‘Sunderland Rugger with a Dash of Schoolboy Rugby Beyond’

Keith Gregson reports on one town’s efforts to rebuild rugby after the First World War…

After spending four years analysing the effect of the First World War on Sunderland Rugby Football Club, I am convinced that there were a number of valid reasons why the sport struggled in the town after 1918. At least three members of each side had died as a result of the war while a similar number had received injuries which prevented them from resuming the sport. At the same time it may be safe to assume there were those who must have been mentally scarred and/or unwilling to go back to play when so many of their colleagues were no longer around. A final thought is that by 1919 five years had passed since the last club game and a number of players must have considered themselves too ‘long in the tooth’ to play.

If research into other clubs is to be believed SRFC was not alone in struggling to field one single 1st XV in the seasons immediately following the conflict. Nevertheless archive evidence has survived in Sunderland which points to remarkably successful efforts to rectify the situation on part of the club, its players past and present and other local bodies.

A major element in this evidence is a 60 page A6 notebook. It is stamped on the cover ‘Durham Education Authority’ and carries the hand-written title ‘Sunderland Rugger with a dash of schoolboy rugger beyond’. Filled by the writing of a young rugby club member, Donald Greig (1900 -1991), its contents cover the entire inter-war period and records in detail results and tables relating to local schoolboy and apprentice rugby during that period. In addition the same scribe left a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings on the same subject. It has also been possible to fill in any missing details by examining further local and regional newspaper accounts via the online British Newspapers Archive.

Sunderland & District Schools' League

Extract from Don Greig’s booklet

The first page of the notebook contains a table relating to schoolboy rugby during the 1921/2 season. Nine schools feature in the table with one school, St Columba’s, managing to field a side on 19 occasions. All in all seven schools were able to complete at least ten games. This league came about after discussions between the rugby club, the local LEA and the county rugby union and was still functioning with eight schools playing up to 16 games a season at the onset of the Second World War in 1939. Equally significant was the establishment of another league for youngsters over the age of 15 and this included a number of sides made up from shipyard and engineering apprentices. Page three of Greig’s notebook features a table of nine teams. Each team managed 16 games and this league included teams named T.L.F Apprentices and N.E.M Apprentices as well as a Junior Technical School (J T S) Old Boys. By the 1926/7 season this league had two divisions comprising 15 sides with a number, including both T.L.F and J.T.S, in a position to put out two sides. At one point a third division had to be introduced and it is possible that just prior to 1930 some thirty sides of youngsters from 11-18 were playing weekly rugby in Sunderland alone.

A study of one of the apprentice sides helps in an understanding of how and why these moves took place. The side known as TLF Apprentices was one of the first to emerge post war and was backed by the three associated shipbuilding and marine engineering companies – Thompsons, Laings and Forge (Sunderland Forge and Engineering Company). The three major families involved in these companies – Thompson, Laing and Marr all had lengthy pedigrees when it came to Sunderland Cricket and (Rugby) Football Club. As teenagers in the 1870s Arthur and James Laing had been founding members of the rugby club and Arthur was captain of the side that won the first Durham County Cup in 1881. At least four members of the Thompson shipbuilding family were club members who had served during the First World War. Among these were Robert Norman Thompson, chairman of one of the family shipbuilding companies. He had been selected pre-war for an England rugby trial but had to pull out through injury, His brother Stanley had been wounded in Gallipoli and had played in one of the club’s most successful 1st XVs in the years before the war. He continued his involvement in shipbuilding in the inter-war years. Sir James Marr, involved in all the companies, had been decorated for his services during the war while his son John, also a club member, had commanded a heavy battery of guns on the Somme and was a great supporter of ex-soldiers post war. In addition, during the inter-war period Sir James’s grandson Alan was playing club rugby at Sunderland as well as representative rugby.

Sunderland Rugby Team, 1881

Sunderland 1st XV, winners of the 1881 Durham County Cup

The background to the establishment of TLF apprentices is an interesting one. The author of a fairly recent article in the Sunderland Echo (23 March 2016) noted that Thompsons had purchased a field north of the River Wear in 1892 for industrial purposes but decided in 1922 to use it for leisure.  According to this article, ‘The TLF Recreation Ground and Boys’ Institute, as it was first officially described, was formally opened on December 12, 1922’. Also ‘TLF was a trend setter, a venue to break new ground in the way it catered for workers. Those were the days when the provision of such amenities for employees were rare – and more especially as this was to be for apprentices’.

TLF Apprentices was clearly a club run by men still fired by their youthful passion for the game of rugby. The NEM apprentice side was run by one of the country’s leading marine engineering companies – also known as George Clark’s. Clark had set up the company in 1848 and it continued to exist up to the final years of the twentieth century.  The Clark family lived close to the rugby club in Victorian times but there is no evidence so far of a firm connection with the club itself.

Reports on schoolboy rugby in Sunderland during the inter-war years make for interesting reading. Clearly there was a top limit of the age of 15 for elementary school sides but there is no sign of a lower limit with both size and ability used in selection. It is also clear that ‘practice matches’ against adult sides were not uncommon. The object was ‘to give the schoolboys experience’. In one such game, the young full back Wilson was praised for his bravery when confronted by those who were ‘older’ and ‘heavier’. Giving a couple of stones away in every case he ‘never failed in the tackle’ even when he remained ‘the only obstacle to progress’. Health and Safety? Here is food for thought indeed!

Football also commanded frequent references as the youngsters tended to ‘adopt soccer tactics’ when first introduced to the game of rugby. This was particularly the case with a match between Sunderland RFC 3rd XV and the Junior Tech boys although it would appear that the latter were ‘not slow in adapting themselves’ to the rugby rules.

Although the local grammar school Bede Collegiate was involved from the start, the whole of the period was dominated by the catholic St Columba’s – often considered the best junior side in the county. During the 1922/3 season St Columba’s defeated a Hartlepool school in front of a crowd of 3,000 gathered to watch a match between Hartlepool Rovers and Wakefield. Much of this school’s success was down to an intriguing character called Andrew Donaldson (1887 – 1962) – master in charge of school rugby. He was born in Scotland but already teaching in Sunderland in 1911. In 1922 he became England’s first male table tennis champion and continued to take an interest in this sport too for the rest of his life. It is fitting that this article should end by noting that on a November Saturday in 1923 Mr Donaldson refereed a game between the Junior Tech and Westoe Secondary at 1.45 and a game involving the Tech Old Boys at 2.45. It was this kind of enthusiasm and commitment that led to the survival of rugby after the horrors of the First World War.

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.


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