Editor’s Note: Tom Carver is one of the current captains of Oxford University Men’s Lacrosse in England. Tom was recently contacted by a member of the club, who played for Oxford and was the club secretary in 1953, and Tom thought a sit down interview would be educational, interesting, and illuminating. Tom met up with Peter Higgins to learn more about lacrosse in England in the 1950s, and how lacrosse grew in the early days at Oxford University.
Interview with Peter Higgins, OULC Secretary 1952-53, OULC Player 1951-1953
TC: The first question that I’m always asked, and so perhaps the most appropriate to ask you is: How did you get into lacrosse?
PH: I had never played lacrosse before coming to University, but back in the 40’s when I was at school to be anything you had to play games – if you didn’t play games you didn’t ‘count’ really. I wasn’t much good, I have to say, but we played soccer, and cricket, and for soccer I played in goal. I came to Oxford thinking I could walk into the Balliol [one of the Oxford Colleges] soccer team as goalkeeper, but after two games it became quite clear that the standard of inter-college football at Oxford was much higher than the standard of inter-house football at King Edward 7th Grammar school.
It would never have occurred to me to play lacrosse, but one of my school friends was a good mile runner, but this era of course was the one in which Roger Bannister broke the mile record, so my friend was always the ‘not quite as good’ one at the athletics club. He thus was quite keen to play some kind of ball game, and at his college there were a lot of the current lacrosse team, who invited him to come to one of their practices. He didn’t want to go on his own though, and so he persuaded myself and one or two others of our friends to come along with him. He himself never persisted with it, but myself and one other of the group did.
Why did you stick with lacrosse? It was, and still is an unusual sport in the UK, though it’s growing rapidly in the States…
I quite enjoyed it, being tall was a help, and also the fact that there weren’t all that many people playing lacrosse, so I worked my way up and got into the team in 1952, and then I played again for Oxford in 1953. I can understand the growth of the game – I thought it was a really good game. A bit like rugby, there’s room for different level of ball skills, or there certainly was then. People like me, who were big, but didn’t have terribly high ball skills, were perfect in defence, and the nippy guys who had high ball skills were perfect for attack.
What’s your first proper memory of lacrosse then, the first ‘experience’ of it that comes to mind?
At this point then, I had never played, but we were told that body-checking was a good thing and it was encouraged. So, we were having a practice match and I saw one of our American players, Chuck Jackson, hurtling towards me with the ball in his net, and I thought, ‘ah this is a good opportunity.’ So I stood there, as I had been told, and so say, ‘body checked’ him. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground, I thought I would never be able to breath again, I had never been so thoroughly winded!
Were there a lot of American players on the team then?
In my first year yes, I think the first team would have been made up of 8 or 9 American players, though by 1952 there was a higher proportion of Englishmen, most of whom were from Manchester, more or less. They were all ex-servicemen, though one never asked where they had served, who had come over to do post-graduate study at Oxford.
In the 50s, what kind of equipment were you using?
We, because of our American members, had a full set of face-masks, which was totally unusual at the time. Indeed, not only unusual but unique – they [the American players] weren’t going to risk getting their faces bashed in all the time – I think we were the only team, at least in the South of England, that had them. One of the Americans had presumably brought them across. However, we just had enough for the first team, we didn’t have enough for the Iroquois [the second team], only for the Blues. If you were on the Seconds you would just have to hope that you didn’t get your face hit.
Before I made the first team I got a quite nasty facial cut which required me getting stitches, and I recall once, just by my follow through, splitting someone else’s head open in a match. And in the South we didn’t wear elbow pads, it just wasn’t the done thing. However, when it came to the annual North-South game the Northerners had this nasty trick (regarding the arm as being an extension of the stick) of hitting your elbow on your follow through, which resulted in some nasty bruises on our side, while they were fully protected.
So splitting someone’s head open wasn’t a foul or a penalty and you’d get sent off?
Get sent off? No one was ever sent off really, I can’t imagine what you’d have to do to be sent off back then, maybe pull a gun on somebody?
Were you playing in a club league, or was it universities, or a mixture?
It was almost exclusively Club games that we played – the only universities that had teams were Manchester University (we played them occasionally), but we played mostly teams in the London area – Purley, Leigh, Hampstead, Kenton, various others – that was our weekly diet. The only university apart from Cambridge and Manchester that I can remember was Leicster, but we thumped them, they weren’t very good.
What were the sticks like back then, and where did you get them?
I honestly can’t remember where we would have got them from, I think that the local sports shop in Oxford sold them. As to what they were like, the defensive sticks were huge with deep pockets, massive things. The attackers though, who were the smaller, nippier guys, had much smaller sticks with smaller heads and pockets, which made catching and throwing more difficult but meant it was harder to knock the stick and get the ball out.
Thanks to Tom Carver for looking into the game’s past and sharing his talk with Peter Higgins! We certainly enjoyed reading Peter’s answers! And a huge thanks to Peter himself for giving us a lesson in the way things used to be be with a nice splash of humor! Fantastic work by both of you gentlemen.