Historian plots impact of war on Sunderland sports club

Fate of First World War rugby team is revealed as historian Keith Gregson delves into the history of Ashbrooke Sports Club

The Asbrooke sports club pavilion today
The Asbrooke sports club pavilion today

The 15 players who lined up for a North East sports club’s rugby side at the start of the 1913-14 season could not have imagined what lay ahead.

A few months later they were lining up again – this time to enlist after the outbreak of the First World War.

Historian Keith Gregson, archivist for the Ashbrooke sports club in Sunderland, set out to discover what happened to the rugby 1st XV.

On Sunday, as part of the annual Heritage Open Days programme, Keith will give a talk on his findings and the impact of the war on the wider sports club. The free event is at 7pm in the club.

In all 42 rugby players from Ashbrooke joined up. By September 1914, a total of 224 club members across all sports, including cricket, hockey and bowls, had enlisted. It was to rise to more than 250.

Keith, who has embarked on a four-year project to uncover their fate, has tracked down 13 of the 15 rugby first teamers.

Asbrooke rugby players Edward Hayden Moore, back row, in front of post, and James Harry Edwards, back left, were both killed in the First World War
Asbrooke rugby players Edward Hayden Moore, back row, in front of post, and James Harry Edwards, back left, were both killed in the First World War

“It is a microcosm of what happened across the country. It shows how the war affected a small group of people from a small community,” says Keith, whose latest book, A Tommy in the Family, has just been published and which draws on stories from his own, his wife’s and friends’ families.

“For the sports club research, I thought that the players in today’s rugby team would be interested in what happened to those who occupied the same position in the side 100 years ago.”

On September 14, 1914, the club held a special meeting to wish their war-bound members good luck.

“Here we have a tight group – around the same age, living close to each other and, in many cases, joining up to fight side by side,” says Keith.

Edward Haydon Moore played for the 1st XV in the last two seasons leading up to the war. In 1914 he was 21 and was training to be a solicitor.

He joined the 3rd Yorks and Lancs Regiment as a captain. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded a Military Cross.

He died of wounds in April 1917 and is described on a roll of honour as “a true sportsman in every sense of the word”.

His brother Geoffrey was a pilot with the RFC and was also killed.

Another brother, Maurice, survived the war but later drowned.

The family was one of the most prominent in Ashbrooke. Father Maurice was also an army officer and was in charge of the North Divisional Cyclists.

The multi-talented Charles Pickersgill (centre front row in striped blazer)
The multi-talented Charles Pickersgill (centre front row in striped blazer)

Charles Pickersgill first appeared for the 1st XV as a 17-year-old in the 1904/5 season and captained the side both before and after the war. He was still playing rugby for the 3rd XV in his 50s .

He played for Durham County at cricket, rugby football and lawn tennis, amateur football for Sunderland AFC and was a member of the Sunderland Bowling Club which in 1932 and 1935 won the All England Bowls Championship.

Part of the shipbuilding Pickersgill family, during the war he served as 2nd Lieutenant and then captain in the 7th DLI.

John Hopper was the son of a ship broker and was captain of the side for the last year before the war although only 22 .

He served in the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant and seems to have survived the war.

Another survivor was John Norman Gillies, who served with the Chinese Labour Corps as a lieutenant. Charles Thompson Ranken was 20 in 1914 and served in the Royal Field Artillery (3rd Northumbrian Brigade) as both 2nd Lieutenant and Captain being mentioned in despatches.

After the war he worked as a mining engineer at Hylton Colliery and became colliery manager.

Solicitor’s son Lancelot J Foster served as a lieutenant in the 7th DLI.

Records state that a Lieutenant L J Foster of the 7th DLI was made prisoner of war in 1918.

John George Rutherford played for the 1st XV from 1908 to 1914 and was a chartered accountant.

He joined the 4th Northumbrian Battery (Howitzer Brigade) of the Royal Field Artillery (295th Brigade). He was knighted in 1953.

Herbert Lawrence Todd was one of a number of rugby players who travelled to Sunderland to play. He was a South Shields man and 30 years old at the outbreak of war.

He served as a captain and then a major in the Royal Field Artillery.

James Harry Edwards attended South Shields Grammar Technical High School. He served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 7th DLI. He was killed on the Somme in January 1917.

William Forster McMillan served as a 2nd lieutenant in both the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Royal Engineers.

Frederick Cecil Longden was born in Durham City and had just been admitted to the family firm as a solicitor. He became an Acting Captain in the 15th DLI and was killed in 1918.

Frederick Vincent Bell served in the 7th DLI.

Henry Ernest Carrick was born in Whitley Bay, and was listed as a lieutenant in the Indian Army reserve where he was made a lieutenant.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer