The Origin and Early Years of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union.
The period leading up to the First World War was crucial in establishing rugby as a cornerstone of Welsh popular culture. And the Cardiff and District Rugby Union had a prominent part to play in that process. Rugby first arrived in Cardiff in 1870 and within twenty years, the game was booming in and around the rapidly growing town. By the early 1890s, there were over 200 teams playing the game in the Cardiff, Penarth and Barry area and several of these clubs had joined the WRU. However, the Union was becoming alarmed that it might eventually be swamped by junior clubs from Cardiff and elsewhere. As a result, in 1892 the WRU resolved that strict criteria would be applied to all future applications for membership. At the same meeting, the nomination of several Cardiff district clubs for WRU membership was greeted with laughter by the delegates. In response to these rebuffs to the grassroots game in the town, H. W. Wells, a journalist on the Western Mail, suggested that it might be necessary to form a union of local clubs.
Further demands for a new union to control the burgeoning game in Cardiff surfaced shortly afterwards following a fractious and controversial game between Grangetown and Cardiff Rangers. Not only was the match a series of fist fights but the Rangers’ winning try was awarded, even though the scorer evaded tacklers by running behind the spectators on the touchline. Clearly, something needed to be done.
Thus it was on 14th November 1892 at the Market Hotel (today’s O’Neill’s) in Trinity Street that Wells chaired a meeting to discuss the formation of a union. The clubs represented on this historic occasion included: Barry, Canton, Dinas Powys and Llandaff, all which still exist of course, as well as the long-defunct Bowry (sic) Boys, Canton Quins, Cardiff Alexandra, Cardiff Northern, Cardiff Rangers, Cathays, Cogan, Grange Stars, Grangetown, Roath, Post Office and St. David’s. The meeting unanimously resolved “that a local Rugby Union for junior teams in Cardiff and district be formed.” The “Cardiff and District Football Union” would be open to any junior teams within nine miles of Cardiff. A couple of years later, this was extended to twelve miles, as it remains to this day. The Cardiff RFC Treasurer, Councillor J.P. Jones, was elected President while A. H. Williams and W. Martin Tunley were appointed Secretary and Treasurer respectively. Involving J.P. Jones was clearly a shrewd move as, a week later, financial support was promised from both the Cardiff club and from Penarth RFC too.
Unfortunately, it is not clear how many of the above clubs actually joined the C&DFU at this stage but Barry, Canton and Whitchurch were certainly members in the inaugural season. The new Union took responsibility for appointing referees and also began to exercise control over the movement of players. In March 1893, S. Tarr of Cardiff Alexandra achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first recorded player to be suspended by the District after he had turned out for Cardiff Northern without a transfer. The other matter to which the Union turned its attention was the selection of a representative District XV. Several trials were arranged and these attracted crowds of up to a thousand spectators.
Subsequently, the first ever Cardiff and District XV took the field in front of a large crowd at the Gnoll on Good Friday 1893. However, from the originally selected team, only one player - C. Harding of Canton - turned out, so perhaps it was no great surprise when Neath won the match comfortably by 25 points to nil. The XV which played that day was:
Wattie Davies (Northern); E. Jones (Canton), Harry Ashton (Llandaff), Thomas (Whitchurch), J. Davies (Llandaff); Frank Wheeler (Northern), Seeley (Northern); C. Harding (Canton), W. Bowen (Northern), T. Gunstone (Northern), F. Williams (Northern), W. Ashton (Llandaff), D. Rees (Cardiff Star), D. J. Evans (Canton), A. Rees (Cardiff Star).
Wattie Davies later joined Cardiff and then Batley, where he had a long and distinguished career in the Northern Union. The following season, Gwyn Nicholls - arguably the greatest player of the era - represented the District against Gloucester. The District XV also met Cardiff in 1893-4 at the ArmsPark in the first of a series of annual encounters which continued until the mid nineteen-sixties. Though the District was comfortably defeated in this match, the press reported that such was the quality of the opposition that Cardiff needn’t look beyond the District for new recruits in future. This perhaps was confirmed the next season when the District XV recorded victories over both the Bristol and Gloucester clubs. By September 1896, the press noted that at least twelve Cardiff players had previously played for Cardiff and District clubs and, within a decade, over a dozen Welsh internationals had done so too.
