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.

11 thoughts on “History/Histoire

  1. I read with great interest Jonathan Albright’s history of the club and congratulate him for the research and writing he has done. Westmount has a long and colorful history which Jonathan has only touched upon. I hope he will expand on it in the future.

    I have been doing plenty of research for a history of rugby in Canada and can add a few things to modify the club’s history. The Montreal Football Club was started in 1868. The M.A.A.A. played football only until the fall of 1902. This was Canadian football as we know it today but it was referred to as Canadian Rugby then, in order to draw a distinction between ‘English’ rugby and ‘Canadian’ rugby. A team that played rugby (English) in the fall of 1902 was called the Montreal English and had at least one player who had also played Canadian football (Canadian rugby). His name was Ogilvy and I have his rugby(English) scrapbook he compiled from newspaper clippings when he went to Great Britain with Canada (rugby) in 1902-03.

    Do you have any memorabilia of Westmount?

    I am most interested to see the Scrapbook on the Sporting History of Montreal 1850-1920 in the Westmount Library and what it has in it on rugby (English). I hope I can get there sometime but I live in Vancouver and have no immediate plans for visiting there.
    I had a meal recently with several men who played with the Town of Mount Royal in the 1960′s who kept very little from their playing days but had a million funny stories, some of which could never be repeated!

    Please pass this on to Jonathan Albright.

    Best regards

    Doug Sturrock

  2. Jon Albright’s excellent account of the origins of rugby in Montreal tells me far more about the history of the Westmount Rugby Club than any of us who were playing for it in the late fifties ever knew. Not surprising, I suppose; since none of the players on the Firsts (with the exception of myself) were Canadians, interest in local history was not a matter of much concern. Something else I didn’t know till I chanced on the Club’s website today, was that Bert Wyatt had died. My right ear and Bert’s left thigh spent a lot of time together, and while I had not seen him for more than fifty years, I have great memories of games played and pints drunk in his company. I’d appreciate knowing how and where I could buy a Club t-shirt.

    All best,

    Robin Berlyn

  3. I have very fond memories of the club during my time in Montreal 1986 -1991.I am glad to see the club is still thriving although I believe Mike Nisbet has sadly passed away.I helped coach the Club along with him when it in the A division and played the odd game with the old boys and the QC’s.Are Adam Cutler,Peter Gelinas and Mike Cussens still around.If so please pass on my regards.Since returning to Toronto I’ve remained active with my old club the Irish Canadians of which I’ve been a member since 1963 and who this weekend are in the finals of the McCormick Cup the ORU premier league championship.All the best for next season.Trevor Jones

  4. your history of the Westmount Rugby Club was very interesting. Did anyone know that they sponsored a junior rugby football team and in 1913 they won the Quebec junior championship over the Montréal Shamrock RC 50-9 but lost the Canadian junior title to Toronto Capitals of the ORFU Jrs 17-2?

    In 1903 the junior team finished in first place in the QRFU Jrs and then defeated Quebéc City Jrs 29-0 & 7-1 for the provincial championship.

    Robert Sproule
    Editor, Information and Record Book
    Canadian Junior Football Legue

  5. Westmount won the Canadian intermediate rugby/football championship in 1903, defeating the Victorias of Toronto 13-2 in the title game at Toronto on Saturday, November 28, 1903. (Both the Toronto Star and Globe have good accounts of the game in their papers on Monday, Nov. 30.) Westmount then moved up to the Senior division of the QRFU in 1904, but seem to have struggled at that level.

    I would be interested in ANY information Jon Albright or anyone might have about the team circa 1900 to 1904 … as the 1903 championship team featured future Hockey Hall of Famers Art Ross (captain of the team) and Frank Patrick.


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  6. During a rugby match between The University of Vermont’s Rugby Club, and Westmount RC, in April of 1970, I was seriously injured, resulting in my left leg being amputated a week later at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I was UVMs scrum half, and the injury I suffered was a freak accident. At that time, most of the players on the Westmount team were experienced ruggers from England, South Africa, etc.

    The members of the Westmount Club were a caring group, and made this very difficult time one that my wife and I could handle. Though my rugby days are over, I have led a very full and active life, and will never forget the wonderful members of the Westmount club.

    Best regards to all the rugby folks in Montreal.

    Rich Feeley
    Colchester, Vt, and Ocala, Florida

  7. I knew (and know) Rich Feeley in Burlington. If anyone has an email or address for him I would appreciate it. I also moved from Burlington to Montreal and played (tackling dummy) from 1971 to 1974. I was introduced to the club by Peter Howlett, an associate who I worked with at Mondev Corp. I enjoyed the scrimmages and never got over that such little guys, mostly Welsh at the time, could be so strong so fast and so TOUGH. I enjoyed it and the Guiness wasn’t so bad either. I will be cruising through Montreal on my boat around July 24 and will come over to the gam if I can.

    Tim Tessier

  8. I played for Westmount from 1969 until 1975. The club was always in contention for the league championship and was the premier 7s team. John Peters, Jay Garland, Karl Fischer were also my teammates at McGill (carrying on the connection. I have many fond memories of my years there. Many great friends: Chris Scott, Peter & Chris Howlett, Gerry Hogan, Henry Rosenblatt too many for my “old” brain to pull out on the fly.

    I played against Rich Feeley in the first game at Fletcher’s Field (and a number of times at UVM) on that fateful day. True to form, when Vermont were down a player, Rich volunteered to go in, even though he had already played.

    I met up with Henry at the Westmount / Kingston game (in Kingston) this summer. Great to see the Westmount club carrying on.

    Gary Peacock

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