For much of history the Triple Crown has been what the Pope wears in his most ceremonial moments or the shorthand for the three most famous U.S. horse races for three year olds. For the Rugby world, though, it became the feat of one of the Home Countries defeating all three others in a single season. It was apparently first referred to as such by the Irish Times in 1894, and again by Whitaker’s Almanack in reporting another Irish success in 1899.

It was far from being a common catchphrase, though, and of course for over a century there was no actual trophy, crown-shaped or otherwise, for the winning nation. In 2006 the invisible became flesh – or rather, silver – with the impressive plate commissioned by the RBS. There had, however, been other unsuccessful offers, not least a fine sculpture made from anthracite coal by Dave Merrington of Durham in the 1970s.

That now resides at the World Rugby Museum, and so does another Triple Crown – and indeed Grand Slam – trophy. Not one for the victorious nation or union, but for individuals who had experienced the joy of being top dogs in the tournament – specifically, the Welsh of 1908-9.

The habit of awarding medals to such heroes was not new: as early as 1893, there were beautiful nine-carat gold medallions for Wales’ first ‘Triple Victories’ season, as the engraving put it. That of Frank Hill of Cardiff was returned to Wales a few years back through the generosity and good offices of the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame, a benefactor, and auctioneer Richard Madley.


That of Jerry Blake, also of Cardiff, from 1900 also bears the ‘Triple Victories’ legend, and remains proudly within his family, while the gold and enamel 1907-08 version awarded to the third of a Cardiff trio, Percy Bush, is with the World Rugby Museum. No sign of a St George’s Flag for England in any of these: the Royal Standard-style lion or Tudor Rose is favoured, with either shamrock or harp for Ireland and thistle or lion rampant for the Scots, and a leek for the Welsh.

Their players from the immortal 1905 win over the Original All Blacks also got medal memorabilia, but the first example of a cup for each member of a Welsh winning side may be the trophy pictured here.

Trophy? Well, as you can see, trophies, in hallmarked silver, in fact. That on the left, with the split in the supporting ball, is held at the World Rugby Museum. That on the right is on display at the Welsh Rugby Union’s Principality Stadium, and has the distinction of belonging to the family of its original recipient, Richard ‘Dick’ Thomas, one of the 13 Welsh Caps to fall in the First World War.

It was an individual, not a ‘team’ award, then, although its engraving marks the achievement of five wins in 1908 and 1909. It celebrates Wales’ first 100% ‘Grand Slam’ season, long before that phrase gained regular rugby currency, and also the earlier 9-6 defeat of the touring Australians (12/12/08). England 8-0 (16/1/09), Scotland 5-3 (6/2/09), France 47-5 (23/2/09) and Ireland 18-5 (13/3/09) all then fell to the Welsh, in the first season of French participation in what was to be the Five Nations tournament, and hence the first chance of such a ‘Slam’.

The cup features a pair of detailed dragon handles, and the bowl is profusely engraved with thistles, roses and shamrocks, mounted on a rugby ball. Both sides of the bowl are engraved “Welsh Football Union Souvenir – Winners of 5 International Matches Season 1908-9” and “Matches Won Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, France”.

Peter Owens, invaluable archivist of the WRU, explains: ‘….The Trophy that we have is on generous loan from Dick Thomas’s grandson. I believe it has always been in the possession of the family and has not been offered for sale at any time. The Trophy is in the cabinet in the Players’ Lounge. As far as I can see the ball at the base of this trophy is not split but the trophy does not sit correctly on the base, it is slightly raised at one end. Otherwise it is in excellent condition.

The WFU’s (as it then was) General Committee agreed that mementoes of the season, other than medals, should be given to players, committee members and officials.  The secretary was given instructions to seek designs and quotations from jewelers for mementos at a cost not exceeding three guineas each. (Perhaps the limit explains why the trophies are not weighty items)

On 17th June the committee instructed Capt. Rees to place orders for the mementos with Long and Co. and H.B. Crouch of Cardiff. The oval base is stamped Long, Cardiff, and the black stained wooden oval plinth is mounted with a silver-plated Australian crest and another crest featuring four Lions. At the Union’s AGM on 1st July 1909 the clubs endorsed the committee’s resolution.

