From The Vaults

28 November 2022
A 19th century club match

One of the joys of researching in a museum is finding an item that has perhaps not been touched or looked at for a very long time. Such an item in the collection of the World Rugby Museum is the programme for a rugby match between Cambridge University and Blackheath played 125 years ago at the University Ground in Grange Road on Saturday 20 November 1897.

The history of the annual matches between Oxford and Cambridge Universities dates back to February 1873 and this match against Blackheath was played just under a month before the scheduled varsity fixture against Oxford University to be played at Queen's Club in London on 15 December 1897.

Blackheath had sustained their first defeat of the 1897-98 season on 13 November when they lost narrowly to Oxford University at the Rectory Field by 5-3 but such a competitive game exacted a toll. Three significant changes were required in the Blackheath side to face Cambridge a week later. Their star centre, the England international Percy Royds, had broken his elbow against Oxford and their try scoring international winger John Fegan and their future England forward Philip Jacob were both ruled out of the Cambridge match through injury.

The sides took the field at Grange Road at 3.00pm with the referee Mr EV Gardner in attendance. He was accompanied by two touch-judges, WP Carpmael, illustrious founder of the Barbarians rugby club, for Blackheath and the Trinity College student JG Fordham for the University. There was just one late change in the Blackheath forwards with the former Cambridge University and England captain Frank Mitchell replacing C Parker.

The Cambridge Daily News described the crowd as "the largest ever seen on the ground" and noted that the Blackheath team contained a former Cambridge student, JR Bulloch, who had never played rugby while at the university but had earned great renown since as a "famous weight putter".

Cambridge XV, 1897

Cambridge had lost just one match that season and they began strongly gaining a significant advantage early in the first half when the Blackheath captain, the forward C Dixon, suffered a facial injury and had to leave the field. Some excellent passing led to a scrum in the Blackheath '25' after 18 minutes from which the Cambridge centre Rutland Cumberlege scored a try converted by his fellow Trinity College forward John Argentine Campbell, capped once for Scotland in 1900 and fated to die in the battle of Cambrai in December 1917. Cumberlege's brother, Barry, would win four Blues and captain Cambridge before the 1st World War. He played full back for England after the war and then become a distinguished referee taking charge of 16 international matches.

Blackheath came back into the match and scored a try through their forward William Mortimer after 30 minutes of play. This was converted by Mitchell after which Dixon returned to the field to great applause from the crowd. It was a 15-a-side match again. Blackheath continued to press the Cambridge defence and their twenty-one year old right winger, GC 'Tot' Robinson, scored a fine try. Mitchell couldn't convert the try but Blackheath retained their three-point lead up to half-time. Robinson had won two caps for England earlier in the year while playing for Percy Park in Northumberland and he had scored tries in both matches. He would go on to become one of the finest wingers pre-World War One, scoring eight tries in eight internationals between 1897 and 1901 including six tries in his first five internationals.

Cambridge attacked vigorously when the match restarted and their efforts were crowned mid-way through the second half with a try by their own right wing William Pilkington converted by Campbell to give Cambridge a two-point lead. For the remainder of the game Cambridge kept Blackheath pinned down near or in their '25' and the right wing pair of Pilkington and Cumberlege were described as the stars of the Cambridge team. Their efforts enabled Cambridge to retain their slender lead and, despite some close calls, to end the match as winners by 10 points to 8.

The 1897 varsity match was played at Queen's Club, Kensington just a month later on 14 December in front of 6,297 spectators who paid at the turnstiles. Just one Cambridge player from the match against Blackheath was not selected for the varsity match. Sydney Bell, half back in three of the four tests on the British tour to South Africa in 1896 and captain of the Cambridge side in the varsity match the previous year, had broken his collarbone in the match against Cardiff on 1 December. He was replaced by the Scot Maurice Black who played in both the 1897 and 1898 varsity matches and, as a member of the Royal Flying Corps, died in an aerial dogfight in the 1st World War in February 1917.

The consistency created by a largely unchanged side did not help Cambridge in the 1897 varsity match. Oxford were captained by the experienced Scotland full back Allan Smith, playing on the wing in his fourth varsity match, and the Oxford pack was regarded by the pundits as being strong and mobile. Cambridge managed to keep their line intact in the first half but their threequarters were unable to create any scoring opportunities. Relentless pressure finally told when Oxford crossed for two tries early in the second half and they held on to win the match by 6 points to nil.


  • Blackheath Rugby Football Club Records 1875-1898 (Blackheath RFC 1898)
  • The Bowring Story of the Varsity Match - David Frost (Queen Anne Press 1988)
  • The Club - Life and times of Blackheath FC - Dave Hammond (MacAitch Publisher 1999)
  • Oxford v Cambridge - Howard Marshall (Clerke & Cockeran 1951)
  • 150 Years of Cambridge University Rugby Football Club - Editor: Rob Cole (Sporting Eric 2021)
  • Newspapers: Cambridge Daily News - Sporting Life - Sportsman

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.