The Black Horse – A Pub with Rugby at its Heart!
In West Street, Hertford, the Black Horse has forged a reputation for good beer, good food and a pub full of community credentials. At its heart is a love for sport – particularly rugby. Now a Free House owned by Darren Shanley, back in the 1970s it was owned by Greene King, a southern outpost to its growing tied estate and with a reputation for its draught Abbot Ale and its strong bottled companion St.Edmund’s Ale (both stronger then). A mix of the two “Abbot and Eddie” was a fearsome cocktail. The pub was usually packed to the gills.
The strong rugby connection first emerged on a Tuesday night in 1976 when a typical discussion between three rugby-loving friends in the bar gradually edged towards “so, why don’t we form a team?”. Ian Butler, Brian Pearson and Tony Bebbington put the word about and soon, on a Sunday after 2pm pub closing time, 30 interested people marched into John Hart’s nearby house. About 15 were players, others friends willing to help. Training soon began and in February 1977 a match was arranged between The Black Horse RFC and Welwyn RFC V’s. The Horse lost 18 – 13, its first ever points scored by Rob Bellion [Ed: !], its first ever try scored by Brian Pearson. Five matches followed that season and the team was on its way.
Initially, the rugby establishment scorned the pub team – Ian Butler remembers a former Stevenage RFC Secretary, startled that his team were trailing to the Horse, yelling “Come on, they’re just a bunch of hippies.” Well, it was the ‘70s.
The Club was soon on its feet and, after a few seasons of away matches, a home was found at Balls Park in Hertford; the pitch over-arched by a huge tree bower. Players from both competing teams enjoyed after-match sessions at the pub and, like many a rugby club, humour was at its core.
A weekly award – a wooden spoon made by one of the players dubbed The Guinness Straining Drinking Spoon (but with an unprintable alternative award title) – was (and is still) presented to a club member for no particular reason other than a mild misdemeanour or just ‘cos, well, why not? The spoon and the Trophy de Turner, a shield made by player Rob Turner, still hang in the Pub’s “Rugby Room” along with many a photograph and other artefacts.
The Club were allowed to play in local cup competitions but thought the way to achieve a wider acceptance was to gain RFU Affiliation – unheard of for a pub team. This took patience and persuasion but was first gained in the late ’80s – a letter of Affiliation dated 1993 is displayed on the pub wall.
Separately, Dave Wright, the then landlord, operated an Abbot Club. To join, five pints of Abbot had to be consumed in a single session. A special award was given to those quaffing ten. Of course, most of the Rugby Club were soon members. Ian remembers a favourite away-match port of call as being the Cabinet at Reed – a superb rural pub of the day, now much missed but then offering great beer direct from the cask (Adnams, Tolly Cobbold, GK, Marstons and Courage) and where the Black Horse players were made more than welcome.
Current Club President, Denis Stubbins, used to live next door to the pub, in what is now the “Rugby Room”, before the cottage was subsumed into the Black Horse, and though he was never a player he has been a lifetime supporter. He says: “After home matches it was all back to the pub for a hearty meal of Braughing sausages and mash – washed down with Abbot and IPA (or “Eddie” for the brave). The spirit in the Club has always been brilliant”.
But though the rugby was fun, the matches were always played at full pelt with no quarter given. The Black Horse gained a strong reputation as worthy opponents. The Club formed a long relationship with Lourding Club de France a Paris team with regular home and away matches and much merriment – beer in England, Pernod in France.
Current Club captain, Adrian Lee, was appointed in 2013 but was a player for 10 years before that. Ian and Denis are keen to recognise the work Adrian put in to keep the Club together during and after Covid. The Club currently play in the Herts/Middx Merit Table competition taking them to places as far west as Beaconsfield, Chesham and north to Letchworth – its more recent honours include: Herts/Middx Merit Table 4 Champions 2016/2017 and Smallest Rugby Club World Cup Plate Winner 2015.
And the teams’ drinking Boat Race team are now undefeated in 10 years of attempts by other teams. It’s a traditional rugby challenge and the Black Horse are exceedingly good at it.
Adrian explained that the Club is mainly funded by “Froth” – Friends of the Horse – with players, friends and supporters guaranteeing at least £5 per month. With support undiminished during the pandemic, the club is well-funded to continue. But it has seen a drop-off in available players – something experienced by many local teams. And drink driving has curbed the match-day drinking antics enjoyed by the first generation of players.
So “Cluster Rugby” is now being played – Black Horse have teamed up with Datchworth Rugby Club III’s to form a Saturday team. Home games are now played in Hoe Lane, Ware, courtesy of Hertford RFC.
That first conversation between three friends in 1977 has led to almost 50 years of Club rugby. It is hoped that the 50th year might be marked with a special match – perhaps a game against Blackheath, recognised as the country’s first independent rugby club. That would be nice! Can it happen? Adrian said “We are working on that one”. Beer will oil the celebrations.
Current pub owner and landlord, Darren, says “The Rugby Club and the pub are entwined to the core. The locals ask after the boys and actively attend home games. The pub uses rugby as its differentiation with other local pubs. Live rugby takes precedence over any other TV sport. We are a true rugby pub”. Even a new extension built at the rear of the pub was named “The Scrummery”.
Perhaps the final word should go to Ian Butler, player, founder member and ex-president. “Things were very different back in the ‘70s, the rugby rules have since changed significantly – and there was a different sort of social life – but the Club has continued well through the years. There is a strong playing ethic but always with fun, some beer and the pub at its heart”.