Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012
Charles Monro — James Jenkins Lecture, 2010
James Jenkins Lecture, 2010page 45
For many decades now, Charles Monro has been credited with introducing rugby to New Zealand. It was a simple game, suited to all New Zealanders whether they were immigrant settlers, Maori or, more recently, Polynesian. It grew in popularity because we became so good at it, beating our Australian neighbours during the 1880s and 90s, and then the best that Britain could offer. The intense struggles against South Africa simply increased our passion for the game and strengthened rugby’s inﬂuence on our society.
“A respected citizen, in his later years the former orchardist was affectionately referred to as ‘Old Plummy Monro’ by many locals.”
Today, rugby is a multi-million dollar business and, whether we like the present game or not, our pride as New Zealanders is inﬂuenced by the success, or failure, of the All Blacks.
Players and coaches have been richly rewarded for their part in rugby, but the man who started our game went to his grave without any real recognition for what he gave us.
Even as late as 1930, sixty years after the ﬁrst game, when Monro was 79 years old, his contribution was largely unknown. That year he wrote to the Union requesting a ticket to the test match against Britain at Athletic Park. The Union minute book records: ‘Mr D. McKenzie forwarded a letter from Mr C.I. Munro who, it is claimed, is the founder of the playing of Rugby Football in New Zealand’. He was sent a ticket and was page 46 invited to the post-match dinner at the Grand Hotel. To my knowledge, that test ticket and dinner is the only recognition Charles received from the New Zealand Union during his life-time. In 1970, when the Union celebrated 100 years of rugby in New Zealand, it did contribute towards a memorial placed near his home, which is now part of Massey University in Palmerston North.
I pestered the New Zealand Union to introduce a trophy honouring our game’s founder. Two years ago the Hillary Shield was introduced for competition between the All Blacks and England. Monro was among the suggested names for the trophy offered to the England Union, but it is understandable that the better known Sir Edmund Hillary was chosen. Finally, last year, Charles Monro’s name was given to the Volunteer of the Year award, an appropriate choice, reﬂecting the amateur nature of the game he had introduced.
Very little had been written about Monro, which probably explains why he never had a proﬁle in New Zealand rugby. Since the late 1970s, I have been aware of the Monro diaries and the fact that there was a story to be told, but no journalist or author tackled the project. Five years ago Charles’ grandson, Neil Monro, and I attended the Union’s annual meeting as Rugby Museum delegates. As we drove homewards we discussed the Union’s record proﬁt. We joked about the royalties the family could have been receiving, had his grandfather started rugby as a commercial venture! It was then that I decided to write a book myself. The family kindly agreed to give me access to the trunk containing diaries and letters, some from before David Monro came to Nelson.
So, what sort of a chap was Charles John Monro? With no-one surviving who knew him, my impressions of his personality have been gained from reading his diaries, his father’s diaries, and the many letters written by his family and friends. Unfortunately, there is precious little surviving material relating to his rugby activities. His father’s diaries, held at the Nelson Provincial Museum archives, give some information about his youth.
Charles Monro was born in 1851 at the family farm, Bearcroft, at Waimea West, the ﬁfth of seven children. Ten years earlier his Scottish father, Dr David Monro, had purchased sections in the new settlement of Nelson from the New Zealand Company. From his home in Edinburgh he regarded the purchase of land in New Zealand as a good investment, and had no intention to spend the rest of his life in New Zealand. Had he remained in Edinburgh, he could have continued the family tradition of being head of the Anatomy Department at the Edinburgh University Medical School. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been chairmen of the department for a succession of 128 years.page 47
I haven’t studied Dr Monro’s life in detail, but assume his reasons for coming to Nelson were to view his investments, develop the town sections and farmland allotted to him, and then sell at a handsome proﬁt and return home. It didn’t turn out that way as, when he arrived in Nelson in 1842, things were pretty chaotic. Hundreds of immigrants from all walks of life and from Britain and Europe were arriving and having to fend for themselves. The New Zealand Company had not delivered on its promises of providing the rural land the settlers had paid for.
Given his well educated background, many settlers looked to David Monro to take their concerns to the Colonial Government in Auckland. Politics, both local and national, was to consume much of his time over the next 30 years.
He built a house on his farm at Waimea West which he named Bearcroft. His neighbours were the Dillon family from England, and David was soon attracted to their house-maid, Dinah Secker. I expect the romance caused considerable gossip within the new community – a wealthy professional courting a common servant. Dinah was English, from a family of 12 children who had lost their mother at a young age. Their father did his best to provide for the large family from his low income as a farm-worker.
