National Identity Through Sport – Cornish Style




Cornwall’s rugby squad celebrate retaining the Bill Beaumont Cup against Cheshire last weekend – but what is the wider significance of their huge support?  Photo: Dan Barbary


Rugby Union’s County Championship is a competition that, for most, has seen better days. Long gone is the era when some of the game’s top players participated (indeed counties can no longer select anyone who plays in the top two divisions), and crowds have shrunk to small levels. Except in one place, Cornwall. Over 3,100 attended their most recent game against Surrey, and indeed, the total attendances for the ten games in the top tier of the competition this year that were not played in Cornwall was just 150 spectators higher than the total crowd for Cornwall’s two home games. So why is this? Is it just because the territory is a hot bed of rugby? It’s not as simple as that. For many it is a chance to support and celebrate a land which is significantly different from the country around it.

Cornwall is an ancient Celtic land which shares very little in common with England in terms of its history. The place names throughout the territory remain untouched by the Anglo-Saxon prefixes and suffixes that the vast majority of town and city names in England have. That it has its own ‘border’ in the form of the River Tamar separating it from neighbouring Devon, only adds to the illusion of ‘other’ and ‘unique identity’ that the Cornish people hold dear to their hearts – for, as Deacon asserts: “an important element in regional consciousness is the construction of boundaries between the group and those outside” (Deacon: 2001: p 105). The Tamar serves as not only a physical boundary, but a cultural and historical one. Indeed, the 13th century Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral identifies the four parts of Britain as England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. There is also evidence to suggest that Cornwall has never been legally incorporated into shire England.

For the majority of the 20th century, the only way Cornwall could assert its unique identity was through sport. Cornwall describes rugby union as its ‘national game’. The game engenders fierce passions among the Cornish in the way the football does in many other parts of Britain. Rugby Union, historically has been one of the ways that the territory of Cornwall has been able to compete at a high level against ‘other’ parts of England. In the past Cornwall have hosted the touring New Zealand, South Africa and Australian international sides.

It is believed that the sport was first played in the territory of Cornwall around 1870 with the original Bodmin club first established. The oldest club still in existence are Penryn (1872). Many have pointed to the 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 and remains 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. When competing in the County Championship competition at the end of every season, the Cornish have always seen their county side as something akin to a ‘national team’. Playing the English counties every year was a chance to get one over their ‘internal colonisers’


Cornwall in action in their during their first County Championship win – 17-3 over Durham at Redruth in 1908. From the Archive Collection of Phil Westren.


Cornwall celebrated their first County Championship victory in 1908. After reaching the final in 1909, 1928, 1958, 1969 and 1989 with no success, in 1991, Cornwall reached the final at Twickenham Stadium – and so the ultimate opportunity was presented to demonstrate its unique cultural identity. Up to 50,000 people travelled from Cornwall – approaching 10% of the territory’s total population – to Twickenham for the final. And what a final it was, with Cornwall coming back from the dead to win 29-20 after extra-time. Cornwall were runners-up the following year to Lancashire, but returned to win again in 1999. Presently, the side are on their most successful run of form ever in the competition. Cornwall have reached the final for the last four years – winning for the last two years. In this period, they have played a total of 16 matches and lost just twice (both times to Lancashire).

As alluded to earlier in this piece, watching the Cornwall rugby side is not just about attending a game of rugby. Before the game, whether it be in the territory of Cornwall or several hundred miles away, the team’s arrival is greeted with the singing of the Cornish anthem ‘Trelawny’, and there are also pre and post match ‘shouts’. A shout is a term describing a gathering (usually with people standing in a circle) in order to sing traditional Cornish songs and shanties. Hence a major outlet for Cornish identity, culture, and above all, pride.


Cornwall rugby supporters raise a glass during a traditional ‘shout’ before the game at Hertfordshire on 14th May 2016. Photo: Ben Gilby




One comment

  1. catmab · June 2, 2016

    I do remember the feeling of being at Twickenham for a final and being surrounded by Cornish people singing commonly know songs and chants as just being rather overwhelming!


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