It was an eight month sojourn to the other side of the world to play 35 matches, a further 19 games of Australian Rules Football and even a cricket match. And all with a squad of just 22 players!
The normal round of injuries took their weekly toll on the playing strength, but those first Lions were presented with a problem even as they were leaving port. Jack Clowes, a factory worker from Halifax, was selected, but shortly before the tour an allegation of professionalism was lodged against him. He admitted being paid £15 by the organisers to buy some clothes and was declared a professional by the RFU.
Clowes was already at the docks when the decision came through, so he undertook the whole eight months of the tour without playing a single game. On their return, the RFU demanded all the players sign declarations stating that they did not receive payment other than legitimate 'expenses'.
They all complied, leaving Clowes as the only officially accused professional on the tour, even though the entire side had received payments. Most notably, Andrew Stoddart, the England cricket and rugby captain, was paid £50 as a down payment to tour, with more to follow. Lesser 'gentlemen amateurs' on the tour received £200.
But while the Lions learned to live with the loss of Clowes, they were hit much harder by a tragedy midway through the tour when their captain, the England forward Robert Seddon, drowned in a sculling accident on the Hunter River in Australia. Seddon had been elected as captain a week into the voyage to New Zealand and had led his side in 19 of the 20 games played up to that stage. His last match was the 8-4 win over the University of Sydney on 11 August. He died three days later.
This is how the Brisbane Argus newspaper recorded the incident:
"Mr R. L. Seddon, the captain of the English Rugby football team, was drowned at West Maitland to-day. The footballers, after the match yesterday, were having a day's spell, and Mr Seddon visited the River Hunter, which flows past the town, for the purpose of indulging in a little sculling exercise. He procured an outrigger at the Floating Baths, and pulled some distance up the river, when the boat was accidentally overturned, and Mr Seddon was drowned. His body was recovered 20 minutes after the accident, and every means of restoring animation was tried, but without avail. Mr Seddon was watched away from the baths by two other members of the team, but he was a considerable distance away from his friends when his boat upset. Mr Seddon belonged to the Lancashire and Swinton teams, and was an international player. He had made himself exceedingly popular during the time he had been in the colonies, and his death has caused a painful sensation in athletic circles in Sydney."
If Australia wasn't the first country in which the Lions stepped foot and played, then it was almost certainly the nation in which the first thoughts of an ambitious tour by a British rugby team were conjured. That conclusion is easily reached because the promoters of the first overseas rugby tour ever undertaken were both cricket professionals who had captained England teams to Australia and knew the country, and its potential, very well.
England and Australia had been going at it hammer-and-tongs on the cricket field since 1877 and the tour promoters, Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw, had both captained England teams in Ashes series in Australia. In fact, Shaw had played in the very first Test match between the two countries at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1877.
Although they had approached the RFU and asked them to sanction and run the tour, there was little or no appetite for the exercise from the then dominant rugby authority in the game. The lack of sanction from the RFU meant a large number of the best players refused to make the trip. In the end, no Irishmen joined the party - Arthur Paul was born in Belfast, but lived and played his rugby in England - there was only one Welshman in Will Thomas and the rest were from the North of England and the Scottish Borders.
Shrewsbury and Shaw, who had played together as professionals at Nottinghamshire and with England, undertook the trip as a purely financial exercise. They had done a similar exercise with an England cricket team in 1881, travelling to Australia, New Zealand and America, and the Lions rugby trip followed on from another England cricket 'promotion' to Australia in 1887.
Did they make money from the exercise? No. It was costing them £400 per week to keep the tour going and they were living off 80% of the gates at the matches they played. There were some tough negotiations along the way, especially in Australia, where the Aussie Rules matches were probably thrown into the playing equation merely to make ends meet because they attracted bigger crowds.
It was estimated that their cricket trip in 1887 / 88 left them with a shortfall of £2,400 and they then suffered a £600 loss on the rugby venture.
