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Dunbar RFC History

1923 –1973

There are naturally and perhaps fortunately some shrouds of mystery surrounding the early days of the Club, but it seems to have had its origins in the morning train from Dunbar to Edinburgh in 1923. On this service there travelled daily a group of young men who'd now be described as commuters. They included J. B. Lees, an Academical (the B. in whose name stood for Bowe); M. L. Gibbs; the brothers William and David Sharpe (Watsonians); F. Macdonald, son of Dr. Macdonald; George Tait and J. M. Henderson, an Academical who entered the carriage in East Linton.

Accuracy, or near accuracy perhaps, begins with a quote from the Haddington Courier of 16th November, 1923, which says "A well attended meeting was held on Wednesday of last week, when it was agreed to form a Rugby Football Club in Dunbar." Dr. McLagan, Dr. Macdonald's partner and a Watsonian, lent his prestige to the Club as first President, and Provost Sinton of the town, a Borderer, who had a business in Portobello and who journeyed at times on the train afore¬said, also gave backing. J. C. McCubbin, a Melrose man, was appointed Captain, but left the district before the first game, and J. B. Lees took over the leadership.

Others recruited at the beginning were the Burton brothers, of whom Cecil captained the team in 1930-31 and who is happily still a resident in Dunbar area; J. Stein from Easter Broomhouse; Jenkins, an Insurance official; Baldwin, a timber man; Oliver Pott and G. Brown, a Borderer who worked in the Railway office. The school gym was obtained for one night weekly to teach recruits the rudiments of the game and the difficulty of where to play was initially solved through the offices of Dr. McLagan who persuaded the Golf Club to allow a pitch to be used on Saturdays on the Duffers' course, a practice area to the west of Dunbar Golf Clubhouse. Old photographs show striped jerseys as a common factor, white and green no doubt, but shorts were long in those days and (as even recently at times) could be black, white or even khaki. The first game was played on 8th December 1923, against Inverleith and Dunbar won by 3 points to nil. The condi-tions imposed by the Golf Club were that the turf was not to be cut and all signs of play removed after each game. Mr. White, the coach¬builder, detailed two apprentices to erect light posts and mark the pitch with sawdust before the games and take it all away afterwards. Golf Club members, however, complained that they could not practice and another site had to be found. Major Houston of Castellau kindly granted the use of one of his paddocks and all went well till the New Year's game, when over 600 people attended, many of whom were soccer enthusiasts and had not seen Rugby played before. They became very excited and their celebratory encouragement to the home team was so deafening that Major Houston awoke from his post-prandial snooze and rushed to tell the police to come immediately and quell the riot in his paddock.

Mr. Alex. Tait, father of George a player, then came to the rescue and allowed play in the Slaughterhouse Field - Dunbar enthusiasts proudly claimed that visiting Clubs said it was well named. This was where Dickinson's timber yard now is and it was used then to assemble cattle before slaughter.It is hard to believe that Mr. Tait was generous enough to cease using his field for its original purpose, and no doubt the technique of tackling or being tackled to fall clear of residual matter was regarded as just one of the many arts to be acquired. Strip¬ping accommodation, baths and meals were provided in the nearby Royal Hotel at that time by Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, whose hospitality was tolerant, it is reported, of minor indiscretions, a description which could also be levelled at those good friends of the Club, Mr. and Mrs. Tommy Craig, for so long kind hosts at the Craig-en-Gelt Hotel. Few authentic records are possessed of the Club's performance in these early days, but no older member, having had the pleasurable interest of listening to the late Manuel Gibbs, an old original who was later for long secretary, then treasurer, and whose memory was so good at adding but not at subtraction, can doubt that great deeds of valour were performed in those far off years both on and off the field.

Other reports mention that, as to be expected, some players of moderate calibre had to be fitted in and one man was so blind that in fact he often kicked a recumbent head in mistake for the ball. This was regarded as not so bad if the head in question was not attached to a green and white jersey.

