The Cabbage Patch
On Halloween, a year from now, the final of the Rugby World Cup will take place at the world’s biggest and most famous rugby stadium. With a hi-tech playing surface enclosed by covered stands, three steepling tiers of seats accommodating 82,000 spectators, a four-star hotel, a health and leisure club and its own museum, Twickenham is the epitome of the modern sports arena. It is hard to imagine, then, the humble beginnings of this hallowed patch of turf, when the only bean-poles present were those used for growing beans.
At the beginning of the last century, England rugby did not have a permanent home. The team was permanently on tour, playing games at such venues as the Kennington Oval and Crystal Palace, Blackheath, Richmond and further afield at Bristol and Leeds. However, following sell-out matches at Crystal Palace against the touring sides of the New Zealand ‘Originals’ in 1905 and South Africa in 1906, the Rugby Football Union realised that there was money to be made from the amateur game. William Cail, treasurer of the RFU, proposed the notion of constructing a dedicated stadium for the England team.
Sportsman, referee and property developer William Williams was appointed chairman of the New Ground Committee and tasked with finding a suitable plot of land. Various locations were considered, including Stamford Bridge until Chelsea Football Club snapped it up. Eventually, in 1907, the RFU spent £5,572, 12 shillings and sixpence to acquire the ten and a quarter acres of muddy market garden at the Fairfield Estate in the London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Set on the floodplain of the River Crane and the Duke of Northumberland’s River, where allotments were used to grow fruit and vegetables, it was an unlikely choice. A stadium took shape. Covered stands were built on the East and West sides for 3,000 spectators each. A concrete terrace was constructed for 7,000 to stand at the South, with an open mound to the North accommodating a similar number. A parking area was laid down for carriages and the increasingly fashionable motor-cars. Debentures covered the cost of £8,812, 15s. A further £1,606, 9s, 4d was ploughed in to add fencing and drainage, and to raise the pitch above the Crane’s regular outpourings.Before the first game was played, a further £20,000 was invested. Roads were improved and entrances built. Changing rooms, baths, committee and tea rooms were added beneath the West Stand; a press-box and refreshment room to the East.
Local club Harlequins were invited to be tenants, and contested the first five games played at the stadium. In the inaugural game, on 2 October 1909, Harlequins beat Richmond 14–10 in front of fewer than 2,000 spectators. The ‘New Ground’ received its first reviews. It was too far from central London. Transport and access were poor. The grass was compared to “the hair of some of our clever friends at the opening performance, a little too artistic in the matter of length.” Twickenham was labelled a “damned great white elephant” and acquired the nickname of Billy Williams’Cabbage Patch. Today, it remains ‘The Patch’.
Against this inauspicious background, Twickenham prepared to host its first international on 15 January 1910, the first year of the Five Nations. To add to the ill omens, England’s opponents were Wales, who they had not beaten for twelve years.The London Standard reported:
“To-day at Twickenham, English Rugby Football will be put to the test by Wales, and a great sporting world will be stirred. The occasion is a momentous one; we look to it to add another page to the history of an old game that even to-day, when commercialism has eaten deep into many branches of sport, has only to do with chivalry.”
To picture that first match, we have to first picture a very different world. The average annual salary in 1910 was about £70 for men and £30 for women, and a 3-bedroom house could be rented for £15 a year. There were no televisions, and radio took the form of homemade crystal sets. Dr Crippen would at the end of this month poison his wife. It was the year of the first B-type double-decker buses, and two years before the opening of Twickenham Film Studios. It was a good year for stadium building, with the opening of Old Trafford in England and Ninian Park in Wales. The Liberal, Herbert Asquith, was Prime Minister, and the Prince of Wales, who attended the match, would a few months later succeed to the throne as George V. Special bus and tram services helped 18,000 spectators get to the ground, but congestion delayed the 2.45 pm kick-off for ten minutes. Early photographs show the stadium against a backdrop of open fields, with streets of houses only at one end. Seas of people, mostly men, squeezed into the stands, sporting overcoats and bowler hats.
The official programme, a double-sided printed sheet, could be had for one penny. It listed the teams alongside advertisements for Apollinaris, ‘Queen of Table Waters’, on sale at all bars; the Railway Tavern with its well-appointed skittles saloon; Allan Straker, maker of rugby balls; George Lewin & Co, sporting outfitters; and The People, for the best reports of Rugby and Association matches. It included a programme of the band’s tunes plus the matchday routes of the London United Tramway Company.
The England team wore white shirts with a red rose, but players wore their club socks. Harlequins socks were sported by three of the backs: Ronnie Poulton, John Birkett and the England captain Adrian Stoop. Freddie Chapman scored from the Welsh kickoff, after a run by Stoop, setting the stage for a surprise 11–6 English victory. The London Standard reported:
“And at Twickenham, which was the rendezvous, there was much enthusiasm. The sight was one to be long remembered. Some 20,000 people had come to see the match. At the close there was a stampede across the field that had been churned into mud, and there was one long, deep-chested shout of joy, for an English success had not been expected.”
No surprise that the cabbage patch had been churned into mud. But it was the start of a golden age for England, on and off the field. The RFU made a £2,000 profit while the team went on to win the inaugural Five Nations and would not lose another Championship match until Scotland beat them in 1926, 23 games and the devastation of a World War later.
That first Twickenham international was a world away from next year’s Rugby World Cup final, but the Twickenham roar had found its voice. Captain Stoop referred to the lucky ground as ‘The Good Fairy of Twickenham’, and it was not the last time that England’s players would be carried from the cabbage patch like kings.
* Twickenham Stadium is a half hour walk from the luxury serviced apartments at 20 The Barons. We will be releasing our World Cup accommodation prices on 20 November 2014.