From The Vaults

29 August 2022
#FromTheVaults - Anglo-Welsh Tour Souvenirs, 1908

What kind of souvenirs have you brought home from your summer holiday? When Tom Smith visited New Zealand and Australia as part of the British Isles touring team in 1908, he returned home with a boomerang and what we believe to be a cocoa pod.

Tom Smith played for Leicester between 1906 and 1908. He was invited to play for the British Isles team which toured New Zealand and Australia between May and September 1908. It is often described as the Anglo-Welsh tour, because the Scottish and Irish unions declined to be involved. The team was captained by Welsh forward Arthur 'Boxer' Harding. The tour comprised 26 matches - 17 in New Zealand (including three Test matches against the All Blacks), then 9 in Australia.

The museum collection contains several letters that Smith sent to a cousin back in England. Some were written aboard RMS Athenic and document his time at sea. He remarks on how strange it is to go 'day after day and nothing to see but water' - but when he wrote these lines, they had not yet reached Tenerife. He says: 'She is such a beautiful ship [and] goes so smoothly', repeatedly stating that he has not succumbed to the seasickness afflicting some of his teammates. They still managed to train aboard the ship however: 'We get up at 6.30am and have a course of exercise and then a cold sea water bath'. Another training session in the afternoon was followed by dinner.

Occasionally there were competitions and events to keep the passengers entertained - Smith came second in the skipping race, and he reluctantly participated in a line-crossing ceremony when the ship crossed the Equator. It was not all plain sailing, however, and the realities of a long sea voyage later hit home: 'There was a funeral on Saturday. A little boy in the third class died. It is a very solemn affair to see a funeral at sea…'

Thanks to 'exceptionally good weather, fair winds and fast current', the voyage to New Zealand was - at six weeks - relatively quick. Smith is very complimentary about the hospitality of their hosts, noting that 'the New Zealand Union are sparing us nothing in the way of entertainments.' His letters describe several sightseeing visits, including a trip up the Whanganui River and a visit to Rotorua.

'We were shown round the hot springs and mud pools in the morning… It is a marvellous place. Fancy seeing boiling water shooting up in the air from the geysers […] We were all very sorry to leave Rotorua. Everyone enjoyed himself there. The Māoris are such good-natured people and the little kiddies made such a fuss of our boys'.

The arrival of the Anglo-Welsh team in Australia was somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of the American fleet in Sydney. Over half a million people turned out to see sixteen battleships on their global circumnavigation. (Smith comments: 'The English Jack Tars would knock spots off them.')

The boomerang is likely to have been acquired as a souvenir. The wood has subsequently been carved with a kangaroo, an emu and what appears to be the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bridge was not built until 1932, so the carved details emblematic of Australia must have been added at a later date. Smith also brought home what we believe to be a cocoa pod, the size and shape of a rugby ball. In the days of sailing, a visit to New Zealand and Australia would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and these treasured souvenirs would have reminded Smith of the landscapes, cultures and traditions he had encountered.