In 1967 John Sinclair led a party of All Blacks’ supporters to Britain and saw the rugby display at Cardiff rugby club. When he returned to New Zealand he visited Tom Morrison, chair of the New Zealand Rugby Union, to present the union a suitcase of tour memorabilia he had gathered. Tom told John the union had no cabinets to display memorabilia and suggested John start a museum. The decision to found it in Palmerston North was due to that being John’s home city. It was Tom’s advice that the parochial provincial unions would support a national rugby museum that wasn’t in one of the main cities. Rent would be cheap and the risk of failure low.
John Sinclair was destined to have an interest in rugby, he was given the family middle name ‘Mowlem’ connecting him to an All Blacks relative John Mowlem. He attended Nelson College, the school that played in the first rugby game in New Zealand. Later as a young man in the UK at the end of the Second World War he saw the legendary “Kiwis” (NZ Army rugby team) play. John’s ability to remember and retell a good story saw him become editor of the Diners Club magazines, and he began rigorously researching rugby history. He put himself forward volunteering to take on roles such as arranging schools to adopt touring rugby players and compile scrapbooks for them. He organised speaking arrangements, sometimes ghost writing too. John joined “Goodwill Tours” and led tour groups overseas and in New Zealand.
Dr Fred Spurdle was a gifted teacher and student, gaining an MA from Victoria University of Wellington in 1926 with first class honours in history. He then studied at London University where he gained a doctorate in philosophy. After several teaching positions in New Zealand Spurdle was appointed director of the Queen Elizabeth Technical College and oversaw the conversion to a normal secondary school and relocation to Rangitikei St. Spurdle retired in 1966 and was president of the Manawatu Rugby Union in 1968. In October that year John Sinclair addressed the local union seeking their support for the museum. Following the meeting Spurdle approached Sinclair offering his assistance. Fred Spurdle brought professionalism and rugby contacts to add weight to John Sinclair’s enthusiasm.
With Fred Spurdle’s support John Sinclair began collecting rugby objects in earnest. Sinclair was a marvellous public speaker and writer. He used those talents to promote the museum far and wide. Many letters survive today from famous rugby names around New Zealand and the world in response to Sinclair’s pleas for support. Fred Spurdle set about organising the cataloguing and care of objects collected. He meticulously noted down each item and whether it was loaned or donated to the museum and by whom.
16 April 1969 the museum opened its first exhibition at the New Zealand Display Centre, 96 The Square. 16 past All Blacks attended the occasion along with New Zealand’s Governor General. The All Black stars that attended was unprecedented. Tom Morrison owed John Sinclair favours for Sinclair’s work such as promoting rugby tours at schools. Sinclair called in his favours and Morrison ensured the All Blacks greats came.
Following the exhibition opening there was a dinner which had 100 invited guests but over 300 attended.
14 May 1970 the Rugby Museum Society of New Zealand Inc. was formed, the same day that New Zealand rugby turned 100. The first recognised game of rugby in New Zealand was 14 May 1870 between Nelson College and Nelson Club.
The search was on for a permanent place to display the collection in Palmerston North. A fund-raising raffle was organised but when the final tally was taken there was enough funds to buy only the door handle. Having a sense of humour, the museum purchased a door handle and had it mounted.
Neil Monro had studied accounting with John Sinclair and, being the rugby scholar he was, Sinclair also knew that Neil’s grandfather Charles Monro was credited with organising the first game played under rugby rules in New Zealand. Sinclair and Spurdle approached Monro to join the rugby museum as treasurer in 1970. Neil Monro has remained treasurer for the past 50 fifty years. Monro is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and has contributed to several non-profit organisations, particularly after his retirement. In 2014 Monro was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.
Search for a home
The Display Centre was only a temporary venue and all the good work was almost undone. Fortunately Peter Cain offered free use of two rooms at his photographic studio to display memorabilia. There was a small display cabinet in the foyer of the Commercial Hotel and, for a brief period, memorabilia was displayed at the Manawatu Museum in Amesbury Street. The collection was stored in a vacant strongroom in the Waldegrave building on Broadway until relocating in 1976 to spare strongrooms at the National Bank on Rangitikei St.
