By Alison Bailey
Inspired by the 2023 Rugby World Cup, this is the story of Amersham and Chiltern Rugby Club which will be celebrating its centenary in December 2024.
The idea of a local rugby club to serve the expanding community around Amersham had originally been the idea of Ernest Gladstone Halton, a former rugby player and his three rugby playing sons. The idea was supported by Eric Redfern, the experienced secretary of the Chesham Bois Lawn Tennis Club, and other rugby enthusiasts. The club grew rapidly, running three regular senior sides and a schoolboy 15 before 1928.
Halton was internationally known as an art critic and as the editor of The Studio, the influential Art magazine of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1907, he commissioned Amersham architect, Harold Kennard, to build El Ezbah on Copperkins Lane where he moved from London with his wife Edith (who unusually for the time had a BA from Aberystwyth University) and his sons, Hugh and Kenneth. Their third son, Geoffery was born in Chesham Bois. All three boys were rugby captains at their boarding school, Sutton Valance, in Kent. El Ezbah became the official headquarters for the club.
Chiltern Rugby Club
Halton suggested that the club was named Chiltern Wanderers (Wanderers because they didn’t yet have their own ground). Claret and white colours were adopted when Redfern spotted a set of reduced-price shirts in George Lewin’s Sports shop in London. Both Halton and Redfern had work connections with Liberty of London. They persuaded Captain Ivor Stewart-Liberty from the Lee, the head of the company, to become President of the rugby club, a position he held until 1949. Halton was one of the Vice Presidents, Redfern, the club secretary, and a 1st team player. Stewart-Liberty’s close friend, Major ‘Khaki’ Roberts (who played rugby for Oxford University, Harlequins & England) became coach. On Friday 26 December 1924, Chiltern Wanderers, captained by Hugh Halton, played its first game against Old Berkhamsted School XV. They lost 0-28.
In the new year, local landowner, Ernest Harrison Forwood, a farmer and shipowner from Liverpool who lived at Bendrose Grange on Amersham Common, offered the club the use of one of his fields. This was behind the Pineapple public house in White Lion Road, which Forwood also owned. The publican, Mr Hance, offered team teas for one shilling a head. A disused cowshed became the changing room. The ground itself was in reasonable condition as Fred Jarvis, the local farmer, allowed his six cows to graze the field during the week. The Haltons’ neighbour, William Gomm, a builder and keen sportsman, donated the scaffolding poles and concrete for the posts. With its own home ground, Wanderers was dropped (apart from on tours), and the club’s official name became Chiltern RFC. In 1929 a permanent home was found on Shardeloes Estate land, off Weedon Lane, with room for two pitches and a new pavilion. After Chesham RFC was founded in 1981, the club was renamed Amersham & Chiltern RFC.
Chiltern RFC has always attracted distinguished players and notable members. Josh Lewsey MBE is the most well-known player of the modern era with a successful international career. He won the rugby world cup with England, graduated from Sandhurst, served as an officer in the Royal Artillery and took on the challenge to climb Everest. Josh joined Chiltern as an 8-year-old mini with his brothers, Tom and Ed, who also became professional players. Josh progressed through the Chiltern juniors playing at full back and wing three-quarter before signing for Bristol RFC whilst studying at Bristol University. In 1998, age 21, he transferred to London Wasps and won his first England cap. In 2003 he was awarded an MBE for his role in the 2003 World Cup winning squad. He retired from international rugby five years later having claimed 55 caps and scored 22 tries.
Players from the early era include John Raymond Evans who joined the club as hooker for the first season at the new ground. He had been transferred by Lloyds Bank to its Chesham branch but returned to his native Wales the following year. He eventually became captain of Newport, Barbarians and Wales. Baron Widgery, who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales during the 1970s, played front row for the club in the 30s. Local GP, Dr James Gardiner, was one of the Vice Presidents at the club from 1925-35. He was educated at Rugby School and won the Public Schools Shooting Championship, one of over 500 trophies won during his remarkable sporting life. In 1896, he opened his practice in Amersham and was made senior medical officer of the workhouse. He became a pillar of local society as a magistrate, chairman of the Conservative Association, and Parish Councillor. In the winter, he spent two seasons as a half-back for Amersham Hockey Club before switching to football as the Amersham Town FC goalkeeper. In the summer, he played cricket for Amersham CC. He was also one of the founder members of Harewood Downs Golf Club in 1907.
During WW2 Chiltern RFC lost a third of its playing members. Amongst them was 26-year-old Jack Grayburn from Roughwood Farm, Chalfont St Giles. John “Jack” Grayburn played wing forward in the 1st XV from 1937-9.
In September 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden, Jack Grayburn was the officer in charge of 2nd Platoon, Parachute Regiment, which gallantly but desperately battled to hold Arnhem Bridge. After three days of intense fighting, he was killed on the bridge and is commemorated on the Chalfont St Giles War Memorial. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the UK’s highest gallantry medal. The official Parachute Regiment citation reads: “For supreme courage, leadership, and devotion to duty”.
In May 2014, the club organised a tour on the 70th anniversary of the Battle for Arnhem, to pay tribute to their wing forward. A group of 116 travelled to Holland, including 60 senior players in one coach and 45 Under 15 players and their parents in another coach. Others made their own way by car, train, and motorbike! 4 cyclists completed the 232-mile journey in 3 days and raised £5,220 for Parachute Regiment charities.
On Saturday 3 May, club members, with the juniors wearing special tour jackets, laid a wreath at the grave of Jack Grayburn VC, in Oosterbeek War Cemetery and past-President Chris Smith gave a moving tribute. The group then travelled over the Rhine to visit Arnhem Rugby Club where friendly matches had been arranged. 28 A&C players, aged between 21 and 75, took part in a memorable 1st XV match which the Wanderers won 35-51.
A history of the club from 1924-2004 Eighty Seasons at Amersham & Chiltern, by Roger Cook
Josh Lewsey MBE – Keynote, After Dinner & Celebrity Speaker (gameplansolutions.co.uk)