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History of the RFU

The original RFU rules

World Rugby Museum

On January 26, 1871 21 clubs were represented by 32 people at a meeting chaired by EC Holmes, the Captain of Richmond Club. It was held at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London. Within two hours the Rugby Union was formed. Algernon Rutter of Richmond was elected as the first President, with Edwin Ash as the first Secretary/Treasurer.

The founder clubs of the Union still extant are Blackheath, Civil Service, Guys Hospital, Harlequins, Kings College, Richmond, St Paul’s School, Wellington College and Wimbledon Hornets.

At this foundation meeting two sub-committees were formed, the first, consisting of three Old Rugbeians, was tasked with writing the Laws of the Game. The other was tasked with choosing a team to play the Scottish members of the Union, who had issued a challenge to the English members. The first recognised international football game, of any code, took place later the same year.

Fairly quickly after the formation of the RFU other countries formed their own unions, the Scots in 1873, the Irish in 1879 and the Welsh in 1880 and annual home-nations fixtures were contested. The RFU remained the ultimate arbiter of the sport until formation of the International Rugby Board in 1886, which the RFU finally joined in 1890.

The North-South split

The English twenty

Photo: World Rugby Museum

The popularity of the game increased more rapidly in the north of England than in the south and by the early 1890s Lancashire and Yorkshire were contributing the majority of players to the England team. However, northern footballers, often shift-working colliers, builders, publicans or foundrymen, found that representing county and country made increasing demands on their time and so began to call for ‘broken-time’ payments to compensate for their lost earnings. This contravened the RFU’s strict amateur code and in 1895, intransigence on both sides resulted in what became known as the ‘great schism’. In August of that year at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 22 clubs from the north of England resigned from the RFU and formed the Northern Union, which later came to be known as the Rugby League.

Following well attended tours by New Zealand, South Africa and New Zealand the Union committee decided it was time to build their own stadium. One of their members, William Williams, eventually decided that a market garden of 101/4 acres near the small town of Twickenham was the most suitable site. The land was purchased for £5,572, 12s/6d in 1907.

An image of Billy Williams

Photo: World Rugby Museum

The ground became known as “Billy Williams’ Cabbage Patch”, although it had actually been used for growing fruit. The first match to be played at Twickenham was between Harlequins and Richmond in October 1909 and the first international was between England and Wales in January 1910. The stadium has been the permanent home of the England national team and the RFU ever since.

Four years later the RFU issued a circular to all players solemnly advising them to join the armed forces just 9 days before the outbreak of World War One. A generation later the stadium itself was called into active service during World War Two, the North Stand was used as a swarf-store and the West Stand converted into a casualty receiving station.

In 1995, almost 100 years to the day since the great schism, the IRB declared the game ‘open’ and rugby entered the age of professionalism. The RFU, despite voting against this motion, adjusted and quickly prospered. Twickenham Stadium is now home to a four-star hotel, leisure club and conferences facilities which along with the RFU’s other commercial activities allows the organisation to invest in English rugby clubs, the English national team and schools rugby amongst others.