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Pioneers of Wellington Rugby 002: Captain James Isherwood

The Wellington Football Club 1875. James Isherwood fourth from left – a strapping gentleman who means business.

  • By Dribbling Rushes

Recognised as the founder of rugby in Wellington.

Having played in early organised matches in Wellington for Wellington selections against the crew of the HMS Rosario in 1868 (under non-rugby rules) and against Nelson in September 1870 Captain J.C.R. Isherwood was a leading proponent in getting Wellington’s first rugby club established.

Wellington was a fledgling town in 1870, with a population of about 10,000 (7,460 in 1867 and growing rapidly) and its early residents had been scared witless some 15 years earlier when the great earthquake struck in January 1855. In 1865 Wellington had been given a boost by being selected as New Zealand’s new capital. It would have been inevitable that rugby would have been started at some point, but the government aspect was a catalyst for it commencing when it did as the organiser of the first game, Charles Monro, was in town from Nelson at the time staying with his father Sir David who was the Speaker of the House.

Public school educated, James Clarendon Ramsbottom-Isherwood would have known about rugby and would have no doubt played some form of football when he was at school in England. Isherwood and mates would have taken to the new game with gusto.

Isherwood became the President and founding captain of the new Wellington Football Club, officially formed in May 1871, but unofficially backdated to the previous year by members who were at that first meeting who had gathered and kicked a ball around Clapham’s Paddock in Thorndon (now where Queen Margaret College stands).

Isherwood chose the black and gold colours of his regiment for the new club. What’s more, the regiment’s motif was a chained lion and an axe, which was on the left breast of the yellow and back hooped playing jersey.

The new club was ready for action.

Their first two matches, and thus the first two intra-district matches under rugby school rules, were played between local armed constabulary. The first on 22 July 1871 was pumped up around town all week prior and resulted in a scoreless draw.

The 1896 Wellington Rugby Union Annual records:

The formation of this club gave an impetus to the game, which began to show some slight signs of progress. Practices used to be held in Clapham’s paddock, now Fitzherbert Terrace, on which were some barracks. There was a very big gully here, and whenever the ball got into it the play was interrupted for a quarter of an hour or so while the venturesome kickists risked a broken neck in recovering it. There used to be some great hacking matches on these grounds. In one of these historical struggles Mr Isherwood had his legs so well kicked that hardly a white spot could be seen from his ankle to his knee. This was an encounter with the Armed Constabulary men, and he had as opponents three big-footed warrior, who were most proficient kickers. On one match, Billy James assures us, ‘two or three men on each side were seen to be kicking each other for all they were worth while at the other end of the field.

On 29 September 1871 the Wellington Football Club met and defeated Nelson at the Basin Reserve, which had been raised by the 1855 earthquake. Under threatening skies before a crowd of about 400, including the Governor Sir George Bowen and Lady Bowen, watching from their carriage. Wellington’s match-winning score was made late in the third quarter after a searing run by Parkes. Isherwood kicked the goal. The fourth 30-minute quarter went scoreless.

Extracts of the report of this match in the Evening Post below:

In 1872 the Wellington club travelled to Nelson for the first time and met the home side on 11 June, losing by three goals to nil. They played again four days later, which resulted in a scoreless draw.

In 1873, 1874,1875 and 1876 the Wellington club played various matches against Nelson, HMS Rosario, Greytown, Whanganui and Auckland teams, although the new rugby game almost died away in the middle of the decade with interest teetering and a lack of opposition proving a problem. The Melbourne game, now Australian Rules, very nearly took hold when the Star and Bank clubs were formed to play that game. Arthur Swan in  his tome History of New Zealand Rugby Football, Volume 1 1870-1945 suggests that if Isherwood and friends had gone over to the new game then rugby would have fallen away right there and then.

In fact in May 1875 a hybrid game with a mish-mash of rugby and Melbourne game rules between ‘Town’ and ‘Civil Service’ was played. But with the Nelson match coming up, under rugby rules, and a general sentiment to stick to the rugby game, Isherwood and teammates doubled down on rugby. Three members of the new Star Club were in the rugby team that played and drew with Nelson on 5 July and “rugby was now again definitely back into its own in Wellington. No more was heard of the suggestion that Wellington Club should change its code.” On 24 July, a drawn match at the Basin Reserve against Whanganui was played, followed by wins over the Armed Constabulary on 28 August and the Auckland Provincial Clubs on 20 September.

In 1877 a second rugby club in Wellington was formed. This was the Athletic club. Isherwood played a leading role in establishing this club too, being on the first five-man committee of Athletic.

On 19 May 1877, the Wellington and Athletic clubs met for the first time on the Basin Reserve, with Isherwood playing for Athletic. Wellington won with a try just before fulltime.

In 1879, Isherwood transferred to Palmerston North. He later moved to Christchurch and died in Lyttleton on New Year’s Day, 1913, aged 68.


  • Akers, Clive. Monro. The Life and Times of the Man who Gave New Zealand Rugby. Palmerston North. Published by Clive Akers, 2008.
  • Quinn, Keith. Give ‘Em The Axe 150 years of the Wellington Football Club. Wellington. Wakefields Digital, 2020.
  • Swan, A.C. History of New Zealand Rugby Football, Volume 1 1870-1945. Christchurch. Whitcombe and Tombs 1948.
  • The Evening Post, 30 September 1871.

Pioneers of rugby in Wellington: 001 Charles Monro

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