THE RUGBY-PLAYING PADRE

The Rev. Matthew Mullineux
The Rev. Matthew Mullineux

British Lions 1899 tour captain Matthew Mullineux was a ‘padre,’ whose life was full of adventure, philanthropy and service to the British Empire.

Small of stature with a happy face and cheerful smile, he looked a typical English clergyman.

His life was far from ordinary, first coming to prominence as an international Rugby player in the mid 1890s.

Mullineux was to be found on Saturday afternoons as a ‘muscular Christian’, believing Rugby was more than a mere game, instead it was a great means to instill in young men the discipline and hardihood necessary for life away from the football field.

At a dinner in Sydney during the 1899 British Lions tour he proclaimed:

… as a Church of England clergyman it was his duty to denounce anything that made football unmanly.

Mullineux, a diminutive half-back, played Rugby at Cambridge and Blackheath, and was a member of the 1896 British team that toured South Africa.

Three years later, he organised and led another British team on a visit to Australia.

The Rev. Mr Mullineux, captain of the English football team now visiting Australia, is not only spiritual pastor and master of his football flock, but he is also commander-in-chief in all things. His is the mind that rules the matter of 20 British footballers. The reverend gentleman is just five feet high, weighs nine stone, plays half-back.

His views on Rugby and how it should be played were forthright. He and his 1899 British team eschewed all forms of on-field slyness and trickery, but reveled in the physicality the game demanded.

Mullineux argued that a victory won by any form of gamesmanship was no victory at all, and it was decidedly without honour.

British Lions Rugby team 1899
British Lions Rugby team 1899

It was a common occurrence during the tour for Mullineux to lead his men in the cut-and-thrust of a Rugby match one day, and deftly preach in a lively fashion at a local church the next:

The Rev. Mullineux, captain of the English Rugby football team, is a muscular Christian of the truest type. On Saturday, June 24, he led his team into the field, and on Sunday preached morning and evening in St James’s Anglican Church, Sydney.

After the tour Mullineux remained in Australia, briefly joining what was informally called the ‘Bush Brotherhood’. Known as ‘the light cavalry of the Church’, these young and enthusiastic Ministers travelled through remote bush villages and outback areas, serving small communities and families that were beyond the reach of a local parish.

As a Minister, Mullineux accompanied the ‘New South Wales Rifles’ to the Boer War, and gained a military commission before being captured and spending the next three years as a prisoner of war.

In 1902 he became a Royal Navy chaplain, serving on at least five ships and in China, Britain and the Pacific. By 1912 he was working as a chaplain in San Francisco at the ‘Flying Angel Missions to Seamen’ organisation (now called the ‘Mission to Seafarers’).

When the First World War broke out (August 1914) Mullineux left the Mission, working his passage across to New Zealand as a stoker and deckhand on a mail boat. In Wellington he studied medicine while awaiting confirmation of orders from the British Navy.

However, he soon tired of waiting, and enlisted in the ‘New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ and was quickly appointed as a military Chaplain (rank of Captain).

In France he saw action in the Ypres sector and on the Somme:

Mullineux … has now been awarded the Military Cross. During fighting in May when a medical officer became a casualty, Chaplain Mullineux took charge of a regimental aid post, dressed the wounded and supervised evacuations. This post was subjected to heavy high explosive and gas shelling for 12 hours and but for the padre’s splendid work there would have been serious congestion [in the removing] of the wounded.
[Auckland Weekly News, 27 June 1918]

After the war Mullineux devoted his time to the preservation and improving of military cemeteries across Europe.

Seeing the financial and logistical difficulties the parents of deceased soldiers were encountering in attempting to find and then get to their son’s grave – many visitors were being exploited – and the obvious distress this was causing, Mullineux created hostels and travel services. Many parents and family members were sailing from as distant as Australasia and North America (a story expanded upon in the Russell Crowe film ‘The Water Diviner’ centred upon the ANZACs and Gallipoli).

Through the early 1920s Mullineux toured many Western nations, giving fund-raising lectures detailing the work that was being done in Europe, reassuring parents and families of fallen soldiers of the efforts that were being made:

Mothers can rest assured that everything possible has been done to beautify cemeteries, and to trace missing soldiers.

Mullineux continued his role in France and Belgium until 1928, and through the final five years of this tenure more than 7,000 people were assisted in making the solemn pilgrimage to a relative’s grave or the sites of battle.

By the early 1930s he had finally again made England his home, and was the Vicar of Marham, Norfolk, until his passing in London in 1945.

British Lions Rugby team 1899 – captain Mullineux centre of middle row
British Lions Rugby team 1899 – captain Mullineux centre of middle row

The game of Rugby had of course changed remarkably during the time of Mullineux’s life. Despite impressions that he must have been a polite or genteel player, Mullineux in fact favoured hard football, so long as it was within the laws of the game, and did not take ‘mean advantage’ over a weaker opponent.

He had no concern for the reverse though – while other men of his size may have declined to rush into situations “where angels fear to tread,” Mullineux fearlessly delighted in getting the better of a big man, as an incident from the 1899 tour illustrates:

Australian footballers who have run against him would as soon bump the Rock of Ages as little parson Mullineux. In one match a large hairy, boastful, aggressive NSW [Waratahs] forward came into collision with his reverence soon after the game started. Whereupon the ambulance-man streaked out with his bag, and the parson streaked down the line with the ball under his arm and a restful, holy smile on his face.

So impressed by Mullineux was Australia’s popular poet AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson (of The Man From Snowy River fame), that he was moved into action, writing a tribute piece in The Bulletin:

I’d reckon his weight at eight-stun-eight,
And his height at five-foot-two,
With a face as plain as an eight-day clock
And a walk as brisk as a bantam-cock –
Game as a bantam, too,
Hard and wiry and full of steam,
That’s the boss of the English Team,
Reverend Mullineux.

Makes no row when the game gets rough –
None of your “Strike me blue!”
“You’s wants smacking across the snout!”
Plays like a gentleman out-and-out –
Same as he ought to do.
“Kindly remove from off my face!”
That’s the way that he states his case –
Reverend Mullineux.

Kick! He can kick like an army mule –
Run like a kangaroo!
Hard to get by as a lawyer’s plant,
Tackles his man like a bull-dog ant –
Fetches him over too!
Didn’t the public cheer and shout
Watchin’ him chuckin’ big blokes about –
Reverend Mullineux.

Scrimmage was packed on his prostrate form,
Somehow the ball got through –
Who was it tackled our big half-back,
Flinging him down like an empty sack,
Right on our goal-line too?
Who but the man that we thought was dead,
Down with a score of ‘em on his head –
Reverend Mullineux.

© Sean Fagan

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