Tag Archives: Cardiff RFC

John Lewis Williams (1882-1916): World Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee

During the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the flying Welsh wing-three-quarter, John (“Johnny” or “Johnnie”) Lewis Williams, was inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame, ninety-nine years after his death in the Great War. It was a richly deserved honour. He was, after all, one of the most talented and exciting rugby players to be killed in the war. In his time, he was admired for his “sure tackling, fielding, and kicking, combined with a deceptive turn of speed and, above all, a capital swerve” and was praised as “a great footballer; always a trier and a universal favourite of the crowd”.

Johnny played twelve seasons of elite club rugby and, during Wales’ first “Golden Era”, he won seventeen Welsh caps between 1906 and 1911, averaging a try a match. On the losing side only twice for Wales, he was a prominent member of three Grand Slam winning teams. Johnny also played in two Tests against New Zealand for the 1908 British (Anglo-Welsh) tourists and was the team’s leading try scorer.

Born 1882 in Whitchurch, then a village just outside Cardiff, he was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School. Though this school had pioneered rugby in Wales in the 1870s, by Johnny’s time it had switched to soccer, so it was with his local club that he gained his first experience as a three-quarter. So well did the talented youngster take to the game at Whitchurch that he was soon invited to join Newport, where he made his First XV debut whilst still just seventeen. However in 1903-4, after four seasons at Rodney Parade, he moved to his home town club and remained with Cardiff until he retired. Now permanently settled at the Arms Park, Johnny worked hard at improving his speed and perfecting what became his signature side-step and inward swerve from the touchline, and it paid off. He quickly established a dazzling centre/wing partnership with Rhys Gabe, one of the finest centres ever to play for Wales. The Welsh selectors took note.

Johnny won his first cap against South Africa in 1906 and was one of the few Welshmen to receive praise after Wales’ surprising defeat. A month later, however, in happier circumstances, he demonstrated his devastating swerve by leaving Arthur Marsberg standing when he scored in Cardiff’s stunning 17-0 defeat of the Springboks. Marsberg, a full-back who was rarely bettered, sportingly acknowledged this feat by immediately shaking Johnny’s hand. Two years later, Johnny scored two spectacular tries in Cardiff’s 24-8 victory over Australia.

He was also regularly on the score sheet for Wales. On two occasions, he registered a hat trick against Ireland, in 1907 and in 1910. His tries in the tight victories over Scotland and Ireland proved to be crucial in helping Wales win the first Grand Slam in 1907-8. Johnny was prominent again in 1908-9, when the defeat of Australia was followed by a second successive Grand Slam.  In 1910-11, he was still delighting the crowds, as Wales gained their third Grand Slam (and their sixth Triple Crown in eleven years). For the 1911 match in Paris, Johnny was honoured with the Welsh captaincy and celebrated this with a fine try in the 15-0 victory. He retired from rugby at the end of that season but returned to France under rather different circumstances within a few years.

Johnny was a partner in a coal exporting business in Cardiff but when war broke out but he enlisted as a private in the Royal Fusiliers at the age of thirty-two. However, with the Lord Mayor of Cardiff campaigning to raise a battalion bearing the name of the city, Johnny decided to apply for a commission and was accepted and later promoted to captain in this new unit. What helped him make up his mind was the number of local rugby players  ̶  many of whom were old friends   ̶  serving in the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment. They included Welsh internationals Bert Winfield, Clem Lewis and Dick Thomas; the Welsh-born but English post-war international Robert Duncan; and many players from Cardiff RFC, Glamorgan Wanderers and Cardiff and District clubs. In particular, Johnny was more than well acquainted with Fred Smith who later commanded the Cardiff City Battalion in France: when Johnny captained Cardiff RFC in 1909-10, Fred had been his vice-captain.

Johnny took part in the 38th (Welsh) Division’s first major action of the war, the Battle of Mametz Wood. The 16th Welsh and the 11th South Wales Borderers were ordered to make the opening attack on the wood on the 7th July 1916. It was, though, an impossible task. The operation was badly planned and consequently the attacking troops were unable to get within 200 metres of their objective. Waves of men were cut down by heavy machine gun fire, not only from the wood, but also from their right flank. Encouraging his men forward, Johnny  ̶  like Dick Thomas  ̶  was one of over 300 casualties suffered by the Cardiff City Battalion that ill-fated day. He received a severe shrapnel wound to the left leg and was evacuated to a casualty clearing station some miles behind the front.

There his leg had to be amputated but his condition deteriorated rapidly and on the 12th July 1916  ̶  the day that Mametz Wood was finally cleared of the enemy  ̶  “Johnny Bach”, the prolific try scorer and “universal favourite” of the Arms Park crowd, sadly succumbed to his wounds.

Captain John Lewis Williams is buried in Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension alongside 900 others, most of whom died of wounds during the Battles of the Somme.

