In the early days of football before codification there were no recognized uniforms or for that matter written rules. Men used to play football in the streets in their working clothes and their working boots, which were typically hobnailed as can be seen in the picture. Men were even know to add additional metal to the boots to make them more destructive. The men working on the transport system like canals and railroads became know as 'Navvies' and hence the boots were also nicknamed as 'Navvies'.
SInce games sometimes consisted of hundreds of players on each side, the ball would only progress in a kind of mass maul. Players would trip, hack, kick and heal opponents in an attempt to get the advantage and make headway.
Early forms of football included a technique called "hacking-over" which was a particularly violent practice which could render the recipient lame through badly bruised or even broken, shins.
Hacking would become a very emotive topic and its eventual abolition proved very controversial and contributed greatly to the eventual splitting of association and rugby football codes. The RFU banned the practice when it formed in 1871 but it had already fallen into disuse in other areas of the country like London where Richmond and Blackheath had discontinued it due to the impact it was having on availability of players. They jointly agreed on a resolution to remove it from the game.
Credit: John Chillingworth
In addition to working man's boots, modified walking boots of various types were also used by the early players.
In the 1889 the laws included the statement that "No one wearing projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on any part of his boots shall be allowed to play in a match." In 1910, "If studs are worn, they shall be cylindrical, not less than 3/4 inch in diameter and of any length not exceeding one half the diameter and shall be fastened by four nails." In 1926, "Any studs worn, shall be leather, circular and fastened by at least three nails." Rubber was also added in 1948, aluminum in 1953 and any approved plastic in 1954. In 1981 the single toe stud was prohibited. In 1983 BS 6366: 1983 was introduced.
I'm not clear on when exactly dedicated playing boots were introduced but it is clear that these were well established by the early 20th century. Right - you can see an advertisement from 1926 advertising Jerseys, knickers, rugby balls and boots.
In the picture below you can see the basic construction of a 1950s rugby boot. Made from leather with a loop at the back of the heal so the long laces could be passed around the ankle as well as around the foot itself to secure the boot to the foot and avoid the possibility of it coming off during the action. Underneath the boot usually had 6 metal studs (cleats), four under the front of the foot and two under the heal.
1950s boot - Credit Charles Hewitt
These boots were high maintenance. After a playing a muddy game the boots would need to be washed, dried usually left overnight with news paper stuffed in them to draw out the moisture and keep the shape. Then the owner would rub in lots of 'dubbing' which was a water proof leather treatment. Laces would have also been replaced regularly since the cotton based laces would rot quickly.
At Rugby School, the1839 School House team was the first side to adopt a uniform. All their players wore red velvet caps during a match that Queen Adelaide, is thought to have watched.
These velvet caps, together with white trousers and jerseys, became accepted for players ‘following up’ although each wore his own favorite colors and carried a personal motto on his shirt (equivalent to today's Tee-shirt slogan).
At rugby school below you can see the players in their school flannels awaiting the start of the game. In 1871 the first official “kit” consisted of an ordinary shirt and bow tie, with a thin vest over the top and heavy duty boots; rules dictated that players at the school of Rugby should wear “dark serge trousers, black and scarlet striped jerseys and socks” (Owen, 1955). Materials included “woven woolen material and hessian and/ or leather for extra support and strengthening” (Adams, 2005). Thorburn (1980) describes an International match between England and Scotland in 1872 where “one Scot had his flannels torn off and was surrounded by players until he was handed a mackintosh in which he encased himself and amid considerable amusement repaired to the pavilion to obtain another garment”. Nearly ten years later in another international match between Ireland and Scotland (1891), D. B. Walkington, the Irish captain, “was reported as regularly wearing a monocle when playing, taking it off when making a tackle” (Thorburn, 1980).
