April 2020: Rugby is disrupted at Kingsholm

There is an old Chinese curse which says, “May you live in interesting times.”  We are certainly living in unprecedented times.  The coronavirus is changing the way we live, perhaps for several months, or even longer.  The Premiership season is on hold, and who knows whether it will be brought to a conclusion, and if it is, it’s difficult to see how all the scheduled games can be accommodated in the limited time available. Clearly, nothing like this has happened in the history of rugby union, and indeed in any field of sporting endeavour.  However, there have been times in the past when Gloucester’s seasons have been radically disrupted.

SMALLPOX

In 1896, Gloucester suffered a bad Smallpox epidemic.  From 4 January to 25 July there were 2,008 recorded cases, and as a result 434 fatalities, a shocking death rate of 21%. Thank goodness that this evil disease has been eradicated from the planet.  On 7 March 1896, Gloucester travelled to Stroud.  There was a lot of local concern about the wisdom of Stroud playing the game.  Indeed, placards were erected in the town urging the locals not to mix with Gloucestrians.  Even so about a thousand Gloucester supporters turned up.  As to the game, the Citizen reported:

“Had a referee of any pretensions as to a knowledge of the game been officiating, the score would have been a larger one”.

Several “tries” were disallowed, and the reporter continued:

“But for what it is difficult to understand.” Gloucester still won the game 5-0.

Two further matches were played against Bath and Weston-S-Mare, then on 21 March Gloucester played a game against Penarth.  All subsequent scheduled matches were called off, and Gloucester’s season ended.  Another outbreak of Smallpox occurred in 1923.  There were 698 cases, but mercifully only three deaths.

FIRST WORLD WAR

In August 1914, Gloucester were preparing for a full season of fixtures, when war was declared on Germany, and World War 1 began.  Several of the Gloucester players were reservists, and so were called up at once.  With the loss of so many players it seemed inevitable that Gloucester would have to cease playing any fixtures

There was a brief change of plan, when a letter was received from Buckingham Palace suggesting that the club might like to subscribe to the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund.  The club agreed to this, and suggested that the game which was scheduled for 12 September against Stroud should be used for raising funds.  Stroud were not so keen, given the circumstances.  However, in the meantime tickets for the game were still selling, and although the game did not go ahead, proceeds from the ticket sales were donated to the National Relief Fund.

Meanwhile, more and more Gloucester players, together with a sizeable part of the local population, were responding to appeals for volunteers, and it became clear that it would be impossible to field a representative team, and so it was decided to cancel all fixtures for the duration of the war.

Kingsholm was made available for occasional games between military units, and from 1916 there was an annual game played between a scratch Gloucester team and a Royal Naval Division (Portsmouth) team.  These games were arranged by the legendary Arthur Hudson, Gloucester and England, who served on submarines and played for the Navy during the war.

Martin and Teresa Davies researched the part played by Gloucester players in World War 1, and in their book, They Played for Gloucester and Fought for their Country, they revealed that a total of thirty Gloucester players lost their lives in the conflict.

Once the war ended, Gloucester did not waste any time getting back to playing rugby.  As we all know the war ended on 11 November 1918. On 21 December, Gloucester played a game against the 3rd Gloucesters.  Arthur Hudson scored two tries in a 9-6 win.

SECOND WORLD WAR

Only a little more than twenty years later Britain was at war again.  War was declared on 3 September 1939, and at once the government banned all sporting events, in addition to closing all theatres, cinemas, and indeed all places of entertainment.  But within a week the government, realising the importance of maintaining morale, revoked the order.  Gloucester proceeded to play an amended fixture list, mostly against various military teams.  They managed to play 21 games in the 1939-40 season, and even 26 the following season, but it became more difficult to field a truly representative team of local players, as more men were called up to the forces.  By Spring 1941, it was decided to curtail Gloucester’s matches for the duration. We have a photograph of the Gloucester team which played the RAF in October 1940.

Rugby did carry on at Kingsholm.  From 1941-42 to 1944-45, Services Internationals between England and Wales were played at Swansea and Gloucester. The strict RFU rules concerning professionals were relaxed and Rugby League players were allowed to play in these games.  The Kingsholm matches were held in March or April every year and proved very popular.  The first of the games in March 1942 attracted a crowd of 13,000.

The last of the Services Internationals at Kingsholm was played just before the end of the war in April 1945.  After the war, it was estimated that the games played at Kingsholm had raised £12,000 for Service charities.  That was a lot of money in those days.

Martin and Teresa Davies established that by the end of the war nine Gloucester players had been killed in the conflict, a far lower rate of attrition than the carnage that was WW1.

Gloucester’s first game after the war, on 29 September 1945, was at Kingsholm, against old rivals Bristol.  Much to the locals’ joy, Gloucester won 18-0.

SEVERE WINTER WEATHER

The winter of 1947 was of Siberian intensity.  At the end of January and early February two Gloucester games were cancelled due to frost and snow.  Gloucester were due to play Cardiff at Kingsholm on 8 February, and in an attempt to ensure the game went ahead, straw had been laid on the playing surface, to keep out the frost.  By the morning of the game, snow had to be removed from the playing surface as well.  Underneath, the ground was still frozen, but with 5,000 spectators already in the ground, the game went ahead. Fortunately, there were no injuries and Cardiff won an entertaining game 12-11.  The programme made mention of the weather conditions. That would prove to be the last Gloucester game until 15 March.

When the thaw at last arrived, Gloucester was inundated by flooding, and that included Worcester Street and Kingsholm.  Gloucester experienced its worst ever flooding, not matched until 2007.

The country suffered a similarly bitter cold winter in 1963.  Snow started falling on Christmas Day 1962, resulting in the cancellation of the traditional Boxing Day contest against Old Merchant Taylors, and the game scheduled for the following day against Pontypool.  On 29 December, Gloucester managed to play Cardiff away, but the following eight games were all cancelled, due to either frost or snow.  The first game to be played following the break was on 16 February against Swansea.

Maybe due to global warming, it is now a rarity for games to be cancelled because of frost or snow.

Let us hope that, before long, we can all get back to normal, and once again troop down to Kingsholm, to experience that thrill when the team run past the Shed before the game, to set the hairs up on the back of the neck.

C’mon Glaws.

Chris Collier

Comments about this page

  • From Malc King: “My thanks to Chris for his interesting article on disruptions to play at Kingsholm. I think it adds perspective to the present crisis, in that it shows that even though coronavirus is ghastly, it looks like being less disastrous that the smallpox outbreak in terms of deaths in Gloucester – thank goodness for the advances in medical science and the NHS in the intervening years. And it shows that the breaks in matches during the two World Wars were far longer than we are likely to suffer from Covid-19.

    We are all having to live with social distancing, which feels very strange, but I note that there was a version of it in place at Kingsholm for the internationals played during the Second World War. The government regulations at the time required the express permission of the Chief Constable for events which were expected to attract a crowd of more than 8,000. The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire duly approved the internationals at Kingsholm, but only on condition that spectators had were evenly dispersed around the ground in order to minimise casualties in the event that the Luftwaffe flew over to put a damper on proceedings.”

    By Dick Williams (15/04/2020)

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