By 1881, games lessons started at half-past-two. Boys would arrive at the pitches from about two o’clock and punt the ball around on the Little Field. When the Captain of Football arrived, he would shout “Come up, please!” and that was the signal for the practice to begin, Games lessons lasted for one hour. By 1881 there were ten further sides in addition to the First XV and some fixtures lasted three days, eighty minutes per day being played.
In 1856 the school first used ‘a field lying a little way out of the town’, this being Abboty or Naperty Hall, costing £33 per annum rent, raised by H.J. Rawlinson, Captain of Games. This land, ‘the finest piece of ground in Dorset, perhaps in the South of England’ (1860), soon became known as ‘The Upper’, but it sloped away and, as a result, was badly drained, very muddy and likely to be dangerous. Even after the land was levelled in 1869, rugby was by no means a safe activity. To the side of the Upper stood the Lower and, at one end, ‘Little Field’, which was bought from Wilmott’s, the silk weaver, for the sum of £860 in 1888 by Edward Young, Headmaster from 1877 to 1892. Subsequently known as ‘Young’s Field’ it was bequeathed to the school in 1900 and is now the site of an astroturf hockey pitch. The present pavilion was erected in 1877, the clock added in 1913 and the balcony doubled in area in 1954.
‘Carey’s’ is named after the sports-loving Housemaster of Abbey House, Godfrey Carey (1872-1927), who had been in Abbeylands as a boy from 1886 to 1891 before playing rugby for England. There is some evidence that this land had been used by the school as early as 1899. North of the hedge stood Hyle Farm, twelve acres of which was purchased by the governors in 1952, levelled ten years later and known as ‘Ross’s’, after Alick Trelawny-Ross, who had purchased Westbridge Farm for the school in 1928, when it had taken on the name ‘Carey’s’. This series of purchases enabled the immediate post-war spectator to look across fifteen wintry rugby pitches with the Abbey as a timeless backdrop.
One popular fixture from the 1890s was against Llandovery College. To save travel expenses, both sides travelled to a mid-way point for the fixture, this destination being none other than Cardiff Arms Park. By 1848 this sports ground was hosting cricket matches and its growth in popularity led to its redevelopment in 1912 into what would become the Welsh national stadium; by this stage, of course, inter-school fixtures on the pitch had become a thing of the past. A main stand to house 300 spectators had been built in 1882 following the designs of the famous architect Archibald Leitch. One entry in the Sherborne School accounts for 1908 for team transport says: ‘Saloon (GWR) to Cardiff £0-15-0.’
There remain a few grainy photos of Shirburnians in early rugby kit. This would be a jersey and shorts, whilst longer flannel trousers were worn for the more formal occasions, such as a team photograph. ‘If all wore [separate uniforms] in football, it would greatly enliven an otherwise dull scene to those who do not understand fully the fine play of the game’, said one letter to The Shirburnian in July 1867. Another correspondent felt ‘white flannel knickerbockers, a jersey with blue stripes and a skull cap of blue velvet with a white silk tassel would be a very good sort of uniform’ (October 1868). Two months later a kit of red and black hoops with matching cap was purchased, worn until 1874, when the still-familiar light blue was adopted; School House played in all white and Curteis’ house (Abbey House) wore broad dark blue and white hooped shirts.
In 1893 the outdated jersey was finally replaced by the more familiar football shirt; its appearance was very similar to those worn today. By 1885 the school had understood that two colours were needed for training, such that one practice session on the Upper that year was labelled as ‘Whites v Stripes’ and the passing was markedly improved, now that players knew who was in their team. Prior to the so-called Wessex Dragon badge in 1899, the left breast of jersey and shirt alike was practically covered by a large badge of floral design, surrounded by the royal motto, irreverently known as the ‘cabbage’. For many years white knee breeches, not shorts, were worn; blue shorts date only from 1941.
The scrum was generally known at Sherborne in the early years as the ‘grovel’. This word was the most frequently used of Sherborne rugby slang words, its origin stemming from the regular ejecting of outsiders from School House. In 1879, The Shirburnian congratulated the XV on the improvements which had taken place in their performance in the ‘grovel’. At this time, a typical line-up would comprise ten forwards, two quarter-backs, two half-backs and a full-back.