His name can be found on many memorials around south Wales, including those at Whitchurch, Penarth and Rodney Parade in Newport.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of John Lewis Williams’s death on 12th July 2016. It is re-posted here 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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The Names and Nicknames of Some Early Rugby Clubs of Cardiff and District

You have to hand it to the Victorians, when it came to naming their rugby clubs, they could certainly be very imaginative.

They had to be. There were so many teams in Victorian and Edwardian Cardiff and district — I’ve identified over 200 each season between 1889-90 and 1896-7, for instance — that they needed to find ways of differentiating themselves. For example, between 1885 and 1900, over thirty Roath teams used distinguishing names like Roath Albion, Roath Hornets, Roath Shamrocks etc. And, of course, there were very many Roath based clubs which didn’t include the name of the suburb at all, like Mackintosh and St. Peter’s.

Some teams adopted names which suggested a degree of aggression, for instance: Bowry [sic] Boys, Mary Ann Street Bushrangers, Merthyr Street Bruisers, Roath Mohawks, Penarth Dreadnoughts, Pentyrch Rowdy Boys and Riverside Warriors. Others relied on less assertive names, perhaps based on the emblems or badges which they wore on their jerseys, like Blackweir Diamonds, Cathays Red Star and Canton Red Anchor. Perhaps surprisingly, flower names were not uncommon, though maybe recruiting difficulties lead to Tongwynlais Flowers, Penarth Tulips and Llandaff Blossoms surviving only for a short period.

A few examples of the more unusual team names of the time included: North Central Buffoons, Maggie Murphy’s Pups, Globe Revellers (a pub side), Roath Pouncers, Harbour Lights, Broken Melodies, Waistcoat Tearers and Cardiff Waxlights. No doubt, humour sometimes came in to it: Alpine Rangers, for instance, played at sea level on East Moors.

There were very many teams, of course, which played under the more traditional names adopted by clubs like: Bute Dock Rangers, Ely Rovers, Gabalfa Stars, Moors United, Tresillian Harlequins and Wharton Wanderers. But the names used by Canton Crusaders, Grange Excelsiors, Roath Windsors, Splott Raglans and Whitchurch Crescents were also popular with Victorian clubs in Cardiff. Less common suffixes were those chosen by Butetown Barbarians, Canton Lillywhites, Cathays Albion, Penarth Victoria, Penhill Swifts, and Tongwynlais Ramblers. The existence of a Grange Blues team in the 1890s means that the modern professional regional team in Cardiff were by no means the first to make use of the name “Blues” in the city.

But these examples are just a few of the thousands of teams which existed in and around Cardiff before the First World War. Clubs then were not the more or less permanent organisations they are today. Most teams enjoyed a very short life. Many changed their names, some frequently. So the adoption of a name was much more fluid and ephemeral than today and, therefore, much more colourful.

As for nicknames, then, as now, most of the leading clubs in Cardiff and district had them, though in some cases, it might have been the local press who promoted their use as much as anything.

Today, Cardiff RFC are “the Blue and Blacks” but in Victorian times they were styled “the Bold Blue and Black” by players and supporters, though the press also sometimes referred to them as “the Welsh Metropolitans”. Penarth were “the Butcher Boys”, “Donkey Island” or, still used today, “the Seasiders”. And even in the 1960s, cries of “C’mon Donkey Island” could still occasionally be heard at the Penarth Athletic Field. St. Peter’s, then as today, were “the Rocks”. Canton used to be exotically known as “the Dancing Dervishes” or just “the Dervishes” but that name fell into disuse many years ago.

What about Cardiff and District Rugby Union  clubs which no longer exist? In Victorian times, the suburb of Grangetown was known locally as “the city of bricks”, so the Grange Stars/Grangetown club were “the Bricklayers”. Because of the location of Cardiff gaol, Adamsdown rugby club were “the Gaolers”. Roath were “the Zebras” (striped jerseys?); Canton Wanderers “the Tramps”; Loudoun “the Hounds”; and Mackintosh “the Gravediggers”.

Many of the residents of Newtown were of Irish extraction, so the local parish club, St. Paul’s, were unsurprisingly known as “the Irishmen”. The workers at Cardiff’s “Covent Garden” had a decent team called Cardiff Fruiterers and they went by the nickname of “the Banana Boys”. They even thought about adopting this as the official club name at one time.

One of Cardiff and District’s foremost local clubs before the First World War, Cardiff Romilly had the most unusual nickname, however. Although based in Canton, they regularly used the long-gone Blue Anchor pub in Wharton Street in the city centre. Romilly took their nickname from a Greek philosopher whose effigy could be found above the entrance to the pub. Democritus was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” because he thought it important to be cheerful in life and to laugh at the foibles of human nature.

So Cardiff Romilly referred to themselves, and were widely known, as “the Laughing Philosophers”, which is not a bad name for a rugby club when you think about it.

 

For much more about the nature of club rugby in Cardiff and Wales in Victorian times, please see “This Spellbound Rugby People: The Birth of Rugby in Cardiff and Wales” (2015).

