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The Last Stand (2/2) - Remembering the Rugby Players

Alan Spence

Tommy Shacklock

'On 9 November Ashbrooke Sports Club will be holding a ceremony of re-dedication for its century old and recently refurbished rugby grandstand. The stand will be re-named 'The Last Stand' and dedicated mainly to those who fell in conflict and also to others no longer with us who contributed to sporting life at Ashbrooke as rugby players. Many of these were also involved in cricket, tennis, hockey, squash and athletics at the club. As well as providing better facilities for spectators, the refurbished stand has been adapted to include much needed storage space for equipment used for training and on match days’.

There will be at least nineteen names on the Last Stand of men who gave their lives in the Second World War. During the First World War the majority of club rugby related deaths were in the infantry; during the Second World War they were in the Royal Air Force or an allied air service. Alan Spence was in a Lancaster Bomber which came down in fog in the Midlands in 1943 while returning from active service. He was one of the most successful players the club has ever produced. He played for the county 15 times between 1936 and 1939 and, although a forward, was a designated and successful kicker. He played for a joint Durham and Northumberland side against the All Blacks in 1936. The home side lost narrowly 10 -6. Tommy Shacklock, scrum half for the 1 st XV from 1924 - 28 was 43 and in the merchant navy when he lost his life in 1945. Rowland Cox, who played in the same position from 1932-4, was a wing commander when his plane came down over the south of England in 1944. Surgeon James Gilbertson who played in 1932 was on board HMS Monarch when it was attacked in Alexandria Harbour in November 1940. He was 26 and had links to St Andrews Church in Roker.

As in the First World War, some of the rugby players served, survived and were rewarded for their efforts. Best remembered perhaps are two Battle of Britain aces. One, Joe Kayll, became a prisoner of war and escape officer for the famous ‘Wooden Horse’ breakout. His escapades would fill a book on their own and are worth exploring online. One of the most readable is

He had a string of awards. His family lived in The Elms at one point. Wilkinson Barnes (1913 -80) who was mentioned in dispatches, had an equally colourful career.

Geoffrey Cox was the son of Sunderland international and Barbarian Norman Cox. He played for the county 13 times in four different positions across the backs between 1929 and 1935. During seven club seasons he amassed 443 points. He was awarded a B.E.M. for his war efforts. Major Alfred Bannister was awarded a bronze star by the U.S.A.

In early November 1933 an unbeaten SRFC 1 st XV was selected to play the mighty Gala from across the border. In the side were Spence, Bannister, Kayll, Cox, Cox and Barnes with hooker Kayll moving up from the 2 nd XV. (He later played for the 1 st XV on numerous occasions). In view of what was to come, quite a side! The team lost to Gala by the narrowest of margins in a fiercely contested game.

For the biographies of members of Sunderland C and F C (now Ashbrooke Sports Club) who fought in the First World War, download:

Can you do nothing to mend my broken heart? The Ashbrooke Boys - A sports club at war 1914-18, online

See also (put “Keith Gregson” in the search engine)


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