IT’S A GOOD YARN, the story of William Webb Ellis — of the young English rebel taking the ball in his arms at Rugby School one day in 1823 and running with it. With one precocious dash, so the legend goes, a new style of football was born. That most researchers concede that Webb Ellis’ run never happened is now largely irrelevant; world rugby has its ‘founder’, and the winners of the Rugby World Cup now receive the ‘Webb Ellis Trophy’.
Football codes need father figures. The AFL has Tom Wills, who came up with the idea of a distinctly ‘Australian’ game for the citizens of Melbourne in the late 1850s, and Henry Harrison, a key figure in the drafting in 1866 of the code of rules that set the basis for what many know today as Aussie Rules. Australian rugby league has James J. Giltinan, the gallant entrepreneur who took the first Kangaroos to England in 1908. Australian rugby union, in contrast, has been something of an orphan, having apparently evolved at its own pace with no one man its initial driving force.
This, surely, can only be half right at best. So having chanced upon a critical snippet of information written in 1919, a few years ago I set off on what proved to be a productive search for rugby’s No. 1 man, a ‘Webb Ellis’ of our own if you like. Inevitably, given we’re going back to the 1860s, the evidence is a little ragged in parts, but with the help of his grandson I was able to build a strong picture of the bloke who kick-started rugby in New South Wales more than 150 years ago. Others who came later may have been more influential in terms of how rugby evolved in Australia, but he was the first. Strangely, the game is still to officially recognise this man’s contribution; hence the retelling of his story here.
He was a pioneer of the bush as well as of football, a man of courage, persistence and pride, a fellow who might have stepped out of a Banjo Paterson poem. His family home became the residence of the Governor-General— a tangible link between his sport and his country’s head of state.
If Australian rugby was able to select its own father, it could hardly have made a better choice.
THE EARLY DAYS OF football in Sydney have been well scrutinised, most notably by Thomas Hickie in They Ran With The Ball: How Rugby Football Began in Australia (Longman Cheshire, 1993) and by the extraordinary work of league and union historian Sean Fagan. The first record of any football taking place in Australia most likely appeared in the Sydney newspaper, The Australian, on 24 July 1829:
The privates and others of the garrison have lately been amusing themselves more than usual in the ordinary practice of foot-ball, in the Barrack Square, and a healthful exercise is foot-ball.
The Sydney Monitor of the following day added that the sport the soldiers were playing was ‘a healthy amusement, and much played in Leicestershire’. But it wasn’t until 1865 that reports of organised football being staged in the city appeared in the Sydney press. Whatever was played in the years in between was hardly rugby, most likely kicking and catching and ball-dribbling contests with rules that varied from field to field in the way impromptu contests in school playgrounds often develop minds of their own.
The reports of 1865 were of matches involving the ‘Sydney Football Club’ (most likely, an offshoot of the Albert Cricket Club), a team featuring members of the Australian Cricket Club and then Sydney University. It appears that the Sydney and Australian clubs were experimenting with something like Tom Wills’ style of football (which was originally conceived at least in part to give Melbourne’s cricketers a game to play in winter), but if there was a push to bring Melbourne rules to Sydney, a small group of undergraduates at the University was having none of it. Three young men decided to form a club on campus that played football under the rules set down by Rugby School in England, a move remembered by one of them, Richard Teece, when he was profiled by the Sydney Mail more than half a century later, on 11 June 1919:
While Mr Teece was at the University there was a man named Campbell and another, George Deas Thomson (son of Sir Edward Deas Thomson), in his third year, who had played rugby football in England. These two combined with Teece to form a team among the undergraduates to play the game in Sydney. For some time their efforts were confined to scratch matches among themselves, as there were no other teams to play against. They were the first games of Rugby in Sydney ...
Twelve years earlier, at a time when Teece was chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, the Sydney Mail recalled that he ‘took part in the formation of the first Rugby club in Sydney in 1865’. During the same season, at a New South Wales Rugby Union event organised to welcome the Queensland team to Sydney, Teece described himself as ‘certainly the oldest Australian footballer present’; he had, after all, ‘watched the progress of the game since he had taken part in the formation of the first football club in Sydney 42 years ago’ As his twin administrative careers in sport (mainly cricket) and insurance reveal, Teece was an enthusiastic beaver when it came to making things happen. But it was his two comrades from Sydney University in 1865 who were the young men with rugby experience. By the time of that Sydney Mail profile in 1919, Teece was a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, having been the AMP’s driving force for almost 30 years. Poor Deas Thomson was long dead. And ‘a man named Campbell’ was in the latter stages of an extraordinary life on the Australian land.
