This story is the first of a two-part series on Queen’s football before, during, and after the two World Wars.
When today’s students zip through Mackintosh-Corry Hall between lectures for a reprieve from the winter wind, few, if any, are aware they’re standing on hallowed ground. Where the current labyrinthine eyesore sits, was once the original Richardson Memorial Stadium, an important home for both Canadian football and Queen’s school identity.
‘Football-rugby,’ which rose in popularity throughout the late 19th century, bore little resemblance to the game many now tune in to every Sunday. In fact, if you went back to watch one of Queen’s earliest football matches over a century ago, you would have likely thought you were at the wrong venue.
For one, the forward-pass was not allowed—similar to rugby, only lateral and backward passes were permitted. If a player wanted to launch the ball forward, their only option was to kick it. While today’s football critics may complain players spend more time standing around than playing, the opposite was true for the old game; with the exception of sustaining a ‘disabling injury’, there was no time stoppage, and no convening or strategizing. And perhaps the most foreign aspect to football in its infancy was that a field-goal was more desirable than a touchdown.
Queen’s football pioneers first took to the pitch on Oct. 11, 1882 for an exhibition game against the Royal Military College (RMC). An excerpt from The Journal described that match:
“On the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 11th, a very interesting and exciting match was played in the cricket ground between the Queen’s, and Royal Military College, Rugby teams. The day was a splendid one for the game, but was rather cool for the spectators, many of whom were ladies. At about 3:45 the cadets arrived on the ground and at 4 o’clock the opposing teams took their positions.”
Queen’s rag-tag team was no match for the cadets, but the game had nonetheless sparked a strong interest in the new sport.
Dr. Merv Daub, author of Gael Force: A History of Football at Queen’s, said Principal George Grant viewed the development of rugby football as an important step in building Queen’s reputation—at the time, Kingston was essentially an outpost, and there was talk of amalgamating Queen’s with the University of Toronto.
What Queen’s lacked in academic stature, it hoped it could compensate for athletically. Most of the early football players weren’t academically inclined, viewing university as an opportunity to play sports.
“Queen’s got into the game in 1882 and fielded a team continuously down through the years. They won [their] first big championship in 1893, called the Dominion Championship with this famous guy, Guy Curtis,” Daub said in an interview with The Journal.
“[T]here wasn’t a whole lot of attention paid to academic qualifications on the part of the people who played necessarily. Curtis, as I said in the book, was at Queen’s for quite a number of years and never attended class very much, which drove Principal Grant nuts, but you know, he a was a big guy helping them win football championships.”
Queen’s newfound sport was building momentum into the 20th century until a significant disruption took place: the First World War. Nearly all undergraduates left campus to join the fight, which they thought would be a short bout for glory. This belief was woefully misguided, as the hiatus stretched on for four years, and many of Queen’s players either came back wounded or not at all.
Interestingly, some historians believe the ethos of sport—notions of triumph and heroism largely promulgated by the spirit of British imperialism—translated to the battlefield in the First World War.
In an email to The Journal, Queen’s historian Duncan MacDowell noted a sinister example where, in motivating officers to battle, “British officers kicked soccer balls into no-man’s land and urged their men to charge the enemy as if it were a sporting dash to the other side’s trenches – they were, of course all mowed down by German machine guns.”
It’s unclear whether the ethos of battle translated to the playing field following the war. Many who returned appeared eager to leave the war in the past and resume student life, though many were more focused on academics and employment than sports.
Immediately upon returning home, the world was ravaged by the Spanish Flu. This, however, did not stop some Queen’s football players from carrying out the 1919 season. Daub believes this is likely because after surviving World War One, enough players were willing to play they game they loved rather than continue to live in fear.
“I still think this is probably one of the valid reasons, is a lot of those guys that survived the war, right. And they probably thought to themselves, ‘you know, I survived the damned war. I’m gonna go play football. If I catch this thing, and I die, I die,’“ Daub said. “‘We’ve spent four years in war in the trenches and all this kind of stuff. And to hell with it. I’m gonna go play.’ And I suspect there was a great deal of that around.”
The ensuing season did not go very well—as Daub mentions in his book, Queen’s “found itself overmatched and out-spent” by other competitors, namely the University of Toronto and McGill.
“When they came back after the war, they really had a big choice to make, as to whether to restart the rugby football,” Daub said. “[A]fter about two or three lousy seasons, where they played right through the Spanish flu pandemic, actually made the decision to go big, rather than go home.”
Daub believes this was because Queen’s reputation was largely predicated on success in football.
“I think the school had enjoyed a certain notoriety in the pre-WW1 period because they were playing football and they won championships. And, you know, they were this little school down in eastern Ontario, they weren’t Montreal or Toronto. And so it was a matter of some pride or some sort of school reputation that this is the thing by which everybody knows us—and we damn well better do something about this.”
In 1921, Queen’s built the original Richardson Stadium where Tindall field and Mackintosh-Corry presently stand, hired a full-time coach and, according to Daub, started buying football players from some of the professional teams.
The investment paid immediate dividends. In 1922, Queen’s was crowned the best football team in Canada by winning a Grey Cup, the banner for which still hangs in the ARC’s main gym. Queen’s went on to complete the three-peat winning again in 1923 and 1924. This period has been called Queen’s Football’s days of glory.
By the 1930s, football rugby was more recognizable to the modern-day game. Balls were snapped to the quarterback as opposed to the rugby-style scrum, and a try—what eventually evolved into a touchdown—had replaced kicking as the primary goal of the game. Forward passing however, had to wait—it had been a development in American football, and after fighting alongside the Americans in World War Two, the Canadians appeared to bring it into their game.
Despite being a tumultuous time globally, Queen’s continued its success, earning championship seasons in 1930, ‘34, ‘35, and ’37. The end of this decade marked the onslaught of another unfortunate hiatus in WW2.
Daub believes football played a pivoted role in both establishing Queen’s reputation and its school identity throughout the first half of the 20th century.
“[Queen’s] wasn’t a big school. And yet, it had this reputation; it won grey cups after the war, and it won championships during the 1930s. […] And so people knew across Canada who Queen’s was because they played football.”
This is the first installment of a two-part series on the history of Queen’s football. Most of the history recounted originates from Merv Daub’s Gael Force: A History of Queen’s football, which for those interested, can be purchased here. Queen’s students may access the book through the library.
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