Tue 06 Oct 2020 11:12

Kirkby Lonsdale RUFC have played at Underley Park since 1877. Its fair to say we have seen some changes over the years. Jim Thompson and Mike Martindale, have pieced together a brief history of the club, having been involved in KLRUFC for many years. Jim since the early fifties and Mike since the mid eighties.

Both are past Presidents and have been part of the club management for many years including negotiating our first 30 year lease in 1986 and the sale of the old clubhouse site. They were also both part of a small group whose work led to the construction of our current clubhouse that year and a successful National Lottery Sports Fund application which enabled us to make substantial improvements ten years later.

Both are now well retired from day to day involvement but still enjoy being part of the club and take some pride in having been a part of the growth and successes over many years.



Rugby in Kirkby Lonsdale began in the season 1877-78. Heversham School – now Dallam - won at Underley Park in the early winter but the Westmorland Gazette recorded a win for Kirkby Lonsdale at Heversham on 23rd March 1878.Sadly the club’s old records were lost during the 1939-45 war having been placed for safe keeping in a cupboard in the Secretary’s aunt’s house He returned in 1945 to find both cupboard and contents had disappeared. They were never found. Our local Grammar School had, by 1879, started playing rugby and travelled to play Windermere College on 1st November of that year. It was reported that during the match, which the College won, that “by steady dribbling the College forwards forced the ball to the enemies goal line.” A rather different style of play in those days.

The game flourished in the late eighteen hundreds and there were over twenty clubs until the trauma of the split and the formation of the Northern Union which led to the founding of the Rugby League. In addition to the main clubs-Kendal Hornets, Kendal Town, Windermere Ambleside and Kirkby Lonsdale there were at least twenty more clubs in South Westmorland. It is interesting to note that the club teams, in this county, which still survive are those with a rugby playing school close by. We are pleased that, here in Kirkby we have a strong connection with Q.E.S and are glad to make our facilities available for them to use and for their young players to join the club.

In 1890 two Kirkby players J K Robinson and E Richardson were picked to play for Westmorland and thus the RFU became aware of our existence.

Around the turn of the century changing facilities were to be found at one of the local inns with a cheering walk past St. Mary’s and through the graveyard to Underley Park.

Following the 1914-18 war rugby restarted. Kirkby was regularly represented in the County side of Cumberland and Westmorland by Billy Walling who was capped 47 times including the 1923-24 County Championship winning side.

Our grandstand was built about this time and has served generations of spectators and courting couples so well. The twenties and thirties brought the advent of motor coach travel and so our fixture list expanded to take us to some of the Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs. Many years ago an ex-President assured us that Kirkby beat Orrell away with thirteen men!

The Second World War took seven years out of a fine young team but the club revived its activities in September 1946 with a match with Thornton Cleveleys. Season 1947-48 saw one of the finest of Kirkby sides, almost unbeaten until the snow halted games until almost Easter. In November Kirkby beat Ambleside at home with Pickernell scoring ten tries. He had already attracted the attention of a Barrow Rugby League scout who was at the match. He signed soon after and Kirkby lost a fine player.

Next month will bring us up to date and tell of the remarkable growth of the club and it’s more recent achievements.

1950 - 1996

In the early and middle fifties National Service and Universities took most of the up and coming young players, many of whom never returned, finding careers further afield. The future of the game in Kirkby was in the hands of a few regulars, with many birds of passage and pressed men. In April 1954 Kirkby gained a convincing win over Sedgeley Park who now play in National 2 North. Mike Hastewell, Jim Thompson Graham Garnett and Bill Fletcher, who sadly died very recently, all played in this match. Graham, Jim and Bill all scored tries.

Raising a team became so critical that a merger with Holme Wanderers was considered but that did not meet with full approval and as the Club were having difficulties with their changing accommodation in town it was decided to take the plunge and build our own clubhouse. A small plot of land was purchased from the Underley Estates in Fairbank. Built entirely by members, it was opened by Mrs P.I.Pease at the beginning of the 1958 season with a match between a Fylde XV and a North West Counties side. The clubhouse immediately proved its worth and with more players attracted by the new facilities a regular second team was established.

In the early sixties Holme Wanderers were struggling to survive and joined us. Their spirit lives on in our third team. We were runners up in the Westmorland and Furness Cup Comp. twice in the late sixties, losing once on penalties 6-3. This may have been the occasion when they stopped for further necessary refreshments on the way home and enjoyed another hour of chips, beer and bonhommie. They were asked by an elderly, local regular who soon realised that they were a rugby crowd, if they always celebrated a win so enthusiastically. Oh no actually we lost was the reply. The old man was heard to mutter to his wife, “ Thank God, thank God” In 1971 the Cup was won at last. The team is featured above.

In 1986 it was decided that the old clubhouse had reached the end of the road and a small group undertook the task of creating new facilities in the Park. With the agreement and support of our landlords, the Underley Estate, the new clubhouse was built with all the necessary up to date facilities. This was funded by the sale of the old clubhouse site, own funds and support from the Northern Sports Council and local Authorities.