Their ﬁrst child, Aleck (Alexander), was born the following year, followed by Datty (David), Georgie (Georgiana), Charlie (Charles), Connie (Constance) and, ﬁnally, Harry (Henry) in 1860. Another child, James, was very weak at birth and only lived for two months. Family illness was to plague the Monro family and Charles outlived all his siblings. By the time Harry was four years old he was blind, paralysed and could barely speak, and he died in 1866. Datty suffered from tuberculosis but, despite his poor health, he was a good scholar at Nelson College and his father sent him on to Oxford University. Soon after he started at Oxford his health deteriorated, and he returned home to be nursed by his mother for eight months until his death at the age of 21.
Dr Monro felt helpless in witnessing the sufferings of his children and noted the extreme stress his wife was enduring. During visits home from his parliamentary duties he would walk up the hill to the cemetery and grieve at the family plot where his three sons lay. He had become all too consumed by politics, and probably regretted that he hadn’t given it all up to spend time in Nelson supporting his family. Elected to the ﬁrst New Zealand Parliament in 1853, Dr Monro was Speaker of the House from 1861 to 1871, receiving a knighthood for his services in 1866.page 49
The family moved from Bearcroft into Nelson in 1858. At ﬁrst they rented Sunnyside from the Fell family, who were away in England, and then purchased Newstead in 1864. Both homesteads still stand today, with Sunnyside now known as Warwick House.
Charles seemed to enjoy the country life at Bearcroft more than being in town. He had become an accurate shot with a shanghai, using it to scare birds from the fruit-trees, and on the rabbits which had become numerous. He attended Bishop’s School for two years, followed by three years boarding at Nelson College.
The least happy period of Charles’ life commenced on his 16th birthday, when he was put on a boat, alone, for England. Sir David instructed his brother- in-law, George Skene, to ﬁnd a school suitable for educating prospective army ofﬁcers. Skene chose Christ’s College, on the outskirts of London, a cold stone and brick building. Life for Charles there would have been similar to that at Rugby School, as depicted in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He was very home-sick and longed for a return to New Zealand and its more pleasant climate. He suffered a persistent cough during the long, cold and damp winters, but worked hard at his schoolwork and became a sub- prefect. During holidays he visited his father’s relatives in Scotland, but seemed to prefer the company of his mother’s relatives at Widford in Oxfordshire.
George Skene was concerned about his nephew’s future, however, and the intention to make him an ofﬁcer in the British Army. He was surprised to learn from Charles that his father had never discussed having a future in the army with him. All he wanted to do was to achieve in the classroom and on the sports ﬁeld, and to meet his many relatives, before returning to New Zealand. After several strongly worded letters from Skene, Sir David ﬁnally accepted that Charles wished to return home.
It was a much happier teenager who returned home to Nelson early in 1870. He joined the local football club, which had been formed two years earlier. The Nelson Club played by a mixture of rules, with members undecided whether to play soccer or Australian Rules. Charles convinced them to experiment with the rules of Rugby School and used his experience gained in England to coach them.
The club needed opposition, so they approached Nelson College and persuaded the headmaster, Frank Simmons, to allow Charles to instruct his pupils in the rugby game. The historic rugby game between the Nelson Club and Nelson College, played at the Botanical Reserve on May 14, 1870, has been well documented, as have the other games in the town that winter.page 51
Later in the season, the club sought new opponents and asked Charles to arrange a game in Wellington, where he was staying with his parents. His father was completing his ﬁnal term as Speaker of the House. Charles had played for the local football team and convinced many of them to change to rugby, and the Nelson challenge was accepted.
Unable to ﬁnd a suitable ground in Wellington, Charles walked all the way out to the Hutt Valley before locating one, and he played an important role in arranging the game. He met with Julius Vogel, who kindly gave permission for the Government steamer to divert to Nelson and bring the team to Wellington free of charge. He selected and coached the Wellington team, played for Nelson and also refereed the game.
A plaque has recently been laid at Petone, near the site of that historic game, and many descendants of those pioneering footballers attended the ceremony. It was the fore-runner of inter-provincial rugby, and sowed the seed for the establishment of the new game in other towns. Charles played rugby in Nelson for a few more years, and also played in Blenheim when working at Bankhouse, the family property in the Wairau Valley.
