Sport is slowly coming back to life. There are even tentative plans to allow limited numbers of spectators to attend events. However, one sport still missing is rugby. As a winter game we wouldn’t normally be thinking of rugby at this time of the year. But as it’s Saturday and while we’re waiting to hear if and when the next season will commence, let’s remind ourselves of someone who was arguably Cornwall’s greatest ever player of its national game.
Bert Solomon was born in 1885 in a terraced house at Redruth almost within throwing distance of Redruth Rugby Football Club’s Recreation Ground. The Solomon family had wholeheartedly embraced the rugby culture that captured west Cornwall’s working-class communities after the 1880s. Bert had brothers and cousins who, like him, not only played the game but went on to appear for Cornwall’s premier club – Redruth – and for Cornwall.
Bert Solomon emerged as a Redruth player in 1903-04, going straight into the first team of what was Cornwall’s premier club. It wasn’t long before he was picked to play for Cornwall. He was a member of that historic side that beat Durham in 1908 in front of 18,000 spectators at Redruth to become ‘county’ champions for the first time. Bert scored twice in that game and scored Cornwall’s only try when they lost to Australia at the Olympics later that same year.
His position on the rugby field was at centre, a member of the back line who run at their opponents. Centres need to be strong, agile and fast and Bert was all three. His strength was no doubt helped by hard physical labour at Redruth’s bacon factory, where he worked from the age of 14. Contemporary accounts report startling bursts of acceleration by Bert, combined with an uncanny knack of selling a dummy to his opponents, leaving them floundering as he sped past on his way to touch.
At a match against Devon at Plymouth in 1909 Bert was said to have picked up the ball 30 yards inside his own half and then ran through the opposition to score. In that match he scored five other tries. An England selector was present and Bert was eventually picked to play at Twickenham against Wales in 1910. He scored a try in that match too, but as he walked off he was heard to have muttered ‘I’ve finished’ and didn’t turn up at the celebratory post-match dinner. He was picked for another three England games but each time refused to play.
Bert had always been a little less than enthusiastic in his commitment to rugby. Before 1907 he’d often turn up late for Redruth’s games and sometimes claimed that he was too busy looking after his racing pigeons to play. Even when present he could spend large periods of the game standing about aimlessly before surprising his opponents with a sudden run or a spell of brilliant play.
Having to associate with the mainly public school and university-educated, self-confident and arrogant England players must have been the final straw. Always painfully shy and shunning publicity, Bert’s world of pigeon-fancying, pasty eating and beer drinking was uncomfortably far from theirs. Having reached the pinnacle of the sport he gave it all up. He spent the rest of his life in Redruth, but never played again for Redruth, Cornwall or England.
For more anecdotes on Bert Solomon see Allen Buckley’s Bert Solomon: A Rugby Phenomenon.