THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS
Some ten years or more before the formation of The Brixham Rugby Club in 1875, a kind of mob football was being played on Furzeham Common. Organized games were played in schools and colleges only (for example, at St.Lukes in 1860).
The town of Brixham then had 150 first class sailing trawlers and over 200 lads apprenticed to the fishing Industry.
One can imagine the scene at Furzeham when adverse weather kept the fishing fleet in the harbour. The robust trawling lads, togged out in dark guernsey frocks and white hob stockings (hence our colours) fetched scaffold poles from the local builder's yard to use as goal-posts. They took turns to inflate a pig's bladder (used as a ball – later covered with leather strips). They formed sides and then kicked off to the lusty shouts of the older fishermen. The umpires, two on each side, did not dare venture on to the pitch, but ran up and down the side lines - even that was indeed hazardous in itself.
The new look came with the arrival in Brixham, in 1873, of the Rev. G R Roberts as curate to All Saint's Church. Fresh out of college and enthusiastic about the rugger game he knew, he soon found himself in the rough and tumble of Brixharn rugby. The game was then played with 20 players on each side, 14 forwards, 3 backs and 3 half-backs. Goals were the only score to be counted in these games, each side having to cross the opponents line to allow a ‘try’ at goal (hence the term try we know today).
During 1874, with the rnan in the street catching on and Rugger Clubs being formed all over the country, Brixham began to sort themselves out and games were arranged with other clubs in the area.
1875 was the year of Rugby Football and the introduction of the 15 man team, a try being allowed to count one point. All this, of course, meant fresh thinking, and at a meeting held at the Bolton Hotel, the Rev. Roberts explained the new rules to an enthusiastic gathering from all walks of life.
At the meeting Mr. W H Balkwill was elected President and Mr. A Banfield was elected Chairman. These gentlemen were backed up by a good working Committee. There seemed a goodly number of young men keen to play Rugby in its new form, and there was no hesitation in electing the Rev G. R. Roberts as Captain.
With the railways now established in South Devon and travel to and from neighbouring towns thus made easy, fixture lists were drawn up; Teignmouth, Newton College and Dartmouth being some of the early games. Rugby Football was now being played almost every Saturday at Furzeham Green, the teams using a hut as dressing rooms and washing themselves down after games with water from a hosepipe.
It would seem from the following newspaper report that the Brixham lads had built up quite a reputation for themselves and also that the Rev. Roberts was no mean fellow with whom to tangle.
"Newton College V Brixham"
December 1st, 1876.
"Leading Brixham Rugby Football team as Captain when it turned out against Newton College on Saturday was the Rev. G. R. Roberts. During the match, in which the Brixham forwards proved themselves very weak and almost completely lacking in dash, the Brixham Vicar saved the reputation of the 15 for offensive play by scoring the only Brixham tries of the game. Despite this Newton College won by 2 goals to 2 tries".
"The Brixham team was:- Dames - Hamlyn - Turner - Searle - Martin - Carlile - Cobley - May - Rev. G R Roberts (Captain) - Collier - Ryder - Salisbury - Burden and C G Searle, one player proving reluctant to having his name mentioned".
It would be right to mention however that Newton College at that time was one of the great sides, captained by the great Massey who formed the first Devon side to beat Somerset in 1876. One often hears of Rugger enthusiasts referred to as fanatics. By all accounts Mr Massey who came from Colyton in East Devon must have been the daddy of them all.
The formation of the Devon Rugby Football Union in 1877 enabled Clubs such as Brixham to send any player they thought fit to attend the County Trials. However it was not until 1889 that J.Middleton brought the first County Honours to the Brixham Club.
It was all rugby now. At the fish market, shipyards and rope walks one talked of little else. The Brixham side, mostly fishermen, often found it difficult to get to games, and often when sailing smacks were becalmed players launched away the small boat and rowed (sometimes a mile or more) to the nearest point to the Rugby ground - arriving in rough sea garb just in time for the kick-off.
The Brixham team of 1895 comprised 8 Fishermen (Boon, Bully, Crang, Eddy, Sanders, Tribble, Youlden and the captain - Eales Bartlett); 4 others associated with the fishing industry - Hall and Medway (shipwrights), Harris (rope maker) and Lamswood (block and spar maker) - plus George (a mason), Silley (a carpenter) and Cox (a tailor).
These players were very keen and always gave of their best, well knowing there were no excuses for a lax game, there always being a number of young men eager to gain the honour of playing for Brixham. They also had to answer to their Captain, Eales Bartlett and Team Manager "Little Bully" Jack Sanders. Bartlett later joined the Torquay Club where Pat Kitto, a former team-mate, was already a member.
