A Whiff of Wintergreen and a Fag at Lemons

Michael Green*, a (rugby playing) journalist, and humourist wrote ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’  in 1960 – it immediately struck a chord with those players that read it. He described the sport as,

 ‘A game played by fewer than fifteen a side,

at least half of whom should be totally unfit.’

 Keeping fit for amateurs  –with day jobs –often in offices was something of a problem. This was particularly true for players in business houses in central London during the swinging sixties. Their company grounds were scattered all over the Home Counties –often a thirty minute train ride away. So many players, found the mid-week training sessions at the Lucas-Tooth gym a useful resource.

It was located in Tooley Street, Bermondsey between London and Tower Bridges. That part of the south bank in the 1950’s and 1960’s was full of old dark narrow cobbled streets, archways warehouses and wharfs (hardly changed from Dickens’s time) and not the ‘gentrified’ area it appears today.

Apart from rugby players, it was popular with boxers, their corner-men and hangers on -this was still the South London of Charlie Richardson’s underworld gang, whose speciality was pinning victims to the floor with 6-inch nails. The gym had been established during the 1930’s by a Conservative politician Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth, for the benefit of unemployed men from the Northern coalfields and unemployed areas. A new style of physical exercise was developed which helped improve the fitness of these men, as shown in a 1938 British Pathé newsreel.

Lucas Tooth


By the 1960’s the gym’s circuit training was run by an ex-Royal Navy physical training instructor, a ‘slightly mad Irishman’ who put everyone through their paces as if their life depended on it –whilst quietly smoking a fag. The gym had other benefits too, often acting as an impromptu fixture exchange, and, perhaps importantly, also minutes away from The George Inn at Southwark.

A whiff of wintergreen

Have you ever paused for a moment and thought how easily a scent can transport you back in memory to a place or situation? It’s common knowledge that while sight is the strongest sense for short term memory, the sense of smell is the


strongest and most vivid for long-term memories.

Wintergreen for instance, with its minty smell, or perhaps Elliman’s Universal Embrocation can take a-players straight back to the club house changing room –years after retiring. It was widely used as a sports rub on muscles especially in winter. There were actually two products – ‘Universal Embrocation’ for humans, and ‘Royal Embrocation’ for horses (sometimes referred to as horse liniment) – but there was no difference between the two –yes really!

Another whiff of the past was ‘Zam Buk’, with its distinct fragrance of eucalyptus and camphor. In the UK, Zam-Buk first appeared on chemist’s shelves around 1903. The balm had been discovered in South Africa, and later used on Rugby and Football fields in Australia and New Zealand after the Boer War. It was found when a player was injured, applying the ointment acted as an antiseptic eliminating the chances of the wound becoming infected.

Before antibiotics if a player cut or grazed his knee it could become infected to such an extent thatZam Buk the player could even die (yes seriously). Soon St John ambulance men began carrying Zam Buk in their kit bags to treat players. It’s still available today.

Not forgetting the ubiquitous Vaseline –much favoured by the scrum on their ears –although on sandy pitches proved counter-productive, as grit mixed with Vaseline became abrasive.

Before the start of a season, it was always recommended to get a Tetanus injection, against what was known as lockjaw -spasms in the jaw muscles caused by wound infection from soil. This was, so we were told, particularly important if the game fixtures were in London or Essex. As many of the pitches had been laid over medieval plague pits. One such fabulous club ground, hidden away in the centre of the City of London is the Honourable Artillery Company RFC*, http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/hac/ - it had been used as a burial site during the great plague in 1665.

A Fag at Lemons

Half time at last, exhausted players, gathering around -grabbing at the fruit wedges from a plate that the winger (who had little to do that half) had kindly brought over from the touch-line. Standing together, sucking on the orange, or perhaps lighting up a fag (cigarette) – for years I believed (still do) that the little pocket inside shorts by the waistband, were specifically designed by Messrs. Umbro for that very purpose. It had been solemnly explained to me that it fits a book of matches and half a cigarette exactly. Whilst others reflecting on Michael Green’s book which states;

 The first half is invariably much longer than the second.

This is partly because of the late kick-off

-but is also caused by the unfitness of the referee.’

You see, up until World War Two, half-time would often be referred to as ‘lemons’. Because they used to be the accepted half-time refresher at all rugger levels. The use of oranges was considered to be effete. Wartime conditions meant the end of the import of lemons (largely from Italy) and when available oranges were substituted.

Interestingly there has been no subsequent return to lemons.

The game over at last, back in the changing room, a rag-bag of players in different states of array sitting staring vacantly at the floor, wincing at some yet undiscovered injury. Because lack of fitness inevitably led to minor injuries – but as a famous Irish pipe smoking International from that amateur era Willie John McBride, explained in an interview (and speaking for many), comparing conditions thirty years earlier with the modern game,

‘…the players have medics these days. We had Elastoplast’.


 * Michael Green used to play for Ealing in the 1950’s –now Ealing Trailfinders RFC http://ealingrugby.co.uk/

images:rugby-pioneers.blogs.com,   www.wesclark.com/rrr/images.html



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