John Chris Watson, Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister, was a former Rugby player, and never hid his love of the code when in office.

John Chris Watson - Australia's first Labor Prime Minister (1904)
John Chris Watson – Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister (1904)

The son of seafaring parents, Watson was born in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso in 1867. His early life was in New Zealand’s Otago region, where he took up playing Rugby in his mid teens.

Trained as a newspaper compositor, Watson moved to Sydney in 1886, and was soon working at The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Star.

Watson became actively involved in workplace labour issues, and in 1891 he was a founding member of the NSW Labor Party. Three years later he was elected to the NSW colonial parliament.

In March 1901 Watson won a Federal seat in the first ever Australian parliament, and was chosen by his colleagues as Labor leader. With no firm position yet taken on where the government would finally be located, it was initially based in Melbourne. 

In April 1904 Labor suddenly found itself in control of the government, but did not hold an absolute majority. Watson was elected Prime Minister (the first from Labor, and youngest-ever). But by August, Labor had lost its tenuous hold on power and Watson was no longer Prime Minister.

While the nation’s leader Watson attended a number of Rugby gatherings, where he shared his thoughts about the value of the game as an athletic pursuit, it’s apparent violence, and his views on football codes as spectator sport. 

After the NSW Referees’ Association’s annual picnic in Sydney, the Sunday Times reported:

Mr. J. C. Watson…said that, though it was 18 or 20 years since he had taken an active part as a player, he was much attached to the game. It [Rugby] was one of those games that tended to inculcate manliness and improve the physique of Australians. It would be a sorry day for the country if ever such a pure sport were allowed to deteriorate. At times there was an outcry against the alleged roughness of football by persons who knew very little about it; but in looking round the room he saw a gathering of men who had played the game for years without showing any signs of suffering from it.

Mr. Watson, in comparing the Rugby and Australian game, said that there was no doubt that environment exercised a strong influence in leading persons to believe that the game they were brought up to is the best of all games. But as far as his observation went (and the game of his early youth was Rugby), no finer or more stirring sight could be imagined than a passing rush by the forwards down a field.

But where he thought Rugby was so much superior to the Victorian game was that most of the thirty players were engaged all the time, whereas in the Victorian game the play rested with about half a dozen, the others standing about the field in different directions, and in restless inactivity.

Speaking at a Lord Mayoral reception in Melbourne to welcome David Bedell-Sivright’s British Lions team to Australia (The Advertiser):

He [Watson] sympathised with the remark of the Lord Mayor as to the desirability of having more players [i.e. participants in football]. He spoke as one who had played the game in his youth, but he was now amongst the barrackers. They found [in Australian football in Melbourne] perhaps as many as 30,000 young men looking at a match, whilst a comparatively small number enjoyed the pleasure there was in [playing] the game itself.  

In January 1908, Watson attended the first meeting of the South Sydney (‘Rabbitohs’) rugby league club, and was elected as Club Patron by the founding members.

© Sean Fagan

Australian Dictionary of Biography,  Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867–1941)