“AN UNENTHUSIASTIC PLAYER IS BETTER ON THE BANK”
The Karori Rugby Football Club (1876-1983)
By Gordon Noble-Campbell.
The No. 1 field at Ian Galloway (formerly “Western”) Park, locally and colloquially known as “the Cage”, has been the scene of many titanic battles of the Western Suburbs Rugby Football Club, arguably Wellington’s most important club in existence today. “Wests” is the custodian of the history and legacy of three of Wellington’s formerly prestigious suburban Rugby Union clubs, following their amalgamation in 1983: Karori (founded in 1876); Athletic (founded in 1877); and Onslow (founded in 1922).
Today, the flat, raised platform at the south-western end of the No. 1 field, just off Seaforth Terrace (adjacent to the new BMX track), is the unmarked former site of the former Karori Rugby Football Club gymnasium (pictured above), which was originally built in 1957 for 6,000 pounds. The gymnasium was moved to its present location deep among the Karori tombstones, in March 1975.
Wellington’s “Western Park” (named in 1923) has always been important to Karori rugby. It was built by relief labour for the unemployed in 1927 on 14 acres of land acquired from the Karori Cemetery, following an earlier suggestion from the Old Boys Club in 1911 to acquire the land “not used for burials”, for the purposes of rugby. The first Rugby Union fixture was played there in 1928, between the Karori and Technical Old Boys clubs Fourth Grade sides, a year when Karori fielded no fewer than five teams in the Wellington competition.
However the story of the club began some 50 years earlier, in June 1876, when members of the Karori Cricket Club including Arthur Glasson, Thomas Lewis, Ernest Porter and Francis Cole decided to form a football team to play the Wellington Football Club at the Basin Reserve. While conventional rugby history suggests that the fledgling club disbanded in the year it was formed, the era was one in which the Rules of the Game were fluid and still in formation, with some clubs toying with all new variations of the traditional football code, including “the Victorian game”.
New research suggests that the Karori Football Club continued to exist through this period. In 1880 a match was reported as being played “in a paddock kindly lent to the club by Mr. [Patrick] Monaghan”. It was noted that “the game was well contested by both sides, the members showing a deal of energy and perseverance, and there is no doubt that with some practice this club will become one of the best of the country district clubs.” In 1884, the Club finally and formally decided to adopt the Rugby Union variant of the football game and played matches against the “Rugby”, “Union” and “Poneke” clubs. Karori was therefore, most likely the second club formed in Wellington based on the Rugby Union rules, (after the Wellington Football Club), with its 107 year history worthy of greater community recognition.
Two prominent local identities were to provide the Club with key support in its formative years, Benjamin George Henry Burn and John Burns. Burn and Burns were both major figures in the development of Karori as a Wellington suburb, both were members of the Karori Borough Council and both were Patrons of the Karori Rugby Football Club at different times.
In the early part of last century, finding grounds on which to train and play sport was challenging. The vexed question of establishing grounds for the Club was eventually resolved through the efforts of Ben Burn, the former Mayor of Karori Borough, (whose name is commemorated today in the five acre park which was developed by the Wellington City Council on Campbell Street, after World War 2, in 1949). As early as 1903, the Club’s Secretary wrote “asking the Council to rent a ground for football, as the cricket ground was entirely unfitted for winter games, on account of an asphalt cricket pitch being in the centre of it”, however the Club was unable to secure permanent facilities.
In 1910, Burn became a Councillor (and Patron of the Club). Due to his influence, the Council agreed to allot the three available football grounds in Karori (at Karori Park) to Rugby Union “for safeguarding the interests of the local club”, with a senior match to be played there “at least every alternate Saturday”. That year, the Club had only one team, entered in the Third Grade, which won 11 of 15 games played.
Following a period of recess during World War 1, John Burns became Patron of the revived Club in 1922. Burns was a foundation member of the Melrose Club, was for some time a member of the Management Committee of the Wellington Rugby Union, and acted as Manager of representative Wellington rugby teams travelling the North and South Islands. As part of the “Burns Club”, as the Karori Borough Council became known while both Burn and Burns were both members, John Burns ensured that Karori Park continued to be a key venue for Rugby Union within Wellington City.
By 1928, the Club had teams in the Junior, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh grades, with the period before World War 2 seeing the Club secure a number of lower-grade Championship Titles. In 1935, Karori fielded four teams, however none of them were in the Senior Grades, which was a cause of disappointment for the Club and wider community. In an attempt to attract players with better training facilities, the Club committed 200 pounds to the erection of a gymnasium on Karori Park in 1936.
Perhaps as a result of the suburb’s more talented players playing the game elsewhere, by 1937 the numbers of registered players were falling, with the Club Committee noting that “an unenthusiastic player was better on the bank than in active service”. The infantile paralysis (polio) epidemic of that year also saw the Seventh Grade team withdrawn from competition further reducing those on the field. However, player numbers were reported to have improved by 100% the following year.
In 1941, the club once again went into recess for the duration of World War 2, having first made a 100 pound interest-free loan to the Government’s War Expense Fund, and then revived in 1944.
The post-war years, around the time that Karori became New Zealand’s most populous suburb, were very successful for the Club, winning Division 2 of the Junior Grade in 1949, promotion to the Junior First Division in 1951 and 1960, also winning the Third Grade Third Division in 1951 and 1959 and winning the Third Grade Second Division in 1963.
In 1964 the Club played in the promotion/relegation match to move to the Senior Second Division, however was defeated by Onslow, 19-6. Two years later, a match to earn promotion to the Senior Third Division was lost to Porirua, 11-9. In the period prior to amalgamation, the Club continued to compete in Wellington Rugby’s Junior Grade, finishing fifth in 1976.
The legacy of the Karori Rugby Football Club is still physically present today, in the form of the Western Suburbs RFC gymnasium at Ian Galloway Park. Karori is still the largest suburb in Wellington City, which when combined with Northland, Wilton, Ngaio and Khandallah, comprises just under 20% of Wellington’s population. However, since amalgamation 35 years ago, the number of senior teams fielded by Western Suburbs RFC has fallen to just one, highlighting there are definitely now more “players on the bank, than in active service”.
Wellington’s Ghost Clubs parts 1-11:
Part 1: Kaiwarra Rugby Football Club – http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2651
Part 2: “A Tale of Three Churches and Three Clubs” – St. John’s, St. David’s, St. James’s http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2663
Part 3: Polhill Gully RFC,Mitchelltown http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/national/story.php?id=2668
Part 4: The All Black Plumbers” – Selwyn Football Club, Thorndon http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2671
Part 5: Carlton Football Club http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2676
Part 6: Brooklyn Rugby Football Club http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2679
Part 7: The Wednesday Football Club http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2684
Part 8: Kia Ora from Lower Hutt http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/taranaki/story.php?id=2689
Part 9: Berhampore http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/national/story.php?id=2692
Part 10: Ghost Club Identities http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=2694
Part 11: Wadestown RFC http://www.clubrugby.co.nz/wellington/story.php?id=3031