Tag Archives: Blackheath Rugby

Horace Wyndham Thomas (1890-1916): The Cambridge Choral Scholar who Played for Wales.

Horace Wyndham Thomas was that very rare combination: not only a gifted Cambridge choral scholar, but also a brilliant Welsh international rugby player. Press reports of his games for Blackheath or Cambridge University – he played almost all his senior rugby in England – demonstrated that Wyndham was one of the most exciting and intuitive attacking outside-halves of his time. Sadly, however, because of work commitments and then the outbreak of war, he was unable to fulfil his outstanding potential.

Wyndham was born in 1890 in Pentyrch near Cardiff. He began playing rugby at Bridgend County School, where he was described by the headmaster as “the best character we ever had here”. In 1906, he won a scholarship to Monmouth School, where he represented the school not just at rugby but also at cricket, hockey, gymnastics and athletics.

Possessed with an exceptionally fine singing voice, he won a prestigious choral scholarship to King’s College Cambridge in 1909. It is unlikely that any Cambridge undergraduate enjoyed a fuller life, for this included services in King’s Chapel with the college choir; performances with university music and drama societies; cricket for King’s and the university second XI; and of course, rugby for King’s and for the Light Blues. College reports confirm that he was very popular with his tutors and fellow students, and universally admired for his modesty.

During his three years at Cambridge, Wyndham’s main rugby club outside the university was Blackheath, although he also played a couple of times for London Welsh. Selected to play for Cambridge against Oxford in December 1911, he was forced to drop out at the last minute due to injury. However, despite this disappointing setback, further honours came in the Christmas vacation when he took part in the Barbarians tour matches at Newport and Leicester. Over the holiday, he also played twice for Swansea, partnering Dicky Owen, one of the greatest scrum-halves ever to represent Wales, although the experiment was not repeated.

It is clear from the press reports for the following season that Wyndham was now playing with great assurance and “constantly bewildering” brilliance. He finally won his Blue in December 1912, when he helped Cambridge defeat Oxford for the first time in seven years. The Welsh selectors were so impressed with Wyndham’s performance that he was picked to play for Wales against South Africa only four days later. It is a common perception that, in doing so, the WRU contravened their own regulation that players who opted for clubs like Blackheath rather than London Welsh would not be selected. However, all that the WRU had decided some years earlier was that they would give preference to London Welsh players, a rather different matter.

Wyndham’s international rugby career was short but dramatic. Five minutes before the end of his debut match against South Africa, with the Springboks leading by one penalty to nil, Wyndham attempted a difficult drop goal, then worth four points. A great cheer went up, but the referee judged, controversially, that Wyndham had missed the upright by six inches. The Western Mail commented that “those inches were sufficient to deprive Wales of victory and of making the brilliant Cantab one of the immortals of Welsh rugby”. Had the kick been successful, H. Wyndham Thomas would indeed still be a household name in Wales. Sport can be a cruel business.

The Western Mail also commented that Wyndham was “just the type of player Wales cannot afford to lose”. In fact, Wyndham had recently accepted an appointment with a firm of shipping agents in Calcutta, and was planning to sail from Gravesend on the very day of the next international match, when Wales were due to meet England. The WRU, however, persuaded him to revise his travel arrangements so that he could play. This meant that not long after the match – in which England recorded their first ever victory at the Arms Park – Wyndham had to take a long train journey through France, to meet his boat when she docked at Marseilles. It is doubtful whether anyone had a more unusual departure from the international game.

Wyndham continued to play rugby and cricket in India, but returned home in 1915 to take up a commission, eventually joining the 16th Battalion Rifle Brigade in France in March 1916. Most modern accounts incorrectly claim that he was killed in the Battle of Guillemont on 3rd September 1916. However, he actually lost his life elsewhere that day, several miles to the north-west, in an attempt to secure the high ground on the left bank of the river Ancre, north of Hamel. With over 400 casualties, the 16th Rifle Brigade suffered terribly in this assault. Wyndham was one of only a handful from his battalion who managed to reach the German line. He had just encouraged his men to follow him into the trench with the cry – all too familiar on the rugby field – “Come on boys, we’ve got them beat”, when he was tragically caught by shellfire and killed instantly.

Who knows what this exceptionally gifted young man might have achieved if he had survived the war. Writing to Wyndham’s family after his death, the Provost of King’s College, M.R. James, said “There never was surely a brighter spirit than his”, and that he would be greatly missed.

Second Lieutenant Horace Wyndham Thomas, the multi-talented King’s College choral scholar and Welsh rugby international, is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

 

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 3rd September 2016 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Horace Wyndham Thomas’s death north of Hamel on the Somme.

