The Rugby History Society

Return to Articles



James Watson

James Henry Digby Watson was born in Southsea on August 31st 1890, the son of an Engineering Officer in the Royal Navy. Leaving home for school in 1899 the young Watson was initially educated at King’s School, Canterbury , where he soon found a natural sporting affinity, soon playing in the schools first fifteen at rugby. This was a feat that he would repeat when he transferred to the Edinburgh Academy in 1906, usually playing in his preferred position of centre. It was also here that he picked up his nickname of ‘Bunjy’ after asking for a rubber by the normal slang used at King’s but unheard of at the Edinburgh Academy . Completing his studies at the Academy in 1908 Watson decided to embark on a career in medicine and remaining in Edinburgh he enrolled in the medical school at its university. During the five year course his prowess in a number of sporting fields increased. Whilst still at the Edinburgh Academy he had won the high jump every year, and later he would go on to represent Scotland against Ireland in the long jump in 1912 whilst a medical student. He was also to become the Edinburgh University middleweight boxing champion.

For all this rugby remained the main feature of his sporting life and whilst still at university he joined the Edinburgh Academicals club participating in one of their most successful pre war periods. As his skill and reputation grew on the pitch others were soon to come calling and Watson was invited to join the Barbarians on their Christmas tour to Wales in 1911. During this short tour Watson played two matches, losing to Cardiff on Boxing Day by nineteen points to nil and Newport by fifteen points to six the day after. Despite these defeats Watson doubtless enjoyed the experience of the tour. He played again for the Barbarians the following year on December 30th 1912 against Leicester , although this match also ended in a fifteen points to eleven loss. Back at University in Edinburgh the 1912-13 season was to prove a busy one on the pitch for Watson as he enthusiastically captained the Edinburgh Academicals club. He was also picked as the three-quarter reserve for Scotland , although he was never capped by them. Later this oversight was commented upon in the Times, “Watson… might have played for Scotland a few years ago if the selection committee had recognized his great ability.” Scotland ’s loss was eventually to become England ’s gain.

In 1913 Watson again joined the Barbarians as they travelled to Wales for their Easter tour. Playing two further matches for the club they were again defeated in both, losing by ten points to nil to Cardiff on March 22nd and by eight points to nil to Swansea two days later. As fate would have it the Barbarians were never to prove a lucky team for Watson as he faced defeat in all five of the appearances that he made for the club.

Completing his medical studies in Edinburgh and graduating as a Bachelor of both Medicine and Surgery (M.B.Ch.B) in 1913 Watson now moved to London to advance his medical career. Leaving behind the Edinburgh Academicals as he travelled south, Watson was now to play for both London Hospital and Blackheath, either at centre or wing three-quarter. Watson also soon found greater recognition from the England selectors than he had enjoyed during his time in Scotland as he was selected for a debut cap against Wales on January 17th 1914. Played at Twickenham in front of a crowd in excess of thirty thousand it was a close, if strange, game. The usual turn of events in these meetings were reversed as it became a battle between the Welsh pack and the English back line. In his match report the Times rugby correspondent reported “… JHD Watson could do very little by [his] straight forward methods, so keen was the tackling.” As the fierce battle continued the English backs used every opportunity to turn defense into attack as they faced a Welsh side that was much improved on recent meetings. Eventually this dogged persistence paid off as England edged to a ten points to nine victory.

After missing England next match against Ireland Watson regained his place in the England shirt with a trip to his old home of Scotland for a match at Inverleith on March 21st. After a gloomy and wet week the weather cleared on the morning of the match in what was ultimately to be another close encounter. Scotland were in a dogged mood, their pack especially refusing to surrender to a better English side. With twenty minutes to play England were enjoying a ten point lead, Watson having set up Cyril Lowe for three tries, but were almost undone, being so keen to attack that they almost forgot to defend allowing the Scottish to claw their way back into the game. In a nail biting finish England again desperately held on to win by sixteen points to fifteen.

Earning his third cap Watson was also included for England ’s final match of the International campaign as they crossed the channel the strong favorites to take on the French at Stade de Colombes on April 13th. It was to prove an easy victory, although the thirteen points to thirty nine score line belied the fact that England generally failed to impress in the match. England , as was often the case, started the match slowly. This was in stark contrast to the French who, fired up for the encounter, started at a frenetic pace and scoring within the first five minutes. It was not until the second half that the England side began to show their class and gradually drew away. Watson himself seems to have been as guilty of this as the rest of his teammates of this first half lethargy, “of the threequarter backs JHD Watson and Lowe were the best… Watson made some mistakes at first, but was on top of his form in the second half.” Although not perhaps, the victory that had been hoped for, a victory it was and England retained the international championship with a second successive grand slam. Watson fully played his part in this achievement, scoring his only international try in the French match, which was also to be his last in an England shirt.

With the outbreak of war in Europe Watson joined the Royal Navy as a temporary Surgeon following his Father, James Herbert Watson who was by now an Engineering Captain, and was posted to HMS Hawke. Launched in 1891 as an armored cruiser the Hawke was one of the oldest ships still in commission in the Navy at the time, and was essentially obsolescent. The Hawke had found some measure of notoriety in 1911 after colliding with the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, in the Solent . Now under the command of Captain Hugh Williams she was being used largely as a training ship and included in her crew were a large number of cadets and reservists. On October 15th 1914 the Hawke was on patrol with her sister ship, HMS Theseus in the North Sea some sixty miles from Aberdeen . At this time anti submarine warfare was very much in it’s infancy and the two ageing cruisers were operating without a destroyer screen and also proved slower than the German U9 that was shadowing them. Commanded by Lieutenant Otto Weddigen the previous month the U9 had famously sunk the cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy. Too inviting a target to pass up the U9 launched a torpedo against the Theseus that missed. The Hawke, who had turned to intercept a Norwegian collier, was hit amidships by the torpedo near her magazine, which was ignited by the detonation. HMS Hawke sank in only eight minutes with the loss of five hundred and twenty five men. The twenty four year old temporary surgeon James ‘Bunjy’ Watson was amongst them.


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

"The Edinburgh Academical Football Club Centenary History", 1958

The Times Online Digital Archive


© D A Hunter, 2008
For Permission to reproduce this article please CLICK HERE