The First Australian Cricket Tour to England – A Look at the 1868 Aboriginal Team

There’s only one sleep to go until the start of The Ashes and I must confess to being a little like a young child excitedly waiting to spring Santa putting the presents under the tree.

It would be fair to say that I am keenly awaiting the start of this series and my mind has been in a state of hyperactivity, alternating between considering various approaches the teams might take towards victory, and remembering the great moments of the past.

Fondly I’ve remembered AB’s 1989 group, the catalyst for the revival of Australian cricket, the majesty of Terry Alderman, the drama of the Centenary Test, the great deeds of The Don, McCabe’s epic at the SCG, Warne’s raging against the dying light in 2005, the triumphant drubbing of the Old Enemy in 2006, and so many more.

Not so fondly, but equally well, my mind also turned to the Botham and Willis inspired miracle at Headingly in 1981, the gripping tension and unforgettable finish at Edgbaston in 2005, and the pain inflicted by a couple of openers 24 years apart in Chris Broad and Alistair Cook during their plunderings Down Under.

Of course no trip down memory lane can be considered complete without a visit to where things began, and so with my memory triggered by an exchange with a couple of guys on Twitter, I decided to have a look at the deeds of the first Australian team to tour England, the 1868 Aboriginal team.

In fact, a decade prior to the first official representative cricket tour of England, they were the first sporting team of any description to represent Australia overseas, a truly extraordinary happening given their legal and social status in the country at the time.

From the early 1860s there were reports of cricket matches being played between European settlers and Aboriginal stockmen on the cattle stations of western Victoria, games in which the Aborigines displayed great athleticism and aptitude for the game.

A series of matches were soon held with the intention of unearthing the strongest Aboriginal XI, and under the organisation of William Hayman, a station owner from Lake Wallace, a team was formed to play in a match held at the MCG beginning on Boxing Day 1866, one of, if not the earliest matches of the great Boxing Day tradition.

The team was coached and captained by Tom Wills, a well-known first class cricketer of the time and one of the pioneers of Australian Rules football, and the match attracted a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators, depending upon which report can be believed.

Among the audience was an entrepreneur William Broughton-Gurnett, who saw the commercial opportunity the group presented and promptly contracted them to play matches in Sydney and Brisbane, followed by a tour to England.

As sometimes happened during the early era of cricket, the promoter embezzled some of the funds raised to finance the tour, which left the players destitute in Sydney with many also in poor health.

Charles Lawrence, a professional cricketer who remained in Australia after playing with the first English team to tour Down Under in 1861, took over the coaching and captaincy of the team and organised a number of benefit matches that enabled the players to return home in May 1867.

Soon after Lawrence arranged a tour of England for the team of 16 players plus himself. This group of pioneers are listed below (traditional names in brackets):

  • Charles Lawrence – captain/coach
  • Peter (Arrahmunyarrimun)
  • Sundown (Ballrinjarrimin)
  • Tiger (Bonnibarngeet)
  • Tommy Red Cap (Brimbunyah)
  • King Cole (Bripumyarrimin)
  • Harry Bullocky (Bullchanach)
  • Mosquito (Grongarrong)
  • Two Penny (Jarrawuk)
  • Dick-a-Dick (Jumgumjenanuke)
  • Jim Crow (Lyterjerbillijun)
  • Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin)
  • Johnny Cuzens (Yellanach)
  • Jeremy Tarpot (Murrumgunerrimin)
  • Lake Billy (Mijarrie)
  • Billy Officer (Cungewarrimin)
  • Harry Rose (Hingingairah)

After a three-month odyssey to the Mother Country via boat, the team arrived on 13 May, 1868. Coming not long following the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” the team’s arrival generated considerable public interest.

Unfortunately not all of it complimentary with The Times describing the tourists as “the conquered natives of a convict colony” before going on to decry them as “a travestie upon cricketing at Lords”. Nevertheless the matches were very well attended throughout with the first match at The Oval attracting a bumper crowd of 20,000.

Of course it was not all about the cricket with cultural demonstrations being an equally, if not more, important part of the attraction for the crowd.

Dressed in traditional white trousers, the team sported distinctive bright red shirts with accompanying blue sashes and different coloured caps to assist the public in identifying the players. The players also took along traditional tribal wear such as possum cloaks and feathers into which they would change at the conclusion of play to provide demonstrations of boomerang and spear throwing, with ‘Dick-a-Dick’ also using a narrow shield, or boammer, to parry away a hail of cricket balls thrown at him by teammates.

The undoubted star of the tour was Unaarrimin (‘Johnny Mullagh’) who captured an incredible 245 wickets at an average of around 10 in addition to scoring the most runs for the tour with 1,698 as well as its highest individual score of 94.

Crisscrossing an alien country for almost six months he helped his side achieve some impressive results as they won 14, lost 14 and drew 19 matches across a gruelling 47 match itinerary, the difficulty of which was noted by Sporting Life upon their departure when they wrote “no eleven has in one season ever played so many matches so successfully – never playing less than two matches in each week, and frequently three, bearing an amount of fatigue that now seems incredible”.

Sadly it should be noted that the arduous tour saw the death of Bripumyarrimin (‘King Cole’) while in England as well as serious illnesses to another two members of the team who returned home early.

However, despite these beginnings few Aborigines have followed in the footsteps of this ground-breaking group of men.

Jarrawuk (‘Two Penny’) moved to New South Wales and featured in one match for the colony against Victoria in 1870, while Unaarrimin (‘Johnny Mullagh’) played for a short time as a professional with the Melbourne Cricket Club and also representing Victoria against the touring English side in 1879, top scoring in the second innings despite batting towards the tail, a long way from his usual club position at number three.

Many of the other players were left to obscure futures and early deaths  following the conclusion of the tour, many being forced to live on reserves.

More significantly, in 1869 The Central Board for Aborigines, held that it was illegal to remove any Aborigine from Victoria without the approval of the Minister, a ruling which effectively greatly limited opportunities for Aboriginal players. Like Jarrawuk and Unaarrimin, many Aborigines continued to play the sport, but those with ability faced continued discrimination and obstruction by cricketing and government officialdom.

Two early instances involved ‘Alec Henry’ and ‘Jack Marsh’, both of whom were terrifyingly fast bowlers in the early 1900s with impressive wicket taking records for their respective states of Queensland and New South Wales.

Some excellent performances saw both mentioned at different times in connection with higher honours only for them to be strangely judged to be throwers by umpires from that point on, although in the case of ‘Jack Marsh’ this also involved the touring English team of 1902 steadfastly refuse to play against him if selected.

Almost thirty years later ‘Eddie Gilbert’ from Queensland suffered a similar fate despite being regarded as the fastest bowler in the country and famously bowling The Don for a duck in 1931. Like Henry he protested against his unfair treatment at the hands of umpires and like Henry, who was forcibly relocated from Brisbane for “defying authority”, Gilbert also suffered and was admitted to a mental asylum.

Even to the current day there are very few indigenous players involved with the game and certainly few who have attained first class honours, and in the entire history of the game only one has worn the famous Baggy Green – the wonderfully talented Jason Gillespie who will rank among our finest ever bowlers.

It is something worth remembering when sitting down to watch the opening session on Wednesday.

Until next time … that is stumps.