Annual dinners started early and were held in the George Hotel (Mine hosts Mr. and Mrs. J. McDonald), while dances were run in the Bellevue Hotel, the establishment of Mr. and Mrs. Hitchman, whose son George was another early recruit to the Club. Soon too after the start the Club was lucky that " Toshy " McIntosh came to Dunbar; a Borderer and super-enthusiast, he was manager of the local Labour Exchange and was Secretary and Treasurer in the early days as well as being so involved in the games that his stocky waist-coated figure appears in team photographs of the time.

In September 1924 Andrew Wemyss, ex Haddington, Barbarian and Scotland prop, brought a team to play Haddington to open the season. From this team, in which G. St. C. Murray played stand off, the Co-op-timists were born and history or legend states that the first game the Co-optimists played knowing they were Co-optimists was at Dunbar soon thereafter. An annual fixture (Dunbar's team being suitably reinforced for the occasion) resulted, to be followed by a dinner; Dunbar's later reputation for hospitality can be said in this context to be no recent thing; it began when the Club began. The Club had as indicated often difficulty in finding 15 players because of course a team cannot in practice be found from some 15 players only and it was fortunate that a Battery of Gunners that came to the Barracks at that time was found to contain players. Turnbull, Allport, Teacher, Tuck, and Carrington-¬Smith were soldiers who appeared regularly in the early days. Others who were not founder members (forgive me if I am wrong) but who were in almost at the start were Bill Aitken, a formidable three quarter who played for several years, Jas. Smith (so even then the name was represented), Douglas Barlas, and Adam Wilkie, who was employed in the town, but when he got a job with McVittie and Price in Edin¬burgh still retained his loyalty and travelled regularly to Dunbar for years to practice his wiles.

In those days longer hours of work and lack of transport were difficulties to be encountered in organising practice and play and it says a lot for enthusiasm that by the third season the Club was on a good footing. Fixtures were played against teams from Edinburgh F.P. Clubs, the University, Wanderers and of course right from the beginning the Club played two matches a year against Haddington, which Club had been founded twelve years before in 1911; Dunbar's first win on New Year's day 1927 must have been the forerunner of no small cele¬bratory enjoyment, even if perhaps it meant unaccustomed pre-match denial in the interests of a first victory. Suffice to say, Dunbar couldn't repeat the performance till 1932.

About 1929 the Club contained more of an agricultural element. Young farmers who played regularly at or around that time included J. Stein of early days, W. Bone, A. J. Tweedie, P. Robertson, J. Hood, W. Drysdale, and G. Cuninghame, who had mostly learned the game elsewhere. Coinciding with this an Athletic Club had been formed by a group of youngsters who were keen to be fit and who rented a loft as a headquarters near West Port. Earlier still Toshy McIntosh and Fiddes of Haddington organised a Dunbar Colts team of boys to play matches against Haddington Colts so as to inoculate younger boys with the disease. This was effective and necessary as no Rugby was played at Dunbar School, and it resulted in members of the Athletic Club, formed later, turning their attention to Rugby and provided the Club with its local element of enthusiasts, among them being Ronnie Knox (father of current stalwarts Roy and Colin and himself still most helpfully to the fore), Bald (again father of Rob. Bald, long time player and captain) and the brothers Dann of whom J.C., Chit to us all, ¬has the undisputed distinction of being the longest playing member of the Club as well as one of its most accomplished, especially with his feet. He has no claim, as his colleagues, to paternal distinction, but his trim, fit and popular figure is still to be seen moving sharply around. Another personality of the eras then and now is Joe Miller, ex Kelso man and long in trade as a butcher in East Lothian and the Borders. He refereed, was Club Secretary and Treasurer for a period and is still actively interested.

