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History

A HISTORY OF RUGBY IN LETCHWORTH

INTRODUCTION

Letchworth Garden City was founded in 1903. Since then many clubs, societies and associations have flourished in the town. Few of them have been so successful as the Letchworth Garden City Rugby Union Football Club. As the town has developed into a well known example of townspeople dedicated to the Garden City principle so has the rugby club grown into an acknowledged example of sportsmen wedded to the Union code of rugby football.

Legend has it that a club existed in Letchworth before the first world war but proof of this cannot be found. The record shows that rugby began locally in 1924. Next to the taxi rank in town centre Eastcheap is a door with a brass letter box marked “Mr. Bolton”. The Letchworth Rugby Club was founded in the building behind this door. Its early development was plotted in the premises of Botlon and Tabor – both names being closely linked with the Club's progress. The presiding genius behind the inaugural meeting was Arthur A. Lamb, who remained linked to the club for over 60 years.

What a town in which to form a rugby club. Letchworth had not then achieved a recognisable identity. It was known as “the crank's town” by the surrounding populace who greeted anything new within its boundaries with scorn. For rugby men there was no pitch, no clubhouse, no money and, worst of all, no beer. Letchworth was a dry town. The only inn, called “The Skittles”, sold soft drinks. It was to be some thirty years before a licensed house was permitted within the town boundary.

These formidable obstacles were overcome. Today the club has all the essential amenities for rugby enthusiasts – three pitches, a fine clubhouse, some money and a licensed bar. In the hard times between the two extremes the Club was indebted to many people who helped by providing pitches, changing facilities and meeting places. Then, the phrase “by kind permission of –“ prevailed and the Club acknowledges with gratitude the assistance which it received.

THE EARLY DAYS

Of course only one team was possible in the first season and that not always with fifteen players. Who provided the opposition? There were few teams in the locality. The first club match was against R.A.F. Henlow and the airmen won. Other early opponents were Luton, R.A.F. Duxford, Wellingborough and a B.B.C. team which included the well known broadcaster Rex Alston. The Phoenix car manufacturers loaned the club a pitch in Pixmore Avenue. The Balmoral Hotel was used for changing and Nott's restaurant for “afters”.

It was tough going. Letchworth had a shifting population and few rugby players stayed for long. There were some soccer converts who had a lot to learn: the lineouts were hopeless, there was no idea of loose play or binding tight but they persevered. On the brighter side two founder members, M. Dent and R. Copley, were the first Letchworth players to play for the County.

Without attractive facilities, pure enthusiasm was vital. Luckily it was there as it is now. Arthur Lamb was supported by another of steadfast spirit in Claud Skyes. These two were the hardcore workers, inspirers and everything else necessary for the Club's survival. They strove to field a team each week. They hired meeting places – the Nip-in-Café, the Cum-u-in-Café and the Peoples' House – all dry. They unleashed the rugby spirit in to the nearest local pubs. These pubs on the town boundary, the Norton Three Horseshoes and the Wilbury, were alternately glad and sorry for this unexpected beneficence.

COMPETITION

In 1926-7 a ground was secured in Cashio Lane and this was to be “home” for nearly thirty years. Reinforcements began to flow into the district and, with their help, six games were won in the season.

After some seven years the Club could consider a second team. The Letchworth Grammar School (L.G.S.) opened in 1931 and became the first rugby playing school in the Garden City. The headmaster, the late Mr. S. Wilkinson, subsequently declared that the school would not run an Old Boys' team. A nursery for rugby players was thus established and the future looked good. However, it was not going to be quite as easy as that.

In the early thirties the Ascot (now Government Training Centre) had run a team comprised of Welshmen in training there. (Tommy Farr, soon to become British heavyweight champion and fight Joe Louis for the world title worked there and played one game of rugby for Letchworth). This team soon foundered. In 1934, however, one of the premier companies in the town, the British Tabulating Machine Company, formed a club known as the Tabulators. Rugby players who worked for the company played for the tabulators and a very good club it became too. But it did split the town into two rugby factions with strong competition for players.

