How Twickenham grew from a cabbage patch into a cathedral of rugby

Titles have been won and lost, dreams realised and ruined and cars driven across the hallowed turf in the name of research during a hundred years at HQ

LONDON, 28 Oct - An awful lot changes in a century but on Whitton Road in south-west London, Twickenham Stadium still stands tall more than a hundred years after hosting its first rugby match.

This weekend the old Cabbage Patch, as it was once known, will be home to the final of Rugby World Cup 2015, the only stadium to have twice staged the final of the sport's premier tournament. 

Admittedly, the stadium and its surrounding concourses have changed considerably since Harlequins’ four-point win over Richmond in the first clash at rugby headquarters in 1909 (pictured).

But the excitement, drama and intensity over the coming two weekends will be just the same as it was 106 years ago when Adrian Stoop helped his side to victory on the rain-drenched turf at Twickenham.


Five years before the Titanic embarked on its ill-fated maiden voyage, Billy Williams splashed out £5,500 of the fledgling Rugby Football Union's cash for a 10-and-a-quarter acre market garden that was used to grow cabbages.

The first stands of Twickenham Stadium were constructed on the old cabbage patch a year later – hence the ground’s nickname – and after roads and pedestrian pavements had been constructed, the arena was ready to host its first match.

In 1910, England v Wales became the first international test match at the venue in front of 22,000 spectators, but the onset of World War One would halt, for the time being at least, any more history being made.

The RFU implored all players to be patriotic and enlist with the armed forces – Twickenham, meanwhile, would be used for cattle, horse and sheep grazing.

Two years after the conclusion of the Great War, though, rugby was very much back on the agenda for players and fans. Twickers hosted the inaugural Middlesex Sevens in 1926 and the first Varsity Match a year later.

Since then, Five and Six Nations titles have been won and lost, hopes have been realised and ruined and more sore heads have been made than anyone can care to count. 


Pinned firmly to the wall of the wooden commentary box sitting at the top of Twickenham’s South Terrace on the afternoon of 15 January, 1927, were the words “Don’t Swear”. They were a firm reminder to former Harlequins captain Teddy Wakelam to keep his language clean during the first running sports commentary to be broadcast on BBC radio that day.

Wakelam was the pioneer of the technique called grid commentary: the Radio Times would print a reference card that divided the Twickenham pitch into numbered squares, and listeners at home would, with the commentator’s help, use it to decipher where on the pitch action was taking place.

Although the audio quality would not have been anything like the digital standard we enjoy today, we can only assume that Wakelam kept the swear jar empty over the course of England’s 11-9 defeat of Wales – he would go on to become the voice of British sports broadcasting. 


Fast-forward a decade and there was another innovation about to take sport by storm – television. Of course, owning a TV in 1938 was a rare luxury but those who did were given a treat when England played Scotland in the first rugby match broadcast live.

BBC viewers watched in astonishment on their black-and-white sets as Robert Wilson Shaw dived over in the final moments of the 52nd Calcutta Cup contest to seal a 21-16 win and Scotland’s Triple Crown. Regarded as one of the all-time great tries at Twickenham, it sparked a Scottish pitch invasion and Wilson was carried off the pitch by his teammates.

Unsurprisingly, rugby would be absent from television screens for several years following the outbreak of World War Two, but in 1952 the BBC met representatives of the four home nations to discuss further broadcasts. Coverage would, however, still be a world away from the glorious high-definition broadcasts we are treated to at RWC2015.


Still bearing the scars of battle with flak holes in the roof and stands, Twickenham was host to the first rugby match following the long-awaited end of the World War Two. Incredibly, the upper tier of the West Stand had been damaged by a V-1 bomb during the six-year conflict and was not fit for its purpose until the War Commission found time to assist in its rebuilding.

After standing together in the battlefields across Europe, players from England and Scotland gathered to remember those who had given their lives in the military conflict, before taking part in a Victory test match.

What a relief it must have been for those on the pitch and those in the stands, many recently returned from action and in military uniforms, to have returned to a sense of normality. Seventy years on as we enjoy the glorious spectacle of a Rugby World Cup, it would be easy to forget the sacrifice that so many made. 


