The Sunderland Lions who roared more than 100 years ago

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Lions fever gripped the country as the tour series in New Zealand came to a dramatic conclusion at the weekend.

But how many of you knew of Sunderland’s influence in the earliest days of British Lions history.

Alan Ayre-Smith.

Alan Ayre-Smith.

We are indebted to Keith Gregson for sharing the stories of two men who proudly pulled on the shirt.

More than 100 people gathered at Ashbrooke in Sunderland at the weekend to keenly follow the deciding match in the Lions tour series.

We now know how it finished.

But the grateful 100 who turned out to watch the game on television at Ashbrooke also got to find out more about the Wearside men who played their part in early Lions tours.

Keith Gregson.

Keith Gregson.

They were each handed leaflets to tell them about Dr Howard Marshall and Alan Ayre-Smith. Let’s take a further look at the rugby-playing heroes of Wearside.

l Sunderland-born Howard Marshall lived just around the corner of the Ashbrooke ground and played for Sunderland RFC 1st XV for a couple of seasons as a teenager before going to Cambridge to study medicine.

He was born in 1870 and by the time he had reached his early twenties, he was playing for Blackheath .

He was soon flourishing in the game and was invited on the Barbarians first tour.

By 1891, Howard was picked for another honour. He was asked to be part of the British Lions’ tour to South Africa and played his part in two internationals.

His career blossomed even further in the next two years when, in 1893, he was selected to play for England against Wales.

And then came yet another moment of distinction when he scored the first Barbarian try in Wales and a hat trick of tries in an international during the Wales v England match in 1893.

Like millions of others, his life was turned upside down when the First World War broke out and he took charge of a Red Cross hospital in Cirencester.

Thanks to the innovative work he did at the hospital, he was awarded an OBE in 1920.

Dr Marshall was also known for his work in supporting civil surgeons who attended to military patients during the war.

And although he was a civilian, he had firm links to the 4th Battalion Gloucester Regiment. He died in London in 1929.

l Alan Ayre-Smith came into the world six years after his fellow Wearsider.

He too had a medical background as his father was a surgeon and the family home was in Park Terrace, Sunderland in 1881.

Between 1889 and 1892, he went to Dulwich College and in 1891 was living in London with his parents. He studied for science degrees at Durham University before training in medicine at Guy’s Hospital.

He played rugby for Guy’s and in 1899 was invited to take part in the British Lions’ tour to Australia.

He featured in 17 of the 20 tour matches and represented Britain in all four Test Matches against Australia. He scored his only international try in the second test and played an important part in the victories achieved in the third and fourth tests.

But he then sacrificed his international rugby career and travelled to South Africa where he worked as a dresser in the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital during the Boer War.

By 1902, he was back in Sunderland where he played for the 1st XV for three seasons. It was quite a triumph for him.

In the first season, the team won the county cup and in the third, he became the captain of the 1st XV.

He was also part of a successful Durham County side during the same period. He then turned his attention to volunteer soldiering as surgeon lieutenant with the 1st Durham Garrison Volunteers and served there from 1905.

In 1908 he became part of the new Royal Garrison Artillery and married in the same year.

He was a captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery when the First World War broke out. At the time, he was in his late 30s. He served as captain and major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

As the brutal war continued to rage, he found himself on the Western Front but survived to tell the tale.

He died in 1957 at the age of 81.

If there is any aspect of Wearside history you would like us to examine, email