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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Sport 1900–08

Sport 1900–08

The 1900–01 summer saw a valiant, and finally successful, drive to revive cricket in Kaponga. A new club was formed and joined the Taranaki association. There were many disappointments, as when in February 1901 page 280 neither Normanby's nor Hawera's Star clubs kept their fixtures in Kaponga, or 19 December 1901 when Kaponga reached Normanby by 2pm on their Thursday half-holiday only to find no home team there to play them. The Kaponga team were encouraged by the fact that, ‘though cricket is stagnant in South Taranaki’,1 when they did play they tended to win. They worked hard at a match pitch on the domain and a practice pitch in town and found money for a good supply of equipment.2 But the revived club's second AGM in September 1902 morale was wilting. After long discussion they decided not to join the association for the season, ‘owing mainly to not having a suitable ground for Cup matches, and also the difficulty of securing full teams to play in matches', but to keep the club alive by playing a few local matches.3 The club indeed refused to die. Aware that its primitive grounds were not very acceptable to its neighbours it found the money for an asphalt pitch in Victoria Park for the beginning of the 1904–05 season and rejoined the association. It continued to meet most of south Taranaki's other clubs on at least equal terms. Signs of vigour at the September 1905 AGM were the making of better arrangements for second eleven matches, and offers of timber for a players' shed on the grounds from Charles Betts and from another member to build it.4

The Kaponga club's revival seems to have been brought about largely by township residents. From the players listed for a friendly married versus single men's match on a Thursday afternoon in February 1904 it seems that town players outnumbered country ones by at least three to one. It was, then, the growth of the township, compensating for the loss of the sawmill workers who had been the backbone of the first club, that made the revival possible. It was the presence of a number of gifted and/or dedicated players among them that enabled them to persist to become a successful club. Thus though Dr Maclagan seems not to have been a gifted player he was dedicated to the game, appearing regularly in team lists and serving as secretary or president of the club as required. When in May 1905 the club was short of cash to topdress the ground it was Maclagan who came forward with a loan. Schoolmaster Matheson, on the other hand, was both dedicated and gifted. His enthusiasm and coaching had an impact on schoolboy cricket and this must soon have been helping to raise the level of the Kaponga team. In January 1907 he and Charles Betts were members of a south Taranaki team that toured to Marlborough. Only the previous month ‘Billy’ Cole, a late member of the Kaponga club, had made ‘a magnificent stand’ in an interprovincial match between Taranaki and Marlborough.5

Like the cricket club, the Kaponga Rugby Club joined its provincial association in 1900, only to wilt and decide to withdraw in 1902. There the similarity ends, for when the rugby club sought to rejoin the union it met with a firm rebuff that was repeated year after year. In the rebound of the fifth rejection a small group of local soccer enthusiasts persuaded a number of their friends to change codes. Meeting with warm support from a provincial soccer association struggling for a viable presence in south page 281 Taranaki, the club quickly became established and had no trouble surviving the rugby club's reinstatement the following season. The two codes then flourished side by side in the district for a decade.

With Charles Betts as its main advocate, the Kaponga Rugby Club had applied for two years for admission to the Taranaki union and had been successful at the beginning of the 1900 season, with a generous istrict, bounded by Duthie, Skeet and Auroa roads. It had early successes in the competition and probably developed an inflated idea of its abilities. Commenting on a win over Okaiawa's 'strong and sterling team’ in May ‘Our Own’ suggested that Kaponga would possibly have been holding the cup had they been admitted the previous season.6 They were beaten 11–0 by Hawera at Kaponga on 2 June, but the Star had good words for them, remarking that ‘for Kaponga Dan Hughes was a tower of strength at five-eighth, while the forwards, though green, played a hard, grafting game’. On 16 June, again on Victoria Park, Kaponga's junior team held Hawera's juniors to a draw. On Saturday 7 July the Kaponga seniors played their first game on Hawera's Bayly Park, against the Hawera seniors. The team list shows that they came predominantly from the farms rather than Kaponga township. The Star (9/7/00) gave an extended account of the game resulting from these new colours ('the fashionable khaki and red’) appearing in Hawera. A very even first half ended 3–0, Hawera having points from a try. But Kaponga, who were playing some juniors as substitutes, were overwhelmed in the second half, the final score being 24–0. The Star noted four
very good players in Kaponga's very uneven team.

