Match Highlights: England Colts v Wales Youth, 1989

A previous blog post entitled ‘England and Wales stars of the future line-up in 1989’ featured the likes of Martin Johnson and Scott Gibbs singing their respective anthems in the lead-up to a tough-tackling ‘England Colts’ v ‘Wales Youth’ match held in Torquay back in 1989.

The footage was supplied by Mr Barrie Gledhill, who was an assistant referee that day, and generated considerable interest, particularly amongst several of those who were in attendance that day, either as spectators or players.

The consensus amongst them was that Wales had the better of the game despite England running out winners. As promised we are now able to publish highlights of the game and it would seem that their memories are correct.

Wales have most of the ball and generate the most chances in the first-half before a more evenly contested second-half. England, however, finish the stronger and it is during the final quarter of the game that they score the points that deliver them the victory.

See for yourself…


If you have any home-recorded historic rugby footage, that you would be willing to share us, let us know!

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Rugby’s Greatest Upsets Part 2 – Wales v New Zealand, 1905


British Isles team to Australia and New Zealand, 1904

New Zealand had set down a marker of quality when defeating a tired and injury ravaged British Lions side at the tail end of their tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1904. The tourists had comfortably defeated Australia in three straight tests prior to the game but the New Zealand pack brought a new level of physicality to the contest.

Having seen off the visitors it made sense that New Zealand send out its own expeditionary force and the New Zealand Originals arrived in Plymouth quietly in the early autumn of 1905. Little was expected of them to the extent that when they defeated Devon 55-4 in their opening fixture some British newspapers reported the score as being to the home side’s advantage.


New Zealand team on the cliffs at Camborne, 1905

It was the start of a mini-tornado, the start of the All-Blacks and one of the most formidable and enduring traditions in sport. Over the next two months Dave Gallaher’s side defeated every English side put in front of them, many without conceding a single point. By the time they arrived in Edinburgh for their first test-match they had accumulated 612 points to just 15 in return.

The British press, who had at first taken only a passing interest, were by this stage in raptures, devoting more column inches to the visitors than many of the important affairs of state that were taking place at the time. They were particularly taken with the New Zealander’s intimidating attire and the Daily Mail took to making casual reference to the ‘All-Blacks’.

Scotland were defeated by 12 points to 7, following which, over successive weekends Ireland and England were brushed aside 15-0. By the time they arrived in Cardiff the All-Blacks had grown in stature to be counted amongst the gods. Schoolboys knew each of the first fifteen by name and hungrily sought their autographs as the touring All-Black bandwagon rolled into town.

Wales however were not the type of side to be cowed by reputation alone. They were that year’s Home Nations Champions, having secured a Triple Crown. With the likes of Teddy Morgan and Rhys Gabe they were on the cusp of what would come to be regarded as the first golden age of Welsh rugby. The mystique that had grown around the touring New Zealand side allowed the Welsh side to assume their comfortable, if slightly erroneous, identity as ‘plucky minnows’.


Throughout the tour New Zealand had been negating half the opposition pack by scrumming down in a 2-3-2 formation. To counteract this Wales assigned floating props to seal off the loose-head. The advantage gave Wales forward ball and led to several chances in the early part of the game.

On 23 minutes Dicky Owen’s clever feinting run sent Teddy Morgan through for a try. New Zealand came back strongly but the Welsh held on to lead 3-0 at half-time.

The second half was more one-sided with wave after wave of All-Break pressure only relieved by a combination of desperate defending, full-back Bert Winfield’s kicking and the usual chorus of voices from the stands. With ten minutes remaining a surging run by Billy Wallace set Bob Deans, the bustling All-Black centre three-quarter, free. He needed only to cross the try line to level the scores but instead made for the posts, to allow for an easier conversion. The detour allowed Morgan and Gabe to haul him down inches short of the line.

A dispute then arose about whether Deans actually reached the line or not but the referee determined that he had not. In the aftermath of the game the local press reveled in their victory. Playing on the mystique that the touring side had generated they proclaimed the result an act of giant-killing at the hands of ‘gallant little Wales’.


Click here to read Rugby’s Greatest Upsets Part 1.

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How to research and write a club history by Keith Gregson

1304878_ertv_tab_mainWriter and historian Keith Gregson uses his experiences in researching Sunderland Rugby Club’s past to open a debate on writing rugby club histories.