Some of the best rugby in North Herts was played in the match between the two clubs and the verbal exchanges between rival supporters were also a feature of those days. On the other hand there was cooperation between the two clubs. If one club was without a fixture its members were often able to get games with the other club. Thus, there were many local players who turned out for both clubs.

Both Tabulators and Letchworth shared the benefits of the Grammar School out-put, the first school leavers playing senior rugby in the 1935-6 season. This was a trickle which became a torrent of talent as the school expanded in later years. R. Wagstaff, destined to become a secretary of the Letchworth Club, was among these first school leavers.

So to 1939 when there was great confidence in the future of rugby in Letchworth. Two clubs were fielding two teams regularly. The quality of play had improved enormously. R.A. Wright of Letchworth and many Tabulator players were gaining representative honours. Letchworth had continuity in captaincy with Jack Farmer leading the first team for the fourth consecutive time (not to be equalled until Les Denwood did the same in 1964-8 and then Ian Christensen 1999-2004).

Financially, Letchworth looked precarious. Although the Club had the audacity to charge 2p at the gate (schoolboys free) the bank balance was a mere £7.50. This problem, like many others, would overcome but before it was the events of the next six years gave people more to think about than the fortunes of rugby clubs.

WAR (1939 – 45)

The start of hostilities against Adolf Hitler presaged the end of rugby competition in Letchworth. The Tabulators and the Town Club merged for the duration of the war and played in the Letchworth colours. It was tough going to field a side at all. There was only one side, made possible on many occasions by guest players passing through and local folk on leave. The Scottish cap Murdock was one such guest and D.J. McMyn, also of Scotland and to become that Country's president, assisted with coaching and training.

The names of Lamb and Sykes still dominated but they had the support of Graham Clark as secretary. Graham was a fast, rugged winger with poor sight without glasses and was seen to tackle a post on one notable day. The post appeared to suffer more than he did.

In common with other clubs Letchworth lost some of its players for ever during the war – the roll of honour is witness to this loss. Luckily, other members were more fortunate and came back to assist in the rebuilding of the Club's image.

REVIVAL

The period 1946-8 saw both Letchworth and Tabulators struggling for survival. The loss of many pre-war players added to the travelling and financial restrictions suffered by both clubs (Letchworth recorded a balance of 62p in 1947). Local rugby was in the doldrums. There was, however, one very bright spot. Geoff Kelly, who had played for Letchworth in the thirties, was capped three times for England and he became the club's first honorary life member.

There then occurred two events which provided the lift off to better things. First, Glyn Carter joined the Letchworth club as chairman bringing with him a new enthusiasm and drive. Under him in 1949 the club constituted was laid down. The Club began to surge forward and then the second event. The Tabulators found it impossible to continue and closed down in 1950. Their misfortune was Letchworth's gain. Many Tabulator players moved to the Town Club thus forming a single concentration of rugby in the First Garden City.

The Club was still at Cashio Lane using the pitch and changing rooms by kind permission of Norton Road Secondary Modern School. Committee meetings were held at 32 Souberie Avenue (Claud Skyes' house) and celebrations took place at the Willian Fox and the Norton Three Horseshoes.

The increasing national popularity of the game and a steady influx of talent both on and off the field gradually changed the Club from a struggling one team affair to a thriving force of three teams to be reckoned with wherever they played. The names of Imber, Wagstaff, Collinson, Anderson, Sheridon (J & B), Wardle, Pedley, Tilden, R. Parfitt, Tabor (M & C), P. Clarke and Butch Martin were prominent in this immediate post war period. These people and their colleagues opened the way to the great years still to come.

NEW QUARTERS

The early fifties saw the Club beginning to outgrow the facilities which had been so kindly loaned to it for so long. The expanding fixture list was gradually improving in quality – in addition to the traditional opponents new fixtures were secured with the second strings of senior London clubs and Bedford, with whom a very strong friendship has been forged.

