Vigo Rugby Football Club
Editor’s Note: The following is based upon research text kindly provided by Trevor Newnham, the Press Secretary of Vigo RFC. Trevor has also published two books celebrating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the club and information on these publications is available on the Vigo RFC website.
During 1968 a Sunday lunchtime session at the Vigo Inn, near Fairseat, in Kent, and perched on the top of the North Downs, was in full flow. These Sunday lunchtime sessions were invariably a chance for some of the local rugby players, ex-rugby players, and probably some that should have been, to talk about memories of rugby matches. As the beer flowed, someone came up with the bright idea of starting a rugby club based at the Vigo Inn, because lo and behold, the Inn boasted a field at the rear. It needed a lot of imagination to envisage a rugby pitch, but beer does strange things to male logic!
Note: Further information on the Vigo Inn is available in the ‘Places’ section of the website under ‘Landmarks & Places of Interest’.
Gradually through various meetings, this idea began to take shape and the Vigo Rugby Football Club was formed and a Committee was duly elected. Lillian Ashwell, the much-revered landlady of the Vigo Inn, was elected Lady President, quite possibly the first Lady President of a rugby club in England. It was an honour that always seemed to fill her with puzzlement and wonder, but an honour she bore stoically through the years. Of course, there was a secondary reason for this, as Lillian had a field at the back of the pub, which with imagination probably resembled a rugby pitch.
There are two stories about the goalposts – one that some old disused telegraph poles were liberated, and the other that some tall, reasonably straight, trees were discovered to have some obscure disease and were cut down to save the rest of the trees in the wood. Whatever the truth the club now had a field, lines, and goalposts.
Changing rooms were the next question. An old disused chicken hut was used temporarily if the weather was bad; a free-standing tap in the corner of the field sluiced off most of the mud. Most people lived locally, so the opposition were transported back to players’ houses for a shower, a cup of tea, sometimes a fry up if the wives were feeling particularly loving and then back to the Vigo for a sing-song and more liquid refreshment. If the weather was particularly good then the Public Bar was filled with men in various states of undress, which became a bit of tourist stop on the A227.
A couple of players from Gravesend – the local ‘big’ club to were talked into providing some coaching. A smooth-talking member managed to persuade various clubs to entertain the nascent Vigo RFC, and to experience the full grassroots experience – august clubs (not their first teams) such as Rosslyn Park, London Welsh, and Harlequins travelled to this tiny hamlet to return bemused, bewildered and beguiled by the surreal adventure. Slowly but surely, the team took shape. The Vigo Inn had always drawn its regular custom from a wide area and the same was true of the Rugby Club. Playing members (all regulars) came from Meopham, New Ash Green, and Gravesend, as well as the more local areas of Vigo Village, Hodsoll Street, and Fairseat.
It is clear from the numbers that Vigo RFC was not confined to rugby purists. Indeed, there was such a family atmosphere at the Vigo Inn that the whole pub was deeply involved with the Club. Treasurer Mick Sturges pointed out that “without the tremendous degree of support of all the regulars and other local people and, in particular, our Lady President, Lillian Ashwell, we just wouldn’t have got off the ground.”
Building a team was not easy. A large proportion of the players had never before touched a rugby ball, although there was a hardcore, like the Captain, Trevor Burningham, ex-Surrey Colts and Sutton centre; Vice-Captain Dave Spittle, ex-Old Surbitonians flanker; Mick Sturges, ex-captain and wing forward at Old Caterhamians; Tony Fisher, a Royal Navy prop; Graham Waters, Hayes Common winger; ex-Rosslyn Park and Gravesend no.8 Tony Armstrong and Richard Nebel, ex-Beckenham wing forward, to offer experience and knowledge.
Trevor Burningham commented, “The enthusiasm and willingness to learn by the inexperienced players has been amazing and most have now mastered the basic rugby techniques. We are a little raw in one or two specialist positions, such a s hooker, but it is no exaggeration to say that as a team, we are now nearing B team standard rugby – and that is the level of competition we shall be seeking in the coming season’’. The most pressing problem is the fixtures. Trevor also pointed out “When you start a soccer team it is relatively easy to join a League and so guarantee regular fixtures. But with a Rugby Club, no such facilities exist and it is a long, hard slog going the rounds for fixtures.”
After a few years, and the rugby becoming a little more serious, new premises were found. The first after the pub was a field some distance from Fairseat Village Hall (doubling up as changing rooms) which entailed climbing several stiles to reach and the occasional encounter with the local Hunt. Subsequently, a playing field was offered at a local Mental Health Facility (Leybourne Grange) which seemed appropriate.
Eventually nearly ten years after the founding of the club, some members acted upon a vague rumour that a local dignitary, Dame Frances Clode, Chairwoman of the WRVS, wished to bequeath a field to be used by local sportsmen in Harvel, about a couple of miles from the original Vigo Inn. As Vigo RFC was approximately a sporting club, advances were made and the field was acquired and a small rent paid to the Parish council.
Unfortunately, through a misunderstanding, the tenant farmer ploughed the field which had been grazed for many years, thus the sward was luxurious. Needless to say, after ploughing, the underlying flints were brought to the surface. Thus, there was the sight of fifty or so rugby players and spouses, children etc crawling up and down the pitch picking up flints each Sunday for the next couple of years until the pitch was deemed playable.
A member who happened to be in the building trade then supervised the building of a clubhouse, the players themselves acting as labourers, and a splendid clubhouse was constructed. The RFU gave little help so various fundraising ventures were embarked upon – a sponsored relay round the rugby clubs of Kent, a sponsored leapfrog through a local town which had 7 or 8 pubs which gave much-needed sustenance. Gradually, as the Club evolved, the clubhouse grew, floodlights were installed, and the club went from strength to strength.
Underlying this has always been an ethos of friendly rugby, acknowledged by Vigo RFC twice winning the Whistler Trophy awarded by the Kent Referees Society to Clubs which do most to promote sportsmanship and friendliness. A mini-rugby section was formed, one of the first in the county, and developed seven County Colts in the ’90s.
So from the grassiest (and muddiest) of grassroots, the Club – Vigo RFC – came into being. A pub side at heart, a determination to be independent of any brewer, professionalism, and a club that would offer a warm home to anyone who loves this great game. From its humble beginnings in 1968 at the Vigo Inn, the club has developed significantly and is now based at Swanswood Field, Vigo. The club currently fields four adult teams, a juniors team, and two junior mini rugby teams.
The photograph below shows the Vigo RFC Veterans team winning the Spitfire Gold Bowl in a final against Whitstable Vets on the 14th April 2019.
Current information on Vigo Rugby Football Club can be found on their website at www.pitchero.com/clubs/vigorfc
Select the ‘News’ link below to view a 1969 Newspaper Report on Vigo RFC.