Wimbledon, Wembley, Twickenham and Lord's; London’s celebrated homes of sport. But for those searching for the real home of London sport, Blackheath is arguably the place to start.
The pasture gave birth to the world’s first independent rugby and hockey clubs, the first golf club south of the Scottish border and three of the eleven founder members of the Football Association.
Nowadays it's better-known as the starting line of the London Marathon, but in the early 1600s, those on the heath began a more leisurely four hours of exercise.
When James VI of Scotland took up residence as James I of England, golf came south with him. As early as 1606, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales took leave from the nearby Greenwich Palace to swing a stick.
Two years later, a club was established and members wore red military-style tunics, to serve warning to passers-by, as they played the course of five holes, three times. In 1844, this was extended to seven holes.
By the mid-nineteenth century, golfers were becoming a nuisance to other people enjoying leisure on the grasslands of Blackheath.
In those days neither rugby or association football were codified but by the 1830s, Blackheath Proprietary School was playing some form of the game and in 1858, a group of old boys rekindled those careless days of play by forming Blackheath Football Club.
Welcoming all-comers, in 1863, they, the Proprietary and Blackheath’s Perceval House School, attended the Freemason’s Tavern on Great Queen Street to form the Football Association.
Though Blackheath provided three of the eleven schools and clubs that met that day in Holborn, the Football Club didn’t much care for the evolution of the kicking game and left the association to focus on its own code that included the colourful Rule 10:
Though it is lawful to hold any player in a scrimmage, this does not include attempts to throttle or strangle, which are totally opposed to the principles of the game.
In 1871, the club joined twenty other sides with a preference for the egg-shaped ball at the Pall Mall Restaurant on Cockspur Street to form Rugby Football Union. The club is one of only two to be a founder member of both the RFU and FA.
Blackheath’s affinity to funny-shaped balls runs deep and forms a central point in the dispute over which area of London can lay claim to the world’s oldest hockey club.
Despite becoming independent in 1864, and existing as a section of the football club at least as far back as 1861, the claim of Blackheath Hockey Club is disputed by 1871 founded Teddington. While Teddington used a round ball as preferred by the Hockey Association, Blackheath formed the the short-lived Union, using their own cube-shaped ball with rounded edges.
Russell Ticehurst, chairman of Blackheath Rugby Club, is proud of his club’s position in history as the oldest club in the world and home of the amateur game but shies away from any dispute with Twickenham over the ‘home of rugby’ moniker.
“Since the move from amateur to professional … it has meant in practical terms less and less,” said Ticehurst.
Nevertheless, rugby fans from all over the globe included a pilgrimage to Blackheath in their visit to England for the 2016 Rugby World Cup.
Everyone in the game knows Blackheath and for some the club remains very evocative.
It was a Blackheath FC man Frederick Stokes who in 1871 accepted an invitation to lead a 20-man English side to Edinburgh to play rugby’s first international game. In 1881, players changed in the Princess of Wales pub, still standing on the edge of the heath, in preparation for the first-ever England v Wales international.
‘The Club’, as it is known by those who shout from the sidelines, to distinguish it from ‘the School’, even has literary prominence, recognised as the team Sherlock Holmes’ companion Dr John Watson appeared for as a “stout-necked forward”.
In 1923, the golf club finally accepted it could no longer stay on the heath, and relocated to the grand Eltham Lodge. Just as all the better-known homes of sport have their museums, Eltham Lodge houses a “unique collection of trophies, historic artefacts and memorabilia” available to view on request.
This year the rugby club followed, and although its amateur and junior sides remain at Blackheath’s Rectory Field, their National League 1 semi-professional (the third-tier of English rugby) have followed the golf club to Eltham’s Well Hall.
Having just moved to Well Hall, to provide a better match day experience, the majority of club memorabilia remains at Rectory Field. But in a sport dominated in London by the west, Ticehurst argues Blackheath’s south-east location forms a key part of their identity.
Every year Blackheath play a fixture with west London’s Richmond, the second oldest club in the world. With a choice of sitting or standing, pint in hand, for the same price as a seventh-tier football game, the oldest game in the world of rugby is history itself and not to be missed.