Tag Archives: WRU

Fred Perrett (Neath and Wales): mortally wounded in the last week of the First World War.

Foreword

It is widely asserted that Fred Perrett was deliberately omitted from lists of international players who died in the Great War, simply because he had turned professional.

For example, a quick online search will locate the same recycled claim using the rather curious terminology that he “is often left out of lists of the Welsh international war dead due to his supposed defection to the professional game.”

This is a serious accusation for which no real evidence is presented. The story may well have its origin in Fred Perrett’s omission from Edward Sewell’s “Rugby Football Internationals’ Roll of Honour”, which was published in the immediate aftermath of the war in 1919, only a few months after Fred’s death. Eighty-nine players are memorialised in the book but Fred Perrett is not one of them. At least 135 international rugby players died, so Sewell’s “Roll of Honour” was never a definitive list. Fred Perrett was not even the only Welshman overlooked by Sewell, since David Watts of Maesteg, is not amongst the eighty-nine either and he never became a professional. In any case, Sewell clearly had no prejudice in this matter, because he included the English international William Nanson, who did later turn professional.

For a very long time, though, Sewell’s book was the only comprehensive source of its kind available to later writers and researchers. The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union was published in 1981, long before access to the internet made research easy and when, in any case, there was little interest in, and publication of records about, the First World War. So the authors of the Official History understandably relied on Sewell; and this is why the names Fred Perrett and, crucially, David Watts are not included alongside those of the other eleven Welsh internationals who died.

It is simply unthinkable that the Official History deliberately omitted Fred Perrett due, as some would have it, to his “supposed defection”. He is, of course, commemorated on the WRU Memorial Plaque in the Millennium Stadium.

 

13 Fred Leonard Perrett (3)

By the end of October 1918, Fred Perrett had been on active service on the Western Front for three years and, having already been twice wounded, he may well have felt that he had done his bit.  For three months now, the German army had been on the retreat and rumours of a ceasefire were spreading.  Tragically, however, only a week before the Armistice was signed, Fred was to be caught up in the last major British offensive of the war, the Battle of the Sambre.

Fred was born in 1891 in Briton Ferry, a small industrial town on the River Neath in south Wales.  His father was a ship’s pilot and when Fred grew up he took a job as a steelworker.  When he was nineteen, he joined Briton Ferry RFC, his first of five clubs in as many years. Before the end of the season he was invited to play for Aberavon.  He was a well-built and vigorous player who, despite his youth, was often described as the best forward on the field.

At the beginning of 1912-13, he then switched clubs again.  At Neath RFC, his rapid trajectory to the top of the game continued.  Only a few weeks after arriving at the Gnoll, he was selected to play for Glamorgan County; then for the Whites v the Stripes in the Welsh trial; and finally for Wales.  He was still only twenty-one.

His first appearance for Wales took place in December 1912 against the touring Springboks, a game which ended in an agonisingly close 3-0 defeat. Also making their debuts for Wales that day in Cardiff were Billy Geen and Horace Wyndham Thomas, who were also destined to become victims of the war.  Fred retained his place in the Welsh pack for the rest of the season, taking part in the victories over Scotland, France and Ireland, although he was on the losing side against England who went on to win their first Grand Slam.

It had been an extra-ordinary season for Fred.  Having made such an impact as a resolute tackler and a hard grafter in the scrums, it was widely expected that he would continue to be a regular choice for Wales.  However, personal circumstances now intervened to interrupt his blossoming Welsh career.  Fred had previously rejected offers to become a professional from several Northern Union clubs, including Leeds.  However, when in May 1913 he found himself out of work, he was unable to resist the new and generous terms offered by Leeds.  It was claimed in the Welsh press that his signing-on fee was the largest ever paid to a forward up to that time.

It seems that initially he took a little time to adjust to the new game at Leeds.  So towards the end of the 1913-14 season, he was transferred to Hull FC, where he was therefore under contract when war broke out in August 1914.  Described as tall and heavily built and a teetotaller and non-smoker, Fred made a good impression at Hull.  His form there was much improved and he was praised for his all-round skills in scrummaging, loose play and vigorous tacking. In all, he played thirty-three times for Hull FC. One of his new team-mates there was Jack Harrison, who was killed in action in 1917 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  In June 1915, the Northern Union announced that all normal competitions would henceforth cease for the duration of the war and that clubs should stop the payment of wages to players.  Fred was therefore now free to join up.  Leaving his supplementary job as a plater’s helper at a Hull shipyard, he enlisted in the Welsh Guards in July 1915.

