Ronald William Poulton – later unofficially known as Poulton Palmer – was, by general acclaim, the most celebrated rugby player of his day. He was born in Headington, Oxford, one of five children of the eminent pro-Darwinian Professor, Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton and his wife Emily. Emily’s father was an MP and her brother was chairman of Huntley and Palmers in Reading. After early education at the Dragon School in Oxford, Ronald, usually known as “Ronnie” went on to Rugby and then, as a Williams Exhibitioner, to Balliol College Oxford where he took an honours degree in Engineering Science. His sporting achievements at school included three cups for athletics and being a member of the 1st XI at cricket, but he especially excelled in the 1st XV at the spiritual home of the game of rugby, being a member for three seasons (captain in 1907), and playing alongside Rupert Brooke, later well known as a war poet. Such was his ability that he gained his first England cap against France in 1909, before winning the first of three blues. He went on to play 17 times for England, including v Wales in the first international at Twickenham in early 1910, and as captain of the 1914 Grand Slam winning team. Along the way he appeared for his club Harlequins in the first ever match at Twickenham Stadium in October 1909, scored a record 5 tries in his first varsity match the same year, and found time to play for the Liverpool club in 1913/14 in a unique 1st XV containing three international captains – F.H. Turner (Scotland), R.A. Lloyd (Ireland) and himself for England.
During his time at Balliol he had been in the Officer Training Corps, and was later a volunteer with the Royal Berkshire Regiment. It was with the regiment that he volunteered as part of the 1st/4th territorial Battalion as soon as war came. By that time he had inherited significant wealth from his maternal uncle, George Palmer. Implicit in his inheritance was a change of name to Palmer which, by royal licence, he did, but he was known thereafter as Poulton Palmer. Despite wealth and fame, he was a modest man who gave his spare time, often with his brother Edward, to social work and improving the life of working men and their children. By the spring of 1915 he was at the front in Flanders, where he managed to play his final game of rugby, captaining South Midland division (Forty-Eighth) v Fourth Division. It was whilst supervising engineering works in a trench just north of Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium that he was shot dead by a sniper. His last, possibly apocryphal, words were reputed to be “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
Lieutenant Ronald William Poulton Palmer is buried in the Royal Berks Cemetery, Hyde Park Corner, in Belgium (Grave reference B.11). He is widely remembered elsewhere, including in the chapel at Rugby School, at Oxford University RFC and Balliol College, at Aigburth (Liverpool FC) and in St Mary’s Marlston, Berkshire (Marlston House was home to the Palmer family).
In common with many of the fallen, his grave originally had a wooden cross, which is now preserved on the wall at Holywell Cemetery, St Cross Church, Oxford. He did not marry.
- Born 12 September 1889
- Died 5 May 1915
For more information on the Rugby Football Union’s First World War commemorations visit http://www.englandrugby.com/about-the-rfu/ww1-commemorations