In 2011, I was fortunate enough to win a competition organised by Rugby World magazine and MX Publishing. The prize was to have my research on the history of Sunderland Rugby Football Club published as a book.

The prime aim of writing the book was to raise funds to buy shirts for the club’s adult sides. Now this has been achieved, I am keen to pursue a more selfish aim and, in particular, to share with others some thoughts on templates which might make a local rugby club history of more than local interest.

I have singled out a series of questions that may be useful to intending rugby club historians and especially to those involved with clubs founded in the rush to rugby football in the mid and late Victorian period. These questions will be dealt with one at a time, using my own findings as exemplar material.

How and why was the club founded?

Between Christmas and New Year 1873 a group of young men assembled at the ground of Sunderland Cricket Club near the town centre to play a game of football under the rugby rules. This was reported in the local press as the first game for the recently formed Sunderland Club. The local paper named the two captains as well as the scorer of the only try. There is also a photograph in the club archive of some of the players early in 1874 when the club had started to play regular games against other sides.

It is fairly easy to place the formation of Sunderland RFC into context both nationally and regionally. By the 1870s, football had divided into two codes – the association code or ‘dribbling’ game and the rugby code or ‘handling’ game. Both had developed from the traditional ‘street’ football and school football games – the latter forever associated rightly or wrongly with Rugby School.

Sunderland RFC was one of the first rugby clubs to be formed in north east England. Some if not all of its players had played at boarding school and had met up to play occasional games with other former pupils from the wider counties of Durham and Yorkshire prior to 1873.

Sunderland RFC was thus formed by a group of young men schooled in different places but united by links of class and age and, in most cases, some experience of playing one of the forms of football. They lived in the detached houses and semi-villas newly built in the suburbs or beside the sea and chose to play the game for leisure, entertainment and companionship.

How did the club cope with the breakaway of the rugby league and early professionalism?

In the autumn of 1895, the committee of Sunderland RFC received a weighty document from the RFU confirming that ‘professionalism’ was ‘illegal’ and setting out in detail the requirements for the amateur game. This document is still in the club’s archive today with the words ‘agreed to’ pencilled in throughout. Clearly the club was not interested in paying players at this time.

Sunderland was an industrialised town in a heavily industrialised region yet its rugby club stuck firmly to the amateur game. The vast majority of its players came from a class where the issue of work time and money was not on the agenda and where the game did not attract crowds capable of supporting the professional game. The same appears to have happened at other clubs in north east England although here as in other areas the ‘coping with professionalism’ question needs to be asked by individual club historians in order to move from speculation to reasonable certainty.

How did the club cope with the rise of association football?

This is potentially one of the most interesting areas of club research. Both rugby football and association football had developed from the same roots. By the 1870s they were clearly different sports although as late as the 1880s many newspaper reports remain unclear as to which code was being played.

In the case of the town of Sunderland, the development of association football came at a later time than in the rest of what was to become a ‘soccer’ mad region. The main rugby club was formed in 1873 while Sunderland SAFC traces its roots back to 1879.

In the committee minutes there are occasional suggestions that the club might ‘adopt the association code’. During the Edwardian period, this suggestion reached a level where a serious meeting was held to discuss the possibility and a county rugby player was among those who thought it might make sense to move in that direction. Ultimately the idea was rejected on two counts – the first being that it would destroy the strong links between rugby and cricket and the second that a majority of the administrators were against professional sport at the club.

There remained tenuous links between the rugby club and its famous neighbour during the twentieth century. The rugby club used Sunderland AFC’s Roker Park at one point to put on a regional representative match against the visiting All Blacks and as late as the 1950s, there was some talk of allowing the Ashbrooke ground to be used for Sunderland AFC’s reserve fixtures. Nothing came of this.

The question of whether to play football by the association code or the rugby football code is one that many clubs formed in the Victorian period must have had to face. A number of modern association clubs made the decision to move from the ‘handling’ game to the ‘dribbling’ game yet one wonders how many current rugby clubs like Sunderland toyed with the idea of change before continuing to play the same game’. Again only further local club research can satisfy such musing.

How did the club cope with the effect of death and injury in war?

The effect of the First World War on rugby sides was massive. Adult rugby sides only had to lose a couple of players in order to be (almost literally) decimated and there must also have been an immeasurable number of those wounded in body and/or spirit who never returned to the game.

