From The Vaults

04 January 2021
A Sunderland Discovery!

We're starting 2021 off with an exciting discovery for Sunderland FC and the wider rugby community...

1881 Sunderland rugby team. 15 players seated and standing. Trophy in the middle.

This photograph shows the Sunderland team which won the inaugural Durham County Cup in March 1881. Seated on a reversed chair in the middle row, second from left, is Alfred George Milbanke Hudson (1855-1908), who scored two of the three tries which secured the challenge cup. In September 2020, a complete rugby kit belonging to Alfred resurfaced in the home of his direct descendants. It is in pristine condition, and it is tempting to speculate that this kit could be the very one seen in this 140-year-old photograph.

Alfred played for Sunderland FC between 1875 and 1885, his older brother Ralph having been a founding member of the club in 1873. Alfred also played for Durham County on three occasions during the 1876/7 season. Although he played as a back with Sunderland, he played among the forwards for Durham. He maintained connections with his club, later serving as secretary, treasurer and committee member at Sunderland.

This year, Alfred's great-granddaughter began researching the old rugby kit treasured by the family. Her online search led her to an article featuring the 1881 photograph. The author was Keith Gregson, a social and sporting historian affiliated with Sunderland's Ashbrooke Sports Club [and regular contributer to this blog]. Members of the family organised a video call with Keith shortly after and they revealed this historic kit.

The entire kit is in remarkable condition. It includes a shirt, shorts, undershorts, socks, three caps, a knitted scarf and a sash - almost all in club colours. Reference to old photographs such as this one below, taken in 1874 and featuring Alfred's brother (seated second from left), give an idea of how some of these items would have been worn.

1874 Sunderland team. 13 players seated and standing.

The provenance is undisputed - Alfred's kit has been kept all this time in a chest with some of his other Victorian clothes, many of them marked with his initials. Kept away from the light, the 140-year-old kit has retained its vibrant colours.

Keith says:

'This is such an exciting discovery. When I was running the mini rugby section of the club in the 1990s, my wife was the 'kit lady' and the house was full of shirts and socks. Incredibly they looked no different from Alfred's kit which is now about 140 years old. It would seem that the Durham Challenge Cup is one of the rugby world's longest running club knock out competitions. To think that we still have in pristine condition a set of kit which might have been worn during the very first final is quite breath-taking'.

World Rugby Museum Curator, Phil McGowan, says:

'This is the oldest complete set of club kit that we have seen. It appears to be in immaculate condition which is testament to the care and attention shown to it by the Hudson family. Sunderland Rugby Football Club then and now exists at the heart of its local community and this find is a wonderful link to the past and a symbol of continuity over 140 years.'

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