A history to be proud of
August 26, 2011
A group of boys play rugby oppositie Cardiff City Hall in 1935 © Getty Images
Wales may now have to import national coaches, while clubs that once worried the All Blacks trail their counterparts from England, Ireland and France, but there are still ways in which it leads the rugby world.
No nation's game has been better served by historians. Thirty years on from Fields of Praise, still the benchmark for national histories, comes a similarly standard-setting work in Gwyn Prescott's this rugby spellbound people: Rugby football in Nineteenth Century Cardiff and South Wales. (At this point I should offer a small declaration of interest - one of my own books came from the same publisher - but would hope that consideration will not detract from the simple excellence of Prescott's work.)
An academic with an impressive rugby lineage that includes captaincy of Wales Secondary Schools and being a relative of Bleddyn Williams, he brings a vital new local and regional dimension to our knowledge of the game. This is not a club history - after all we have plenty of those - but a study of a city as a whole.
It repairs the peculiar gap Prescott identifies in previous accounts of Cardiff history (and those of many other places), that historians acutely aware of the importance of every literature or musical society and capable of tracking minute shifts in land tenure have been wholly deaf to the significance of games played or watched by thousands every week.
To do this, Prescott has become in effect a rugby archaeologist, constructing his picture from the minute, fragmentary detail to be found in thousands of newspaper articles. He is aware of the limitations of newspaper sources, but rightly emphasises their immense strength - that they reach a world far beyond official archives. As he points out, the vast majority of rugby in Cardiff in this period was played by clubs who never remotely aspired to membership of the Welsh Rugby Union.
He shows that the growth of rugby from a marginal pursuit in the 1860s to the position evoked by his title quote - which comes from an Irish Times report of the 1905 Wales v All Blacks match - parallels and draws on the similarly dynamic expansion of a community whose population grew 100 fold between 1801 and 1911, with the most spectacular expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century.
He is not only concerned with Cardiff. In putting the town (it only attains city status in, suitably enough, 1905) in a wider Welsh context, he adds to our understanding of the national game's development. He will undoubtedly occasion flutterings further west by questioning Neath's claim to be the oldest senior Welsh club.
He is also acutely aware of anecdotes that show how the game in Wales rapidly became the vehemently contested, contentious and sometimes violent activity it remains today - we read of Newport refusing to return a trophy after a disputed defeat, of players from Cardiff and Swansea coming to blows, of Newport and Cardiff newspapers taking widely divergent views of the same game and, perhaps most arresting, of theological students at Lampeter accused of punching and biting.
He also has the good historian's eye for contemporary resonance, not hesitating to draw the clear modern message from the Western Mail's 1896 verdict on the Arms Park 'the value of this piece of ground to the Cardiff Football Club is really untold, and they will never rightly value it until they have to shift!'
The lessons go beyond the questionable decision-making of twenty-first century regional franchises. The symbolic significance of the Millennium Stadium looming over Wales's capital has been lost on few modern visitors, but long before the site was a symbol, it was of immense practical importance. One reason, Prescott points out, why rugby grew so rapidly in Cardiff was the ready availability of accessible grounds like the Arms Park and Sophia Gardens - nowadays the location for Cardiff's Test cricket ground.
Another was the late arrival of other codes. That reference in 1896 to 'Cardiff Football Club' needed no qualification. 'Football' was rugby, and nothing else. One of the most entertaining quotes in the book recalls the embarrassment of an early soccer enthusiast at attracting attention for carrying 'one of those funny round balls'.
Most of all he shows how rugby provided a sense of identity - and locality expressed by the rapid growth of street and neighbourhood teams who fuelled the game's growth in a pattern echoing that of the similarly fast-growing towns of England's industrial north - for the population drawn into Cardiff by its headlong, coal-fuelled expansion.
And because clubs were a focus for local identities, it became important that they should win - an emphasis which meant that Welsh clubs rapidly became more concerned with the ability rather than social standing of their players and led to the much broader social mix that became the defining characteristic - and asset - of the Welsh game. Nor does it do any harm to this West Wales-descended writer's sense of identity to learn that Swansea appear to have been a little ahead of the other town clubs in this respect.
While concerned with institutions and trends, the book is not short on intriguing people. We learn of Cardiff's first working-class player Dick Kedzlie, of intriguingly-named club captain Raoul Foa, of the teenager who was already an office-holder in multiple clubs and of the astonishing Angus Stuart, of whom Prescott remarks that it is hard to be sure of his precise social background, and who carried that imprecision into questions of national identity since he was born in Scotland, had a Wales trial and played for both Great Britain and New Zealand.
But the most important character in the book is the city itself - the vibrantly growing petit Chicago observed by a French visitor of this period. Prescott observes that 'just as Fields of Praise argues that the sport contributed to a newfound sense of nationhood, so it could be claimed that, at a local level, rugby also contributed to a new sense of citizenship'.
The parallel is no idle one. In his scrupulously researched, well-written and admirably economical work (If fiction, which emphatically it is not, it would be too short for the Booker prize), Gwyn Prescott has done for Cardiff what Dai Smith and Gareth Williams did for Wales with Fields of Praise - given it a history to be proud of.
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