In post war Sunderland there were perceivable efforts to rebuild rugby within the community. The committee of Sunderland RFC co-operated with the RFU, the Education authority and the ship -owners in order to promote the game among the young. Soon there was a highly active school league and rugby was also built into the shipyard apprenticeship scheme with a number of weekly leagues here too.

One significant outcome of this development was the birth of a number of adult junior sides (junior being an official term to describe a lower level of senior rugby rather than anything to do with age). Players who had enjoyed the game at school or in apprenticeship could continue to play afterwards and the better players fed up into senior clubs like Sunderland RFC.

After the Second World War, such activity was less marked although as early as September 1944, committee members were linking up with players in their last years at local public schools with a view to their playing at adult level when the time came.

Immediately after the war, much of the members’ effort went into restoring the ground which had come under enemy attack.

When the ‘effect of war’ question was asked of Sunderland RFC, much of the answer was made possible by the survival of a small notebook registering school league results – meticulously kept by a keen club committee man. Other evidence was gleaned from club minutes and local newspapers. Hopefully similar evidence may have survived for other rugby clubs.

 What has been the reaction in recent years to the national growth of colt, junior and mini rugby and to the introduction of leagues and professionalism at senior level?

Since the Second World War, rugby union had changed almost beyond recognition. Significantly the RFU gave way firstly to a national club competition then to leagues and ultimately to a form of professionalism designed to work side by side with the amateur game. At the same time, organised coaching, disciplined training and tactics became the order of the day; colt rugby for the late teens, junior rugby for the early to mid-teens and ultimately mini and midi rugby from toddlers to 12 year olds was also introduced. More recently still there has been a growth in women’s rugby.

The Sunderland club’s response to this has been one that has left it as ‘one among many’ although more research needs to be done before the term ‘typical English rugby club’ can be applied to it. In respect of coaching and developing successful colts’ sides in the 1950s and 60s, the club was ahead of the game. For a variety of reasons, (including a lack of support for the professional game and a local economic downturn leading to emigration in the 1980s), the club was not in a strong position when the leagues were sorted out. It has remained happily tucked into the lower middle of the league system and currently shares a fixture list with many of the old Durham and Northumberland sides that have been rivals for nearly 140 years.

Mini rugby was taken up with great enthusiasm and the ground is packed with coaches, players and supporting parents every Sunday morning with teams running at every age group. More significant perhaps is the rising age of the regular adult player. In the 2011/12 season, the 3rd XV won its league with a side composed of a number of players over 50 and one over 60. Initially in the late twentieth century ‘veteran’ rugby started with a social side playing on an irregular basis. Clearly this was not enough for older players who still want a regular competitive challenge as well as social companionship. Other club studies should show whether this is a national trend or not.

Finally, September 2012 saw Sunderland Women’s Rugby team enter the arena with a 26-26 draw away to Harrogate – a club where the men’s side had been Sunderland’s rivals since the very early days.


If this article has successfully achieved its aim then a lengthy conclusion is unnecessary. The hope is that enthusiastic rugby club historians may read it and ’go and do likewise’ – especially with the key questions in mind. Hopefully this might lead to a clearer overview of what was happening at grass roots to the game we now know as rugby union as it wended its way slowly and often painfully towards the modern game.

About the Author- Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at and his books can be purchased from Amazon.

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Jack Dallas – A life devoted to rugby

There are many personalities in the history of rugby union who have played a pivotal part in the development of the sport.  Few though have played a significant part as both player and referee in matches that are still recalled generations later, and then served their country as an administrator for the next thirty years.

John Dewar (Jack) Dallas was born in 1878.  Educated at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, he played his rugby for Watsonians and Edinburgh as a forward and captained Watsonians for five seasons from 1899.  He represented Edinburgh in the 34th annual Inter-City match against Glasgow in December 1902 alongside three of his fellow Watsonians in the pack and led his club to their sixth Championship title in 1902-03.  The match ended in a scoreless draw and although Dallas is not mentioned by name in The Scotsman’s report of the match, he must have impressed the watching selectors.


