A working man’s paradise?

Bound tight to the ‘Mother-country’ (Britain) by the ‘crimson tie’ of the Empire, the South African Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was the first overseas conflict New Zealand sent troops to.

Politicians of the day saw themselves as champions of the ordinary New Zealander. Their vision for ‘God’s own country’ saw wealthy land-owners taxed and more Māori land obtained for settlement.

In a world first, the women’s suffrage movement earned New Zealand women the right to vote in 1893.Dominated by the values and dreams of the new settlers, New Zealand was now starting to look like a nation in the modern sense of the word…


Suffrage cartoon: "She that is to be obeyed cartoon" Source from AlexT Library - h-720-006
Cartoonists of the time played on the popular perception that giving women the vote would put them in a commanding position ie. ‘she that is to be obeyed’ - New Zealand Graphic, September 1893.

‘Black’ to the start

In 1892 the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) was established by the provincial unions to select national teams and set consistent rules for the game.

By now, the country was developing its own distinctive rugby style. The wing forward (like a second halfback) and five-eighths positions were introduced, the silver fern emblem and black jersey were adopted as the national uniform, and in 1893 the first official New Zealand team was selected by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union to tour Australia.

As well as agitating for the vote, women were also keen to play the game. In 1891 it was suggested an Auckland team of the fairer sex should tour the country but prevailing male opinion of the time soon quashed the idea…

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The silver fern pin of Graham Shannon, one of the 1893 All Blacks.

1892 – Forging a national union…

Thirteen unions were playing inter-provincial rugby by 1891 but there were frequent squabbles over fixtures, law interpretation, and scoring values. It was high time for a national body to administer the game and help the exchange of tours.

Convinced of the need to make rugby administration simpler, Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union secretary Ernest Hoben travelled throughout New Zealand in 1891 promoting the advantages of a governing body. After a series of discussions, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU – later to become just NZRU) was formed at a meeting of delegates held in Wellington on 16 April, 1892.

The NZRFU’s 1893 annual meeting was a historic one, providing a legacy for future generations of Kiwi sports people. Legendary Māori player Tom Ellison proposed the idea:

“…that the New Zealand representative colours be black jersey with silver fernleaf, black cap with silver monogram, white knickerbockers and black stockings”.

The ‘all black’ national playing uniform had now become official!

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Ernest Hoben Headshot 92/222/1
Ernest Hoben, the Napier journalist and rugby administrator who sparked the drive to create the New Zealand Football Union in 1892.

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Tim Ellison in street clothes headshot 2000/68/5
Tom Ellison, legendary player, writer and rugby ideas man who proposed the look of the very first All Black strip.

1891 – Women try to take the field. 

In 1891 there was a brave attempt by a group of ‘lady footballers’ from Auckland to tour the country – but it did not meet with approval from the establishment. The Auckland Star had the following to say:


We subscribe most heartily to the doctrine that every sphere in which women are fitted to take their part should be as freely open to them as to men, but there are some things for which women are constitutionally unfitted, and which are essentially unwomanly. A travelling football team composed of girls appears to us to be of this character. Moreover, making every allowance for vitiated tastes in the popular craving for amusement, we cannot conceive of either men or women who have sisters of their own being attracted by such a spectacle, or encouraging a number of girls to forsake womanly employment for the purpose of entering upon a life of an itinerant footballer. It would also be well for the parents of girls who think of engaging in this enterprise to consider what will be their position if the enterprise proves a financial failure, which we sincerely hope and believe it will be. Have they obtained substantial guarantees that they will be returned to their homes, or are they liable to be left stranded – homeless and penniless in some distant city? If any respectable girls are determined to persist in this foolish enterprise, we strongly advise them to make it an indispensable condition that return tickets shall be placed in their possession before leaving Auckland, so as to ensure them a safe passage back to their homes when the venture has been proved a financial failure, as it unquestionably will be if we rightly gauge the taste of the New Zealand public in the matter of amusement.


