Would it surprise you to know that most rugby club formations had occurred in a pub, restaurant or perhaps an oyster bar? No of course it wouldn’t. As commentator John Dickenson once put it, ‘The pub is as much a part of rugby as is the playing field,’ – these pubs have also served as changing rooms too.
For starters: We know that representatives of 21 clubs (there would have been 22 but for a misunderstanding) were invited to attend a meeting at the Pall Mall restaurant in January 1871. It was located at 14 Regent Street where according to Charles Dickens (the son) in his ‘Dictionary of London’, an agreeable set dinner could be had for 7s.6d’ (37.5p in new money). In this convivial West End eating house the group discussed how to bring some sort of order, and standardise, the many variations of rules in the game. The result, after a decent pudding was the formation of the Rugby Football Union as an administrative body.
Four years before that momentous gathering, Wasps had also been invited to join the meeting and, therefore, eligible to be Founder Members. And so they would have, had it not been for a disastrous mix-up, preventing them attending the inauguration ceremony.
The brothers, William and Frederick Alford, whilst medical students at University College Hospital, (their father was a doctor) together with other like-minded former scholars of Merchant Taylors School decided to form Wasps FC. They gathered at the Eton and Middlesex Tavern (re-named Adelaide, but now closed) in Adelaide Road, Hampstead North London in the autumn of 1867. They later played on Hampstead Heath using other pubs such as the Freemason’s Arms and the Magdala in South Hill Park as changing rooms. The Magdala subsequently achieved notoriety where a nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis, shot her lover in 1955 – becoming the last woman to be hanged in England.
Anyway, as the story goes, Wasps missed the RFU inaugural meeting, because in true rugby fashion the team representative turned up at the wrong venue, on the wrong day, at the wrong time and so forfeited their right to be called Founder Member. However, the club went on to produce famous players, such as Richard Sharp, Rob Andrews and Lawrence Dallaglio.
Oldest of the exiles
The oldest of all the exile clubs in London, London Scottish Football Club was founded in April 1878 at MacKay’s Tavern – well actually Queens Head Tavern at 3 Water Lane, it was frequently miss-recorded, as Ned Mackay was the jovial Scottish landlord. This pub was handily close to Apothecaries Hall and a short pallbearer’s stroll to St. Paul’s Churchyard. The first club’s President was the Earl of Rosebery, a Liberal statesman who followed Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1894. Ludgate Hill was redeveloped and the pub was demolished in 1999 and Water Lane became Blackfriars Lane. The club has produced many notable players, amongst them Gavin Hastings and the larger than life Captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton, both winning caps for the British Lions.
At the end of the summer season in 1879 a group of young cricketers decided to form a football club in order to stay together during the winter months. They played in the grounds of Rosslyn Park Estate in North London and naturally adopted the name Rosslyn Park FC. In their first season they played on a ground near Hampstead Heath Station and hired a room from Ted Slingsbury, the landlord of the White Horse corner of Constantine and Fleet Roads (still thriving in 2012) at £5 a year to provide a changing room for the players and storage for the club’s temporary goalposts. Then in 1892, French rugby enthusiast (and father of the modern Olympic movement), Frédy de Coubertin, was instrumental in bringing Rosslyn Park (the first English club) to Paris, for a match against Stade Francais, which they won. Lord Dufferin the British Ambassador in Paris stood ‘champagne and sandwiches’ to both teams. The club went on to produce the legendary England player Prince Alexander Obolensky also more recently Danny Cipriani.
“Tottie” to his friends
Percy Carpmael – known as Tottie to his friends, had been part of an invitation team enjoying a tour of the North of England in 1890, and decided that these end of season jaunts should become regular fixtures. Inspired by his personal playing experiences with both Cambridge University and Blackheath, his dream was to spread good fellowship amongst all rugby football players. And so the idea of a unique touring side was formulated over an agreeable dinner. In Bradford, they dined at Leuchter’s Restaurant a popular eating house run by a Prussian émigré in Darley Street, corner of Kirkgate (then the world’s largest in-door market –with fresh fish and oysters being brought direct from the Yorkshire coast). Later during postprandial discussions at the newly opened Alexandra Hotel run by another émigré the attentive Italian Carlo Fara in the Horton Road, (the city’s most lavish hotel at the time) -the Barbarians Football Club was born.
Leuchter’s Restaurant and the Alexandra hotel are no more, but the club went from strength to strength and its story is the stuff of legend. Tottie’s later years were plagued by ill health and in 1927 he went to live in the sunshine of Menton in the South of France. He died in 1936 and was laid to rest on the hills above, a place where fifty years earlier, William Webb Ellis too was buried.
The hugely successful Hong Kong Sevens was the result of ‘Tokkie’ Smith, the (then) Chairman of Hong Kong RFC and Ian Gow, a Rothman’s Tobacco Company Executive chatting in the ‘Bottom’s Up’ club (sadly no more) in 1974, a girlie bar in the Wan Chai, Kowloon district of Hong Kong. It was run by Shanghai-born Pat Sephton, who had been a revue artist with the Windmill Theatre in London during the 1940s. The bar featured in the James Bond film ‘Man with the Golden Gun’ screened the same year. The Hong Kong Sevens were ahead of their time, and an influential force in the modernisation of rugby union. They were the first to attract major sponsorship, when the airline Cathay Pacific sponsored the 1976 tournament.
These pubs and bars may have now become members of the ‘Dead Pubs Society’ but the rugby clubs they hosted are thriving. Cheers or perhaps Bottoms up!
Photograph, Queens Head: pubshistory.com
Photograph, Kirkgate: www.maggieblanck.com
Photograph, Bottoms Up: www.007locations.com