But Kaponga apparently lacked the leadership to lift their game. In the 1901 season more care went into holding a ball, monthly assemblies and an end of season social, than into meeting obligations on the sporting field. Through the absence of players (apparently mainly taking holidays away) match after match had to be forfeited. Only 20 members turned up for the AGM on 14 March 1902, and it was decided to wind up the club with a social.7

It soon became clear, however, that many in the district were keen to play rugby. While year after year Charles Betts sought the reinstatement of a Kaponga district, various local games were organised. Both in 1904 and 1905 several games were played between Kaponga and Riverlea teams. In July 1905 a lively game, refereed by Jeremiah Crowley, was played on Victoria Park between the boarders of the Coffee Palace and a team of tradesmen, ending in a draw. Attempts were made to find ways of working in with the Manaia or Okaiawa clubs. For example in April 1905 Betts saw the union with a petition signed by 46 Kaponga and Okaiawa players asking (unsuccessfully) that the Okaiawa district be extended westward to Rowan Road, to include Kaponga. Beginning with a well-attended meeting in the Commercial Hotel in March 1906, Betts spearheaded a fifth approach to the union for reinstatement. Kaponga's case was put more strongly than ever, the club even forwarding a post-dated cheque for £10, to be cashed by the page 282 union if it forfeited two senior match fixtures. This approach, which was strongly opposed by the Manaia and Okaiawa delegates, was also unsuccessful. ‘Our Own’ (19/4/06) now reported the first murmurs of a possible player switch to soccer.8

The soccer move was initiated by plumber Philip Larritt. About 25 interested people met in his shop on Saturday evening, 21 April 1906, and after outlining what had happened with the rugby union he put the case, reported by ‘Our Own’, 23/4/06:

Now in the district there were some eight or twelve Association players, and he did not see any reason why a strong club should not be formed. The soccer game was getting a strong hold in Taranaki. A letter was read from the Secretary of the Hawera Association Club, stating that a club had been formed in that town and in Eltham, and trusting Kaponga could put a team in the field also. He offered to give any information, etc., required by the club.

On the motion of Kelly of the livery and bait stables, seconded by shopkeeper Allen, it was decided to form a soccer club in Kaponga and 22 folk joined on the spot. From the start townsfolk predominated. The following Thursday the club adopted the Hawera club's rules, Dr Maclagan was elected president, with an impressive list of 10 vice-presidents, and publican Northcott presented the club with a ball. Colours of red and black jerseys and stockings and white pants were adopted, and the first practice set down for the following Thursday. This first practice, a match between A and B teams, saw many of the new chums penalised for handling the ball, and was watched with some excitement by the Kaponga half-holiday crowd. From its start soccer staked a claim to this convenient Thursday afternoon slot at Victoria Park, leaving the ground free for rugby on Saturday afternoons. Friendly games against Eltham and Hawera teams followed in July and August, one on Victoria Park on 26 July against Hawera juniors resulting in a 1-all draw. But the great event of the Kaponga club's early days was its hosting of an interprovincial game on 4 September 1906.

The appearance of Kaponga's soccer club must have been a godsend to the struggling provincial association, and it could not have come at a better time for it was Taranaki's turn to host the annual interprovincial tournament for the Brown Shield. There was probably some strategy in playing both the first and final matches of the tournament in south Taranaki. That the code was struggling even to mount a realistic annual tournament was evident at the opening match at Hawera on 23 August. This was between Taranaki and a motley team of players from the Ruahine, Dannevirke, Palmerston North and Feilding districts. Some of the visitors' team hadn't been able to get away to keep this engagement and they could proceed only by enrolling four locals as substitutes. But the visitors' weakness enabled Taranaki to encourage its new Kaponga club by using its Dr Maclagan and David Kelly. Maclagan scored one of the goals for Taranaki's 5–1 win. Shield-holders Wellington then defeated Auckland in a game at New Plymouth and page 283 Wellington went on to defeat Taranaki in the final played at Eltham on Saturday, 1 September. It was a pretty limited programme for a national tournament, but a further match had already been arranged for the Auckland team, designed to encourage the new venture at Kaponga.

A public meeting was held in Kaponga on 13 August to plan for the great occasion of a Taranaki v Auckland match on Tuesday, 4 September. It was chaired by Dr Maclagan who, drawing on his Scottish background, probably played a key role in guiding arrangements. A recent historian, tracing the emergence of the code in the latter half of the 19th century, wrote:

The role of Scotland in the establishing, but more particularly in the promotion, of association football was paramount…. In the promotion of the game abroad Scots were present in numbers out of proportion to their population.9

The Kaponga Tradesmen's Association agreed to businesses closing between 3pm and 5pm for the match. Committees and a working bee prepared for and managed the occasion. Victoria Park was fenced with scrim for the afternoon so that an admission charge could be made. Seating was provided. The band's offer to play at the park was accepted, and a grande evening social was arranged for the visitors after the game.10 After all the hard work it was unfortunate that a very wet day spoiled the attendance. The Star (5/9/06) reported the game in detail, finding the teams quite evenly
Jerry Crowley (left) and Jim O'Dea, two of the district's most gifted rugby players, at an axemen's contest

Jerry Crowley (left) and Jim O'Dea, two of the district's most gifted rugby players, at an
axemen's contest

page 284 matched, though Auckland won 3–1. Maclagan had a big day, scoring Taranaki's one goal and presiding at the well-attended social. Mrs Maclagan headed the ladies' committee, which provided the supper.