Following the terrible accident on the Hunter River, a third Test cricketer moved to centre stage. Andrew Stoddart may not be a household name in sporting circles these days, but just before the turn of the 19th century he was one of the biggest names around.
For not only did the son of a Durham colliery owner play rugby and cricket for England, he also played in 28 of the 35 games on the first Lions tour. The bare statistics of a man who captained England four times in 10 appearances at rugby, and eight times in 16 Tests at cricket, don't tell half of the story of how talented a sportsman he was.
As well as taking over the leadership of the first Lions tour, he twice returned to Australia as captain of the England cricket team and won the Ashes 3-2 in 1984 / 95.
It was Stoddart the Lions turned to after the tragic loss of the 28-year-old Seddon and he ended the tour with 73 points from is 28 appearances and ensured there were no more defeats in the remaining 15 matches. More than that, on their return to New Zealand the Lions immediately gained revenge over Auckland with a 3-0 victory that avenged their 4-0 defeat in the final fixture of the nine they played on the first leg of their epic tour.
'Drewy', as he was affectionately known, had set off for Australia in late September, 1887 as a member of George Vernon's touring cricket side. His personal trip, including cricket and rugby, meant he had been away from home for more than a year by the time he arrived back on 11 November.
He played in the first of eight games for the cricket side at the Adelaide Oval on 28 October, 1887. His last outing for them was on 9 March, 1888. In between, he found time to make his Test debut for England in the only Ashes Test match of that year in Sydney.
England won with Stoddart opening the innings with Shrewsbury at the Association Ground. His final cricket game came on 9 March, the day after the 21 other rugby tourists had set sail for New Zealand. By the time they arrived they found Stoddart raring to go and he lined-up in the first game against Otago - and almost every game thereafter. By the time the tourists moved on to Australia, Stoddart must have been suffering from a sense of déjà vu.
The first of the 16 games played in Australia was against New South Wales at the same venue as Stoddart had helped the England XI retain the Ashes four months earlier. Move on a month, and he was showing off his skills at Aussie Rules as the Lions played a sequence of 19 'exhibition' matches. Among the nine British victories were wins over Port Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval, another venue at which he had played cricket earlier in the year, and a return to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to meet Carlton in front of a crowd of 20,000.
The first game the 1888 tourists played was on Saturday, 28 April at the Caledonian Ground, Dunedin against Otago. Even though the Lions went behind, they emerged triumphant by 8-4 with the Salford and Lancashire forward Tom Kent earning the distinction of becoming the first try and points scorer for the Lions.
There were only two defeats in nine games on the first-leg of the New Zealand visit - a 1-0 defeat to the Taranaki Clubs and a 4-0 loss to Auckland - before the tour party moved on the Australia.
During their travels in Australia, a reporter for the Otago Witness managed to undertake an interview with the captain, Robert Seddon, shortly before his tragic accident and asked him what he thought of the standard of the game in New Zealand and Australia. This was his response:
"Throughout New Zealand the men, individually are quite equal to our own players, but they seem to play exactly as we did in England two or three years ago. In England the game is cut so very fine that we have found out all the fine points and we utilised our knowledge in New Zealand, and whilst the players there perhaps take a couple out of five chances we score four out of five. The style of passing the ball in New Zealand is certainly not equal to ours. Their idea of passing is to throw the ball behind without looking where their men are placed. My opinion of passing is that a man should never pass unless the man he passes to is in a better position than himself, and if he is charged he should turn his back towards the man who does so, and pass with both hands. I have continually drilled into our fellows the necessity of using both hands. The New Zealanders seemed to think that passing with one hand is good enough, but that is a mistake."
