- The World Rugby Museum opens 2 Feb
- Visit the museum's new website here
- New feature includes a wartime exhibition
Did you know former England captain William Wavell Wakefield was one of the first people to land a light aircraft on an air carrier?
Perhaps you’re more familiar with the original ‘flying winger’, Cyril Lowe? A Royal Flying Corps spotter, who until 1989 was England’s record try-scorer.
Or how about Prince Alexander Obolensky? The first Russian-born player to wear the red rose – who would later answer the call of his adopted nation and join the RAF, despite his Russian roots.
These are the stories of rugby men – to name just a few – who made incredible sacrifices during WWl and WWll, and whose lives are remembered in the newly restored World Rugby Museum in Twickenham Stadium’s South Stand.
“The way rugby players reacted to the First and Second World War, and the way in which they served their country during the war is something people are very proud of,” explains World Rugby Museum Curator, Phil McGowan.
“It is something that informs the character of the game and something rugby people carry with them: the knowledge that their sport did what it could when asked upon.”
The wartime exhibition, which opens to the public on Friday 2 February, is made up of former players’ personal items from caps and jerseys to programmes and medals - accompanied by visual aids and key information - this memorabilia has never been displayed together.
“I shall never play at Twickenham again”
Ronnie Poulton Palmer was arguably the most famous rugby player prior to WWI. He played 17 times for England - including in the first international match played at Twickenham against Wales in 1910 - and captained them to a Grand Slam in 1914.
When war was declared Poulton Palmer enlisted straight away, an action that would have spoken volumes to the wider rugby community, such was his influence and stature as a patriarch of the game.
By the spring of 1915 he was at the front in Flanders, where he played what would be his last rugby game, captaining South Midland division (Forty-Eighth) against Fourth Division.
Whilst supervising engineering works on 5 May 1915 in a trench north of Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium, Poulton Palmer was shot dead by a sniper. His last words were alleged to be: “I shall never play at Twickenham again”.
His England Rose, England cap and Berkshire company regimental badge feature as exhibits in the wartime section of the museum, and are items McGowan is proud to be able to display.
“Ronnie is emblematic of that lost generation; he was a young man who was just about to finish his rugby career and inherit a flourishing business,” McGowan added.
“He was very interested in politics, very close to his men and implemented a lot of innovations in his factories to improve working conditions. He was a bit of a 19th Century liberal reformer, a one-of-a-kind.”
England's greatest forward
The England cap and jersey of the aforementioned William Wavell Wakefield - donated by his family - also adorns the walls of the wartime exhibition. A pioneer of the game, he was dubbed 'England's greatest forward' up until his passing in 1983, aged 85.
A schoolboy when the war broke out, Wakefield's uncle invented a light aircraft that could land on water, perhaps a sign of things to come, as he grew up learning to fly aeroplanes on Lake Windermere.
He joined the Royal Air Corps, and in 1918, became one of the first men to land a fighter biplane on an aircraft carrier in the North Sea - two before him had perished in the act.
After the war Wakefield remained with the RAF and flew as a Flight Lieutenant in the Second World War at the age of 41, so it is fitting that his RAF jersey also hangs in the museum.
In later life he served as a member of parliament and as president of the RFU. Wakefield was known for his uncompromising nature on the field of play, and his description of the game still remains an appropriate one.
“It is one of the glories of rugger that you can put your shoulder into a man with all your strength and bring him down with a crash knowing he will bear no grudge against you.”The World Rugby Museum is the definitive home for everything about rugby. Featuring more than three times as many objects, the new museum will display memorabilia from around the world and from all eras, making it a must visit for all rugby fans.