researched & written by Ron Grainger
The story of Melbourne’s Alexander (Alec) William Pearson: Australia’s First Rugby International
It’s doubtful if any of those in the party from Guy’s Hospital Rugby Club, enjoying a drink before heading off to the 2001 Lions match in Melbourne, realised that they were only a metaphorical stone’s throw from the venue where Alexander (Alec) William Pearson played his last rugby match, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Or, even if they did, that one of his England caps was stored away there, deep down in the vaults of the National Sports Museum.
Those 21st century representatives of the world’s oldest football club, founded in 1843, were soon to board trams and taxis and be spirited westward to what was then called the Colonial Stadium in docklands, the venue almost exactly one year earlier of the first ever Rugby Test match (Australia v South Africa) to be played under a closed roof.
Meanwhile, back in the darkness of the Sports Museum vaults, the much faded England cap bore the numbers 1875-6-7-8 to indicate the years during which Alec was selected to play for England. He would have had those years embroidered on one of the caps awarded for each of his seven games, a practice which some players started back in the 1870’s and which continued until after the Second World War. But on that evening back in 2001 Alec’s selection as an England player would have been far from the thoughts of the Guy’s Hospital party, even those who might have known that during his time as an international he was also playing for Blackheath and for their Club.
His journey on the road to fame as the first Australian born international began at Mt. Ridley, near Craigieburn, north of Melbourne in Victoria, on 30 September 1853. That was itself another first, the birth of a son in the newly built homestead, situated on an elevated site on part of the land which his father, seafaring Captain James Pearson, had progressively leased and purchased since 1842, some before he sailed to England and married for the second time, and some after he returned in 1847.
Scottish born Captain Pearson had first married in Sydney in 1835 but his wife and all their children had died by 1841 and he married again in England in 1846, returning with his new wife, Augusta, to settle in Victoria and start his second family in Pt. Phillip or Melbourne. He named Mt. Ridley after a rocky outcrop near the Devon home of Augusta and from 1850 it was the home of the Captain and his second family.
The second child of that second family, James Godfrey, was born in Melbourne on 22 August 1848 and when the family left for England ten years later it was in part to obtain an education for him and his younger brother Alec and they were both to be enrolled at the Blackheath Proprietary School in Greenwich, London. That school had been founded in 1830 and by then, three decades later, had acquired an imposing reputation for academic achievement. Although now long since closed it lives on in the form of the famous Football Club, founded in 1858 to cater primarily for old boys of the school. From 1862 it was also the first ‘open’ rugby club, ‘open’ in the sense that anyone, not just former Blackheath pupils, could apply to join. This club went on to take a leading part in the formation of the Rugby Football Union.
Both Pearson boys were to play rugby for the Blackheath Proprietary School and Club, quite often in the same team, and an account of those times and of their career in English rugby now follows. Because rugby did not feature much in their lives after they returned to Victoria I have only included a summary of that in the form of an addendum.
For those fortunate enough to be able to participate in the rugby game these must have been stirring times. While the Rugby Football Union was yet to be established and the first International matches yet to be held, it was being taken up with enthusiasm by a fast growing number of schools, universities and clubs, not just throughout the four ‘home’ countries and colonies but in places as far apart as Uruguay and Germany. It made for a heady mix of challenges and debates between aficionados, some wearing the colourful jerseys of new clubs bearing exotic names. As ever, the rules (soon to be Laws) were constantly being refined and augmented and all this activity must have helped to engage the interest of schoolboys such as the Pearson brothers.
Although we cannot be sure how long it was before Alec commenced school after arriving in England in 1858 there are reports which indicate that ten years later, by the age of thirteen or fourteen, he was playing in the 3rd XX or some other school side and by age fifteen in the 2nd XX. In later years he is playing in the Blackheath School ‘Firsts’, invariably as one of the two Backs but also with Old Boys and other teams such as Cleveden against a range of other clubs. The number of his appearances multiplied and he appeared to be playing on weekdays or weekends indeed at every opportunity, sometimes by 1872 or 1873 for the Blackheath club for which his older brother James was also playing, usually at Half, often as captain.
