Test of Metal

The Indian origins of a famous rugby trophy

Chris Robshaw, the captain of the English rugby union team, holds the Calcutta Cup, which England retained in February. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
01 July, 2014

ON 8 FEBRUARY, before a crowd of 67,144 people, Scotland faced England at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh as part of the 2014 Six Nations rugby championship. After 80 minutes of play on a muddy pitch, England secured an authoritative victory, with a score of 20–0. As disappointed home supporters filed out, up in the main stand Chris Robshaw, the jubilant English captain, held aloft an intricately engraved silver trophy, with three handles shaped like cobras and an elephant figure crowning its dome-shaped lid: the Calcutta Cup, the oldest trophy in international rugby.

The trophy Robshaw received was, in fact, a replica of the original cup, which is stored in the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham, near London. The museum’s curator, Michael Rowe, told me over the phone that although the cup’s significance has decreased in recent years, it was incredibly prestigious in its heyday, when it was “the Ashes in the sport of rugby.” What is most remarkable, Rowe said, was that the trophy’s origins can be traced back to the largely forgotten history of rugby in colonial India.

In the winter of 1872, a group of British émigrés having a hard time adjusting to life in Calcutta published letters in the Englishman, a prominent newspaper, asking that the administration organise rugby matches. A game was played on Christmas Day that year, with English players on one side and those representing Scotland, Ireland and Wales on the other. There is no record of who won, but the event was a success, and was repeated the following week. Those two matches led to the formation of the Calcutta Football Club in January 1873 (at the time, rugby was one of several related games called “football”). The club thrived—137 members joined in the first year alone—and it joined the Rugby Football Union, the sport’s governing body for all British territories, in 1874.

After a successful start, however, the club fell on hard times. A regiment of the British army left the city for a new posting, and new British arrivals were more interested in polo and tennis. According to Rowe, funds soon started running out, forcing the closure of the club’s free bar, which caused the membership to drop substantially. GA James Rothney, the club’s treasurer, secretary and team captain, considered several fundraising suggestions, but concluded that none of them would keep the club going.

Then, Rowe told me, in 1877, Rothney had an “ambitious” idea. He wrote to the Rugby Football Union suggesting that, to preserve the memory of the club, its remaining funds be used to make what he described as a trophy of “ornate Indian workmanship,” to be “devoted to the purpose of a Challenge Cup and presented to the Rugby Union to be competed for annually” in any way deemed “best for the encouragement of Rugby Football.” Both the Union and the club’s members agreed. Rothney withdrew the club’s remaining £60, a substantial sum at the time, in the form of 270 silver rupee coins. These were melted down in September 1878 by WE Jellicoe, a British silversmith and watchmaker on Calcutta’s Esplanade Row, to create the Calcutta Cup.

The cup was taken to Britain, and in March 1879 the Union organised the first Calcutta Cup match—a game in Edinburgh between England and Scotland, which ended in a draw. The contest was repeated in every following year, and the cup, Rowe said, quickly “became eponymous with the England–Scotland rugby game.” In 1883 it was incorporated into the Home Nations Championship, which eventually became the Six Nations—an annual rugby union competition involving France, Italy, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland that is effectively the sport’s European championship. The cup has been contested every year since, except during the World Wars. England has won 68 of the 121 matches to date, with Scotland winning 39 and 14 matches ending drawn. England has retained the trophy since 2009.

Today, the original trophy is treated with special care. In 1988, on the night after England retained the cup, two drunk players, one English and the other Scottish, took it out onto the streets of Edinburgh, where they passed it between themselves and dropped it several times. The cobra handles were crushed, and the body and base badly dented. The Edinburgh jewellers Hamilton & Inches restored the cup to its original form, but, as Rowe told me, “silver is a soft metal,” and the restoration left the cup “in a fragile state.” The incident led to a decision to give both nations replica trophies, and store the original at the World Rugby Museum to avoid any further damage.

Rowe said that with the rise of other rugby-playing nations, the England–Scotland rivalry has mellowed in recent years, and so reduced the significance of the Calcutta Cup. But, he added, Rotheny’s idea to entwine the memory of the Calcutta Football Club into the history of rugby was a success. “It is quite remarkable that a short-lived club has such a place in the history of the sport,” he said.