Fred fought with the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards in the Ypres Salient and on the Somme in 1916, often experiencing bitter hand-to-hand fighting, particularly at Ginchy.  Impressed with his conduct, his commanding officer recommended him for officer training.  When Fred made his formal application for a commission, he gave his occupation as “professional football”. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Fred joined the 17th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 38th (Welsh) Division, at Armentières in October 1917.

Despite his new responsibilities, there were still occasional opportunities for rugby at the front.  The highlight of these games for Fred though would surely have been when he took part in the Welsh Division’s well deserved 13 points to 9 victory over the New Zealand Division.

Sadly, however, he was wounded in late April 1918 and again in early October.  He had been back at the front only a matter of days when the Welsh Division received orders for the assault on the Forêt de Mormal, near the River Sambre. This formidable obstacle was the largest wood in this part of France.  The attack took place on the 4th November, the same day that the war poet Wilfred Owen was killed, at the nearby village of Ors.

The Welsh Division successfully cleared the enemy out of the wood.  Their initial advance involved the 17th Royal Welsh Fusiliers who took all their objectives.  However, in doing so, they suffered over fifty casualties and Fred Perrett was severely wounded as he led his men under heavy German machine-gun fire.  He was evacuated to a casualty clearing station and then taken to a Red Cross Hospital at Boulogne.  Tragically, however, his condition deteriorated and he succumbed to a secondary haemorrhage just three weeks after the Armistice on the 1st December 1918. He left a widow and two sons.

Fred Perrett is buried in the Terlincthun British Cemetery at Wimille, near Boulogne.

He was the thirteenth and last Welsh rugby international to die on active service overseas.

 

For a longer account of Fred Perrett and of the other twelve who lost their lives during the war, see:  ‘Call Them to Remembrance’: The Welsh rugby internationals who died in the Great War. This is available through the publishers St. David’s Press  http://welsh-academic-press.shopfactory.com/contents/en-uk/p27.html and from Amazon.

 

This is an amended and extended version of an article which originally appeared on 1st December 2018 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Fred Perrett’s death.

Comments Off on Fred Perrett (Neath and Wales): mortally wounded in the last week of the First World War.

Filed under Uncategorized

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

 

40 DWest (2)

 

“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”. 

 

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

Filed under Uncategorized

Bryn Lewis (1891-1917), the Swansea, Cambridge University, Barbarians and Wales Wing who Died near Ypres

Brinley Richard Lewis was a speedy wing three-quarter of great skill who, for a variety of reasons, was never able to demonstrate his talents to the full at international level.  He was highly regarded by English critics, some of whom were bewildered that Wales didn’t make more use of him. “He had splendid hands, true football pace, pluck, neat kicking ability … and he knew the game.  He was the best wing of his day [yet] could boast only a couple of international caps”, wrote one.

Injuries and the coming of war restricted his international appearances and, because he played much of his best rugby for Cambridge University and occasionally London Welsh, many of his outstanding performances took place out of the sight of Welsh selectors.

Born in the Swansea Valley at Pontardawe in 1891, “Bryn” was not unknown, however, in Wales.  Even at fourteen, he was already making headlines.  He “played brilliantly” with the ball in hand when Wales defeated the English Schools at Leicester in 1905.

After captaining Swansea Grammar School, Bryn played for Pontardawe before going up to Trinity Hall Cambridge in 1909.  There he won the first of his three Blues on the wing in December 1909.  Unfortunately, Oxford were much stronger during this period and Bryn was on the losing side on each occasion.  Although in 1910, his inspirational play almost gave Cambridge an unexpected victory.  Just after half time, Bryn scored his second try to put his side into an 18-13 lead.  However, he was then controversially tackled and badly injured while in touch.  He took no further part in the game.  Most observers agreed that the loss of Bryn, who was playing splendidly, was the turning point of the match.  Reduced to fourteen, Cambridge struggled to defend against the Oxford attack and the peerless Ronnie Poulton struck twice, his second try sealing a 23-18 last minute victory.

