middlesex rugby: the first 100 years

It may be a fact of life that Middlesex no longer has a place on the map, but in the world of rugby football, Middlesex is a household name and a thriving organisation with a long and distinguished history. Unfortunately the early administrators failed to record it, setting a pattern that has persisted well into modern times. However, we are extremely fortunate that Bill Barnes undertook the job of researching and producing a County history in the form of the Centenary Book which was published in 1979.

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The early years: 1879 – 1914

There is a difference of opinion as to the actual date of the County’s foundation, but it is generally accepted that 15th November 1879 was the day. A man of vision and drive was needed to get things on a proper footing, and FR Adams Esq of Richmond FC was the man for the job. He called a meeting at the Bedford Hotel at which the following resolution:

“That this meeting forms themselves into a Club with an annual subscription of 2/6”.  It was passed unanimously and Adams was elected President.

Just four days before its official formation as a County, Middlesex had played Surrey under floodlights at the Old Deer Park. Electric light had only just been invented and a floodlit game was the ideal opportunity to try out the new technology.  The game wasn’t a great success, and it was to be another ninety six years before the two teams met again under floodlights, this time at Roehampton.

The first full season was 1879-80, and Middlesex travelled far and wide in the early days, with venues as far away as Sunderland figuring in the fixture list. Two years later, the County became affilliated to the Rugby Union and the first subscription of £1/1/0 was paid on 6 May 1882.

It was in the 1885-86 season that the press referred to Middlesex County Club as  Union for the first time.

At around this time that ET Gurdon, one of the founding committee members, stood down as team captain after a four year tenure. He became President, and contined to lead the County until his death in 1929.

1887 was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, and the milestone was marked with two football matches played at the Kennington Oval, one Association, one Union, both watched by the Prince of Wales. Middlesex was chosen to represent Rugby Union, but despite fielding a team consisting solely of internationals, lost to Leicester one try to nil.

The following season, Middlesex established itself as ‘Champion of the Year’ but the title was not recognised by the Rugby Union until years later. Despite Champion status, in 1988-89 only one fixture was played, and even then not within the county boundaries. Middlesex met a New Zealand native touring team, the Maoris, on 22 October 1888 at Sheffield Park in Sussex, and with a team which included six Internationals, beat the tourists by nine points to nil.

History reveals that as long ago as 1891 the County was way ahead of its time when it is recorded that a team of Middlesex Colts met Surrey Colts at Richmond. No mention had previusly been made of Colts teams, and many more years were to pass before they were mentioned again.

In the same year, a British touring site travelled to South Africa, with Middlesex providing eleven players, including the captain. The next few years, however, were disastrous for Middlesex, and it wasn’t until the 14th November 1894 that the county managed to stem a run of nine consecutive defeats with a win over Midland Counties.

In 1898 the possibility of holding a County Cup competition was raised, but the idea was turned down at the AGM as being an artificial means of developing football. It was nearly eighty years later, in 1977-72 that the competition finally got underway, and even now, not all the clubs in the county participate.

The turn of the century brought with it financial hardship, and no county caps were awarded because of the expense involved. The shortage of cash was really evidenced the following year when a balance in hand of £3/4/5 was reported. It became clear that gate revenue alone was insufficient to sustain the county, and a concerted membership drive was made. The establishment of an Individual Members scheme the previous year had yielded the enrolment just 27 members, but within a couple of years, the new impetus led to the Officers being able to elect Vice Presidents at an annual subscription of not less than 10/6.

In 1095 the county won all it’s group matches and beat Devon in the semi-final of the County Championship to reach the final for the first time. But on a mud heap at West Hartlepool, Middlesex lost to Durham by just the odd point. By this time, county membership had exceeded forty clubs, and the County became entitled to a second representative on the RU Committee.

In 1905-06 Middlesex was selected to play against the New Zealand touring side at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. The tourists won by 34-0. The following year brought the South Africans on their inaugural tour and Middlesex was again honoured to be selected as opponents. This time Richmond was the venue and the County reduced its deficit to 9-0. Despite continuing improvement and a decisive win against a touring Maori team in 1912, the following year County Secretary RJ Hodgson reported that the season was the most disastrous he had known since his appointment in 1892.

By 1911, Life Members could be elected for an annual subscription of not less than £1/10, but there is no evidence to show that any such members were elected.

The County had made its mark in the football world even though at times its finances had almost sagged to the point of no return. It had been fortunate in finding men of the calibre of Gurdon and Hodgson to look after the key posts for so many years.