Jack Dallas won his only cap as a forward against England at Richmond on 21 March 1903 where he and Jimmy Ross of London Scottish were late replacements for the legendary forwards “Darkie” Bedell-Sivright and Mark Morrison, both captains of British Lions touring parties.  Dallas scored Scotland’s first try in their 10-6 victory which gave Scotland their fourth Triple Crown.  It was to be his only cap. At the end of that season he played in the Watsonians Seven, the first Scottish Seven to compete from outside the Borders, which lost to Gala in the Final of the Melrose Sevens in April 1903.  He was described in the Watsonian centenary history as “a grand forward in the line-out and an outstanding place kicker”.

He led Watsonians throughout the 1903-04 season and then turned to refereeing.  It was a curious set of circumstances that led to Dallas being chosen as the referee for the final international of the New Zealanders’ all conquering tour against Wales in December 1905.  The All Blacks manager George Dixon had previously challenged the initial choices of the Welsh Football Union and rejected four suggested referees.  The WFU then asked the Scottish Rugby Union to appoint a referee and the Union chose Jack Dallas who, unlike four other Scottish referees, had not refereed any of the All Blacks’ previous tour matches.

It was his first international as a referee and Dallas was to be involved in one of the most contentious refereeing decisions in rugby history.  At half-time Wales led by a try to nil scored by their left winger Teddy Morgan, but it was expected that the All Blacks would come through to win in the second half.  However there were warning signs that their much vaunted game was not at its best.  The All Blacks were led by David Gallaher who had earned a formidable reputation as a marauding wing forward, but the well-known rugby correspondent EHD Sewell wrote of “the mercilessness, amounting almost to ferocity, with which JD Dallas of the Watsonians penalised Gallaher”.  However Wales played so well and tackled so ferociously that the All Blacks were restricted to just one attack deep into the second half which should have produced the try that would at least have drawn the game.

The Daily Mail correspondent JA Buttery takes up the story:

“It was now that Wallace chafing under the prolonged inaction which the Colonial three-quarter line had endured, rushed with the desperation born of despair into the thick of the fray.  Gathering the ball from an opponent’s toe, he tore his way through every obstacle, and in a trice was speeding down the field, with Deans on his flank, and only two opponents to pass.  It looked an absolutely certain try. Winfield went for Wallace a dozen yards from the line, but ere he could reach him the ball had been passed out to Deans racing down the touchline.  He, too, was collared, but not before he had grounded across the Welsh line, though the referee -whose decision is bound to be accepted in such matters declared that he had been ‘held up,’ and ordered a scrum instead of a place-kick.”

To the ends of their days – and Bob Deans was to die at the age of only 24 in September 1908 – the All Blacks who took part in the match swore that it had been a try and there was much criticism of the referee for not being up with the play.  In his book, George Dixon described the referee as “somewhat slow, judged by a new Zealand standard – not with the whistle – but in the matter of keeping up with the play when any specially fast bit of work occurred.”  However, in a letter quoted in ‘Fields of Praise’ that peerless history of the first 100 years of Welsh rugby, Jack Dallas wrote:

“On Monday morning I was astonished to read in the papers on my return to Edinburgh, that Deans had ‘scored’ a try that I had disallowed.

 When the ball went back on its way out to Deans I kept going hard and when Deans was tackled he grounded the ball 6 to 12 inches short of the goal-line.  At that moment he could neither pass not play the ball, and as I passed between the Welsh goal posts my whistle went shrill and loud.

 It is true that when I got to the spot to order a scrum, the ball was over the goal-line, but without hesitation I ordered a scrum at the place where Deans was grounded.  I never blew my whistle at the spot.  It had gone before.  No try was scored by Deans.” 

Despite the furore that his decision caused, this was not to be the only international for Jack Dallas as a referee.  He went on to referee seven further internationals between 1908 and 1912 and was one of only six referees to officiate at eight or more matches of the 293 official internationals played prior to the 1st World War.

In 1908 he refereed the Wales v Ireland match in Belfast in which Wales pulled away in the closing stages to win 11-5 and secure their fifth Triple Crown.  In 1909, he was the referee for two internationals.  The opening match of the Championship saw Wales defeat England at Cardiff by

8-0 at the beginning of a season in which they won all five matches including those against Australia and France.  Jack Dallas’s second match that season was Ireland v England at Lansdowne Road where England secured a convincing victory by 11-5.

He was chosen to officiate at the first international at Twickenham between England and Wales on 15 January 1910.  Once again Jack Dallas presided over a historic match.  The first England try was scored within two minutes by FE Chapman (without Wales having touched the ball) and England’s display in the first half was regarded as their finest for many years.  Later that season, he again refereed a Wales v Ireland match in which Wales with an all-Cardiff three-quarter line won 19-3 after the Irish pack had dominated the game for the first sixty minutes.

