From The Vaults

04 October 2021
#FromTheVaults - Photograph Album, 1891 British Isles tour of South Africa

Following this summer's Lions' tour of South Africa, we wanted to highlight this photograph album in our collection which records the events of the first British Isles tour to South Africa 130 years ago.

Donated in 2012, this large leather bound album contains photographs relating to the 1891 British Isles team and their two-month tour around South Africa. Having been invited to South Africa by the Western Province Union, the tour was sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union after the Cape Colony Prime Minister guaranteed to cover any financial losses incurred. The squad, selected by the RFU, comprised seventeen Englishmen and four Scotsmen, including the tour captain Bill Maclagan. The group featured a large contingent from the Oxbridge university teams - fourteen players from Cambridge and two from Oxford. Although they were not known as 'The Lions' at this time, the tour has been retrospectively recognised as a Lions tour. In total, they played twenty games including three Tests played at Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and Cape Town. The British Isles team won all twenty games - and conceded only one try during the whole tour!

Photographs contained in the album show the teams, the match venues and the challenging playing conditions - sun-baked pitches without any grass, which produced clouds of dust in the wake of the players as they ran. But many of the photos record the experiences of the players off the pitch, showing some of the modes of transport they used and views of the South African landscape through which they travelled. These Lions were certainly a well-travelled team: they had spent 16 days aboard a ship from Southampton and during the course of the tour, covered over 3000 miles by train, 650 by horse-drawn coach and 260 by sea. It is estimated that on their return to Plymouth, they had travelled around 16,000 miles in total.

The album is large and heavy, measuring approximately 53cm x 33cm x 7cm. When the album was donated to the museum, it was beginning to show signs of its age. Both the front and back covers had come loose and were marked extensively from insect activity. The paper had become brittle and had started flaking, and the corners of many pages were either damaged or missing.

The album was taken for conservation treatment in 2013 to ensure that it remained safe to handle and that the photos could be viewed without risk of the pages breaking. The conservator undertook surface cleaning of the pages and the cover boards. The edges and corners of the pages were consolidated and the binding was replaced. The album is now stored in a purpose-built box to keep it safe from light and dust. These measures have ensured that this invaluable photographic record of an early Lions tour is preserved for future generations of rugby historians.