It is sometimes suggested that ‘generous’ trophy awards were in some way compensation for the enforced amateurism which hit the Welsh working man of rugby harder than many, and made Rugby League offers so frequently attractive and successful.

I have strong doubts about that: they were small enough to be used as watch-chain fobs, after all, and even then the Union was not always moved to accept such trophy suggestions: Peter reports that the Minute Books record that in January 1909, for instance, the WFU turned down an offer from “H. Samuel, Jeweler of Manchester” to present all the Welsh players in the team that defeated Australia with Gold Medals.

Perhaps understandably, the much-admired and sought-after medals do not surface very often. Considering that there were at least twice as many of the 1909 cups made, we should possibly expect a few more of them to appear in auction as the years go by – cracked rugby balls or not!Front Cover (3)

About the Author- Phil Atkinson is a former History teacher and Headteacher. coverHe is President of Rhymney RFC and Editor of ‘Touchlines’, the magazine of the Rugby Memorabilia Society. He is the author of the Centenary History of Rhymney RFC, ‘Rugby Union Memorabilia’ and joint author of  The King’s Cup 1919: Rugby’s First ‘World Cup’, published by St David’s Press.

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Waiting for Lomu graces the walls of Twickenham Stadium

The World’s Greatest Rugby Squad was the original title for Alistair Morrison’s powerful photograph, Waiting for Lomu, which is now on display at the World Rugby Museum.


Alistair Morrison at the photograph unveiling. Photo Credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography.

Inspired by a mixture of celebration and nostalgia stirred by the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Morrison embarked on a journey to create a single image representing 25 rugby legends. The likes of Jason Leonard, Zinzan Brooke, Martin Johnson, John Smit and David Campese were amongst the 24 iconic players that Morrison was able to capture. The missing piece for Morrison was Jonah Lomu.

Alistair Morrison is a celebrated portrait photographer, with 82 works currently in the National Portrait Gallery in London, and a multitude of original edition prints in private collections worldwide. He was kind enough to share with the World Rugby Museum his thoughts on rugby, photography and his journey to capture the world’s greatest rugby squad.

Waiting for Lomu is a recent addition to your legacy photography assemblage. Why does legacy photography resonate so well with people?

The idea of legacy photographs resonates not only with the audience, but also with those who are asked to take part. Legends of Rugby have been acclaimed over many generations. The older fan will remember great players from decades ago, whereas the younger fan will look to recently retired players, perhaps not even recognising players from past generations. So the selection of my team of Rugby Legends is personal to me – which allows discussion as to whether your team would be the same, and it almost certainly would not be dependent on your age, nationality and memory. There will always be a healthy discussion about who would be your most favoured No. 9 or full back and that is what makes the idea so exciting – a dinner table conversation of your greatest Rugby Legends will bring together a multitude of different teams.

I found that it was also very important to the retired players to think that one photograph would last forever, housed in a National Museum, long after they played their last game. When you watch Zinzan Brooke walk up to Phil Bennett and say that he was responsible for getting Zinzan hooked on Rugby it is quite inspirational to think that getting Legends together in celebration of their achievements and documented in the photograph may also bring inspiration to a new generation of talented players.

Do you have a personal relationship with rugby?

I was a sportsman who had to make early decisions, at school and county level, as to which sport I chose. Having been brought up in Argentina, soccer was always my number 1 sport closely followed by Hockey and Rugby. At school in the UK, it was similar, so rugby got second billing – but I loved the sport and grew up in an era where Saturday afternoons were all about watching the internationals. I am an embarrassingly frustrated sportsman who thinks he could have made it to a higher level, but was far short of the excellence that you require to make it to the top.

Is there a significance of having 25 rugby legends in this image and not a team of 15?

