By PETER WOODROOFE
In January 2004, there was an inquiry on the Moseley website from Justin McCullough, who lives in New Zealand. He is a collector of rugby cigarette/trade cards from the late 1800s and early 1900s and of the trading cards of today. He came across a card dated around 1899-1900 which show J.F. Byrne who played for Moseley.
Justin wanted confirmation as to 'whether a J.F. Byrne played for a club called Moseley and whether Fred Byrne, born in Penns, and Francis Byrne, born in Aston and who both played for England around the turn of the century, were connected.'
The Moseley communications team confirmed J.F. Byrne's connections with Moseley, together with some chronological details. The following 'mini-biography' spells out the full achievements of one of Moseley Rugby Club's 'greats', famous enough to be featured in a cigarette card collection. He was also a very fine county cricketer being able to combine playing both sports at a very high level at a time when the seasons for playing both sports were clearly defined.
J.F. (Fred) Byrne was born on 19th June, 1871 in Penns, near Birmingham, between what is now rural Wylde Green and Walmley. (Coincidentally, 1871 is the year the Rugby Union was founded). He first played for Moseley round about 1887 and for Warwickshire County Cricket Club in 1892 when Warwickshire was a second class county in cricketing terms. Wisden Cricketers' Almanack records Fred Byrne's Warwickshire debut as 'F.J. Byrne', not often is there an opportunity to correct Wisden!
Concentrating on his rugby prowess, Byrne became captain of Moseley aged 23 in the 1894/95 season when only one match was lost, holding the position for five seasons. During that time, Moseley twice won the Midland Counties Challenge Cup, twice lost in the final and only in the last year of his captaincy, when the balance of power in the Midlands was beginning to lean towards Leicester, did Moseley fail to reach the last stage. In his period of captaincy, Moseley won 68 games, drew 23 and lost 37.
Fred Byrne won his first England international cap in 1893/94 against Wales at Birkenhead Park and was one of seven newcomers in the England team in what was described as a 'surprisingly large win' by 24-3 over the previous year's champions. Playing at full-back it was said he outshone the great Welsh full-back W.J. (Billy) Bancroft on the day and was described as the ideal, orthodox full-back; with safe hands, invariably where the ball came, a quick and long punter, and rock-like in defence. He was also an excellent place-kicker, capable of landing goals from halfway. Obviously, the forerunner of Syd Newman, a South African England international who played for Moseley in the late 1940s and regularly kicked 55-yard penalties and, of course, Sam Doble. Byrne went on to win 12 more caps, six against Ireland, four against Scotland and two more against Wales. It was in the game against Wales in 1897 that he played with his brother Francis (F.A. Byrne) who played at wing-three-quarter winning his only cap more. Fred captained England in all three internationals in the 1897/98 season, including the 14-7 victory over Wales at Blackheath more. He played his last match for England in the 1898/99 season, Ireland winning 6-0 in Dublin.
In 1896, Byrne was a member of the British Isles team that toured South Africa. He played in all 21 games, of which 19 were won and one drawn. The only defeat was in the fourth international match, in Cape Town, where South Africa won 5-0. The British Isles had won the previous three. He scored 127 points of the 320 points scored, with only 45 against. He was the only player to top 100 points on a tour of South Africa until 1960 when the All Black Don Clarke beat his record. He was one of only two England internationals in the tour party of 21 which included eight current or future Irish internationals more.
In spite of William Webb Ellis first running with the ball in 1823 in Warwickshire, club rugby football held pride of place over county rugby in central England when the County Championship competition commenced in 1889. Midland Counties was the only team to represent the area and covered Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. Often players from the two premier clubs, Moseley and Leicester, did not play county rugby, although outside the Midlands the County championship generated a great deal of excitement. However, in 1898, the Midland Counties squad, which included J. F. Byrne and F.A. Byrne and five other Moseley players, defeated Devon 5-3 in the semi-final at Plymouth and met Northumberland at Coventry in the final. However, the Leicester contingent refused to play and they lost 3-24. As one would expect, Fred Byrne also represented the Barbarians.