The First World War however brought all football to an end for the time being, and the AGM was postponed indefinitely. Several County players lost their lives, and among those named were D Lambert, RO Schwartz, ROW Ward, AL Wade and H Alexander.


Between the Wars: 1919 – 1939

It took a long time for all forms of sport to spring back into action after WWI and rugby football was no exception. In October 1919, the delayed AGM, originally called five years earlier, took place at the Cock Tavern. Twenty clubs were still in membership, and a lively meeting decided that there would be no change in the rate of subscription for the time being, holding membership at 10/6 for clubs and 2/6 for Individual Members.

Earnest Prestcott was elected President of the Rugby Football Union, and the following year saw the commencement of schoolboy matches at Christmas.

In 1922-23, Ronald Cove-Smith of Old Merchant Taylors’ was elected Captain of the County, but because of eye trouble he was unable to take part in a single game. In 1923, another long serving official CS Bongard was elected Secretary and his reign continued until World War II.

In 1924 Wavel Wakefield was elected captain. He was to become another great player and administrator.

The first glimmer of a Sevens Competition saw the light of day in 1925, and a Challenge Cup was donated to the competition by Mrs Arber. That same year also saw the first substitute ever used in rugby, in a friendly match beetwen Somerset and Middlesex at Bath.

Middlesex progressed to the semi-final of the County Championship and met strong opposition in Gloucestershire. The home side won by just a single point, 10-9, and thus began a long series of struggles with the West County side, who proved to be a stumbling block on many occasions.

The County was in the semi-final again two years later, this time with Cornwall as opponents. The game was scheduled to take place at Twickenham, but continuous rain forced a move to Richmond, where a star-studded County side lost by 3-5, WAV Thomas of London Welsh being the County’s only try scorer.

Middlesex had by now got a taste for the big occasion, and it was no surprise to find them in the line up for the Championship again the following season. The five group games had been won, Devon were narrowly defeated at Exeter, and the County met Lancashire in the final at Twickenham. But a disappointing game ended in a draw, and the replay was arranged for Blundellsands. Having come so far, the County was determined not to be beaten at the post, and a cliff-hanger of a game saw Middlesex win its first County Championship 9-8 in its Golden Jubilee year.

The Jubilee dinner was held at the Park Lane Hotel on 9th March 1929, and from contemporary accounts it was a splendid affair. Sadly, however, the year was brought to a close with the death of Temple Gurdon, who had been president since 1883.

Having tasted Championship sucess, Middlesex set out on the championship trail again the following season. This time, they lost to Gloucester in the semi-final at Twickenham.

Hampshire defeated Middlesex the season afer that, and in 1931-32 only one group match was recorded. At about this time the Vice Presidents’ subscription was abolished and has remained so to the present day.

Rugby League was by now considering introducing the game to London and the South. In common with other Home Counties, Middlesex did much to combat the possibility of it taking hold as a serious rival game, and a special sub-committee was set up for the purpose.

The first Jubilee fixture between Middlesex and Somerset took place at Richmond in 1936. Friendlies betwen the two Counties had started as long ago as 1883 and it is sad that financial difficulties forced the series to finally grind to a halt in the post war years.

By the time of the 60th Anniversary in 1938-39, JL Bongard had completed forty five years of committee service, membership numbers had been gradually rising, with 112 clubs now in membership, and the County was flourishing.

Middlesex played Oxfordshire on 16th March 1939, a date significant for the fact that it ws the last game the County played for six years. The AGM was due to be held in September, but the outbreak of the second World War meant that it was cancelled, and once again rugby ground to a halt. A moratorium was granted to all clubs with outstanding loans, and it was agreed that no more annual subscriptions would be collected for the time being.

With the exception of 7-a-side competitions which continued throughout the War, the County remained almost completely dormant for the duration. Just three games were played, all at Richmond, against an Anti Aircraft XV, a London Army XV and the Brigade of Guards in 1940.


The Post War Years: 1945 – 1965

The post war period presented a challange to get back to normailty as soon as possible. In 1945, CS Bongard notched up 21 years as County Secretary, and all the clubs who had been in membership before the War were asked to resume theier activities. The cancelled AGM of 1939 was finally reconvened and took place on 20th September 1946.

The playing season moved into gear and a friendly was played against old friends Somerset, at Bath on 10th October. With the perliminaries over, the County Championship proper got underway and Middlesex made a great start to the new era, winning all five group matches.

