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Henry Collinge Speakman

Harry Speakman.jpg

Henry Collinge Speakman pictured in Australia , c1888

(Photo courtesy of K Scoot)

H C (Harry) Speakman was born in Leinster Gardens , Runcorn, Cheshire on 19th January, 1864. By the time of his death in 1915, he had garnered fame not only as one of the best centre three-quarters in the north of England, but also as a member of the first British rugby team to tour Australia & New Zealand, as well as helping to establish the sport in Australia's north-eastern state of Queensland.

Rugby football was the premier game in the area during Harry's youth, far more popular than the Association game, even in the future footballing hotbeds of Liverpool and Manchester . Like many of his contemporaries, he began playing organised rugby at an early age and when just 17 years of age was playing half-back for the junior club Runcorn True Blues, later moving to the Britannia club, based in the local village of Weston .

Rapid improvement ensured Harry attracted the attention of the Runcorn Football Club and he was persuaded to cast in his lot with the second contingent as a half back. After just a season with the second team, he became a first team regular and played with the fifteen representing the West Lancashire and Border Towns’ (WLBT) Union1 against Batley (the Yorkshire Cup holders), At Widnes at the commencement of the 1885-86 season.

Harry was again selected to represent the WLBT Union against Cumberland , played at Warrington , when he was adjudged the best three-quarter on the field. In total he gained five caps for the WLBT Union. He also played seven county matches for Cheshire , his first match being against Yorkshire at Halifax in February 1887.

He played as part of a Runcorn club side that was known throughout the North as a team that tried to play the game as it should be played. He, together with the team's formidably mustachioed captain, Hugh Hughes, helped to establish the team's reputation for open, expansive rugby at a time when passing between the three-quarters was, for many teams, a novelty. Harry's ball-handling skills and drop-kicking abilities were famous. During Runcorn's tour of south Wales in 1885, Harry scored a drop goal on Llanelli's famous Stradey Park that, in the words of the local press was described as 'a magnificent goal - the cleverest ever witnessed at Llanelli', as he seemingly scooped up a loose ball and dropped a goal all in one movement.  

C:\Users\Howard\Documents\~Public Documents\Sport\Rugby\Pictures\Runcorn 1883_small.jpg

Runcorn RFC of 1883

Harry Speakman is standing at the far left of the middle row

(Photo courtesy of C Seggers)

Locally it was thought that he was approaching international standard, but a development late in 1887 was to change not just Harry's playing career, but the entire direction of his life.

Three well-known English international cricketers; Arthur Shrewsbury, Alfred Shaw and James Lillywhite noticed the ever-increasing popularity of rugby football, not just in Britain but also in the Australian and New Zealand Colonies, and decided the situation was ripe for making money. 

All three had been involved in cricket tours to the antipodes and believed that a similar tour could be undertaken involving the best players available in Britain to draw the crowds. The big difference, of course, was that at the time payment for playing cricket was permissible under MCC rules, whilst the committee of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) despised the idea of players being paid to play. There were ways around this, of course, such as paying a player's legitimate expenses; completely acceptable under Rugby Union rules. One such expense was to pay for a player's 'tea'. In the mid-1880s Runcorn paid its players the princely sum of 1s 6d for their 'tea'!

As tour promoters, Lillywhite, Shrewsbury and Shaw were ahead of their time. They appointed an agent to recruit players and paid them a 'clothing allowance' of £15 each, in those days sufficient to have bought several wardrobes' worth of clothing. This payment, ahead of the tour was to have repercussions for the promoters' ambitions. One recruit, Jack Clowes of Halifax was reported to the Rugby Union for professionalism by rival club Dewsbury. Dewsbury were not acting out of some high-minded altruism, they had just been beaten in the Yorkshire cup by Halifax and only revealed the payment to Clowes, of which they had full knowledge prior to the match, in the hope of having the result reversed. After a hastily convened inquiry, Clowes was deemed to be a professional and banned by the RFU. (The match between Halifax and Dewsbury was ordered to be replayed; Halifax still won.) This 'professionalising' of Clowes didn't mean the end of his tour, he still travelled, it just meant that he couldn't take part in the matches. The RFU's steadfast refusal to endorse the tour ensured that many of the country's top players didn't want anything to do with the venture. It was against this background that Harry was offered a place on the tour and accepted.