Byrne gave up the Moseley captaincy after the 1898/99 season and in 1901/02 became honorary secretary, a position he held for nine years, before becoming president in 1910 a post he held for 19 years, including the Great War. He masterminded the setting up of The Reddings Ground Improvement Fund and a new lease was negotiated with the owner of the ground, the Taylor Estate. In 1924, he was on the sub-committee that negotiated the purchase of The Reddings and was appointed one of four trustees of the land in 1927. He became the second president of the North Midlands union in 1921 serving until 1929. He also continued to attend functions at Moseley.
Thus he was seriously associated with rugby football as a player and administrator for over 40 years. His son, C.J (Jim) Byrne, a second-row, played in the 1920s, captained the club with the same authority as his father in 1930-33 and played eight times for the North Midlands in 1926-28. Jim's cousin Dennis was a centre-threequarter who represented Moseley in the mid-1920s.
As a cricketer, after making very intermittent appearances for Warwickshire from 1892, when it was a second-class county, Fred played 12 matches for the county in 1897 after it had achieved first-class status in 1894. Playing for Warwickshire when Byrne first played for the county was another Moseley player, J.E. Shilton, who played as a professional and it was said that he and H.J. Pallett bowled Warwickshire into first class cricket. Shilton of course played as an amateur for Moseley!
In his first 'full' cricket season in 1897, Mr J.F. Byrne, as amateurs were known then, scored a century in his first important game against Leicestershire at Edgbaston and finished the season having scored 580 runs in County Championship cricket at an average of 34.11. He was a hard-hitting batsman, a fast bowler and a fine fielder. He was appointed captain virtually out of the blue in 1903 and Warwickshire gained a splendid victory in his first game defeating Surrey at The Oval. He was captain in 1903-07, during which time he was honorary secretary of Moseley Rugby Club. In his career playing first class cricket for Warwickshire in 1897-1912 he scored 4,721 runs at an average of 23.02, scoring four centuries and as a bowler took 70 wickets, at an average of 30.32. He scored 222 against Lancashire in 1905, sharing an opening stand of 333 with S.P. Kinneir, a record that stood for over 50 years. He also represented the Gentlemen against the Players at The Oval, also in 1905, scoring 24 and 10. Another happy memory for him occurred at the Crystal Palace when he bowled Dr. W.G. Grace twice in a game against London County. Coming to the end of his career, he played one match in the Warwickshire County Championship winning season in 1911 replacing the unavailable F.R. Foster as captain in the game against Hampshire and scored 64 runs in their massive innings and 296-run victory. An ending on a high note for a natural winner! more.
He continued to serve Warwickshire as he did Moseley on the committee often fighting the cause of a professional cricketer experiencing injustice or hard times. He resigned from the committee in 1936 because he found it impossible to attend meetings and was elected a vice-president. Aged 79, he attended the dinner given during the match at Edgbaston in 1950 when Warwickshire became the only team to defeat the West Indies on their tour. F.G. Stephens, another Warwickshire cricketer who played rugby for Moseley, was also there. Aged 80, he was also able to attend the dinner celebrating the 1951 County Championship win.
James Frederick Byrne died on 10th May, 1954, aged 82. He was an industrialist and company director in his spare time! He even had time to serve his country in the South African War of 1899-1900. He was a man of authority, able to get the best out of those who played with him. He was forthright, abrasive and issued advice on the field in a stentorian voice but was fiercely loyal and generous to his team. He was an outstanding example of his generation to the benefit of those who were around him.
A great granddaughter of his is Lavinia Byrne, another individualist, a former Roman Catholic nun and now Dr Byrne, a teacher of theology. After presenting 'Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio 4 on more than 100 occasions she was axed as the powers that be thought she was 'too soft' for the job, being too religious in a programme that is changing to 'Opinion for the Day'. So no more of her soft, dulcet tones, so relaxing for the early morning listener. But the Byrne family has produced another strong character expressing opinions in a different, completely opposite way, but no less effective and influential. A remarkable family.
FOOTNOTE: The writer is pleased to acknowledge and is grateful for his sources of reference: 'England Rugby' and 'North Midlands Rugby-A Jubilee History' by Barry Bowker; 'The Moseley F.C. Centenary Brochure'; 'Wisdens Cricketers' Almanacks' and 'History of Warwickshire Cricket' by Leslie Duckworth.
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