Early History of Rugby in Eastbourne
Advocates of rugby union have been drawn to Eastbourne and its surrounding bays and beaches for over 115 years. The history of rugby being played in Eastbourne dates back well beyond the formation of our club, over a keg of Speights beer in a Rata Street garage, on an autumn morning in 1921.
The New Zealand and Queensland representatives were the invited guests of Sir Henry Dillon Bell to afternoon tea at his Lowry Bay residence before their game in 1896. Another Lowry Bay resident who played a prominent role in New Zealand rugby was Colonel George Campbell who played for Wellington between 1875 and 1884 and had to withdraw from the first ever NZ representative side of 1884 due to work commitments. Campbell went on to serve the Wellington Rugby Union for 43 years holding the offices of President for the Wellington union and the NZRFU and he was one of the original founders of the NZRFU.
Before the 1884 NZ side left on tour to New South Wales they played a game against Wellington with Henry Roberts scoring the first try by a New Zealand representative. Henry Roberts’s son Edward, known as Teddy, was also to become an All Black in 1913 making them the first father and son All Blacks. Teddy Roberts like Sir Henry Dillon and Colonel George Campbell were all Athletic Rugby Club stalwarts and Teddy was to be instrumental, along with other like-minded rugby supporters from clubs such as Petone and Oriental, in the establishment of a rugby club in Eastbourne.
The first New Zealand side to represent the new formed New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) on a tour of Australia in 1893 was captained by T. R. Ellison. Tom Ellison had toured as a member of the NZ Natives to Great Britain and is credited with the development of the wing forward system New Zealand would use till the IRB banned it the 1930’s. Ellison proposed at the first general meeting of the NZRFU that the playing colours of the union be black with a silver fern. In 1903 Ellison was building his colonial residence ‘Glenwood’ with its distinctive octagonal turret in Eastbourne but unfortunately he died in 1904 before living in the house.
The Eastbourne Rugby Football Club and the community of Eastbourne can claim a special role within New Zealand rugby in hosting and preparing the All Blacks before Test matches in Wellington.
The first NZ side to go into camp in Days Bay were the 1904 NZ representatives who were preparing to play Great Britain in the very first test on New Zealand soil. The Evening Post announced their arrival on the 10th of August in Days Bay and highlighted the work the team was doing on its scrummaging, kicking, running and dribbling. Billy Wallace recounted in his diary travelling across the harbour to Wellington on August 13th for the match. The players were accommodated at Days Bay House (present day Wellesley College) and trained on the elevated and well manicured surface of the hockey ground beside the hotel. The earliest photos showing the NZ representatives sporting their newly commissioned black and silver caps were taken in front of Days Bay House.
The famous trainer of the day Dorrie Leslie sharpened the fitness of this side in 1904 and he was to repeat that role in 1921 and 1923. Taking the players to Days Bay was seen as helping the players to not only prepare for the test as a team but also recover from any illness or injury, and to avoid some of the distractions of the city itself. The test match was won 9-3 against Great Britain and the decision to barrack the NZ team in Days Bay was seen as having been a happy one.
Of the fifteen players who stayed in Days Bay and took the field against Great Britain in 1904 nine would make the 1905-06 “Originals” tour of the British Isles, France and North America.
1921 was a very momentous year for both Eastbourne and New Zealand rugby. With the enthusiasm of Eastbourne locals and the support of rugby followers from other clubs, a rugby club was formed in Eastbourne.
The idea for an Eastbourne club was born in the garage of A J Walling in Rata Street over a keg of Speights beer on an autumn morning in 1921. In attendance were Joe Heenan - WRFU committee member, Jack Parry, George Law, Arthur Macklin, Charlie McArlie and the MP Thomas Wilford. Other rugby identities in Wellington leant their weight and considerable influence. The club was fortunate in having Lowry Bay resident Colonel G.F.C. Campbell who was then Vice President of the NZRFU and the WRFU, and William Hornig a delegate to the NZRFU was also resident in Eastbourne. Hornig would go on to manage the All Black team to South Africa in 1928.
The first Eastbourne coaches would appear to have been Paul Peters ably assisted by the All Black halfback of the day Teddy Roberts who lived in Eastbourne, and also ex-All Black Ranji Wilson and his brother Billie, who frequented the “Athletic boys” bach in Tuatoru Street.
William Hardham VC of the Petone RFC and Wellington delegate to the NZRFU agreed to take on the responsibility for the schoolboys.
In 1921 New Zealand was absorbed in the upcoming tour by the South African rugby team. The series had been dubbed “The World Championship of Rugby” - which sounds a bit like a Rugby World Cup. NZ won the first Test but were shocked to lose the second. Amidst some suggestions of over-indulgence before the second Test the NZRFU decided the All Blacks were to go into camp for ten days in Days Bay before the third test and series decider.
