100 years of rugby at Radley, 1914-2014

Radley's first rugby XV, 1914‘Rugger will be played next season’

celebrating 100 years of Rugby at Radley

The Centenary match

It is officially announced that the School game in the autumn term will be Rugby Football instead of Association. This seems to us at first to be great wrench from our old customs, but we suppose that in a few years it will work smoothly. The Radleian, February 1914

Football has been played at Radley since the school was founded in 1847. In 1853 Radley created a game commonly known as Radley Football, and played their first ever match against an unnamed Oxford College, probably Exeter. This was loosely based on a form of football played at Harrow, with similarities (for the spectator) to the Eton Wall Game. The team originally consisted of fifteen players, but within a few years had changed to twelve. Over the following twenty years, games at Radley developed in tandem with an international evolution in organized sport. Individual schools and colleges created their own versions of a mutually recognizable-enough game for different institutions to be able to play each other with a modicum of agreement as to what was happening on the pitch. By 1863 there was sufficient agreement about the sport that would become soccer for the foundation of the Football Association. Originally just ten clubs in the London area formed the Association. In 1867, the number of FA clubs trebled to thirty, including Westminster School and Charterhouse. Radley’s invitation to join the Association was answered by the Captain of Football, Edward Roscoe:

… regretted that they could not join, though he wished sincerely all schools would play the same rules. He concluded by saying that if Eton, Harrow and Rugby would give up their separate rules, other schools might be induced to follow their example.

In 1874, Alcock’s Football annual lists Radley among the competing teams: their colours are given as ‘cherry and white’, and their game as ‘Nearly Association.’ The story of soccer at Radley has been told as no. 3 in The History of Radley in 100 objects.

 THIS is the story of Rugby Union at Radley

From 1904 there were calls for Radley to switch from Association Football to Rugby Union. The primary reason given was the increasing professionalism of soccer. This was perceived as unfitting for amateur gentlemen.  A letter to The Radleian in 1907 advocated the switch to Rugby Union on the grounds that it was easier to become proficient at rugby than at soccer – a point supported by the woeful performance of the soccer team:

After one game and a diligent study of the laws of Rugby Football, I found I was no longer a novice; I could drop kick with tolerable accuracy, take and give passes, find touch, and tackle a little; after three or four games I was quite a proficient player… The Radleian, 1907

‘Rugger’ had a number of advantages over ‘soccer’: it requires thirty players rather than twenty-two, so more senior boys could win the coveted caps; all games had to have a referee; and, since the game was new to most boys, there had to be dons to coach, explain and even to play. This guaranteed that rugby would be efficiently and enthusiastically run, in great contrast to the way that soccer was being organised at that time when it was the sole responsibility of a few senior boys who (sadly) were acclaimed more for their swagger than for their judgment. It was agreed among the boys that rugby could be played on the understanding that ‘its devotees come largely from the wet-bobs [rowers] and from those who make a poor show at soccer.’

The heading R.C.R.U.F.C. made its first appearance in The Radleian in February 1911. The inexperienced team played three matches against Oxford undergraduates: a Scratch Oxford XV (0-30), Christ Church (21-35) and Corpus (0-42). The first report on RCRUFC implies that the switch to rugby was by a popular vote among the boys in 1910:

At the end of last term in a vote of the majority of the school, about half were in favour of Rugger [in the Lent Term], while the other half voted for Soccer or Hockey. In the end Soccer was dropped, and Rugger and Hockey are now being played regularly and keenly… The Dons were equally thrilled about coaching the boys at rugby: ‘we thank them for the enthusiasm they showed, which made coaching them such an intense pleasure.’ The Radleian 1913

In 1913 the XV lost to Common Room, which indicates that sufficient rugby players could be mustered from the twenty-four Dons (and friends) to form a team among themselves. The enthusiasm amongst the Dons is reflected in The Radleian 1911: ‘… Mr Birt and Mr Vidal appear to be everywhere both for attack and defence’. The unpublished memoirs of GT Nugee record ‘Sam’ Hales as a coach in 1911:

 ‘There may probably be a record in the annals of “The Radleian”, but no mention in Boyd’s History, that in the Lent term 1911 we played rugger, coached and taught by Sam Hales, an old Oxford Blue.   Few if any of us knew the rules or rudiments of the game, but I was the nominal captain – no matches were played, but I did learn enough to play rugger later in the Army up till 1926 when I gave it up.’