Initially I had a clear idea of my first XV and wanted to ensure that the team was chosen through my knowledge of the game plus much research and discussion with experts from the media and some of the Legends that I could chat to. One important decision was to only include those who were retired, so players like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were not eligible as they were still playing in their last World Cup at the time. When you organise such an ambitious photograph you need to have the support of 4-5 of the Legends on your team to start with and then others will follow. There is always a chance that you will not get a reply, so you send out invitations to others who were close to your first XV. After all the Legends of the game had specific roles on the pitch and kept the same numbers on their backs and you can only start a game with one player in each position. I had such an overwhelming response that I always had it in mind that modern day teams are based on a squad of players, interchangeable and all of whom make a difference whether starting the game or coming on as a substitute. So it worked out that 25 players ended up in my squad – a formidable group.


Pictured left to right: Zinzan Brooke, Jason Leonard, Morne du Plessis, David Campese, Jason Robinson and John Smit at the photograph unveiling. Photo Credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography.

Can you tell us about your journey to photograph Jonah Lomu?

One of the first choices for the team was Jonah Lomu. He was also the most ‘wanted’ man during the World Cup with media commitments, dinners, appearances all over Europe. I was struggling to get an answer from him right up until three days before the World Cup Final when he finally said YES. By then I had almost given up hope and my quest to get him to sit for me had become a journey of hanging around and waiting for his answer. I knew that there could be no disputing his presence in the photograph, universally acknowledged by the other Legends, so I placed an image of him in a frame next to an empty chair, which became ‘Waiting for Lomu’ and showed the image at a private unveiling for the other Legends the day before the World Cup Final – but also announcing that Jonah had finally agreed and that he would be placed sitting in the empty chair. Jonah wanted to have a short break and it was arranged that I would photograph him at a later stage. He passed away two weeks later.

Your photograph is now entitled Waiting for Lomu, when it was originally named The World’s Greatest Rugby Squad. Does this change the tone of the image?

The photograph has become a tribute to Jonah Lomu as much for the fact that he is acknowledged within the image, but also because all of those who are also in the image would have chosen him to be in their team. Waiting for Lomu was supposed to be about my journey in trying to get him to sit for the photograph, but it has become much more pertinent now.

A number of players in your photograph are personally involved in charities and foundations associated with health and sporting related injuries. Can legacy images such as yours provide an opportunity to gain further insight into the complex private lives of sporting heroes?

Editions of my Legacy photograph were donated to various charities including the J9 Foundation (Joost van der Westhuizen’s Foundation for Motor Neurone), Michael Lynagh and the Stroke Foundation and the Jonah Lomu Foundation. There is a greater awareness now in all sports as to the potential results that contact sports can have on future health. Any opportunity to discuss this, to bring it to the attention of the wider public is a good thing. I think my legacy photograph is as much a reflection of how these great Legends have fulfilled their passion of playing a game they loved, how they have inspired other generations and how they, as men, should never be forgotten for the great joy they have given to our sporting lives.


Waiting for Lomu © Alistair Morrison

Waiting for Lomu is now available for public viewing at the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham Stadium.

For further information, please call 020 8892 8877 or email

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England’s class of 1980

The following is an extract from Phil McGowan’s book ‘One of Us: England’s Greatest Rugby Players’

Fran Cotton of the British Lions

Fran Cotton with the Lions, 1977 @Getty

Fran Cotton made his debut for England in 1971, scrumming down alongside John Pullin. Tenacious flanker Tony Neary made his debut the same season and Roger Uttley and Bill Beaumont would join them as the decade progressed. Foot soldiers such as these meant that England would never be an easy touch but throughout the 1970s they were never quite able to threaten the stranglehold that the dominant Welsh and French held over the 5-Nations Championship.

By the end of the decade these seasoned veterans were tired of being on the outside looking in and Beaumont, whose heroic commitment on the field had seen him instated as captain in 1978, hit upon the solution.

Graham Mourie’s touring New Zealand side arrived in Otley unbeaten in November 1979. There a side selected to represent the Northern Division, and captained by Beaumont ran them ragged. After inflicting a 21-9 defeat on the All-Blacks Beaumont went on record with a prediction that England would not only win the 1980 Championship but that they would claim England’s first Triple Crown since 1960.