The local community were very excited by the imminent arrival of the All Blacks and went to great lengths to ensure the All Blacks were provided with the best training facilities possible and a range of entertainments during their stay. The Evening Post of the 6th September reported that a meeting of Eastbourne residents planned to stage a dance in the Days Bay pavilion on the Saturday night, concert programmes on Monday and Tuesday, boxing bouts on the Wednesday night in the Rona Bay Hall, with an invitation to the Springboks to attend also decided upon, and finally a programme on the Thursday night arranged by the Eastbourne Football Club. At this meeting it was also decided “to present the team with a silk NZ flag from Eastbourne residents, with a flag-staff inscribed with the names of members of the team”
On Saturday the 10th of September the Evening Post reported that the dance would go ahead that evening although the All Blacks would retire at 10pm and that apart from the exhibition boxing bouts on the following Wednesday night all other events had been cancelled. This edition also announced the intention of the NZRU to host a rugby reunion on Sunday the 11th of September in Days Bay with the All Blacks to be joined by the representatives of the Wellington, Southland and Otago unions and the Springboks. Unfortunately the Springboks only arrived back in Wellington from Nelson on the Sunday and were anxious to establish their own camp before the final test and so the invitation was declined. The Eastbourne Rugby Football Club with the approval of the WRFU has re-issued that invitation to the Springbok of 2011.
Not only did the All Blacks stay and train in Eastbourne they decided to elevate Eastbourne resident Teddy Roberts to the captaincy for the Third Test, and the silk NZ flag was presented to the All Black manager A. J. Griffiths on the evening of the 14th September, at the conclusion of the boxing bouts, and was subsequently carried out beside Roberts and on to Athletic Park before the test match. Present at the evening were the Mayor of Eastbourne Mr F. H. Mather, the Hon. J. G. Coates, Mr T.M. Wilford, M.P., Colonel Campbell vice-president of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Mr. G. W. Slade, Chairman of the Union, and Dr. A. K. Newman M.P and president of the Union. The Mayor also took the opportunity to present a silver afternoon tea set to Teddy Roberts and explained that as a resident of Eastbourne he was very much seen as Eastbourne’s “particular representative in the All Blacks.”
Unfortunately it rained solidly for 24 hours before the game and it resulted in a nil all draw and a drawn series. However in many ways the drawn series and unresolved issue of exactly who was the superior rugby nation would only contribute to the rivalry that lasts till this day. The large photo in the southern part of our clubrooms acknowledges the efforts of the Eastbourne Borough and our rugby club in hosting and preparing the All Blacks for the thirds test match on the 17th September 1921.
Once again the All Blacks were barracked in Eastbourne before their third and final test match of the series against N.S.W. On this occasion the All Blacks had won both tests prior to the third test and the mood of the nation would appear to have been more relaxed as to the likely outcome which was a 38-11 victory to the All Blacks on the 15th September.
By 1923 the Eastbourne Club could offer the All Blacks the use of HW Short Recreational ground which surface had been laid in 1922. The All Blacks went into quarters at the Eastbourne Hotel on the 11th of September and the Evening Post related that the rugby club would host a dance at the Days Bay Pavilion on the Wednesday night. The dance took place as planned and it was reported that a large number of rugby enthusiasts, including ladies, were in attendance. The All Black manager was again A.J. Griffiths and in his speech he referenced the silk NZ flag presented at a similar occasion in 1921. On the 14th September as part of their varied training regime they played their annual North vs. South cricket fixture on HW Shortt ground with the South Island ultimately being successful. Dorrie Leslie who had trained the 1904 and 1921 All Blacks was once again involved in their preparations and their manager A. J. Griffiths was again glowing in his appreciation for the assistance offered by the Eastbourne rugby club and the Eastbourne Borough and its residents.
1923 was a busy year for the club as it had decided to buy a piece of property in Karamu Street to the south of HW Shortt Rec. on which to establish a gymnasium. The section had previously been a gravel pit and club members worked tirelessly to fill in the section. The club decided to stage a monster gala for the amusement of Wellingtonians between Boxing Day and New Years Day to raise funds for the construction gymnasium. The seaside entertainments were extended to the 2nd January after a gale damaged many of the marquees and larger amusement rides on the 29th December.
When the 1924 All Blacks assembled in Wellington before embarking on the “Invincibles” tour the NZRFU commissioned a photograph of the team which was subsequently autographed by the players and then donated to the Eastbourne Rugby Football Club to assist with the gymnasium fundraising. On Saturday November 29th the Mayoress Mrs H. W. Shortt drew the winning ticket in the art union to decide who would win the autographed All Black photo. The winner one N. Malcolm of Eketahuna was reported in the Evening Post on Monday the 1st of December, but that news was overshadowed by news of the All Black’s victory over Wales 19-0.
The All Black side of 1928 which toured the republic of South Africa for the first time had as its manager W. Hornig and the club proudly displays the autographed copy of the team photo he was instrumental in securing for the club. Once again this series was drawn.
This early history of the Eastbourne Rugby Football Club is by no means exhaustive and doesn’t highlight the speed with which the club established its on-field reputation which was to reach a peak in August 1930 when Eastbourne were runners-up to Petone in the Senior A Championship. Eastbourne had defeated Petone during the season but was unable to replicate that form in the final. The feat of reaching the final by such a young club was attributed to the coaching presence of Teddy Roberts and his fellow All Black Jim Moffitt who played together in 1921.
Today’s Eastbourne Rugby Football Club fields an enthusiastically supported and well coached senior side in the weight restricted 85/85 grade and schoolboy teams in the junior grades. We regularly produce quality junior players with no fewer than seven Hutt Valley Junior representatives being selected in 2011 across three different age grades.