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Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 023: James Prendeville

There were several rugby administrative colossuses in Wellington in the first half of the twentieth century, including James Prendeville profiled below.

James ‘Jim’ Prendeville served many years in administration in Wellington Rugby and later New Zealand Rugby and was later a co-founder of the Centurions Rugby Football Club.

Prendeville was born in Wellington in 1876 and educated at Wellington College and later Canterbury and Victoria Universities.

He was a lawyer by profession and rose through the ranks to start his own law firm in the Wairarapa in 1905 and became Town Clerk of Eketahuna. In 1912 he became a Major in the New Zealand Territorial Forces and was Officer commanding the Ninth Wellington East Coast Mounted Rifles from 1914 to 1920.

He shifted back to Wellington to become the Crown Solicitor in Wellington in 1917 – a post he held until his retirement in 1950.

As a player in his youth, Prendeville was a wing forward and played for the Karori Football Club and was in the inaugural Wellington College Old Boys Senior Championship team in 1900 that also included future All Blacks Mona Thomson, Eddie Watkins and Ernie Dodd. He moved over to the Wairarapa and  before representing Wairarapa in 1904, 1905 and 1908 (and possibly earlier and in between years). He was player-manager for Wairarapa in 1904.

He also had seven siblings. An E.C. Prendeville played for the Wellington representative side out of University in 1908 and again in 1915 out of Poneke. So, it is likely he was a brother.

A ‘J. Prendeville’ was also a noted track athlete, Wellington champion in the early 1900s over both one and two miles. So this probably was either James himself or one of his brothers.

What is certain is that the Prendeville this article refers to served as WRFU Chairman continuously from 1921-1936.

He took over the union’s Chairmanship from Oriental’s Bill Hornig (later All Blacks manager to South Africa in 1928), who in turn had succeeded D.D. Weir who has been WRFU Chairman in the war years 1915-18 but had sadly died from the influenza epidemic.

Prendeville’s time in the chair coincided with a booming club rugby scene, with player numbers rising a third to over 3,500 per season by the 1930s, but a fading Wellington representative side whose glory days over the first two decades of the century (interrupted by four years of war) faded from the early 1930s..

He presided over positive changes to Athletic Park, the home of rugby in Wellington. In 1922 and following the 1921 All Blacks-Springboks test that saw the western bank side of the ground turn into a dangerous morass, concrete terraced seating was built on the western bank. In 1929, following several years of fund-raising, the Rintoul Street ‘Main’ Stand was opened. This provided undercover seating for 5,000 spectators and included new changing rooms and a function room.  A new lease was signed on the park and scoreboard erected. The stand was opened on 21 June 1929, in the WRFU’s 50th year. A new ‘Jubilee Cup’ was presented as the main Senior A club championship prize.

Athletic Park’s Western Bank circa 1920. PHOTO: Part 1 of a 2 part panorama of crowds at Athletic Park, Berhampore. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-024840-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23200510

Prendeville represented New Zealand at the International Rugby Conference in London in 1935, along with Stan Dean, also from Wellington, and the then NZRU Chairman.

Prendeville was succeeded by then WRFU executive member and Wellington representative team selector/coach Norman Millard, who would be Chairman between 1937-1964. Millard left a legacy on Athletic Park, with the western stand opened in 1961 named after him.

Another long-serving administrator throughout most of Prendeville’s time involved with the WRFU was A.E. Neilson, who was WRFU Secretary from 1924-48.

Prendeville was made a Life Member of the WRFU in 1937, the same year he joined the NZRU Executive. He held that position with the WRFU from 1937-1947, before he was elected WRFU President in 1948 and made a Life Member of New Zealand Rugby that same year.

In early 1939, Prendeville and Gerald Hill ‘Sandy’ Weir discussed the formation of a club akin to the Auckland Barbarians club. Weir served 28 years as Club Captain of the Wellington Football Club and was the Axemen’s President in 1954.

An initial meeting was held on 5 July 1939, in which the Centurions RFC was formed. Prendeville was elected the ingaurgal President of the Centurions.

Prendeville died in Wellington on 5 March 1951, aged 75.

Article references:

  • The Dominion and Evening Post files, various articles 1920s and 1930s
  • Donoghue, Tim. Athletic Park. A Lost Football Ground. Tim Donoghue Publications. Wellington, 1999.
  • Swan, Arthur and Jackson, Gordon FW. Wellington’s Rugby History 1870-1950. AH. and A.W. Reed, Wellington 1952.

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