Charles’ efforts in establishing rugby in New Zealand would not have succeeded without the assistance of his enthusiastic team mates in Nelson. In particular Robert Tennent and Alfred Drew, who had led the formation of the Nelson football club in 1868. Drew moved on to Wanganui in 1872 and later to New Plymouth, establishing rugby in both regions. Tennent also promoted the game in the towns he was transferred to during his career with a bank.
Ex-Nelson College pupils took the game to other parts of the country and one of them, Joseph Firth, had a huge inﬂuence on the growth of rugby as a player, referee and coach. Firth had a long teaching career at Nelson College, Christ’s College and became headmaster of Wellington College. He developed rugby in the schools and initiated what is now the college quadrangular tournament.
Charles’ life from 1870 is difﬁcult to follow for several years, like a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces. Only a few letters and a couple of brief diaries document his activities. He worked brieﬂy for a bank in Nelson but preferred to be outdoors. He spent a lot of his time working on Bankhouse Station, which Aleck Monro managed and later owned. I don’t think the brothers got on too well together. He spent many weeks in Gisborne, apparently with the intention of buying a farm there. Letters indicate that he needed the approval of his father for anything he did, and he may just have wanted to be away from his dominating family.page 52
After Sir David died, in 1877, Dinah relied on the advice of her son-in-law, Sir James Hector, who had married Georgiana Monro. Hector, a leading scientist, had been a close friend of Sir David. It now seemed that Charles could do nothing without his approval, and the family wanted him to settle at Bearcroft. Given his passion for fruit trees and the suitability of the land for orchards, I can only assume he sold the property to get away from family interests.
Charles wandered away to Wanganui and Patea, investing in land and businesses. From the mid 1870s he suffered from back pain, lumbago, for which there was no known cure. A small pocket diary records a trek he made on horse-back from Wanganui to Rotorua in 1878. He spent several weeks at Rotorua and describes his visit to the famous Pink and White Terraces, where he bathed in the warm pools. Bathing daily in the thermal pools failed to cure his back pain, however, and he suffered from it frequently for the rest of his life.
In 1880 he headed off to Europe, spending a year in Italy learning the language, studying Italian opera and receiving singing lessons in Naples. He developed a ﬁne baritone voice and, in later years, often sang at concerts and in operas. He brought several hand-written manuscripts home with him, which are now in the regional museum in Palmerston North. When he built his home in Palmerston North, the drawing room ceiling was over four metres high and featured Gothic arches designed to provide excellent acoustics for singing. He once entertained a group of touring Italian opera singers there.
While overseas during the early 1880s he visited relatives in Britain and was on the hunt for a Scottish bride. He came home without a partner, however, and disappeared into remote country north of Wanganui, to a farm he purchased but lived on for only a few months.
Charles’ mother died in 1882, and it is likely he was at last free of all family pressures. He was wealthy and spent a considerable amount of his time at banks, legal ofﬁces, and with land agents. He invested in timber companies, mining companies, farms and town sections, with some investments bringing good returns, while others failed.
His life turned in 1885, when he married Lena Macdonald, the daughter of a Nelson bank manager. The couple spent two years in Europe and Britain, visiting friends and spending considerable time in Italy. They also visited Java, a place which Charles had read much about, as it was renowned for having the largest variety of bird species in the world. He had always had a fascination for birds, particularly game birds.page 53
Charles wrote extensively of their travels through Java, sending articles back to a Nelson newspaper, and later published his writings in London. His new bride didn’t enjoy riding by horse and cart along remote tracks, through bush where man-eating tigers lurked – not the most pleasant location for a honeymoon.
Their ﬁrst child, David, was born while they were overseas. The family returned home in 1887 and settled in Palmerston North. Charles bought 51 acres across the Manawatu River from the town and built a new home, which he named Craiglockhart.
The two-storey homestead, completed in 1890, still stands today in the grounds of Massey University. Charles lived there for the next 43 years, until his death in 1933. He planted hundreds of fruit trees and his orchard became a visitor attraction when in full blossom. He was renowned for the quality of his plums. Eventually the heavy work in picking, packing, and delivering fruit became too much for him and he leased the orchard out, later selling it. He built a large glass house for grapevines and made his own wine, apple cider, and plum wine.
Within a few years the Monros were joined by wealthy neighbours, who also built large impressive homesteads featuring croquet greens, tennis courts and other amenities.
