CHARTING THE CHEQUERED HISTORY OF RUGBY UNION IN PENRITH …
RUGBY union in Penrith has had a long, lively but chequered history, divided into two distinct chapters — the first ending in a controversial fade-out of the game on town fields, and the second much sounder, longer-lasting and, indeed, still packed with promise for the future.
There was a stuttering start. The Penrith Wasps played a primitive form of the game in the 1870s, on the Mill field — initially without goalposts — but rugby union was put on a firmer basis when, in 1882, a schoolmaster named Alex Laing called a meeting at 36 Great Dockray, the office of solicitor Samuel James Kilner.
This led to the launch of a town club, under the presidency of Hamlet Riley, Ennim, Blencowe, a squire-like figure, known to be supportive of all sports. Play began on the Foundry field, although the pitch was later transferred to land at Pategill and eventually to Kilgour’s field.
The fielding of a fully representative Penrith team was delayed by the existence of two rival clubs, under the titles of Inglewood Wanderers and Carleton Rovers, but the three eventually amalgamated into Penrith United and an era of great success loomed, with crowds of between 800 and 1,000 cheering their heroes to victory. The atmosphere at Kilgour’s field could be decidedly partisan; loyalty to the town and the club sometimes flared into bouts of violence on the touchline.
Season 1890-91 was one of the most successful, for the United reached the final of the Cumberland Cup, playing Aspatria on the Carlisle ground. Hundreds of excited spectators accompanied the teams.
One newspaper reported: “The United were very unfortunate early on in the game in losing Green, their best threequarter and one of the smartest players in Cumberland. The forwards had to be weakened to fill the gap but, in spite of this, the Penrith forwards held their own.”
Under the old rules, Penrith were beaten by five minor points to nil. Even so, the season was a memorable one, for out of 22 matches, the team won 17, lost four and drew one.
Among the outstanding players of the 1890s was George Bell, a speedy threequarter who captained the team. His abilities were recognised when he was chosen to play for Cumberland against Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Dublin County and Ulster Province. In 1900 he was one of the contingent of Penrith Volunteers who went out to South Africa to fight in the Boer War, returning to the town — and the captaincy of the team — about a year later.
Another Penrith player who gained county honours was A. J. Richardson, who began his sporting career as an association football player but found his niche as a rugby threequarter and sprinter. “Once he makes tracks for the goal-line he takes a lot of stopping,” observed a sports reporter.
Another well-known rugby club figure of the 1890s was John “Webby” Murray, who was also something of a star of the cricket field. When his playing days were done, “Webby” was one of the keenest followers of all Penrith sport, up to his death in the 1950s.
A progressive decline in the fortunes of Penrith United, during the 90s, was due to a situation which was outside the club’s control, namely the onset of Northern union rugby, the forerunner of rugby league, which was mainly a professional sport. West Cumbrian clubs, with whom Penrith had many fixtures, were attracted, one by one, into the new version of the sport. By the time the 20th Century dawned, Penrith was one of only three RU clubs in Cumberland.
On account of the lack of fixtures, interest waned and the Herald described the club as being in “a somewhat decrepit condition”. The sports reporter added: “One looks with hesitation at the prospects of the club being continued for another season. Certain it is that such a thing will be impossible if the present conditions are not improved, for to obtain support a club must at least give its patrons a fair amount of success.”
Because of lack of fixtures, some players deserted the club to play association football. Interest in rugby union in town “dwindled almost to vanishing point”.
Twenty-three men signed a requisition calling for an emergency meeting and their wish was granted when members assembled at the Red Lion Hotel, the headquarters, “to consider the advisability of joining the Northern union”.
There was clearly a lot of backing for the bold venture, but the president, Hamlet Riley, spoke out strongly, deprecating any link with Northern union. As a man who had known only amateur sport, he said that the Penrith team of the time might take no pay, but that did not bind their successors. He warned that in the course of two or three years they might have a team of professional players.
H. D. S. (Harry) Ingledew represented the majority view, however. Formerly a supporter of rugby union, he had been forced to alter his opinion. He felt they must make the move to Northern union to keep up the club’s position in the county and to satisfy the members.
