From The Vaults

06 November 2023
Who Was Jack King?

Earlier this year, we were able to show for the first time what we believe to be the oldest footage of an international rugby test-match in existence. It was a match, held at Twickenham, between England and France. It was France's first match at the stadium, which had opened only the season before.

The footage (below) shows the teams running out of the player's tunnel and most of the players have been identified. The great cloud that hangs over our analysis of the lives of most of these men is the Great War that would be declared just three years later. As men of fighting age, most of the players would go on to enlist and serve with the French and British armed forces.

Catching the ball for England, before passing it back to his teammate is the stocky figure of John Abbott King. King, better known as Jack, was born in Leeds on 21st August 1883. He played rugby for Headingley and Yorkshire and was a crowd favourite at both for his ferocious tackling, composed distribution and never-say-die attitude.

He had attended Giggleswick School but had only succeeded in making the school's second XV. His transformation seems to have come when, as a seventeen-year-old, he moved to South Africa. There he developed as a back row forward with first Durbanville and then Somerset West.

He returned to the UK in 1906 and joined the Headingley team. Despite his competitiveness on the field, he was only 5 ft 5 and was given the nickname 'Pocket Hercules'. He was soon selected for Yorkshire, for whom he would go on to play 46 times, often as captain.

England 1910-11

Jack [back row, third from right] was first selected for England during the 1910-11 season and would make his debut against Wales at St Helen's in Swansea. The two evenly matched sides contested a seven try thriller, which the home side eventually won 15-11.

The next match was the one that we can observe in the film above. It was Jack and the French side's first game at Twickenham and it would be Jack that left the field the happier, having helped England to a 37-0 victory. A defeat in Dublin was followed by another home win, this time against Scotland.

King retained his position in the side the following year and home wins against Wales and Ireland put his side within one win of a Triple Crown. 25,000 supporters turned out at Inverleith but things began to go wrong for King and England when, in the twelfth minute, Jack found himself trapped between two forwards and suffered two broken ribs. The irrepressible Yorkshireman was reported to have demanded that he return to the field, despite his injury, but he was overruled.

The loss of King in a time when substitutions were not permitted fatally undermined England's chances and they eventually went down to an 8-3. A win against France meant that England would share the championship with Ireland and King sufficiently recovered to feature again the following year in a season that opened with England's first match against South Africa.

The Springboks would beat England 9-3 but that would be the only time that England would lose that season. Wins in Cardiff and Dublin and two home wins at Twickenham meant that King was part of the very first England side to complete what is now known as a Grand Slam.

The following year, international events would overshadow sporting events. When war was declared, King was working his farm in Ben Rhydding, near Ilkley in Wharfedale. It is said that he accompanied a neighbour to the recruiting centre and offered himself for service on the spur of the moment. His enthusiasm was to be dampened however as at 5 ft 5, he was an inch short of the regulation height. We don't know exactly what happened next but it seems that Jack didn't take no for an answer and three days later he was enlisted into the Yorkshire Hussars.

On 9th August 1916, King and Slocock led the advance across open fields towards the town of Guillemont. There, German machine guns had been brought forward into British shell craters and halted their advance. Neither were seen again. The Guillemont Road Cemetery now lies roughly over the land over which they advanced and King and Slocock's names are recorded in the Thiepval Memorial.