But by the age of nineteen Alec had become noted for his hard tackling and long drop kicks and was much sought after, his first call to play at an ‘elite’ level in the team representing the South in the second of the annual North v South matches. His opportunistic appearances with other clubs had paid off as his reported affiliation then, and at some of the Trials and Tests to come, was not Blackheath, but Guy’s Hospital.
His initial connection with Guy’s is stated to be as a first year student registered in 1873, when he would have been about twenty years old. However nobody claims to have ever seen him studying there and he obviously regarded it as more important to represent that institution on the rugby field. A similar arrangement must have applied during the cricket season when, through much of the ‘seventies, he seems to have put in an appearance for Blackheath or Guy’s, or indeed any other convenient club short on the day of a middle order batsman or an all rounder. This practice was to also pay dividends when he later found that he had been chosen to play for Guy’s in the first Inter-Hospital Football Cup decider.
The first major contest in which Alec Pearson was invited to participate was in the second of the North v South matches, claimed by one source to have been instituted primarily in order to provide a fair opportunity for northern players to be assessed as future England players. Rugby was chosen for the initial match (on 31 January 1874) as being a ‘neutral’ ground. That reasoning doesn’t seem to have been fully applied in the following years when it was decided to alternate between southern and northern venues and although somewhere described as being at the pinnacle of good rugby that ranking might at least be questionable. One might also ponder whether the objective was largely unattainable after the breakaway of many strong northern clubs in 1895. Nevertheless the event remained in the rugby calendar until 1908. Perhaps, considering that by the ‘seventies county cup competitions had become popular and the County Championship, longest running of any RFU competition, was to start in 1889, this says something about the resilience of the sport.
Suffice it to here identify by his initials the three years in which Alec ‘got a guernsey’ (blue as opposed to the North’s white; at least in 1875 when he didn’t play).
First Rugby; 31 January 1874
Second Kennington Oval; 19 December 1874 (A.W.P.)
Third Whalley Range, Manchester; 15 December 1875
Fourth Kennington Oval; 9 December 1876 (A.W.P.)
Fifth Whalley Range, Manchester 15 December 1877 (A.W.P.)
After his first experience of North v South, and presumably several Trial games, Alec made his first appearance in a Test. This match, held at Kennington Oval was the first occasion on which Ireland featured in the international rugby calendar, thirteen of their number having come from Dublin and seven from the then Northern Football Union in Belfast, each clad in a green and white striped jersey with a shamrock at the breast. England meanwhile were complete in white jersey with red rose, white knickerbockers, dark brown stockings and rose coloured cap. In this first international for Alec, who had been picked for his hard tackling and kicking, he amply justified his selection by making the one successful converting kick. Not unexpectedly England won, this time by 1 goal, one drop goal and one try to nil.
Guy’s Hospital Rugby Club (GKT Rugby Football Club from 1999) is generally recognised as the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1853. It certainly is the first winner of the oldest cup competition in the game of rugby, since on Wednesday 3 March 1875 at the Oval it defeated St George’s Hospital Rugby Club by 1 Goal and 1 try to 2 tries in the inaugural contest for the INTER-HOSPITAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP CUP. In that game Alec prevented two almost certain tries by St George by touching down inside Guy’s in goal area. Evidently the Guy’s Hospital players were awarded individual tankards in recognition of that momentous win. The tankard shown here (below) is inscribed with the name of A W Pearson .
This match was held at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, under sunny blue skies and with a pitch in perfect order. On this particular Monday (almost all these early Test matches were, for some obscure reason, held on a Monday) Scotland, having won the toss, took advantage of kicking off with the stiff breeze at their backs, a breeze which had mainly expired by half time. Play was mostly in the forwards and was reckoned to be one of the fastest international matches seen to date. Alec was commended for his sure tackling and strong kicking although in the prevailing conditions he just failed with a 30 yard place kick and at a later stage was tackled after a good run to within ten yards of the line. This was just before ‘no side’ was called and the match ended as a nil all draw. Notwithstanding, the various football toasts at the after match dinner were to evoke ‘unbounded enthusiasm.’