The club continued to grow and with a strong senior section, ladies, minis and colts teams so that by 1996 the original clubhouse had become inadequate. Our ladies played their inaugural match against Leigh ladies on 3rd March 1996 and have made great progress in recent seasons. Expansion was vital and a small group, some of whom had been involved ten years previously, drew up plans and also submitted a National Lottery Application which secured funding of £85,600 towards the total cost. This provided expanded clubhouse space, three more changing rooms, boys and girls changing and a bigger kitchen.

These two major steps would not have been possible without the wholehearted support and work by many club members. This  has always been a strong factor in our growth.

During the last twenty five years the club has moved on in ways that would never have been imagined in the seventies.


The last thirty years

The last thirty years have probably been the most eventful in the club’s 143 year history – all spent at Underley Park. The latest, and by far the most significant development was the acquisition of our ground, thanks to a benefactor whose generosity has preserved rugby for all time in Kirkby Lonsdale.

The new club house, 1986 with its improvements 1996, enabled us to create a facility which provides not only first class playing and changing facilities but also a social centre ready for our community to share and enjoy. Thus we have been able to attract more players and improve everyone’s experience of rugby.

In 1983 the Mike Nelson era began.  Mike accepted our invitation to become club coach through the late John Wilman who was club captain during the two seasons from 1983.Mike was head of PE at QES and so we had a welcome link and a natural progression from school to club with obvious benefits. He coached for almost thirty years and raised the standards of play throughout the club with many who had first experienced his coaching at school.  Mike was succeeded by John Pickthall in 2013. 

The development of the Mini and Youth section started in the dedicated hands of John and Jane initially in conjunction with North Ribb. The unforeseen but most welcome growth in the numbers of young boys and girls plus the formation of our ladies section provided rugby for all. This was putting pressure on our changing accommodation, so in 2017 eight changing rooms were added – a far cry from tepid showers and tin baths, strong in the memory of the oldies! Similarly we now have a dedicated team of physios who we couldn’t do without. The aches and strains would linger much longer but for their timely attention and skills.  A far cry from the bucket of cold water and sometimes bloodied sponge and the encouragement to “run it off lad” in the “good old days”!  

During these later years a strong overseas connection developed. Tom Rostron was the first in the early eighties. Tom came farming for a year and stayed for five. Mark Turfrey and Grant Angus had a major input in the early nineties and a significant factor at the turn of the century was the formation of the Friends of KLRUFC, set up to provide funding for the club by way of organising pre- match lunches sponsored by local businesses bringing their guests. The lunches proved most successful and helped fund accommodation for overseas players. Jobs were often provided by local businesses. Thus the visiting players were able to be self -sufficient during their stay.  

September 1st 1985 the club made a bit of rugby history when they travelled to Cockermouth to play the first ever Rugby Union League match. The sponsors were the National Giro Bank. In 1985 the Courage leagues were formed and so began the club’s steady climb through the leagues. The greatest achievement came in the season 2016-17. On April 22nd 2017 Kirkby beat Blackburn at Underley Park 22-7 to round off a memorable season to take top spot in North 1 West and gain promotion to the Northern Premier League. That season we won all 26 matches and scored nearly 1200 points with only 283 against. 187 tries resulted in 129 out of 130 league points. Since then we have held our own against clubs of the calibre of Preston Grasshoppers, Ilkley, Harrogate, Blaydon and other top clubs in the north east.  

Much of this success was down to Mike Nelson’s coaching and motivating. Mike took a well earned retirement in 2013 after thirty memorable years of achievement not only with the first XV but with all our players who had benefitted over the years. John Pickthall took over from Mike and, for five years, built on these sound foundations which led to the last promotion to the Northern Premier League.  John’s tenacity and coaching skills brought results we could never have envisaged just a few years ago.

When John retired after, as he has said, five years in the hot seat. There was no obvious successor and the club took a fresh look at our structure. Management of our many activities was becoming ever more demanding on our volunteers. The club took the decision to appoint a player coach & rugby development officer, Scott Armstrong, who came with a wealth of experience, including playing for Northampton Saints at the highest level. Ben Muschamp was appointed General Manager. Ben has been involved with the Mini and Youth section for some years and during his time as employee and volunteer, working with the committee, Scott and Pete Kyles, who oversees a number of tasks under the label ‘House and Grounds, developed a number of new revenue streams such as camping and festivals as well as working on a number of initiatives to help the club prepare for future chapters in the history of the club.

Our Development and Wanderers teams are to be congratulated on coming top of their leagues and being promoted. The Development squad will play in the North West Intermediate Leagues Premier League against some of the senior clubs in the north west and will face the strongest of challenges. The Wanderers have been promoted to N.W. Intermediate League 3 North.

All our players, seniors, ladies and colts are doing their best to keep up fitness levels and are looking forward to a new season with all its fresh challenges. Our Development and Wanderers squads are particularly looking forward to the new experiences that their promotions will bring. Campers and caravanners are now welcome again and the gym is open. Hopefully our community will once again be able to enjoy the facilities that Kirkby rugby club have always been glad to share. Keep safe everyone.


Mike Martindale and Jim Thompson

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