Saracens XVs – 1886-1914, Captain 1893-96, 97-99 & 1900-01, President 1896-1918
“One of the best known Fleet Street journalists during the past quarter of a century”…”Stamina so remarkable that he would keep fresh, with the aid of a Turkish Bath, for days together without troubling to go to bed”
The eulogies above, taken from The Cornishman and Evening Dispatch, stand as a worthy testament to one of their most famous local boys done good. William Thomas Attwood Beare, or just “Billy” to his friends, can be justifiably remembered not only as a colossus of early sporting journalism but as arguably the most important figure in the history of the Saracens Rugby Club in its first 50 years.
Although not one of the original founders, he was a stalwart of the club for over 30 years, playing well into his late 40s, captaining the club 3 times between 1893-96, 97-99 and 1900-01, and acting as President between 1896 and 1918. Such were his journalistic abilities he served as first sports editor of the Daily Mail, news editor of the Birmingham Gazette and ascended to Presidency of the National Union of Journalists in 1913-14.Thanks to his efforts the club was able to survive its first 38 years.
In order then to properly understand the Saracens Rugby Club in the era of the Great War, as the aim of this project is to do, it is important to understand the previous years and their most important character both on and off the field.
William was born in 1864, the 2nd child of Henry and Eliza, in St Germans parish, Cornwall, the birthplace also of both his parents. William was to remain a proud Cornish man all his life, and despite living his working life in London and Birmingham, was to retire back to Cornwall in his later years. Henry’s role as part of the local constabulary afforded the family the relative luxury of living in the local police station, although it would appear that the call of duty required the family do the almost unthinkable and move to Devon. The family was to continue to grow after William with the addition of Henry jnr., Freddie and Minnie to join William and his older sister Henrietta.
Exactly what the inspiration was for him to follow a career in journalism is unclear, but he was to start locally, working in the West Country. By the tender age of 18, though, he had moved to London, and is recorded making his debut for Saracens in the 1882/83 season, where his skills as a forward were much admired. Such was his impact in the first 6 years he was awarded a cup at the 1888 annual dinner, a considerable honour in the era. Although as a forward he was not noted as a great try-scorer himself, he did manage 5 in the 1887/88 season. Certainly, Saracens were to have their first Golden Age during his playing career. Going unbeaten in 1882/83, 85/86, 86/87 and under his captaincy in 1894/95, the team were to go nearly 15 years with only 1 ‘unsuccessful’ season where losses outweighed wins. Whilst their fixture list did vary quite considerably, the quality of opposition was typically high. The photograph of Beare, the man with the formidable moustache, sitting proudly as the club captain in the 1897-98 photo shows a justifiably satisfied man who had helped establish Saracens as one of the premier North London clubs during his watch.
Off the rugby pitch he was to take an active part in the wider activities of the club. The “Saracens FC Quarter Mile Handicap”, reported in what was perhaps a slow news week for Lloyds Weekly Paper on 28th June 1891, was won by A Hamilton in a time of 57 seconds, with Beare coming in 2nd, having received a 25 yard handicap. Other summer activities included cricket, organised by the club “to promote good fellowship and as incentive to keep fit.” In their inaugural game Saracens beat Lower Clapton by 20 runs in a low scoring affair, with star man J McEwan picking up 8 wickets and 31 of Saracens runs. Beare’s cricketing experience was to be repeated, as he went on to represent the press in the annual Authors vs Press game on 17th September 1896. Bowled by Authors’ star bowler Holt for 2, he also failed to distinguish himself with the ball, although the quality of the opposition, and awful “quagmire” playing conditions may have something to do with this. The Authors’ opening batsmen Arthur Conan Doyle was to make a hundred that day, having previously represented the MCC (a metonym for the England XI) on 10 previous occasions.
In his personal life William was also to meet with apparent success, marrying Eliza Dolling of Somerset in 1885, with son Robert following in 1886. William was a relative nomad for his era, recorded as living in Kent in 1886, East Finchley in 1891, Islington in 1901 before moving to Birmingham later in the same year. This move was prompted by the opportunity to found and edit the Birmingham Gazette, a paper he was to run with great success for over a decade. Robert was to follow in his father’s footsteps in journalism, although he does not seem to have attained the same heights of Editor.
As well as his spells as captain and President of Saracens he was also heavily involved with establishing the Eastern Counties representative team, in particular Essex rugby. He is recorded as featuring for them, alongside 9 other Saracens players, in their inaugural fixture against Sussex in 1886. He was to be an ever-present figure for the next decade, still turning out for the county in 1896 against Middlesex. Whilst never having reached international status he is recorded as captaining a touring “British rugby veterans” side featuring a further 4 Saracens against a Stade Francais team in December 1900. Whilst many of the British players could be forgiven for treating it as a weekend away, over ‘Le Manche’ the game attracted considerable interest. The Gloucester Chronicle notes amongst the crowd are recorded many of Paris best-known faces, as well as The King of the Belgians. In a game played with “fast character” the tourists were lucky to emerge with a 5 points to 3 victory and the tour was roundly criticised, somewhat overzealously, by Athletic News. Claiming that combinations such as the veterans “brought the game into ridicule, especially in the eyes of our French friends” as the French undoubtedly held the team as “a representative English team”. This criticism fortunately did not deter future tours to the continent by teams as notable as Rosslyn Park, and the 1905 All Blacks.Largely due to the prohibitive costs of European touring, Saracens were typically limited to touring the West Country over Easter. As well as being “one of the most popular clubs on tour in the west” the tour often providing the social highlight of the season for the players.
Despite his now “veteran” status Beare was to continue to play for Saracens at least once a year despite his move to Birmingham, where he also took an active role in the local Handsworth Club. Whilst I will not delve too deeply into the waters of Handsworth tradition, it is notable that Beare was a member during their most notable scandal in 1904: ‘The Parsons Affair’. The club was fined just short of £13 for paying AT Parsons, a former Northern Union player for Hull Kingston Rovers, and thus a professional. As a staunch supporter of the amateur status and ethos of the game, Beare would unlikely have supported him having played, although the club may well have been tricked by the adopting of a false name by Parsons.
Throughout this time in Birmingham he was to remain a most effective Club President at Saracens, ensuring the club would both survive and thrive. In the next blog we will cover more of his role and influence as President of the club, and his role as a journalist during the Great War.