Unsurprisingly the Northern Division would supply much of the ammunition. Wing John Carleton found himself promoted to the England side at once. Cotton returned to the side, after an extended absence, to scrum down alongside Peter Wheeler and Phil Blakeway in a formidable front-row trio that has perhaps never been bettered.

Uttley too was reselected to play alongside John Scott and the evergreen Neary in an unyielding back-row. Finally Steve Smith and Dusty Hare were given extended runs in the side for the first time since making their debuts in 1973 and 1974 respectively. The class of 1980 was therefore a new-look side that was conversely stuffed full of experience.

England Vs Ireland

England v Ireland, 1980 @Getty

The campaign opened at Twickenham against a strong Irish side. Constant pressure from the English pack and dominance at the set piece gave England a lead at the interval. In the second half Tony Bond suffered a broken leg and was replaced by a livewire centre called Clive Woodward. By the end of the match England had scored three unanswered tries and Hare’s boot had contributed 12 points to give England an emphatic 24-9 victory.

For their next match England travelled to Paris where they hadn’t won since 1964. Once more the English forwards turned to screw in an effort to negate the skilful French backs. Despite conceding an early try the plan worked and England steadily built up a 10 point lead. In the closing stages of the match wave after wave of French attack was repelled and England held on for a 17-13 victory.

England were grateful that their next game, against Wales, would be at Twickenham. Both sides were unbeaten and so the game was billed as a decider though few, even amongst the English fans, really believed that they could win. The Welsh had just completed the most successful decade in their history and were champions, having won four out of the last five Championships.

Dusty Hare England 1982

Dusty Hare, 1982 @Getty

The tension in the stands was equally manifest on the pitch and things began to bubble over when Welshman Paul Ringer was sent off in the fifteenth minute. England however remained disciplined and Hare kicked his side into a three point lead. Incensed, the Welsh replied with a try that gave them a slender half-time lead.

With the scores so close the tension increased but another Hare penalty deep into the second-half saw the lead swap hands for a third time. Then, with just three minutes remaining Wales landed a second try that most thought would settle things in their favour.

Beaumont’s side however were not done. Deep into injury time the referee blew up for a penalty to England. With the atmosphere now so tense you could cut it with a knife Hare showed masterly self-control to step up and calmly kick his third penalty. 9-8. England had won.

All that now stood between England and the realisation of their captain’s prophecy was Scotland at Murrayfield. What followed was England’s most complete performance for many years. Once more the English scrum dominated, setting up possession for the backs which the brilliant Woodward ruthlessly exploited. His quick ball cut the Scottish defence open, allowing Mike Slemen to open the scoring. By the end of the match Carleton had a hat-trick of tries and England a 30-18 victory.

At long last a generation of English rugby players had found the right combination of players to win and, as their captain had said that they would, they did so in style.

One of Us Cover smallAbout the Author: This article is an extract from the book One of Us: England’s Greatest Rugby Players available here  Phil McGowan has been a member of the World Rugby Museum team since 2007.

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Silver Rio 2016 Olympic medal on display at the World Rugby Museum


Photo Credit: Getty Images

The World Rugby Museum is celebrating the triumphant impact of sevens rugby at the 2016 Rio Olympics by bringing together a silver medal from the Rio Olympic Games and a collection of objects from the museum’s vaults.


Photo Credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography

Explore the evolution of sevens rugby and the history of rugby in the Olympic Games through a self-guided museum tour. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the origins of the sevens rugby in Melrose, through to the growth of the sport internationally and the game’s development in the professional era. With an Olympic collection dating from 1908, the display explores rugby’s relationship with the Olympic Games to the present day.

Coinciding with the England v Fiji match at Twickenham on November 19th 2016, this interactive exhibition will highlight the Olympic success of teams Fiji and Great Britain, who inspired the world with their impressive displays of athletic prowess and sportsmanship. To honour this sentiment, the installation will culminate in a display containing Rio 2016 Rugby Sevens Olympic memorabilia, including the silver medal from Team GB’s Phil Burgess.


Leone Nakarawa, Phil Burgess and Vatemo Ravouvou. Photo Credit: Leo Wilkinson Photography.