However, a primary objective of the founders of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union was to establish a competitive structure for member clubs and this was addressed in their second season. The Union had by then changed their meeting-place to the Blue Bell (now the Goat Major) in High Street, evidently because the licensee of the Market Hotel had moved there. That licensee was a certain Tom Mallett who, in November 1893, repaid the Union for their loyalty by presenting a twenty guinea (£21) silver cup for competition amongst affiliated clubs at a special ceremony at the Blue Bell. The Union immediately set about organising a knock-out tournament involving fifteen teams. The final was contested in April 1894 at the Harlequins Ground, where Cardiff Reserves, aided by Gwyn Nicholls, defeated Canton 8-0. The Mallett Cup was clearly an immediate success with both players and supporters. In earlier rounds, the Cardiff Reserves v Llandaff match drew 2,000 spectators to the ArmsPark while 500 watched Cardiff Hornets beat Blackweir. Perhaps not surprisingly, a few months after the first final, Tom Mallett was elected President. The lasting appeal of the cup which bears his name is demonstrated by its having been held every season – the war years apart - ever since. This is a remarkable achievement. The other teams which competed in the inaugural Mallett Cup were Barry, Pentyrch and Whitchurch (who along with Canton and Llandaff, 117 years later, all feature in the draw for the 2010-11 competition), while the Cardiff Northern, Cathays, Garth, Grange Stars, Grangetown and Splott Crusaders clubs all subsequently disbanded.
During the next decade, District competitions proliferated. The season after the first Mallett Cup was held, a trophy for the less powerful clubs in the District was inaugurated. The Union Shield, however, was evidently not quite as splendid a trophy as the Mallett Cup. Made by a committee-man, it cost a mere 45 pence. This situation would change, however, when it was later replaced by the Ninian Stuart Cup. For the seasons 1894-5 and 1895-6, it was decided that both the Mallett Cup and the Union Shield would be competed for on a league basis but, from 1896-7, they reverted permanently to a knock-out format. Separate First and Second Division Leagues were resumed in 1897-8, a Third (age restricted) Division was added in 1899-1900 and a Fourth Division six years later. Two other knock-out cups, catering for age-restricted teams, were introduced in 1902-3 and 1905-6.
From 1897-8 onwards, the finals of the cup competitions were always held at the ArmsPark and they immediately became a popular climax to the local rugby calendar. These games were often fiercely competitive and were not always attractive to watch. The long-serving District official, A. H. Williams, had a regular column in the local press and on one occasion he sarcastically wrote, “There is a story of a man going to watch a Mallett Cup final expecting to see Rugby played, but it is too far-fetched to be true.” The physicality of the play sometimes spilled over to the spectators, and for some crucial matches, the District found it necessary to engage police officers to control the behaviour of the supporters. Nevertheless, apart from being invited to join Cardiff and going on to play for Wales, winning a Mallett Cup medal quickly became the height of any local player’s ambition.
Teams from Canton were amongst the most successful Mallett Cup sides in the years 1894-1914. Cardiff Romilly were remarkably dominant between 1901 and 1909 when they won the cup five times and were runners-up twice. During that period, they became the first club to win the trophy three times in succession. Canton RFC recorded two wins and were runners-up on six occasions, while Canton Wanderers also won twice and were beaten finalists twice. The only other club to win the Mallett Cup more than once before the First World War were Roath-based Mackintosh, who were successful three times and they also reached the final on two other occasions. It was a very different story in the Union Shield/Ninian Stuart Cup, however, where no club won the tournament more than once during the period. Unfortunately, the records for the league competitions are incomplete, but Canton seem to have been the most consistent league side, taking the title on at least four occasions between 1902 and 1907. In 1907, they became the first team to win both league and cup in the same season. The leagues and the Mallett Cup are today sponsored by SA Brain & Co (indeed this has been the case for over 35 years now); and Chris and Charles Brain are Patron and Vice-Patron respectively. However, the family connection goes back to the very early days of the Cardiff and District Union, as Councillor S.A. Brain was elected President for a period during the 1890s.
As has been seen, the WRU had not been keen to admit too many local clubs, but it is a measure of how successful the fledgling District Union had become that only a few years after its formation it was actually invited to affiliate to the national Union. In 1898, the District became the first organisation of its kind to become a WRU member. This was a clever move by the WRU because all of Cardiff and District’s clubs were now brought under its jurisdiction without admitting any of them to full membership.
