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Thomas Grenfell 'Chicky' Wedge


 

There was only one silver medal awarded to the Cornish side that played Australia in the 1908 Olympic rugby final. The team drew straws for who should take it home and it was won by the St Ives scrum half Thomas Wedge. It resided for some time at the St Ives Rugby club but is now held by his grand-daughter Betty.

The 1908 Olympics were originally to be held in Rome but Mount Vesuvius’s eruption and devastation of the city of Naples on 7th April 1906 meant that the Italian Government diverting funds to the reconstruction of the city and withdrawing from hosting the Olympics. The games were switched to London and Cornwall were elected to represent Great Britain and play in the finals after winning the previous County Championship against Durham.

Above Chicky Wedge in the Cornish side that beat Devon in 1908 during the South-West Group match

Above Cornwall County Champions 1907-08. Standing (L to R): Gil Evans, W.D.Lawry(Hon Sec), B.B.Bennetts, Dr R.C.Lawry, A.J.Wilson, J.H.Willaims, F.S.Jackson, C.F.Hopley, J.G.Milton, J.Quick, N.Tregurtha, F.W.Thomas. Seated: A.Lawry, R Jackett, E.J.Jackett (Captain), F.Dean, Bert Soloman. On Ground: R.Davey, J.Jose, T.G.Wedge, J.Davey

After the current Olympic Champions, France, withdrew there were only two teams left so Great Britain played Australia in the Final on 26th October 1908. As Twickenham was still being built the Olympic match was played at the White City Stadium in an area alongside the Olympic Swimming Pool. A long line of netting stretched beside the pool to catch flying balls. Large mattresses were spread along the rim of the pool to prevent injuries to falling players. The match was played during the last weeks of an Olympics that had taken place over six months. Australia ran in six tries and won 32-3 in a misty and damp White City in front of 5,00 spectators.

Above the White City Stadium in 1908

Above the Cornwall side that played Australia. Back row (L to R): AJ Wilson; Barney Solomon; A Willcocks ?; EJ Jones; Dick Jackett; Middle, F Dean; Bert Solomon; A Lawry; EJ Jackett (captain); JT Jose; C Marshall ?; J Trevaskis; Front, Nick Tregurtha; 'Chicky' Wedge; Maffer Davey.

Above the silver medal from the 1908 Olympics held by Wedge’s grand-daughter.

A mark of how much the occasion meant to be men can be judged by the attitude of Wedge’s own father. When told by his son that he had been selected to play for Great Britain, but wouldn’t be able to afford to go to London, his father replied “You’ll play for your country even if I have to sell the family fishing boat to get you there”

The newspapers accused Cornwall of a lack of preparation and reports of the match the following day weren’t complimentary.

The Times observed that 'so little forethought had been bestowed on this match yesterday, that no official programme of the lists of players was forthcoming!' and, of the match itself: "Cornwall completely failed to find their game; their forwards executed a few good rushes, but their backs, without exception, were not only too slow but were continually failing in their fielding... One expected better football from the champion county side. Late in the game J Davey played quite well to enable B Solomon to score Cornwall's solitary try."

Some newspapers were surprised at the result. The Western Morning News commented: "Truly it was the unexpected that happened when the Cornishmen suffered such unmistakable defeat at the hands of the Australians. To account for the debacle – it was little less – is no easy matter."

After 1908 Cornwall would not win the County Championship again until 1991 and today it has a very different structure to the pre WW1 days.

In recent years, a myth has grown up that the Cornish side were in some way unprepared for the Olympic final, having travelled by train the day before and been wined and dined in Plymouth and London. This was started by The Daily Telegraph in 2008. The sports editor Brendan Gallagher, wrote “Cornwall – perhaps confusing an Olympic final with an all expenses jolly – were a long way from their best. With no realistic prospect of victory and with such limited notice, they made the London trip a gala occasion. Spirits were sky high when the party decided to adjourn to Plymouth’s Royal Hotel for a not entirely teetotal lunch. The Cornish party eventually pulled into Paddington and went off in search of wine, women and song”.

It should also be remembered that most of the team were Methodists and teetotal. So the chance of them getting drunk before what was arguably the most important match of their careers is inconceivable. Also many of the men, some who were already international players, were representing Cornwall, a land that took its rugby seriously.

The sad fact is that Cornwall were playing, arguably, one of the greatest international rugby side of the day. Perhaps it was arrogant of the RFU to select the County Champions of England as being better than anything the world could through at them. However the Australian side would have their own turmoil when they returned home and 11 of the players deserted Rugby Union for Rugby League.

Chicky Wedge was born on 15th August 1881 the son of John Jacobs Wedge, a fisherman, and Charlotte (nee Hollow). Chicky would also become a fisherman. He debuted for Cornwall on 25th April 1903, a season when Cornwall didn’t win a match. He played 29 times for his county including every match in the Olympic season of 1908-09. Cornwall went on to the County Championship final the following season as well but lost the final to Durham. His last match for Cornwall was on 11th January 1911 against Devon. The following season his place in the Cornwall side was taken by the welsh born Dai Gent who had played previously for the Gloucestershire side that won its first County Championship earlier in the year.

Above a portrait of Chicky Wedge painted by one of his daughters. He is wearing his England shirt and cap. He played for England twice on 5th January 1907 against France at Richmond and then against Wales on 16th January 1909 in Cardiff

Above the England side that played France on 1st January 1907 at Richmond. This match was not part of the Five Nations which France didn’t join until the following year. England won 31-13. Wedge is front left on the ground.

But how, you may be wondering, did he come by that distinctive nickname? Chicky's grandson, Charles Nicholls, takes up the story.

"They say Tommy had a ball in his hand from as soon as he could walk and he and the other children loved to chase about the beach," he said. "He would run and jink and throw the ball. One day a local woman commented that Tommy ran 'like a little chicky' and the name stuck."

Above Chicky Wedge during retirement

He emigrated to America for a few years and later served as a coastguard during the Second World War. He died on 11th December 1964 at 12 Richmond Place, St. Ives, Cornwall.

As part of the centenary celebrations in 2008, the British Olympic Association arranged a match between the Barbarians and Australia at Wembley Stadium on 3rd December. The Barbarians players who normally wear their club socks, all wore the yellow and black of Cornwall. Australia won the match 18-11

Thank you to Simon Parker (Living Cornwall). Large sections of this article first appeared in the Western Morning News on 24th July 2012.

 

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Patrick Casey, 2014
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