Olney Rugby Club has over 130 years of history without parallel in the county, and which few clubs in the country can equal. The Cerise and French Grey colours of Olney Rugby Club are believed to be unique. They were believed to have been a gift from the Captain, or his father, on the formation of the Club. Except on two short periods, when football jerseys were almost impossible to obtain shortly after the 1914/18 War, the players have never worn any other colour. It has the advantage of never having to change to avoid a clash of colours.
When the Rugby Union was formed in 1871 teams consisted of twenty players per team, only being reduced to fifteen in the year before the Olney club came into existence.
In these early days there was no playing field available as such. Games were played on farmland meadows. One of the Club's oldest members can recall practices on the Market Square, using a pigs bladder or a hay-filled sprig bag, a small sack used to contain nails used in the boot and shoemaking industry.
There were few clubs in existence; fixtures were difficult to come by. A news cutting of eighty years ago tells of a drawn game with Northampton, then known as St. James, the origin of the title "The Saints". Until quite recent years the Saints Wanderers were often referred to as "Jimmie's Ends Seconds", derived from the district in which they originated, St. James' End. Bedford, formed two years after Olney by the amalgamation of two other clubs, were also regular visitors to Olney.
The first recorded game in Olney, in 1877, was played on Cherry Orchard, a meadow on the banks of the Ouse which is now the Cemetery, and there, where they first took to the field to play, many of the old players lay for their last long "no side".
Olney Rugby Club and the First World War
The First World War took a toll of Olney players. Sixteen playing members lost their lives, including the great Edgar Mobbs, at this time Captain of Northampton, who formed the Sportsmens Battalion. Mobbs was one of the three Olney players to play for England, as was Dr. Gilbert Bull, who also lost his life. Honours gained by Olney players included the D.S.O. to Lt. Col. Mobbs, D.C.M to G.Bamwell, and MMs to F. Millward and Tom Clifton.
A Military International was played on the County Ground, Northampton, between England and Scotland, with Edgar Mobbs as Captain of the home side, in January 1915. The side included Jack GiIlam, Ned Mann and Henry Grierson who also played for Olney.
The most colourful of the pre-1914 Internationals from the Olney Club must surely be the legendary Blair Swannell. He lived at Weston Underwood, just outside the town. Whilst a member of the Olney club he also ran his own private team which he named "The Weston Turks". He can still be remembered for playing with bracelets on his arms! Blair Swannell had the unique distinction of being capped for England and Australia. He was a member of the British Touring team to Australia in 1899, which won eighteen of twenty-one games, and the tour of New Zealand in 1904 where all fourteen games were won. He decided to remain in Australia and played for New South Wales in 1905/6 being capped for Australia in that year.
The beginning of the First World War was the end of an era for Olney Rugby Club. A club which had its beginning almost forty years previously, when the gentlemen's sons returning from their various boarding schools for the holidays, called in the gardener, the groom, and the boot and shoemakers to make up a Fifteen, saw them depart, to be swallowed up in the bloody battles of the most horrific war ever known.
Olney Rugby Club between the Wars
As the larger clubs developed into the present first class club fixture system we see today, Olney, which had been the equal of these clubs, was to settle down in the postwar period to being a top Junior club.
Among their fixtures over the years, apart from Bedford and Northampton, have been Harlequins, Blackheath, Old Blues, Old Merchant Taylors, Nuneaton, Leicester, Rugby, Coventry, London Welsh, Stratford-on-Avon, Edgware, Metropolitan Police, Upper Clapton, Leytonstone, Old Paulines, Roslyn Park, Royal Air Force, Streatham, Newbold, Abercarn, Brasenose College, Magdalene College, New College, Oxford and Norwich.
Immediately after the end of the First World War, in February 1919, Olney were already playing fixtures, being the first club in the East Midlands to get together a fixture list. Still with encounters against some of their old opponents at 1st XV level, such as Bedford, Northampton, Leicester and Coventry, they were now playing the second teams of others, and the clubs top players were now going on to the local first class clubs. Ray (R. J.) Longland went first to Bedford, and then to Northampton, to gain nineteen caps between the wars. Tommy Crouch had a trial for England. Roger Perkins, many years hooker with Bedford, was selected for an English trial.
Many players have turned out for the East Midlands between the wars. Sam Kitchener played over a period of nineteen years for Bedford, many of those years as Captain. Sam, a man of strong religious principles, turned down a chance to play for England against France because it meant playing on Sunday.
The team lists for Bedford and Northampton continued to show local names, some of which were on the original team photograph of 1877. It was the normal thing for sons to follow fathers through the Club and to first class football. Coles, Drage, Field, Berrill, the incomparable Jack Binyon and Johnny MiIlward, several other Millwards, the Simcoes, father and son, Minney, the Cliftons, Longlands, the numerous Kitcheners, Chaplin, Perkins, Hipwell, Mynard, Dix, Crouch, Andrews, so many others, to fill a book. One Northampton team took the field with five Olney players in its ranks, Ray Longland, Sid Petts, Alec Bell, Tommy Bradley and Harry Good. Bell also played cricket for Northamptonshire, and was the Olney club captain in its 75th season.
In the early 20's training was often carried out by the light of an oil burning stable lamp. Scrummaging was practiced in the stable yard. The large manure heap helped to produce strong scrummagers. It was not "the weakest to the wall" but "the meek to the muckheap".
Travel to away games was by train from Olney station, or by horse and trap, players starting off early in the morning to walk and ride up to twenty-five miles to a game. Opponents arriving by train to play at Olney had to fight a rearguard action from the playing field to the station if the local team and supporters became dissatisfied with the play or the result!