The exhibition will be available for public viewing at the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham Stadium from Saturday 19th of November 2016 until December 5th, 2016 (Tickets: Adults £8, Concession £7, Children £6, or available in conjunction with a Stadium Tour).

For further information please call the World Rugby Museum on 020 8892 8877 or email

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Muddied Oafs of Rugby

By Sean Fagan


Rudyard Kipling – originator of the “muddied oaf” tag

One of the most common epithets applied to a Rugby player is that of being a “muddied oaf”. Though usually given in a light-hearted manner, and even worn with pride, it nevertheless reinforces a stereotype portraying Rugby footballers as lacking intelligence or manners, and often both. So where did the “muddied oafs” appellation originate?

This story begins in what is today South Africa. By the first week of 1902 the Boer War had been raging for three years. In that time less than 100,000 Afrikaners were continuing to prove themselves too thorny for 500,000 British and colonial troops.

Dismayed at this apparent flagging in the Empire’s military power and expertise, English poet Rudyard Kipling composed a new poem, first published in The Times (London) and The New York Tribune.

Entitled “The Islanders”, Kipling’s purport was that his words would primarily serve to the people of Britain a denunciation of not only the nation’s now obvious unpreparedness for war, but the accompanying negative impact of the nation’s undue devotion to sport.

It was meant to strike the nation into action (primarily through military training and conscription).

Within two months the poem had been reproduced in most major newspapers and journals throughout the English speaking world.

Initially, at least, Kipling’s poem missed its mark.

Intended as a thrilling trumpet call to duty, to fire the Empire’s military ardour, it instead raised a howl of disapproval – especially from the sporting world. At the centre of the controversy were two lines, and a now well-familiar phrase…

“Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.”

Kipling was arguing that England was indifferent to the war effort. That the Empire had successfully called on its colonies to provide the necessary man-power, and that, taking comfort from this, England returned to indulging itself in what appeared to be its primary concern – sport.

English author and journalist George Orwell wrote (in 1942):

“Few people who have criticised England from the inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot…That phrase about ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goal’ sticks like an arrow to this day.”

In the weeks after “The Islanders” first appeared, many commentators and letter-writers took Kipling to task:

“His attack upon the juggernaut of athleticism is not without a measure of justification. The interest displayed by the public in the result of an Australian [v England cricket] test match, or an international football [Rugby] contest, is certainly out of all proportion to the importance of the matter at stake [the war].

A second Majuba, such as we experienced at Tweefontein, is dismissed in the bill of contents of leading metropolitan newspapers with a line in small type merely referring to ‘a British reverse in South Africa,’ but the streets are filled with placards about athletic contests, in the largest possible head-lines.

Nevertheless, the general verdict is that Mr. Kipling was not only ill-advised, but unjust when he scornfully referred to ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket, or the muddied oafs at the goals.’”

Another wrote:

“Cricketers, footballers, and the athletic world in general are righteously indignant at the unwarranted sneer which in his latest poem, ‘The Islanders,’ Rudyard Kipling has indulged in at their expense.

Whilst it may be asserted that the attention given to sport is out of proportion to its real value, yet for Rudyard Kipling to write of cricketers as ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’ and describe footballers as ‘the muddied oafs at the goals’ is a shocking misuse of invective, and altogether unworthy of one who has many claims to being crowned Poet Laureate of the Empire.

… it is worse than foolishness for Rudyard Kipling to seek to find in the Englishman’s well-known love of sport the reason of the nation’s lack of preparedness for war.”

The famous cricketer and soccer player CB Fry (who also played Rugby for Oxford University, Blackheath and the Barbarians) wrote in London’s Daily Express at the time:

“Cricketers may be flannelled but they are not fools. Footballers are often muddied but they are decidedly not oafs. It is an hallucination of Mr Kipling’s heated mind that games and the public interest in them have anything  to do with the civil military short comings of the nation.”

