– A Game Against The English

In 1888 the touring English Rugby side played a game of Australian football against a combined Northern Districts team (Newcastle-Hunter Area of NSW).

The touring side has been described as a ‘British Lions’ although the team did not officially represent the (English) Rugby Football Union.  Nor did the Victorian Football Association (VFA – in those days), support the tour when the team toured through Victoria, in fact the secretary of the VFA in March of that year described the tour “…as I can see that nothing but evil will arise to our season and clubs”  [1]

The tour was organised by three professional English cricketers, James Lillywhite, Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury.  Lillywhite had captained England against Australia in cricket’s inaugural test match at the MCG in 1877 and got the idea of bringing a football team from England to tour Australia after a discussion with a Mr. Headley, a journalist from the Leader Newspaper in Melbourne, who told him during the progress of a cricket match on the M.C.C. ground, that the game of football (in Melbourne) drew gates of 25,OOO and even 30,000″ [2]

There is no doubt that the first consideration of the football tour was to make money with the sporting aspect possibly a secondary thought. [3]  The matches by a touring Rugby team were proposed with their game in mind however those against Australian Football sides really supports nothing but the proposition that the games were played to make a profit.  However given all this, for the players to maintain a clear objective, free from personal antipathies and comprises as well as the consistent, almost daily playing of games on this mammoth tour, must have proven a real headache for the organisers.

So while in Melbourne, at that time easily Australia’s biggest city, the Englishmen (Lillywhite & Co.) declared in 1887 that on their next tour they would bring out a team of rugby players to take on the colonials, and in particular to challenge Victorian teams playing under their own code of rules.

In the 1880s, the differences between rugby and Australian rules of football was not that substantial.  The main variations being: 20 players instead of 15, the ability to call a mark after catching a kick, the absence of an offside rule and the need to bounce the ball every seven yards while running with it; and there were more.

The touring Lions of 1888 played 54 matches in Australasia, winning 33, losing 14 and drawing seven. That included 18 games of Australian Football, of which they won 6, lost 11 and drew one (in these matches only goals counted, even though behinds were recorded).

                                                    The 1888 British Lions Results in Australian Football



16 June Carlton FC Lost 3-8 14-7 25,000 MCG
20 June Bendigo FC Won 5-16 1-14 4,500 Back Creek Cricket Ground
22 June Castlemaine Reps Drew 1-2 1-4 1,500 Camp Reserve
23 June South Melbourne FC Lost 3-7 7-20 8,000 Sth Melb Cricket Ground
27 June Maryborough FC Lost 3-11 4-12 7,000 Princess Park, Maryborough
29 June South Ballarat FC Lost 3-7 7-18 7,000 Eastern Oval, Ballarat
30 June Fitzroy FC Lost 3-4 12-10 4,000 Fitzroy Cricket Ground
3 July Port Melbourne FC Lost 6-11 7-15 900 East Melb Cricket Ground
7 July South Adelaide FC Lost 5-9 8-9 5,500 Adelaide Oval
10 July Port Adelaide FC Won 8-8 7-8 2,000 Adelaide Oval
12 July The Adelaide FC [4]  Lost 3-5 6-13 3,000 Adelaide Oval
14 July Norwood FC Lost 3-1 5-8 8,000 Adelaide Oval
18 July Horsham FC Won 6-5 0-2 1,500 Horsham Rec Reserve
20 July Ballarat Imperials FC Lost 1-2 4-15  UK Saxon Paddock, Ballarat
21 July Ballarat FC [5]  Won 5-8 4-8 1,000 Saxon Paddock, Ballarat
25 July Sandhurst FC Won 3-2 2-10 UK Back Creek Cricket Ground
26 July Kyneton FC Won 2-7 1-5 1,500 Kyneton Racecourse
28 July Essendon FC Lost 3-5 7-16 meagre East Melb Cricket Ground
14 August Northern Dists FA Lost 4-5 9-19 1,200 Albion Ground, Maitland

(The games in red are two extra games we found which are not recorded in the official records of the tour.)