Even though Oxford comfortably won the 1911 Varsity match by 19 points, Bryn was singled out for praise by the press for his “brilliant form”.  He “alone grasped what was wanted in attack”.  He made some good runs, cross kicked cleverly but “was handicapped by the poor play of his fellow backs”.  In fact, Bryn had been demonstrating his blistering pace for Cambridge all season and he was now seriously being talked about as a future international.  Had he been playing regularly for Swansea, one Welsh journalist believed, he would certainly have been capped earlier; but he was forced to wait until the final international of 1911-12 before being given his chance against Ireland in Belfast.

However, Wales selected a very inexperienced side which played poorly, particularly in the backs, who squandered many scoring opportunities.  Bryn had a disappointing game.  He seemed to be over anxious and he failed to produce anything like his Cambridge form.  The 12-5 defeat was the first time in thirteen years that Wales lost two Championship matches in a season: selectors, press and Welsh public were not too pleased.

Bryn returned to Cambridge for a fourth year, but a late injury cost him a fourth Blue in 1912, when ironically Cambridge won for the first time in seven years.  Previously, Bryn had turned out for Swansea during his vacations, but for the rest of 1912-13, he was now able to play regularly in Wales for the All Whites.  This was a good time to be a member of the Swansea team, which went on to win the Welsh Club Championship that season.  Such was the quality of his performances for the club that the selectors could not continue to overlook him and he was again picked for the final game of the season against Ireland.  This time there was to be a complete turnaround in his fortunes.  Playing with much greater self-assurance, he had a magnificent game.  In a tense match, Wales just managed to hang on to win by 16-13.  Bryn had a big hand in the victory, running with great confidence, defending courageously and contributing two of the three Welsh tries, one from half-way. He was the best three-quarter on the field.

Further honours followed over Easter 1913 when Bryn became the first Swansea player to represent the Barbarians.  However, persistent injuries affected his play for much of the crucial part of 1913-14 and these ruled him out of consideration for further caps that season.  He did eventually recover his old form but events unfolding in Europe would deny Bryn any chance of playing for Wales again.

He enlisted early in the war and, while still in training, he was selected for the Welsh XV which faced the Barbarians at Cardiff in April 1915.  Wales fielded a strong side, but one lacking in match fitness.  The Barbarians, captained by Edgar Mobbs, won comfortably by 26-10, but Bryn was one of the few Welsh players to come out of the game with his reputation intact.  A few weeks later, he was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery.

He served on the Western Front with the 38th (Welsh) Division throughout 1916 and survived the Battle of Mametz Wood, which took the lives of fellow Welsh internationals Dick Thomas and Johnny Williams.  By August 1916, Bryn had been promoted to major and was commanding a six-gun battery.  In April 1917, the Welsh Division were holding part of the line in the Ypres Salient.  On the morning of the 2thApril, Bryn was taking his breakfast behind the gun lines when he was killed by a high velocity shell.

His brigade commander later wrote: “he was such a splendid fellow … he was beloved by officers and men alike … he had great strength of character and was bound always to do well.”

Brinley Richard Lewis is buried in Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, near Boesinghe, Belgium.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 2nd April 1917 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Brinley Richard Lewis’s death in the Ypres Salient.

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

Comments Off on Bryn Lewis (1891-1917), the Swansea, Cambridge University, Barbarians and Wales Wing who Died near Ypres

Filed under Uncategorized

Richard Davies Garnons Williams – The Oldest Rugby International to Die in the First World War

At least 136 rugby internationals died in the Great War. The oldest of them all – and one of the most courageous – was fifty-nine year-old Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams. To put this in perspective, the Crimean War had only just ended when Richard was born on 15 June 1856. His place of birth was the tiny Radnorshire village of Llowes, where his father was vicar at the time, but he came from a very old Breconshire landowning family of squires and parsons.

Richard was one of the early pioneers of rugby in Wales though he learned the game at his public school in England. Unfortunately, some writers have mixed up Magdalen College School Oxford, which Richard attended, with Magdalen College Oxford University, which he certainly did not. As a result of this confusion, it is often claimed – without the slightest evidence therefore – that he played for Oxford University! But since Richard never attended Oxford University, he could not possibly have played for the Dark Blues. However, in 1875, when he was eighteen, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He played rugby for Cambridge but didn’t win a Blue there. He only spent a year at university, enrolling in 1876 at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, which he also represented at rugby.

