Rugby star killed in a First World War trench

An England and Blackheath rugby player in Victorian London died fighting for his country in the First World War. But there is no memorial to Alexander Todd in Britain – you have to go to Belgium. MIKE GUILFOYLE tells of his sporting and military career.

The somewhat run-down family grave of Forest Hill wine merchant Bruce Beveridge Todd and his wife Phoebe lies next to the Dissenter’s Chapel in Ladywell cemetery.

But that of their son Alexander Findlater Todd, a British international rugby and then England rugby player – and also county cricketer – is sadly missing from any inscription.

Alexander Findlater Todd (September 20, 1873 – April 21, 1915) was an England rugby union forward who also played for Cambridge University and Blackheath FC at club level, and Kent at county level.

Todd also represented the British Isles team on their tour of South Africa in 1896.

Alexander Todd, part of the London bridge-based Findlater family of wine merchants, was born in Lewisham on September 20, 1873.

But the final resting place of Alexander, known as Fin to his friends, is not near his parents in Ladywell.

To see it, you will need to travel to Poperinghe War Cemetery, Leper, Belgium – known as Pops to British tommies.

Todd was an all-round sportsman, captaining his school team in football and rugby and playing cricket for Berkshire in 23 matches between 1910 and 1913.

The Wisden obituaries of 1915 refer to Todd as a ‘…capital wicket keeper’.

Todd was born in Lewisham in 1873 to Bruce Beveridge Todd, a wine merchant from Forest Hill, and Phoebe Brooker.

He was educated at Mill Hill School where he was a keen sportsman from a young age.

He went to Caius College, Cambridge and continued his passion for sport and was selected for the university team.

He played in three Varsity matches, collecting his sporting Blues between 1893 and 1895.

Alexander Findlater Todd

He received his BA in 1892 and on leaving university he joined Blackheath FC, and would later become a leading member of the Kent county team.

He was invited to join the touring British Isles team – before they became the Lions – on their tour of South Africa in 1896 by Blackheath team-mate Johnny Hammond.

Six foot two inches tall, Todd was a big asset in the scrum.

Aged 23, he drew admiring comments from the rugby writers of South Africa and from the ladies.

Todd played in all four Tests against South Africa which ended in three wins for the tourists, and a loss in the final game played at Cape Town.

In the Second Test, which the British team won by the largest margin, all three tries came from forward positions.

One of them was scored by Todd – his first and only international points.

Todd was one of four Blackheath players on the tour, along with Hammond, Matthew Mullineux and Froude Hancock.

On his return to Britain, Todd rejoined Blackheath, and four years later he was capped by his country as part of the 1900 Home Nations Championship.

In the opening match of the tournament against Wales, the English selectors had gambled on 13 new caps, and lost the game.

In the second game, against Ireland at the Athletic Ground in Richmond, Todd was given his chance.

England won 15–4. Todd was then reselected for the final game of the Championship, an away encounter with Scotland.

The game was extremely tight, with the English halves reluctant to bring the backs into play, and the game ended in a 0–0 draw.

As Scotland were the holders of the Calcutta Cup, the draw meant they retained the trophy, and England finished second in the Championship behind Wales.

Grave at Ladywell Cemetery of Alexander’s parents

Todd never represented his country in rugby again.

After leaving university he had joined the British Army, and saw action in the Second Boer War with both Roberts’ Horse and Carrington’s Horse.

He rose to the rank of squadron leader during the campaign and was wounded in action. On his return to Britain he set up in business in London, and on December 2, 1902 he married Alice Mary Crean.

She was from a rugby family as well – she was the sister of Ireland and British Isles rugby player Thomas Joseph Crean VC, with whom Todd toured South Africa with the British Isles in 1896.

Crean had won the VC in 1901 after successfully attending the wounds of two soldiers and a fellow officer under heavy enemy fire.

In 1914 Alexander joined the special Reserve Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment and reached the rank of captain while serving in France during the First World War.

In 1915, Todd was part of the British assault on Hill 60 at Ypres Salient and was shot in the neck, as he peered over a trench parapet.

His fellow soldiers had been worried that Todd’s height would expose him to snipers “He seemed perfectly regardless of his danger,” recalled a comrade, Private Coleman, “and two or three men remarked that if he stayed there he was bound to be hit, and suddenly they saw him fall.”

Todd died of his wounds in a casualty clearing station four days later. He was 41 years old.

Main pic: Alexander is top left, back row in the Cambridge University rugby team photograph

 

 


 

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One thought on “Rugby star killed in a First World War trench

  • 8 January 2022 at 18:23
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    What an amazing story of an all round British sportsman who then as a fearless soldier died for his country ~ Thanks

    Reply

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