Rugby has a special place in New Zealand’s social and sporting history. It is the national sport. The man credited with introducing rugby to New Zealand is the Nelson-born Charles Monro.
Charles was the son of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, David Monro, and was initially educated at Nelson College. In 1867, having just turned 16, he left for England to be educated for a possible career in the army. Monro had told his parents before leaving New Zealand that he didn't want to join the army. For two years he attended Christ’s College at Finchley, near London. The school played football according to Rugby School rules, and Charles played for the second team (of three).
Monro’s father had by mid-1869 accepted that his son did not want a military career and Charles returned to Nelson in January 1870. He joined the Nelson Football Club, which played a mixture of association (‘soccer’) and Melbourne (Australian) rules football. Monro persuaded the club to try rugby’s handling code. Nelson College’s headmaster, the Reverend Frank Simmons, was himself a graduate of Rugby School and agreed that the school would also adopt the game. On Saturday 14 May 1870 the Nelson Club and Nelson College met in New Zealand’s first official rugby match. It was played at the Botanical Reserve in front of 200 curious spectators, including Sir David and Lady Monro. Each team had 18 players, and Charles Monro played for the club side, which won 2-0.
The Nelson Club now had ambitions for wider contests. Monro was invited to arrange a game with a Wellington team which was cobbled together largely from old boys of English public schools. He then arranged with Julius Vogel, the Colonial Treasurer, to have the Nelson team brought across on the Luna, the government steamer. After some difficulty finding a suitable ground, a flat area at Petone was used for this first inter-provincial match, which was played before a handful of spectators. Nelson won 2-1 in what was to become an annual fixture between the two.
Over the next few years rugby clubs sprang up across New Zealand as the rugby rules introduced by Monro spread to other parts of the colony. The first provincial unions were formed in Canterbury and Wellington in 1879, with a number of others emerging over the next decade or so. The formation in 1892 of a New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) led to the standardisation of the playing of the game around the country.
During the 1870s and 1880s Charles Monro lived a varied and unsettled life. After spending some time in England and continental Europe he returned to New Zealand, where he married Helena (‘Lena’) Macdonald in 1885. Four years later he purchased land at Fitzherbert, across the Manawatū River from Palmerston North, where he built a large house, Craiglockhart. He and Lena had five children.
Monro does not seem to have retained a special interest in rugby after he stopped playing in 1875. His sporting interests had always been broad. In March 1871 he took part in the first game of polo played in New Zealand, and he was a founding member and president of the Manawatu Golf Club. As befitted ‘a gentleman of means’, Monro played croquet at Craiglockhart and enjoyed billiards and snooker at the Manawatu Club.
Charles Monro died on 9 April 1933, aged 82. Official recognition for his contribution to establishing the game in this country had come only in 1928. He is now rightfully recognised as the ‘father of New Zealand rugby’.
By Steve Watters