150 years ago today … the letter which changed rugby union forever

When the captains of five senior Scottish rugby clubs challenged their English counterparts to game of rugby, they laid the foundations of the sport we know today

The Scotland team for the first ever international match against England at Raeburn Place in 1871
The Scotland team for the first ever international match against England at Raeburn Place in 1871

IT was 150 years ago today that a letter was written which changed the course of the sport we now call rugby union forever.

Published two days later – on 8th December 1870 – in Bell’s Life in London (an English weekly sporting paper published as a pink broadsheet between 1822 and 1886) and The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh, and signed by the captains of five senior Scottish clubs, the communication addressed misgivings that two previous ‘international’ matches between Scotland and England were not fully representative of sporting ability north of the border, and sought to rectify the situation.

Sir,

There is a pretty general feeling among Scotch football players that the football power of the old country was not properly represented in the late so-called International Football Match. Not that we think the play of the gentlemen who represented Scotland otherwise than any good – for that it was so is amply proved by the stout resistance they offered to their opponents and by the fact that they were beaten by only one goal – but that we consider the Association rules, in accordance with which the last game was played, not such as to bring together the best team Scotland could turn out. Almost all the leading clubs play by the Rugby code, and we have no opportunity of practicing the Association game even if willing to do so. We therefore feel that a match played in accordance with any rules other than those in general use in Scotland, as was the case in the last match, is not one that would meet with support generally from her players. For our satisfaction, therefore, and with a view of really testing what Scotland can do against an English team we, as representing the football interests of Scotland, hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England, to play us a match, twenty-a-side, Rugby rules either in Edinburgh or Glasgow on any day during the present season that might be found suitable to the English players. Let this count as the return to the match played in London on 19 November, or, if preferred, let it be a separate match. If it be entered into we can promise England a hearty welcome and a first-rate match. Any communications addressed to any one of us will be attended to.

We are, etc.,

A.H. Robertson, West of Scotland FC
F. Moncrieff, Edinburgh Academical FC
B. Hall Blyth, Merchistonian FC
J.W. Arthur, Glasgow Academical FC
J.H. Oatts, St Salvator FC, St Andrews

The captains had a point. In March 1870, the Football Association in England, inspired by the success of two ‘district’ matches between London and Sheffield, had decided to arrange a match at the Oval cricket ground which it advertised as ‘England v Scotland’. This was rather misleading, as the 11 ‘Scottish’ players all came from the London area, and many had extremely tenuous links with the country they were representing. It was rumoured that one qualified because of his admiration for whisky and another because he went north every year to shoot grouse.

This did not detract from the success of the match, so C.W. Alcock, the secretary of the FA, arranged for another game under the same banner to be played in November 1870, and on this occasion, he wrote to several Scottish newspapers inviting clubs to nominate players for a Scottish XI. However, this only produced one player, who had already moved to London for business reasons, which was not surprising given that only four clubs – Queen’s Park (1867), Thistle (1868), Hamilton (1869) and Airdrie (1870) – were playing under the FA rules at that time.

After the match, a letter in The Scotsman newspaper suggested that Scotland’s rugby clubs should send ten of their players down to join the same number in London to challenge the FA. The challenge was quickly accepted by Alcock, with the proviso that the team sizes be limited to 11. “With greater numbers it is our opinion that the game becomes less scientific and more a trial of charging and brute force,” was the rationale.

This provoked a letter from H.M. (later identified as Hely Hutchinson Almond, a Scottish physician, politician and pioneering headmaster of Loretto School) who retorted: “Mr Alcock is a very leading supporter of what is called the ‘association game’ which is to Rugby football or whatever its detractors may please to call it as moonlight unto sunlight and water unto wine.”

Not surprisingly, Alcock ignored the letter, but an acceptance of the above challenge on behalf of the rugby-playing clubs in the London area was received from B.H. Burns, secretary of Blackheath (and incidentally a former pupil of the Edinburgh Academy), and so the match was scheduled to be played at Raeburn Place on Monday 27 March 1871.

From little acorns do mighty oaks grow. This was the conception of international rugby, the central foundation upon which the sport we know today was built.

  • Abridged from ‘The Accies: The Cradle of Scottish Rugby’, the story of Britain’s oldest rugby club. Hardback copies still available. Email [email protected] for more details.

50 games that defined Scottish rugby: part one

About David Barnes 2993 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.