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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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Lou Phillips (1878-1916): Welsh Rugby International and Golf Champion

Arguably no sport requires such a wide and varied range of skills as rugby. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many of the best exponents of the game have also been good at other sports. And of all the Welsh sportsmen who died during the Great War, there was possibly no more talented all-rounder than Newport’s Louis Augustus Phillips. After all, Lou represented Wales at three sports   ̶  water-polo and golf, as well as rugby  ̶  and he played Minor Counties cricket for Monmouthshire. He was also a champion swimmer.

His debut international rugby season, 1899-1900, heralded what has become known as Wales’s “First Golden Era”, twelve seasons of unprecedented success.   Yet, despite this, he was extremely modest and was never known to boast about his many sporting achievements.

Born in Newport in 1878, Lou’s sporting talents first became apparent at Monmouth School, and by the age of nineteen, he was playing regularly at half-back for Newport. There he developed an almost perfect understanding with George Llewellyn Lloyd who won twelve caps for Wales between 1896 and 1903. Such was their almost uncanny awareness of each other’s play, they would often inter-change their half-back roles, though Lou tended to concentrate more on scrum-half. After only a couple of seasons together, Lloyd and Phillips were regarded by some as the most effective half-back pairing in the Kingdom.

Any forward would have been happy to play in front of a half-back like Lou.  He passed, kicked and tackled well, ran determinedly and was described as “one of those great-hearted players who refuse to give up even when the position seems hopeless”.

At last his chance with Wales came in the match against England at Gloucester in January 1900. He and Lloyd outwitted and outplayed their opposite numbers as Wales recorded a well-deserved 13-3 victory. With Lou in brilliant form, Wales went on to win only their second-ever Triple Crown, beating Scotland 12-3 and Ireland 3-0.  For Wales, much more was to come. Five further Triple Crowns followed over the next eleven years but, sadly, Lou was unable to enjoy this success.

Over Christmas 1900, he badly injured his knee in a Newport club match. As a result, Lou had to miss the England game a few weeks later, but he was unwisely prevailed upon to play against Scotland for his fourth cap. This was an understandable but serious mistake on the part of the selectors, as Lou broke down after only ten minutes. Typically though, he refused to leave the field, which only aggravated his injury. Inexplicably, the Welsh captain, Billy Bancroft, made matters worse by keeping him at half-back, where he was cruelly exposed to the marauding Scottish forwards. Scotland won 18-8 and the chance of a first-ever successive Triple Crown was gone.

He was replaced for the Ireland match by Swansea’s Dickie Owen who, over the next eleven years, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest scrum-halves ever to play the game.  On the other hand, however, Lou’s brilliant rugby career had ended at the tragically early age of twenty-two.

But, undaunted, Lou then decided to take up golf and he applied himself so well at his new sport that he became the leading amateur golfer in pre-war Wales. He won the Welsh Championship in 1907 and 1912, reached the final of the Irish Amateur Open in 1913 and made the last eight of the Amateur Championship held at Sandwich in 1914.

Lou qualified as an architect in 1907 and was practising in Newport when war broke out in 1914. At thirty-six, he was over the age limit at that time, but he still immediately enlisted in the Public Schools Brigade, joining the 20th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers. Given their background, many of the volunteers for this Brigade later became officers, but the self-effacing Lou refused a commission. He did, however, accept promotion to sergeant.

In March 1916, the 20th Royal Fusiliers were in the line near La Bassée at Cuinchy. On the night of the 14th he was with a wiring-party out in no man’s land, when he was shot in the chest and killed, another brave victim of the casual attrition which was the daily experience of life on the Western Front. Although he is often mistakenly said to have died at Cambrai   ̶   which is over forty miles to the south   ̶  ­­Lou Phillips is buried between Béthune and La Bassée in the Churchyard Extension at Cambrin.

As the Welsh public opened their copies of the South Wales Argus a few days later, they were faced with the headline, “Great Athlete Killed”. It was no exaggeration.

 

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Louis Augustus Phillips’ death in action on 14th March 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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