It was time to seek new quarters to permit further expansion. Happily, the impetus of Glyn Carter was augmented by Bill Howells (formerly of Cardiff and a Welsh trialist) who was totally dedicated to the game. These two, aided and abetted by Arthur Lamb, Miles Tabor, Ralph Wagstaff, Gordon Imber and Gordon Collinson explored the means by which expansion could be achieved. They settled on the present Baldock Road location as the best available site on which the Club could grow and prosper.

The Club began to play on two pitches at Baldock Road in 1955. On 15th September 1956, Surgeon Rear Admiral L.B. Osborne C.B., President of the Rugby Football Union opened the clubhouse. After thirty two years Letchworth Rugby Club had achieved independence. In the same year Miles Tabor completed ten years as Club Treasurer.

CHRONICLE OF EXPANSION 1956 – 68

With the move to Baldock Road a much greater effort was required to run the Club. Apart from the organisation of playing activities it became necessary to run a bar, clean changing rooms, light fires, maintain pitches and equipment and prepare teas. A new era of self help had dawned. Finances, or lack of, dictated that the required effort had to be voluntary. It could only come from the Club members and there were some who could always be relied upon to produce the extra effort. The work revolved around people like J. Pedley, C. Phillips, R. Ebden, J. Hill, W. Hedley, H. Jenkins, T. Bailey, B. Barrett, J. Cairns, and Paddy Kilbride. For the first time wives and girlfriends became involved in running the Club – preparing teas – oh! those mountains of sandwiches – repairing jerseys and making touch flags. Since then, it cannot be overstressed just how important has been the contribution of the ladies to the success of the Club.

The new clubhouse had been acquired with the help of a loan from the Rugby Football Union, a donation from the Garden City common good fund and contributions from local firms and organisations. The loan had to be repaid and fund raising became really important. Bill Ward brought a new verve to this aspect of club life introducing many novel events in the search for cash. Nevertheless, money was difficult to come by, so much so that, at one A.G.M. there was serious talk about for players after the games – the exchequer could not afford the customary shandies.

Hitherto Club social events had been restricted to the annual ball, the dinner and an occasional sausage and mash supper. Although too small for the dinner and ball the new quarters enabled socials to be held within Club confines. The vice president's cocktail party was introduced at this time and has remained a popular feature of Club life ever since.

On the field there was new competition for players; not within the town but from new clubs emerging in neighbouring towns. Hitchin founded a club pioneered by the Proctor family and Doc. Haigh. Soon Stevenage, B.A.C. and Royston would field teams; such was the growth of rugby in the district.

This potential drain on the Letchworth Club's playing resources was countered by the numbers of young players leaving the local schools. The traditional Grammar School feed was augmented by Norton Secondary Modern School in both quality and quantity. The Willian School and Knights Templar at Baldock both tried the game for a season but were unable to continue. Further afield, Hitchin Grammar and Alleyne's at Stevenage also took up the sport. Thus, there was to be an ample supply of players for all the clubs in North Herts.

During the next twelve years Letchworth had four successful captains each with his own distinctive style and approach to the game – Les Denwood, Len Arnold, Lem Evans and Dick Cairns. Under their leadership backed by strong administration, rugby in Letchworth was to develop and expand at an unprecedented pace. The major events of this period are set out in the following chronicle.

1956

Seven-a-side rugby was becoming popular. Letchworth organised an evening tournament which was to become an annual event. The trophy was won by the Old Hertfordians (now Hertford).

1958-59
Arthur Lamb became Hertfordshire County President for a three year term.

Five sides were fielded for the first time in Club history.

The sevens team won the Aylesbury tournament for the second successive year and also at Camelot (now Hemel Hempstead).

1959-60
A Colts XV was started which over the years, under the guidance of Jim White, John Albon and Brian Page, was to provide a steady feed to the senior sides.

The Hertfordshire Society of Referees was founded. Letchworth nominated four referees to serve on the panel – W. Vines, J. Gillham, J. Carn and S. Albert.

