we, as representing the football interests of Scotland, hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England to play us a match, twenty-a-side
The full letter is well known in rugby lore (you can read the full text here), as are four of the signatories: Arthur, Moncreiff and Robertson all took part in the match when it was played in March 1871, while Hall Blyth served as president of the fledgling Scottish Rugby Union. But who was Oatts? He has always been something of a mystery figure but now I can reveal his identity.
John Henry Oatts was a student at St Andrews University, where he attended St Salvator College and captained the university football team, which played under rugby rules. He had entered the university in 1866 after a couple of years at Madras College, where his sister Harriett was also enrolled, but appears to have made slow progress. He reached second year in 1868, and third year in 1870-71, but does not appear in the roll for fourth year, which indicates he failed to graduate. However, if not suited for academia, he certainly thrived on the sporting atmosphere and among his contemporaries at school and university were several early rugby internationalists, including Alfred Clunies Ross, Robert Munro and Duncan Irvine.
Born in 1850 in Jessore, Oatts was the only surviving son of an indigo planter in Bengal, where he spent his early years, and as soon as he had finished his studies at St Andrews he returned to the east to continue running the family estates called Porehatty and Hizrapore. He was an active volunteer in the Bengal Light Horse, married in 1885 and had four children, but their lifestyle came to an abrupt halt when the indigo trade collapsed in the 1890s following the invention of synthetic dyes. The estates went bankrupt and were sold off for a pittance in 1896 (although it was an uncle, James Tweedie, who appears to have borne the brunt of the financial misfortune).
There was nothing for it but to return to Scotland. Oatts lived in Edinburgh for a few years, playing golf at Glencorse (where another sporting hero, Leslie Balfour Melville was also a member). He then moved south and spent his remaining years in Bedford, where he died in 1930.