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William Luddington

William George Ernest Luddington was born at the Ferndale Hospital in Aldershot on February 8th 1894, the son of Thomas and Jessie. His father, a soldier by profession was posted soon after the birth from Hampshire to Devonport and it was in this area that the young Luddington grew up, eventually following his fathers footsteps into the armed forces, although choosing to enlist in the Royal Navy rather than the Army. Early in his naval career Luddington’s love for the game of rugby union became apparent. Playing in the front row of the pack more often than not he could usually be found in the thick of the action and his athleticism soon marked him out as a player to watch. As his rugby career progressed he played as possible within the demands of naval life turning out for Devonport Services, United Services and the Devon County fifteen. He soon came to the notice of the Royal Navies own selectors and was first capped for his service in 1921. In total he was to play a total of sixteen caps for the Navy over the next few years, encountering the Army and the Royal Air Force eight times each and rising to captain the side as time went on. During his early years with the Navies fifteen he came into contact with Engineer Commander EW Roberts, who along with encouraging Luddington to persevere with his goal kicking was also an England selector. It was little wonder that his country was soon to call Luddington to serve on the rugby pitch as well as afloat.

Luddington’s first cap for England came with the start of the 1923 international season on January 20th at Twickenham against Wales . A crowd of forty thousand had decided to brave a cold and windy day, not to mention the aftermath of their New Year’s celebrations to watch the game. Although their home form had been good the Welsh team had never as yet tasted victory at the home of English rugby and this again was not to be their day as soon became apparent when England scored from the kick off. Although their backs were indifferent on the day the English pack held firm and were faster than their Welsh opponents. Luddington “did not spare [himself] or anybody else in the mauls” as England cruised to a comfortable seven points to three win.

On November 1st 1923 Luddington took part in a spectacle held at Rugby School to celebrate the centenary of Rugby Union itself. Luddington took the field for a combined English and Welsh side against the Irish and Scots in front of a very limited crowd of two thousand comprised of eight hundred schoolboys and the select guests of the headmaster of Rugby School and the Rugby Football Union included were all the surviving players from the very first international played between England and Scotland in 1871 and a representative from all of the clubs who had been members of the union for more than fifty years. On a glorious autumn afternoon a close and exciting game ensued. England and Wales had the better of the first half, leading by nine points to six by half time, although their Irish and Scottish opponents managed to pull level during a thrilling second half. Towards the end of the game England and Wales managed to score a final try that Luddington converted to add his own little touch to the festivities as the match was won by twenty one points to sixteen.

Luddington soon became a valued member of the English pack. Although his international career was only to last three short seasons in this time Luddington was to gain thirteen caps for his country. During these matches he was to win ten times, drawing twice and loosing just the once whilst scoring 5 conversions and one penalty and in the process became a household name. He also played in every match of the two back to back grand slam winning sides of the 1923 and 1924 seasons.

His greatest moments in an England shirt both came against the Scottish and both were away from home. In his third international on March 17th 1923 England travelled to Inverleith to attempt to retain the Calcutta Cup. During a desperately close game played in front of the Duke of York both sets of forwards played well. With seconds left to play England scored a second try that brought the scores level. From near the touchline Luddington stepped up to score a conversion that stole the match. As the Times rugby correspondent enthused in his report “all the more honour for Luddington for refusing to let his knees or his toe wobble… at the critical moment.” Ironically the other event that Luddington will be best remembered for came in the only match in which he played in an England shirt and lost. Travelling again to Scotland on March 21st 1925 to play in the first international to be held at the new Murrayfield stadium, the game was eventually taken by a younger, faster, Scottish side by fourteen points to eleven, although the English did not make it easy for them. Early in the game Luddington successfully took a penalty and thus entered the history books as the first player ever to score international points at the new Scottish stadium.

Luddington’s international career ended as it had begun in a match against Wales , although this time in Cardiff on January 16th 1926. England found the pace of the game difficult as they had the previous year against Scotland and they were lucky to escape with a three all draw. Luddington, along with several other members of the England side, was by now in his early thirties amd it was time to leave international rugby to younger men. Despite this he continued to play for the Royal Navy as his duties allowed until 1930, but with the greater demands of representative rugby now behind him also found time to settle down, marrying Vera Jackson at the church of St James the Less in Plymouth on February 17th 1927 and more quietly continued with his Naval career.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 Luddington was serving as a Master at Arms on board the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Launched in 1939 Illustrious was commissioned in May 1940, finally joining the fleet in August that year. Carrying a complement of thirty six aircraft she was immediately dispatched to the Mediterranean . Although the principal duty of the Illustrious was to protect the vital convoys that were carrying much needed supplies to Malta she undertook other missions as required. These included striking against the airfields at Maritza on August 31st with a further mission against Benghazi on September 16th. In the thick of the action Illustrious became the first aircraft carrier to strike against an enemy fleet on November 11th as her aircraft attacked the Italian Battleship group at Taranto by night, sinking one battleship and seriously damaging two others. By early 1941 Illustrious, Luddington on board, was back to her more usual convoy duties when she was discovered and attacked by an force of enemy planes including the famous Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber to the east of Sicily on January 10th. During the course of the attack Illustrious was hit by eight large armour piercing bombs that caused severe structural damage to the ship which would eventually keep her out of action until 1942. During the course of the attack Master at Arms William Luddington, former star of the England rugby team, was killed in action. His name is recorded in remembrance on the war memorials both in Plymouth and at Twickenham Stadium.


"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

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© D A Hunter, 2009
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