In 1911, he was chosen to referee the Ireland v England game at Lansdowne Road.  Ireland won narrowly 3-0 with a try by T Smyth, captain of the British Isles tour to South Africa in 1910, twelve minutes from time after a miskick close to the English try line.  Jack Dallas refereed his final international Ireland v Wales in Belfast in March 1912.  The match is chiefly recalled for the withdrawal of the chosen Welsh half backs Billy Trew and Dickie Owen who preferred to play for Swansea that day.  Despite a 5-0 lead for Wales at half-time, their replacements, Walter Martin and Tommy Vile, were unable to stem the tide as the Irish captain and fly half Dicky Lloyd with his  forwards drove the Irish team on to a deserved if unexpected victory by 12-5.

He remained involved with rugby for the rest of his life.  He represented the East of Scotland on the Committee of the Scottish Football Union from 1905/06 to 1910/11 and was a Special Representative on that committee from 1914/15 until his death in 1942.  He served on the Committee of the International Rugby Football Board from 1912 to 1939 as one of the two Scottish representatives on the IRFB.  During his time on the committee, there were numerous revisions to the laws and a number of these concerned the duties of referees.  He authored an important Memorandum adopted in October 1923 which dealt with “the duties of Referees to enforce the penalties incurred through breaches of the Rules”.  He also served on an IRFB sub-committee in 1937 on “the method of appointing Referees for International Matches” and the duties of referees in those matches.  He can be seen in a photograph [below – Dallas far left] as the Scottish delegate on the IRFB official welcoming party for the New South Wales “Waratahs” touring team when they arrived at Plymouth for their UK tour on 31 August 1927.


Outside his rugby commitments, he presided in the Aberdeen Sheriff Court for many years and was Chairman of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.  He died in Aberdeen on 31 July 1942.  Although his standing as a referee in rugby history has always been a source of controversy, and particularly in New Zealand, the tributes after his death in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of 13 August 1942 speak of his legal acumen, his extensive knowledge of rugby and his deep humanity.


  • 1905 Originals – Bob Howitt and Dianne Haworth (HarperCollins 2005)
  • Fields of Praise – David Smith and Gareth Williams (University of Wales Press 1980)
  • Minutes of the Meetings of the International Rugby Football Board 1886-1959
  • The History of Scottish Rugby – Sandy Thorburn (Johnston & Bacon 1980)
  • Tommy Vile: A Giant of a Man – Philip J Grant (Gomer Press 2010)
  • The Triumphant Tour of the New Zealand Footballers 1905 – George H Dixon (Geddis & Blomfield 1906)
  • The Watsonian Football Club 1875-1975 – Robin Stark (Howie & Seath Ltd 1975)
  • Why the All Blacks Triumphed – JA Buttery (The Daily Mail 1906)
  • Dublin Daily Express – The Scotsman – South Wales Daily News – The Times

About the Author- A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport.  He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.

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Death of a Forward

The Tragic First World War tale of Sunderland Rugby Football Club’s James Harry Edwards (1894 -1917) puts the First World War into sharp focus


James Harry Edwards (arms folded white vest)

One hundred years ago on 7 January 1917 James Harry Edwards was shot by a sniper on the Western Front.  He was 22 years old and had played in the forwards for Sunderland RFC as a teenager in the season before the war. His story is a tragic one and, as former England rugby player Lewis Moody notes on more than one occasion in a series of recent First World War rugby related films, stories like this truly bring home the tragedy of war.

There is little doubt that James (if this was how he was known to his family) was a first team player. His picture appears as a member of the 1913/14 1st XV and there are numerous references to him in team lists published in the Newcastle Journal and Sunderland Echo. In January 1915 while in training for the forces his name was posted in the Bucks Herald as part of an army side (his name published with Sunderland RFC beside it). Although he played for Sunderland James Harry Edwards was more of a ‘general north easterner’. He was born in the Heaton Suburb of Newcastle in July 1894 (and would thus have been only 18 or 19 when he first appeared for the 1st XV). His father was a ship repairer and employer and the family later moved to the Harton area of South Shields. He attended the South Shields Grammar Technical High School until he was in his mid-teens when he went to finish off his education at Uppingham School in Rutland. His name appears there in the 1911 census – a boarder age 16. His father was Managing Director of the Middle Dock in South Shields and after leaving school James started an engineering apprenticeship in Southwick, Sunderland. His days at a rugby playing public school plus his work placement in Sunderland might have been reasons for his attachment to rugby and the Sunderland club.