The Brixham rugger games were now being played at New Park, an enclosed field at Rea Barn, large crowds paying for admission, with such men as Dr Elliot, Lew Stockman, Samuel Fox Dugdall and Samuel Drew, to mention but a few men of great calibre, who were looking after the well-being of the Club. Anyone wearing the black and white badge in their lapel or guernsey frocks was a proud man indeed.
By the turn of the century the Devon Clubs were divided into Senior and Junior groups. Brixham, to their disgust, finding themselves in the Junior section. But by the year 1905, now well established at Great New Park and well guided by a strong Committee, Brixham Rugby Club moved to Senior status by winning the Devon Junior Cup.
There could have been very few towns as Rugby-minded as Brixham. At every home game the Town Band marched from Bolton Cross to the ground followed by cheering supporters. In the year 1908 Mr. H M Smardon was elected to the Committee of the Devon Rugby Union on which he served for 55 years, being President in 1913 -14 and 1938-9 and also being the longest serving member of the D.R.U.
Brixham were now playing the leading Clubs of the County and giving a good account of themselves, W. Dodd bringing County honours playing against Somerset in 1912. A newspaper report of the game commented that "W. Dodd crashed over with a try". Another newspaper account of a match in 1974 stated that "M. Dodd crashed over with a try" (this was his grandson).
During the 1913–14 season Brixham swept all before them, losing but one game - the Semi Final of the Devon Senior Cup. They played 28 matches; won 24 drew 3 and lost 1. Points for: 469 - against 133.
The 1914-18 war years brought rugby to a standstill in Brixham. ''Get the ball back, take it with you Brix! set en alight the Black and Whites" gave way to grim military commands at Great New Park as young men in drab Khaki prepared themselves for the task ahead. With the ending of the war rugby minded men returning from the services were soon got together by former committee men backed up by a strong supporters Club. The lusty cheers were once again resounding around the Rea Barn area.
The following season the inhabitants of Brixham suffered severely from an epidemic caused by the Rugby Bug, which was brought to its climax with a mass exodus to Plymouth where their idols were matched against the mighty Albion for the Devon Senior Cup. The result being Plymouth Albion 5 points, Brixham 4 points, the referee leaving the ground a nervous wreck.
The forthcoming reason of 1921-22 was to see the Brixham Rugby Club at its zenith, being the proud owners of their ground with a new stand and changing room opened by Mr H. M. Smardon
Many players of this now great Club were to don the green and white of the County, among them young Bill Foot, the youngest player ever to play for Devon.
Then, the greatest of all days, in March 1922 Brixham were matched against Torquay Athletic in the Final of the Devon Senior Cup at Newton Abbot, the headquarters of the Newton Rugby Club. The Recreation Ground was filled to capacity, the more active taking to the branches of surrounding trees. The kick-off was delayed for a few minutes while two little girls (The Disney sisters) leading a black and white goat (the club's mascot) presented the team Captain, the mighty Campbell, with a horseshoe.
The result of this very exciting game was Brixham 1 try, 3 points Torquay Athletic nil. Jack Blackmore, at the base of the scrum for Brixham, going over in the corner on the blind side.
The 2000 Brixham supporters at the game were brought to a state of nervous tension, fingernails being chewed almost away. Torquay, finding it impossible to break the Brixham defence, did their utmost to win the game by taking drop-kicks at every opportunity, the drop counting four points. However it was a wildly rejoicing crowd at the Bolton Cross that Saturday evening, March 25th,, the town band playing "See the Conquering Heroes Come" as the hard-tyred charabanc carrying the victorious team rounded the corner.
Schoolboy Rugby flourished in Brixham mainly through the National School in Bolton Street. After leaving school at the age of l4 years, would-be young rugby players, being reluctant to wait to join the Brixham RFC, formed the National School Old Boys' Rugby 15 in 1922.
Skippered by Jimmy Merchant, later to gain more Devon Honours than any other Rugby player in the County, this Old Boys' side was to become the forerunner of Devon Junior and later Colts Rugby, Schoolboy International Honours going to J. Babb (England 1923) and J. Pitman (England 1929). 1931 saw six boys from the National School in the Devon Schoolboy team.
The good ship BM15, as the Brixham Rugby Club later became known, seemed to be sailing along with fair wind and white fleecy clouds. The Twenties saw the two great Devon Senior Cup Finals of 1926-7 when at Exeter, Brixham met Barnstaple, The first game was a draw - 3 points each, Barnstaple winning the replay by 11 points to Brixham's 3 points. These games drew immense crowds from all over the County.