Inevitably, after such a good start, things began to go wrong. Following two postponements when both Twickenhmam and Richmond became unavailable, home advantage was surrendered against bogey team Gloucestershire. The game was played at Kingsholme, and as expected, Middlesex lost, finishing seven points adrift at 24-17.

There was some consolation for the players when the County embarked on its first tour abroad, playing two fixtures in Paris and Roanne. Despite losing both games, a touring spirit was founded which was to last for many years.

Sir Wavel Wakefield and Bill Ramsay were elected to represent Middlesex on the Rugby Union Committee, commencing a long period of successful Middlesex representation.

The next season was one of entrenchment. 1948-49 saw the resumption of fixtures against United Banks, the founding of the Memorial Fund, and another clean sweep in the group stages of Championship. Inevitably the campaign resulted in another defeat at the hands of Gloucestershire in the semi-final at Kingsholm.

The following year, Bill Ramsay, with his flair for seeing into the future, organised a coaching course for schoolmasters at the Twickenham Technical College. This set a pattern, and in later seasons Middlesex was to lead the way with an excellent coaching system.

In 1950-51 Wakefield and Ramsay both relinquished their offices of President and Secretary of Middlesex and were elected President and Treasurer respectively of the RFU.

The season saw the foundation of the Middlesex Schools Union and the inevitable rearrangement of counties in the South East group. This didn’t deter Middlesex from winning the group, indeed a total of twelve matches were played of which only one was lost, and that was not until the County Final at Northampton against East Midlands. It was Middlesex’s first final since 1929, and two bites of the cherry were needed to defeat Yorkshire in the semi-final.

1951-52 brought continued good fortune, and of the ten matches played, only a friendly at Yeovil was lost. Middlesex went on to win the final at Twickenham against Lancashire, 9-6. Also in this season, London Counties, with ten Middlesex players in the side, gave the touring Springboks their only defeat and gained them a Springbok head.

The following season proved to be an anti-climax, although only one game was lost against East Midlands at the semi-final at Twickenham, by the narrowest of margins 5-6. Bill Ramsey added to his already impressive collection of honours by being elected President of London Counties.

The County’s 75th season was celebrated in fine style with a dinner on 17th November 1953 organised by Cyril Gadney and Barry Boyden at the Grosvenor Hotel. And on the way to winning the county final 24-6 against Lancashire at Blundellsands, Middlesex had the satisfation of beating their old rivals Gloucestershire. Injury played its part though, with the County working its way through four captains, Albert Agar, Nim Hall, Doug Wilson and Peter Kinninmonth. A tour to Bordeaux rounded off the season.

Middlesex won the Championship again in 1955-56, beating Devon 13-9 at Twickenham. This was followed by reaching the semi-final the following year, making it their seventh consecutive semi-final. The honours continued to be bestowed, with five players chosen to tour with the Lions in South Africa: Doug Bake (OMT), Johnnie Williams (Old Millhillians), Doug Wilson (Met Police), Tom Reid and Robin Thompson (both London Irish). Off the field, Bill Ramsay was elected President of the RFU and Cyril Gadney President of the LSRFUR.

In 1956 Middlesex reached the semi-final again but Yorkshire prevailed at Kirkstall, 9-0. In the October three honours boards were unveiled at Richmond, but were subsequently destroyed by fire. Happily they were replaced, with one board being transferred to the Committee Room at Twickenham.

The next season was disappointing, but 1958-59 saw a group win again, though only after a narrow replay win over Hampshire. The semi-final was played at Twickenham against Warwickshire, but was lost 3-8.

A year later, eight Middlesex players were selected to play for London against Paris, the County Colts organisation was born and Peter Yarranton, took over as announcer at the Middlesex 7s at Twickenham, bringing many a chortle to amused spectators over many years with his laconic wit. He later went on to become county President, and then President of the RFU in its home World Cup year, 1991.

A couple of undistinguished seasons followed, but 1961-62 saw the revival of the Individual Membership, with the annual subscription now set at £1/1- and a tie of their own. Membership topped 200 within two years.

The years between 1962-65 provided little of note, except that Bill Ramsay was awarded the CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours, and ladies were admitted as Individual Members with only two dissenting members making their voices heard at the relevant vote. Just as well, perhaps, that their identiies were never revealed in print.