Kipling himself soon arrived in South Africa, where he encountered many military men who were also proud footballers and cricketers. It was there that he contended that the poem’s target was not the players, but the spectators. Speaking in Capetown, Kipling said:

“Seriously, I know how many athletes have shown themselves rattling good soldiers during the present war. As a matter of fact I never meant to refer to actual athletes at all, but merely to the large number of people who spend all their spare time looking at other men playing. However, I felt that if I did not exaggerate my protest would pass unheeded, and the very fact that I made so many people angry shows there was truth in what I said.”

Surrey Rugby Club’s JH Kipling – a cousin of Rudyard, he was a prominent player of the late 1890s, declining a place in the 1899 Lions that visited Australia.

Kipling’s target was not the men who played the game, but the raucous-voiced individual on the terraces and grandstands who had never handled a ‘live’ football in his life. It was a poetical taunt of souls content with gazing at “the flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goal”.

However, nothing Kipling could say or write could ever “un-ring the bell” as it were. Whether intentional or not, the disparaging connotation that footballers – especially Rugby footballers – are all oafs, stuck.

Walter Camp – the father of American football – spoke in 1908 at a dinner at the New York Athletic Club:

“That poem hit the English ‘footers’ hard. One of the English ‘footers’…told me how he was walking one day to his club in football clothes when a newspaper boy hailed him. “Paper, sir?” The footballer walked on, whereupon the boy yelled out after him: “Yah, ye muddied oaf; Like as not ye can’t even read!””

Today’s Rugby players, old and young alike, wear the “muddied oaf” as a badge of honour.

Now you “muddied oafs” are armed with new-found knowledge of Kipling, poetry and war, go forth and regale the world – prove Kipling wrong!

About the Author– Sean Fagan is a sports historian and writer based in Australia. He has written several books including ‘The Life and Times of Dally Messenger’ and ‘The First Lions of Rugby’, details of which can be found on www.

The World Rugby Museum would like to thank Sean for contributing this article.

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Lest We Forget – Alfred Frederick Maynard (England) 13/11/1916

Alfred Maynard

Photo courtesy of Katie Maynard

Alfred Frederick Maynard was born in Penge, near Croydon, which is now part of Greater London. He was the youngest of six children of William John Maynard, and his wife Annie.

As a young man Alfred’s father William (a Probate Registrar, ultimately in charge in Durham) represented England in their very first Association Football international (versus Scotland in November 1872). Alfred’s mother was the daughter of an Anglican Rector.

Educated at Sussex House School, Seaford, he then went to Durham School where he captained the XV, as well as leading the school at cricket, fives and in the gymnasium.

He went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1912, gaining rugby blues that year and in 1913.  In College vacations his rugby was played with Harlequins, Durham City and the Durham county team. His England chance came in 1914, gaining three caps as hooker in the team’s second successive Grand Slam season.

At cricket he also played for the Borderers, Durham City and Durham county, and his sporting prowess extended to hockey, at which he captained the College team.

At the outbreak of war, in his final year at university, he volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) but, as with many thousands of others, was assigned to the Royal Naval Division to form land battalions. Eight were initially formed, and Maynard went to the 6th (Howe) Bn. He served at the Defence of Antwerp 1914, the first Suez Canal Raid 1915, and at Gallipoli, where he was wounded.

On the Western Front, Maynard took part in Battle of Ancre, the final act in the Somme campaign of 1916. His life ended at Beaumont Hamel where he was killed leading “A” company of which he was Officer Commanding.  Aged 22, he was the youngest of the 27 England internationals to die in the war.

Lieutenant ALFRED FREDERICK MAYNARD has no known grave.

He is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial Somme, France [Pier and Face 1 A], and also at St Margaret’s Church, Durham; Durham School, Durham City RFC, Durham Town Hall, Durham City Comrades Club, and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The headstone of his father’s grave at St Peter’s, Harton, South Shields also commemorates him.

He did not marry.

Alfred Maynard 2008-3112

England team v Scotland, 21/03/1914, Inverleith, Edinburgh

For more information on the Rugby Football Union’s First World War commemorations visit

For details of the other 26 fallen England players click here.

The World Rugby Museum would like to thank Mike Hagger for researching and writing this article.