Under skipper Len Arnold the 1st XV achieved the Club's best ever playing record to date

P W L D FOR AGST

28 25 2 1 421 139

Five players were selected for County honours – L. Evans, P. Hutton, L. Denwood, J. Bridges and G Randle. John Bridges was later to play for Bedford as was Tony Else some years later.

1960-61
The air force base at Chicksands entered the Letchworth sevens tournament with a team drawn from United Stated Air Force and Royal Air Force players. The merging of English rugby with American football expertise was entertaining and productive – they won.

1961-62
Gordon Collinson achieved the unique honour of being the only club member to have been captain, chairman and president.

Letchworth Grammar School won the County Schools sevens (u. 19).

Team: C. Parslow, B. Jones, B. Irving, J. Wisby, R. Sewell, D. Darts, L. Carter, J. Butcher (reserve)

All these players were to become members of the Letchworth club.

The first annual presentation was made of the Parfitt trophy for the Club XV which contributes most to the game of rugby both on and off the field. This trophy was presented to the Club by the late Dick Parfitt in memory of his son Eric, a prominent Club member who was tragically killed in a car accident.

1962-63

The growth rate was so rapid that the clubhouse facilities had to be enlarged. Once again an enthusiastic team led by Jack Whitney and Doug Bell was available to plan the extensions. To Arthur Lamb went the privilege of opening the new clubroom. At last it became possible to hold the annual dinner on club premises and a full build up of Club life began.

1963-64
At this time three games at home had been possible only through the help of Mr. E. John, Headmaster of Norton School, who had once again loaned the school facilities at Cashio Lane to the Club. Now the Club acquired a third pitch at Baldock Road to become self contained on the playing side. The Jack Kelway administration with Bill Hedley and Terry Darlow coped admirably with this phrase of the expansion.

The County sevens were staged at Letchworth for the first time. (The club provided the venue again in 1968).

1964-65

Local schools' rugby reached a new peak. In the County u.15 v. Bucks there were seven players from Norton School – J. Daniells, K. Williams, M. Steele, E. Skalecki, K. Taylor, D. Robertson and D. Brown.

In the same game the Grammar School had three boys – V. Pikal, J. West and N. Bitfield.

Frank Jackman, the Hertfordshire County President, described the Letchworth club as “one of the pillars of our state”.

1965-66

The Club fielded six teams for the first time – all won. The County Colts XV drew eight players from the Club colts.

Norton School won several sevens trophies.

Butch Martin notched 500 appearances for the club. A wonderful record matched by Butch's enthusiastic organisation of the Club bar.

Sunday matches were becoming a feature of the season. International fifteens came to provide exhibition matches. Alec Reeve organised many social games notably against the Bloomsbury Barbarians – a club famous for its recordings of rugby songs.

The game was now so popular that Biggleswade turned out with seventeen players against Letchworth Wanderers. The Wanderers were winning when the “oversight” was discovered.

1967-68

The county sevens trophy came to Letchworth for the first time. The Club had entered a team in the competition since the twenties without success. Les Denwood coached the successful team but because of an accident was unable to play himself. Team:- R. Appleyard, L. Grindal, P. Worboys, M. Paul, M. Swann, J. Truscott, P. Mitchell.

1968-69

The enthusiasm to play for Letchworth was never higher. Four players, Denwood (capt.), Grindal, Rogers and Watt, travelled from Brentwood (100 miles return) each week for the privilege of wearing the Club colours.

The County sevens trophy was retained. Team:- P. Mitchell, L. Grindal, M. Rogers, M. Swann, D. Martin, M. Paul, J. Daniells.

THE LATE SIXTIES AND EARLY SEVENTIES

The expansion of the late sixties relied not only on a good supply of players but also on strong administration. Both were available. The already excellent fixture list was enhanced by John Tye; Jim White and John Bird coped with the secretarial load; Bill Skelding vigorously protected the treasure; Peter Lee and Brian Page put the teams together; Mick Paul and Chris Dando supplied the entertainment; Gordon Mackie operated the bar; Peter Wyer extracted the subscriptions and Bob Worbey took on publicity – a job that was to become increasingly difficult with the change in organisation of the local press and their predilection for the round ball game (shades of the twenties!).