AH ‘Sam’ Hales was educated at Rugby School where he played for the XV in 1900. He later played for the Harlequins and the Monkstown team of 1902. He rowed for Oxford in 1904 and 1905. Hales came to teach History at Radley in 1906. He coached both rowing and rugby and the link between the wet-bobs and their new sport is clearly connected to his enthusiasm. He joined up in 1914, received his commission for gallantry, was twice wounded, awarded the MC, and killed in action on the Somme on 6th July 1916. RHC Birt arrived at Radley in the same year as Hales, to teach science. He remained at Radley as Tutor of E Social throughout WW1. In 1918 he was appointed Headmaster of Diocesan College, Rondebosch, South Africa. LA Vidal came in 1909. His obituary describes him as ‘one of the few men who have been first-class at both kinds of football. In Rugby he played forward for the Harlequins during their most successful time. In Association he played regularly for the Old Malvernians, at home, and sometimes in odd corners of Europe; also for the Corinthians, with whom he went to Canada and South America.’ In 1914 Vidal was appointed Tutor of A Social. He still holds the record for the shortest tenure of any Tutor. A few weeks after taking up the post he joined the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was killed in action at Givenchy on 25th September 1915.

So the boys had voted several years before that the wet-bobs should play rugby, and many Dons, especially the younger ones, were rugby aficionados, when a new Warden was appointed in 1913. Edward Gordon Selwyn was a keen sportsman who had played ‘football’ for Eton as a schoolboy. Like many of his staff he was in his late twenties. He was described by AK Boyd as ‘a man of progressive views in education who would not be afraid of reform.’ (Boyd, 1947. The history of Radley College, 1847-1947, 288-9) AK Boyd, Radley’s official centenary historian, came to Radley as a boy in 1905. He was Senior Prefect in 1910-11.   So he had been involved in the vote in 1907 (although there is no record of how he voted). Whilst web-bob Nugee was being coached in rugby by Hales, and Vidal and Birt were everywhere on the pitch, dry-bob Boyd played for the cricket XI in 1910-11, and for the soccer XI in 1910. Whatever his opinion in 1914, by 1947 Boyd was totally converted to rugby: ‘but if there was not at first much success, it was something to know that the finest game yet devised by man was now played at Radley.’ (Boyd, p299)

Reform was what the school Council wanted in the new Warden – someone ‘who would take an entirely fresh view of Radley and its problems and thrust it forward on a new educational path.’ Progressive, reforming Wardens are seldom instantly popular. The new Warden walked straight into the soccer/rugger debate. At the Common Room Meeting in Summer Term 1914 there was a proposal that Rugby Football should replace Association. The discussion ended without conclusion, with the Warden’s closing remark ‘we are all decided to do nothing more for the present.’ There all discussion seems to have ended. Shortly afterwards the most controversial notice ever to appear at Radley was posted outside School:

‘Rugger will be played next season.’

Notice posted in February 1914

Selwyn’s new role as Warden was irrevocably undermined. Common Room objected that a major change had been implemented without their input, and withdrew their vital support for the Warden’s role. The senior boys, against whom the decree was primarily aimed, lost their power-base as the vaunted ‘bloods’ or ‘caps’ of the soccer field. This was undoubtedly Selwyn’s primary aim and the most significant reform that he needed to make to raise the educational and disciplinary standard of the school. Despite the sense that the general mood was towards Rugby Union, he was accused in the school’s mythology of high-handedly, tyrannically, without consultation, simply pinning up a notice in Covered Passage to the effect that rugby would now be the school’s major sport. This is not unjustified as a response: the dry-bobs lost soccer, but the wet-bobs were losers too as increasing pressure on staffing because of the War meant that rowing was suspended in favour of rugby: ‘There is no River this term owing to the installation of Rugger, which is now thoroughly under way.’ (The Radleian November 1914).

War was declared on 4 August 1914. From September 1914 Rugby Union was to be the official sport of Radley College. The wet-bobs had been coached for the previous few years, but the dry-bobs were expected to make the change instantly from one form of football to another. They had no fixtures, and their most experienced coaches had just left for the Western Front. Warden Selwyn was clearly concerned to appoint new Dons who were proficient in the new sport. In September 1914 he appointed five new or replacement staff to cover for those who had already joined up. Two of them, Charles Ellerton and Francis Stevenson, had already ‘proved invaluable on the Rugger field’ by November. Ellerton left within months to join the Cheshire Regiment. He was killed in action in 1916. Stevenson, however, served as CO of the Radley OTC throughout the war and continued as a rugby coach throughout.