 

There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”. 

 

 

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William Purdon Geen: the Welsh rugby international who died in Flanders in 1915.

101 WPG

At his best, “Billy” Geen was a dazzlingly entertaining three-quarter, with a bewildering side-step.  At times, he reminded supporters of some of the greatest exponents of Welsh back play, like Arthur Gould and Rhys Gabe. But he was a player of moods and occasional lapses of form, and his brief period in the game was dogged throughout by injury. And he was never able to fulfil his potential because, like so many of his unlucky generation, his promising rugby career was halted by the war.

The nephew of Frank Purdon, who played at forward for both Wales and Ireland, Billy was born in Newport on 14 March 1891. He learned the game at Haileybury College and quickly developed a reputation there as a talented all-rounder — he captained the school at cricket and kept wicket for Newport CC and Monmouthshire whilst still a schoolboy. In 1910, he went up to University College Oxford, where he won three Blues (not four as widely reported). In his first season at Oxford, he was fortunate enough to play on the wing outside Ronnie Poulton. Though both were individualists, they developed a close understanding and became a devastating try-scoring partnership. In the tightly contested Varsity Match of 1910, Billy made a dream debut by scoring three tries in the 23-18 defeat of Cambridge. He combined so well with Poulton that he was then rewarded with an English trial, playing for an England XV against the North. Not to be outdone, the Welsh selectors quickly retaliated by picking him for their trial and strengthened their claim on him when they subsequently named him as reserve for the fixture with England in January 1911. Remarkably, he was still only nineteen.

After more fine performances for Oxford the following season, it was widely anticipated that he would soon be capped by Wales. However, a serious injury sustained while playing for the Barbarians at Christmas ruled out any chance of international honours in 1911-12.

Fully recovered, he again hit top form for Oxford the next year. Billy normally played for Newport in the vacations, although he also  sometimes turned out for Blackheath and Bridgend. However, there was one special occasion during term time in 1912-13 when Newport called him up as a late replacement against the touring Springboks. This proved to be one of the highlights of Billy’s short career.Newport deservedly won 9-3 that day and his tackling was crucial to the victory.

Just four days after appearing on the wing in his third and final Varsity Match in December 1912, Billy played against the South Africans once again, when he gained his Welsh cap at last. Although Wales lost 3-0, he almost saved the day. After sensationally running the length of a muddy Arms Park, Billy chipped over the full-back, only to see the ball slither into touch-in-goal, just before he could get his hand on it to score the equaliser.

He won two further caps that season, though bad luck struck again as injury denied him two more. Many believed that he showed greatest potential as a centre, so he was selected there in his third and final international, against Ireland in March 1913. It was a shrewd decision. Billy was a great success and his many breaks and swerving runs inspired Wales to an exhilarating 16-13 victory.

After leaving Oxford in 1913, Billy was now able to play regularly for Newport, but the final season before the war was a disappointing one for him. He was selected by Wales for their opening match against England, but had to withdraw on medical advice and did not play again in 1913-14.

When war broke out, Billy was one of the very first to volunteer. He was commissioned second lieutenant in August 1914 and joined the 9th (Service) Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His last game of rugby was in April 1915 when, wearing the Barbarians jersey for the fifth time, he helped them defeat a Royal Army Medical Corps XV at Old Deer Park. Partnering him in the three-quarters that day were the English internationals Edgar Mobbs and Arthur Dingle, who were also fated to die in the war. A month later, Billy was on the Western Front.

On 30 July 1915, his Division were in the line around Hooge near Ypres, when the Germans launched a devastating attack. It was here that the first use of liquid fire was inflicted on British troops and, as a consequence, the enemy overwhelmed and captured the front trenches. The 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were in reserve at the time and so were rushed up to join in a counter-attack. This was not a success, but Billy’s battalion did manage to recapture some of the lost trenches, although at great cost. In the act of taking their objective, the leading riflemen had come under enfilade fire from Hooge village. So with great gallantry, Second Lieutenant Geen took it on himself to lead a small party to close with the enemy and deal with their machine guns. He was never seen again and has no known grave. His date of death is officially recorded as 31 July 1915.

Yet another player whose best years were robbed by the war, the courageous William Purdon Geen is one of seven rugby internationals commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing of the Salient.

He is also commemorated on memorials at Newport RFC, Haileybury College, University College Oxford, Blackheath FC and the Principality Stadium.

This article originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Billy Geen’s death in action in 1915. It is re-posted here, with some amendments, to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death.