The move for a change-over was approved, but at some cost. Hamlet Riley resigned as president, to be followed by the joint secretaries, J. J. Bewsher and a Mr. Kirkpatrick.
The sequel to this mini-controversy was a sorrowful one, for Penrith United’s venture into the Northern union game, as members of the Cumberland Senior League, was doomed to failure. With Workington, Whitehaven, Wath Brow, Seaton, Maryport and Aspatria as their opponents in the opening season of 1900-01, the newcomers could not register a single win; moreover, they scraped together a mere 24 points while their rivals’ combined total was 264.
Lack of experience was blamed by the Penrith club who plunged back into the fray in 1901-02, but again with heartbreaking results. Facing an appalling playing record and a debit balance of 8s 11d, and with 14 vice-presidents indicating that they would no longer support the club, the committee called a special meeting at the Railway Tavern and recommended disbandment. When the dramatic measure was rejected by a majority of the small number who attended, secretary H. W. Newton and team captain J. C. Broughton both tendered their resignations.
The club’s days were numbered, however. Members reassembled a week later and reluctantly agreed to the wind-up of activities. “The task of running a club with neither money nor members is not the easiest thing in the world,” commented the Herald wryly.
AIR OF MYSTERY
In one of the last Northern union matches to be played at Penrith, the players wore black armbands as a tribute to H. D. S. Ingledew, the man who succeeded Hamlet Riley as president following the change-over. An air of mystery surrounded his death by drowning in Horse Shoe pond, on Skirsgill farm, to the west of the town. The inquest jury returned a cautious verdict of “found drowned”.
The 1914-18 war delayed the revival of the handling code and it was not until season 1921-22 that a new Penrith club fielded a team on the Foundry field. The line-up of players for the first match of the new era — a defeat by 15-3 at Cockermouth — was D. Alderson; C. Wilson, R. Howe, J. Murray, C. Clark; E. Arnison, J. Thorburn; A. T. Potter (captain), T. G. Askew, D. M. Edington, Q. Little, R. G. Edwards, T. Walker, J. Nelson, A. Robson. Happily, the team did better in the first home match, defeating a Carlisle reserve side.
The outstanding member of the Penrith XV was D. Melville Edington, a popular family doctor, who was to play for Cumberland in the inter-county championship-winning team of 1924.
To name an individual as having been the best can be both risky and controversial. In the case of Penrith rugby union, however, few older followers would disagree with the assertion that the greatest achiever among the players was Jack Todd.
It was in 1937, while still a pupil of Penrith Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, that he began playing for the town club. However, it was in the years just after the 1939-45 war that Jack excelled as a powerful lock forward. He made 56 appearances for Cumberland and Westmorland and many sound judges felt he deserved an England cap.
The distinction was denied him, though he was selected as travelling reserve when England went to Paris to play France, and for matches with Ireland and Scotland. By way of consolation, he was chosen to play for the Barbarians on a tour of South Wales.
Jack, a farmer at Little Salkeld, near Penrith, captained the town club in 1948-49. In 1974 he was made president of the Cumberland and Westmorland RFU.
Another formidable figure on the Foundry field, in the green and white hoops of Penrith, was Harvey Askins, whose playing career stretched over 28 years. A burly 6ft-plus forward and specialist place kicker, he was a member of the team who won the Cumberland Cup in 1960, Penrith’s only success in the competition.
The full side to triumph in the final, beating Old Creightonians (Carlisle) by 6-3, included D. Stamper; P. Labram, B. McVey, M. Bewley, I. Barnes; B. Teasdale, B. Clare; J. Moffitt, C. Wallace, T. W. R. Clemmett, H. Askins, A. Bleasdale, J. Hume, M. Dalton, J. E. Scott.
Although the rugby men built a clubhouse in 1955, their ambitions were much loftier than the Foundry field could accommodate. Their dreams came true in the 1960s through an opportunity to buy Winters Park, near Carleton Village, and develop it into a ground of their own, with clubhouse and grandstand.
It was a costly project but the club took up the challenge, much of the burden being shouldered by a development committee under the chairmanship of Joe Jameson, with Jim Nicholson as secretary — just two of a long line of men who have fostered rugby in the town.