Wearside Echoes: Sunderland’s rugby history tackled

RUGBY STARS: An Edwardian 1st XV from Sunderland Rugby Football Club
RUGBY STARS: An Edwardian 1st XV from Sunderland Rugby Football Club
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A WEARSIDE sports club is in a league of its own after a national competition win.

Writer and historian Keith Gregson scored the chance to tackle the history of Sunderland Rugby Football Club after entering a contest in Rugby World magazine.

Now, after more than a year spent sifting through records held at Ashbrooke Sports Club, his book, One Among Many – The story of Sunderland Rugby Football Club, has just been published.

Packed with sporting facts and figures, the 197-page volume also includes vintage photos, player profiles, historical snippets and in-depth studies on the past, present and future of the club.

“One Among Many may not seem a particularly inviting title for a book, so it is a choice that needs some explanation,” said Keith, a former history teacher and official archivist for Sunderland RFC.

“The club could well be described as ‘one among many’ in the 21st century. It is not among the big boys in a national, or even regional, Rugby Union league.

“Rather, it is one of some 60 percent of clubs that play mainly for pleasure, week in week out, at a local level. It appears to be a typical English rugby club – yet this is only part of the story.

“Writing the book has given me a wonderful opportunity to tell the world about our rugby club.”

Sunderland RFC was founded as Sunderland Football Club in 1873 – six years before Sunderland AFC began life as Sunderland and District Teachers Association FC.

By 1882, somewhat ironically, the rugby lads were playing at Chester Road, while SAFC was based on field believed to be part of modern-day Ashbrooke.

“The letters RFC from the club name tell the early story of its history. Quite simply, it was formed some years before rugby union and league were separated in the 1890s,” said Keith.

“In fact, the archives show Sunderland’s rugby club came to be known as Sunderland FC before and after the internationally famous Sunderland Association Football Club came into being in 1879.

“Indeed, in its early days, Sunderland RFC was one of the most significant clubs in the north of England and, by the early 20th century, its players were the backbone of the Durham County side.”

The outbreak of World War One saw Sunderland RFC struggle for survival, however, as hundreds of Sunderland men – including several key players – signed up to fight for King and Country.

It would take until 1922, some four years after the conflict ended, for officials at Sunderland RFC to recruit enough fit men just to field a 2nd XV team.

“Only a handful of 1st XV players actively returned to the game after the war. At least seven lost their lives in the conflict, including Nathaniel Neilson and George Carter,” said Keith.

“The pair had been part of the great Edwardian 1st XV, and Nielson was a highly respected county player. He was just 30 when he was killed at the Front in February 1916, and is buried in France.”

Other rugby casualties of World War One included Andrew Legat, James Adamson, Edward Moore, Frederick Longden and James Edwards. Most were in their twenties or early thirties.

Sunderland RFC went on to enjoy several successful County Cup runs between the wars, however, with Eric Moses, Alan Bean and Hartley Elliott helping to swell the ranks of the team at this time.

The trio would later put their stamp on both the national and international game – with Eric serving as president of the RFU, while Alan and Hartley were in great demand as international referees.

But, as the storm clouds of war started to gather over Europe once more, so competitive sport was banned. The club, yet again, lost several key players to the conflict, including Alan Spence.

“Death, injury and the process of age robbed both club and players of years of sporting pleasure during the war,” said Keith. “At least three rugby players from Sunderland gave their lives.

“Alan, a sergeant observer in the RAF, was arguably the best player of this period. He was the only local player in the Northumberland/Durham side that took on the All Blacks in the 1935/6 season.

“Thomas Shacklock, a sea-going man from a maritime family, died while a chief engineer in the merchant navy, and Rowland Cox, a wing commander in the RAF, gave his life too.

“The wider Ashbrooke club lost even more members including, possibly, further rugby players who have not yet been traced.”

Several rugby players managed to distinguish themselves during the conflict however, with pre-war county captain Arnold Dixon winning an MBE and Major James Storey mentioned in dispatches.

Geoffrey Cox, the son of international Sunderland player Norman Cox, was awarded a British Empire Medal for his bravery, while Alfred Bannister received the Bronze Star USA.

“The greatest wartime honours, however, fell to Joe Kayall, the grandson of Sunderland RFC’s first international Henry Kayall and a rugby player for Sunderland throughout the 1930s,” said Keith.

“Joe was one of the most prominent fighter aces with a wartime career which deserves a book in itself. His honours include a DSO, OBE and DFC, and he was escape officer at Stalag Luft III too.”

The Second World War still had a year to run when crisis talks were called at the club. Eric Moses, Alan Bean and Major Kayll – father of air ace Joe – were among those to attend.

“They agreed to anticipate the restart of rugby by targeting youngsters. When hostilities came to an end, the committee offered all players free membership until the end of the year,” said Keith.

“But the war continued to cause problems for ten years or more after it ended. Just repairing the damage caused by air raids and recovering resultant costs stretched into the 1950s.”

County Cup success beckoned, however, later that decade and, in recent years, the club has been affected by the introduction of new leagues and a huge growth in junior rugby rather than war.

