Saturday, December 03, 2022

The first ever rugby union match - on Peckham Rye in 1871

Peckham Rye has a long sporting history - birth place of running clubs South London Harriers and Blackheath Harriers, early site for Gaelic Athletics Association sports and much more. More recently a place for various kinds of football -  soccer, rugby, American football and  Australian rules football, and lets not forget Peckham Rye parkrun.

But it seems that it may have a particular claim to fame as the location of the very first match played under rugby union rules.

It seems impossible to say when the first game of rugby football took place.  In the early 19th century there were various local forms of football being played in different schools and places, with no common rules. The variation developed at Rugby school was only one of them, and when the Football Association was founded in 1863 it agreed rules based on most players not being able to touch the ball with their hand - the start of modern 'soccer'. Some clubs split away as they wished to continue the rugby style game, with players allowed to pick up the ball and run with it. But still there was no one agreed set of rugby rules until the Rugby Football Union was founded and codified the rules of the game in June 1871. Two Peckham-based clubs - Lausanne and Gipsies - were among the  21 founding clubs.

The 1871-72 season started on 30 September 1871 and the Sporting Life listed six matches scheduled for that day including one on Peckham Rye between Football Company and Harlequins. 

It is not clear whether all of these were played under the new rules, and a report of the Peckham Rye match in the Sportsman (4 October 1871) states very specifically that 'This was the first match where the play was under the Rugby Union Rules, and they worked admirably, more especially having the ball down at once, and thus preventing the long and serious mauls so complained of in the London-Rugby game'.

The match was also reviewed in a separate report in the same paper on 7 October 1871: 'The football season was inaugurated on Saturday in various suburban localities, but the first match which I will notice is that between the Harlequins and the somewhat pretentiously designated "Football Company", a new association, playing, as I understand, under the Rugby Union rules'. It appears that the Company, 'having their headquarters at Peckham Rye' were declared victorious but fascinatingly neither report thought to mention the score.

The Football Company was apparently an occasional side set up by members of the more established Gipsies. The former had their HQ at the Prince Albert (presumably the now closed pub on Consort Road), and the latter at the Kings Arms on the Rye. Lausanne FC were based at the Rosemary Branch on Southampton Way (source: Black & Blue 1871). None of these Peckham rugby clubs or pubs survives.

[news stories found at British Newspaper Archive]

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