Twickenham has been home to some of the most spectacular moments in the game’s long history, but it has also been witness to some of the most peculiar.

As well as hosting the first radio and television broadcasts, the old cabbage patch was the place where streaking at sporting events made its debut. Winning a £10 bet was Australian Michael O’Brien’s reward for stripping naked and running onto the field during a charity match between an England and France XV in 1974. His punishment? A trip to the police station and a £10 fine. 

Although O'Brien may have been the first streaker, he is not necessarily the most fondly remembered. That acclaim goes to Erica Roe, who decided to make her move while Bill Beaumont was giving his half-time team talk to fellow England players.

"I was trying to get through to the boys - but most of them seemed to be gazing over my shoulder," recalled Beaumont after the game against Australia in 1982. It was left to Steve Smith to tell the England captain what all the fuss was about. “Bill,” he said. “There’s a bird just run on with your bum on her chest!”


Make the short walk along Whitton Road from Twickenham Station to the stadium on matchdays and you find yourself salivating at the sight of the hot dogs, burgers and doughnuts on offer in the front gardens of houses lining the street.

The food, memorabilia and scarf-sellers situated on the lead-up to the stadium all add to the atmosphere that helps make Twickenham’s matchday experience unique. The whole town becomes a festival of rugby on game days and as this clip, an extract from the film William Webb Ellis. Are you Mad? shows, that is nothing new.

Produced by the Rugby Football Union in celebration of its centenary season in 1971, the fascinating film shows Twickenham staff preparing for the Calcutta Cup contest between England and Scotland in 1969.

It’s nice to see that, in our increasingly technology-focused world, some things haven’t changed. Notice the official programme sellers, who are still dotted around the stadium on matchdays today. 


After pounding the French to a pulp in Paris and marching past Scotland at Murrayfield, Geoff Cooke’s England had the chance to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time, and on home soil, against the Wallabies in the final of RWC 1991.

But Wallaby prop Tony Daly was the sole try-scorer as England were punished for adopting an open, expansive game following stinging criticism of their style from Australia’s David Campese.

England could, however, take some consolation from the defeat - they had won the Grand Slam and their ninth overall Five Nations earlier in the year by defeating France 21-19 at Twickenham.


Twickenham’s lonely and somewhat incongruous South Stand was quite literally blown away 10 years ago as this exceedingly low-quality mobile phone footage from 2005 shows. 

It would return, of course, after £80 million of investment in November 2006 complete with four-star hotel and conference centre and an increased capacity of 82,000. England marked its completion with a 41-20 loss to New Zealand. 


Rugby at Twickenham has not just been about 30 men chasing a wonky ball around a muddy pitch for 80 minutes.  It’s also been home to six cars chasing a giant-sized rugby ball around an even muddier pitch in the name of "research".

The ground’s hallowed turf was left looking like a patchwork quilt when the BBC’s mischievous Top Gear trio Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May took to the field to test out a family hatchback.

As you would perhaps expect, the so-called research was not exactly scientific and involved the sort of stunning smash-ups that regular followers of the motoring magazine show have come to expect.

OK, so they might not have followed all the game’s rules to the letter, but at least it showed Twickenham’s potential as a multi-purpose venue and provided us with answers to some long-wondered questions. A car cannot keep its cool à la Bernard Foley at RWC 2015 and kick a penalty between the posts at rugby HQ.  


In 2003, just weeks before Jonny Wilkinson hit a last-minute drop-goal in Sydney to win the RWC for England, Twickenham rock ‘n’ rolled to an altogether different beat as the Rolling Stones became the first musical act to perform there.

They were back three years later, although lead singer Mick Jagger did not seem overly delighted to have returned. “We were meant to be at Wembley,” he yelled between songs, bemoaning the slow progress of the national football stadium’s rebuild.  

Everybody from U2, Rod Stewart and the Police to the $100 million-valued Rihanna have since performed on stage at Twickers.

But none will have prompted such a memorable singalong as the Rugby School choir with their rendition of Sweet Caroline at the opening ceremony for Rugby World Cup 2015.

RNS tpc/sw/ig

Photos: ©World Rugby Museum, Twickenham and World Rugby Museum Blog