The History of London Welsh Rugby
There is a commemorative plaque at Rugby School in Warwickshire, where it’s said that William Webb Ellis in 1823 decided to pick up the ball during a game of football and ran with it. True or not, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after him.
In 1878 London Scottish became the first of the exiles to set a team up. And in 1885 a group of Welshmen based in London met in a Fleet Street pub and started up Clwb Rygbi Cymry Llundain, London Welsh Rugby Club.
Their first game was against London Scottish (score unknown) and without a permanent ground, they struggled financially, something that would ultimately be their demise over a century later. The club disbanded in 1894, and returned just a year later in 1895.
The club’s fortunes improved in 1905 with the captain of Wales, Willie Llewellyn, who just happened to be a student at the Pharmaceutical College in London. He had an idea that the Welsh Rugby Union would only cap Welsh players living in London if they played for London Welsh which would attract bigger crowds. The ploy worked, and in came some of the greatest Welsh players of that era in Teddy Morgan, Hop Maddocks, Rhys Gabe & Arthur Harding. Both support and subsequently the finances increased.
The club bounced around looking for the right home, moving from the Queen’s Club to the County Ground in Leyton, then West Ham United’s Memorial Ground, then Heathfield Ground, Wandsworth during World War I. In 1918 they finally had a permanent home at Hearne Hill which saw great players like scrumhalf Wick Powell, Vivian Jenkins, Claude Davey, and Arthur Rees. In 1957 the club moved to Old Deer Park, Richmond, which saw their greatest successes.
Most recall the period between 1966 and 1973 as the golden years of London Welsh Rugby Club, with greats like John Dawes, JPR Williams, John Taylor, Gerald Davies, Mike Roberts, Mervyn Davies, Mike Roberts and Geoff Evans. Former London Welsh player Carwyn James took seven players as part of his 1971 Lions tour which beat the All Blacks. There were no official leagues with the sport amateur status, but the London Welsh side was considered by many as the top echelon of rugby sides.
In 1985 (their centenary year) the club had their first Cup Final appearance at Twickenham in the John Player Special Cup, with Clive Rees, Robert Ackerman, Kevin Bowring, and Mark Douglas leading the line. They lost 24-15 against a Bath team boasting nine internationals.
In the 2008/09 season, the club took the big step to turn full-time professional. Financial issues meant the club went into administration in June 2009. Luckily they were rescued by Red Dragon Rugby Limited and allowed to continue in the Championship with a five-point deduction. In January 2010 they took back control and had two successive seasons losing at the Championship semi-finals stage.
They finally went one better in 2012, and beat The Pirates to finally make the Aviva Premiership (albeit with an appeal after the RFU initially rejected their application.
The 2012/13 season was a harsh lesson, and despite a strong start ultimately a 5 point penalty for fielding an unregistered player was their downfall.
The 2013/14 season saw a quick return with a tremendous season ending in second place. Coach Justin Burnell saw his side beat Bristol over two legs with gutsy performances from Supporters Player of the Year Carl Kirwan. and captain Tom May.
The club’s return to the top flight was not a joyous one, the 52-0 opening day loss to Exeter Chiefs was the sign of things to come. The Exiles failure to win a single game saw the worst record in Premiership history.
The 2015/16 season saw a return to Old Deer Park and confidence was high for an immediate return to the Premiership. Alas, they just missed out on the Playoffs.
The season was still considered a success with the first-ever cup win with the trip to Twickenham seeing the Exiles lift the British and Irish Cup.
It was a crowning glory as a long-running battle with HRMC over a £250K unpaid tax bill saw a second administration filed in December 2016 and the club were given a temporary license to complete two fixture. But with a 20 point penalty that put them bottom of the table. In January 2017 London Welsh were removed from the RFU Championship and the club dissolved, and continue back in it’s original amateur status.
There is no doubt that the name most synonymous with London Welsh Rugby is the legendary John Dawes. The former player, captain, coach, then later Current Club President of London Welsh.
Dawes is fondly remembered in his native Wales for his powerhouse performance in the centre as he captained his side to the 1971 five nations Grand Slam, and Captained the winning British Lions side that same year in New Zealand.
His tactical brain and experience coaching London Welsh saw him become coach of the Welsh national side in 1975. This was his entry in Welsh Rugby folklore as his side won 4 of 5 Five Nations Championships, including two Grand Slams.
This also propelled him to Coach the 1977 British Lions Tour but was unable to repeat his success as Captain.
In the 1972 New Year’s Honours List he was made an OBE for services to sport.
In 2006 he was inducted to the Welsh rugby international players Hall of Fame, and was named the greatest ever Welsh Coach.
The Welsh Rugby legend was made Honorary Life President of London Welsh, but it all could have been so different. As a youngster in Wales he played soccer, with Pengam Boys School introducing him to Rugby. After university he moved to London to become a chemistry teacher and joined London Welsh.
Must-reads – Six Nations 2020 postponed
London Welsh Notable Honours
- John Player Cup runner-up 1985
- Courage League Division 5 South champions: 1994–95
- RFU Championship champions (2 times): 2011–12, 2013–14
- British and Irish Cup winners 2015–16
London Welsh Notable Players:
British and Irish Lions
(callups while playing for London Welsh)
Teddy Morgan 1904
Jack Williams 1908
Douglas Marsden-Jones 1924
Tommy Jones-Davies 1930
Vivian Jenkins 1938
Billy Raybould 1968
John Taylor 1968,1971
Gerald Davies 1971
Mervyn Davies 1971
John Dawes 1971
Mike Roberts 1971
Geoff Evans 1971
J. P. R. Williams 1971,1974
Clive Rees 1974
Alun Lewis 1977
Robert Ackerman 1983
Wales International Captains
Players who captained the Wales national rugby union team while playing for London Welsh.
Teddy Morgan 1908
Wick Powell 1927
John Dawes 1968–71