At the AGM in March 1907 Maclagan was again elected president, with stables proprietor David Kelly as team captain. The club had a good season, winning some of its games against both Eltham and Hawera. In August David Kelly played for Taranaki at the Brown Shield tournament in Auckland.

We return to the fortunes of Kaponga rugby. At the beginning of the 1906 season Manaia's Waimate Club went some way towards meeting Kaponga's needs by deciding to field a junior team consisting solely of Kaponga boys who would have all their practices in Kaponga. At its AGM in April it was clear that the Kaponga club was determined to soldier on. With blacksmith and wheelwright Alfred Guy as chairman, it arranged games between teams of its own players, and gave full support to its Waimate B team, even running a very successful rugby ball in their honour on 30 August. Emerging as winners of the southern division, Kaponga's Waimate B team travelled to New Plymouth on 26 September to play the northern winners, New Plymouth's Tukapa team. The game ended in a 6-all draw but Tukapa won 6–3 when they travelled to Kaponga for the return match.

The good reputation won for Kaponga by this Waimate B team and the soccer rivalry led the Taranaki Rugby Union to move on its request for a district, sending a deputation to meet with Manaia, Okaiawa and Kaponga delegates at Kaponga on 2 March 1907. A general desire to settle the matter soon led to agreement on all details except Kaponga's eastern boundary, for which the Kapuni River was originally proposed (giving Kaponga both sides of Palmer Road from Skeet Road north). Okaiawa objected that this would deprive them of their valued Crowley brothers (then farming on the eastern side of the road, just north of the dairy factory). A solution was finally thrashed out whereby Okaiawa retained the eastern side of Palmer Road from Skeet Road to the railway reserve, thus keeping the Crowleys. On Saturday, 20 April 1907, about 40 Kaponga players donned their new jerseys, once more members of the district union, and began a stiff programme of practices for the new season. They soon found that the way to the top would not be easy, but at least they ended the season with a good reputation for keeping engagements.11

While Kaponga cricket, rugby and soccer were wrestling with getting launched into their respective provincial competitions, the sports of shooting and tennis successively made their appearance. However, before sketching these developments we must look at the community sports days on the domain, undoubtedly this period's most popular sporting occasions. Most years saw two such days—one in summer, one in autumn. Always success was at the weather's mercy, they were variously sponsored, and their regular appearance was something of a recurrent miracle.

April 1900 saw the first Easter Monday sports meeting, designed to page 285 enliven what had ‘previously … proved a dull day for the folk in Kaponga’. Evidently it was also proving a dull day elsewhere, for ‘Our Own’ (19/4/ 00) told of visitors ‘from Eltham, Normanby, Hawera, Manaia, and along the coast as far as Rahotu and Opunake’. The ‘varied and amusing’ programme included five horse, nine athletic and two chopping events. One visitor commented that he found the Novices' Chop and the Sailor Race more amusing than anything he'd seen at the circus. The Sailor Race, in which riders sat face to tail bareback on their horses, was rerun after all nine entrants ran off the course from the first start. The mixture of such farce with genuine contests of skill and endurance gave a good many settlers and their sons (women and girls were not catered for on this occasion) a chance to participate while providing all comers with spectacle, simple amusement and a social occasion.

But a successful day required some months of planning and preparation by an appropriately gifted committee. A suitable date had to be chosen, grounds and other bookings made, and a programme sensitive to changing interests and circumstances agreed on and advertised. (For example horse events would not have been appropriate in 1900 had the recent attempt to found a local racing club succeeded.) An efficient secretary was essential, to handle advertising, receive entries (with their fees towards prize money), arrange for handicapping, starting and judging, and generally see that all participant and spectator needs were taken care of. Visitors expected an evening entertainment to follow, so someone had to mount a concert and/ or social and/or dance in the town hall.