Shortly before departing, Harry met with a large number of his friends and fellow players from local clubs at the Stag's Head in Liverpool to pass a final night of drinking and singing. This was the last time he would see any of them, whether he knew that at the time is not known.

The team left England on 8th March 1888, departing from Gravesend on the S.S. Kaikoura. The promoters had secured the services of 22 players, including many county players, all but one hailed from the north of England and the Scottish borders. The star player was undoubtedly Andrew Stoddart, an English rugby international and future captain, who also succeeded W. G. Grace as Captain of the English cricket team.

Weeks of on-ship boredom were relieved by nightly concerts after every evening meal, in which Harry's vocal talents featured frequently. Regular bouts of drinking were also indulged in, as may be imagined with a touring rugby team. The team ran-up a drinks bill of £68 whilst on-board, a fact that did not best please the promoters. Entertainment was a feature of the tour as a whole, the tourist were treated to frequent dinners and 'smokers' by their hosts, in some cases with predictable detriment to the players' health. One player put on two stone during the course of the tour, despite playing in almost every match!

After brief stops in the Canaries, South Africa and Tasmania , the team finally completed their 16,000 mile sea voyage and disembarked at Port Chambers, New Zealand on 24th April. The first match was played on Saturday 2nd May; the British players taking the field in their patriotic red, white and blue hooped shirts at the Caledonian ground against the local Otago XV, in front of 8,000 spectators who paid a total of £350 in gate money. The British team were losing, 2-3, mid-way through the second half when the ball was passed out to Harry who immediately, and successfully, dropped at goal to put his team in front. The British players on the bench when mad; throwing sticks and hats into the air and shouting themselves hoarse with cheers of: "Speakman! Speakman!" and "Well played, Runcorn!". Shortly before the end Harry again received the ball and dropped another goal to seal the win. This time cries of: "Get No. 3 tune ready!" sprang up from the British bench, alluding to the Runcorn Brass Band who attended Runcorn's home fixtures and played tunes appropriate to the fortunes of their team's progress. So the team won 8-3 (two goals and two tries to a goal). As the scorer of the team's first goal, Harry received a rug made at the local Mosgiel Woollen Factory presented by works' boss Mr Morrison.  

C:\Users\Howard\Documents\~Public Documents\Sport\Rugby\1888 Tour\Pictures\English Team 1888 small.jpg

Lillywhite's, Shaw and Shrewsbury 's British team of 1888

Harry Speakman is sitting at the far left of the front row

The tour's ill-fated captain, Bob Seddon is sitting fourth from the right, middle row

(Photo courtesy of K Scoot)

The team was strong enough to give a good account of itself winning 27 of the 35 matches played in New Zealand and Australia under Rugby Union rules, with six draws and two defeats. To modern eyes the most extraordinary feature of the tour was that an extra 18 matches were played under Victorian Football Rules. Inevitably, the results here were not as good, with 11 defeats, one draw and only six wins. These matches were undertaken purely as a means of making money. As there was little or no rugby in the State of Victoria , it was sold on the basis of seeing the Englishmen in exhibition games. Had the tour been under the auspices of the RFU, then no such matches would have been played. It was remarkable that the tourists picked up the substantially different game so quickly.  A. E. Stoddart quickly mastered the game. He became extremely popular with the locals and he was the undoubted hero of the tour.

The tour's low point was reached in Australia , when the team's captain, Bob Seddon, drowned whilst sculling in the Hunter River on August 15th. Stoddart captained the team for the rest of the tour.

Despite the fact that the team played no test matches and was essentially an English, not a British side, it nevertheless pioneered the concept of overseas tours by a British rugby team. In financial terms the tour was a failure, losing something like £800. This, in spite of the promoters demanding 70-80% of the gate money at each match, plus expenses (and managing to wangle free railway passes for travel in New Zealand ).

