- Blackheath merged with Richmond in 1945
- On this day (22 September) they played Northampton
- First match for clubs post WWll
On this day in 1945, two of England's oldest open rugby clubs - Richmond and Blackheath - made history by fielding a combined team for the very first time.
The game - against Northampton - was the first match for both clubs since the conclusion of the Second World War, and although the Londoners were beaten 17-5 at the Athletic Ground, the event acted as a return to normality as peace time rugby in Britain gathered momentum.
The merge came as a direct result of the war; Blackheath’s home ground Rectory Field had been used as an anti-aircraft balloon site, part of the defences of London, and suffered severe damage rendering their pitch unplayable and grandstand unrecognisable.
Repairs to both the grandstand and surrounding premises were estimated to cost upwards of £3,000, and club members were reminded of their duty to insure rugby would resume in the not too distant future.
The ‘Cecil Williamson Memorial Fund’, set up in remembrance of Blackheath’s Honorary Secretary who passed away the day after war was declared, was created to raise the capital needed to get the club back on its feet.
And a letter addressed to club members in March 1945, which also appeared in the Sunday Times on 14 January, outlined the difficulties that had to be surmounted before Blackheath could resume its activities.
It urged readers to donate what they could to the club, for repairs, new equipment and general maintenance, as well as for reserves that would help tie them over during the initial re-opening period.
It was for these reasons, and on the endorsement of Richmond FC President L. Langton, that for the 1945/46 season, Richmond and Blackheath put their combined playing strength into one team.
FACT: Oldest ‘open’ rugby club in the world means membership was open to anyone, not those attending, or old boys from, a particular institution (e.g. a school, university or hospital).
The Great Escape
A minute silence was held before the commencement of the match, in memory of respective club members who fell during the war, and among those playing for Richmond-Blackheath were some notable men.
There was A. Smith and R. Jennens, both of whom spent three years in Germany as prisoners of war.
And Douglas James Piper or ‘Peter’ as he was more commonly known, a patriarch of Blackheath who would go on to play until 1966, when he was club president. In later years his name would adorn the reconstructed grandstand at Rectory Field.
But perhaps the most noteworthy to play was Flight Lieutenant Tony Bethell, one of 76 Air Force officers to break out of Stalag Luft lll during the night of the ‘Great Escape’.
His story was unknown to those who shared a pitch with him 72 years ago, in fact Bethell’s actions didn’t come to light until much later, when a TV programme called 'Life Behind the Wire' aired detailing his experiences.
On the eve of 24 March 1944, Bethell was burrowed 28ft underground, stationed at the second halfway house – named Leicester Square – of the 365ft ‘Harry’ tunnel.
He was to pull through 20 men before being relieved of his duties by escaper number 65, and wait outside the wire for a further nine men. The alarm was raised at approximately 5am however, after the discovery of the tunnel, and Bethell’s group were forced to split up.
Snow prevented the RAF pilot from heading to the Czech border 40 miles away, and Sweden – via Frankfurt – was his alternative. Bethell was caught in Benau however, and returned to a prisoner camp where he waited out the end of the war.
FACT: Bethell played wing forward, and as well as plying his trade for Blackheath in the late 40s, earned a cap for the Barbarians on their Easter tour to Wales in 1946/47.
The 1945/46 season
Richmond-Blackheath versus Northampton was the first of a busy 1945/46 schedule spanning 15 fixtures.
When playing at the Athletic Ground, C. Laborde - the Richmond captain - would lead the team in a bid to keep club identity at home. Whilst for away fixtures, a Blackheath player would be given the honour, although there was no consistency in who did so.
At the end of the season, thanks to a haul of volunteers, the RFU and Kent County Cricket Club, Blackheath were able to resume business under their own banner on 28 September 1946, with a match against Guy's Hospital.
153 years of friendship
Since their first game against each other in 1861, Blackheath and Richmond’s history has been intertwined, and although one league and 17 miles now separate the clubs, they continue to add to that history by fulfilling fixtures with one another.
“Ours is a rivalry built on great friendship, and we’re very conscious of that. We have history, and that is important to us,” said Blackheath President Des Diamond.
“Three years ago, during the 150th anniversary of the oldest club fixture in the world, the match between us ended up a 31-31 draw. Quite befitting of the occasion.”
Blackheath and Richmond’s relationship is unique in rugby circles, and having already shared a team, a pitch and a clubhouse, theirs is one that looks set to continue for many years to come.
With thanks to the Blackheath FC and Richmond archives.