Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The First Roars – Early British and Irish Lions tours 1888-1910

It’s nearly time for the British and Irish Lions tour to begin and I am experiencing the usual surge of anticipation and optimism at the prospect. On the back of this year’s shirt is a logo declaring this to be the 125th anniversary of the first Lions tour.

1888 British squad

This first tour by a combined party comprising players from all four home nations to Australia and New Zealand in 1888 was a grand expedition, in which a squad of just 22 players would play in no less than 54 matches over a 21 week period. The tour was arranged by a triumvirate of English cricketing luminaries who had succeeded in turning a handsome profit from arranging cricketing tours to Australia and now sought to do the same with rugby union. Their proposal to offer players compensation for their loss of time in addition to covering their expenses, which were considerable with the tour lasting eight months including travel, caused outrage in the committee rooms of the home unions who denounced the venture as being tainted by professionalism. There was no dirtier word in rugby in those days!

The players on this first tour were not known as Lions, neither did they travel with the blessing or endorsement of their home unions. Nevertheless the tour invoked the spirit which has continued down to this day. The tourists played 16 matches in Australia and 19 in New Zealand. In addition they took on the Aussies at their own game in 19 matches of ‘Victorian Rules football’ as the uniquely Australian variation of the game was then called.

Of the 35 rugby matches they won 27, although they were not always on form. Following a dismal performance to lose 4-0 against Auckland the British team were castigated by the tour manager for indulging in ‘too much whiskey and women!’ The tour was hit by tragedy when the team captain Bob Seddon drowned in a rowing accident whilst enjoying some leisure time on the Hunter River in New South Wales. The show nevertheless went on. Seddon’s replacement as captain was legendary all-rounder Andrew Stoddart who is better known for his cricketing exploits as an Ashes-winning captain but also captained the English rugby team in ten internationals. In addition to Seddon and Stoddart only two other members of the first British touring side would ever be capped by their home nations; Englishman Tom Kent and Welshman Willie Thomas.
Andrew Stoddart

The 1888 tour did not deliver the big payday that its organisers had hoped for, nevertheless the idea caught on. British touring sides continued to ply their trade in the Southern Hemisphere. A British tour to South Africa in 1891 was a remarkable triumph, in which the tourists won all three test matches against the Springboks as well as all 17 provincial matches played. Oh that we should see such times again! Another tour of South Africa in 1896 saw the first international victory for South Africa, winning a single test but losing the series 3-1. A winning tour of Australia followed in 1899 with a 3-1 series victory. The dominance was not set to last however and soon the colonials were fighting back. The British side lost the only test match in South Africa in 1903 and in 1904 on a tour of both New Zealand and Australia they whitewashed the Aussies 3-0 but were beaten by the All Blacks in a single test. In the three test match series against New Zealand four years later the British team could only manage a single draw and were twice beaten.

By 1910 the four home unions had at last all come around to the idea of a combined touring party from all four nations being a jolly spiffing one. The tour to South Africa in this year was therefore the first to set out with the formal blessing of all four unions and is seen as the first ‘true’ lions tour. The name ‘Lions’ was not coined until 1924 however, when journalists covering that year’s tour of South Africa noted the lion motif sported on the ties and blazers of the British team. The test series was a 2-1 loss. In the early days the British teams played in red, white and blue stripped jerseys and later in dark blue. The quartered crest with the emblems of the four nations was adopted in 1924 and the red jersey was first seen in 1950.
 1910 British team

The 14 year hiatus in British overseas touring activities following the 1910 tour heralds the shadow of the Great War across this story and as you might expect many of those who took part in these early tours were young and fit at the time that war broke out and naturally served in the conflict. Eleven of them made the ultimate sacrifice.

Alex Todd, who scored a try in the second test against South Africa in 1896 fell at Ypres. Charlie Adamson; the top points scorer of the 1899 tour with two test match tries, who was capable of playing in any of the back positions, died at Salonica just two months before the end of the war. Jimmy Hossack, a forward on the 1903 tour was killed at Kangata in East Africa.

Four players from the 1904 tour to Australia and New Zealand; Sidney Crowther, Blair Swannell, Ron Rogers and David Bedell-Sivright lost their lives in the Great War. Swannell (pictured below left) was a notoriously tough forward who had settled in Australia. He was capped once by that country and fell during the landing at Anzac cove on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign. Bedell-Sivright, the 1904 captain, was a Naval Surgeon who contracted septicaemia whilst serving in Gallipoli. Rogers also lost his life at Gallipoli whilst fellow English forward Crowther was killed whilst serving as a motorcycle dispatch rider in Flanders.

Johnnie Williams (right) was a Welsh winger with a signature swerve. He was the top try scorer on the 1908 tour to Australia and New Zealand. He fell at Mametz Wood.

Three of the 1910 Lions were killed in action. Scottish Scrum half Eric Milroy fell at Delville Wood serving with the Black Watch. Welsh forward Phil Waller, who played in all three tests, remained in South Africa and played for the Golden Lions before joining the South African Artillery. He was killed at Arras. Welsh fly half Noel Humphreys served as a captain in the tank corps and was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry after remaining with his stranded tank and digging it out whilst under enemy fire; recovering the tank and rejoining the battle in spite of being wounded. Humphreys later died of his wounds in March 1918.

1910 full back Stanley Williams survived the war and was awarded the DSO. Scottish centre Charles Timms served as a medical officer and was awarded the Military Cross on four occasions. Irish forward William Tyrrell also served as a medical officer, was mentioned in dispatches on six occasions and was awarded the MC and DSO.

One other hero who  is worthy of mention from the 1910 Lions squad is Welsh forward Harry Jarman, who played in all three tests. Jarman was killed in 1928 after he flung himself in front of a runaway coal truck which was careering towards a group of playing children.

Then as now, British Lions were a special breed of men. Enjoy the games.

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