Most were keen to play against the English – the old country, there was an attitude of “we are (still) part of them.”

One of the most interesting football matches ever played in the Northern district (Newcastle-Hunter Region) under Australian rules, took place on the Albion Ground on Tuesday afternoon, 14 August in the presence of about 1200 spectators, including many ladies, who took a lively pleasure in the contest.  This was between the English Football Team and a twenty chosen from the Wallsend, Newcastle, Summerhill, Northumberland, and Our Boys’ Clubs. The visitors arrived in Maitland on the previous evening and were driven to Hodgson’s Royal and Main’s Excelsior Hotels, where everything possible was done to make them comfortable. Arrangements had been made that they were to be given an opportunity of seeing the picturesque country about Maitland, but by special request they were allowed to pass the morning roaming “at their own sweet will,” as they expressed themselves as tired and sadly in need of a rest.

Mr. George Buxton, a most enthusiastic and ardent supporter of football and other athletic pastimes, was, however, always on hand to supply information, and to act as guide generally.

The Albion Ground had been specially prepared for the match which should be a memorable one from the fact that it was the only occasion on which the Britons had played under the Australian rules of football in New South Wales, and also the only one in which they had been compelled to strike the Union Jack, although they had only been successful in some half dozen matches under Australian rules in Victoria and South Australia, but they are well-nigh invincible at Rugby.

The contest was timed to begin at a quarter past three, but it was long after that hour before the English-men were driven on to the ground in a four horse omnibus, and it was approaching four o’clock as the men entered the field, where they were received with a hearty cheer. Two of the team wore a bit off colour, and their places were kindly taken by Norman and Kennedy of the Northumberland Club. The other members of the combination were a wonderful, sturdy and athletic lot.  They were captained by R L. Sneddon.

The Northerners were: R. Bower (captain), Giles, Bussell, Howell, Cosstick, Derkenne, Estell, Creighton, Smart, O’Brien, Adamson, Evans, Conn, Berthold, Griffiths, George and James: Du Guid,
T. Moore, Thomas, and Marshall; but they were a weedy looking lot when compared with their opponents, although they were all fast and game as pebbles. (love that expression)

Considerable disappointment was expressed at the absence of John Du Guid, Archie Moore, and Harris all Wallsend representatives who were unavoidably detained, so their places were taken by substitutes. As to the contest itself, it can at once be set down as a bad one, as the Englishmen did not know enough about the little points of the game to be a fair match for the Northerners, who fairly outran and out-kicked their opponents, who, however, were very proficient in the short time they have known the rules, is taken into consideration, but they were just a bit too heavy and too slow to be champions in the Australian game. There was not the slightest suspicion of wind, and the day was such a beautiful one for football that the winding of the toss by Bower from Sneddon, who led the Englishmen, made but slight difference” et-al [6]

“The match may simply be styled a “walk-over” for the Norths, who never played better than on this occasion. The Australian game is not popular with the Englishmen, and in their opinion would not succeed in England, if it were introduced there, as it is not a game adapted for a cold climate.  Another reason is that the team is an usually heavy one, and the game calls forth not weight, which is essential in Rugby, but the activity and dexterity which the stolid looking. Britons seem to lack–in other words, “They’re not built that way” – therefore their denunciation is easily understood. [7]

A real downside to the English (unofficial) tour was the death of the captain, Bob Sneddon.  He was given the captaincy of the team, but after 20 games of a 35 match series, Seddon drowned in an accident while sculling on the Hunter River in West Maitland, New South Wales, a day after the above match. He had ventured up river alone, and his team mates, Jack Anderton and Andrew Stoddart found him dead some time later. He was buried in Church of England cemetery in West Maitland.


[1] Australian Star – 14 January 1888, p.6
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Evening Journal – 13 July 1888, p.4
[5] Ballarat Star – 21 July 1888, p.2
[6] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser – 16 August 1888, p.7
[7] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 15 August 1888, p.5

Leave a Reply