about most student activities outside the academic sphere, alas these days probably a rare breed of VC they now on a salary and pension greatly more than James was paid. It was said he and his wife Cordelia were forced to sell the L.S.Lowry painting gifted to them when they departed the university, to supplement the measely pension. I remember him with affection as well as with huge respect, but I was a Mancunian so was a tad in favour with him. YCRC was the initial home of UYBC, the club generously providing boats, blades and indoor training facilities at zero fee. The UYBC coxed four persuaded the legendary rowing coach Freddie Page to visit York for a couple of outings prior to the first War of Roses race of 800 metres downstream finishing at YCRC. James was on the supporters´ launch following, I do not remember if Carter was there but he wrote a very praiseworthy letter afterwards to all those participating on the river and on sports fields. The second discussion in York with David Cooper and some Lancaster rowers became ´mobile´, we visiting numerous pubs across the city mimicking the Cambridge Uni ´King Street Run´ finishing in a jousting match using ´borrowed´ brushes and mops on the grass slope below the city wall opposite the railway station (no risk assessment protocols then). As for who won, not even the next morning after much black coffee consumed let alone 60 years on the result is lost in the fog of alcohol and time.

    1. Hi Ray,

      Thank you very much for reaching out to us! We appreciate you taking the time to share your memories of beginning of the Roses tournaments and have updated the article to reflect student’s involvement and hard work in starting them. Very interesting to hear of the two Vice Chancellors involvement as well. We hope that other alumni enjoy reading your memories in the comments too!

      Thanks again,

      Maya (Alumni Voices team)

  4. Hi Maya, thankyou for your very fast response putting the record straight. I do not recollect too much hard work getting the War of Roses contests started, both universities then with relatively small number of students enjoyed easy access to the ´management´. Feeding in the Heslington Hall refectory where Lord James often sat with us rebrobates requesting more funding for societies and sports he coped with diplomatically erring on the side of generosity having previously been a headmaster. I should have included in my recent mail the Registrar, John West-Taylor, he supported within the limits of the finances so many new initiatives, and his office was open in the evenings for students to use his excellent hi-fi system. We early students remember him as a polymath as were Profs Harry Ree, Alan Peacock, Wilfred Mellors and Ron Fletcher, we assumed appointed by James to establish Uni of York as greater than a ´white brick´ seat of learning. I could mention others on campus and in the city who were inspirational. Head librarian Harry Fairhurst I remember well, I spent a summer vacation driving a loaned Rowntrees van stacked with books between Heslington Hall and the new library, Harry often in passenger seat cracking jokes. Eric Sigsworth was my tutor, he then a renowned expert on Yorkshire breweries. His economic history ´practicals´ involved visiting renowned pubs, of course in the spirit of scholarly empiricism to sample the products.

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