On the playing side the club captain Dave Martin was backed by able captains of the other teams:- R. Smith, R. Worbey, G. Davies, B. Page, K. Taylor, Butch Martin, Les Carter, Eric Thomas, D, Firth and G. Palmer.

At this time Letchworth achieved their biggest ever victory in the Herts Presidents Cup. This was a new competition and the Club were slightly embarrassed by the score.

Terry Godwin writing in the Daily Telegraph under the heading “Letchworth are a big exception” had this to say:-

It is in the nature of rugby players that when they hand out a real drubbing to a side afterwards they derive amusement piling on the scorn in the bar. Letchworth seem to be an exception.

Their 117-0 defeat of Hawker-Siddeley (Hatfield) in the Herts Cup on Sunday will be recorded as a club record with some embarrassment – the conquered had the ill fortune of being able to field only 13 players.

"We felt rather sorry for Hawker-Siddeley”, said a Letchworth official, “but everybody ended up the greatest friends afterwards.

Friendship is one of the pillars at Letchworth. As many North Herts. clubs will confirm Letchworth have done much and are continuing to help develop the game in the county.

Letchworth are justly proud of their reputation reflected in Terry Godwin's article

THE 1970s

Saw consolidation at the club under the chairmanship of Bryan Barrett 1969-80. These were known as the ‘Barrett' years when ‘B' influenced the rugby careers of many young Letchworthians. The playing sides also went from strength to strength with 1st XV captains of the calibre of John Gardiner, John Summerfield, Brian Jones and Alan Jones. Letchworth won the newly instituted merit table several times as well as the Herts Presidents Cup in 1977 and 1978. They also faced Blackheath in the senior Pilkington Cup. Players blossomed at the club in those days and gained county honours as well as going on to play for senior clubs; ‘Copper' Brown and ‘Dabber' Taylor were two Letchworth stalwarts but Paul Freeman, Terry Sell, Andy Jazczak, John ‘Dimps' Daniels and Alan Jones all played first class rugby over this period.

The 2nd, and 3rd were also strong whilst both Graham Steele and Bill Stevenson ran legendary fourth XV's. However it was in Mike Leroys' Wanderers where the team spirit of coarse rugby was to be found with irrepressible characters such as Pete Packard, Richard Kelly, Simon Wheeler, and Keith Elliot made sure the fun never ceased.

Letchworth also undertook some ground breaking tours over the period. They went to New York and New England in 1975, to the Caribbean in 1978 and then New Orleans in 1980. This even led to reports in The Times when the average junior club tour was to Margate and back!

THE 1980s

Saw continued development of the club under the dynamic chairmanship of Roy Dearn 1980-85 under Bryan Barretts watchful eye as President until his untimely death in 1985.

The Letchworth 1st XV continued to be a dominant force in the County. In North Herts there were fierce battles against local rivals BACAVIANS (now merged with Stevenage).

Letchworth enjoyed a 15 year unbeaten run against their rivals as other local clubs Stevenage and Hitchin only merited 2nd XV beatings. Indeed Clive Delamains 2nd XV were unbeaten against all other county opposition on 1982/3 whilst Graham Walkers 2nd XV went a whole year unbeaten.

However the 1980s' playing wise will be remembered for Letchworths epic battles in the Herts Presidents Cup. In the early 80s there were two tussles with Fullerians in the semi-finals which Letchworth unfortunately lost under the captaincy of the irrepressible Ade Thomas. Then under the captaincy of Richie Davies Letchworth played arch rivals Hertford in two successive Cup finals. In 1986 they went down 12-6 after a crucial injury to hooker Rupert Howman. The next year was to be Letchworth's, however as they comprehensively beat their old rivals 18-3 in a thrilling match. This year there was a ‘double bubble' as the Colts also won the County Cup against Cheshunt after being 20 points down at half time. Members of this team – Faithful, Parkhouse, Ward, McCracken, Christensen, Langham, Cooper, and Jordan were all to go to play for the 1st XV in the 1990s.