We have seen how the Kaponga Caledonian Society pioneered a sports day in the Scottish tradition on New Year's Day 1895. Year by year it did. good work in improving the grounds. But with few Scots in the Kaponga district it faltered and then failed, holding its last sports on Boxing Day 1900, with a fairly conventional athletics programme, including a girls' race, three cycling events, but no horse ones. A significant new feature was music from the recently formed Kaponga Brass Band. Its playing between events enlivened sports days from this time on. The following two years the Caledonian Society failed to get sufficient support for Boxing Day sports, and on each occasion the band moved in as sponsor, motivated partly by its need for funds, but no doubt also seeing an ideal opportunity to display its talents. The band had the advantage over the Caledonians of meeting regularly through the year, and so did not have first to resurrect its member ship before trying to mount the event. Sports days survived over these years largely because several other organisations also needed to raise funds. The Easter Monday Sports of 1901, 1902 and 1903 were run by ad hoc committees set up to benefit either the Domain Board (established in 1900) or the town hall committee.

March 1904 saw the Kaponga Athletics Club formed, with an impressive list of patrons. Their 1904 and 1905 autumn sports days were not on Easter Mondays but on the Thursday (with early closing as well as page 286 half-holiday). Programmes were not very venturesome but went beyond athletics to include cycling, chopping, sawing, Highland fling, Highland music and Irish jig. Both years the weather was bad and after making a loss in 1905 the club faded from the scene. Yet even on 1905′s unpleasant gusty day those present seem to have enjoyed themselves:

Picnic parties were numerous, several of the hollows outside the course being selected as camping grounds. Others, when the dinner hour came, repaired to the luncheon booth, where Mr Fowler, of the Coffee Palace, did excellento business. The spread was one of the best that has been supplied in the district. During the afternoon the Kaponga Band turned out in full force and rendered a splendid programme which went a long way towards making the afternoon enjoyable. (Star, 31/3/05)

With the athletics club's demise the ‘Athenaeum Institute’ sponsored autumn sports days in 1906 and 1907 (now back to Easter Monday), in aid of hall funds. Cashing in on the rising interest in football, the programmes included seven-a-side tournaments, a dribbling race and place kicking. There were also horse events, for which, after the 1906 sports, peace had to be made with the New Zealand Trotting Association, the committee having failed to arrange a clearance.12

There was no sports day in the summer of 1903, but the following summer the Athenaeum Institute, having lost the autumn slot to the new athletics club, ran a ‘Novelty Sports Meeting’ on Thursday, 12 January 1905. There was good variety of horse events, including jumping tilting at the ring and rescuing a comrade. As ‘most of the animals had never seen a day's training’ the starters had a difficult day. Similar programmes were run in 1906 when the newly formed tennis club revived the Boxing Day sports in the interest of its funds, and in 1907 when the Oddfellows sponsored a sports day on Thursday, 5 December.

In 1900 the impetus for forming a rifle club was provided by the South African war and government concern to foster such clubs as a defence measure. A meeting following a Settlers' Association meeting on 4 Julyh decided on a club but it was a long road to the opening match. Ad hoc committees negotiated with the government and sought a range, and on 19 November 1900 the club formed under government regulations with a range site off upper Rowan Road. The committee began clearing and developing the range, and news of government acceptance of the club came through by February 1901. The membership of over 20 then waited weary months for the rifles they were purchasing from the government. These finally arrived in December 1902 and the opening match was held on Saturday, 3 January 1903, when about 100 ‘ladies and gentlemen’ gathered at the range. The honour of the first shot went to Mrs H.S. Wilkie, the club captain's wife, who ‘successfully hit a bull's eye’, and a married v singles match was held, with ‘the ladies providing afternoon tea’. The club made steady progress, with members donating medals and trophies for local competition, matches page 287 against other clubs, especially Eltham, and an annual social each winter. The club first ventured ‘abroad’ in January 1908, sending A.H. Guy,* Stan Hollard and Fred Gapper to the Trentham championship meeting.13

Dr Maclagan seems to have been involved in all new sporting ventures of these years. Besides his part in the launching of soccer he was very active in the rifle club, shooting regularly and well, donating a gold medal in September 1905, and presiding at the 10 August 1906 meeting that elected him as the club's third captain. When on 5 October 1905 some 30 ‘ladies and gentlemen’ decided to form a tennis club, it was Maclagan whom they elected president, with Alice Maclagan as secretary and treasurer. Modern tennis was a creation of the last quarter of the 19th century, when lawn play became possible with the appearance of rubber balls with a good bounce. It was boosted by the Prince of Wales taking it up and was a popular game in New Zealand by the time he became king. It appealed especially to those seeking a courtly game for both sexes. The Kaponga club early decided that their climate called for an asphalt court, and successfully negotiated for the ground behind the Athenaeum. Working bees began the arduous task of stumping this area in October 1905, but it was not ready for levelling by a contractor until December 1906 and does not seem to have been used until the following summer. Meanwhile the club had raised funds by such activities as a fancy dress cricket match and sponsoring the 1905 Boxing Day sports. They had also been playing amongst themselves and against Awatuna, no doubt on home lawns.14