The calibre of coaching given by all the Dons so far mentioned is obvious from the earliest rugby reports in The Radleian. Although all the reports are anonymous it is not unreasonable to suppose that they were actually written by one of the Dons as an extension of coaching itself. So in February 1914, writing about the voluntary XV, he criticises:

 The forwards are learning the necessity of keeping in the ball, and show an immense improvement on former years, but they are still slow in following up, and are inclined to watch a dribble from behind, instead of backing up hard to be ready to take the ball on in case of a false bound or a mistake on the part of the leader.

 And writing about a scrum:

 When the ball has been let out of their opponent’s scrum, they  must go straight  for the corner flag      on the side on which the attack is being delivered. They must also realize that they cannot get the ball without shoving, and that they cannot win without getting the ball. They do not shove hard enough.

 Writing about Inter-Social matches for the junior boys in November 1914, the anonymous author offers clear and useful advice:

 The forwards are learning to pack, but find it extremely difficult to break up when the ball is out of the scrum, or to make anything like a combined forward rush … The golden rules for forwards: a) Heel out only from a tight scrum; b) (when the ball is loose) make for your opponents’ goal with the ball at your feet; c) Listen to the directions of the half and break up quickly: – these are easier to grasp in theory than in practice. The tackling … few players really go low for their man, or if they do so they do not throw themselves at him…

 Despite good coaching the team was seriously inexperienced. The difference between playing a scratch team of friends and a team composed of regular players is described in the match against Christ Church in March 1913:

The swerve and dash of the ordinary three-quarter, who has learnt not to hesitate or fear falling, was too much for our inexperienced players, who found themselves being continually passed by the swerve of their opponents, always a difficult thing to stop. There was a strong inclination to wait for someone else to stop the man with the ball or to wait for him to pass, a fatal error, for he will simply go straight on…

The first season’s report highlights the difficulties of introducing a new sport under wartime conditions. Only four players in the XV had ever played rugby before, whilst potential members of the team had already left school to join up. The Captain, Richard Bucknall, left at the end of the term to attend Sandhurst. Potential opponents were suffering from the same loss of players. Consequently:

 The first season  of Rugby Football as the school game must necessarily be somewhat experimental. Further, the war has not only deprived us, naturally, of some stalwarts who would have been members of the team, but also of nearly all possible opponents: and we write at half-term without a single match having so far been played against an outside XV.

Bucknall’s team had one outstanding player: David Raikes, the Captain of Boats, who was the first boy elected to the new school team. The loss of rowing for that term did not cause Raikes undue difficulty as an oarsman: after the war, in which he won the Military Cross with Bar and the DSO, he rowed for Oxford, becoming President of the Oxford Boat Club, and won International Eights at Toronto as a member of Leander in 1923. His career as a rugby player was equally distinguished: he had a trial for England v Rest of the World in 1925. His skill was already apparent in the earliest report of an ‘official’ rugby season at Radley: ‘at present Raikes appears to be in a class by himself.’ (The Radleian November 1914)

The first ‘Captain of Football’ was RDH Bucknall, who had played for the soccer team in 1912-3 and made the transition from soccer to rugger. Richard Bucknall left Radley in 1914 to go to RMC Sandhurst. He served with the Gurkhas in Mesopotamia during WW1. In WW2, he was with the Indian Army, 2 Gurkha Rifles, when he was killed in action at Singapore on 10th February 1942. The other members of that first 1st XV were Herbert, Griffith, Hayman-Joyce, Freeman, who ‘all get through a lot of useful work’; Blyth and Sainsbury, ‘improving with every game they play and should make forwards above the average’; Wood and Morkill, ‘two scrum-halves capable of partnering Bucknall … both have good hands’; ‘of the three-quarters, Monson in the centre should do well, and Marshall is a certainty on the wing, if his knees will stand it; he should be a useful attacking player. Vawdrey has plenty of dash and seems likely to be the other centre; and so far there is little to choose between Crump and Heslop for the wing position: both however are somewhat weak in defence. Williams and Coote are competitors at full-back, the former being the better tackler.’

Of the seventeen boys named in that first 1st XV of 1914, seven were killed in action between 1916 and 1918, and two more severely wounded. TA Langford-Sainsbury became one of the most distinguished Old Radleians: having survived WW1 in the RAF he rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal. He continued playing rugby after he left school: in 1919 Langford-Sainsbury brought a Royal Air Force team to play rugby at Radley.

