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. 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 Vie 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.
It is, however, hardly surprising - for one of the things that has distinguished Rugby in Penryn is that town and team have been so much at one. Much of the Rugby there has been played by young local men anxious to parade their skills to their own locality. The game began on the riverside quays of the town, and among the men who worked in glistening granite quarries, - and the 'Local-ness' of its origins has never been forgotten. Even as late as the 1960's, when Roger Hosen was kicking goals not for Penryn but for Northampton, there were those in Penryn who still nodded wisely and said, 'Ah, when he was a boy he lived in sight of the Memorial Ground!' ..... as if that explained it all. Players of the calibre of Graham Bate, another in the extraordinary line of Penryn full-backs (in the season of 1967-68, when 'Borough' won all their 29 games and scored 534 points in the process, Bate got 318 of them), and Roger Harris (who played 62 times for Cornwall) were the proof of it. Penryn’s last players to have represented England were Chris Martin, who gained four caps in 1984-85, Tom Voyce (nine caps 2001-2006), who started in Penryn's junior teams, and Hugh Vyvyan.
The 1960’s were a golden era for Penryn. They won the CRFU ‘unofficial’ Championship eight times and the Cornwall Cup in the first season it was re-started . In the 1967/68 season they were unbeaten, winning all 29 of their Cornish inter-club games. (The above section is adapted from Tom Salmon's 'The First One Hundred Years: The Story of Rugby Football in Cornwall').
The reintroduction of the Cornwall Cup for the 1967/68 season saw some more memorable days for Penryn. Three finals in a row were reached, winning the first against Redruth (5-0), losing the second to St. Ives (6-3) and drawing the third against 'The Hakes' (8-8). In this era, winning the Cornwall Cup allowed entry into the RFU Knockout Cup (later to become the John Player Cup) and it was in the 1970s that Penryn take part in some truly huge matches.
Cornwall Cup Wins in 1971/72 and 1972/73 (against St. Ives 11-7 and 21-0) gave Penryn an RFU Knockout Cup clash at Exeter (the now Premiership Chiefs), which Borough drew 10-10, but progressed due to being the away team. This earned Penryn a home Quarter-Final against the mighty Coventry who could field nine internationals, including the likes of England legend David Duckham who scored a try in the Midlanders 28-4 win.
The following season saw Borough overcome Exeter again, this time 13-4 in Devon before a historic Quarter-Final clash at The Memorial Ground with the mighty London Welsh side, who in those years could boast the likes of John Dawes, J.P.R. Williams, Gerald Davies and John Taylor. The Exiles took the honours 19-6.
1973/74 saw another big name side, Rosslyn Park, visit Penryn in the RFU Cup competition. Fielding players such as Phil Keith-Roach and Andy Ripley, the South-West Londoners emerged with a narrow 7-0 win. The two sides met again in the competition in 1975/76 at the second round stage at Rosslyn Park's ground in Priory Lane. Borough had overcome St. Luke's College, Exeter 32-7 in the opening round, with Park comprehensively downing Marlow 41-3. Once more, it was the London team who took the honours, this time 39-3.
If those games were not big enough, there was the small matter of the visit of the British & Irish Lions in 1973. This remains the only time that the Lions have played a British club side. The select XV that was fielded by our illustrious visitors that day contained the vast majority of the side who had won the 1971 series in New Zealand. Among those who appeared for the Lions that day were Derek Quinnell, Barry John, Mervyn Davies, Stack Stevens, JPR Williams, John Taylor, Mike Roberts Ian Mclauchlan and John Dawes. For the record, the Lions won 38-10.
Further appearances in the Cornwall Cup Final occurred in 1974/75 (when Penzance & Newlyn were defeated 11-0), 1979/80 (29-0 loss to Redruth), 2001/02 (27-20 defeat by Truro), 2004/05 (beaten 49-28 by Launceston) and 2015/16 (Camborne winning 62-8).
In League rugby, over the past twenty years, Penryn spent many years in what is now South-West One West (Level Six). April 2001 saw relegation to Western Counties West, but it all changed in 2001/2, with The Borough winning most of their matches and finishing in second place. Exmouth were promoted automatically, and in the ensuing play-off versus St Mary’s Old Boys in Bristol, Penryn were unable to beat their rivals and were condemned to another season at the lower level. But it had been a great league season, played 22, won 19, lost 3. The greatest day of that year was winning a CRFU Quarter Final Cup tie against Redruth 21–19.
It was different in 2002/3. The club went through the season with a 100% record scoring 1059 points in the process, consequently, season 2003/4 saw Penryn back in South West 2 West. It started well with five wins out of six by mid October. And so it went on, with the Club ending the season in 2nd place, having won 15 of their 22 matches. So Penryn were faced with a play off for the third promotion spot to SW1, and what a wonderful day at Swanage and Wareham that turned out to be. With less than 20 minutes remaining Penryn were 19 points adrift, and had not scored. The Borough came back with scores to make it 19-16 to the home team after 40 minutes. In the 4th minute of injury time Penryn drove over the line, and the conversion gave them a 23–19 victory.
The subsequent promotion to what is now the South-West Premier was an incredible achievement, and their stay at Level Five lasted two seasons, facing off against clubs like Cinderford, Clifton and Chinnor. Frequent travel to the outskirts of London was a massive challenge, and in April 2006, Penryn were relegated to South West 2 West, and then to Western Counties West, and at the end of the 2007/8 season to Cornwall & Devon, their lowest since leagues were started. However, promotion was secured and 'The Borough' spent several seasons at Western Counties West level before being crowned champions in 2011 for a one season spell in South-West Two West. Four seasons were played back in Western Counties rugby, before relegation to the Cornwall/Devon League for the 2016/17 season, where they finished fifth last time round.
(Thanks to Dermot Shier who provided the vast majority of the latter three paragraphs).