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Twickenham’s Rose and Poppy Gates of Remembrance


By Clare Mulley. Article first published on History Today, 12 April 2016.

‘I shall never play at Twickenham again’, twenty-five year old Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer reportedly sighed as he lay dying at Ypres on 5 May 1915. Hit by a sniper’s bullet less than five weeks after he had been posted to the Western Front, Poulton-Palmer had served his country twice over, once in the trenches, and once as Captain of the English national rugby team. He was one of twenty-seven England international players killed during the First World War. Many more have died serving in later conflicts.

img_4250On 29 April 2016, the Rugby Football Union unveiled their stunning new Rose and Poppy Gates at Twickenham stadium, the official Home of England Rugby. Showing the symbolic metamorphosis of the English rose, as worn on the shirts of the national squad, into the remembrance poppy, the gates commemorate the sacrifice of all rugby players who have served and died in conflicts around the world. The annual Army v Navy Rugby Match took place the following day, drawing a crowd of 82,000, including many serving soldiers, veterans and their families.

The RFU’s proud association with the military is already recorded in an exhibition at the World Rugby  Museum at Twickenham, which details the stories of those players who went on to serve their country in the forces. Here the 1914 England rugby union team are captured in a photograph, stripy socks pulled up, hair combed down, starched white shirts embroidered with the English rose. This unbeatable side was led by Poulton-Palmer, who scored four tries in the last test match before the war, a 39-13 victory over France. Famous for his glamorous style of play and ‘elusiveness’ on the pitch, Poulton-Palmer was hailed as one of the greatest players in the world. A third of his squad would fall alongside him during the coming conflict.


Lt Francis Oakeley, a scrum-half who won four caps for England, was killed in 1914 when his submarine, the HMS D2, disappeared in the North Sea. He was not quite twenty-four. A few months later surgeon James ‘Bungy’ Watson, who played centre, was one of 500 killed when the Royal Naval warship, HMS Hawke, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Capt. Arthur James Dingle, nick-named ‘Mud’ after the pitches of Country Durham where he learnt to play centre and wing, was exempt from military service as a serving school-master but petitioned to enlist. He died defending a trench during the Battle of Scimitar Hill at Gallipoli in August 1915. His body was never recovered. Debutant forward Robert Pillman volunteered for special duties in the Queens Own in northern France, once carrying a fellow officer who had been gassed 300 yards across no-mans land to safety. In July 1916 he was fatally wounded returning from a night-raid in Armentieres. A survivor of action in Gallipoli, Lt Alfred Maynard, hooker, was killed on the first day of the Battle of Ancre, Britain’s last push in the Somme, in November 1916. At 22, he was the youngest England international player to die in the war. Finally from that 1914 squad, Lt-Cdr Arthur Leyland Harrison was the only England rugby international to have been awarded the VC. Despite suffering severe head wounds, on regaining consciousness Harrison lost his life while leading an attack to disable German machineguns at Zeebrugge harbour in April 1918.

img_4252These men and their many colleagues are remembered in various military and sporting memorials in the UK and overseas, as well as with local plaques, benches and parish windows. Arthur Dingle has the distinction of being remembered twice in poems, once by PG Wodehouse in his mischievous English sporting send-up The Great Day, and with more reverence in John Sills The Ballad of Suvla Bay. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates will not cite any individuals by name, they are not intended as a military memorial in that sense, but rather as commemorative sculpture that will gradually come to hold several layers of meaning and association for the players and fans that pass through them.

