The History of Rugby in Ashby-de-la-Zouch
By Ian Mckenzie
Rugby Football was first played in Ashby in 1876. The date was pinpointed by the late Mr J H Dunmore, prior to the inaugural celebration match at the formation of the Old Ashbeians RFC in 1951, at which time Mr Dunmore was 88. Mr Dunmore played for Ashby RFC in 1879 at which time the School Team (Ashby Grammar) were the sole and exclusive opponents of the towns 2nd XV. This was also the first time that Ashby Grammar "dabbled" in Rugby Football. From 1876-1895 the Town Club played Rugby and Soccer in alternate seasons.
Although unfortunately, currently untraceable, a team photograph was taken in 1890 which Mr Dunmore posed. The photograph included the following local personalities: - T Brown (cpt) and F G Skinner-Jones (both members of the school staff); George German; Harry German; A O Jones; E M Dawson-Thomas; Tom Jardine and Frank Baxter. Both Germans went on to play for Tigers and Harry German was a member of the first Leicester team to win the Midland Counties Cup in 1878.
Frank Baxter was the uncle of Mr Bryan Baxter, to whom the current OARFC Committee, and in particular myself, are greatly indebted for his major contributions to this history.
Opposition at this time included the likes of Leicester, Moseley, Nottingham, Burton, Leicester Rugby Union and Leicester Thursday. This is recorded on the fixture card for 1891/92 (our prize possession).
Ashby RFC fell by the wayside. Despite recourse to local papers, the Ashby Grammar School, and appeals to the local public, the precise reason cannot be found. I feel it fair to assume that through the alternate season approach, Soccer simply got the popular vote and won out.
Interest in the game of Rugby still existed in Ashby. The indomitable Mr Dunmore is reputed to have walked from Ashby to Leicester (17 miles), after playing a game of soccer in the morning, to see England V Ireland at Welford Road in the afternoon!
Evidence suggests that Rugby re-appeared at the School after the Town RFC was disbanded. The school magazine of the 1950's commented as follows:
"For the benefit of those our present Rugger players who may regard themselves as pioneers in this game at our School, let it be known that it was introduced in 1911 as the game for the Lent Term". Matches were played against Burton, Coalville, Alderman Newton's and Nuneaton Old Eds. Progress in the game must have been rapid and substantial. The game correspondent to the "Ashbeian" reports (i.e. in 1911) 'Judging from the enthusiasm for this, the best of outdoor games, another year will see Rugger in the first place as our Winter game'. Whether the prophecy was fulfilled we are not told; but a little light is cast upon the subject by a brief announcement in the magazine for the Xmas Term of 1912 which says 'D Waddell is now playing for the Tigers' ".
The Ashby Grammar School changed from Soccer to Rugby under T D Woodcock, MA, then Headmaster - a man of strong Rugby traditions. The then current school magazine comments:
"At a meeting during the winter of 1947 it was decided that Rugby should take the place of Association football as the principal game during the Xmas Terms. For the 1948 season the First and Second XI's were to continue to play soccer matches, while the rest of the school, with the exception of the First and Second forms, began to learn Rugby...From the beginning the experiment was most successful...We were extremely fortunate at this stage to have the services as coach of A C Towell, the Leicester and England player".
Haydn Thomas, the Leicester Centre, joined the staff shortly after.
A critical commentary in the same school magazine is with hindsight, most amusing, namely:
"The ball was not being met in the air, opponents were not being bowled over as soon as they caught the ball, but were given a fraction of time while the tackler wanted to see what their intentions were; and most serious of all the forwards were not backing up players as a pack, but having done their little piece were content to slow up and allow someone else to carry one".
- 1948 or 1984?!?
This was the year that Rugby re-emerged significantly in Ashby. The school magazine gives a taste of events to come.
"the Mem Field has occupied the attention of the exec throughout the year. The field has now been leveled, seeded and fenced. Further drainage is needed and this will be put in hand as soon as weather permits. We hope to keep our original plan and have the field ready for use in the Autumn of this year...Provisional arrangements have already been made to open the field on Tuesday 18th September 1951 when a Tigers team will play a team of well-known Ruggermen, sponsored by the Head Master and B R baxter. After that is hoped that Old Ashbeians RFC will be using the ground regularly ... we feel that sufficient boys have learned the game now to make such a club possible and already the response has been more than gratifying . . . . A committee has been formed and Mr R Hedley and Mr R J Pickering at the school will be pleased to receive names of those interested, whether they play or not".
The match referred to above was arranged to mark two events, namely:
1). The opening of the Memorial Playing Field (in memory of 44 old boys who gave their lives in WWII).
2). The foundation of the Old Ashbeians RFC.
The Memorial Field was a magnificent setting for such a match and was described at the time as "set beneath the ruins of Ashby Castle, the ground is as picturesque as it is possible to imagine a Rugby Football ground could be".
The teams were worthy of the occasion. Mr J E Thorneloe, the Tigers secretary, and Mr T A Woodcock, Headmaster of Ashby Grammar Scholl, fielded two teams which included a hard core of contemporary international players. Mr Woodcock was assisted by Mr H B Toft (an ex-pupil of Woodcock at Manchester) and Bryan Baxter who not only was the prime organiser of the event but was also to be the first chairman of Old Ashbieans RFC.
The talent on view (rugby talent) was considerable as Mr Thorneleo's XV contained two internationals in W K T Moore and R V Stirling. Even more impressively, Mr Woodcock fielded seven international players plus five international trialists, and one varsity Blue.
Nearly 3,000 spectators saw Mr Thorneleo's XV beat the international XV by 14 points to 8 and the princely sum of £59 was collected at the ground.
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