In the annals of sporting history, only two clubs in England can be considered among the founding fathers of both the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union.
Rugby has a long and often debated history. Whilst there were no doubt forms of the game as far back as the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until William Webb Ellis gathered up the football in his arms and ran with it at Rugby School, that the game we know today firmly planted its roots in our sporting lexicon.
From this perhaps mythological event, the game grew as a variation to that of the one Webb Ellis originally altered. With dissimilar sets of rules being developed and adhered to at schools across the country in the middle of the eighteenth century, many old boy teams that formed had trouble playing football against other clubs due to the disagreements over which sets of rules to play under.
One old boy team faced even further troubles – being unable to field a side made up of ex pupils. Because of this, that club became the first ‘open’ club in history – ‘open’ meaning that the club was no longer exclusive. It is this side, known as ‘The Club’, that’s history is interwoven with that of the founding of the RFU.
Just like the incredible number of pubs claiming to be the first public house, there are several claimants to the treasured title of ‘first rugby club’. There is a general acceptance that the Guy’s Hospital Football Club, formed in 1843 is the oldest rugby club in the world (and therefore the first football club) – this claim even has the support of both the RFU and the Guinness Book of Records. Despite this, there is still contention over the title of the oldest club. Cheltenham College, formed in 1844, Sherborne School, 1846 and Durham School, 1854 are the oldest documented school rugby clubs. But it is Blackheath Rugby Club that has become known as ‘The Club’.
Formed in 1858 as Old Blackheathens, it became the first ‘open’ club in the world four years later – ‘open’ in that membership was open to all, not just old school boys from Blackheath Proprietary School. Originally the team had played a game similar to that formed at Rugby School. Old Blackheathens would play against the current pupils of the school, with supporters cheering for the ‘club’ or the ‘school’, which is allegedly where the label originates. In 1862, due to the fact that the club was unable to field a true old boys’ team, they therefore changed their named to Blackheath FC.
Their involvement with the founding of the RFU began in 1861, when they played against Richmond under the Harrow Rules; a game that bears more similarity to modern day football – soon after this, the set of laws was renamed to Rugby Rules after integration with pupils of Rugby School, and the styles of play being incorporated.
In 1863, the fourth meeting of the recently formed Football Association was held, at which a set of rules for all clubs to adhere to was proposed. After a disagreement over the way that the variations of the game should be played, namely the removal of ‘hacking’ from the rules, which it was believed would limit the intended game-plan of the club, Blackheath withdrew its membership from the FA. This also prompted the withdrawal of a number of other clubs. It was the unintended consequences of these meetings that ultimately led to them being part of the history of both football and rugby union. (Due to the withdrawals of many prominent clubs the FA decided to remove some of its alterations. The set of rules written at this meeting would lead to the dribbling and goal based game of football that we know today.)
Blackheath instead played the game of football by its own ‘Rugby Rules’, without experimenting with the new rules of football written at the 1863 meeting; another reason that the club lays claim to being the oldest rugby club. In an odd twist of fate, the hacking rule that led to its withdrawal from the FA was removed from the game just six years later. With an obvious need to develop a code of practice and a set of agreed laws to make the game less difficult to play between opposing clubs, it made sense that Blackheath was a founder member of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.
At a meeting in London between representatives from 21 clubs, three lawyers (all ex-Rugby School pupils) wrote the original laws of the game that would become known as ‘rugby football’. These laws were ratified in June 1871. It would not be until the rugby league schism over player compensation that the name ‘rugby union’ would be used to differentiate the codes and their individual growth as separate sports from the original Rugby Rules.
With many amendments and law changes throughout the years, and the game eventually turning to professionalism, the sport that we know and love has evolved into what we see today.