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Rugby’s greatest Derby celebrates 250th match

On the eve of the 250th East Midlands Derby, Saints’ Club Historian Graham McKechnie takes a look back at the very first clash between Northampton and Leicester over 130 years ago.

It all began on 3 March 1888. Queen Victoria was in the 52nd year of her reign with the Marquess of Salisbury as her Prime Minister. The popular writers of the day included Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and Henry James. Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky were at the height of their musical powers (although ‘Where Did You Get That Hat’ was the popular favourite in the music halls). The Lawn Tennis Association had just been formed and in the coming days the Football League would be established. Britain was at the heart of the largest empire the world had ever known, and Victorians felt that they were at the centre of the universe.

And then, in our small corner of the East Midlands, Saints and Tigers faced each other on the rugby field for the first time. Snow lay on the ground at Victoria Park in Leicester – the players struggled at times to stay on their feet. Northampton St James, to give the visitors their full name, looked splendid in their scarlet jerseys and black shorts while the home side were in claret and grey hoops. 

Despite the “wretched conditions”, the Sporting Life tells us around a thousand spectators were present to witness this historic occasion (“not particularly large, though perhaps quite as numerous as could be expected” according to the Leicester Journal).

Tigers, led by Jack Parsons, struck in the first ten minutes and were just too strong for a Saints side missing a few players, including their captain Teddy Dunkley. It was a “very interesting match” and although Saints “stuck well to the task”, the game was ultimately lost by four tries to nil.

Edgar Phillips is credited with the first ever try scored in the East Midlands Derby, one of two he scored that afternoon, with Morley and Coleman also crossing the Saints’ line. Arthur McKechnie was at fullback for Tigers (he is no relation of mine!). The Saints team meanwhile contained several of the founders, the original naughty boys of Reverend Wigg’s Bible class – Albert Orton, Arthur Williams, Enoch Jesson and two sets of brothers, the Stanleys and the Timms. 

Tigers vs Saints 1888

(Above: The Leicester Journal’s match report from 3 March 1888)

No-one who was at chilly Victoria Park (which lies less than mile away from Welford Road) could possibly have anticipated how important this match would become. It wasn’t the first time teams from Northampton had played Leicester. Northampton FC came to play in 1880 and there were four matches against Northampton Unity before they were taken over by the St James club. But perhaps those early pioneers in 1888 realised they had struck upon something special, as they played each other again four weeks later.

This time it was in Northampton, at the long forgotten Mill Lane ground in St James (now buried under the industrial estate behind Franklin’s Gardens). This time it was Saints who came out on top with tries from Charles Burbidge and Arthur Williams. It was to be the one and only time Mill Lane hosted the East Midlands Derby. By the time the two teams met again in Northampton in September 1894, Franklin’s Gardens had become Saints’ permanent home. 

Tigers’ first visit to the Gardens proved to be a happy one, winning 11-0, although Saints were without three Kingston brothers due to the death of their mother. It was a game which perhaps started to set the trend, with the Northampton Mercury journalist observing that, “the game was at times much rougher than was necessary, players on both sides showing some feeling”.

Later that season Saints went to Welford Road for the first time (losing 21-7). They would have to wait until November 1905 for their first win at Leicester’s home – a game Edgar Mobbs later described as his favourite of all the matches he played for Saints.

And so it began. Different colours and unusual grounds, but the birth of one of sport’s most enduring rivalries.

Two months after Tigers and Saints met for the first time, Celtic and Rangers also began their rather more vicious relationship in Glasgow. How grateful we should be that when Saints meet Tigers, any hostility is left out on the pitch.

Just as in 1888, we all know we have far more in common with our neighbours than anything that divides us. We are very fortunate to have club rugby’s greatest Derby, and we owe the likes of Jack Parsons, Edgar Phillips, Arthur Orton, Enoch Jesson (and even Arthur McKechnie) a huge debt of gratitude.

With thanks to Stuart Farmer, Leicester Tigers’ Club Historian.

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