Britain’s farmyard

With its first successful shipment of frozen meat back to London in 1882, New Zealand was able to position itself as ‘Britain’s farmyard’ exporting lamb, butter and cheese.

The economy was still firmly rooted on agriculture, and the transformation of the still largely bush-clad landscape into farmland intensified.

The start of the ‘Long Depression’ and a more settled urban society spurred social reform. The place of alcohol in New Zealand society was hotly debated, as the temperance and prohibition movements aimed to address the impact of alcohol on New Zealand families…

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Land clearance workers outside their living quarters, location unidentified, c.1880s. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand –G-66717-1/2)

 Rugby touring…

Rugby’s popularity in provincial New Zealand exploded, with the number of clubs rising to about 700 by 1890.

Provincial unions were formed to control club competitions and hard-fought inter-provincial rivalries sparked into life.

The first international tours kicked off, with New South Wales visiting ‘Māoriland’ in 1882. Then, New Zealand’s first team headed offshore, playing in blue jerseys under a gold fern whilst visiting Australia in 1884.

A desire to test colonial rugby’s development against the homeland saw New Zealand welcoming a visiting British team in 1888, and then reciprocating with the historic ‘Native Team’ tour to Britain that same year…

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Season ticket for the New Zealand Native Football Team Tour to Britain in 1888.

1882 – The first tourists…

New Zealand’s history of rugby tourists started with an Australian team that called New South Wales home.  

Things did not get off to a good start, with the team’s ship going aground whilst coming up the Auckland harbour. From there, they steamed their way around the country, playing matches in Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.

It was the opinion of the time that the provincial sides would be no match for the ‘New South Welshmen’, but Auckland (twice) and Otago inflicted defeat on the visitors, who came away scoring 42 points to 40 against.


The first touring team to set foot in New Zealand - New South Wales 1882.

1884 – Our First ‘National’ Team… 

In 1884 a New Zealand team left our shores headed for Australia as a ‘reply’ to the 1882 visit by New South Wales.

It couldn’t be called a truly national team, as players were drawn from just the Auckland, Wellington. Canterbury and Otago unions, but it was from here that the concept of a national team playing ‘under the fern’ grew.

The touring ‘Fernlanders’ won all eight of their matches, ably captained by William Millton from Canterbury (New Zealand’s first captain) with the tour organised by Samuel Sleigh, a Dunedin businessman.

The 1884 New Zealand Rugby Football Team, the first All Blacks. BACK- J. ODonnell, H. Udy, G. Robertson, J. Alla, E. Millton, T. Ryan, J. Wilson. MIDDLE- J. Taiaroa, G. Carter, J. Dumbell, W. Millton (captain), H. Braddon, G. Helmore, P. Webb, S. Sleigh (manager). FRONT- E. Davy, J. Lecky, J. Warbrick, H. Roberts. ABSENT- T. OConnor.

Our whistle blower…

William Atack, a young sports journalist in Christchurch, is credited with changing the sound of rugby games forever by introducing the use of the whistle in 1883 or 1884.  

”…when both sides were appealing, the voice had to be exercised loudly and Atack found it exhausting. Thinking it over one day while refereeing a rugby game, his fingers strayed into a waistcoat pocket where they encountered a dog whistle. The inspiration occurred to him that it would be a fine thing to use a whistle to stop the game. The next time he refereed, he called the teams together and they agreed to play to the whistle. It was a great success and was adopted all over the country.”

AC Swan, History of New Zealand Football

Swan also notes that whistles were used by officials during the 1884 Australian tour. Did the New Zealand team suggest to New South Wales officials that whistles be used or had the whistle already been in use in Australia before the tour?

William Attack

William Atack – the New Zealander who first used a whistle on the rugby field.

Henry Braddon’s 1884 New Zealand cap.

This cap appears more modern than 1884, with its fabrication and embroidery more appropriate to the early 20th century, so it was likely awarded to the owner long after the actual tour. The team photo for the 1884 New Zealand team shows players wearing a range of provincial caps, making it unlikely they would have had a standardised team cap.



1888 – The First British Visitors…

The first tour to the Antipodes by a team from the ‘homeland’ was quite a milestone and, some say, a learning exercise for the colonials:

“Opinions differed on how much was learned by local players, but there is no doubt that back play in New Zealand developed tremendously in the wake of the tour. Some claimed the art of the passing game was learned from the British side, and it was generally conceded that such innovative finesse as the dummy pass, so well used by Tommy Haslam, was a revelation to the New Zealanders.”

The Visitors, Chester and McMillan

The series of 35 games was the first major tour of the Southern Hemisphere undertaken by a European team, and would pave the way for future tours which eventually would be referred to as the British ‘Lions’.

The tour was not a financial success, losing the private promoters money. Even worse was the fact that team captain, Bob Seddon, tragically drowned in a sculling accident whilst on the Australian leg of the tour.

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Harry Speakman, a member of the first British touring team to New Zealand, sporting his red, white and blue hooped rugby jersey topped off with a dashing bow tie (1888). After the tour to New Zealand, Harry settled in Queensland, later playing the 1888 Native Team as an ‘Australian’ and even subbing into the Native Team for their match against Toowoomba!

1888 – The ‘Natives’ and the longest rugby tour… 

“They are dressed in black knickerbockers and jerseys, which in the case of the Maoris, with their dusky hue of face and hands, gives them a rather sombre aspect ; but they are all men of fine growth, well knit and well proportioned, and are skilled adepts in all points of the game. When not playing, the Maoris wear certain mats and articles of their native costume at their public appearance.”

October 1888, London Illustrated News  

The New Zealand Native tour that took in Australia, Egypt and the British Isles was the first trip of a New Zealand team ‘home’ to Britain, the first team to wear a black uniform and silver fern emblem, and it proved to be the longest tour in the history of rugby.

It’s hard to imagine in those days of primitive travel, how the team survived the gruelling 107 matches they played over a 14-month period. Averaging a mammoth three games a week, the injuries accumulated as the tour wore on, with 12 players taking to the pitch with injuries in one game in Westmorland.

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Captained by Joe Warbrick (Ngai Rangitihi), the pioneering Natives (who actually included five Europeans), played a running, free-flowing style of rugby that won them 78 games and allowed them to draw six out of 108 played.

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The team also included Tom Ellison (Ngai Tahu and Te Ati Awa) a forward who was the second highest try scorer on the tour, and who would later become a very influential figure in New Zealand rugby history.