He also responded to allegations of foul play from his team:
"The only time we have been accused of roughness was at Wellington and considering that up to half-time four of our men had been carried out of the field I think the roughness was on the other side. We heard before we got to Wellington what to expect there. I told their captain, King, that if their men did not play less roughly I would withdraw my team from the, field, as we had only a certain number of men to fall back upon during the whole of our tour. King said they ought to give and take in a game of the kind. It was very well for King because Wellington could easily supply half-a-dozen men for vacancies. We were treated splendidly in Otago. I do not think there is much difference between the provinces Canterbury, Otago, and Auckland, so far as play is concerned. The Taranaki backs were certainly the best tacklers we have met. In the second half we pressed the game, but could not score, owing to their splendid tackling. They won this match, but it must be remembered we had travelled all night by steamer, on which we could not get berths. We landed at 11 o'clock in the morning and played in the afternoon."
The skipper also jumped to the defence of the non-playing Paul Clowes:
"We cannot play Clowes at all. I think the Rugby Union have dealt harshly with him. Had he known he would become a professional for accepting a comparatively small sum of money for his outfit he would not have taken it. He wanted to give the money back through the secretary of the union. The Yorkshire County have been trying to get the disqualification removed without success. It is stated that the whole of the members of the present team will be called upon to show cause why they should not be deemed professionals?-If I am called upon I will ignore the matter altogether. They must prove me to be a professional. I do not think I ought to be called upon to prove I am not. One of their rules is simply that clubs can pay travelling and hotel expenses for their players, and what more has been done in this instance I do not know. So far as I can judge not one of our players has received any money for his services. I have not, and I know for a certainty others have not."
And as for the state of the game in New South Wales:
"We were well treated there. The New South Wales players are certainly not up to the New Zealand standard. Generally they are much too small for Rugby. They are thus placed at a disadvantage. They have some smart players, but I think a "good big one" is better than a "good little one." They are three or four years behind the time."
The first game on Australian soil was at the Sydney Association Cricket Ground against New South Wales. There were 18,000 people at the game, including 'His Excellency the Governor', and the Lions ran out winners 18-2. Harry Eagles, the Swinton and Lancashire forward, scored the first 'Lions' points on Aussie soil with his first-half try.
The 'Lions' remained unbeaten in nine games in Australia, including a win over an 18 strong Sydney University side as they travelled from Sydney, to Brisbane, to Melbourne and back to Sydney, although they did draw 10-10 with Kings School, Sydney, and 2-2 with Sydney Grammar School.
It would be another 11 years until the Lions returned to Australia for a stand-alone tour of 21 games - and the first Test series in that country. The Australians made a great start to their international career as they gave the Reverend Matthew Mullineaux's tourists a real bloody nose at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 24 June, 1899.
It was a case of unlucky 13 for the Lions on Aussie soil as it was their first defeat in the country. The 13-3 victory by Frank Row's home side was also only the second Test defeat the Lions had suffered in eight games - they had won six in a row in South Africa in 1891 and 1896 before losing the fourth Test on the latter tour - and gave the Australians a huge boost at the start of the four test series.
The Lions hit back, however, to win the series 3-1 and only lost two more matches on the trip. There was a crowd of 28,000 for the first Test in Sydney, while Stadium Australia held 84,188 fans for the third and final Test on the Lions' last tour to Australia in 2001.
Paul O'Connell's 2009 tourists recaptured the true spirit of the Lions, as well as being highly competitive on the field, so whoever leads the team Down Under in 2013 will at least go into the tour on the back of a Test victory in the final game in South Africa.
Not that winning in Australia will be an easy task against one of the teams who are among the bookies favourites to surprise everyone at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and go on to win the Webb Ellis Trophy for a record third time.
When you look at the young and maturing talent available to current Wallaby coach Robbie Deans - Quade Cooper, Will Genia, David Pocock, James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Rob Horne - it is easy to see why the expectation is already rising for the next Lions series.
That last encounter between the two teams ended with a series deciding 29-23 victory for John Eales' men over Martin Johnson's tourists. The game hung in the balance until the dying moments after the Lions had won the first Test and the Aussies the second.
The Lions have been more successful in Australia than in any other country down the years, leading the overall Test series by 15 wins to five. Will the 2013 Lions be able to maintain those statistics?
It promises to be another epic series showdown between two of world rugby's longest standing rivals. Don't miss it!