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Born the youngest of four children to a prominent and well-respected agriculturalist and tenant farmer on the North Yorkshire border with Durham, Thomas Sowerby Rowlandson's life took on a different course when just two years old. After the tragic death of his mother, through complications of pregnancy, Thomas was sent away to boarding school, and later to Charterhouse, where his love and talent for football were first encouraged to flourish.

Charterhouse was the leading football school in the country at the time, and a key source of talent for Corinthian FC. In 1897, as Tom prepared for his first season in the Charterhouse First XI,  six Old Carthusians sailed to South Africa with the Corinthians, becoming the first club to ever tour football beyond the borders of Europe. And, by the time Tom graduated - receiving a place up at Cambridge - his goalkeeping had already caught the eye of the Corinthian selectors.

Rowlandson in a Charterhouse team photo from the 1896/7 season

However, Rowlandson's career was very far from straight forward. His move to university was delayed by three years after a paralytic stroke left his father housebound and Thomas was called home to tend to his family's farm. While living there, Thomas joined the professional clubs of Darlington and later Preston North End and so, by the time he was at last able to take his place at Cambridge after his fathers death and his brother Hugh's inheritance of the farm, he was ready to take his place in the Cambridge XI.

Rowlandson at Cambridge, 1902

On graduating as a football Blue in 1903, he was immediately taken in by the Corinthians and made his debut while on the tour to South Africa in July 1903.

Beating the South African national side both 4-0 and 5-0, the tour was a resounding success with the Corinthians scoring 78 goals in 23 games and Rowlandson only conceding 18 at the other end.

After Corinthian had beaten Holland 2-1, Rowlandson is seen here wearing his trademark cricket sweater and cap, 5th from right.

With the success of the tour behind him, Rowlandson became the first choice goalkeeper for Corinthian FC and for the next 5 years he toured extensively with the side - to Hungary, Czech, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France and Holland. He was part of the squad that beat the national teams of Holland (2-1), Sweden (4-0), Denmark (4-0), South Africa (5-0), Belgium (12-0) and France, played at the home of PSG - Parc de Princes (11-4).

Indeed, Rowlandson became as much a face of the famous Corinthian side, home and away, as his illustrious teammates, C.B. Fry, G.O. Smith and Charles Wreford-Brown. He even developed his own style - becoming known for his trademark cricket sweater and cap: he is in fact the reason why goalkeepers today wear different tops to the rest of the team!

Rowlandson (sat centre, with cap) with the side that toured Canada and the USA in 1906.

A true believer in the ethos of the club, Tom revelled in his role, spreading the Corinthian Spirit around the world. In 1906, Rowlandson and his generation made the pioneering trip to North America where their mission was championed by the press: 

“Their tour was more educational than a desire to hang up scalps, and they made a very fine impression upon the spectators everywhere because of their clean cut, scientific playing and good sportsmanship.” - The Los Angeles Herald.

It was the seeding of the Corinthian Spirit and the amateur ethos in the North American psyche that inspired Thomas and the Corinthian players more than winning games. And they were shocked at the unsportsmanlike behaviour they witnessed at a baseball game they attended. In a match against Toronto, the message was lost on a Canadian opponent who consistently fouled the Corinthian players and vociferously argued with the referee, eventually resulting in the referee drawing the game to a premature conclusion. The behaviour bought reactions from both Canadian and British papers:

“The principle, or lack of principle, of win-at-any-price is the curse of sport in Canada and parents in the homes and teachers in the schools will have to impress on the boys that an honourable defeat is preferable to a victory won by dishonest or ‘dirty tactics’. And they might add that a defeat in spite of dirty tactics is a disgrace.” - Ottawa “Evening Citizen, September 5th, 1906


Corinthian playing against Philadelphia, 1906

The Corinthian tours were beginning to be seen as diplomatic missions, as much as sporting endeavours and, as such, in his new role as club captain - and with the memories of Canada front of mind - Rowlandson famously etched his name forever into the history books while on tour to South Africa a year later, in 1907.

The penalty law had been a hot topic and greatly debated ever since it's inception in 1891. The reason why the Corinthians felt disgust at the rule was that it acknowledged and recognised that one player could or would ever intentionally foul another. This was something they believed to be grossly insulting to the Gentleman amateur who would never intentionally foul another. They felt the rule was calculated to engender a spirit very unlike that in which they desired to play the game.

So when the referee awarded Western Province a penalty in the tours first game, Thomas Rowlandson took matters in to his own hands. Keen to make an impression and ensure the rest of the tour was played in the correct manner, the Corinthian captain explained to his opponents that although, in the opinion of the referee, a member of his side had been guilty of foul play, the Corinthians had no wish to prevent them from scoring by any such means and so he stood clear of his goal and offered no opposition to the goal being scored. Then, soon after, the opposite occurred, a penalty kick being awarded to Corinthians for something which, in their opinion, certainly did not amount to deliberate foul play. Rowlandson again, took the kick himself and made no attempt to score, sending the ball out of play for a goal kick instead.