A recently discovered District handbook for 1908-9 provides some interesting detail about the officials and the clubs in membership that season. Tom Mallett was now the Patron of the renamed the Cardiff and District Rugby Union, while Gwyn Nicholls had been appointed President. R.W. John was the Secretary and A.H. Williams the Treasurer. The handbook also records all the member clubs that year. Each season these were allocated to “Divisions” which determined their playing status and which cup and league competitions they could enter. The “senior” clubs in First Division were: Adamsdown, Canton, Canton Wanderers, Cardiff Fruiterers, Cardiff Quins, Cardiff Romilly, Cardiff Rovers, St. Peter’s, Mackintosh and Whitchurch, while Cardiff Roxbrough, Dinas Powys, Llandaff and Penylan were non-league “senior” clubs. That season Cardiff Romilly beat Cardiff Quins 6-3 in the final of the Mallett Cup. The more “junior” clubs in the Second Division were: Canton Quins, Cardiff Barbarians, Cardiff East, Cardiff United, Cardiff Welsh, Garth, Grange Harriers Grange Institute, North Central Wagon Works and St. Paul’s. In the 1908-9 Union Shield, Grange Harriers beat Cardiff Welsh 6-0. The Third Division comprised Under 19 teams: Canton Crescents, Canton Rovers, Cardiff Centrals, Grange Barbarians, Grange Windsors, Llandaff North Old Boys, Penarth Thistles and Taff Juniors. Both St. Saviour’s Mission and Whitchurch Crescents were non-league. In 1908-9, the A.H. Williams Cup was won by Cardiff Centrals who beat Grange Windsors 3-0.
Of the thirty-four member clubs in 1908, only five still exist today and this demonstrates the changing configuration of the game over the seasons. Most teams functioned with only a limited number of members and the departure of a few key players or officials could easily precipitate a club’s sudden demise. Teams might win a competition one season and go out of existence the next. The rapidity with which clubs rose and fell was very marked and teams were formed, split, merged, renamed, disbanded and re-formed with bewildering frequency. This was a constant administrative difficulty for the District in the early years.
The Union Shield was eventually replaced following a special ceremony at the Sandringham Hotel in St. Mary Street in January 1911, when the Ninian Stuart Cup was formally handed over to the chairman of the District. Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart was the second son of the Marquis of Bute, who was then still the owner of the ArmsPark. He was known to be interested in sport but his generosity may have also had something to do with the fact that Ninian Stuart was standing for Parliament in a forthcoming election. He did indeed become M.P. for Cardiff later that year but sadly, only five years later, he was killed in action during the Battle of Loos. His statue stands in the GordseddGardens opposite the NationalMuseum. It was decided that the splendid cup bearing his name should replace the Union Shield and so it was first competed for in the 1910-11 season when Cardiff Nomads became the first club to hold it after they defeated Cardiff Welsh 4-0 in the final at the ArmsPark. The 2010-11 season, therefore, marks the centenary of this trophy, sponsored for a number of years now by Richard Kemble Ceilings.
Entrants to the District’s competitions around this time were by no means restricted to “Cardiff” clubs. The last three winners of the Ninian Stuart Cup before the First World War all came from outside the city. These were Senghenydd, Penarth United and Barry, while teams from Beddau, Llantrisant, Llanharan, Caerphilly, Llanbradach, Taffs Well and even Newport all took part in Cardiff and District competitions from time to time.
When the Cardiff and District Union was founded in 1892, it set itself four main objectives. These were to foster rugby football; to settle all disputes between member clubs; to recognise club and individual merit; and to support Cardiff RFC. During the twenty years up to the First World War, it can be confidently asserted, the District was successful in achieving these objectives. Compared to the somewhat chaotic nature of the early days, the game at a local level was now well organised and administered. Match referees were appointed and player transfers were controlled. Of course, much of the officials’ time was spent in dealing with problems like foul play, breaches of age restrictions and disputes between clubs, but at least there was now a mechanism in place for their resolution. A representative XV regularly took the field, giving promising players the opportunity to perform at a higher level. A comprehensive cup and league programme created a competitive structure within which clubs could rise to prominence and be rewarded for their efforts. And the benefit to the Cardiff club was clear: as early as 1897, the Cardiff Chairman was declaring that most of the club’s players came from “the ranks of her own junior clubs”. By 1914, therefore, the Cardiff and District Rugby Union had become indispensible to the well-being of rugby football at the grassroots level. So it remains.