There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”.

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Charles Gerald Taylor: The Royal Navy Officer who was the First Welsh Rugby International to Die in the First World War.

This article was first posted on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Charles Taylor’s death in action in 1915. I have re-posted it here with minor amendments to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death. There is a much longer account of Charles Taylor’s life in “Call Them to Remembrance”.

Lest We Forget – Charles Gerald Taylor (Wales)   24/1/1915                                                      

If Charles Taylor hadn’t decided to pursue a naval career he might never have become a rugby player. He was born in Ruabon, north Wales on 8 May 1863, the son of Reverend Alfred and Annie Taylor. His father was headmaster of Ruabon Grammar School, where Charles was educated.

North Wales has always been soccer country so, unsurprisingly, in his youth Charles was an association footballer, and a gifted one at that. However, at sixteen he left his Denbighshire home to join HMS Marlborough, a shore establishment in Portsmouth for the training of Royal Navy engineer officers. There the preferred sport was rugby – they had a decent fixture list and were members of the RFU – and so Charles was converted into a three-quarter. Any reluctance he may initially have felt was quickly dispelled as he proved to be a natural for the game and he soon became a “crack” member of the team. By the time he was twenty, Charles had come to the notice of the Welsh selectors.

He was fast, useful with the ball in hand and a good tackler but Charles was best known for his kicking. His particular speciality was a legacy from his soccer days: the fly kick to touch, a potentially dangerous tactic at any time but one which Charles could usually bring off with extraordinary accuracy. Well liked for his charm, humour and, not least, his post-match party piece on the banjo, he was clearly an asset for any rugby side.

Charles made his international debut in January 1884 on the wing against England at Leeds where he “put in some wonderful flying kicks”. He also nearly achieved lasting fame by helping to bring off a sensational victory with a drop goal attempt which unfortunately was disallowed. However, according to the England full back, Henry Tristram, who was in a much better position to see than the officials, the kick was good. It was, nevertheless, a memorable year for Charles: a few months later he came second in the pole vault at the AAA national championships.

Although he played all his club rugby in England, Charles became an automatic choice for Wales over four seasons, winning nine caps in all and missing only one through injury. No doubt with a nod to his naval background, the press therefore referred to him as “the sheet anchor” of the team.

His time in the Welsh jersey wasn’t a period of great success but there were signs that Wales were improving. Two wins out of two against Ireland, that near miss at Leeds and draws with England and Scotland were indications that, with Charles’s help, Wales now had to be taken seriously.

After six years at HMS Marlborough, Charles transferred to the Royal Naval College Greenwich in 1885 and so was able to join one of the best teams in the country, the powerful Blackheath club. He also helped set up London Welsh at this time but only turned out for them on the odd occasion. Playing against Scotland on 9 January 1886, Charles made rugby history as a member of the first-ever four three-quarter line-up in international rugby.

His final international appearance was in the victory over Ireland in March 1887, when Wales finished second in the championship, achieving their highest placing so far. A few months later, Assistant Engineer Charles Taylor was posted to his first ship for service in the Mediterranean and his senior rugby career had come to an end.

A highly professional and efficient officer, he had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. He was promoted to Engineer-Captain in 1912 and undoubtedly would have risen further had he survived. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he was posted to HMS Tiger, in the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, which was under the command of Rear Admiral Beatty. Charles held a position of considerable responsibility as the Squadron Engineer Officer.

Unknown to the enemy, by late January 1915, the British were intercepting their radio traffic and breaking into their naval codes. So when a squadron of German ships ventured out into the North Sea, the Royal Navy was waiting for them. On 24th January 1915, Beatty caught the Germans near the Dogger Bank.  During the battle, one of the German capital ships was sunk with the loss nearly a thousand lives, though the rest of the squadron managed to escape. No British ship was lost and only fifteen Royal Navy personnel were killed. However, it was HMS Tiger which suffered most of the British casualties when a shell hit a compartment below the conning tower. Engineer-Captain Taylor was nearby, calmly observing the technical performance of the ships, when, tragically, he was caught in the blast and killed instantly.

His body was returned home and he lies today in Tavistock New Cemetery, Devon. He left a widow and three children. At fifty-one, Charles Gerald Taylor was the fourth oldest rugby international to die in the Great War.

The Battle of Dogger Bank had added the first Welshman to the game’s international roll of honour.

 

Charles Taylor is commemorated on memorials at Ruabon, Dartmouth, Blackheath FC, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium.

Gwyn Prescott

24 January 2016

 

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