Letchworth again played Blackheath in the Pilkington following their County Cup win but went down 26-0 in an entertaining game watch by nearly 1000 people.

During the ‘80s Letchworth found they could no longer rely on local schools to solely provide talent and thus mini and junior rugby sections were born. This section has gone from strength to strength (see other panel).

Also during the late ‘80s Letchworth had a strong Colts side thanks to the efforts of Joe Richardson, Chairman, and Jim Proctor, President. The clubs financial affairs were also ably run by the committee under Joe Richardson and then Roger Firth who took over as Chairman at the end of the 1980s.

THE 1990s – 2000

Saw the introduction of League Rugby which changed the fixture lists and not always for the better. Gone were games against Saracens, Bedford, and London Scottish, albeit their 2nd XVs to be replaced by a league system. Many old contacts were lost for the whole infrastructure of the game changed as the 90s wore on.

The game was given a boost in 1991 when the British Isles hosted the Rugby World Cup. Letchworth ran 6 sides for the first time with the ‘Beagles' being added to the Wanderers.

Letchworth started their League career in London North West Three but under Graham Walkers captaincy were promoted to London North 2. Unfortunately competition in this league proved too fierce and relegation followed only a year later. Letchworth also lost out to Tabard in two Cup Semi finals and thus were denied a visit to Croxley Green during the 1990s.

The club narrowly missed promotion on several occasions to London 2 but eventually were relegated to London 4 in 1998. The club enjoyed a very lively social scene under Ian ‘Freddie' Kite chairmanship and also the visit of Wasps for the 70th Season celebrations in October 1993.

Under Kite and then Brian Burke the 3rd XV enjoyed unparalleled success at this time with 1000 points being notched up in 1993.

The minis and junior section continued to grow, however senior rugby was somewhat in the doldrums at the end of the 1990s. The onset of professionalism in the game in 1995 was to the detriment of rugby at junior level. Also a contribution of falling birth rate and just the fact that there were so many other activities to pursue on a Saturday afternoon meant that in common with many other clubs the number of players playing fell by some 40%.

Letchworth are fortunate to be still putting out three senior sides on a regular basis. In other clubs this has fallen to one with others merging or indeed just folding.

2000-PRESENT

The late 1990s saw the birth of ‘B.A.R.' or Business Around Rugby under Brian Burke which brought much needed sponsorships to the Club. From the mid 1990s the Club had been sponsored by Letchworth Roofing who to this day remains the leading sponsors and the Club owes them a big debt of gratitude.

On the playing side things perked up with the arrival of Graham Walker as chairman who teamed up with ex Letchworth Colt Paul Hughes and ex-England U19 player Mark ‘Eddie' Rennell as well as Aussie coach Jock Tiernan to put the 1st XV back into a prominent position in North Herts rugby.

Under the captaincy of Ian ‘The Dane' Christensen promotion from London 4 was won outright in 2000/01. Letchworth then finished second in London North West 3 in 2001/02 and were subjected to a home play off against Essex side Basildon. At 21-0 down after twenty minutes things looked bleak but under Rennells's inspired marshalling Letchworth stormed back to win 32-21 and gain promotion to London North 2 where they have remained for the past two years and are now in third place.

The 1st XV also reached the Herts Presidents Cup final in 2002 but lost to Tabard (now in the National Leagues) 20-0. The following season saw a superb Powergen Cup run beating higher League sides, Harlow, Southend and Camberley before falling to Lydney in the depths of the Forest of Dean. Several players also made the County side. Hughes, Rennell, Parkhouse, Bajak, Spillane and Faamusili.

So at the dawn of 2005 Letchworth R.F.C. still maintains it's poll position in North Herts. rugby. At the recent 80th birthday dinner it was good to see such veterans such as Gordon Collinson, Jack Whitney, Dick Cairns, Roger Firth, and Richey Davies all still involved with the club, whilst the shades of those ‘in absentia' are no doubt looking down from that big Rugby Bar in the sky on the Club's future progress.

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