It is a difficult task to retrace the origins of rugby football in North America due to the ambiguity between the terms “rugby” and “football”. For example, the Montreal Football Club of 1900 made no use of the term “rugby” in their club title, yet game reports indicate they played with fifteen players, using common positional terms such as “halfbacks”, “fullbacks”, and “forwards”. Nevertheless, new North American rules were gradually applied to rugby football, when finally in the 1920′s the new game had evolved drastically from its predecessor, and undertook the new name of “American football”, thereby creating a clearer identity away from the original game of rugby football.
The earliest recorded rugby match in Canada was at Montreal’s McGill University grounds in 1874, when McGill University played rugby football against Harvard University. Later that same year a second game was played, but this time Harvard were the hosts, and the game was played with early “American Football” rules. Today, in carrying on the oldest annual sporting competition in North America, McGill University and Harvard University continue the tradition of competing for the Covo Cup, at alternating venues each November, using the original rules of rugby football. McGill University can therefore lay claim to being the oldest rugby club in Canada, but due to rugby’s popularity among students and the McGill University Rugby Football Club’s affiliation with the university, the claim as the oldest independent rugby club goes to the Westmount Rugby Football Club (the New York Rugby Football Club lays claim as the United States’ oldest rugby club, founded in 1929).
The Westmount Rugby Football Club began its roots in 1878 (many believe 1876, although no actual documentation suggests such) under the title of Montreal Football Club, and played its matches at the McGill University grounds. The club gathered for social matches and occasions, and never really grew in size until it associated itself with the newly founded Montreal Amateur Athletic Association – which was to become the premier sporting club at the turn of the century and figure prominently in the development of rugby in Montreal, Quebec, and ultimately the Dominion of Canada.
The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association came into existence June 1881 and began as a confederation of three sporting clubs: The Montreal Snow Shoe Club, The Montreal Bicycle Club, and The Montreal Lacrosse Club. These founding clubs shared the club space of the Montreal Gymnasium, located at Mansfield Street and de Maisonneuve Boulevard. In 1884, the Montreal (Rugby) Football Club had upwards of 170 active members, and its first XV achieved an undefeated season, playing clubs from Royal Military College (Kingston), Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto, British of New York, McGill University, and Bishop’s University (Lennoxville, Quebec). The Montreal (Rugby) Football Club had used the McGill University grounds and the nearby Montreal Amateur Athletic Association facility as clubroom, even though it was not formally associated with the Association until 1885.
Also in 1884, the Montreal (Rugby) Football club was instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Rugby Union. Three representatives from the Montreal Club were sent to meet with two representatives from the Toronto Rugby Football Club, and one from the Hamilton Rugby Football Club to meetings in Toronto and Montreal. It was decided that the union would continue to use the English rugby rules, and at the end of the season the winning club of the Quebec Championship would play the Ontario Champion for the Club Championship of the Dominion.
With the amalgamation of the Montreal (Rugby) Football Club into the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1885, the club’s grounds were shared with the Montreal Lacrosse Club in the city block downtown bound by Crescent Street, Sherbrooke Street, Bishop Street, and de Maisonneuve Boulevard. Matches were held at this ground only until 1888, when the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association moved its clubhouse to the Westmount Athletic Grounds at the junction of Saint Catherine Street and Hallowell Avenue, due to urban expansion into the downtown pitch and the subsequent dividing of the property into building lots. The Westmount property was landscaped and the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association laid down a cinder track, fences, six hundred yards of drainage, uprights, a pavilion, and a clubhouse. The pitch was, by today’s standards larger than an international size rugby pitch. These grounds, aside from playing host to Montreal’s rugby and lacrosse matches, also played host to Montreal’s most popular sporting events such as bicycle races, athletics, ice hockey in winter, and in 1897 hosted the Jubilee Celebration of Queen Victoria’s reign.
At the turn of the century a new quarters was needed to accommodate a rapidly growing membership. In 1905, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association clubhouse moved to Peel Street (where it currently resides), and the Westmount Athletic Grounds was retained as the club’s official athletic grounds until July 1936. The economic depression inflicted severe financial problems upon the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, and the property was therefore sold to the City of Westmount to help alleviate the economic hardships. In the meantime, rugby football had begun to make its split in North America. Between 1910 and 1920, American-style football gained in popularity; so popular that games were now played in front of larger capacities, and the football club soon split from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association to form a semi-professional club. Rugby continued at the Westmount Athletic Grounds until 1959, when the Athletic facility was demolished to make way for Westmount High School, and a baseball diamond was built in the middle of the pitch rendering it unsuitable for rugby.
Since its split from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in the 1930′s, the Rugby Football Club kept its colours of blue and white, but adopted the new name of The Montreal Scottish RFC, owing to its strong Scottish influence within the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. For years, the Montreal Scottish RFC were the premier rugby club of Quebec, winning almost everything they could possibly arrange to compete for.
By the 1950′s, the Montreal Scottish RFC couldn’t accommodate the vast amount of players wishing to join the club, and they took on a “Scottish-only” policy by turning away many non-Scottish players. These “exiled” players eventually formed local clubs such as The Montreal Wanderers Rugby Football Club and The Montreal Barbarians Rugby Club. Soon after, noting that this “Scottish-only” policy wasn’t sustainable, the club policy became open to all players of all backgrounds, and the club name changed to the Westmount Rugby Football Club, named after the municipality where its home field had been located for most of its history.
With the demolition of The Westmount Athletic Grounds, the club moved its grounds to the nearby Villa Maria High School, before settling at Westmount Park located in the heart of the city of Westmount. By 1976, the Quebec Rugby Union had grown to 5 clubs (Ormstown RFC, Montreal Irish RFC, Montreal Wanderers RFC, Montreal Barbarians RC, and Westmount RFC), and Westmount RFC had changed its colours to maroon and white. Also adopted was the raven as a club symbol, owing from the municipal crest of the city of Westmount, where it figures prominently.
Today, the Westmount Rugby Football Club still plays its matches at Westmount Park, and is still Montreal’s only downtown club. Many of its players come from the McGill community and are “American footballers”, perhaps owing to the very robust, physical “forwards-oriented”, and good ball handling skills of the Westmount teams of the past. The first XV currently sits in Division II of the Quebec Rugby Union, and the club today is one of the most popular in Montreal, Canada, and the Eastern United States, participating in numerous social events, regularly hosting touring sides, and annually fielding teams at the Quebec Rugby Union Sevens and New York Sevens Tournament. With its strong core of present players, Westmount continues to boast proudly of its past heritage and promising future in downtown Montreal.
Written by: Jonathan James Albright Montreal, Canada September 1998 (Updated, March 2000). Sources: Former / Current Club Members: Mr. Marc Asselin, Mr. Adam Cutler, Mr. Peter Gelinas, and Mr. Michael Nesbitt. McGill: A Celebration. Montreal: McGill – Queen’s University Press, 1991. Morrow, Donald. A Sporting Evolution: The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association 1881- 1981. Montreal: Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, 1981. Scrapbook on the Sporting History of Montreal, 1850 – 1920. Vols. I-VII. City of Westmount Public Library.