Gwyn Prescott

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Whitchurch Superstar

I felt privileged to be asked to take photographs for my father’s book ‘Call Them to Remembrance’, as rugby and history have also been topics of interest for me. I had, of course, read about the tragic loss of life in World War I and felt keen to contribute to this piece as a way to remember those who have fallen.

But what was fascinating about working on this particular project, was learning about the individual stories of these fallen men; fine sportsmen who were struck down in their prime.

This was no more evident than in the case of John Lewis Williams. I was quick to learn that Williams had been born in Whitchurch, where I went to school and spent much of my teenage years. This suddenly struck home the reality of the tragic tale. Williams was, by all accounts, a superb footballer, and a huge loss for Wales and rugby. A true star of the game before his untimely death. Much is made of sportsmen and women today; Whitchurch is lucky enough to boast such sporting greats as Gareth Bale, Geraint Thomas and Sam Warburton, who are regarded superstars. Williams was on par with this at the time.

To emphasise the status that Williams held during his player career, last September, he was inducted into the World Rugby (formally IRB) Hall of Fame.

whitchurch memorial

Whitchurch Memorial -by Sian Prescott

That I had passed this memorial countless times and barely glanced at it, barely acknowledged the names which had, over the years, just become arbitrary text, I felt I had done Williams, and the other fallen men a disservice.

I had been ignorant to the fact a great rugby player was on this memorial; but also what else had the others achieved and done in their short lives. I was struck that any of these names could have been any of the names of people I had known and befriended in Whitchurch over the years.

It is very easy to pass by these memorials and take them for granted. Working on this project made me realise that it is worth the small time and effort to sometimes pause amidst our own busy lives, and acknowledge those who fought so that we could enjoy our freedoms today.

Sian Prescott

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The 2015 Passchendaele Commemoration Remembers “Dai” Westacott

At a moving commemoration held on the evening of the 10th November each year, the villagers of Passchendaele honour the memory of the men of all nationalities who died during the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November 1917), perhaps better known as “Passchendaele”. Over half a million men became casualties in the battle but in order to personalise this horrendous human cost, the Passchendaele Commemoration focuses on the lives of just three soldiers who died. This year, one of the three was a rugby international. At least seven internationals died in the battle, including: James Henderson (Scotland), Albert Stewart (Ireland), Alfred Taylor (Ireland), Arthur Wilson (England) and two of the most famous rugby players to fall in the war, Edgar Mobbs (England) and David Gallaher (New Zealand). But it was the less well-known Welsh international, David Westacott, who was honoured at the 2015 commemoration.

This annual ceremony by the people of Passchendaele commemorates the end of the Third Battle of Ypres and the capture of their village by the Canadian Division on the 10th November 1917. This year over three hundred villagers took part, as well as government representatives from Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and Germany. Contingents of the Belgian, Canadian and German military were also present. The commemoration began just outside the village at the Crest Farm Canadian Memorial, with a reflection on the sacrifice of Myer Cohen of Canada, Hinrich Böttcher of Germany and, representing all the British soldiers who died, David Westacott. During a moving ceremony, an account of the life of each was read out and their photographs displayed at the memorial. This was then followed by a torchlit procession through the village to Passchendaele Church.

“Dai” Westacott was a Cardiff docker. A tough and powerful forward, he played for seven seasons for Cardiff during one of the most successful periods in their history. The highlight of his club career was surely his participation in Cardiff’s stunning 24-8 victory over Australia in 1908. He also played once for Wales in the match against Ireland in 1906. Although a thirty-two year-old family man when war broke out, Dai was an early volunteer and consequently he saw much action on the Western Front. On the 28th August 1917, he was serving with the 2/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment in the line north-east of Ypres, when he was caught by a random shell and killed instantly. He has no known grave and is commemorated, not far from where he died, on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

Dai is perhaps not the best known of the many internationals who died in the war, but it is gratifying to realise that his achievements and his sacrifice have been not been forgotten by the people of Passchendaele and Flanders.

This article recently appeared on the World Rugby Museum Blog, December 2015.

Gwyn Prescott

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The Origin and Early Years of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union

By the early 1890s, there were over 200 teams playing the game in the Cardiff, Penarth and Barry area and several of these clubs had joined the WRU. However, the Union was becoming alarmed that it might eventually be swamped by junior clubs from Cardiff and elsewhere. As a result, in 1892 the WRU resolved that strict criteria would be applied to all future applications for membership. At the same meeting, the nomination of several Cardiff district clubs for WRU membership was greeted with laughter by the delegates. In response to these rebuffs to the grassroots game in the town, H. W. Wells, a journalist on the Western Mail, suggested that it might be necessary to form a union of local clubs.

Further demands for a new union to control the burgeoning game in Cardiff surfaced shortly afterwards following a fractious and controversial game between Grangetown and Cardiff Rangers. Not only was the match a series of fist fights but the Rangers’ winning try was awarded, even though the scorer evaded tacklers by running behind the spectators on the touchline. Clearly, something needed to be done.

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