At the end of the tour there were rumors of several players choosing to stay 'down under', rather than return home. When the team left for home in October 1888, Harry was one of the players who stayed behind2. He was still in New Zealand in February 1889, and became a member of the Poneke club of Wellington . At the club's annual meeting he suggested means of improving the standard of play, and offered to act as instructor to the younger members.

However Harry didn't hang around in New Zealand much longer, by early March he was on his way to Queensland , Australia . He settled in Brisbane , the reason being he could find more constant employment, as an engine-fitter, than he was able to obtain in the more rural Wellington . Openly, full-time professional rugby was still twenty years away in Australia .

Almost immediately he was playing for and captaining the local Wallaroo club, and was picked to play for (and captain) the Queensland state side during the next three seasons. He also played for Joe Warbrick's touring New Zealand Native Football Representative team, when is visited Australia on-route home to New Zealand3. Defections, injuries and suspensions saw Harry become one of only two substitute players used by the 'Maoris' on this tour.

Ironically this was the same Maori team that had played, and defeated, his old club, Runcorn, at the Irwell-lane ground in March 1889. A couple of years later he moved to the Union Harriers team of Brisbane , but once gold was discovered in the Charters Towers region of Queensland , Harry moved north to the goldfields. He wasn't prospecting, but the large influx of miners and equipment, ensured plenty of work for fitters such as Harry.

Ever the keen rugby player, Harry was soon involved with the local Charters Towers team, which still exists today (as the 'Bulls'). During the 1950s the club remembered Harry in its anniversary celebrations stating:

"During the eight or nine years of his residence here he imparted a lot of his genius to local players, and raised the game to a high standard which it has since maintained. 'Speakie' may justifiably be called 'The Father of Towers Football'."

He is still known in the area as the one person, more than any other, responsible for popularising and improving the playing standard in the region.

In 1896 Harry married a local girl, Bessie Newton, and the couple produce four children between 1896 and 1903. Their descendants still live in the Brisbane area. Unfortunately the last dozen or so years of Harry's life don't appear to have been that happy.

At the time of his death, in 1915, he appears to have been estranged from his family. On his death certificate, details for his wife, his parents and his children were all blank. The local press remembered Harry though:

Townsville Daily Bulletin - 4th January 1915

"The ninth death from heat apoplexy arising out of the excessive heat of last week occurred at the Carlton Hotel on Friday night, the victim being a well known footballer a few years back named H Speakman. Deceased, who it appears came from the west to spend the holidays, was apparently struck down early on Friday night, and when found in his bed life had been extinct about two hours. He came out to Australia with A E Stoddart's Rugby team some years ago, and later on settled in Charters Towers , where he was a prominent figure in the football field."

Northern Miner, Charters Towers - 4th January 1915

"Harry Speakman, the erstwhile magnificent footballer, died suddenly in Townsville on Saturday. In the heyday of football in Charters Towers Speakman came north to play with the Wanderers, and from the moment he stepped onto the field, football on the goldfield improved. Speakman came to Australia with Stoddart's English team, and was at that time considered to be the best half in England . He played on Charters Towers with the Wanderers and as an attacking player we have never seen his equal. He was full of tricks, knew the game thoroughly, was good tempered, and the most evasive of runners and feet passers. It was pretty to see him start a rush, sailing along, side-stepping, and feint passing the opposition until the field was fairly forced towards him, then out would flash the ball with such nice judgment and unselfishness. Backed up such a determined and close tackler as Ratty McCallum and such a dashing three quarter as Jimmy Anderson, and the fast McLean, many of the old matches will live in the memory of Charters Towers lovers of the game, with Speakman's play and personality dominating the memory. He was a master of the game and footballers will read with regret of his sudden death."

Extreme heat may not have been the only factor in Harry's death at the comparatively early age of 50. Forty years later a journalist at the Queensland newspaper the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners' Advocate wrote an article recalling his first meeting and subsequent friendship with Harry.

Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate – August 18th 1956

“His story that he was the once-famous Harry Speakman was discounted at first, but he proved his identity. The young blades of the carefree town took to him right away and he soon became one of the most prominent figures in the hustling, sport-mad towns. I think I was one of the first to make his acquaintance, when he would "drop in" to the newspaper office where I was serving my apprenticeship to talk glibly of his halcyon days. Later, he offered to train and coach our junior Rugby Union teams for a mere 25s a week! His ‘board money’ as he put it. He had reached the derelict stage by now, and was a pitiful sight. From captain [sic] of a touring English Rugby Union team to a ‘washed-up wreck’ in the faraway Gulf of Carpentaria ! Speakman, however, was still an idol with the sporting men of the time, all eager to hear him talk of his football career. Even then his physique had not quite deserted him and when he stripped for coaching it was evident what a grand footballer he must have been in his salad days. I often befriended Speakman, but John Barleycorn had a ‘bootlace tackle’ on him and he just drifted along - to death! The Charters Towers miners saw to it that he was not interred in a pauper's grave."

This latter story is given more credence with the fact that during his time playing with Runcorn, Harry's nickname was 'Local'. Nothing unusual in that, you may think, but in a team that was comprised entirely of players born and raised in the small town, the nickname is open to another interpretation – that of Harry enjoying his time down at the pub. Whatever the precise circumstances of Harry's death, it's good to know that a player of his undoubted talents is still remembered in his adopted home more for his skills with a rugby ball than any personal frailties he may have possessed.


1. The WLBT Union was a semi-autonomous body within the Lancashire Rugby Union. It was formed primarily with the aim of providing 'knock-out' cup competitions for its members to challenge the growing popularity of Association football in Liverpool and the surrounding region. The more austere Lancashire and Cheshire Unions frowned upon such competitions as being 'too competitive', producing rough play and serious disputes between clubs. The Cheshire Rugby Union suspended its own cup competition in the early 1880s after just four seasons. Clubs, however, were keen to have a local cup competition, in emulation of the F.A. and Yorkshire Rugby Cups, because they knew it would draw large crowds and swell their coffers. In the semi-final of the inaugural WLBT Cup, Runcorn met Warrington (the two favourites) at Widnes ' neutral, Lowerhouse Lane ground. Depending upon which report you read, the crowd at this match is estimated at anything from 9,000 to 16,000. As a comparison, on the same Saturday (3rd April) the F.A. Cup Final was watched by a crowd of 15,000! In addition to Runcorn; Widnes, Warrington , Wigan, Leigh and St Helens were just some of over 100 local clubs that joined the Union at either Senior or Junior level. The majority of the senior clubs in the WLBT union went on to join the Northern Union (Rugby League) when it broke away from the Rugby Union in 1895. The WLBT Union established a Senior and Junior league, to replace its cup competition, after the success of the Association game's Football League in 1888-89. Local junior clubs Runcorn Recreation and Frodsham both played in this league, several years before Runcorn RFC became a founder member of the Northern Union in 1895.

2. When the team returned home, it was expected that other inquiries, such as that faced by Jack Clowes in Yorkshire , would be waiting for the players. Clubs didn't pick players returning from the tour until their status could be clarified. However no inquiries materialised. The RFU reinstated Clowes, then simply asked players to sign an affidavit stating that they received only legitimate payment for expenses during their time abroad (which, of course, they all did) and the matter was dropped. The reluctance on behalf of the RFU to act was simple; if they had investigated the players they would have had to include Stoddart. He was such a cornerstone of the RFU establishment that if he was found guilty of taking payments, then the repercussions would have brought the whole house of cards regarding amateurism tumbling down. As it was it was another six years before things really came to a head and the breakaway Northern Union was born. Stoddart was actually paid much more than most on the tour, because he had experience of touring as part of a cricket team and so was much more aware of his true worth than most of the players. He initially received a down payment of £50 just to tie him to the tour.

3. In Greg Ryan's excellent, exhaustive book on the 1888-89 New Zealand Native Football Representative Team; Forerunners of the All Blacks, Harry is, unfortunately, misidentified as 'Charles' Speakman.  

© H Peacock, 2011
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