From 1837 to 1856, Edward Deas Thomson, later Sir Edward, was New South Wales’ Colonial Secretary, the colony’s leading public servant. In 1854 he took his family to England, and according to press reports left his three sons to enjoy a Public Schools education. But where George boarded is not known. University of Sydney records suggest he was privately tutored. After gaining his degree in 1865, George worked as an associate for two Chief Justices until his passing, in March 1877, aged just 31.
Frederick Campbell was a grandson of Robert Campbell, Sydney’s first great shipping merchant, after whom ‘Campbell’s Cove’ at Circular Quay is named. Frederick, or Fred as he was known, was born 170 years ago, on 26 February, 1846, on his grandfather’s property, ‘Duntroon’, in southern New South Wales. He had been taken to England by his parents in 1854, where he was enrolled at the Cholmeley School in London. A classmate was Marcus Clarke, later to write For the Term of His Natural Life. Since 1860, the school has been known as Highgate. Campbell remained there until July 1863.
Across Britain at that time, the football young men were playing was a matter of dispute. Many schools of the early 1860s preferred what were known as ‘Eton’ rules, what would evolve into ‘Association’ rules or ‘soccer’. However, a few, including Highgate, took to the game as played at Rugby School. Emails with the school confirmed that Frederick was in the school’s football team in 1863, and that the football he was playing ‘must have been rugger’ (the school’s words). ‘Highgate changed from Rugby to Soccer under the headmastership of the Rev C. McDowall in 1878,’ explained the School’s Foundation Office.
Returning to Australia, Fred Campbell headed for Sydney University, where he studied in 1865 — not long enough to gain a degree, but ample time to inspire a rugby club. George Deas Thomson had been at the University since 1863, but as the first formal rugby games between students didn’t take place until August 1865, more likely it was Campbell — a more ‘seasoned’ footballer given his first-team experience at Highgate — who provided the catalyst for the football revolution on campus, with Deas Thomson and Teece alongside him as enthusiastic accomplices. If any one man deserves the title of ‘Father’ of Australian rugby, it is Fred Campbell.
In a strange way, the records at Sydney University add some weight to this claim. Campbell resided at the St Paul’s College for at least some of his university days, and the college’s archives suggest that prior to becoming an undergraduate he had been educated at Rugby School in England. This is not true, but how could such an error have been made? Perhaps someone saw Campbell’s enthusiasm for rugby football and assumed he had some link with the game’s birthplace.
The story of Sydney rugby between 1866 to 1869 further suggests Campbell was an influential figure in the game’s evolution. Deciding an Arts degree was of little use to him, at the end of 1865 Campbell went looking for experience on the land, first at the North Goonambil station at Urana in southern NSW and then at cattle and sheep stations near Rockhampton in Queensland. Briefly back in Sydney in 1866, he found time to lead a team that lost a rugby contest on the University Ground to a team of undergraduates, and the fact he was captain suggests he was the most experienced rugby man. He might also have been the chief organiser of the side, the best player, perhaps all of the above. Soon after that game, Campbell went bush again, and rugby’s rise at the University and in Sydney stuttered. Documented games in the big city for the next three years were few and far between.
Season 1870 was the year of rugby’s revival in Australia. This was the winter in which the soon-to-be-renowned Wallaroo club was formed in Sydney. Among the five hardy individuals who came to the inaugural meeting that led to Wallaroo’s birth was one George Deas Thomson. When it came to electing office bearers, Fred Campbell — having been cajoled back to Sydney to learn the family business — became Wallaroo’s treasurer. The duo’s influence in the football community continued through the early 1870s, until Deas Thomson began to succumb to the disease that would claim his life, and Fred again headed bush, this time for good. First, he rode to the Bundabarena Station on the Barwon River in north-western NSW, then in 1877 to the ‘limestone plains’ as the area around Queanbeyan in southern New South Wales was known, to manage Duntroon.
Under the stars, Campbell could ponder the fact that his game was here to stay. Such was the game’s rising popularity, a central governing body, the Southern Rugby Football Union, had been established as early as 1874. For the next 35 years, until rugby league took over, rugby was Sydney’s No. 1 winter sport.
