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.