 ‘Our hosts were too much for us. May we do something to reverse things when they become our guests.’

 The first match against another school was scheduled for November 1914 against Sherborne. Unfortunately the fixture was cancelled because of illness at Sherborne, so that initial first encounter was postponed until 27th November 1915 at Sherborne. The 1915 season started with two matches against ‘an Oxford Military XV’ – a scratch side drawn from serving officers stationed in Oxford. This was followed by a match against ‘Brasenose, Oxford’ – with a complaint that ‘Brasenose’ seemed to have drawn their players from all over the University. Radley were outclassed (and out-weighed) in all three matches, which raised alarm bells:

The ‘Brasenose’ team, with one or two weak spots, were a strong, heavy lot: but this does not account for the severity of the defeat (39-0). The chief cause was undoubtedly the weakness of the tackling behind the scrum, a weakness so pronounced that unless the next fortnight sees a radical alteration, prospects for the Sherborne match are not particularly hopeful.

By 20th November things were looking up. Two of the original 1st XV, Morkill and Marshall, were now at Sandhurst and arranged a match between Radley and the cadets. Sandhurst won by 11 points to 8 – so things were looking much better, even hopeful. Radley were looking forward to playing another school for the first time. The Sherborne fixture had pride of place on the first page of the November edition of The Radleian. Not so by December. The bitter disappointment shines through. Written in the depths of WW1, rarely has a report on a rugby match been so much the epitome of keeping upper lips stiff. It starts with the now traditional criticism of the other team’s pitch – which had suffered from -18° of frost resulting in a slippery surface over ‘what felt like a foundation of rock at the depth of an inch or two.’ Sherborne adapted well to the conditions, but Radley’s forwards found quick turning almost impossible. The Captain of Rugby for that earliest match played against Sherborne was Alick Blyth, Senior Prefect for one term in 1915, who had indeed improved with every game since 1914. Unfortunately, he did not play in the Sherborne match and there was no one of the team who could replace him as a hooker in the front-row of the pack. The Sherborne forwards ‘heeled smartly and their scrum-half made good use of his numerous chances… Radley were beaten by the superior experience and instinct of a pack which filled in deficiencies at once and always knew exactly where the ball was in the tight.’ Radley were simply outclassed, and admitted it: ‘by half-time the score against us was 19, and though the beginning of the second half showed a slight revival, our opponents were always ‘top dog’.’ Sherborne won by 5 goals and 7 tries 46-0 (70-0 today). But Radley did not go down without a challenge: ‘Our hosts were too much for us. May we do something to reverse things when they become our guests.’

 ‘Muddied oafs’?

The team for the first match against Sherborne were: KC Miller, FS May, LF Reynolds, GL Vawdrey, ES Housley, CCS Gibbs, DR Connell, TAL Sainsbury, E Giles, HWN Head, VP Vickerman, NH Albury, CR Newton, EJN Wallis, DB Manning. Captain of Rugby AF Blyth – did not play.

Blyth was an archetype of a cultured Edwardian, in stark contrast to the stereotype of rugby players as ‘muddied oafs.’ He was Secretary of the Literary Society, winner of the James, Heathcote and Gibbs Scholarships, and was awarded a Classical scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1915 – a place he never took up: ‘he was also a keen lover of literature and of nature, especially of birds, moths and butterflies. With these gifts and tastes he combined a character of unassuming gentleness, thoughtfulness, and charm, which gained him a multitude of friends.’ Alick Blyth was killed by a sniper whilst leading his men in an attack during the Third Battle of Ypres on 23rd August 1917.

In addition to Alick Blyth, three others in the team eventually became Senior Prefects of Radley: Esmond Giles and Edward Wallis (who both also won the Richards Gold Medal), and Victor Vickerman. Most of the team left the school in 1916 or 1917 and although most of them went into the armed forces and served in France, only Norman Albury, who died of wounds when his Royal Flying Corps plane was shot down over France in September 1917, and Charles Newton, killed in action in September 1918, did not survive the war. Charles Gibbs and Henry Nugent Head were both awarded the Military Cross in WW1, whilst Donald Manning won the MC in 1944 for guerilla fighting in Burma during the Japanese occupation. All of them reflect Selwyn’s educational reforms in the school.