SO WHO IS THIS man named Campbell? He was born into a wealthy and highly respected family, but with a cleft palate and a harelip. As a boy, he ran a long second in his father Charles’ eye to his elder brother Walter. To overcome his speech difficulty young Fred focused on the written word, which he made his main method of communication, and it was only the tragic death of Walter in a boating accident at Cambridge in 1860 that boosted his standing within the family.
After his mother Catherine died, shattered by the loss of her first-born son, the decision was made for the rest of the family to return to Sydney. For the next few years, Fred’s father travelled between a home in Scotland and properties in NSW and Victoria, while for many days through 1864 and 1865 Fred lived with his uncle John at Wharf House, on Circular Quay. During this period, Fred mixed with members of the upper echelons of Sydney society, including notable figures in sporting circles. Two prominent members of the Albert Cricket Club, Captain Edward Ward and Septimus Stephen, were married to cousins of Fred, as was a sister of George Deas Thomson. Like Fred’s grandfather, father and two of his uncles, Captain Ward was a member of the NSW Parliament. However, the restless young footballer’s decision to forsake the city to pursue the pleasures that townsfolk never know meant he lost contact with this influential group.
In 1881, Fred left Duntroon after purchasing an adjoining property, Yarralumla, and began putting into practice the skills and feel for the land that he had developed over the previous decade and a half. He was much more than just a pastoralist; he became a pivotal figure in most of what happened in the Queanbeyan district. While he did have the occasional quarrel with neighbours, the men and women who worked for him were fiercely loyal, and served him well. A New Year’s Eve dinner dance and New Year’s Day celebrations involving the Campbell family and their friends and employees were a much anticipated annual event, a feature of which was the cricket match between a Yarralumla XI and a Queanbeyan combination.
The property grew to 40,000 acres (16,400 hectares). Fred became president of the board and chief benefactor to the Queanbeyan District Hospital, a part-time magistrate, president of the local branch of the ‘Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association’, church elder, founder or patron of several sporting clubs, including the Queanbeyan Rugby Union and the Queanbeyan Rifle Club. In 1900, he was elected chairman of the ‘Queanbeyan Federal Capital League’, which helped argue the case for the region to become the site of the new national capital.
In this last instance, Fred was too effective for his own good. Canberra won the day, but the committee chairman had never envisaged the authorities compulsorily acquiring his property. When his daughter visited Canberra in the 1960s, she said to her son, ‘Father would have been heartbroken to see the best pasture land in Australia permanently drowned by a man-made lake.’
Fred attended some of the ceremonies staged in early 1913 to mark the birth of Canberra, but he did so begrudgingly. By this time he had been booted from his home, having received considerably less in compensation than what he believed his grand property was worth, and the Queanbeyan Age reported that many locals were aghast at the way he had been treated. He never really resettled until well into his seventies, when he began living at his Cooinbil Station in the Riverina, which he had originally purchased in the 1890s and then expanded through a series of shrewd land purchases. In one awful week during the Great War, he lost two children: Charles, missing in action over France; and John, the youngest, at home to epilepsy. Fred himself died at Narrandera in 1928, aged 82.
After leaving Yarralumla, Fred’s first stop had been ‘Bishopthorpe’, once the official residence of the Bishop of Goulburn. However, within eight months the mansion caught fire and most of its contents were destroyed, including reams of Campbell family documents. For a man who had lived by the written word, this must have been a catastrophe; one of the great Australian memoirs of the 19th century may well have been lost.
SUCH WAS THE GREAT divide between the city and the bush at this time, it is perhaps understandable that Richard Teece, one of Sydney’s most prominent businessmen and sporting identities, could remember his one-time university friend only as ‘a man named Campbell’ when he was interviewed in 1919. In an article that appeared in Old Times in July 1903 that is often quoted by rugby historians, WM ‘Monty’ Arnold, one of the founders of the Wallaroo Club in 1870, refers to Fred in a single sentence:
‘Amongst our first players, in addition to the original five who started the (Wallaroo) club, (was) Fred Campbell, a descendant of Campbell of the Wharf …’
Accompanying that Old Times article is a photo of ‘the Old Wallaroo Football team’, with Fred Campbell sitting at the far left of the middle row, a bushy moustache disguising his disability. Moustache aside, there was a definite facial resemblance between Fred and his grandson, Mr Sandy Newman, whom I met when I was researching Fred’s life. Sandy was researching his grandfather’s life in much greater depth than I had been, walking around The Rocks to the Mitchell Library in Sydney, to Canberra, the National Library, Yarralumla, the Riverina, Highgate School, Cambridge, everywhere, patiently and diligently writing and refining Fred’s story.
