Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens.com
The first games of Rugby football in Australia were played in Tasmania in the 1840s.
Thomas Hughes’ classic novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, is generally considered to be a semi-biographical account of life at Rugby School in the early 1830s.
One of the chief characters in the football match was ‘old Brooke’, and after the book was released in 1858 his deeds inspired countless youths to take up the game.
A decade before Tom Brown’s Schooldays arrived, the real ‘old Brooke’ had sailed from England to far away Tasmania, and kicked off the game’s first existence outside of Britain.
In his football role as the School House team’s captain, designated place-kicker and standout performer, ‘old Brooke’ is the most prominent and enthusiastic footballer throughout the book’s account of Brown’s first encounter with a ‘Big-Side’ match at Rugby School:
“Why, that big fellow who called over at dinner, to be sure. He’s cock of the school, and head of the School-house side, and the best kick and charger in Rugby.”
“…but over all is old Brooke, absolute as he of Russia, but wisely and bravely ruling over willing and worshipping subjects, a true football king.”
Documented accounts suggest the first games of Rugby to be played in Australia occurred in Melbourne in 1858, and in Sydney c.1865. A recent finding though suggests that the Rugby game was played much earlier, in Tasmania, with ‘old Brooke’ the man responsible.
In the first half of the 1800s the most populated colony outside of New South Wales was Tasmania. Initially established as a significant and major convict penal colony, Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) was also home to whaling operations, shipping communities, military barracks, agricultural land holdings and free settlers.
In the late 1830s the colony’s governor, John Franklin – a British naval officer best remembered today for his exploration of the Arctic North-West Passage and for mapping out much of the coast of North America – set in train an ambitious initiative to create for Tasmania an educational college that would, over time, approximate to those colleges at Oxford or Cambridge Universities in England, albeit initially with younger aged students.
Instead of the colony’s gentry sending their boys to England in their early teens to attend Rugby, Eton or other schools – necessitating a still hazardous four months sea voyage, let alone family separation and the financial burden – they could be educated in Tasmania until ready for University entry. The college would also prepare those destined for the priesthood, and become a “collegiate body” of useful knowledge to aid the development of the colony.
In 1838 Franklin wrote to friend Thomas Arnold – the famed Head Master of Rugby School (from 1824-42) – seeking his guidance in organising the college and asking him to undertake the selection of a suitable first Head Master.
Arnold only agreed to participate after he gained assurances from Franklin and the Colonial Office [government] that there would be no School Board to interfere with “the theory and practice of education” [see The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, 1860].
With agreement reached, the plan was put in place and in late 1839 the then 23 year old Reverend John Philip Gell – personally recommended by Arnold – arrived in Hobart. The city’s Colonial Times newspaper (23 June 1840) described the scheme as “…a college, emanating from the classic shades of Rugby…”
Gell was indeed a former Rugby School student, who had gone on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge University. He soon found that the existing standard of education in Tasmania was so poor, there were insufficient students to even begin operating a college.
A temporary arrangement (that lasted three years) saw Gell undertake teaching of a large group of boys, raising them to a college entry level. However, in the meantime the government found it had no money to fund the building of the college, and Gell prepared to sail back to England.
An appeal was made to Anglican churchmen and philanthropists in England, and sufficient money was raised to build the college, with a site at Bishopsbourne (in rural northern Tasmania) chosen.
Named as “Christ’s College” and opening in late 1846, Gell was duly appointed as Head Master (a position also called the “Warden”).
At the same time two feeder schools were founded: The Hutchins School (Hobart) and the Launceston Church Grammar School. The first principal of Hutchins was JV Buckland – a fellow Rugby student and close friend of Gell’s, and a nephew of Thomas Arnold.
In 1850 Arnold’s son (also called Thomas) became the head of public education in Tasmania, overseeing the organisation of 75 schools across the colony during his six years in the position.
The Christ’s College land parcel comprised 10 acres, but was surrounded by another 3,000 acres of open pasture. In another reminder of its Rugby School influence, a handful of English oak trees were planted near the College to complete the setting. The number of students each year varied, but generally fell between 45 to 55.
One of the College’s first students in the late 1840s was later Tasmanian politician and Chief Justice, Sir William Lambert Dobson (born in 1833).
In a report in The Mercury (Hobart) newspaper on 21st April, 1888, Dobson recalled:
“…he had been a footballer in his earlier days, and he believed one of the earliest footballers in Tasmania. When he went to school at Christ’s College, the headmaster, the Rev. Mr. Gell, an old Rugby man, insisted upon the boys playing football…they used to have many good games in those days…”
Despite being regarded as a successful endeavour, the College was closed after 1857 due to a lack of finance, brought about by a wider economic downturn, mixed with a lack of business acumen amongst the College leaders.
Meanwhile, Gell had retired at the end of 1849 and returned to England, partially in the (ultimately forlorn) hope of becoming the Head Master of Rugby School.
“Thus, eight of his eighty-two years of life were spent in Van Diemen’s Land, where he sought to establish what would have been a Tasmanian version of Rugby. But the venture did not succeed and Gell returned to obscurity at home.” [‘The Scottish Educational Journal’ – issue 35, 1954]
Of course the question, from a rugby perspective, is what was the form of football played in these internal matches at the College in the late 1840s under Gell’s stewardship?
Given Dobson had emphasised in his reference to Gell’s insistence that football be played that he was “an old Rugby man”, the clear inference is the form of football at Christ’s College was indeed rugby football and not that of another English school – particularly given Gell was endeavouring to mimic Rugby School in all other aspects of the College. None of the Tasmanian boys would have known any form of football at all, while Gell himself would only have been familiar with football at Rugby School.
Interest in football at Cambridge University was haphazard, and secondary to hockey, until some level of uniformity and order was found via the “Cambridge compromise rules” development in 1848. The first Victorian football (Australian rules) were not drawn up in Melbourne in the neighbouring colony until 1859, and London’s Football Association (“soccer”) not until 1863.
That football at Christ’s College could only have been rugby is practically confirmed when it is considered that it was a poorly kept secret through the late 1800s that Gell was in fact not merely “an old Rugby man”, but the boy Thomas Hughes modelled his legendary “old Brooke” character in the classic novel about life at Rugby School, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. [Also see The Doctor’s Disciples: A Study of Four Pupils of Arnold of Rugby: Stanley, Gell, Clough, William Arnold, by Frances J. Woodward, 1954]
If Gell had even a measure of the interest in Rugby football possessed by his ‘old Brooke’ persona, it is no surprise that he would insist upon the Christ’s College boys playing the game.
The playing of Rugby football at Christ’s College in Bishopsbourne in 1847-49 places it as the first Rugby contests anywhere beyond Great Britain, and amongst the earliest outside of Rugby School itself.
It was not until a decade later, with the release and distribution of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, that the rest of the British Empire and the USA came to know of Rugby football and the deeds of ‘old Brooke’.
The first organised Rugby games in modern Tasmania were played in 1933, with the movement started in Launceston. The inaugural game in Hobart was at the Christ College Ground (now called Parliament Street Reserve) in Sandy Bay, Hobart on 8 July 1933.
Later that month the College students divided themselves into two teams and played their own Rugby match at the same ground, though it is doubtful they had any awareness they were mirroring the tradition of their late 1840s counterparts. The founding of the Tasmanian University RUFC in 1933 came from these early games by the College.
Christ’s College continues today to compete in the University of Tasmania’s “Inter Collegiate Council [ICC] Rugby competition”. Over the past 15 years the College has dominated the ICC competition and provided the bulk of the players for the University’s Rugby team.
© Sean Fagan