The papers celebrated this remarkable act of Corinthian Spirit and the extreme act of sportsmanship admirably affected how the rest of the tour's matches were played. Then, as now, the bureaucrats were obtuse: the Council of the Football Association even debated the question whether or not the Corinthians should be called upon to explain their "unsportsmanlike conduct"!

In 1907 Rowlandson had to cut short his football career to take over the running of his family's farm.

On returning from South Africa, Thomas tragically learnt that his brother Hugh had died from pneumonia at the age of 34. A history of alcohol had plagued Hugh and the responsibilities as head of the family and master of the farm now fell to the Corinthian captain.

At the height of his powers, Thomas Rowlandson had to give up his football career at a time when he was considered the finest goalkeeper in the country. He had toured the world and played for his nation, playing his final game for Corinthian just before the club famously travelled to Brazil in 1910.

Captain Thomas Rowlandson stood back row, second from left.

Showing once again the extraordinary strength of character of this man, in 1914, on the outbreak of World War One, Thomas Rowlandson immediately enlisted to join the army. Donating his family farm to The Red Cross to be used as an Auxiliary Home Hospital, in April 1915 Rowlandson, as part of the 4th Yorkshire Regiment, was sent to the Second Battle of Ypres.

It was during this battle that the Germans first used Chlorine gas, causing panic and chaos across the front line and ripping a hole in the Allies' defences which the Yorkshire 4th Regiment were required to plug as the Germans pushed forward.

It was here that Tom performed the action that won him the Military Cross for gallantry, as his advance was later credited with preventing the Germans advancing to the Channel ports, potentially winning the war.

On October 8, 1915 he was promoted to temporary Captain. He had now achieved something that very few men had done before him; he was a Captain in the army and had been Captain of the English National Football team. There can be little doubt that his experiences as a Captain in sport had given him the necessary skills to manage men.

During the summer of 1916, the 4th battalion were moved down to Picardy on the Somme and spent late August and early September in training at Millencourt. At the end of August a War Diary from the Battalion paints a dismal picture:

"The health of the Battalion is bad. The billets are bad, overcrowded and unhealthy. Medical stores cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities. Fever and diarrhoea are increasing. Flies are present in clouds and for the first week of the stay at these billets butter muslin was unprocurable. The whole of the medical arrangements have been bad and sufficient care has not been taken of the troops."

Captain Thomas S. Rowlandson fell at the Battle of Somme, 15.9.1916.

On September 14th the battalion assembled for an attack. They were exhausted, many suffering from diarrhoea and fever. The battalion had been given three objectives and at 6.22am on September 15th, the attack began and quickly achieved it's first objective. By 7.58am they captured their second objective and two hours later, their third objective.

Thomas Rowlandson though had fallen. One year and 10 days after receiving his commission, Thomas Sowerby Rowlandson was dead. He was just 36 years old. Just 10 years earlier, in 1906, he'd been a celebrated tourist to Germany, coming face to face with Kaiser Wilhelm II at a changing of the guard ceremony -  yet now he had died, at the hands of the Kaisers army.

One report stated, in preparation for the attack, he had tied a red handkerchief to the end of his walking stick and held it above his head so his men could see him and follow on. The report also stated he was unarmed. His adjutant wrote:

“I have always thought of him the finest type of Englishman I have ever known, and his death was just as fine as his life. He died where of all places I think he would have chosen if it had to be – on the parapet of a German trench at the head of his men. A Boche bomb hit him on the shoulder. Death must have been instantaneous.”

Witnesses corroborated the reports that he was racing his men to the trenches as he was hit on the shoulder by a German bomb and died instantly. His Sergeant apparently bayoneted the German that threw the bomb.

His death was widely reported. The Sunderland Daily Echo and Gazette wrote: “Indeed a finer all-round athlete could scarcely be met with. Rowlandson was immensely popular among Wearsiders and his demise will be much regretted”. The Darlington and Stockton Times wrote, “Quite a gloom was cast over Darlington and the surrounding district, when it became known that Capt Thomas Sowerby Rowlandson MC, of the Yorkshire Regiment, had paid the supreme sacrifice in the recent great effort. Expressions of regret were heard of every hand that such a fine all-round sportsman and typical yeoman farmer had been so prematurely cut off.”

Thomas Sowerby Rowlandsons life was an extraordinary one; he played the game he loved, the way he lived his life - to the highest moral standard. He played a central role in spreading the sport all around the world only to then die fighting for it's freedom.
(Corinthian 1882 wishes to thank Llew Walker for additional research) 

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