A decade before Australia sent a team of white men to play cricket against the English, a team of Aboriginals had a successful 1868 tour.
Story By John Dunn
For most, Australia’s cricket history revolves around the great grounds of the capital cities and, to a lesser extent, places like Cootamundra and Bowral in New South Wales where Sir Donald Bradman was born and grew up. But what about Harrow?
What on earth has this tiny Victorian town of about 100 people got to do with the origins of Australian cricket, you might wonder? A lot, actually. It was from this area, in the state’s western district, that the first Australian cricket team to tour England originated and that was in 1868 a good 10 years before the first white Australian team sailed away to confront the English.
Harrow is 378 kilometres west of Melbourne and was, and is, the centre of a vast area of rich agricultural land that today encompasses thriving rural centres such as Horsham and Hamilton and some smaller towns like Casterton, Coleraine and Edenhope. When the early European settlers established their properties in the 1830s their recreational activities followed their British heritage and cricket became the game they played.
Many of the big sheep stations formed their own teams that included some of the Aborigines they employed as shepherds and stockmen. Of course the Aborigines had no background in the sport but they were athletic and quick in the field because of their reflexes developed through hunting and bush survival. They were keen to learn. Local station owners such as Tom Hamilton of Bringalbert, David Edgar of Pine Hill, J.C. Fitzgerald of Mullagh, the Officer family of Mt Talbot and William Hayman of Lake Wallace encouraged their Aboriginal workmen to play.
Jim McKay, Chief Executive Officer of West Wimmera Shire Council, which now administers this area, says in the 1860s it was “a cradle of cricket” for the Aborigines, with many playing. This led Hayman to encourage Tom Wills, a well-known cricketer and footballer, to captain a team of Aborigines in a match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1866. It drew 8,000 people and created such wide interest that a Sydney visitor, William Broughton-Gurnett, saw the potential for a tour to Sydney and England. He took the team to New South Wales but it did not succeed there because it played poorly and failed to attract the crowds that would have provided the necessary finance for the overseas trip.
However, an Englishman, Charles Lawrence, believed a tour of his homeland would work. He had remained in Australia at the end of the 1861 tour by an England team to do some coaching and was convinced that an Aboriginal side would be a huge hit there. So, using Wills’ players as a nucleus, he put together a group that he believed would acquit itself well overseas. The members assembled at Edenhope and in wagons they set off for Warrnambool, Mortlake and Geelong for practice matches.
However, not everyone was enamoured with this venture and it was strongly opposed by Victoria’s Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines which was not convinced the members would have sufficient supervision and was worried they could be stranded in England. Lawrence overcame this by taking the team to Queenscliff for what was described as a fishing trip. In fact the fishing boat took them just outside Port Phillip Heads where they boarded the Rangatira and sailed to Sydney and then to England.
This story excerpt is from Issue #53
Outback Magazine: June/July 2007