At the Leinster Cricket Ground in Dublin, the first rugby test match to be held on Irish soil. It was soil over which a hard frost had recently prevailed but fortunately on the previous day a thaw had set in. The Irish this time turned out in navy blue knickerbockers and stockings but inexplicably wore white jerseys, only distinguishable from the English by a bearing a shamrock emblem rather than a rose. At least they wore green velvet caps while the English retained their rose coloured headgear. It was a finely contested match, in which Alec was commended for his dropping, tackling and general back play and his place kicking as ‘a triumph.’ A quarter of an hour before the end he ‘…kicked a magnificent goal, amidst a volley of cheering.’ England was to win by that 1 Goal and I try to nil.
Beneath a sunny sky and on to the firm turf at the Oval the two teams emerged before a record crowd of some two thousand on 6 March 1876. A pre match photo of the England team included Pearson who had came in as a late replacement in this, the last test match side of twenty. Although at the start they had the breeze at their backs it was soon evident that the Scots faced a generally superior side and not long after the lemons had been taken at the five minute half time break F H Lee (Oxford University; Forward) ran in behind the posts to score a try to the great cheers of the spectators. L. Stokes (Blackheath; Three Quarter) then kicked the Goal and while the Scots never gave up applying the pressure exerted throughout they lost by 1 Goal 1 Try to Nil. [Lennard Stokes was to replace Alec in the next ENGLAND v IRELAND test held at the Oval on 5 February 1877, the first since the change to fifteen a side and wider pitches 120 by 80 yards].
Having missed out on the Ireland Test in February Alec was no doubt pleased to receive the letter (see image above) informing him of his selection to play in the England team against Scotland at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh and he was probably diligent in responding ‘at once’ to the RFU Secretary, H.J.Graham, of his acceptance.
This was the first test he played under the new system of fifteen a side and while Alec returned to share with Louis H. Birkett as one of the two Backs, it was not long before such pairings were to be transformed into what has now long since been accepted as the single Full Back position.
With more space to cover but more room to move the Scotsmen constantly pressed deep into the England half with forward rushes and some good displays of the now lost art of dribbling.
It was during one of those spells near the end when, with England forced back onto their twenty-five, that the ball went to the Scotland three quarter M.Cross who then kicked a brilliant drop goal. That was to be the sole score for the day and to give the win to Scotland by 1 drop Goal to Nil
It was back to the Kennington Oval, again on a Monday, where the weather was gloriously fine and, despite having to pay an increased entry fee of two shillings, some 3,000 spectators had gathered. The start was again much delayed while taking team photographs which hopefully included G.H.Heatley, Fourth RFU President, who was the Umpire for England and J. R. Hay Gordon, of Edinburgh Academicals and Liverpool, Umpire for Scotland, plus A.G Guillemard, soon to be Fifth RFU President as Referee. England were turned out in their usual whites with brown stockings and Scotland with blue jerseys, stockings and caps with white knickerbockers. Scotland won the toss and elected to play towards the famous gasworks, thus putting the wind and dazzling sun in the faces of their opponents. Plenty of scrummages saw the ball well contested in both halves but mainly in England’s and a number of near miss try’s and kicks by both sides had the game remaining scoreless by halftime. It was much the same in the second half and while one report stated that never before had England forwards come off so second best and, had it not been for the good runs of Evanson, the judgement and knowledge of Stokes, the good tackling of Hornby and the safe back play of Pearson, it would have gone hard for England. As it was the game resulted in a Nil all draw.
Only a week later and England took the field at Lansdowne Road with only four of the same players (including Alec) and four new caps. Evidently the game started very late, primarily because of the taking of team photos. The new England captain, M.W Marshall, decided to play with the strong wind in the first half and by so doing achieved victory. Alec contributed to the try scored by H.P.Gardiner and then duly converted that into a goal. Before half time he had converted another try into a goal but failed to convert another and the score remained unchanged. Right near the end of the match ‘Pearson made a fine run but the Umpire ruled that he had been in touch and while the ball was being returned ‘no side’ was called with a win for England of 2 Goals and 1 try to Nil. One newspaper reported that the match was characterised by good humour throughout and that a notable feature of the post match dinner was the enthusiasm with which an anti- Russian song , sung by a Mr Swanson, was received!
