BR: Before rugby

Cricket and horse racing came early to our shores, with games played and meetings held in the 1830s and 1840s. But other sporting amusements didn’t get much of a look-in, among the tough lives of the early whalers, settlers and military of New Zealand.

In the larger settlements, some informal ‘punting a ball about’ took place when the largely male settler population gathered together with time to kill. Later on, school and church picnics seemed a favoured spot for a leisure time kick-about.

Cantabrians nurtured early variations of the game at New Zealand’s oldest secondary school – Christ’s College, modelled on the fond memories many settlers had of their public schools back home in England…

Christs College Quad 1869 Small

Christ’s College surrounded by countryside in the 1850s.

The Colonial Wave

In 1840, on the eve of the signing of New Zealand’s founding document (the Treaty of Waitangi), New Zealand was still very much a Māori world – with the 70,000-strong tribal population outnumbering the settler population of just 2000.

Gold rushes hit both the North and South islands in the 1850s and 1860s, spurring a rush of entrepreneurs, speculators, diggers and folk of ill-repute into the developing British colony. The ‘European explosion’ was well underway, and by 1858 the settler population outnumbered Māori…

Gold Miner - Alexander Turnbull
An 1860s gold digger and his dog. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand - 3-395-033)

Beer before Rugby?

The English explorer Captain James Cook, better known for his work in locating and mapping New Zealand in 1769, was also the first person to make beer in this new land.  

On his second voyage to the country in 1773, Cook brewed ‘spruce beer’ from rimu twigs and mānuka leaves at a stopover in Dusky Sound, with the aim of warding off scurvy in his crew. The rimu foliage (a type of spruce) made the beer too bitter, so he mixed it with mānuka leaves.


The native mānuka plant used by Captain Cook to brew the first New Zealand beer in 1773.

Beer, which was far safer and healthier than water on the ships, was considered so important the Captain himself would often do the brewing. The recipe is recorded in Cook’s log which also notes the resulting beer was “exceedingly palatable and esteemed by everyone on board.”



Pre-Rugby… Early Football and Sports Clubs …

AUCKLAND – Settler Entertainment

An 1847 Auckland newspaper records the social aspect of a settler’s welcome event: “After dinner, cricket, football, and every amusement that could be devised went on…” so there must have been informal games occurring well before the Auckland Rugby Union history makes note of an event at the Domain in 1868 where a crowd of “all sorts, sizes, ages and sexes punting a small black football.”

The first recorded matches occurred in June 1870 when crewmen from a visiting ship HMS Rosario played the first of three games against Auckland locals and defeated them. In July the locals decided to form a Club, and after some coaching and practice managed to defeat the Rosario team in the final two matches.


The nearby Thames goldfields boasted a large male population after gold was discovered there in 1867, and no doubt in the miner’s camps there would have been some informal games played pre-1870.



Various rugby writers have noted the potential for football games to have occurred between the settler population (often armed constabulary) and local Māori in parts of the North Island although no records of such games exist.

By 1841 in Wanganui, a Church of England Mission station had been established, attached to which was a school attended by Māori and white settlers. One can imagine that in these early years the kids shared different types of games from their cultures outside the classroom, and no doubt football was one of them.

WELLINGTON – Mud and Sailors

An account in the Wellington Rugby Annual of 1896 suggests the first known football started in the capital about 1868:


“…At Mr Warburton’s shop [on Lambton Quay], situated near the Queen’s Hotel, he purchased a ball, and the best that could be produced in those uncivilised days was a round one, and with this the first kick-about took place. From this out, the football enthusiasts used to meet on Saturday afternoons, and play; sometimes five a side, sometimes more.”


On August 20 1870 at the Basin Reserve, a Wellington team played sailors from the same ship HMS Rosario that had recently played Auckland:


“…it is strange how a football always makes for a lagoon – and in the scrambles in the mud and slush the sailors were in their element and they came off best, and the result was a victory for the navy by a goal to nil.”

1896 Wellington Rugby Annual


In the Wellington team was a young Nelson man, Charles Monro, who was in town organising a match to be played under Rugby School rules three weeks later…

1870s Basin Reserve MA_I061880 compressed

View of the playing field and a wooden spectator stand at the Basin Reserve, Wellington. c.1870..