The lead up to the Centenary: 1966 – 1979

After a year or two in the wilderness, the County won the South Eastern group in 1965-55 and went on to beat Lancashire 6-0 in the final at Blundellsands. The game was undistinguished, being won by two dropped goals to nil, but the celebrations afterwards were memorable and as a direct result, the committee awarded 16 Honours caps at a cost of 75/- each, the extra cap going to Trevor Wintle of St Mary’s Hospital.

The County was invited to play a game against the Rest of England, which after the excitement of the Championship win, proved to be an anticlimax. Middlesex lost a poorly attended game at Twickenham 5-6.

In the next season, Middlesex lost a group play off to Surrey, and five Middlesex players, including the captain VSJ Harding, played for London against the Australian touring side. Off the field, a ‘teach in’ arranged by Peter Yarranton at the Wasps ground attracted more than 370 players from member clubs.

1967-68 saw a reversal of form, with Middlesex winning the Championship again, the second time in three years and the fifth in post war years. Warwickshire were the victims at Twickenham, going down 9-6 with two penalty goals against two Middlesex tries and a dropped goal. The game was televised and the County fortunately had the foresight to purchase the film, and the match has been shown on many occasions since.

Middlesex had long ago acquired the wanterlust to tour and France had for many years provided the venue, but in 1968, the County ventured further afield to East Africa. The names in the tour brochure invoke many memories:

Tony Miles (Wasps), Francis Mann (Old Millhilliams), Dick Bateman (Richmond, Mike Ireland (Wasps), Brian Stoneman (Richmond), Jim Kent (Old Millhillians), Ernie Preece (Richmond), Elwyn Lloys (St. Barts), Chris Ralston (Richmond), Pat Orr (Harlequins), Ian Jones (London Welsh), Brian Goodchild (Saracens), Charles Thornurn (Guys), Alastair Boyle (London Scottish), Andy Mortimer (Old Millhillians & Wasps), Keith McIntyre (St. Barts), Ricky Parsons (Wasps), Gordon McDonald (London Scottish), Tim Rutter (Westminster Hospital & Harlequins), Hamish Keith (Wasps), Roger Weaver (Saracens) and Mike Alder (Saracens).

Cyril Brandon and Roger Spong led the party, helped by baggage man par excellence Pip Piper of Wasps.

A few more uneventful seasons followed until 1970-71, the RFU centenary year, when Bill Ramsay received a knighthood from the Queen for his long and distinguished service to the game, and the County played its full part in celebrations by entertaining seven delegates from overseas who were attending the Centenary Congress.

Although successfull in winning four games, Middlesex lost the vital one against Surrey who finished as group champions.

Next time out, Middlesex won the group games but encoundered the inevitable stumbling block in the form of Gloucestershire at Richmond. It was an exciting game, played in excellent spirit, with the lead changing hands several times, but Middlesex lost 16-19. Mike Christie (OMT) took over as County Secretary from Cyril Brandon, who stood down due to the pressures of business.

The County Cup Competition, first mooted so many years ago, finally got under way and attracted an entry of 77 clubs, although of the senior clubs only Wasps, Saracens and Metropolitan Police entered. The first final resulted in a win for Saracens against Met Police 9-0.

Season 1972-73 saw Estern Counties as group winners, and although Middlesex had an undistinguished season, they broke new ground by sending a Combined XXX Club and County Clubs XV to tour Denmark – a trip that did much to spread the rugby gospel.

In only its second year, the county Cup final saw junior side Old Gaytonians in the final and despite losing to Met Police, their enthusiastic support became the talk of the County. This was the season when the Mallaby Committee report provided an unrivalled opportunity for every setion of the rugby community to put forward its views. Middlesex considered the matter with the seriousness it deserved, and an excellent report drawn up by the Forward Planning and Restructuring of the Game sub-Committee was approved at a special Committee meeting in February 1973. It was subsequently submitted to the Mallaby Committee in answer to its questionnaire to all RFU affiliated clubs and counties.

Barry Boyden was presented with a silver tankard as a memento of his oustanding services over the last 17 years as a Committee member, Honorary Secretary, organiser of the seven-a-side competition and finally as President and the sad death of Bill Ramsay was reported at the AGM.

Middlesex were not in the hunt on the field in 1973-74, whilst on the administrative side, the retirements were announced of auditor of 22 years Norman Clarke Lens and Individual Members secretary of eight years Reg Trood. They were succeeded by Mike Foxwell and Derek Mann.

