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Robert Pillman

Robert Lawrence Pillman was born the third and youngest son of Joseph Charles and Mary Anna Pillman in Sidcup , Kent on February 9th 1893. His early education was gained close to home at Merton Court School before he progressed to Rugby School , the birthplace of the game that he would come to love. Whilst at Rugby Pillmans flair for the game certainly progressed as he played for the first fifteen before he left its halls and soon he would follow his brother to the Blackheath club.

Charles ‘Cherry’ Pillman was at the time one of the leading exponents in the world of the quick breaking wing, or a flanker in modern parlance. He would go on to tour South Africa with the Lions in 1910, playing in two of the tests and winning eighteen caps for England, an extremely respectable total for the time. Robert would follow his brother onto the fringe of the pack and although his playing career would no be quite as illustrious as his elder sibling he did find success on the pitch.

Apart from Blackheath Pillman went on to represent his County, Kent. This in turn led to his first major representative match which came one level higher as he took the field to play the touring South Africans for London Counties on November 16th 1912, joining his brother and a host of star players on the pitch. The South Africans were having a fine tour. At this point they had been bested only once by Newport and they would go on to win tests against all four of the home nations. It was the second meeting of the two sides. Three weeks earlier at Blackheath’s ground, the Rectory Field, the tourists had taken the day against London by twelve points to eight. For this second meeting to be held at Twickenham, it was a far different London side that faced the South Africans. For the first game the backbone of the pack had come from the London Scottish club, but these players had made themselves unavailable for the rematch choosing club over division and were replaced largely by Blackheath men, Pillman included. The match itself was a thrilling encounter. South Africa took an early lead thanks to a Douglas Morkel penalty, but it was London who took a five point to three lead into half time thanks to a try by WSD Craven that was converted by Francis Stone, both Blackheath men. In the second half both sides played well, attacking in turn. London were awarded a penalty try as Craven was unintentionally obstructed going for the line which Stone again converted. As time went on the better conditioning of the tourists due to the game time that they were accruing in a gruelling schedule began to tell and WH Morkel scored under the posts, the score the conversion made by his namesake Douglas. This brought the South Africans to within two points of the London team and although they tried desperately tried they could not find the final score that they needed as London managed to just hang of for a famous ten points to eight victory.

Pillman’s representative career now subsided again, but life continued. Outside of Rugby after leaving Rugby School Pillman elected to become a solicitor, being articled to Messrs White and Leonard of Ludgate Circus. In time he would pass the intermediate Law examinations of London University and the Law Society. The other great sporting love of his life was golf, which he could play off scratch and won the Gold Medal of the London Solicitors Golfing Society.

In 1914 Pillman’s representative rugby career again took an upswing. He was selected to play for the South of England in the first of the season’s trial matches on December 6th 1913 at Twickenham. This was to be one of the few times that he would take the field in opposition to his brother who was playing for England that day and although the South’s pack were dominant as the game progressed, and particularly in the first half, Pillman was not recalled for a further trial, it perhaps being felt that one flying Pillman on the flank was enough for any team. It took the misfortune of his brother Cherry who broke his leg in the annual Calcutta Cup match against Scotland to give Pillman the chance to take the international stage as he was selected for England ’s final match of the season against France to replace his injured brother.

An away fixture held at Stade de Colombes on April 13th 1914 England travelled to Paris as firm favourites. Not only had the never succumbed to France but today were also playing to secure what would today be known as a second consecutive grand slam. France at this time were far from the force in international rugby that they are today and although they were steadily improving they were no match for the England fifteen who ran in nine tries during their comprehensive thirteen points to thirty nine victory. Although England started slowly and indeed it was France who scored the first try of the day, by the second half they were in full flow and there was never any real doubt as to the final outcome, a fact not taken well by the French crowd who heckled the English players throughout. Even so it was a fitting end to a good two seasons by the England team as Pillman took over from his brother in helping to secure the final victory of the season. This first cap, however, was also to be his last. As the season ended all too soon war began and Pillman would return to France under far less favourable circumstances.

Along with many thousands of others Pillman followed his countries call to arms enlisting as a private soldier in the tenth Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers on September 1st 1914 just weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, his brother Cherry would join the Dragoon Guards. There was still some time for rugby, Pillman was forced to withdraw at the last minute after being selected to play for the Barbarians against RAMC Aldershot at Old Deer park on 10th April 1915, but more serious considerations were to the fore. Rapidly selected for advancement Pillman was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the Queens Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment in July 1915, swiftly being promoted to full Lieutenant in October that year and Captain in January 1916. All too soon his unit, ‘D’ company in the tenth Battalion of the Queens Own were sent to action, arriving in France in May. Pillman soon volunteered for special duty and was appointed as Brigade bombing officer, leading raids across no mans land supported by fifty volunteers. It was hazardous duty. On one raid a member of his unit was gassed in a German trench, Pillman carrying him three hundred years across no mans land to safety. As the Somme offensive opened Pillman was hit on July 9th 1916 as he led his men back from a night raid near Armentieres , succumbing to his wounds a few hours later after just two months of active duty at the front. Aged just twenty three he was one of sixty one members of the Blackheath club who would not return.


"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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