Making a Mark - History of the OHRFC 1923 - 1957

By George Jamieson

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Times Past - The Rugby Club Christmas Tours

by Ken Blessley

In fixture terms, the Club's interest in the West Country probably stemmed from Arthur Jenkins' connections there and the first contacts were with Bridgewater in 1930 followed by Wiveliscombe a year later, and these two Clubs remained on the list, especially at Easter, until the 1970s. However, this brief article is the result of an Editorial enquiry arising from some research in to the Tanner archives where some papers referred to the Christmas tours: were these a regular feature? Fixture cards, programmes, newspaper reports have been examined and contacts made with past captains and veteran players which, added to the writer's fallible memory, have produced a short story of what occurred.

It would seem that the first venture was a Christmas Day match at Taunton in 1933 with a 2.30 p.m. kick-off. David Gooch is the sole survivor of the O.H. XV, which was a mixture of mature 30s with five or six younger players - probably the middle group were unable to get family 'leave'.

There is no information on travel arrangements, probably by train (which, in those days ran - and on time!), nor of any hospitality. A close game, losing 6-8 and presumably an immediate return to London since there was a Boxing Day game where a 'weakened side' beat Streatham 9-8. But this was obviously not a tour.

Apparently there was sufficient player support next year for what was to be a first Christmas tour -Taunton again on the 25th followed by Salcombe on Boxing' Day, Sadly, there are no survivors from the touring party and no reliable record of what happened, how they travelled, where they stayed or what they had for Christmas dinner. However, it is perhaps worth noting that the No 6 jersey was worn by Len Fluke, a master at the School who, for several seasons, was a frequent player in the senior XVs.

The writer is on stronger ground for 1935 since Taunton on Christmas Day was my introduction to O.H. 1st XV football. On a further (and irrelevant) note it so happens that my last game in the 1st XV was also at Taunton on Easter Monday 1949 under Arthur Kerswell's captaincy - and , we won. The reason for my original selection is revealed in George Jamieson's (the then Captain) excellent notes where he mentions the difficulty in raising a side which also no doubt explains why we had a Saracen at fullback for both games. The O.H. squad numbered 17, average age 22 with only two 30 plusses - again, the regular 'family' players understandably didn't get leave.

Cars were then a rare transport feature and so most of us went by train. With about six others, I travelled down on Christmas Eve and, left Paddington about 6 pm, we ran into thick fog arriving in Taunton five hours late, finding our way in nil visibility to the town centre and the Half Moon where we were booked in. Appropriate to those times and our economic circumstances, this was indeed a basic establishment in terms of 'facilities' - minus three stars - and our belated welcome was not all that encouraging - no food available but we were allowed a couple of after hours pints.

Christmas morning in Taunton was not exactly memorable and, having met the rest of the team off the early London train we went to the Priory Park ground for a 2.30 p.m. kick off. It was another close game, losing 6-12, quite creditable as Donald Blessley badly injured a knee after 20 minutes and in those days there were, of course, no substitutes. Taunton provided no hospitality and we went straight off by train to Newton Abbott for a night at the upmarket Globe Inn, 11/6d B & B with Christmas dinner an option.

Boxing Day meant another short train journey to Torquay, again a 2.30 p.m. kick off, this was the first visit by the O.H. to the Athletic's ground. Maurice Daly had had to return to London after the Taunton game but nobly came down again with Ronnie Diggens. Bill Webber of the School (a Devon cap) was due to' play but had to cry off.

Rugby Union was, of course, an amateur game but it was not unusual for Clubs to 'find' jobs for potentially useful, players. Unemployment was very high in the Welsh mining towns and West Country Clubs did from time to time, explore the possibility of recruiting there; Torquay Athletic included. This the O.H. discovered quite quickly as the opposing scrum half was a W.J. (Jackie) Delahay, Bridgend and Wales, with 17 caps between 1922 and 1927 He 'worked' in the Parks Department. So, in 1935, he was still a formidable player and, frankly, out of our class. Indeed, he was a major factor in our crushing defeat 8-59. I was open side and I doubt if I laid a hand on him throughout the game. Moreover, our standoff half was a veteran, Cecil Birch, who had given splendid service to the Club since its earliest days but, even at his -best, not outstanding in defence which he preferred to leave to the back row. He also had a strict-policy-never pass to a forward.

There was no desire to hang about after the game so we were quickly on to the 4.50p.m. train home. Disappointing as these results were, it is only right to mention that on the earlier Easter tour in 1935, the O.H. had beaten Pontypridd.

After these games, the players made it clear that there could be no repeat of a tour on similar lines: we had been below strength, out-classed with negligible hospitality or entertainment. Not really a Happy Christmas. The idea of such a tour was therefore abandoned until for some reason undisclosed it resurfaced in 1952 when matches were arranged against Weston super Mare on the 26th and Taunton the following day.

Enquiries from Roger Parker, the then captain and from several of the teams have not produced ay realistic memories but both games were narrow defeats. As petrol rationing was easing, transport was probably by car but nobody could recall where the stayed. Mention was made of Marlborough as a possibility, hardly likely in view of the location of the two games but if it was so, no doubt the H.Q. would have been the Castle and Ball, better known of course to generations of rugby'' tourists as the Turret and Testicle.

Nevertheless Christmas Rugby did not disappear completely from the O.H. fixture list for on Boxing Day 1936, Jenks arranged a first visit to Weston--super-Mare. Weston were one of the strongest Somerset Clubs with Coventry and Exeter amongst their opponents. They had several county players and two Welsh triallists, one of whom, Ron Price, a, prop forward, was capped twice in 1939. This game involved a day trip leaving Paddington mid-morning, after the customary Christmas Day excesses and arriving at Weston about an hour before kick off, with travel stiffness and perhaps the remains of a hangover. There was also the problem of lunch, whether a snack on the train or hastily at Weston Station which, many players will recall, was immediately next to the ground. 

This perhaps provided a double meaning to a press report stating that 'the O.H. kicked off with a strong wind behind them'. The 1936 side included three full Middlesex caps Jumbo Jackman, Maurice Daly and Roger Parker plus four others who played occasional County games, and a recent School leaver, Charlie Amstein. We lost 5-11 and in the games against Weston that followed, the result was always close with a memorable win in 1947 and a scoreless draw in 1953 which appears to have been the last Boxing Day fixture. However, Weston remained on the list until the late 1960s either on the Easter tour or elsewhere in the season. 

And that's about it. Not really much of a story but, it may inspire a few memories. The weather and the free time available gave no opportunity for any social relaxation or 'happenings' unlike so many Easter tours where, apart from any good recall of the matches, there were often memorable off field incidents some lurid, some dramatic which would surely provide a more entertaining record. 

One final comment, not really relevant but I think worthy of mention, which stems from the scrutiny of the fixture lists. In the late 1960s, the O.H. opponents make really impressive reading and it was probably Alan Cooper who brought this about. These are some of the Clubs played at that period, some more than once: Tredegar; Torquay; Plymouth; Penryn; Falmouth; Camborne; Bridgewater; Weston; Stroud; Cheltenham; Aldershot Services; Oxford; Cambridge; Birmingham; Nottingham; West Hartlepool, and although there weren't many wins there were no real disasters. Currently this list includes teams in National Leagues 1, 2 and 3. In rugby terms, indeed a different world.

Ken Blessley


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