When artist and sculptor Harry Gray was originally approached for the commission, one idea was to create a large sculpture of an idealized young rugby player symbolically passing his ball to a First World War soldier. Gray specialises in permanent public artworks where the relationship of the work to the site is paramount. Past pieces include the Battle of Britain memorial on the south coast, which shows a young pilot, face turned to the skies, as he waits for the call to action. Seen from above, from a pilot’s perspective, the figure is sitting at the centre of a propeller hewn from the white chalk of the ground, calling to mind how the courage, skill and sacrifice of the pilots has left a permanent mark on our country. For Twickenham, Gray felt the overt memorial feel of the figurative rugby player and soldier might not sit well with a match-day crowd’s mood of exhilaration, or might be open to misinterpretation as a triumphant celebration of patriotic service on the fields of both sport and war. Instead he proposed the Rose and Poppy Gates as a less confrontational, more contemplative way to consider the Rugby Football Union’s wartime sacrifices.

img_5791Gray feels that the RFU was brave in supporting this more modern concept, but his initial designs left him dissatisfied. An early maquette looked too floral and sentimental to carry the full meaning of the loss that the gates commemorate. Having rejected the use of thorns or barbed wire in the design, Gray reconsidered the materials involved. The English roses are now produced from ‘gunmetal’ bronze, imported from Germany as Britain no longer produces it, a marker itself of how international relations have changed. Most of the poppies are fashioned from the bases of First World War German shell casements, once fired at British troops during the war, and still bearing their factory date-marks. The firing pin holes serve as the poppy centres. Each one weighs heavily in the hand. Others are simply the iconic poppy shape cut out from the metal pickets, a striking presence in their very absence. In this way German shells are turned into symbols of remembrance, their function subverted while their history is preserved. The very material of the stadium gates encapsulates messages of patriotism, conflict, loss and commemoration.

The gates’ poppy theme inevitably draws comparisons with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British military casualty during the First World War, which flooded the Tower of London moat, marking the centenary of the outbreak of that conflict last year. For many, this was a powerful statement about the size of Britain’s sacrifice, for others, a mawkish display of nationalism. The wonderful Ring of Remembrance Notre Dame de Lorette, an elliptical structure engraved with the names of the dead of all nationalities who fought in northern France, has proved equally controversial, but in this case for recognising the losses among belligerent nations alongside those of the Allies.

img_5778Perhaps some controversy is unavoidable. Gray believes that as war is a political act, ‘any artwork which commemorates warfare is by definition political’. For him, such installations exist essentially to provide ‘a social marker in time that uses sculpture or architecture as a holding place for memory’, and he argues that the best commemorative sculpture ‘asks questions, rather than just offering triumphalist solutions or expressions’. A recent inspiration that does just this was Turner Prize winner, and Oscar-winning director, Steve McQueen’s For Queen and Country. Created in response to a visit to Iraq in 2003 as an official war artist for the Imperial War Museum, For Queen and County was McQueen’s proposal for a set of postage stamps featuring the faces of servicemen and women who had lost their lives, with portraits chosen by their families. ‘An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in the defence of our national ideals’, McQueen contended. Collectively they would form ‘an intimate expression of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the every day – every household and every office’. Although facsimiles of the sheets of stamps are kept in the Imperial War Museum, despite the support of the fallen soldiers’ families and the Art Fund, Royal Mail has so far declined to issue the stamps. It seems that the loss presented in this way, without sentiment or compromise, appeared just too real, too great.

Some of the England rugby union players who survived the Great War, as it was once
known, later went on to serve again, alongside a younger generation in the Second World War. Cyril Lowe, who was credited with nine victories while serving with the RAF, would subsequently play rugby again for England. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates, though which both home and away teams will pass on match days, speak powerfully both of sporting and national history, and of individual loss. This is site-specific, war memorial art at its finest: beautiful, provocative, reflective, and a working part of the fabric of match life at Twickenham. Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer and his team-mates would have been pleased; Twickenham has chosen to remember well.

About the Author – Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of two biographies. The Spy Who Loved, about Christine Granville/Krystyna Skarbek, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, has recently been optioned by Universal Studios. The Woman Who Saved the Children, a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, won the Daily Mail Biographers Club prize, and all royalties are donated to the charity. Clare’s next book, a joint biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, will be published in June 2017. Clare reviews for The Spectator and History Today, gives frequent public talks and her most recent contributions to TV and radio include BBC Radio 4’s ‘Great Lives’ series, and Channel 5 TV’s ‘Adolf & Eva, Love & War’. In 2017 she will lead a lecture tour on the female agents of the Second World War in northern France. Clare lives in Essex with her family and lurcher.

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