Brighton, now in the London & South East Premier league, English rugby’s fifth tier, recently celebrated its 150th season. But, whisper it in the confines of Guy’s Hospital, Blackheath and other ancients of the game, they could be even older and arguably the oldest rugby club in the world.
The revelation comes from a book published earlier this year to coincide with Brighton’s 150th anniversary celebrations, if indeed that is the correct date. The title alone is a clue to the club’s age: The History of Brighton Football Club (Rugby Football Union), with the FC designation as the club was officially founded at the latest in 1868, before the RFU in 1871.
Rugby has never nailed ‘the oldest club’ argument and now club historian and author of the Brighton book John Honeysett, a former player and an honorary vice-president, has set the cat among the Sussex seagulls.
It is complicated and, as Honeysett himself admits, inconclusive, but his extensive research over many years has unearthed the existence of the Brighton Club, formed in 1791 as a ‘gentlemen’s sporting club.’ In 1796 the game of foot-ball, a hybrid including elements of what we would now consider rugby, was played in Brighton and in 1852 Brighton Schools – an amalgam of local educational establishments – played under what were called ‘Rugby Modified Rules.’
It seems various games were played under a variety of rules including the Brighton College rules and the Rugby rules played by the Brighton Club.
“I was always fascinated by the club’s name, without knowing the intricacies and derivation of the game ‘Football,’” said Honeysett.
“I spent many years looking through pages of Victorian newspapers, local archives and scrap books in search of the earliest mention of the club.”
You can summise, says Honeysett, that all this rugby related activity might have been the prelude to the formal foundation of Brighton Football Club, originally called the Shoo-Flies and most likely an Army team largely drawn from the Brighton based Sussex Artillery Volunteers, in 1868, with the club joining the RFU in 1873.
Honeysett’s diggings also unearthed a county game played in Brighton between Sussex and Kent in 1866, when the Lancashire-Yorkshire Roses match of 1870 has always been considered the first-ever county game.
In his introduction to Honeysett’s book, Phil McGowan, curator of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham, writes: “This book documents the febrile swirl of mid-Victorian sports clubs that came in and went out of existence almost on a whim. John Honeysett describes the blurred lines between where one club ends and another begins….John’s perseverance has been rewarded with a clutch of important historical discoveries, many published for the first time and some of which fundamentally challenge existing orthodoxies about how the game of rugby developed.”
McGowan added that Brighton can certainly lay claim to being one of the 10 oldest ‘open’ rugby clubs in the world and in the absence of a definitive list, the club on the Sussex coast will settle for that.
Guy’s Hospital, founded in 1843, claims to be the world’s oldest rugby club. The likes of Liverpool St Helens (1857) and Blackheath (1858) cite the fact that the hospital was a closed club with only medics eligible to play and so the ruck for the title of most venerable ‘open’ club rages on.
“It seems historians are as competitive as rugby players. I cannot conclusively prove that Brighton is older than the other claimants and unless some fresh, new concrete evidence comes to light, I guess we’ll never know,” said Honeysett.
His book also chronicles some fascinating player history and Brighton has bred its share of internationals. James Alfred Body was the club’s first international, while Reginald Birkett played in the first ever international between England and Scotland in 1871 and scored England’s first try. His son John Birkett, a protege of Adrian Stoop who took him from Brighton to Harlequins, scored the first ever try at Twickenham in 1909 and played centre for England outside Stoop as rugby back play was revolutionised. Colonel Jock Hartley played for England in 1901 and went on to manage the British Isles tour to South Africa in 1938.
Brighton were tour pioneers too and beat Stade Francais in Paris in 1903, while England international Richard Budworth was a original member of the Barbarians.
Frank Mitchell, who started at Brighton before moving to Blackheath and winning six England caps, was captain of both rugby and cricket at Cambridge University.
Current Harlequins outside-half Marcus Smith, a Brighton College alumnus, played junior rugby at Brighton where his father Jeremy was club captain in 1990, while another Brighton product Sam Morley is on Exeter’s books.
The Brighton Blues of today, under player coach Frank Taggart, the former Ulster and Ireland U20s forward, is an ambitious, progressive club with a flourishing Minis and Juniors set up, as well as a new women’s team, with plans to upgrade its facilities on the edge of the famous seaside resort.
England head coach Eddie Jones has retained a strong affection for the town after his Japan side trained at Brighton College ahead of their shock World Cup victory over South Africa in 2015 at the Amex football stadium and Jones has since held England training camps at the school.
Brighton, the oldest club in the world? Who knows, but this corner of Sussex is steeped in far more rugby history than anyone realised.