24 July 2023
From The Vaults
With the Rugby Football Union now in its 150th year, Keith Gregson advises on how you can find out the history of your own rugby clubs.
In a recent blog I noted how fortunate I was as archivist for Sunderland RFC to have access to club records which include minutes, membership books and other documents. By working with these, a newspaper site and a family history site I was able to track down in some detail the players who appeared in the Sunderland 1st XV which won the first Durham County Cup Final in 1881. Just recently I was approached by local historian Chris Sharp whose main interest is in a working class area of Sunderland which fringes on Ashbrooke where most of the Sunderland RFC players lived. He wondered if I knew anything about a rugby side called Sunderland Rovers which had played matches on grounds in the area in which he was interested. I had heard of the club as it had been on the losing side in one of the 1881 cup semi-finals but could add little else. In hope rather than expectation I went to the newspaper and family history sites mentioned above and I am pleased to report that I met with considerable success. I hope this is encouraging to club historians whose club was around in the nineteenth century but has not left significant club records.
Using the online newspaper archive alone I managed to unearth accounts of 15 matches played by the club (mostly by a 1st XV with one or two by a 2nd XV) between November 1878 and the semi -final of the county cup in 1881. The opponents were nearly all recognisable north east rugby clubs although on a number of occasions the Rovers 1st XV played 2nd XVs of 'bigger' clubs - this was particularly the case when playing local rivals Sunderland RFC. This said, the Rovers sides were nearly always successful and lost very few of their matches during the period studied. Perhaps the most interesting match was one with Bishopwearmouth Improvement Association Football club which took place in March 1879. Rovers were victors 3- 0 but the correspondent for the Sunderland Daily Echo noted - 'a considerable amount of time was wasted, and an unpleasant amount of squabbling owing to the ignorance of the rules of the game displayed by the players'. It would be interesting to know which rules were agreed on initially - especially as later in the same year the team later to become Sunderland AFC was founded and initially seems to have ground-shared with the Rovers.
The Sunderland Daily Echo gave regular and reasonably full accounts of games and also published the names of players - often providing an initial as well - especially when there was more than one of that surname in the side. In respect of those who played between 1878 and 1881 I am reasonably satisfied that I have managed to nail down 23 of them with some certainty. The reason behind this confidence will be explained in the methodology section. So far the research has enabled me to draw up the following chart;
|NAME IN PRESS||SOURCE||PROBABLE NAME||DOB||AGE OF 1st GAME||ADDRESS||OCCUPATION|
|R BLACKWOOD||SDE 04/10/78||ROBERT||1860||18||9, PARK PL WEST||COMM CL BRASS FOUND|
|J BLACKWOOD||SDE 04/10/78||JAMES||1862||16||9, PARK PL WEST||COMM CL FORGE|
|F W GREENWELL||SDE 04/10/78||FREDERICK WILLIAM||1861||17||5, PARK PL EAST||SOLICITOR|
|A J GREENWELL||SDE 28/01/1880||ARTHUR JOHN||1863||17||5, PARK PL EAST||later private means|
|J DICKINSON||SDE 04/10/78||JOHN||1858||20||19 PARKPL EAST||?|
|J C DICKINSON||SDE 11/11/78||JAMES CLARKE||1860||18||19 PARK PLACE EAST||DRAUGHTSMAN|
|A A TOFT||SDE 04/10/78||ARTHUR ALBERT||1858||20||6,SALEM STREET||P O TELEGRAPHIST|
|E TOFT||SDE 28/01/1880||ERNEST||1863||17||6, SALEM STREET||?|
|W TOFT||SDE 18/02/79||WILLIAM||1856||23||6,SALEM STREET||P O TELEGRAPHIST|
|F ROBSON||SDE 04/10/78||FRANCIS||1854||24||15, SALEM HILL||later private means|
|O ROBSON||SDE 24/03 79||OCTAVIUS||1860||19||15, SALEM HILL||COMMERCIAL CLERK|
|F NOTON||SDE 1881||FREDERICK||1856||25||32, AZALEA TERR N||SHIP BUILD CLERK|
|T NOTON||SDE 1881||THOMAS||1858||23||32, AZALEA TERR N||SHIP BLD DRAUGHT|
|E BELL||SDE 04/10/78||EDWARD BELL||1860||18||23, ST GEORGE'S SQ||ARTICLED LAW CLERK|
|J HENDERSON||SDE 04/10/78||JAMES||1861||17||THORNHILL GDNS||CLERK IN OFFICE|
|S CARR||SDE 04/10/78||SAMUEL||1859||19||12,NELSON ST||PRINTER/STATIONER|
|S HEDLEY||SDE 24/03 79||SEPTIMUS||1860||19||12, PARK PLACE WEST||MINING ENGINEER|
|E SMART||SDE 28/01/1880||EDMUND||1862||18||8, SALEM STREET||ENG DRAUGHTSMAN|
|J E MORGAN||SDE 04/10/78||JOHN EDWARD||1861||17||19, MURTON HOUSE||SOLICITOR'S CLERK|
|J ELTRINGHAM||SDE 28/10/79||JOHN||1853||26||1,CEDARS||ARCHITECT|
|T ANNISON||SDE 28/01/1880||THOMAS||1862||18||19, ST VINCENT ST||BREWER'S CLERK|
|BEETHAM||SDE 04/10/78||JOHN||1859||19||BULL 7 DOG HOTEL||SHIP BROKER'S CLERK|
From the chart it can be seen that almost half the players were part of sets of brothers. Well over half made their debuts when teenagers - some as young as 16 or 17. Many of their homes were in the same area as those who played for Sunderland RFC - the upper middle class suburb of Ashbrooke. A significant number lived in Park Place, St George's Square and other large terraces. However Salem Street, Salem Hill and St Vincent Street are smaller and probably inhabited by slightly lower middle class families. This slight difference is reflected in the occupations of some of the players and their fathers. As with Sunderland RFC, however, there are no signs of working class players or indeed any teachers; (teachers were putting down the roots of Sunderland Association Football Club around the same time).
Putting the 1881 information together for Sunderland RFC (formed 1873) and Sunderland Rovers (formed 1878) we can come to some conclusions about early rugby in the town and port. The players were in general young; some would be playing colt rugby today. Sets of brothers were crucial to both - at least seven sets between the two clubs. Overall they were also from solid middle class families involved at the upper end of the port's trade and business.
I used two main sites as well as occasionally checking the whole web via a general search engine. The two sites are both pay sites but massive value for money - The Genealogist and the British Newspaper Archive.
The British Newspaper Archive
The main information here is accessed via a single major search engine which can be linked to specific newspapers, regional newspapers, a single date or a range of dates. The immediate outcome of an entry in the search engine is a series of thumbnails from newspapers featuring the words used in the engine. Once clicked onto, the thumbnail leads to a digitised copy of the newspaper with the chosen words still highlighted. The whole process takes a matter of seconds.
In order to access match reports hopefully with the sides listed I entered the words 'Sunderland Rovers' and 'football' into the major search engine ('football' in the 1870s/1880s likely to be more successful than rugby). The years covered were 1878, 1879, 1880 and 1881. This led to many of the matches with players listed frequently with an initial as well as a surname and, on occasions, with full Christian names. After this I chose two regulars with unusual surnames as a combination and entered those into the engine alongside 'football' (Greenwell and Robson) linked specifically to a Sunderland newspaper and remarkably this produced matches which the first engine entry had missed. I now had names to work with.
This operates with a simple yet efficient search engine based on the user's entry relating to person, family or address and linked to a single year or range of years entered for date of birth. With respect to the Rovers' research, the main documents linked to the searches and thus requested were the censuses (of 1871 and 1881) and the indexes to birth and death certificates. A side box allowed me to enter a helpful keyword (in some cases simply 'Sunderland').
Using the family search engine on The Genealogist site I looked for any families called Blackwood in Durham at the time of the 1881 census. There were 11 in all with only three in Sunderland. Only one Blackwood family had two males with names beginning J (James) and R (Robert) as named regularly in the Rovers' 1st XV. In 1881 they were brothers aged 19 and 21, both clerks and living with parents in Park Place West - ten minutes' walk from the ground. According to the census Robert was born in Seaham and James in Norton with the family moving to Sunderland about 1863 judging by the census details of other children. According to the birth indexes Robert Wight Blackwood had his birth registered in Easington, County Durham in 1860 and James Albert Blackwood in Stockton in 1862. Seaham was in the Easington Registration district and Norton in the Stockton district. From such detail and information from the local press I was able to work out how old they were when they made their debuts for the club (as noted in the second blog).
According to the press, a regular member of the Rovers' 1st XV was J E Morgan so I asked the search engine to find a James E Morgan or a John E Morgan or Joseph E Morgan on the 1881 census of Durham born between 1845 and 1865 (1855 + or - 10 years) with a key word of 'Sunderland'. The breadth would allow for players between early teenage and early 30s during the period in question. Only one turned up - a John E Morgan - articled solicitor's clerk age 19 and the son of a shop repairer employing 20 men. His address was given as 19, Murton Street beside the park and a ten minute walk from most of his team mates.
One player described always as J C Dickinson (and once as Jas) played a number of games with J (described once as Jno). Jas C was without doubt James Clarke Dickinson and Jno his brother John - part of a well-known ship engineering manufacturing family living close to the grounds. Returning to the British Newspaper Archive, the entry of James's name into the search engine brought up immediately details of his death (1924), generous charitable will (1925) and the loss of a rugby playing son in the First World War (1917).
Also as noted in the second blog, the obituary of one player noted that he had been captain of Sunderland Rovers.
I hope the inclusion of a methodology is helpful and encourages others to look at the early years of their club's history. The only other advice I would add is to constantly think out of the box when looking for words to enter in the relevant search engines. It is quite amazing what can 'come up with the goods'.
About the Author - Keith Gregson is a regular contributor to 'From the Vaults' and previous blogs on the site may be of interest to researchers. Details of his work on SRFC ('One among Many') and the Sunderland club and the First World War ('The Ashbrooke Boys') can be found on his website at www.keithgregson.com.
09 April 2023