Polo was another activity the town’s social set pursued with a passion. Charles had played in the ﬁrst polo game in New Zealand, in Nelson in 1871. He was not an active player in Palmerston North, but attended games and tournaments; the tournament ball was a social highlight for the town.
Charles spent much of his time in town, attending to his business interests, before visiting the Manawatu Club, the common ‘watering-hole’ for the gentlemen of the town. Issues of the town and the world would be discussed and he would play at the billiard table. His diaries frequently mention a slow start next morning.
He was not an early purchaser when motor cars began appearing in the streets in the early 1900s. An expert horseman, he was content to continue relying on his trusty horse to get about town and take him home from the club. He was 55 before he learnt to ride a pushbike and had extreme difﬁculty in balancing on two wheels, recording several bad crashes which took skin off his face. Charles was well into his sixties before getting a car and had difﬁculty adapting from a set of reins to a steering wheel and pedals. A shocking driver, he never really became competent, and was a concern to other motorists and pedestrians.
The Monros had three sons and two daughters and Charles devoted much time to his children. He attended many of their school activities and took the family on picnics and holidays. I believe that Charles was a more loving father than his own had been. The two older boys went to Wellington College and Peter went to Wanganui Collegiate, with all three becoming medical doctors. Mary married, but Linda contracted polio at the age of 22 and became wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. After Charles’ death, in 1933, Linda and her mother remained at Craiglockhart until the property was sold to the university in 1944, and they then moved into town.
From time to time Charles visited Marlborough, staying with his sister Connie whose husband, Philip Dillon, farmed across the river from Bankhouse. His other sister, Georgie Hector, lived in the Hutt Valley and her children often spent their school holidays at Craiglockhart.
He read extensively and, with his earlier travels overseas, was a very well educated and knowledgeable man. A regular letter-writer to newspapers, he debated issues as wide-ranging as religion, river- protection, house-servants, bull-ﬁghting in Spain and Chinese immigrants.
The topic he debated most ﬁercely was the methods engineers used for river control. From his experiences at Bearcroft, by the Waimea River, at Bankhouse, by the Waihopai River, and with the Manawatu River, which he crossed almost daily, he had developed a deep knowledge of how rivers ﬂow and how gravel accumulated. He had prevented erosion at Bearcroft by the accurate placement of groynes and maintained that serious damage caused to the Fitzherbert Bridge could have been prevented, had the council listened to his advice of earlier years.
The Monro family regularly attended All Saint’s Anglican Church in Palmerston North, although Charles didn’t attend as often as his wife. Lena did a lot of work for the church and he helped with activities. The church organist was Charles’ old rugby mate, Alfred Drew, who had arrived in Palmerston North a year before the Monros.
In his later years Charles suffered from a weak heart, which prevented him from page 57 doing much physical work at all. When the economic depression hit in the late 1920s many of his investments became virtually worthless. The biggest of these was in ﬂax, which had been a thriving industry in Manawatu from the 1890s. In 1906 he had joined with his golﬁng mates, the Seivert brothers, who were the largest operators in the district. Charles bought a lot of shares and became a director of the company which constructed the Miranui mill near Shannon. It became the largest ﬂax-producing company in New Zealand and the operation went well until 1918, when prices crashed as world-wide demand fell rapidly. The company looked to diversify and invested in kauri-gum digging in Northland, but this also failed when prices fell.
When the Miranui ﬂax mill was ﬁnally sold in 1928 there was insufﬁcient money to pay Charles out, and he was given a thousand acres of then worthless ﬂax swamp in compensation. He spent much of his life savings employing men to make the land suitable for farming. The area was surveyed into lots ranging in size from 60 to 130 acres that had to be leased rather than sold. Charles was left almost penniless and on his death, in 1933, one of his sons had to pay his rates bill. The titles were eventually sold during the 1930s, which helped support Lena and Linda at Craiglockhart. Lena died in 1962 at the grand age of 96.
I hope these few words have helped describe a man that Nelson can be proud of.
To my mind, Charles Monro should not be remembered just for the fact that he introduced rugby here. He sowed the seed of what became a way of life for a large portion of New Zealanders, with rugby becoming a major inﬂuence in our social development.
Rugby has been a way of life for generations of New Zealanders, and we must thank Charles Monro and his team-mates of the Nelson Football Club, along with the headmaster and pupils of Nelson College, for starting something which has given our tiny nation its own unique identity in the world.