In the following year, the Sherborne fixture was again cancelled, so Radley’s next school match was against Downside on All Saints Day 1 November 1916, at home. Downside won 43-0. Once again, Radley’s players were drawn from a group of gifted boys, most notably Desmond Cancellor, another future Senior Prefect, whose novel about his schooldays Young England was published posthumously after he was killed in action on 1 November 1918. In the same season, Cranleigh were also victorious. But that steady growth in the game among the junior boys eventually paid off. In 1917 Radley achieved their first victory against an Oxford College side, beating ‘Magdalen’ 8-0, and maintaining their form in the return match with a win 49-3. They were also learning a lot in defeat: on October 20th,1917 they were soundly beaten by a team of New Zealand Officer Cadets based at Wadham College. The New Zealanders’ style of play was completely unlike any they had experienced. In the return match on November 21st, Radley adopted the New Zealanders’ tactics which resulted in ‘the best football seen at Radley in the last three seasons.’ The New Zealanders still won, but Radley could congratulate themselves that they were becoming a force to be reckoned with on the rugby pitch. The team of 1918 consisted of boys who had been Shells when rugby was pronounced the school’s game in 1914. They had come up through several years of serious rugby coaching. Edward Wallis, who had played in that first match against Sherborne and now captained Radley in their first victory over another school. In 1918, they defeated Eton 8-6.

Gradually the number of fixtures against other schools increased. New opponents in 1922 were St Paul’s (Radley won 24-3), in 1926 Eastbourne lost 3-0, and in 1928 Stowe became the seventh team to play regularly against Radley – they won 30-5. The Sherborne fixture was dropped between 1929 and 1958, but has been a regular feature of Radley rugby since and remains the season’s opener. Fixtures against Wellington and Teddies began in 1938: with both opponents winning resounding victories 30-0. From 1939 Bedford and Felsted were played, with Cheltenham joining the fixture list in 1942 and Pangbourne in 1944. Matches against Uppingham started in 1955, and against Abingdon and Harrow in 1966. After 1966 the only fixture against an adult team was against the Swallows, the Old Radleian team founded in 1925-6. The 50th anniversary of RCRUFC fell in 1964. A special end of season match against Rugby School saw Radley victorious 30-0, but the annual fixture against Rugby did not start until 1985. As the number of fixtures against other schools increased, so fixtures against the Oxford Colleges decreased. The last Oxford College match was against Trinity in 1948, 95 years after the first ‘football’ match against Exeter College in 1853. Cheaper international travel, however, led to the possibility of international pre- or post-season tours. The first was in 1986 to Canada, followed by Japan in 1987 where ‘the crowd was enormous and the match was televised.’ Since then there have been tours to Australia, Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and training camp in Italy.

Supporters are crucial to play in any match. The most hard-fought (and supported) match ever played on Bigside was in 1940 against Eastbourne who had been evacuated to Radley. The entire contingent of each school lined up on the touchlines to support their own team. Eastbourne won 4-3 with a drop goal against a try. Today the points would be 5-3 in favour of Radley.

The international stage

Radley’s coach from 1931 until 1956 was Guy Morgan, the Welsh international centre:

 Guy Morgan came to Radley in January, 1931, with the reputation of being the finest centre three- quarter in the British Isles. He had been four years in the Cambridge XV, and had obtained eight International Caps for Wales. In addition, he had captained both his country and his university. He had played Cricket with success for Glamorgan, and it was plain from the beginning that his ability and experience were going to be of enormous value to Radley on every acre of the Pitch. (The Radleian, 1963)

Morgan’s players were strong enough to take the international stage in their own right. Successive years saw boys selected to play for English Public Schools: Fred Harris in 1951, Clive Carr captained them in 1952, and in 1953 John Scott, a future England full-back. Ted Dexter, England’s future Cricket Captain also played in Morgan’s 1952 XV. Radley’s England Rugby Union internationals are John Bance v Scotland in 1954, John Scott v France in 1958, Andrew Harriman v Australia in 1987 and Chris Sheasby who won seven England caps in the 1990s. Andrew Harriman (captain) and Chris Sheasby (vice-captain) led the England Sevens squad to win the World Sevens Title at Murrayfield in 1993, beating Australia in the final.

Peter Johnson was the first Master in Charge of Rugby to achieve a clean sweep of victories, in 1990 his final year as coach. Richard Greed’s second season as Master i/c, 1995, included a pre-season tour to South Africa. The Radley XV played a match against the Diocesan College, Rondebosch, (Bishop’s) whose Headmaster from 1918 until 1943 was Roderick Birt, one of the first Dons to coach rugby at Radley. That same year Radley’s First XV were Rugby World’s Team of the Month for December and runner-up for Team of the Season.


Clare Sargent September 2014