Former All Black Neven MacEwan was the city’s Public Relations Officer and during his term as museum president 1974-78 he led the campaign to find a permanent home. He provided space within the PRO building in the Square to mount a display for one week during 1976. Finally, in 1977, the city council gave the green light for the rugby museum to occupy a building on the corner of Grey and Carroll streets. This was the former Art Gallery.
A major membership campaign commenced with letters to every rugby club and union in the country and every living All Black - several remain members today.
The Grey St premises
The new building gave the museum space to display a substantial part of the collection and the exhibition was mounted by experienced display designer Russell Harris. Story boards were put up with objects and photos to illustrate them.
Manawatu Rugby was going through a boom time, being holders of the Ranfurly Shield 1976-78 and national provincial champions in 1980. Touring teams visited and plaster casts were made from imprints of the hand and boot of rugby greats. The museum began to attract regular visitors and was able to effectively market itself as a visitor attraction.
As a young man interested in statistics and history, Clive Akers was brought into the museum fold by Fred Spurdle in 1975. During his time at the museum Akers has had a role in most parts of the operation, from entering new objects into the accession records to putting up displays and welcoming visitors. He has been chairman since 1994. Akers has researched and published histories on Manawatu and Horowhenua rugby, a biography on Charles Monro, and the WWI tribute Balls, Bullets and Boots. His largest publication is The New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. He has been co-editor of the Rugby Almanack since 1994. In 2018 his voluntary work was recognised when he was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to rugby and historical research.
The former Kairanga County Council building became available on Cuba St, at Arena Manawatu, the main rugby venue in Palmerston North. In 1991 the museum reopened. More displays were added and other displays were fine-tuned. The collection rapidly grew putting pressure on the aging catalogue card system. A part-time curator was hired, Bob Luxford. Displays were changed regularly and a Personality of the Month was added. The growing interest in rugby history saw visitor numbers exceed 5,000 per annum. The need for additional storage was met for some time by neighbour Keith Norling and later premises rented on Grey St.
Bob Luxford was born in the Manawatu, finished his schooling in Whakatane and subsequently worked for the Bank of New Zealand. When Luxford was stationed at different towns and cities around New Zealand he joined the local rugby club and became familiar with the traditional social nature of rugby. Near retirement Luxford answered an advert in the local paper for rugby museum attendants, “no knowledge of rugby necessary, our visitors know all there is to know about the game”. His sharp mind and organisational skills were just what the museum needed. Luxford’s visionary decision to begin cataloguing the collection on a computer-based system in 2000, (Vernon), has sped up research and made the collection much more accessible. Luxford was also instrumental in acquiring the museum’s 1905 All Blacks jersey, one of our prized possessions.
By 1992 the rugby museum had already found the Cuba St venue was not suitable. In 2002 the PNCC began promoting a move to have the museum co-located with Te Manawa – the museum of art, science and history for the Manawatu region. Progress was slow but once New Zealand won the bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup impetus began to grow. A plan was put in place, a fulltime Director hired in 2008, along with a fundraising target of $800,000. The PNCC and government lotteries funding met the bulk of the target and the rest came from donors and trusts. The museum hired contractors and tradespeople locally and relied on volunteers for many of the unskilled jobs. A whole-community effort saw the new museum open in August 2011. Today the museum attracts over 10,000 visitors annually and plays an important role as a visitor attraction to the city.
Phil Monk grew up in Batt St, Palmerston North just doors along from Ongley Park and also the same street which John Sinclair lived in. Monk travelled as a young man and saw first-hand the way New Zealanders were welcomed by other nations thanks to the All Blacks fame. He worked in the insurance business for many years before owning and running the famous Café Cuba with wife Sue. Meanwhile Monk served for many years on the Centrepoint Theatre Trust Board. That experience was greatly needed by the rugby museum. Phil Monk joined the museum committee in 1983 and has served many years as the vice-chair. He has played a leading role in the transition to Te Manawa, heading the museum’s co-location committee and working closely with Palmerston North City Council and Te Manawa representatives.
An attraction for all
The museum realised that we had to be for all visitors, not just adult rugby fans. We designed the new gallery with an interactive ‘Have A Go!’ area. Now children (and adults) can test out their rugby skills on five different games. International tourists often have limited knowledge of rugby and enjoy the opportunity to ‘make’ a tackle or ‘push’ in a scrum.
NZ Rugby grew their focus on children by creating the ‘Rugger’ character alongside their ‘Small Blacks’ brand. Rugger features in television clips and books.