According to the Army lists James joined the 14th (Service) Battalion of the DLI as a temporary 2nd lieutenant on 22 September 1914 – weeks out of his teenage years. The battalion trained for months in the south (including Buckinghamshire which explains the Bucks Herald reference) and in June 1915 he was made a temporary full lieutenant. The men embarked for France on 11 September 1915 and within two weeks disaster struck the entire battalion at Loos. James officer’s record takes up the young man’s individual tale.  According to his record on 25 September ‘he was buried in a trench near Hill 70’ and ‘ was unconscious for 24 hours’. The trench had taken a direct hit from a shell. On the next day he was said to be suffering from ‘shock’ and within a few days was in hospital. The Medical Board decided that he was ‘unfit for service’ and he was given eight weeks leave.

He returned to the north east and his home – which had moved to Gosforth – which is now a suburb of Newcastle.  After the eight weeks he was examined for a move to ‘general service and home light duties’ but was still considered unfit for duty. He was required to report to medics again and again at weekly intervals and until May 1916 was still registered as unfit. His thick file of medical records – which can be viewed at The National Archives, Kew – makes for uncomfortable reading – ‘shock on active service’; ‘effects of shock concussion’; ‘ headaches and arms pains … pains in the nervous system’. One writer added a lengthier note – ‘he is suffering from nervous shock, insomnia, headaches, uncertain appetite and tremulous muscles’. Needless to say modern advances in the field of physical neuroscience would explain his state of health both mental and, more importantly perhaps physically. However it still comes as a surprise to discover that on 16 May 1916 an instruction came from high that the medical board should ‘please order him to join the EF (Expeditionary Force)’.

On 27 May 1915 he was appointed lieutenant in the 14th DLI. By August he was at Etaples although his record then notes that he was ‘in hospital’ again in October. On 1 December 1916 he was promoted to full lieutenant. Two days later he re-joined the battalion. Four days later he was shot by a sniper. The writer of the 14th DLI war diary (WO 95/1617-2) noted;

‘Cambrin sector – ‘ 20 officers – 735 other ranks – 7 Jan – a little shelling near Munster Parade, Old Boots Back Street – Enemy snipers active – Lieut J H Edwards and 1 OR (ordinary ranker) killed’.

James’s body was buried in Cambrin Churchyard – between the Somme and Ypres battlefields. At the time, his grave was said to have had ‘a durable cross’.  A telegram was sent to 22, Windsor Terrace, Newcastle and returned ‘house empty’. A few weeks later his father received an official letter at his Gosforth address. In July 1917 his father was sent his pay and his effects. Transcribed here from his war record, they present as a pitiful list;

  • 1 pocket book
  • 1 pipe
  • 1 fountain pen
  • 1 wristwatch and guard
  • 1 extra guard for wristwatch
  • 1 officer’s advance book
  • Letters etc
  • 1 cheque book
  • 4 tubes for pipe
  • 3 pencils
  • 1 iodine ampule

Until the closure of the DLI Museum his medals were located in Medal Case 34, Display Group 4 and some of his career details feature on his old South Shields’ school web site. His name appears on a number of north east war memorials especially one in St Nicholas Church, Gosforth put up by his parents in memory of their son and other local men killed in the conflict.

Over the last years I have studied the First World War careers of over 250 men who played sport – rugby, cricket, tennis and hockey – at what is known today as Ashbrooke Sports Club in Sunderland.  Over sixty of them failed to return home – possibly as high as one in four. The unfortunate James Harry Edwards was one of them – killed in action – not in a major battle like the Somme, Arras or Ypres but randomly picked off by an enemy sniper. Should he have been there at all? I will leave readers to judge for themselves – with our without the hindsight of advances in modern medicine –  but urge them, on this centenary, to give a few moment thought to James and thousands of others who died – not in the heat of battle – but sad and often lonely deaths during that most bitter of conflicts.


About the Author- Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at and his books can be purchased from Amazon.

Please like the World Rugby Museum on facebook and follow us on twitter for more of the same.



