Last week, England Rugby marked its 150th anniversary. Here, Archivist Tony Jones looks at the history of the game at Emanuel School.  

On 26th January 1871, a meeting between representatives of 21 English rugby clubs took place, which led to the birth of one of the oldest sporting governing bodies in the world. Within a few months the first ever rugby international fixture took place against ScotlandAlthough rugby quickly became a very popular sport, it took 18 years for the first ‘official’ fixture to take place at Emanuel. 

It is well documented that in 1883 Emanuel played football (and cricket in the summer) as its main sports. However, its first official rugby fixture took place almost 20 years later on 5th April 1902Issue 28 of The Portcullis noted of the occasion:  

April 5th Emanuel School brought their football season to a close with a match, under the Rules of the Rugby Football Union; as a first attempt, it was most successful. The Catford Bridge F.C. kindly sent a team to oppose us; the day was unfortunately wet, and there were many “muddied oafs” to be seen about the School after the game. Our boys must be congratulated on the plucky game they played. Final score: Catford, 1 goal, 3 tries (14 points), Emanuel, 1 goal (5 points). Mr. Brough scored our try, and Daintrey kicked the goal. 

Following this debut there was the occasional random ‘challenge’ fixture until 1906 when the sport was taken on more seriously. The PortcullisNo 40, in 1906 commented: 

In Athletics our Elevens have done well, as the account of matches shows. The momentous decision has been taken by the newly formed body of Form Representatives, to play Rugby one term of the year, and the decision has been ratified by the School. Of the first match of the Fifteen, others tell elsewhere, and that incipient Rugby did not spoil the existent game, the next Saturday’s win over the Old Olavians‘ Eleven shows well. “ 


For several years there were captains for both football and rugby before the title of ‘Captain of Football’ disappeared from the school history books. However, rugby obviously took off very quickly and within a few years Emanuel had its first full rugby internationalist, George Littlewood Hirst, who played for Wales and Newport. Other early rugby captains, such as Eric Dilnutt, JH Roberts, IA White and Eddie Fisher, all lost their lives in the First World War and their names are remembered on the honour boards in the school dining hall. Perhaps the switch from football to rugby was truly complete when our oldest trophy, The Dormitory Shield, was awarded to the winners of House Rugby instead of House Football. A silversmith even changed the shape of the ball in the centrepiece of the design from circular to oval. Rugby was here to stay. This was cemented in 1909 when the Old Emanuel RFC was formed with many former school players continuing to play the sport and strengthening their association with the school through the club. 

Within a few years, rugby had become the prominent sport and football disappeared entirely, with the emergence of rowing after the First World War to be the next new challenge for the boys. However, down the years, the school has had the occasional flirtation with ‘The Beautiful Game’ and the first time Emanuel had a ‘1st XI was in the early noughties. However, prior to the first lockdown, football had returned to the curriculum and we had started playing competitive fixtures in the Lower School.  

Sadly, we do not have any photographs of the earliest rugby team of 1906 and have included a squad from the 1908/09 season. However, we do have the 1906 fixture card and, wonderfully, it features schools we still play over a hundred years later. 

1906 fixture card