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Dai Westacott (1882-1917): the Grangetown Docker who Played for Wales

 

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“Dai” Westacott had just one cap at forward for Wales but might have expected more, since he played for Cardiff for seven seasons during one of the club’s most successful periods. However, he had the misfortune to be selected for what turned out to be one of Welsh rugby’s most disappointing international performances in the years leading up to the First World War.

In 1905-6, Wales were in the middle of their First Golden Era, a twelve year period of astonishing success, which included six Triple Crowns. In March 1906, they only had to beat Ireland in Belfast to achieve what no other international side had yet managed:  a consecutive Triple Crown. And, having defeated New Zealand the previous December, they would also become the first side to record four wins in a season.

However, it was not to be. The whole team suffered from acute sea sickness during an atrocious crossing of the Irish Sea. They played badly and were well beaten by the Irish by 11 points to 6. There was, of course, great disappointment about the result in Wales and, despite the circumstances, someone had to be blamed. Even though the whole pack had played badly, Dai and his fellow debutant Jack Powell were never picked by Wales again.

Born in 1882 in Grangetown, near Cardiff docks where he worked as a labourer, Dai was very much a local man and was well known to many of the regular supporters at the Arms Park. He was introduced to rugby at the Grange elementary school and developed his game at the grassroots level in the sometimes brutal league and cup competitions organised by the Cardiff and District Rugby Union. By 1902-3, he was beginning to come to prominence while playing for Grange Stars, who that year won the Cardiff and District Union’s senior competition, the Mallett Cup – still competed for today. Then, as now, the final was held at the Arms Park and, following Dai’s impressive performance, he was invited to join the Cardiff club for the 1903-4 season. Tough and renowned for his immense strength (no need for weight training for dockers like Dai), he was also a good handler of the ball and surprisingly fast and elusive for a forward. He quickly established himself as a First XV player and in only his second season with the club, he played in every match.

Before long he was being referred to as a future international. In December 1905, Dai was playing well enough to be included in the Glamorgan pack which outplayed their New Zealand opponents though, a trifle unfortunately, the home side lost 9-0. Dai should have appeared against the All Blacks again, this time for Cardiff, but an unlucky injury forced him to withdraw. The press worried that his absence would prove costly and it may well have done. Cardiff lost narrowly by 10 points to 8. Agonisingly, a missed conversion resulted in the club’s only defeat in 1905-6.

To commemorate an “Invincible Inter-Club Season”, twenty-one of the leading Cardiff players in 1905-6 were presented with inscribed gold pocket watches. In 1972, Dai’s watch was donated to Cardiff RFC by his grandson and can now be seen both at the Cardiff Rugby Museum and online at https://cardiffrugbymuseum.org/articles/dai-westacott%E2%80%99s-gold-watchWestacott Watch 1

After winning his Welsh cap, Dai continued to be a prominent cornerstone in the Cardiff pack throughout most of the next four seasons, though he did have a very brief spell with Penarth RFC. This arose after Dai spent a period in Cardiff Reserves following his being charged with assaulting two policemen who tried to break up a fight with a neighbour. This incident may well have contributed to his being ignored by the Welsh selectors thereafter, despite his playing consistently well at the highest level.

His most memorable performance for Cardiff during this period was in their crushing 24-8 victory over the touring Australians in December 1908. Demonstrating his all-round footballing skills, late in the game, he broke through the Wallabies’ defence, headed for the line but then gave a perfectly timed pass to the wing JL Williams, who sprinted in to score a spectacular fifth try for Cardiff. Johnny Williams was another Welsh international who would tragically lose his life in the war.

Although he was a family man with four children, Dai volunteered in the first months of the war, as did many other Cardiff rugby footballers, at least twenty-five of whom did not return. Dai suffered much hardship during the conflict. By February 1915, he was already in France with the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. Serving alongside him was the Gloucester RFC and England forward Harry Berry. They were old adversaries and had played against each other in 1909-10, Dai’s last season with Cardiff. Sadly, Harry was killed at Aubers Ridge shortly afterwards. Dai too became a casualty when he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, but he later returned to active service  during the bitter fighting in the Third Battle of  Ypres, this time with the 2/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. On 28th August 1917, his battalion was in the line north-east of Ypres near Wieltje.  It was a relatively quiet day but nobody was completely safe on the Western Front. Artillery was always a great danger and it was a random shell which caught Dai in a support trench. He was killed instantly.

During the Passchendaele Ceremony, which is held in November each year to commemorate the end of Third Ypres, the lives of three of the fallen combatants are remembered.  In the 2015 Ceremony, ninety-eight years after his death, it was the Cardiff docker Dai Westacott, who was honoured as the representative of all of the men of the British Army who died in that dreadful battle.

Dai has also recently been remembered by the Welsh writer David Subacchi. His poem “Dai Westacott”, published on the Amsterdam Quarterly website, can be viewed here: http://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq15-war-peace/david-subacchi-dai-westacott/

Private Westacott’s burial place was subsequently lost, so today he is commemorated, not far from where he died, on the Tyne Cot Memorial near Zonnebeke.  His is one of 35,000 names on the memorial, which commemorates those who died in the Ypres Salient after 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave.

 

This is an amended and updated version of an article which originally appeared on 28th August 1917 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of David Westacott’s death in the Ypres Salient.

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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