In recent correspondence Phil McGowan, Curator of the World Rugby Museum, pointed out that the founding members of the RFU were all very young (and also probably active players). I hope to look in detail at the formation of Sunderland Rugby Football Club in 1873 – the work of two teenagers boarding at a public school in the south of England. I am also in the fortunate position of having discovered a detailed list of club committee members for the 1901/2 season and, with the help of the 1901 census, have examined it in the light of the more recent articles and correspondence.
During the 1901/2 season the committee of Sunderland RFC consisted of 12 members. The average age was 28 – the youngest 22 and the oldest 36. Half were current 1st XV players including two future internationals in the shape of Edgar Elliot (the 22 year old) and Norman Cox (both of whom also played for the Barbarians); also a local minister – the Reverend Wreford Brown who was the brother of Charles Wreford Brown, doyen of English amateur association football and captain of England at one point. Five of the committee were still in the 1st XV during the following season when the side won the Durham County Cup. Surviving evidence shows that the remainder of the committee members had played within the previous five seasons and that some were still playing at 2nd XV level. All in all half of the committee had been active rugby players when the schism of 1895 took place and a similar number were still involved in the mid-Edwardian period when serious consideration was given to moving the club to the association code. Much thought was given to the latter but the proposal was overturned in the end on two counts – a majority dislike for professionalism and a concern for the future of the over-arching Sunderland Cricket and Rugby Football Club as a multi-sports club (which it remains today). Indeed Elliot was a fine cricketer who captained both the Sunderland and Durham County sides for a number of years before emigrating to the Americas. The club also housed Sunderland Hockey, Tennis and Bowls clubs.
Not only the age but the social make-up of the committee serves to explain why on two occasions separated by a mere ten years, decisions were made to retain the rugby club’s amateur status. Committee members were solidly upper middle class. Ten of them lived in the spacious large terraces or semi-villas of the leafy suburban of Ashbrooke where the ground still stands. One lived in a similar house north of the River Wear and the other, a doctor, lived in Rectory House on the town’s High Street. Eight members of the committee were able to afford cooks while the 1901 census shows that ten of them employed more than one servant. Their incomes came from shipbuilding/shipping and allied trades, timber, medicine and the law. The two oldest members were the only ones married – the others were still living with parents. At a time when telephone ownership was still fairly rare, eight of their households had a phone and in two cases two lines were noted in the committee register (presumably one was a work number). The lowest number was Sunderland 155 and the highest Sunderland 653 – another indication of telephone rarity.
In my club history – “One Among Many: The Story of Sunderland Rugby Football Club RFC (1873) in its historical context” and indeed in articles published on the club since, I have argued that it is not easy to generalise about developments in rugby union at club level – (despite the book’s title). However it is hoped that this blog will encourage others to consult club records where they have survived; also to note classical historical ‘similarities and differences’ where they arise. As will be clear from a future blog on the founding of the club already mentioned, Sunderland RFC was put in place by teenagers and run exclusively by youngsters in the 1870s. From the research here it would seem that those close to the game were still in charge at the turn of the century. However at some point there came a change and it appears to have been connected to the question of team selection and bias. If a committee was composed mostly of current players could it be relied upon to be other than self-selecting? Later in the 20th century, it might be argued that there was a healthy balance between players and retired players on club committees. In general there is wisdom in age and experience as doubtless members of many club committees will point out. However it would seem that there is some discomfort in the world of ‘the committee man’ at the moment and the rugby world is up for a discussion. What lessons the examination of the history of a committee teaches is similarly debatable!
About the Author – Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at keithgregson.com and his books can be purchased from Amazon.