More Senior Cup finals followed. In 1929-30, Brixham met Teignmouth at Torquay, losing by 6 points to 3 points. Brixham went on to win the Cup in 1932 beating their near rivals Paignton by 5 points to nil.
The Brixham Seconds were also going great guns, winning the Devon Junior Cup at Exeter in 1934.
It was in 1933 that Brixham lost the Cup to Sidmouth at Torquay by 3 points to nil. It was a case of the old story of taking opponents too lightly and this was incidentally the last of the great Finals for the Devon Senior Cup.
In the early Thirties the whole country was in a sea of depression and Brixham, a working town, was being hit very hard. The fishing fleet was down to but a few vessels and there was no more the sound of caulking hammers echoing around the harbourside nor the shout of "up she rises" from the shipyard as shipwrights sent yet another stout Brixham smack down the ways. This almost standstill position brought financial difficulty. Rugby players were coaxed away to other Clubs. There was, of course, the ever-beckoning finger from across the bay.
The good ship BM15, reefed down in heavy weather, with a depleted crew, came under the watchful eye of Mr. Bernard Astley, a gentleman whose quiet work behind the scenes of sport more often than not went unheralded. Through help given by Mr. Astley, Great New Park was conveyed to the Brixham Urban District Council in October 1933, for the furtherance of the greatest of all ball games - Rugby Football.
In appreciation the name Astley Park was given to the headquarters of the Brixham Club. Soon, however dark clouds of a more sinister nature loomed on the horizon and in 1939, when the first games of the season should have started, it was again time for battle dress.
Returning to civilian life after the war, former Brixham rugger players got together and, following a Meeting at the Church House in l946 presided over by Mr. Len Bubeer, fixtures were arranged and soon the Black and White burgee BM15 was once again seen flying above Astley Park.
During the late forties and early fifties, under the captaincy of Jimmy Merchant, Brixham was rated as one of the strongest clubs in the West of England. Many players were once more gaining County Honours for the Club and fair crowds were lining the rails.
By the earty sixties Brixham, along with other Sports Clubs, began to feel the chill blast of the wind of change. Television kept would-be supporters at home and Clubs suffered financially. At Brixham Rugby Club, having been brought to a low ebb by 1965, it was realised that unless a new course was set the vessel would end up on the rocks.
The Committee in their wisdom invited a few well-known Rugby enthusiasts to a Special Meeting at the Club House. The Chairman pointed out that although the Club was at an all time low level, both financially and in senior playing strength, the one bright light shining through the gloom was the under 18’s team known as the Colts. These lads, looking out for themselves and with a limited number of players, were playing entertaining Rugby and winning games. This one bright light was all that was needed for with added strength to the Committee, money guaranteed, plans were approved and new showers, changing and recreation rooms were built. The introduction of more social life brought more would-be young Rugger players to this "new look" Rugby Club.
It was with a tremendous shout of "lee OH", the helm hard over, that we were soon bounding along, "big jib" and "foresail" billowing out, everything bearing equal strain. The former Colts were now playing in the first 15, and although still very young for senior rugby were taking on the might of the Devon Clubs and getting mauled.
They were, however, encouraged by the many letters received, congratulating them on their approach to the game and their smart appearance - for all our players had been newly fitted out. It was the courage of these young players that brought headlines in the Sports Press that "the Brixham Rugby Club shows the way". Their light of Nil Desperandum must certainly have been a morale booster to other struggling Sports Clubs in the South-West.
Becoming more mature, and with experience gained the hard but only way, the 1968 - 69 season saw the Colts that were taking on the best and giving a good account of themselves, winning 75% of their games.
Now with the coming of our Centenary 1974 - 75 season we can look back with pride. 31 of our young players have donned the green and white of Devon, Devon Youth and Devon Colts within the past ten years. Astley Park, now with its well appointed Club House, full flood-lighting, enthusiastic Committee and our hard working but happy ladies, caters for an average of 70 players and visiting officials every Saturday afternoon, each being served with a hot meal on well laid-out tables in the recreation room. With the coming "womens lib" the ladies now venture from the kitchen and have even been known to don the Black and White strip.
Ralph Gardner, President, 1975
PS It would take many pages to list the names of stalwarts down through the hundred years. There have been so many but to those still with us and those we only know through old photographs …
THANK YOU - AND THANK YOU AGAIN - FOR THIS GREAT HERITAGE