Early in 1878 further recognition of Alec was also to come in the form of his appointment by the RFU, along with Lennard Stokes, as a selector for Kent in the inter county matches to be held in February.
And another tribute was to be paid in a newspaper review of the game printed on 11 May 1878;
‘Blackheath stands out conspicuously…..The club has had …an admirable full back in A.W.Pearson, whose play has been safer, and his dropping, placekicking and tackling more reliable than ever. We much regret that we are not likely to see any more of this well-known player, as he sails for Australia during the current month;’
Some one hundred years later a daughter, Lola Maude Pearson, was to donate his cap to the antecedent of the present Museum.
Ron Grainger – March 2016
The Pearson brothers’ father, Captain James, died in Blackheath, England in 1872 and James and Alec were to return to Victoria not long afterwards, James Godfrey first in 1875, a year after he had been called to the bar after studying at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Middle Temple and in the same year in which he married a local Blackheath girl, Laura Baker.
There is no record of his being admitted to the bar in Victoria or appearing in court after his return although he has been noted as involved in the management of the Mt. Ridley Estate and it was from Mount Ridley, Craigieburn, that he wrote to The Argus (16 January 1879) as ‘Late Captain Blackheath FC‘ calling on rugby players to form a Victorian club to take on an English touring team, whose visit to Australia was then being contemplated. However, apart from some 1883 reports on his Pigeon Shooting skills at Brighton Park in Melbourne James Godfrey Pearson then fades almost completely out of the picture until the announcement of his death on 22 January 1942, at what was then the remarkably old age of 94. The lack of publicity might in part have been somehow related to the reported rift between the brothers and their families, sufficiently serious for them to have avoided all contact for several decades.
By contrast Alec (sometimes Alex or AW) lived a very public life. He returned to Victoria in 1880 and in 1881, the year of only a second royal visit to Australia , he was to play his last game of rugby at the age of twenty-seven. During the second royal visit to Australia pride of Empire had triumphed when the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) decided to form the Wanderers team and take on the Detached RN Squadron at the MCG on Wednesday, 29 June 1881, only the second rugby game to be played there.
Despite the occasion, Prince George of Wales (King George V from 1910) and his brother Prince Albert Victor, midshipmen on HMS Bacchante, seem to have been entertained elsewhere on the afternoon of the match. It was left to their shipmates, along with others from HMS Inconstant to make up the Squadron team. No particular mention of Alec’s performance has been found but it was reported that some 3,000 spectators turned up to see the home side which ‘with few exceptions, were of a much lighter and wirier build, more adapted for running and dodging than for the heavy scrimmaging so prominent in the Rugby game.’ Consequently, after having hustled the ball down deep into the Wanderers half, the visitors were eventually rewarded with a try and conversion. Unfortunately Dr Willmott, the moving spirit in arranging the match, after having made a splendid run, had his leg broken a yard from the Squadron line. The game ended with Squadron scoring one goal and one try and the Wanderers nil . Some local pride was however restored when, after the game, in a tug of war between the Squadron and members of the Naval Reserve, the latter won.
In the following year, 1882, Alec married Marion McFarlane Moffat at All Saints Church , Windsor, and set up home in Dandenong. That union produced four children before Marion died in 1898. Two years later, in 1900, at Christ Church, South Yarra , he married Ada Elizabeth Ashworth who bore him another four children and was to outlive him by many years, dying in 1962.
Apparently he had no further involvement with rugby, and that is perhaps understandable as the Union game was only to reappear briefly in Victoria between 1908 and 1914, by which time Alec was well into his ‘fifties and then again when he was in his ‘seventies. Instead, he seems to have immersed himself in a range of civic duties and sporting activities the extent of which we can barely comprehend, even for someone who apparently had little need to engage in gainful employment.
