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At Play on the Fields of the Lord


Victorian era rugby attracted its fair share of muscular Christians; amongst them were three Britons who briefly trod the Antipodean stage in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

Charles Edward Chapman (1860-1901) was a teacher at Melbourne Grammar from 1885 and an active promoter of the Union game in the Australian colony of Victoria and it followed that he was one of the enthusiastic proponents of the match which was played in Melbourne on 1 August 1888 against the British team, now known as the First British Lions, then touring Australasia. Chapman had been a Rugby Blue at Cambridge 1881-1884 and had previously played for Oxford (though not awarded a Blue). He was capped for England in 1884, playing at centre against Wales; coincidentally in the same position and against the same opponent as Andrew Stoddart, who gained his first England cap almost exactly one year later (and who was to take over as Lions captain after the tragic death of Bob Seddon a fortnight after the Melbourne game in which they had both played).

Chapman had been selected for Victoria and would have played opposite Stoddart in that match but unfortunately had to withdraw due to ill health. Several years later (1891) he returned to Britain and continued teaching before being ordained in 1894. Only seven years later, while Rector of a Lincolnshire parish, he died just three days short of his of forty-first birthday.

Eight years on, in 1899, the feisty half back Reverend Matthew Mullineux (1867–1945) had been appointed captain and manager of the British team to tour Australia.  Previously selected for Cambridge University (though not a Rugby Blue) he played a pivotal role in organising the venture. However, in early games his performance didn’t match that achieved on the 1896 British tour of South Africa and so, after playing in the first test, he gave up his place to others in the remaining  three. But that didn’t stop him playing in other tour games or, as manager, making outspoken comments at post-match dinners on the standard of local play and the shortcomings of the Victorian football code.

He went on to serve as a chaplain in the Boer War, then as a ship-borne Royal Navy Chaplain and then again as a military chaplain in France during the First World War. After the war he was an active promoter and supporter of charities and from 1935 was Vicar of Marham in Norfolk, a post he held for ten years until his death at the age of seventy-eight.

The Reverend John Hoatson (1856-1910) a Congregational Minister, arrived in New Zealand in 1883, two years before Chapman had settled in Melbourne, but it was in that city that he was much later to connect with Mullineaux. The story of his influence on the game in the colonies of New Zealand and Victoria is well told by Sean Fagan in his article The First Rugby Pastor of Melbourne (see link below). In brief, that tells of his appointment, soon after arrival in Christchurch, as a Union official, a selector and referee in Canterbury province and later, after moving to Melbourne in 1892, helping re-establish a Union of which he was Vice-President and for which he acted as referee for many club and inter-colonial matches. In 1899 he again played a leading role in restoring the Victorian Union in order that the colony could compete against the British tourists, captained by Mullineaux, in Melbourne on 19 August, Hoatson was again referee. Soon afterwards, early in 1900, he returned to England with his family. 

What I find intriguing about Hoatson’s story is that there are no details of his earlier engagement with the sport. In other words, as I wrote elsewhere; how had it come about that, despite indifferent health, with a young family and pastoral commitments, at the age of only twenty-six and within a very short time of arrival in New Zealand – a colony already awash with football experts – was he so widely accepted as an authority on the game.

I then embarked on further research which, while it still revealed nothing of his early rugby days, made his personal story even more intriguing. In summary, he had been one of the first students of Crossley Orphan Home and School which, as in his case, accepted those who had lost a father only. On leaving there he became a student teacher or pupil schoolmaster (though this is not mentioned in official West Riding records). He then attended New (Congregational) College in London, c.1877-1881, for theological studies, from which he was granted eighteen months leave due to ill health and ‘supplied ’ several pulpits in South Africa. While Congregational records describe him as a distinguished scholar I could find no date for his ordination but in 1881 he was appointed pastor of Grange Park Church in Essex. Two years earlier, in April 1879, he had married Kate Walker and their two daughters, Florence and Winifred, were born while at Grange Park. Another bout of ill health led to the Christchurch posting and it was there that his first son, John Percival, was born in 1887.

Almost from his first day in New Zealand, as during his time in Australia, he was not only active in church affairs (as a regional delegate to conferences, etc.) but involved with numerous other sports. He was also a prolific lecturer; on subjects as diverse as Tennyson and the Cape Colony. In addition he was politically involved with the improvement of living conditions for the poor and working class. To his credit he claimed never to have used his involvement in all these sporting or other activities for proselytizing. But his life was to be even further complicated by divorce from his wife Kate in 1889 and his marriage, in 1892, to Mary Maude Budden, only two weeks before they departed for Melbourne and a year before the birth of his second son, Stanley. At some time while living in Melbourne he was editor of The Victorian Independent, a Congregational newspaper and after returning to England in 1900 he contributed newspaper articles and reports on rugby before and after being appointed Pastor of the Congregational Church in Leek, Staffordshire, on 2 August of that year. He died suddenly in Leek on 30 March 1910 at the age of fifty-three.

But there was still no evidence of his rugby playing years. Fagan’s article quotes the New Zealand Free Lance of 2 May 1903, as referring to “The Rev. John Hoatson, who used to play a bit of rugby football in this country…’  but that statement is questionable as he was reported by the Star of 18 November 1891 as saying that he had played for twelve years but gave up as soon as he joined the ministry. That meant from about 1869, when he would have been thirteen, until 1881, and while quite feasible it’s almost certain that he didn’t play with Crossley School while a student there and he was unlikely to have played with any other local school where he might have been a pupil schoolmaster; most Calderdale schools didn’t start playing rugby until at least 1875 and  the Halifax Rugby Club itself had only been founded two years earlier. Although there is no record of the date when he left to live in London, it was probably between 1875 and 1877, when he was eighteen to twenty, and from when, up until 1881 when he was twenty-five, that Hoatson is most likely to have been involved with English and Cape Colony clubs. And to have gained such a deep and enthusiastic appreciation of the code.

SOURCES :Sean Fagan; Jottings on Rugby:-

Titley & McWhirter; Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union; RFU; 1970

Griffiths, J: International Rugby Records; J.M.Dent & Sons 1987

O.L.Owen, Editor, Playfair Rugby Annual 1952-3

Various Australian and New Zealand Newspapers 

NOTES: If anyone is interested in undertaking more research into Hoatson, especially from 1869 to 1881, they are welcome to the biographical details obtained thus far. Please request these through the Rugby Historical Society.

Fagan’s article includes a photograph of Hoatson during his later years , I can only supplement that with one taken taken in 1877 when Hoatson was about twenty-two (courtesy of Crossley Heath School, Halifax).





R D Grainger, 2013
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