In 1877, Richard joined the 7th Regiment (later renamed the Royal Fusiliers) and was stationed in Hounslow, which enabled him to continue playing in the London area. Earlier in his career, he had occasionally played for the Brecon club. However, during the 1880-1 season, he travelled back to Wales at weekends to play several games for Newport. Following some good performances there, he was selected to represent Wales at forward in their first ever international match against England at Blackheath in February 1881.

It was quite an achievement for Wales even to secure this fixture, as the Welsh game was still very much in its infancy then. Ten years earlier, rugby had been virtually unknown there. Wales had no realistic prospect of winning the match and they were completely overwhelmed, conceding thirteen tries in the process. Despite his team being reduced to thirteen players by half time (and some reports even claim Wales finished with only eleven fit men), Richard stuck manfully to his task as the depleted Welsh pack struggled to compete.

The organisation of the Welsh team that day was nothing like as chaotic as usually claimed, but nevertheless only five of the team played for Wales again. It was Richard’s only international appearance and, because of the increasing demands of his military career, he seems to have to have dropped out of senior rugby thereafter. Posted to Gibraltar, he later saw active service with the Royal Fusiliers in Egypt.  He retired from the regular Army in 1892 and then qualified as a barrister and acquired a landed estate near Hay-on-Wye. He remained involved with the military, however, serving as a major with the local Volunteers. On reaching fifty in 1906, he resigned his commission and, no doubt assuming his army days were well and truly behind him, he settled into a life of active public service in Breconshire.

After his death, friends testified to his unusually strong sense of duty. They were not surprised, therefore, when, despite his being fifty-eight and a family man, Richard immediately offered his services to the country again as soon as war broke out. His old regiment were forming a new “Service” battalion at Hounslow and, in late September 1914, with the rank of major, he was appointed second in command of this battalion, the 12th Royal Fusiliers. By then, it was thirty-three years since he had played international rugby.

As part of the 73rd Brigade, 24th Division, the battalion landed in France in early September 1915 and were immediately allocated to the general reserve for the Battle of Loos. Despite having received no training or preparation for trench warfare, they were ordered to the front, where the inexperienced troops arrived after enduring several exhausting night matches under wretched conditions. The battle opened on the 25th September and, late in the day, the weary 73rd Brigade was led off to relieve the 9th Scottish Division which had captured trenches at the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Inexplicably, at this crucial moment, the commanding officer of the 12th Royal Fusiliers was called up to the staff. Therefore just as they were going into action for the first time, Richard was given command of the battalion and ordered to carry out the relief.

For two days, the Fusiliers were constantly shelled but, despite having no sleep, no supplies and little water, they kept the Germans at bay. Fighting alongside them in the same brigade were the 7th Northamptonshires in which Edgar Mobbs, the England international who was killed in 1917, was serving. However, on the 27th September, a strong German offensive drove the British back from their hard won positions. The Fusiliers found themselves under attack from both their flanks and so were forced to retire.

Such was the chaos of the Battle of Loos that many of the men, who were officially recorded as having died on the opening day (the 25th), were actually killed a day or two later. Richard appears to have been one of these. According to official records, he lost his life as he led his battalion up the line on the 25th September and that is the date recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Register. However, eyewitness accounts given to his family confirm that he was shot and killed two days later on the 27th while organising the battalion’s retirement. One of his men wrote, “he was with us all the time in the front trench … we could not have had a better, braver officer … no man could have done better.”

Even for the young and fit, the conditions suffered by the Fusiliers were utterly deplorable. But it is hard to imagine what it was like for someone approaching sixty with the responsibility of command suddenly thrust upon him. After all, he didn’t have to be there. But his unshakeable sense of duty drove him on. He put his men first and, in doing so, sacrificed his own life. “No man could have done better”.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams is commemorated with over 20,000 others on the Loos Memorial to the Missing located at Dud Corner Cemetery near the town of Loos-en-Gohelle, France.

 

This is an amended and extended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Richard Davies Garnons Williams’ death in action on 27th September 1915. 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”. The circumstances surrounding the selection of the first Welsh XV in 1881 is covered in detail in “This Rugby Spellbound People”. This questions some of the conventional versions of these events..

Comments Off on Richard Davies Garnons Williams – The Oldest Rugby International to Die in the First World War

Filed under Uncategorized

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”.

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

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Comments Off on The Names and Nicknames of Some Early Rugby Clubs of Cardiff and District

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Comments Off on Whitchurch Superstar

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Continue reading

Comments Off on The Origin and Early Years of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union

Filed under Uncategorized