“Unique in some senses, the history of Sunderland RFC cannot be allowed to stand alone,” said Keith. “Not only is it a rugby club, but it is one among many as a section of Ashbrooke Sports Club.

“The relationship between the rugby club and sports club is an important and intriguing one and, although I have told the story separately in the book, it is key to the main issue.

“Today Sunderland RFC remains a friendly and sociable club – and part of the much wider Ashbrooke set-up, with embraces the bowls, tennis, hockey, rugby and cricket clubs of Sunderland.”

One Among Many is published by MX Publishing at £12.99. It is available from local bookshops and on-line book stores.

Sidebar: Sunderland RFC Timeline

1873: Sunderland Rugby club officially formed 1878: Sunderland’s Henry Kayll played for England against Scotland 1881: Sunderland RFC 1st XV won the first Durham County Challenge Cup 1893: Sunderland man Howard Marshall scored three tries for England against Wales 1903: Sunderland RFC’s Elliot brothers played together for the Barbarians 1932: England rugby trial held at Ashbrooke 1936: Sixty years of Durham County celebrated with a “huge game” at Ashbrooke 1948: Sunderland’s Alan Bean refereed the first game between the Barbarians and Australia 1949: Sunderland’s Eric Watt Moses became President of the Rugby Football Union 1959: Sunderland 1st XV won the County Challenge Cup 1973: Rugby Club centenary 1987: The centenary of Ashbrooke 1988: First XV success in the new leagues under captain Jim Smith 1993: Mini rugby sides enjoyed “great county cup success” 2011: Ashbrooke “awash” with senior, mini and junior teams 2012: One hundred and twenty five years of sport at Ashbrooke

Sidebar: The first game

ON December 30, 1873, the Sunderland Herald reported on a game of rugby played at Holmeside – then the home of Sunderland Cricket Club – thought to be the first Sunderland RFC match.

“The game had been organised in the name of a club ‘less than a week old’ and was an organisation that had already attracted 90 members,” said Keith.

A large crowd of spectators gathered to watch the festive match – which is believed to have been between a Sunderland side and a ‘pick-up’ side.

“Pick-ups were common in the early universities, when interested parties turned up to play, and sides were picked out – or up – on the spot,” said Keith.

The Herald reported that the Sunderland game was between two sides chosen by Mr C Kidson and Mr H P Kayll – thought to be one of the founder members of Sunderland RFC.

“It was a lively contest and was not decided until the very last minute, when Kidson scored a try. This was converted into a winning, and all-important, goal by Mr J Laing Jnr,” said Keith.

“This game is taken as the beginning of Sunderland RFC, and the club has continued to play unbroken – except for war – since that game.

“It has a justifiable claim to be the oldest continuous rugby club in the North East of England. It would be churlish, however, in respect to the vagaries of early records, not to recognise similar claims made by Durham City, Durham University and Houghton.”

Sidebar: Family affair

MEMBERSHIP of Sunderland RFC in the early years proved to be a real family affair.

James Laing Junior and his older brother Arthur – the sons of shipbuilder Sir James Laing – were involved with the club from the start – with James even meriting a mention in the first press article.

The boys were brought up within walking distance of the original Holmeside ground and, even though they attended Wellington College during term time, they were rugby fanatics.

“The school’s magazines for the early 1870s reveals that the Laing boys formed the lynch pin of the school’s rugby side. Indeed, James was captain of the side at one point,” said Keith.

“Both brothers missed out on the early seasons of Sunderland RFC, as they were away at school, but they were in the side thereafter, after returning home to work with their father.”

Another player in the early team was Charles Kidson, a former public schoolboy who was a solicitor in his twenties when Sunderland RFC was formed.

“Evidence points top football being played at his school, Bramham College, and to ex-pupils forming Bradford Rugby Club in 1863,” said Keith.

“Kidson’s attendance at that school may explain the strong links between Sunderland and Bradford, and indeed Durham and Yorkshire, which were to be forged later.”

Hartley Perks Kayll – a contemporary of Kidson – was also among the founder members. He had moved to London, however, by 1881, making his career with Sunderland a relatively short one.

“Another three founding fathers were picked out by the authors of an earlier history of sport in Sunderland and included William Elliott, Francis Trewhitt and Patrick Junor,” said Keith.

“Elliott attended Repton College and there is a good chance he was an early apostle of the sport of rugby in the town. He and his brother, Charles, were noted for their skill with their feet.

“Trewhitt was the same age as the Laing boys, a solicitor in training with family links to Marlborough College, while Junor had a real rugby pedigree.

“He moved to Sunderland just before the formation of the club, but had been instrumental in the formation of Glasgow Academicals and was selected to play for Scotland against England in 1873.”

Junor later became a driving force behind rugby at Houghton and Tudhoe, but he virtually forfeited his tright to play for his native Scotland due to his move south of the border.

“The Kaylls, the Kidsons, the Laings and the Elliotts provided the young club with a significant number of players – thus justifying the term “families affair,” said Keith.

“These four familes were capable of providing up to two-thirds of a side at times, and are truly representative of early Sunderland RFC membership.”