About this time the Town Council acquired part of Winterfield Farm as a Public Park and they offered the Club a pitch. This was laid out North and South behind the Craig-en-Gelt wall and reports of the time blamed poor attendances at some games on the exposed situation. That the subsequent post-war pitch is far more open still to the elements is a disadvantage more than made up for by the free-draining nature of the soil and the uniquely frost free situation. A door was made through the wall and the Club was welcomed to the somewhat erratic plumbing and hospitable tea table of the Craig-en-Gelt Hotel-though a license there was a later acquisition and other rendezvous for later après-rugby had to be sought. Rupert Chalmers-Watson joined the Club in 1929 and with him came Gerald Cree. Also joining then was Willie Kay.

It would be invidious and impossible to mention all players by name and as the record gets nearer the present time only some events and personalities can be recorded. It must be obvious however to anyone connected with Dunbar Rugby Club that something more than just some¬thing began in 1929. A forward whose dynamism and ability to voice it could enable him to lead the pack just as well from wherever he was (if he happened occasionally not to be right in front), Rupert provided a momentum then that has carried on right up to this day and that the Club has had such singular and altruistic leadership for so long is an advantage that all connected with the Club can recognise, appreciate and be thankful for.

Enquiries about training and social activity in those pre-war days have not provided a lot of easily recorded material. There is doubt in fact exactly where one began and the other ended and no effort will be made here to elucidate too far. Suffice to say that in the later thirties the Club's playing record was most creditable. Rupert was Captain for six years and the scrum was reported to be the heaviest in Junior Rugby, the skill available would also, it is suspected, be of quite a good order and the mobility would be surprising, if a little inconsistent. Belhaven Hill School now provided one or two players who were University graduates notably the earlier Sugden and the redoubtable Willie Caldwell and it is said that up to 1939 there was always a priest, a minister or a Wesleyan pastor available for play. So was a balance kept . . . . . Club spirit at this time was such that several senior players of calibre who had played good Rugby elected to join the Club and enjoy their declining games in a less competitive spirit. No. 1 of these was Ross Logan, ex-Scotland scrum half and Captain, who attended the base of the scrum for two seasons. Also playing then were Watsonian ex-Captain Courtenay Morrison, ex-Dunbar and ex-Wanderer Lex Tweedie and others on a less regular basis.

Such talent meant good open Rugby and this Dunbar provided, much of the opposition being F.P. sides. The Club had at this time an "English Tour" which euphemistically meant a game against Ber¬wick Club. A special bus was hired for this and the most was made of the outing. Some stories of the escapades may be apocryphal, but they have the ring of truth.

One is of Dunbar's full back, a horseman of calibre, who illustrated his claims to prowess by mounting a steed already yoked to a fish and chip cart in the High Street and inducing his charger to gallop away clearing all, or almost all obstacles, with the funneled chip equipe careering along in tow. Another is of two stalwarts who per¬suaded two reluctant damsels to accompany them on an unauthorised boating trip on Haggerston Lake. Their nautical know-how was suffici¬ently neglected for them to be unadvised that cockles out of commis¬sion can have the bungs removed. They found this to their chagrin only after they and their passengers were in deep water. Pneumonia was however avoided by means available. On another occasion a desire to prevent reports travelling ahead resulted in telephone wires being cut but this proved ineffective. A roadblock set up at Ayton denied escape. Again the driver of the bus on one visit proved less than up to the occasion and Rupert Chalmers Watson, abetted by Willie Kav, showed his versatility by taking control of the situation and the wheel too, for an eventful but safe return journey.

After away games in Edinburgh during this period the whole team, or almost all of it, stayed together not just for a drink or two but also for the evening. Costs were adjusted to disproportionate incomes, and visits were paid to the Dunedin Palais de Danse, Powderhall, the Empire or Royal Theatre, etc., to vary the theme.

It is not recorded whether the spiritual advisers, who as mentioned above often played, accompanied the team on these forays but whether or not, it can be said with assurance that on these occasions a fairly wide spectrum of the metro-populace would be aware that Dunbar had come to town.

