Happy birthday to the Scottish Rugby Union – 150 years old today

Meeting at Glasgow Academy on Elmbank Street in the city marked historic occasion

Scotland versus England at Raeburn Place in 1886 - by WH Overand and LP Smythe
Scotland versus England at Raeburn Place in 1886 - by WH Overand and LP Smythe

WHEN it comes to landmark dates in the long and distinguished history of the Scottish Rugby Union, the 3rd March 1873 … 150 years ago today … to the day … rates right up near the top of any list of significance.

Indeed, there has been unsubstantiated rumours of Mark Dodson being spotted in Tesco Express on Roseburn Terrace late last night buying party-poppers, a three litre ‘easy-pour’ box of vintage Lambrusco and a 72-piece party pack of Mediterranean inspired nibbles, so as to be properly equipped to mark this historic sesquicentenary in style.

It is not surprising that the CEO might (allegedly) be whipping out the company credit card given the significance of the occasion. This is a story that goes back to the roots of the game.


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The [English] Football Association [FA], formed in 1863 and inspired by the success of two ‘district’ matches between London and Sheffield, decided to arrange a match at the Oval cricket ground which it advertised as ‘England v Scotland’ in March 1870. This was rather misleading, as the eleven ‘Scottish’ players all came from the London area, many of whom 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 occasion and so C.W. Alcock, the Secretary of the FA, arranged for another match under the same heading, to be played in November 1870, and on this occasion he wrote to several Scottish newspapers inviting clubs to nominate candidates 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, Thistle, Hamilton and Airdrie – were playing under the FA rules.

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, with the proviso that the team sizes be limited to eleven. “With greater numbers it is our opinion that the game becomes less scientific and more a trial of charging and brute force”.

This provoked an uncompromising response, allegedly from Hely Hutchinson Almond, headmaster of Loretto School on the outskirts of Edinburgh, who was a leading advocate of rugby in Scotland at the time: “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.”

However, the seed had been planted, and on 8th December 1870, there appeared in Bell’s Life in London and The Scotsman the following letter signed by the captains of five senior Scottish clubs.

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 an 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 club 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 n 19th 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

Alcock ignored the letter, but an acceptance of the challenge on behalf of the rugby-playing clubs in the London area was received from B.H. Burns, secretary of Blackheath, and so the match was scheduled to be played at Raeburn Place on Monday 27th March 1871.

And so it began …

To find out how Scotland won that first match in the long series: read: HERE.

 

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It did not take long for the concept of representative rugby to catch on, with the first Edinburgh versus Glasgow inter-city match being played on the 23rd November 1872 at Burnbank, the home ground of Glasgow Academicals.

This was the beginning of a period of rapid growth in the popularity of the game. In March 1873, The Scotsman newspaper noted that –

The number of spectators which two or three years ago would not have exceeded two or three score, can now be reckoned by hundreds, and has necessitated the charging for admission to some of our leading football club grounds, and in one case – the Edinburgh Academicals – the ground had to be fenced round in addition.

And the game was growing in popularity beyond the private schools of Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the 1870s being the decade in which the Scottish Borders first emerged as a stronghold for the sport. Langholm led the way by founding a club in 1871, followed by Hawick in 1873, Gala in 1875, Kelso in 1876, Melrose in 1877 and Jed-Forest in 1885.

Rugby was also growing in England, and the need for some sort of uniformity in the rules led to a meeting of delegates from 21 clubs, almost all from London, at the Pall Mall Restaurant, on 26th January 1871 – and at that gathering the Rugby Football Union was officially constituted and a three man committee appointed to draw up a definitive set of laws – which included the prohibition of hacking. Legend has it that there would have been 22 delegates present but the Wasps representative went to the wrong establishment and decided to stay there.

For several years the issue of “hacking” had been a hot topic in Scotland. In November 1869, The Scotsman had noted that: “The semi-barbarous habit of “hacking” we are glad to see getting out of fashion in this part of the country. Though it was indulged in last Saturday by Craigmount [at that time a boy’s school on the south side of Edinburgh] and Merchiston in their match, the game at Raeburn Place, on Saturday [between the Academy and Merchiston] was conspicuous for its absence.”

Strangely, the report of that match in the same newspaper paints a rather different picture, with hacking apparently being “indulged in somewhat freely” during the final ten minutes.

A week later, Edinburgh Academy and Craigmount were due to meet at Raeburn Place where there was “a large turnout of ladies and gentlemen.” In the preliminary discussion, the captains had agreed that there should be no hacking, but the Academy team refused to play under these conditions and, as Craigmount were under strict orders not to play with hacking, the match was abandoned, with the two sides not meeting again until six years later. At the Academicals AGM in October 1870, “it was agreed that the Club play with hacking but that in school matches it be left to discretion.”

