Was there ever a golden age of amateur rugger? One thing’s certain: the inter-war years saw more rugby clubs founded in England than in any other decade, with many schools changing from Association (to Rugby) Football.
The growth of the rugby playing grammar and public schools eventually produced many “old boy” sides. It was the common perception in the south east of England — not completely true, but also not completely false — that old boy sides were groups of marauding, beer-swilling, guffawing “Hooray Henrys”, well-stuffed with solicitors, surveyors, bankers and the like. In their world, with the end of schooling, boys never became men, just older boys. The old boy sides were a bastion of “rugger-buggers”: players keenly interested in the game and actively participating in the sport’s ethos, noted for their boisterous social behaviour and macho image.
Drawing many employees of their employees from the same schools, the largely paternal business houses also saw the benefit of sports clubs and grounds, helping develop a company spirit and company men. With their considerable resources they secured hundreds of prime acres, building and equipping some of the finest playing fields in England for the new generation of “house clubs”.
Club houses in “colonial pavilion” style
Banks, insurance companies, government institutions, manufacturing concerns and the major railway companies all established rugby clubs. Many of the club houses built for them were designed in the “colonial pavilion” or “Edwardian mock Tudor” styles, mimicking home counties country clubs in keeping with that time.
The game’s Victorian character-building qualities were still being advocated. The Edwardian sports writer EHD Sewell (Bedford School and Harlequins) published “Rugger: The Man’s Game“, in which he proposed an antidote to what he called the “loafers and slackers” in the shape of a post-war Ministry of Sport and compulsory rugby (a sort of early forerunner of Sport England).
By the swinging sixties the so called golden age was becoming a little tarnished. In this new world, many old boy and house clubs were finding it difficult to recruit new players. Their established firm or school affiliations traditionally meant closed membership. The pressure to recruit encouraged many to become “open clubs”, offering membership to all comers. Ten years later most had embraced these policies. The old boys fared better than the house clubs, as they had a larger degree of autonomy, often merging with each other, re-branding themselves and dropping “old” from their names.
Corporate paternalism was also in retreat during this period and, as the house clubs memberships diminished, the “money men” looked to turning their real estate assets into cash.
Sold up in paternalism’s retreat
In the following decades, corporate mergers, particularly amongst banks and insurance companies, saw the demise of many club grounds, such as the magnificent East Molesey clubhouse of Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, a Jacobean-style red brick house, built in 1881 and known as the Wilderness. The new group, Standard Chartered, sold this estate in the 1980s together with their Beckenham ground, once the home of Standard Bank of South Africa RFC.
Lloyds Bank, National Provincial Bank, Westminster Bank all went the same way. Not to be left behind, insurance companies such as Commercial Union (which later merged with Norwich Union and became Aviva) divested itself of its sports ground, having sustained losses due in part to the “Great Train Robbery” in 1963. Sun Alliance sold their Raynes Park ground to Barratts Homes for development. Prudential Assurance and Royal Exchange Assurance both also cashed-in on their grounds.
Other Institutions and household names disappeared from fixtures too: Customs & Excise; J Lyons & Co (the famous tea-shops) with their ground at Sudbury; Ford Motor Co; LMS (London Midland Scottish Railway), at Wembley; A.E.C. Associated Equipment Co in Southall (builders of London’s famous red buses until 1979); VCD Vickers at Crayford, which had been formed by workers during the first world war.
Others followed, such as the Anglo–Dutch multinational Unilever, and manufacturers like Hoover in Perivale, and Firestone at Gunnersbury, who ceased playing when their famous Art Deco tyre factory on the Great West Road closed in 1979. Thomas Cook (the world’s largest travel organisation) sold off its Ravensbourne ground in 1975. Its mock-Tudor pavilion, opened by the founder’s grandson fifty years earlier, falling into disrepair. (*)
Harrods (London’s famous Knightsbridge store) closed its Harrodian sports club in Barnes after its new owner sold the ground in 1988 (and bought Fulham FC). The club site (see photo above) later became a school of the same name. However, their rugby stalwarts eventually formed Barnes RFC and the club is thriving today.
The oil giant Shell withdrew its support for all field sports in 1998, and in 2000 Barclays Bank sold its 22 acre sports ground in Ealing.
Finally, dear old “aunty” BBC closed her sports ground at Motspur Park in 2004. This once magnificent ground and clubhouse in South London had been built in 1930s colonial pavilion style complete with clock tower. (The clubhouse, see second photo, had occasionally featured in BBC comedy series, such as The Two Ronnies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The sale of these sports grounds by the banks and other blue-chip companies marked the final stage of shedding the trappings of early 20th century paternalism. They were the new breed of employers now and — as the chorus of an old rugby song goes — “My God how the money rolls in”.
(*) The author has published the story of one such house club in paperback.
First photograph: Google Maps.
Second photograph: Wikimedia commons.