ABOVE: Penryn RFC Team Photo 1884-1887
Penryn owes the beginning of its Rugby, if long-ago memories are to be trusted, to a watchmaker and a pig's bladder.
The watchmaker's name was John Marshall Thomas, and in 1872 he returned to Penryn from London, where he had served his time learning everything there was to be learned about clocks and watches, and set himself up as a jeweler.
While in London he had interested himself, in his spare time, in Rugby. He had played for Blackheath - and when he came back to Penryn he was intrigued to see, on the Town Quay, the young men of the borough kicking around a rag ball in a vaguely Rugby fashion. They were stone-cutters and bargemen and quay-porters - the name, in those days, for dockers - and John Marshall Thomas suggested that a better ball than a rag one would be an inflated pig's bladder. 'With something to protect it', he said. 'A covering?', they said. 'Yes', he said. 'To make it last longer'. So they decided upon canvas sail-cloth, a commodity readily at hand, and they blew through the stem of a broken clay pipe to inflate the bladder, and Rugby, on an organised basis in Penryn, was born.
But what no-one appears to be completely sure of, was when Rugby football actually began in Penryn. Was it in 1872, when John Marshall Thomas returned (and who, incidentally, introduced the red and black hooped shirts of Blackheath to Penryn) or was it before that, when a team from the local Freeman's granite yard played a team from Sara's Foundry in a field near the Cross Keys Hotel?
No-one really knows, but it is surely enough to record that Penryn officially celebrated its centenary in 1972; that it is today the most senior of all Cornwall's clubs; that it has maintained a reputation much to be envied; and that in a quite unique fashion it has upheld the strongest of bonds with the tiny town that gave it birth.
By 1877, The 'Borough' were a side of excellence. John Marshall Thomas was its captain, and only one game was lost - that against Hayle - for the whole of the season. In the 1880's, too, there was no club side throughout Devon and Cornwall who could afford to take Penryn lightly. Through the seasons of 1885, 1886, 1887 and 1888 they stormed to being just about the best club side around.
There were at that time some quite outstanding players in the Penryn side, not the least of them their full-back Billy Halls, who, as well as tackling with immense ferocity, kicked a prodigious length. In the late 1880's, a national weekly magazine, Answers, offered a £5 prize for the player who could kick a Rugby ball the farthest. The competition was open to the entire United Kingdom, and Billy Halls won it with a kick of 79 yards, 30 inches.
The late 1880's, however, were marked, in Penryn, with more significant happenings than that - more significant and more sad. A massive slump hit Cornish mining and the town's important granite industry, and many of Penryn's finest players - Billy Halls among them - emigrated.
Penryn in the early 1900's went through a particularly difficult time, but in 1910 there came to the town a man called Dr. L. B. Hopper. He was an Oxford Blue and an England international, and to him, more than to anybody, credit is due for the club's survival up to the outbreak of the war. He took over an ailing club and reorganised it. Additionally, Hopper provided the verve and interest needed to span the fallow war years, and a foundation from which Penryn could resume their Rugby when the war ended.
In one of the first post-War seasons, Penryn became the champions of Cornwall, whilst their reserve side took the Junior title - a joint feat that had never been achieved before; and into the Borough side, in those years of recovery, came a succession of talented young players, - none more admired than the legendary George Jago, who, incidentally, to the delight of the Penryn club, joined, in 1982, in a re-union of former players.
Jago was one of those players who come to a club - if they are a fortunate club, that is - once in a generation. His speed was formidable, and no-one could score tries from deeper positions than he could. Against Gloucestershire in one match he scored 13 pts; for Penryn, in 1921-22, he set up a club record with 261 points, and the Penryn threequarter line in the days when he was part of it was the finest in the county.
Jago, however, was not alone. The surname Richards figured large in the Penryn side of the Twenties. Arthur, a prop forward, played for Cornwall (as Jago did) 25 times; Harry was at scrum¬half; but so, too, was his brother Eddie, who, according to the memories of those who saw him play, worked the Penryn scrum better than any scrum-half, before him or since him, ever has.
When the Second World War ended, the club not only immediately fielded an attractive side, but also, under an equally enthusiastic band of officials, led by Mr. Nelson Barrett, set about improving their Parkengue ground. It was a formidable task of much faith, and it all came to fruition on September 27th, 1947. The ground was re-named the Memorial Ground, in lasting memory of the 14 club players who had died in the two wars, and Aberavon, one of the foremost Welsh clubs of the day, came to play the Borough in tribute. A copy of the match programme for the game which included information on the memorials can be seen here and on the following two slides: Match Programme for Opening of Memorial Ground & Gates It was the forging of a friendly Celtic link with Wales who, for years afterwards, continued to bring some of their finest teams to Penryn.
Another major name in the history of the club is Victor Roberts who achieved an illustrious Rugby playing career as any Cornishman has ever achieved. At Falmouth Grammar School he had not been thought worthy of his Rugby colours, but in front of him, as a player of tremendous courage, exceptional style and noteworthy commitment, were 16 caps for England, 45 for Cornwall, the captaincy of England, and the Freedom of his native town. Few Rugby players have achieved so much; none have deserved it more.
The 'Admission to the Honorary Freedom of the Borough' came to Vic Roberts in 1956, 'he being a person of distinction in Sport, whereby he has brought the name of the Town to the attention of the Nation': and as things turned out, two other notable Penryn players were subsequently to be similarly honoured: Roger Hosen and Ken Plummer. Both played for England (Hosen, 10 times; Plummer, 4), and both played more than 50 times for Cornwall: and it is a measure of Penryn's embracement of Rugby football that its burgesses should set such a lustre upon it.