CANTERBURY – The Manly Game

In 1852 the boys of Christ’s College petitioned the leader of the Canterbury settlement for “a portion of land for a playground, where we may be able to play at cricket and football” and received for their efforts an acre of land close to the school.


Charles Dudley, an 1853-60 old boy recalled:


“Footballs were first made of bullock’s bladders covered with leather, and football was a mixed sort of game brought down from Wellington by Riddiford, Fitzherbet and A Bowler. When Mr Coasdaile Bowen, an old boy from Rugby, tried to teach the boys rugby they would not have it and hacked him”


In 1862, senior pupils drafted up the first set of rules and it was decided upon a uniform of blue cap, white trousers and flannel shirt. After several games, the committee ruled “that no tussock throwing be allowed during the game of football”, suggesting their pitch may have been a little rugged!

christs rules p1

christs rules p2christs rules p3christs rules p4Some of the rules drafted by senior pupils at Christ’s College in 1862.

The Christchurch Football Club was formed in 1863 after a game against Christ’s College. One of its founders and president for 36 years was Richard Harman – an old boy of Rugby School who had sons at Christ’s.


The Lyttelton Times reported:

“We are glad to hear that a club is to be formed for the promotion of this manly game. No small amount of skill, activity and courage is required to constitute a first class football player, and the young fellow who possesses these qualities is not likely to turn out bad as a man.”


In subsequent years the club played games based around a mixed version of soccer, Victorian rules and elements of rugby, with the Rugby School rules being finally adopted by the club in the mid 1870s.


NELSON – Schoolboy Shenanigans

The first full description of a football game in Nelson, and indeed New Zealand, comes from a Nelson College Old Boy who wrote in 1910 his recollections of a school game played about 1860:


“…The Rest of the School just simply swarmed over us like flies over a honey pot. No one was very particular about whether it was the ball or some schoolfellow’s head, shins or any other part of his body, so long as he got a kick in…..Final Results: Eighteen men bandaging legs, ankles and heads, and the masters were so ashamed of our dilapidated appearance that they gave us a holiday the next day to get over the battle.”


The Nelson College history records that football was introduced while George Heppell was headmaster in 1859-61. In 1868 the Nelson Football Club was formed, largely through the efforts of Robert Tennent and another historic figure, Alfred Drew, who possibly captained the team in 1868-69. The Nelson club, like others of the time in New Zealand, played a hybrid game – mixing soccer and Victorian (Australian) Rules – that is until rugby legend Charles Monro returned to Nelson in 1870….

OTAGO – Rough and Ready

The gold rush attracted thousands of diggers to Otago from the diminishing gold fields in Australia, and many packed, along with their dilly bags, versions of the Victorian football game.


A club of sorts was formed in Dunedin in May 1869, but after a couple of rowdy games the players disbanded:


“The play was of the rough and tumble sort, every recognisable rule of the game being set at naught. Indeed, so savage were the onslaughts of some of the players that is was only by the merest good fortune serious injuries were not sustained. “

Otago Daily Times


In 1872 the Dunedin Football Club was formed, their members playing under ‘association rules’. The club switched to rugby rules in 1875 so they could learn the game in time to play against an Auckland provincial side due to visit Otago in September.

The notion of mateship, now such a part of our sporting code, was born out of the camaraderie of the gold diggings. A digger, when linking up with another to work a claim, talked about ‘going mates.’


As well as mateship, the miners streaming in from the Victorian goldfields in Australia imported their version of Victorian Rules football (now called AFL) which, in the 1860s, was played alongside (or sometimes mixed in with) games based along early soccer rules.


Interestingly, the man instrumental in inventing the Australian version of the game back in 1859, was an old Rugbeian – Tom Wills.


An Australian Rules football match at the Richmond Paddock, Melbourne, about 1866. The building in the background is the Melbourne Cricket Ground pavilion. Artist: Robert Bruce, 1866. (Wiki Commons).


Akers, Clive. Monro – The life and times of the Man who gave New Zealand Rugby. [Akers, 2008]