Mention is often made of the key dates and stories behind the founding of the world’s first Rugby clubs in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but barely anything is ever mentioned of the star players of this pioneering era. Rather than an oversight, it is a reflection of there simply being a lack of available information. One name though emerges from the shadows of this distant time – CS Dakyns.
In the 1860s the happenings of football clubs and the matches they played seldom appeared in newspapers, and those that did were particularly scant, rarely noting individual footballers and their deeds.
Relying on a number of sources from later decades, we can however say with certainty that one of the most well-known players of the first decade of club football in England was Richmond FC’s back, Charles Stuart Dakyns – indeed, as we shall see, ‘Pup’ Dakyns was lauded as “the best football player that ever donned flannels” and can arguably lay claim to being the first (non schoolboy) star of Rugby.
Dakyns’ career was over before the first international contest (England v Scotland in 1871) was held, which no doubt contributes to his obscurity.
Dakyns (1844-1930) was born on the Island of St. Vincent in the West Indies, where his father was working as a doctor. The Dakyns family returned home to England, settling in the township of Rugby in 1845. Living in Rugby meant that Dakyns was able to enroll in the now famous Rugby School (entering in February 1855).
Football, of course, was a prominent part of Rugby School life, and it is perhaps interesting to note that Dakyns’ time there briefly overlaps with that of Tom Wills, who upon his return home to Melbourne, would be a central figure in the founding of Australian rules football in 1859.
Dakyns’ achievements as a schoolboy footballer are difficult to separate from his Rugby club exploits as a young man, given it was commonplace for former Rugby School students to continue to participate in matches at the School. Writing in 1882 about Dakyns, Anglicanus noted:
“In the three great matches of one Rugby season…Dakyns dropped two goals in the Sixth v. School match, one in the Old Rugbeian, and a poster [struck the goal post] in that between the Two Best Houses and the School. When it is considered that from 120 to 160 players were engaged in each match, some idea of the magnitude of this feat may be formed.”
In A History of Rugby School (published in 1898) W.H.D. Rouse wrote:
“…and last, but not least, C. S. Dakyns. Dakyns’ achievements on Old Bigside [the playing fields at Rugby School] are described as marvellous, and not to be credited by those who had never seen him in his prime.”
In other words, his achievements seemed so improbable that anyone who didn’t actually see Dakyns in action was unlikely to believe they were possible.
Rouse, born in 1863, had relied on the written accounts of Anglicanus – though when it came to compiling A History of Rugby School, Rouse tweaked Anglicanus’ comments and simply referred to him as a “historian of the game”. The original and full quote from Anglicanus was first published in an article he wrote for The Sydney Mail in 1882:
“[Frederick] Stokes was, perhaps, the finest back-player of modern times – always excepting that prince of football players, Charles Stuart Dakyns, who, from 1860 to 1868, accomplished such a series of marvellous achievements on the Old Bigside, at Rugby school, and in the ranks of the Richmond club, as no one who did not see him at his prime could believe.”
“At Rugby and round London I have watched Rugby football for 33 years, and have no hesitation in saying that I have never in the whole course of my experience seen a player who could compare with the famous ‘Pup’ Dakyns.”
“About 5 feet 8 inches in height, and squarely built, he appeared to be one mass of sinew; his dodging powers were wonderful, and he could run as fast twisting and turning amongst a crowd of opposing forwards spread out to tackle him as most players could when progressing ‘in a bee line’ over a clear track of green sward.”
“His science and knowledge of the intricacies of the game were unequalled, and I never saw him in a dilemma. On some half-dozen occasions I have seen him drop a goal from a distance of 50 or 60 yards, when an opponent has had firm hold of one of his arms, but failed to get hold of the ball, which Dakyns, holding it by the string, would let fall from his unencumbered hand in front of his unerring foot.”
As mentioned, Dakyns was involved with the Richmond FC, and in some accounts is credited as being one of the club’s founders in 1861. In A History of Rugby School Rouse wrote:
“In the early days of the Rugby game the Richmond Club used to take a prominent place. When first formed, this club contained a large number of old Rugbeians, and in two or three years among the Sixties, when the team contained twelve or thirteen old Rugbeians, it sustained no defeat. C. S. Dakyns was a well-known figure in these games.”
In a list of the most “famous names in Richmond’s history” in Wavell Wakefield’s Rugger – The History, Theory and Practice of Rugby Football (published in 1928), the first name mentioned is Dakyns.
Adding a postscript to his 1882 article on Dakyns, Anglicanus was in no doubt that many former Englishmen now resident in Australia would recall Dakyns, and agree that no other Rugby footballer had yet surpassed his premier status:
“New South Wales football players will excuse my dwelling on these past deeds of ‘derring do’; some of the readers of ‘The Sydney Mail’, to my knowledge, recall with pleasure, the prowess of the best football player that ever donned flannels.”
© Sean Fagan