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Tolkien’s Battle of the Eastern Field

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is best known for his epic Lord of the Rings novels. A lesser known aspect of his personal history was his involvement in rugby union from a young age. Tolkien began playing rugby whilst a student at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and promptly joined the rugby team upon commencement of his studies in 1911 at Exeter College, Oxford University.

All Blacks Visit The Weta Workshop

All Black Mils Muliaina alongside Tolkien’s imfamous creature, Gollum, at Weta Workshop © Getty Images

In a letter to his son, Michael, in 1937, Tolkien recalled his early rugby playing days, stating that he was rejected at first due to his lighter frame, but that he ‘decided to make up for (his) weight by (legitimate) ferocity.’ Tolkien became house captain at the end of his first season and was soon thereafter awarded his colours. The scholar must have been a decent player, as later in life when meeting old classmates, he was surprised to learn that he was primarily remembered for his ‘rugger-prowess’ at school.

Tolkien’s rugby days were not without drama. In the same letter to his son he recalls how he ‘got rather damaged – among things having (his) tongue nearly cut out.’ Some attribute this accident to Tolkien’s reputation later in life as an indistinct lecturer; however, others claim that he had always spoken in such a manner.

Additional references to rugby from Tolkien speak of long-lasting injuries. In another letter to Michael in 1963 he states, ‘I am getting nearly as unbendable as an Ent. My catarrh is always with me (and will be) – it goes back to a nose broken (and neglected) in schoolboy Rugby.’

Throughout his career there were tenuous links between his writing and rugby. Suggestions have been made that Tolkien’s repugnant orcs are named after an acronym of the Oxford Rugby Club; however, at that period of time there was no such Oxford Rugby Club in existence. The club that we know today as the Oxford Rugby Club was known then as the Oxfordshire Nomads RFC until a name change in 1948. From this point in time, we do know of the Oxford college teams and the Oxford University team, but alas not the Oxford Rugby Club. It is a humorous story, but unlikely to be a true one.


King Edward’s School rugby team, Tolkien pictured second row, far right. © The Tolkien Trust 2016. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

A genuine link to rugby in Tolkien’s literary work is demonstrated through the publication of his first poem, The Battle of the Eastern Field, which was printed in the King Edward’s School Chronicle in 1911. The poem describes a house rugby match in a parody of epic literature. It is a tongue-in-cheek account that is modelled on the then-renowned Lays of Ancient Rome by Lord Macaulay. Here, Tolkien’s rival school houses are depicted as Roman clans dressed in red and green. Their ‘battle’ is described by Tolkien as follows:

‘Now round in thickest throng there pressed
These warriors red and green,
And many a dashing charge was made,
And many a brave deed seen.
Full oft a speeding foeman
Was hurtled to the ground,
While forward and now backward,
Did the ball of fortune bound:

Till Sekhet marked the slaughter,
And tossed his flaxen crest
And towards the Green-clad Chieftain
Through the carnage pressed;
Who fiercely flung by Sekhet,
Lay low upon the ground,
Till a thick wall of liegemen
Encompassed him around.’
(Excerpt of poem reproduced with the kind permission of the King Edward’s Foundation Archive.)

Whilst we may not know the true extent of Tolkien’s rugby prowess, it is clear that rugby played an important role in his formative years. The scars and memories lasted him a lifetime and have left us with a fantastic piece of poetry in The Battle of the Eastern Field.

About the Author– Jayne Linaker joined the World Rugby Museum in 2016 after completing a six month HLF Skills for the Future traineeship in heritage learning, interpretation and participation. 

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#FromTheVaults – Christmas card designed by Fougasse

Happy Christmas from the World Rugby Museum!


This Christmas card was designed by cartoonist Cyril Bird (aka Fougasse). Bird was the son of England cricketer Arthur Bird. He graduated from Kings College with a BSc in Engineering, but had attended evening art classes whilst a student. Bird contributed to several magazines and newspapers, in particular The Graphic, of which he became art editor in 1937. He is best known for the propaganda posters he produced for the Government during World War II, for which he was awarded a CBE in 1946.

There are several examples of Fougasse’s work in the museum’s collection, including a publication entitled ‘Why the Whistle Went’, first produced by the RFU in 1948 to explain the laws of the game. This Christmas card was also commissioned by the RFU. The date is unknown.

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