From the early ‘eighties he was to regularly demonstrate his skills with the Melbourne Gun Club and to play bowls and billiards in between undertaking his duties as a JP and Dandenong Shire Councillor (1888-1891) and as an Honorary Steward of local racing clubs, Secretary of the Bowling Club (competing at State representative level and winning the championship trophy for 1896-7 without losing a match). He was also a Committee member of the Mechanics Institute and Secretary of the Dandenong Cemetery Trustees. There was a only one brief break from these Dandenong based commitments and that was when he spent a couple of years in Sydney as Stipendiary Steward to the Australian Jockey Club (from December 1902 until August 1904).
On returning to Dandenong he resumed duties as a JP (including a spell as Chairman of the Dandenong Court Bench), and as a Shire Councillor (1913-1919 including President 1915-1916) meanwhile serving a stint as Secretary of the Dandenong Agricultural Society and of the Dandenong Shire Gas and Coke Company. He also developed an interest in Coursing while retaining that in Billiards and Bowling. In what for him must have been something of a diversion he served as President of the Dandenong Card and Chess Club and there was to be a brief period post war when regular business intruded and he advertised in a local paper to the effect that he was opening an Estate Agency, though there is more than a suspicion that his wife Ada was mainly involved in that business. She was of course some twenty-four years younger than Alec and by the mid ‘twenties, doubtless following his example, is reported as taking a keen interest in playing Golf.
Alec retired as Chairman of the Dandenong J.P’s on the 6 January 1930, barely two weeks before his death on 27 January 1930.
RDG March 2016
It would not have been possible to tell much of this story without the generous contributions and assistance of many individuals, some of whom I record here with my sincere thanks; Ross Pearson, great grandson of A.W.Pearson’s older brother James Godfrey; Jed Smith of the National Sports Museum, Melbourne; Phil McGowan of the World Rugby Museum blog, RFU, London; Trevor Ruddell of the MCC Library; Jennifer Clohesy, author of The Pearsons of Mt Ridley and the Craigieburn Historical Interest Group who published it on their website; Richard Steele, Bill Gillies and Sean Fagan. And, as always, for the support of Kay, David and Andrew. I’m also indebted to the various rugby historians, archivists and librarians who have shared the information held in their collections and to the late Neil Ryan, former Secretary of Box Hill RUFC, holder of the honorary title of Datuk for his service to Malaysian education and rugby, for his account of the sociable pre-match encounter with visitors from Guy’s Hospital.
Apart from various newspapers other sources have been; United Hospitals RFC, London; Guy’s Hospital RFU (now merged with St Thomas’s and Kings Hospitals Rugby Clubs as GTK RFU Club); the Wikipedia entry; Alexander William Pearson (subject to some further editing); International Rugby Records; Griffiths, John; J.M.Dent & Sons 1987 and
A History of Rugby Union in Victoria: The Early Years; Grainger, Ron. (Monograph 2014) https://rugbyvictoria.wordpress.com
 GKT Rugby Football Club after 1999 and merger of Guy’s. Kings and St Thomas’ Rugby Football Clubs
 Played on the evening of 7 July 2001 with Australia winning 35-14
 26 January 1871
 Fifteen a side teams did not commence until 1877
 In at least one of these Trials, held at Blackheath, obviously in late 1874 or early 1875, before James returned to Australia, both brothers played, but in opposing teams, James in the ‘ Stripes’, Alec in the ‘Whites’.
 There are conflicting reports on the date of the first event, noted elsewhere as 29 or 30 January but Saturday 31 January seems the most likely, particularly as future events were held on a Saturday.
 An Irish Football Union had only been founded in Dublin in the November of the previous year (1874) and a Northern Football Union of Ireland in Belfast only the previous month, January 1875
 Presentation of a tankard to the winners of the Championship Cup is a tradition which survives to this day.
 Possibly why in the Biographies of players in the otherwise reliable Centenary History of the RFU he is only credited with six caps. And while the World Rugby Yearbooks have him as a representative of Blackheath, at least one newspaper report of this match accords that credit to Guy’s Hospital.
 The Footballer Annual 1881
 The first RFU Rules of 1871 stated that a match should be decided by Goals only, ‘converted’ tries) but in 1875 that was modified to allow Tries to be counted where the number of Goals were equal. The first system of allocating points for goals and ‘unconverted’ tries was not introduced until 1886.