Rugby Union & Cornish National Identity Part II – The Establishment of the People’s Game

Rugby Union has always been one of the ways that Cornwall asserts its identity, and the series now continues in this second blog post. Following last week’s general look at the senior club game in Cornwall, and a look at the symbolism of national identity that the presence of the London Cornish club, today we take a look into the archives and the historical establishment of the game.

It is believed that the game was first played in the territory of Cornwall around 1870 with the Bodmin club first established, followed by Penryn (1872), Penzance, Redruth and Hayle. It is an inescapable fact that the huge popularity of Rugby Union among the Cornish can be traced back to the parallels between the sport and Hurling, with a ball made of metal, which had been played in Cornwall since ancient times. There are equal similarities between the historic popularity of Cornish Wrestling and the development of rugby. As the game developed, there was an increasing need for a form of governing body, which came with the formation of The Cornwall Rugby Union in 1884. Early strong teams could be found in Penzance, Falmouth, Camborne, Redruth and Penryn – it is notable that the game was less popular in the eastern half of Cornwall, instead it developed a strong hold in the mining heartland regions of the centre and western half of the territory. As with Wales, rugby was a game for the people, rather than for the elite.

The all important first ever county game against bitter rivals Devon was played at Plymouth in 1883/84, with the home side winning 22-0. The result was reversed the following year as the Cornish triumphed 11-3. An early match report from these early encounters has been sourced from 1885/86 which spoke of a crowd of over 400 watching a game played on a “very hard and slippery pitch”. Lewman of the Probus club scored the only Cornish try, as Devon took the honours thanks to a try from Chilcott of the Tavistock club, which was converted by Hussey of Exeter.

Finally, in 1892, the Cornish Rugby Union joined the RFU. It was interesting to note that the first Cornish county colours were Yellow & Red rings on a black jersey, prior to a later change to White shirts before the now famous black shirts with thin gold hoops were adopted. The County Championship – a competition which would become synonymous with Cornish rugby and a symbol of Cornish national identity was first entered in 1892/93. The first Cornish County Championship captain was the legendary Redruth player A.S. Grylls. Another Redruth hero, the three quarter J. Laverty also was an early Ireland international.

The strength of the game in Cornwall gathered pace in the early 20th Century, and as we will see in the next part of this blog series, the first example of rugby union being a driving force in Cornish national identity came along in 1908.

Picture Shown – Cornwall County Side 1900

Shown from W.J. Robbins (1934) ‘Cornwall Rugby Football Union Jubilee: 1884-1934: Rugby In the Duchy: Cornwall RFU.

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