The first reference to rugby being played in Sidmouth appeared in Lethaby’s Journal on 1st January 1864. The article states that a Football Club “has already been formed” in Sid mouth “there being already thirty or forty members…….The rules are those of the London Clubs”. This reference to the London Clubs defines the game as Rugby rather than Association Football.
That attempt failed as did several other attempts to form a club over the next 20 years although there are references to matches being played between teams raised within the town.
The club eventually became firmly established in 1884 thanks to the driving force of Bingley Pullin who was the first captain. The first match was played away against Exeter and resulted in a heavy defeat. The first home matches were played on the Coburg Field where the bowling greens and tennis courts are now situated. Some of these are referred to in the diaries of Peter Orlando Hutchinson who lived on Coburg Terrace.
Ten matches were played in the first season resulting in 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats.
The club grew in stature and within a few years had moved the short distance to the Blackmore Field where it’s headquarters remain to this day. By 1890 it became well enough established to join the Devon Rugby Football Union. This enabled them to take part in the Devon Junior Cup in the 1890-91 season.
Playing standards rose rapidly and the club enjoyed a unique golden era in the three seasons between 1894 and 1897. In 1895 they won the Devon Junior Cup beating Ilfracombe 21-3 in the final played in front of over 2000 people at the Exeter County Ground.
The following season Sidmouth were promoted to a senior club and played in the Devon Senior Cup which, that season, was played in a league format with eight teams. Twelve out of fourteen games were won to secure the competition and make Sidmouth the only club to win the Junior and Senior Cups in successive seasons.
In 1896-97 the Senior Cup reverted to a knockout format and again Sidmouth reached the final which was played at the County Ground. After a dour and error strewn struggle they beat Totnes 3-0 to win the cup for a second year running.
Following this success some players retired and County players Tommy Fitzgerald and Tom Woolley went to Devonport Albion although they continued to trun out for Sidmouth when not required there. This resulted in a downturn in fortunes until Fitzgerald and Woolley returned full time in 1902 and in the next four years 74 out of 100 games were won with the best season being 1905-06.
With the retirement of these outstanding players the playing standard again declined and remained at a low ebb until the outbreak of war in 1914 when rugby ceased for the duration.
The club reorganised in 1918 and resumed playing in October 1919. A number of talented new players emerged and the playing standard rose to a good level. More games were won than lost in most seasons. The fixture list was strong and included some top class sides such as Gloucester, Moseley and Nottingham attracted by the offer of a guaranteed share of the gate money.
In 1923 the club had the opportunity to buy the Blackmore Field from the owner Colonel Balfour but could not raise the money. Instead the field was purchased by local MP Sir Clive Morrison-Bell. He set up a Trust to ensure that the field was to be used for sport and recreation with the Rugby Club having priority use.
By this time the club was strongly supported and was very much a focal point in the life of the town. The Annual Ball was a major social event held at the Manor Pavilion. The standing of the club was illustrated by the attendance at a match by His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught on Saturday 26th November 1932.
Prior to that, in the 1929-30 season, Sidmouth again reached the Final of the Devon Senior Cup.They travelled to Torquay as underdogs but deservedly beat Brixham 3-0 thanks to a try by Mossy Turner. They also reached the final the following season but lost 0-6 to Paignton.
A stand had been erected in the 1892-93 season but it was not until 1933-34 that changing rooms were built. Prior to that the teams changed and washed in a local pub. The Changing rooms were extended in 1936.
Play was interrupted again by the Second World War. There were not enough players to play regular fixtures again until 1946 and it took most of the 1945-46 season to restore the Blackmore into a fit playing surface. Three games were played that season, one on Boxing Day and two at Easter.
A full fixture list was resumed in 1946-47 and, a few years later, under the captaincy of Godfrey Whittington, the club enjoyed another golden era. In the three seasons from 1951 to 1954 the Chiefs won 93 games and only lost 29 out of 133 played including the club record of 35 victories in 1951-52. With fewer games being played these days it is doubtful that record will ever be beaten.
Sometime during the 50s the club made a decision to discontinue the Colts team and this was to have severe consequences. The club continued to be successful in the 50s but this was followed by a sharp decline in playing standards during the 60s reaching a low point in 1965-66 when only six games were won.
By contrast matters off the field were thriving thanks to a fervent, hard working committee. In 1957 training lights were erected on 4th November1961 the first clubhouse and bar was opened by the President, Tommy Sanders. All the work was carried out voluntarily. In 1969 the clubhouse was extended by the addition of a wooden building donated by the Council as a result of their move to the Knowle. Again all the labour was voluntary.
In 1966 the club mourned the death of George Bolt on 13th November. His involvement with the club started before the First World War when he first joined the committee as a player. He had been the Secretary and Fixture Secretary for 35 years.
In 1964 the Colts were restarted with former Devon hooker Stan Baker in charge. This proved to be the spark to rekindle the playing fortunes in the 70s. Between 1971 and 1974 the Chiefs won 88 out of 140 games including winning the Havill Plate in 1973. The team for the final contained twelve former Colts.
Determined to ensure a regular supply of players for the future Sidmouth became the first club in Devon, and one of the first in the country, to start a Junior section. In September 1971 Terry O’Brien, assisted by a group of players and ex players, started weekly training for boys between 8 and 14. Under a succession of leaders the Junior Section has grown and developed into an organisation of which the club is justifiably proud.
The playing standard continued to rise with 91 victories out of 127 games from 1977 to 1980. Thirty or more wins were achieved in 1973,1974 and 1977. The Devon Senior Cup Final was reached in 1978 losing to Exeter at the County Ground by 13-28. The semi finals were reached in the following two seasons.
The 80s were not quite as successful as some of the better players sought a higher standard of rugby at Exeter. However the Chiefs won the Devon Merit Table in 1986 which earned them a place in the Western Counties League when league rugby started in 1987. Unfortunately they were relegated in the first season to the Cornwall and Devon League.
They were promoted as champions in 1996 and in 1997 beat Devonport Services on the Blackmore to win the President’s Plate thus becoming the only team to win all four trophies available in the county.
Relegation followed in 1998 and a severe fall in playing standards saw the Chiefs start the 2001-02 season in Devon One. At this time it was decided to appoint a paid coach in an attempt to turn the situation around. The post was filled by Mark Tomlinson and a transformation began. It took two years to win promotion back to the Cornwall and Devon League. Then in 2005, with Richard Grainger coaching, they were promoted back to the Western Counties West as champions. In the same year they enjoyed a run in the Powergen National Vase reaching the semi final. About 1400 people turned up at the Blackmore to watch the Chiefs play Sheffield tigers in an outstanding and exciting game of rugby which the visitors won 34-36 thanks to a converted try in injury time. Relegation was narrowly avoided in 2005-06 then, after a stronger showing in 2006-07 Andy Matchett was appointed player/coach. Andy had played for the club at the end of the 1990s and was returning after spells with plymouth Albion and Launceston. The Chiefs finished second in the league to earn a play off for promotion against Old Redcliffians from Bristol. The game was played at the Blackmore in front of a crowd of about 1000. In a dramatic finale victory by 23-20, and promotion, was secured thanks to a last minute drop goal by Daniel Retter.