The 1888 Pioneers: Journey to the other side of the world

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1888

The fastest commercially available journey to Auckland from London takes 23 hours and 50 minutes.

That’s a few films, a couple of airline meals, a change in Singapore and bingo, you are 8,817 miles away from home and, but for a few days of jet-lag, ready to tackle the Southern Hemisphere.

Rewind a little over 130 years and you’re about to embark on a journey that will take 46 days, have stops in Tenerife, Cape Town and Hobart, on a ship that had 300 stoats and weasels to control the rabbit population in New Zealand.

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That’s what The British & Irish Lions of 1888 faced ahead of the first Tour – a trip that would ultimately see those pioneers spend 249 nights away from home.

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The first Lions Tour was the brainchild of former England cricketers Alfred Shaw – who famously bowled the first ever ball in Test cricket – Arthur Shrewsbury and James Lillywhite.

1888

England provided the majority of the 22-man squad, while there was a Welshman in Richie Thomas, Scots Robert and William Burnet and Alex Laing and an Irishman in Arthur Paul.

The SS Kaikoura left Plymouth at 1.30pm on March 10, complete with our pioneers as well as its cargo of rabbit controllers, 400,000 salmon ova hatchlings for Tasmania and 4,295 mail bags for the colonies.

It was to prove an interesting trip where the passengers were cut off from the outside world with no form of communication – ship to shore radio was not yet available.

The players tried a variety of activities – from boxing to sack and wheelbarrow races – to keep themselves fit and entertained, as rugby had to be restricted after too many balls were lost overboard!

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The evenings were taken up with dinner, concerts and card games.

During the voyage Robert Seddon was elected as captain although he was destined never to finish the 1888 Tour, tragically killed in a rowing accident in Australia, and replaced by Andrew Stoddart.

One of the tourists Harry Eagles recalled: “There was also a tug-of-war, ‘Footballers v Sailors’ in which the latter were easily beaten. The various races were joined in by the passengers, crew and footballers, though the prizes in almost all the events were to the members of the team.”

It wasn’t all partying however, with the trip from Cape Town through the Indian Ocean particularly rough as Seddon reflected greenly: “Did not see sun or stars for seven days.”

Eventually they docked in Port Chalmers in Otago Bay – their first port of call after a seven-week journey of 16,000 miles by ocean.

The Lions would play Otago at the Caledonian Ground, Dunedin on April 28 in the opening match of the Tour, with Seddon’s men winning 8-3 in front of 10,000 spectators.

The 1888 tourists would go on to play 53 games in 21 weeks in Australia and New Zealand, including 19 Victorian Rules (the forerunner of Australian Rules) matches.

It was a remarkable Tour from a pioneering group of players!

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