The County fared better the following season and were involved in a triple play off for the group leadership. Although they were heartened by beating Surrey twice, in turn they lost both matches against Eastern Counties, failing to reach the semi-final stage.

The year ended with the sad news of the death of Jack Preece, a devoted servant both to the County and to rugby football in general. He was known to everyone in the rugby world for his long service with the London Fixture Exchange – many a fixture secretary has been saved from an unmentionable fate because Jack came to his rescue.

Barry Boyden added another honour to his collection by becoming RFU treasurer.

In 1975, a tour to South Africa was arranged with an exceptionlly strong fixture list including Border, Western Province, Natal, Transvaal and Northern Transvaal. The tour was nonetheless successful for the fact that Middlesex won only one game.

Season 1975-76 brought success and failure in equal measure. Success by winning the group stages of the Championship and semi-final against North Midlands at Moseley. Failure in the shape of Gloucestershire again at the final at Richmond, when a much better side on the day beat Middlesex 24-9.

The Individual Members subscription was raised for the first time from £1.05 to £2.25 and the transfer of the account from one bank to another resulted in chaos beyond even the wildest dreams of the Assistant Treasurer.

A note of sadness was occasioned by the death of Arthur Dickson Wright, an eminent surgeon and a Vice President of the County for many years. He will long be remembered for the excellence of his after dinner reminiscences. Pip Piper, the County’s baggage man, died the same year. Pip was a retired schoolmaster with a deep love of rugby. He was a longtime member of Wasps, and was well liked by the players. When he was in charge, it was rare for a sock or shirt to go missing for very long. He accompanied the Conty on most of its tours, amassing so much experience along the way that eventually he was appointed manager of his own club’s tours to East Africa.

Hon Treasurer Mostyn Lewis retired after 15 years and was replaced by Tony White (Old Haberdashers).

1976-77 saw another appearance in the County final but Middlesex were well and truly beaten at Blundellsands by Lancashire. The Sevens proved the highlight of the year with excellent and exciting rugby ad the presence of the Prince of Wales. Richmond became the first side to use a substitute in the sevens format when A Mansfield replaced IR Shackleton in the final.

The County Clubs had a mixed season but beat the Spanish National SV 17-10. Off the field, Gordon McDonald (London Scottish) gave up the dual osts of Chairman of Selectors and County Coach.

1n 1977-78 a loss against Kent and Blackheath in the group stages barred any further progress in the Championship. Two tours saw the County Clubs travel to Spain and the Colts to Portugal. Both were successful on and off the field.  The Sevens were played in a much lower key than in the previous season, and a disappointing final resulted in a runaway victory for the Harlequin VII against an injury sticken Rosslyn Park. Bob Mordell of Rosslyn Park gained a full England cap and the season ended with the introduction of a County pullover as part of the uniform available to members.

The run up to the Centenary season began in 1978-79, and the County not only beat their nemesis Gloucestershire, but went on to take the Championship, beating Northumberland 19-6 on a bitterly cold day at Twickenham. The weather was blamed for the low attendance figures of under 4,000 – one of the smallest crowds to watch a County final.

Much was made by the Committee of a proposed change in format to the County Championship. Preparations were made for a tour to South Africa, and planning got underway for the forthcoming Centenary celebrations. In the New Year’s Honours list, an OBE was awarded to Barry Boyden.

The tour to South Africa was finalised with the County fully represented and ready to fulfil a strong fixture list. The team was managed by Peter Yarranton, captained by Chris Ralston and coached by Earle Kirton. Three matches were won, one drawn and two lost, with the team scoring 150 points against 107. The two drawn matches, each at 28 points, both took place against the South African Barbarians who had picked the strongest multi-racial team ever to meet a touring side. Doctor Danie Craven in his farewell address said: “Goodbye Middlesex and than you for your enterprise on the field and your conduct and example off it. Till we meet again – to Chris Ralston and his team in the name of Middlesex, well done and thank you.”

Middlesex celebrated its Centenary with a buffet dance on 18th September 1979 on the HMS Belfast, a grand dinner on 15th November at the Grosvenor House Hotel, an Individual Members’ buffet dance on 25th April at Barclays Bank Sports Club, and at two receptions financed by Trumans in April and May 1980.

During the first hundred years International honours were won my many Middlesex players, indeed the majority of players in some Middlesex teams were Internationals. The majority played for England, but there were substantial numbers who played for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and a few for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.