Rugby was however not just the precursor and excuse for high jinks, whether the latter was a true description or not of after, play amusement; the game came first in fact and spirit.

At this time word reached North Berwick men, perhaps through their Scoutmaster, that it was good fun playing for Dunbar and several recruits from that area came along. Two teams could be regularly and reliably fielded. The 1937 Junior Sevens at Murrayfield were won by Dunbar and this is a record that presidential reminders insist must be repeated at regular intervals. In parenthesis it might be said that re-enactment of the drama is due now. Just before the War the team was reinforced by the arrival of Sandy Hunter, Merchistonian speed merchant, and under the captaincy of Willie Kay the era ended on a high note. During the war 1939-45 the pitch was ploughed up and the Club did not function. Anyone who remained and who could play during this period joined Haddington who with the aid of players on leave and servicemen stationed locally managed to keep a team going.

There is the story of the players who had to go to Haddington to play by train. On unravelling something nearer the truth, it is dis¬covered that to be safe they took an early bus. When it stopped at East Linton they decided to risk it, they'd get out, have a drink at the Crown, where they knew there was beer, and take the next bus. How¬ever they erred in so doing and after refreshment they found there was no suitable next bus. Undaunted they sprinted to a train they saw then puffing above the bridge, got a connection at Longniddry and managed to arrive at the pitch sometime well before half-time.

Such is the sort of spirit Junior Rugby engenders; an approach that just occasionally errs on the side of not taking things quite seriously enough, but that is better than taking them too seriously.

In 1946 most warriors were home again, things were far from normal, with food, petrol and clothes rationed, but a start was remade. A pitch more or less on the present site was provided and Ian White erected posts. To begin with the Craig-en-Gelt was not yet refurnished and it was back to the Royal to change and feed. Only one team was run for the first two years or so and few pre-war players remained; in fact apart from Sandy Hunter, Captain and late evening hospitality man par excellence and Chit Dann, most of the players were new to the Club. There was no dearth of talent in some positions. All the backs were ex-Servicemen and as well as Sandy they included Andrew Naismith, full back, whose talents of handling and kicking were as extensive as his moustachios were extended and Jack Smeal, whose record of six tries scored on the wing against H.M.S. Lochinvar is still held in awe. There was a distinctly agricultural element amongst the forwards professionally certainly and perhaps too in play, but they were reinforced by the deftness of Herbert Gray, Willie Turnbull's hooking and the 18 stones that was and still is Willie Struth. It may be recalled that Dunbar's renaissance was so virile that in the first season of it they (or should I say we) inflicted two decisive defeats on Haddington; and they only lost one other game that year. Graham Budge, a local man home from playing Inter-Service Rugby, re-joined the Club for a season or two 1947 onwards and then went to play for Wanderers, Scotland and British Lions. He had the capacity, shared slightly less perhaps by Allan Stewart and now Alaistair Lister, of emerging from a hopelessly collapsed ruck complete with ball and setting off unstoppably for the line to the apparent satisfaction of the referee. A year or two before the war schoolboy Graham had been noticed standing watching the Dunbar XV about to start a match. As sometimes happened then only 14 men turned up and Graham offered to play, although he had never been on a rugby field before. Even then he was big and burly and he was told his job was to take the ball from Dunbar's end of the field and put it down at the other; he eventually got very good at doing this. Although he has always been in the thick of things, he is believed still to be playing rugby in British Columbia, where there is said to be a team with a minimum playing age of forty.

Another Dunbar boy who made good was Ritchie Aitken (now Lt¬. Commander, R.N., retired), who captained United Services, played for Scotland and returned to his own home ground sometimes after the war for a surprisingly long time when the possibility and the invitation arose.

Where next?

Dunbar RFC History - Chapter 2 Joe Miller was one of the enthusiasts who got the Club restarted and one of his major contributions


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