The birth of Rugby Football at Sherborne School

Charles Thomas Penrose (1816-1868) Headmaster of Sherborne School 1845-1850

In 1846, Headmaster Charles Penrose introduced the game of Rugby Football to Sherborne School.

A nephew and pupil of the great Headmaster of Rugby School, Dr Thomas Arnold, Charles Penrose would have been familiar with the game that had originated at that school in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it.’

A contemporary of Penrose’s at Rugby School was Thomas Hughes who would later describe in his novel Tom Brown’s School Days the excitement of the early days of Rugby-style football played at the school: ‘This is worth living for, the whole sum of school-boy existence gathered up into one straining, struggling half-hour, a half-hour worth a year of common life.’

It has also been suggested that Hughes may have based the character of Old Brooke on Penrose, who he described as ‘head of the School House side and the best kick and charger in Rugby’.

Penrose went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the winning Cambridge crew in the 1839 Boat Race and was awarded a rowing ‘blue’.  After a brief stint teaching at Oakham School in Rutland, he was appointed Headmaster of Grosvenor College in Bath.  However, the following year the headmastership at Sherborne School became available on the resignation of the Rev. Ralph Lyon.  Penrose, then aged 29, applied with 33 others for the prestigious post and was successful, and in July 1845 the family was welcomed to Sherborne with a ‘merry peal of bells’.

However, Penrose was not a well man and was forced to resign his headmastership after just five years.  Today, Penrose has been largely forgotten at Sherborne: there are no portraits of him Oldand no boarding house is named in his memory.  But, Penrose should be remembered as the man who introduced rugby football to the school, thus giving Sherborne a long start in the tradition of the game.  For this alone Penrose deserves a worthy place in the history of Sherborne School.

Sherborne School in 1845 (from an engraving by Nathaniel Whittock)

Prior to 1846, the only winter game of which there is any record of at Sherborne was hockey.  Even after the introduction of rugby football, cricket remained for many years the major sport at Sherborne, with as late as 1878 a letter appearing in The Shirburnian stating that ‘of course it will always be considered a greater honour to be in the 1st Eleven than in the Fifteen.’

For the first twenty years or so the rules of Sherborne rugby football seem to have been a mixture of Rugger and Soccer, until 1872 when rugby rules were permanently adopted. The game was evidently very rough with hacking, tripping and scragging permitted.  A try was scoreless unless the conversion was kicked; one game in 1879 was lost, even though eight (unconverted) tries were scored to one (converted try).

A game of rugby at Sherborne in 1884. Drawn by James Leonard Mackenzie (Abbeylands 1882-1885)

Until 1865, only one game of rugby football was played a week, although teams could include up to forty players a-side and could last for two or three days.  The early games were not played between houses but were formed from random groups within the School, such as the Organ v. Pulpit Side of the Chapel, Cornwall and Devon v. The World, Fellows with an E in their name v. The School.

The first 1st XV

In 1868, rugby football was finally made a ‘School Game’ alongside cricket.  A School XV was formed and a team photograph was taken outside what was then the Headmaster’s house at the east end of Sherborne Abbey.  From that date up to the present, there has been an unbroken sequence of School XVs, whose names are honoured in the Pavilion.

1st XV, 1868-1869. Standing (l to r): A.J. Sturmer, A.F.E. Forman (capt), W.B. de Winton, C.C. Tancock, L.E. Upcott, E.W. Holland, W.H. Game, J.F.T. Peter, H.T. Twynam, O.H. Channer, J.P. Wills. Seated (l to r): J.H.N. Barton, C. Eade, R.W. Boodle, E.S. Hall.

Team captain Arthur Forman (‘useful anywhere in the field’) went on to play cricket for Derbyshire (1877-1882) and became the father-in-law of a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher.  Henry Twynam played in the Cambridge University XV (captain 1879) and won eight caps for England at rugby between 1879 and 1884.  William Game played in the Oxford University XI (captain 1876) and was a member of Surrey XI.

Members of the 1st XV 1868.

The first house match

The first recorded house match was played in March 1868, between Tancock’s House (The Green) and the Day Boys against Curteis’ House (Abbey House) and Stanford’s House (a boarding house at the corner of Newland and Cheap Street).  During this game, as The Shirburnian reported, ‘in spite of the strenuous efforts of Forman, Cresswell and Boodle for the two houses, goals were kicked for their opponents by Wills and Eade.’ Possibly the largest win in a house match came in January 1911, when The Green scored 24 tries in beating Abbeylands by what today would be 152-0, although Curteis’ (Abbey House) beat Tancock’s (The Green) in October 1869 by ‘two goals and sixteen touches to nothing’, perhaps 94-0 by today’s reckoning. House colours were first introduced in 1886.

First fixture against another school

Having enjoyed rugby football, or at least a version of the game, for a number of years, Sherborne played its first fixture against another school in 1893. The fixture card shows that the game played on 9 December 1893 against Cheltenham College was added late in the season.

In a letter confirming the game, Cheltenham’s captain, Hugh Whittall, signs off ‘Hoping to have a pleasant match’.   Unfortunately, for Sherborne it wasn’t that pleasant for they lost 11-0 (or 17-0 by today’s scoring system).

The match report that appeared in The Shirburnian was, however, sanguine, about the result:

‘This match, the first played between these schools, took place at Cheltenham on December 9.  The ground was slippery and far from fast, and the home side won by a goal and two tries to nothing, after a rather uneventful, though by no means uninteresting, game… Sherborne were natural rather bustled at the start, but after the first ten minutes had little the worst of the game.  Besides the disadvantage of a strange ground, they have only recently begun to play four threequarters, which Cheltenham have done for eight or ten years.  No doubt a dry, fast ground would have suited Sherborne better.’

Those who attended the game noted the Cheltenham 1st XV wore a tie of the School colours on the day of any School match and suggested that Sherborne could do the same ‘for the benefit of outsiders and the smaller fellows, who I am sure, have not the very faintest idea who represents the School.

Fixtures were later instituted against Haileybury (1894), Tonbridge and St Paul’s (1895), Eastbourne College (1900), Llandovery (1901) and Clifton (1904), with the matches against St Paul’s and Tonbridge usually considered the highlight of the season.


Further reading:
Playing Fields & Pavilions
Unbeaten seasons
The Three Cock
The Football Song
Winners of the Public Schools 7-A-Side Tournament, 1953
1st XV team photographs
A.B. Gourlay, A History of Sherborne School (Sherborne, 1971).
D.F. Gibbs, A History of Football at Sherborne School (Sherborne, 1983).
Robert Hands, Rugby Football at Sherborne School  (Sherborne, 1991).

For further information about the Sherborne School Archives please contact the School Archivist.

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