Not surprisingly, the Star received in reply a lengthy and strongly worded letter from the team’s promoter and manageress, Nita Webbe, who rejected the editor’s assumptions:


(To the Editor)

“… It is only quite recently that your paper announced that an English team of lady cricketers were about to tour the Australian colonies, yet not one word had you to say against it. And now a team of lady footballers is projected here, you charitably hope it will end in a financial disaster. The football team are being taught by a regular trainer to play a clever game without any of the roughness characteristic of men’s play. Strict observance to the rules will be enforced, and when they play in public I am confident that the verdict will be not only that there has been not the slightest breach of propriety, but that a cleverer game has seldom been seen here. If it is permissible for ladies to participate in gymnastics, swimming matches, and cricket teams, is it not equally permissible for ladies to play football! To draw a line between them would be to make a distinction without a difference…”


Sadly, the tour did not take place, the exact reasons for which we can but assume!

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Young women L Mackorras and Bessie Scott holding tennis rackets c189s - JR Cameron Collection, Alex Turnbull Library 1/2-024920-G
If the 1890s woman could play tennis, why not rugby too?! L Mackorras and Bessie Scott (c.1890s) taking a spell from their exertions.

1893 – Touring ‘under the fern’…

The 23 players of the first team to tour with the ‘blessing’ of the newly formed NZRFU, left for Australia in June 1893 for a 10-match tour.

Captained by Tom Ellison, their only loss was to New South Wales (25-3) in the second ‘test’ match. It was hardly surprising, as it was the team’s fourth game in eight days (July 1, 4, 6, 8). Following their defeat the manager cabled home requesting that four extra forwards be sent across to boost the tiring team!

Whilst this team was the first ‘official’ national selection, it was not fully representative of all the provincial unions. For various reasons, the major South Island unions of Canterbury and Otago elected not to affiliate with the NZRFU until 1894 (Southland in 1895).

1893 Tour Team in playing strip
The 1893 New Zealand Team that toured to Australia. BACK- G. Campbell (manager), S. Cockroft, J. Lambie, A. DArcy, W. McKenzie, C. McIntosh, C. Speight, A. Good, F. Murray, Rev. J. Hoatson (referee). MIDDLE- F. Jervis, W. Pringle, A. Bayly, T. Ellison (captain), H. Tiopira, J. Mowlem, D. Gage, G. Shannon. FRONT- H. Wilson, J. Gardner, W. Wynyard, M. Herrold, A. Stuart, G. Harper.

Rugby, Ceasefires and the Anglo-Boer War…

A high percentage of the 6,140 New Zealand soldiers who served in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 were club and provincial rugby players who took part in wartime games whenever the opportunity arose.

Names that would later feature again in rugby history include Dave Gallaher (later to become captain of the 1905 “Originals’ All Blacks), and 1905 All Black, Bunny Abbott, who played his first game whilst serving in South Africa.


Bill Hardham - ALex T PA1 -q-q162-73
Charles Morice Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand - PA1-q-162-73.

Bill Hardham, who played 51 games for Wellington, many as captain, was the only New Zealander awarded the Victoria Cross during the war. His citation reads:

“On 28.1.1901, near Naauwpoort, this non-commissioned officer was with a section which was extended and hotly engaged with a party of about twenty Boers. Just before the force commenced to retire Trpr McRae was wounded and his horse killed. Farrier-Major Hardham at once went under fire to his assistance, dismounted and placed him on his own horse, and ran alongside until he was guided to a place of safety.” .

But one of the strangest moments in warfare occurred near the end of the conflict, when a request for a ceasefire went out so that players from opposing forces could play a rugby game!

“The Honourable Major Edwards.


Dear Sir,

I wish to inform you that I have agreed to a rugby match taking place between you and us. I, from my side, will agree to a cease-fire tomorrow afternoon from 12 o’clock until sunset, the time and venue of the match to be arranged by you in consultation with Messrs Roberts and Van Rooyen whom I am sending to you.

I have the honour etc,

p.p. S.G.Maritz,

Field General

Transvaal Scouting Corps.

Concordia, April 28, 1902.”

The game never took place, for as preparations were being made a nearby skirmish resulted in four British and six Boers soldiers being killed.

In total, 71 New Zealanders died in combat, 26 from accidents, but the highest casualties were from sickness and disease which claimed 133 lives.

Envelope from Boer war to home

Illustrated envelope addressed to Trooper A F Batchelar of Palmerston North, serving in the Boer War – order from 2008Pa_BATCHELAR-S4_EPH_1556 – PNCC Archives
A local memento of the Boer War - envelope addressed to Trooper Arthur Batchelar of Palmerston North a member of the Manawatu Mounted Rifles.