So the RFU’s anti-hacking code wasn’t a complete shock to the system. Indeed, it had become such a contentious issue that the Scottish players and committee men of the day were probably quite relieved to abrogate responsibility to the RFU. And it is generally agreed that the end of hacking was crucial in the spread of the game during the decades which followed.

The crisis over “hacking” and anxiety with how legislation to minimise the threat caused by this unjustifiable aspect of the game may resonate today as rugby wrestles with the potentially catastrophic impact of head injuries.

In this case, the alliance between Scotland’s clubs and the RFU was destined to be a stop-gap measure. The growing popularity of the game north of the border, allied with a desire for Scotland to emulate in its own right the aims and successes of the RFU, meant that the establishment of an independent Scottish governing body was becoming a matter of inevitability.

A meeting will be held on Monday the third of March, in the Glasgow Academy, Elmbank Street, at 1/2-past four o’clock (immediately after the conclusion of the international match), to consider as to the propriety of forming a Football Union in Scotland, upon a similar basis to the Rugby Union in England. All members of clubs playing the Rugby Union Rules are invited to attend.

Public notice placed in Scottish newspapers on the morning of Scotland versus England match at Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow, 3rd March 1873

 

At this meeting, it was agreed that such a union of clubs in Scotland should be formed, with the aim of providing funds for a Cup, bringing into closer connection the clubs then playing, and forming a committee for the selection of future Scotland international teams.

A provisional committee consisting of the captain and one other member of each of the eight original member clubs – Edinburgh Academicals, Edinburgh University, Glasgow Academicals, Glasgow University, Merchistonians, Royal High School F.P., St Andrews University and West of Scotland – was nominated to draw up the bye-laws of this new organisation. These bye-laws would be ratified at a General Meeting to be held before the start of the next [1873-4] season.

Ten days later, on 13th March 1873, about a mile away, another meeting took place in Dewar’s Temperance Hotel on Bridge Street where the Scottish Football Association was born. Within a period of ten days in March 1873, Glasgow saw the birth to both of Scotland’s ‘football’ governing bodies.

The first AGM of the Scottish Football Union [SFU later SRU] was held in Keith & Co’s Rooms, 65A George Street, Edinburgh on Thursday, 9th October 1873, when the idea of running a cup competition was discarded, and it would be another 100 years before any Union run club competition became a reality, with the introduction of National Leagues in 1973.

Once the bye-laws had been dealt with, Wanderers FC and Warriston FC were admitted as member clubs. So while the eight original clubs could be described as founder members, those two clubs could accurately be labelled as original members of the Union.

Warriston did not survive long. It had been formed by some Academicals who were not satisfied with the way their club was being run, but the persuasive efforts of R.W. Irvine – who had played in the first international match and was secretary, treasurer and captain of the club of Edinburgh Academicals at that time – soon tempted those dissident members to return to the fold.

Unlike the RFU, the SFU decided not to extend membership to school sides, which was a bold move considering the central role certain schools had played in the game’s development up to this point. Not surprisingly, Almond of Loretto strongly criticised the decision.

Writing in Marshall’s Football, 20 years later, he deplored the way the game had been allowed to develop to suit the adult player rather than the schoolboy.

The great end of this game … [is] … to produce a race of robust men, with active habits, brisk circulations, manly sympathies, and exuberant spirits. I don’t think I am overstating my charge when I say that they [the SFU] regard it far too much as a means of attracting spectators. That is in itself an evil. When a man is past playing football, which is ten years sooner in the modern game than by the old one, he ought as a rule to be taking hard exercise in some form himself whenever he gets the chance and not spending his Saturday afternoons as a stationary and shivering spectator.


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About David Barnes 3821 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.

2 Comments

  1. Folklore has it that Ealing were with the Wasps delegate that went to the wrong pub, whether there had been an official verbal invitation or the Wasps representative suggested that the Ealing delegate should go along with him is for obvious reasons not clear. Whatever the truth of it Ealing were established members two months after the formation of the RFU and Wasps become members of the union by March 1872.
    It is somewhat ironic that some 150 years later Ealing are still on the wrong end of the RFU regards being denied entry into the Premiership not because they didn’t come top of the Championship but didn’t meet the capacity requirements for spectators.

  2. Fascinating piece. Interesting that there seems to have always been some sort of health issue to respond to!

    Happy birthday SRU.

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