The mid-wars team reached its greatest heights in the 1934/5 season, Winning 26 of its 34 games, amassing what was a colossal total in those days of 711 points, with only 198 scored against. Reg Tompkins scored 40 tries as a wing three-quarter, Alec Bell 30 in the centre, a contrast to the modern game.
In the 50th year the East Midlands played Olney as part of the celebrations, on the Recreation Ground, which had now been the regular venue for a number of years. The East Midlands fielded a team having four Internationals. Mr. J. C. Hipwell, the first Captain of the club, kicked off. East Midlands won by 20 points to 5. In October 1935, an East Midland Trial game was played at Olney with Northamptonshire against Buckinghamshire. Six Olney players were involved, R. Tompkins, A. Bell, J. T. Bradley, P.Sowman, J. Packwood and J. M. Mungavin, later of Barts.
The club came up to the Second World War, strong, with good quality players and an outstanding fixture list. Still running two teams. The effects of the 1939/45 conflict were much the same as as the 1914/18. Limited fixtures were played; mainly with local service units, but on the restart there was a dire shortage of players. Few of the players from the pre-war era were able to resume, and those only for a short period. The local school, unusual for a Council School, had always produced players. It no longer played Rugby. There was no follow up of young players. The two teams were composed mainly of returning servicemen who had only played a few games during their service careers, and anyone who could be talked into it, learning as they played.
Play was restarted in earnest with the resumption of their strong pre-war fixture list, but with a woeful lack of experienced players. For two or three seasons they suffered heavy defeats from opponents who had the benefit of well-trained and skilled players. Despite the surrender of some of their stronger fixtures the club struggled on, with the players showing tremendous courage and dedication; turning up week after week, defeat after defeat, gradually improving their skills. Many players never reached their full potential, through having to be thrown in against superior opponents too early in their development.
Serious consideration was given in the 1946 season to dropping back to one team, but a wise Committee, having seen all this before, launched out instead for a third XV, and brought back into being the Olney Juniors, a team which had existed for a short while many years previously. This difficult period established a spirit of camaraderie which exists to this day. Players who, will turn up week after week, defeat after defeat, are the salt of the earth; Anyone can turn up after winning!
Rugby once again started up at the local Council School, under the enthusiastic coaching of John Meiklejohn and with the resulting influx of younger players, the Juniors became the B XV in the 1962/3 season. The players from this team went on to fill ranks of the 1st XV, with some extremely talented players, proving the value of introduction to the game at an early age.
The playing strength continued to build up and the Extra B XV came in with the 1965/66 season. In the 1968/9 season, with many of the teenagers now attending the Radcliffe Grammar School at Wolverton and afterwards going on to University, there built up a surplus of players during the holiday periods and 5th XV, the Outlaws, became a necessity during the vacations. The club now began to realise that a shortage of playing space was likely to hold up further expansion.
Mini Rugby emerges
With teacher and player John Meiklejohn now having gone to take up a teaching post in Germany, rugby once again ceased at the local school, and the supply of players began to dry up. Suddenly, in 1973 Mini Rugby came into being. This proved an immense success with youngsters. At last they could play rugby with four coats to mark the confines of the ground, simplified laws, and a small ball. Lads from six years old to fourteen swarmed on to the Recreation Ground every Sunday morning, where, under the guidance of their enthusiastic coaches, they were graded according to age and size. They met with instant success in tournaments, and soon had a regular fixture list with other local clubs running Mini sections.
At last Olney could count on a regular supply of players. With some of the Mini players now experienced sixteen year olds, a Junior Colts XV was formed, and after more than forty years of pushing forward, from 1946 when that decision not to drop back to one team was made, to 1988, the club had progressed to five senior XVs, a Junior XV, and the Mini and Junior section.
In 1995 a Ladies section was established which, at its height, won the National Cup and competed at one league below Premiership level. The Ladies side is going strong and has been complemented by Girls squads at both U18 and U15 levels. The club remains a strong force in the Midlands with three senior sides, a Vets XV, Colts and of course the booming Mini and Junior section, many of whom have played their way through the age bands to become regular first team players at senior level.
Finance plays a great part in all successful organisations. Looking through the old Ledgers in the Club's possession reveals that the Club has never been flush with funds. It has always been the policy of the Club to make the game available to the widest number possible at the cheapest' possible price, consequently balances have never built up until recent years.
In the early days Guarantees appeared to be the order of the day. A visiting team was guaranteed a certain amount towards travelling expenses. Many of The present day first class clubs received such guarantees from the Olney Club. Presumably Olney received them in return. One entry for 1913 expenses was for a £1 guarantee to Eccles, all the way from Lancashire! The balance in hand for that year, incidentally, was £1. 8s. 2'hd. The Club faced the opening of its 75th season with a balance of £9 and the Gymkhana came into being to raise money to defray the expected heavy expenses of that season.
With the setting up of the Building and Development Fund the Finance Committee really got down to money raising, not money for the needs of the moment, but for the needs of the future. Today, thanks to their efforts, and the support of the Club members, we have our fantastic clubhouse. The Committee went on, in 2015, with support from members, the local community, and businesses, to purchase land at the back of the Clubhouse, “Doff’s Field”, which has three excellent pitches. This area comes into its own each summer with the annual Olney Rugby 7s tournament, celebrating its 10th year and attracting sides from all over the country to enjoy great rugby and a lively social scene!
The Club remains rooted in the local community and supports many town events such as the raft race and Dickens of a Christmas. The fundamental principles which stood Olney RFC in good stead at its outset continue today – with commitment, respect, teamwork, honesty and friendship at the heart of our rugby club.