A pre-game gathering of players at Rugby School circa. 1860
There is a very early recording of R.H.B. Summers (Wales) in the BBC sound archives where he describes their dress as: "We played in ordinary light walking boots, with a bar of leather nailed obliquely across the sole to help with swerving; jerseys which fitted closely high up round the neck, so that no fellow could get his fingers in, and dark blue serge knickerbockers fastened below the knee with four or five buttons".
The Rugby School: School House team of 1839 was the first side to adopt a uniform. All their players wore red velvet caps with gold tassles during a match attended by the Dowager, Queen Adelaide in which Thomas Hughes the author played. The teams had a very high number of players i.e. School House (75) versus The Rest (225).
The velvet cap became a sign of attainment at Rugby school and was adopted as such by clubs, then by England and other Unions, a symbol of national and international achievement. Traditionally, every international player who represents his country receives his cap on this occasion.
Nine House caps of Rugby School
The school cap gave rise to the tradition of presenting a player with an honor cap, e.g. for playing for his school, country etc. The picture below shows some examples:
Wales’s No.1 cap was their first skipper, James Bevan, who led the team at Mr Richardson’s Field, Blackheath on 19th February 1881. Born in Melbourne, Australia he became the first Welsh international on the register because there were no other players with surnames starting with ‘A’ or ‘B’.
His unique position as Wales’s first captain was honoured 126 years later when his name was given to a trophy to be played for between Wales and Australia. The ‘James Bevan Trophy’ was won by the Wallabies in the two Tests in the summer of 2007 when it was first played for. Michael Owen had the distinction of becoming the 1,000th player to be capped by Wales when he made his debut against South Africa in the 1st Test of the 2002 summer tour in Bloemfontein.
Wales's Cap Numbers by the 100
NO. PLAYER YEAR VENUE 001 James Bevan 1881 at Blackheath against England 100 Stephen Thomas 1890 at Cardiff against Scotland 200 Sid Bevan 1904 at Belfast against Ireland 300 Ben Beynon 1920 at Swansea against England 400 David Jenkins 1926 at Cardiff against England 500 Barney McCall 1936 at Swansea against England 600 Len Davies 1954 at Cardiff against France 700 John Lloyd 1966 at Twickenham against England 800 Malcolm Dacey 1983 at Cardiff against England 900 Colin Stephens 1992 at Dublin against Ireland 1000 Michael Owen 2002 at Bloemfontein against South Africa
Below you can see an early picture of a scrum cap (ear protectors) often worn by 2nd row forwards to avoid their ears getting damaged by the rubbing action as the scrum squeezed and pushed (the 2nd row's head is inserted between the prop and hooker's hips). The wide chin strap probably also helped avoid the skin burning to the sides of the face that can result from being in contact with the prop and hookers short material. Notice also the socks which seem to be well padded and the long shorts.
In the present day the IRB regulates manufacturers of player attire and facilitates the testing of products through an IRB Approved Testing House. Players may wear shoulder padding and headgear which bear the IRB Approval Mark (IRB Regulation 12).
Here a re a couple of examples:
- Bryan Roberts for some of the text on this page.
- "Rugby the golden age" - John Tennant for some of the above photos, a great book to buy for a friend. Hundreds of great photos. ISBN 1-84403-2906
- Luxford, B., (firstname.lastname@example.org, Curator; New Zealand Rugby Museum) 23 November 2005. History of rugby apparel. Email to B. Roberts (B.C.Roberts@lboro.ac.uk).
- Owen, O.L. (1955). The history of the rugby football union. London: Playfair Books Ltd.
- Royds, P. (Ad. Sir). (1949). The history of the laws of rugby football. Twickenham: Walker & Co. (Printers) Ltd.
- Swan, A.C. (1967). The New Zealand rugby football union (Inc.) 1892 – 1967. Wellington: A.H. & A. W. Reed.
- Thorburn, S. (1980). The history of Scottish rugby. London: Johnston and Bacon.
- Ray, David. From Webb Ellis to World cup. Rugby School.