In 2007, some of Sandy’s research was published by the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, in an article titled ‘Frederick Campbell of Yarralumla: a forgotten pioneer pastoralist’.
Perhaps Sandy’s greatest frustration was that for most Canberra historians the story of the city seems to begin around 1913, the year his grandfather left the district. It is as if the pain and distress felt by landowners deprived of their land and homes without fair recompense is best left unmentioned. Consequently, Fred’s vision and innovation in building Yarralumla into a model station have been largely ignored, even though his land extended across what are now many of Canberra’s southern to north-western suburbs, on which ran a Merino wool clip that was regarded as one of the most valuable in the country. Forests had been efficiently cleared into prime grazing paddocks; marshy country shrewdly drained; so effective were his fences the entire property was as good as rabbit proof. Fred never fell into the trap of trying to replicate the lush grasses of England. Instead, he retained the native grasses, and the Yarralumla paddocks remained brown and productive for much of the year.
In the 1960s, Sandy Newman was a director of Cooinbil Limited, the company formed by Fred to manage his second major pastoral enterprise. ‘During those years, I had full access to all the company records,’ he explained to me, ‘and I discovered that many of the “tried and true” practices still in use had been initiated by Fred.’
Sandy believed Fred’s life was driven by two things: to overcome his speech disability and to demonstrate to his father and his peers that he had the ability and the pioneering spirit to develop and improve his pastoral business as well or better than they could have. That he did so is a source of enormous family pride.
BACK IN OCTOBER 1913, at Ryan’s Hotel in Queanbeyan, Fred found himself surrounded by family and friends for his ‘farewell’ from the district. The event was reported in extraordinary detail by the Queanbeyan Age, and it reveals much of the great man’s character, with humour and humility shining through. Crucially for me in my search for the father of rugby, it also offers unqualified confirmation of Fred Campbell’s place in the history of rugby football.
The Queanbeyan Age’s correspondent at one point writes this way of Fred’s speech …
Leaving his old home at Yarralumla had been a terrible wrench, for he had never expected to have to part from it (here the speaker became visibly affected). Had he seen what was coming, he would have endeavoured to induce the Commonwealth Government to fix their choice on Dalgety — or for the matter of that, Mount Kosciusko (laughter) — rather than Canberra …
Dalgety is in Man From Snowy River country, well south of Queanbeyan. The story continues …
There were two little matters he took particular pride in. The first was that he started rugby football in New South Wales at the University of Sydney. Football was a manly game and one he thoroughly enjoyed. It taught a person to govern his temper and play the game of life cleanly and honestly, and to otherwise behave as a true man always should ...
The second ‘little matter’ was that with a bloke named John Gale, Fred was responsible for introducing trout into New South Wales. The trick here was that he and Gale brought 300 yearling trout all the way from Ballarat in Victoria, and despite it being a ‘bitterly cold and tedious job’ they lost only three fish along the way. He described this as a ‘successful national enterprise’, and was clearly chuffed, 30 years on, that they’d had the smarts and the determination to pull off the venture.
WORK HAD BEEN COMPLETED on a new homestead at Yarralumla back in 1891, and for the next 22 years this impressive building was the Campbell’s family home. After it was decided that Canberra would become the federal capital of Australia, the first property in the district to be resumed was Duntroon, the home of three generations of Campbells, to become the site of the Royal Military College. The building in which Fred was born became the officers’ mess. The homestead at Yarralumla became ‘Government House’, the official residence of the Governor-General.
While there have been numerous additions and renovations to the Yarralumla homestead, it is still in essence the house that Fred built. Every night, if they choose, His Excellency General Sir Peter Cosgrove and his wife can acknowledge the Campbell family crest that remains on the gables. And if, on a misty moonlit evening, they hear a ghostly game of footy being played out on the lawns, they need not be alarmed.
It’ll just be Fred Campbell and his university mates George Deas Thomson and Richard Teece, a few Wallaroos, maybe Captain Ward and ‘Seppi’ Stephen, and some of the lads from old Yarralumla, playing the game cleanly and honestly, behaving as true men always should.