The History of Sport Played in China's Treaty Ports

It appears that Tientsin decided to carry on playing rugby during World War One contrary to directions from the RFU. The newspaper clipping from the Shanghai Times on 3 November 1917 shows the newly elected Club committee presided over by Edmund L Gumpert who was just under a year away from being murdered in his bed.

The Tientsin Olympian, rugby star and missionary
The most famous person to play rugby in Shanghai returned there in September 1925. Eric Henry Liddell was born in Tientsin in 1902.  He became world famous for refusing to run a 100M race on a Sunday in the Paris 1924 Olympics and then unexpectedly winning the 400M gold medal. His remarkable story was told in the four times Oscar winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire

​Before his Olympic triumphs in Paris in 1924, Liddell was a star rugby player. He played for Scotland on seven occasions scoring four tries. His first match was in Paris in January 1922, his last in Edinburgh in March 1923. More details can be found here. In his last three matches he played alongside Edward ‘Ted’ McLaren. McLaren played rugby in Shanghai and became Shanghai President after World War Two. More details about Eric and Ted’s friendship can be found here:

Of his time in Tientsin Eric recalled that 'I do not think that Rugby will ever become a game for the Chinese, for the conditions are too severe... the temperature often dropping to 30 degrees of frost. In spite of this, there are British and French Army teams, and a local team of foreigners.' On his arrival in Tientsin he lost no time in putting on his rugby boots again time to play rugby with the troop teams.

Unfortunately Liddell did not survive the Second World War; he died 21 February 1945 of a brain tumour, never having held his newly born daughter. His old friend Ted McClaren spoke at Liddell’s memorial service held in the camp. He recalled that "...we played [Rugby] in the same side and against one another for... three years and never once did he show the slightest sign of bad temper or bad sportsmanship... both... were utterly foreign to him... [He had] that characteristic of never to give in ― he was never beaten but always trying... no truer sportsman ever drew on a running shoe... “. 

After the First World War, rugby resumed in Tientsin. As well as playing Shanghai in 1923 and 1924 they also managed an interport fixture against Peking in March 1925. In that year I have found evidence of the inaugural cup tournament between a French Army regiment and British army regiment stationed in Tientsin.  The teams taking part in 1925 were the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment against the French Coloniale Infantry. The Loyals won. 

The losing 1910 Royal Innislilling Fusiliers rugby team which played against Shanghai in Shanghai.

Back Row: H N Young, Captain Kenny, Corporal Compton, J C Cockburn Mercer, Corporal Carson, Bandsman Collings

Middle Row: Captain Manders, Captain Pike (Cap't), Captain Ridings, J R C Dent, H L Crofton

Front Row: Private Lyons, T A Wise, R H O'Sullivan, M F Hammond-Smith

*Born in Tientsin, the youngest of four brothers, Thomas Lees Bryson married in Shanghai in 1914 to Miss Rhoda Miller. In 1917 he went on to serve in the First World War as a Captain of the Chinese Labour Corps. He survived the War and went to live in Singapore where he tragically died in a bathing accident in 1918.



Tientsin was often a garrison town and Tientsin Rugby Club was therefore able to challenge regiments or navy ships for a game of rugby. One such regimental team, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers travelled to Shanghai in 1910 to play an interport fixture. Shanghai returned the compliment in 1912 when they travelled to Tientsin to play both the tientsin interport team and the Fusiliers. Shanghai won both of the closely fought games. 



The losing 1908 Tientsin rugby team which played against Shanghai.

Back Row: W Neill, G W Kilby, A M Forrest, W Ralston, A Moray-Brown, W R Wilson, A J Dennys, J Jackson, T Bryson*, N S Forbes

Front Row: C F Tulloch, H B Roe, E C Talbot, S Gilmore, W T Webb-Bowen

Interport Rugby

The first game between Shanghai and Tientsin was played 13 February 1907. Shanghai won the game by 3 tries and 1 goal (ie a converted try) to nil. The teams went on to play each other a further seven times as seen in the table below which is extracted from the book, It’s a Rough Game But Good Sport. Further details about these matches, the people who played in them, the preparation for the games and the after match events can be found throughout the book. 


Early football days in Tientsin
​The earliest record I have of found about football being played in Tientsin is a reference in the North China Herald in November 1893 which mentioned that ‘…the Football Club are about to re-open their arenas of strife and scrimmage’ , These few words indicate that football has been played earlier than 1893 and that rugby football was being played in 1893. 

There is a further mention of football in February 1895 when we learn that ‘H.M.S. Linnet defeated Tientsin at football by two goals to nil.’ Later that year, in October it was noted that ‘Football has received a fillip from the welcome return of H.M.S. Swift’.

Commenting on the exciting news in December 1898 that there were more than sixty adult males in residence at the British Legation in Peking, including twenty-one students packed ‘a la mode sardine’. Accordingly the Capital was anxious to challenge Tientsin in a game of Association Football. The correspondent from Peking went on to add that ‘doubtless our youth will rise to the occasion, but “socker” has never taken a very firm root among us; it is possible that the Peking lads, straight out from home, will give us a good shake up. Six or eight years ago we [Peking] used to make a brave show at Rugby, but stomach and anni fugaces have reduced our prowess to vanishing point.

I have not discovered whether that game was played but in February 1900 Peking played Tientsin at Football earning a victory by two goals to nil (presumably therefore a soccer game). Four years later in September 1904, the Shanghai Rugby Football Club broke away from the Shanghai Football Club. It appears that the new rugby club invited the Tientsin Football Club to play an interport rugby game. The Tientsin were unable to accept the invitation but it is evidence that the Tientsin Football Club were playing rugby football. In March 1905 the West Kent Regiment who were based in Tientsin beat Tientsin Football Club by ‘three goals to love’.

At last, in January 1907 the committee of the newly formed North China Sports Club at Tientsin was able to accept the Shanghai rugby player’s challenge of a game of rugby. 

Letter from North China Social Club accepting Shanghai Rugby Club's invitation to play a game of rugby in Shanghai

Notes on the history of rugby in Tientsin