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The Medal


This 3cm x 3cm (excluding loop) silver medal with its inscribed blue enamel garter surrounding the date 1888 was for a long time a mystery. People from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia freely put a lot of their time and effort into trying to establish what event it represented. The hard work of all those involved in doing so is very much appreciated. Particular thanks goes to the kind efforts of rugby historian and author Gwyn Prescott of Cardiff, Wales, who finally identified it. You can read a summary of his findings on the “About the Medal” page and view photographs of the Medal via the “Photos” link. Pages are being added as further background details are uncovered.

If anyone has information not already given here, or has any queries relating to this one-off 1888 rugby medal, please either use the “Contact” page and send me an email or, if you prefer, you can get in touch with my PR agent directly at Genesis Marketing.

I have endeavoured to add a few links to relevant sites of interest, including those belonging to the Cardiff Rugby Football and Penarth Rugby Football clubs, Cardiff Blues, Welsh Rugby Union, Cardiff Millennium Stadium websites and others, and will be adding more in time. Some of the sites not only give out current information relating to the clubs, but also include their own interesting history.

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Penarth & Barbarians

The History of Penarth RFC – and its Barbarian past

For a relatively small club, Penarth has played a hugely significant part in the history of the game of rugby.

The club was founded in 1879 by Cyril and Llewellyn Batchelor, the sons of John Batchelor – a local politician whose statue can still be found in The Hayes, Cardiff. The team was first known as the Batchelor XV before amalgamating with Penarth Dreadnoughts in 1882 and being renamed ‘Penarth Football Club’. However, they gloried in the rather more fearsome nickname of the ‘Donkey Island Butcher Boys’ – the early games were played on land owned by local butcher David Cornwall, where All Saints Church is now located in Victoria Square.

In 1891 the team started playing on land owned by the Earl of Plymouth on Stanwell Road – but games were postponed during the 1914 – 1918 Great War when the pitch was dug up to grow vegetables. Right from the start, Penarth RFC players were making their mark on the international scene, with caps for Wales being awarded to Richard Garrett (between 1889 – 1892), George Rowles (1892) and John M C Dyke (1906).

Many other players Penarth players were to follow, and Penarth continued to be one of Wales’ top teams until the 1970s – regularly playing against sides from Cardiff, Newport, Pontypridd, Pontypool, Bridgend, Swansea and Neath, as well as leading teams from across the Severn – including Bath and Gloucester.

The Barbarians FC

But in one very special respect, Penarth RFC occupies a unique niche in the history of rugby union: its annual Good Friday fixture with the world-famous Barbarians Football Club – always the first match in the “Baa-Baas” annual South Wales tour from 1901 onwards. Moreover, their tour was always based on Penarth’s Esplanade Hotel – which they described as their ‘spiritual home’. They would always go on to play Cardiff on the Saturday, Swansea on Easter Monday and Newport on the Tuesday – an astonishing fixture list which would be impossible to see replicated today!

And on their one day off? Easter Sunday was set aside for the Barbarians to play golf at the Glamorganshire Golf Club in Penarth, before going back to hold a gala party for the trip, sponsored by the Penarth RFC club. This, before turning out the next day for a head to head with Swansea RFC!

Over the 75 games between the Baa Baas and Penarth, the home team secured 11 victories and four draws. 1986 saw the final Penarth v Barbarians game, although a special commemorative centenary game was held in 2001 on the Athletic Field next to the Penarth clubhouse – on the day before the Barbarians played Wales at the Millennium Stadium. A plaque was unveiled at the clubhouse to mark the event.

According to the Barbarians’ official web site:

“The Barbarians are unique in that they have no ground, no clubhouse, no entry fee, no subscription, and the clubs they visit pay their expenses in the main. It is in every respect a touring club, for there are no ‘home’ matches. The nearest to a clubhouse was the spiritual home at Easter from 1901-1971, the Esplanade Hotel at Penarth where, as at The Glamorganshire Golf Club, players were cared for with great tolerance.”

Why is it so important?

Why is this medal so significant? Pivotal to the story of the medal is the time in which it was won – at a turning point of the game into an exciting, free-flowing sport which we would recognise today.

And Wales, in 1888, was where this revolution was taking place.

Wales and rugby union are now virtually synonymous. But until the 1870s rugby was not even played in Wales. The country was a ‘late adopter’ and it was probably former pupils at English public schools who brought it to the Principality when they returned home after their studies. Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Neath were amongst the first places to field teams.

That certainly helps explain the fact that the game was largely a middle class one during its early years: it was players like Dickie Garrett – Penarth’s captain in the 1888 team and a Wales cap – who best sums up this radical social shift: Garrett was a coal-tipper at Penarth docks by trade and he (eventually) lost his life when crushed by a coal truck.

The game played in the 1870s in Wales – and every other country for that matter – was a very different one than today. Teams of up to 20 were allowed, and forwards absolutely dominated the game: there was a lot of kicking for territorial advantage, very little passing of the ball and the ‘backs’ were there largely for defensive duties.

In the mid 1880s, an Englishman called Frank Hancock came to Cardiff and changed the way the game was played when he helped develop the ‘Welsh game’.

Hancock first played rugby in Somerset, and represented the county team. He moved to Cardiff to become involved in the family’s brewing company – and was soon scoring tries for them. Rather than dropping one of the other three regular backs to make way for Hancock, the club decided to play him as a fourth three-quarter and sacrifice a forward – which was unheard of then.

By the next season, Hancock was club captain and he took the tactical changes even further in the direction of the modern game – discouraging kicking and demanding a passing game of his players. That season, Cardiff recorded 131 tries for and four against: a massive vindication of his style of play. The tactic was then employed in the national side – but because not all of the players were acquainted with it, it didn’t succeed and this approach wasn’t to be used successfully for several years.

But soon, the ‘ Welsh game’ was being adopted by other clubs and, eventually, national sides too.

The Cardiff Football Union Cup, first played for in the season of 1886/87, also marked the coming of age of the game in south Wales in terms of participation too. In 1884, just 41 teams were recorded in the Cardiff area. By 1889, this had grown almost exponentially to well over 200.

This flowering was also explained by more and more working people taking up the sport. Consequently the game not only grew in popularity – but also in the size, speed and power of the players as colliers, dockworkers and labourers came into the game and made it a far more muscular sport.

Interestingly, the Cardiff Union Cup competition was effectively sponsored by a local sports outfitters, who paid for the cup to be made. It was a knock-out competition – first played for by around a dozen district clubs A body – the Cardiff District Football Union – was established to oversee it.

Cardiff Harlequins were the first winners, with Penarth, under the steely captaincy of Dickie Garrett, not only winning it in the next year – but in the subsequent two years as well.

Under the rules of the competition, this entitled Penarth to keep the cup – in the same way that the football world cup is now played. Sadly for the competition, this sounded its death knell and it was never contested again.

But it’s easy to see why this medal and this competition are so significant. In 1888 the game of rugby was at the crossroads, with Welsh tactics and Welsh ‘power play’ changing it forever from the game played by ex-public schoolboys. The team that won the medal – Penarth – would have been, for those days, an awesome side employing revolutionary tactics.

Arguably, these were as significant as the changes that marked it turning professional – perhaps even more so. This article has been made possible with the assistance of rugby historian Gwyn Prescott, who was responsible for identifying the medal and who is shortly to publish a book based on his research on rugby in Cardiff in the 19th century.