Stylish Cheltenham has welcomed many famous visitors throughout history including the Roundhead armies on their way to the relief of Gloucester in the 17th century, King George III to take the Spa waters in the 18th century and Charles Dickens in the 19th century.
However amongst the most popular were the revered rugby league men of England and New Zealand who appeared in the town during the elegant Edwardian era and in so doing bestowed on beautiful Regency Cheltenham the title of “The Birthplace of International Rugby League.”
An honour splendidly earned when at 4.24pm on Saturday February 15th 1908 the great New Zealand forward William “Massa” Johnston stormed over the England try line at the Athletic Ground in Cheltenham and thus secured victory for the Kiwis by 8 – 5 in the famous encounter that has become known as the Great Match of the Edwardian Period.
This third and deciding test match ensured the New Zealand All Golds won Rugby League’s first ever international test series.
England – who were then known as the Northern Union – had won the first clash at Headingley Stadium in Leeds with the All Golds squaring matters with victory at Stamford Bridge Chelsea London.
The New Zealand All Golds arrived in Cheltenham on the preceding Thursday and set up their headquarters at the Fleece Hotel at the corner of High Street and Henrietta Street where host Revell soon won over his overseas guests with his hospitality.
Indeed the hotel had become according to Rowe’s Guide ” a synonym for comfort, good living and the general excellence of its appointments.”
Amongst the Northern Union side on that fateful day of February 15th were two of Gloucestershire’s finest rugby players namely ” Mad ” Arthur Smith and William Holder.
Smith, who earned selection for the Great Match from the prosperous mill town of Oldham in Lancashire, had begun his illustrious career at Yorkley before progressing to Cinderford and then the Northern Union. His intriguing sobriquet was due to his forceful and enthusiastic style of play! He also fought for the nation when the First World War commenced and then resumed his career after hostilities despite having a German bullet in his body for the rest of his days.
William Holder, according to the Echo match report at the time, was one of the best on the day for England at the Athletic Ground. He was selected from another mighty Rugby League stronghold, the Eastern sea port city of Hull after being signed from the Gloucester club.
As the much anticipated kick off time approached the Cheltenham Rifle Band early on took up position and played a nice selection of music.
The teams were received with applause and after being specially photographed under the goal posts for the ” Chronicle and Graphic, ” the Northern Union gave three hearty cheers for the visitors, whilst the New Zealanders responded with their famous war cry,” Ka Ora.” The band gave “God save the King”.
The Northern Union drew first blood and after a compelling first half a powerful and skilful
England led by 5 – 0 at half time with a try and conversion. However on the resumption the home side had to face the wind, rain and a determined All Golds side
The titanic struggle continued unabated and despite being reduced to 12 men the visitors were not to be denied. With 7 minutes to go the Northern Union finally cracked. Tyler passed accurately to Messenger. He had little room in which to move down the touchline, but, evading all tacklers, touched down in the corner. From the sideline, and with the rain still streaming down, and with the ball heavy with mud, a conversion seemed unlikely.
It was thrown to Wrigley, and to the astonishment of every one present, including the players, he kicked it from the touchline straight between the uprights, levelling the scores at 5 points each.
The battle now reached epic proportions. According to the Echo report of the time ” this taste of blood was followed by such a series of desperate attacks, as of warriors storming a fortress, that the English defence wavered and another try followed in quick succession.”
Thus with 4 minutes remaining and at 4.24pm Johnston surged across the try line to the unrestrained delight of the New Zealand players and management. With the series won the All Golds had immortalised themselves in sporting folklore.
The tour had been organised by the highly regarded and dashing Albert Henry Baskerville, a 24 your old postal clerk from Wellington.
A fine player himself he dedicated his time to management matters in England but when the All Golds visited Australia on the way home to introduce the new rugby there he starred in the inaugural test match against Australia ( won by New Zealand 11 – 10 ).
Soon thereafter he contracted influenza and died on May 20th 1908 from pneumonia surrounded by his team mates.They were devastated.
The historic and heroic deeds that unfolded on that February day in Regency Cheltenham were commemorated after an initiative led by Cheltenham based lawyer Lionel Hurst when on February 15th 2008 a green centenary plaque was unveiled on the site of the Great Match at the former Athletic Ground.
The official ceremony being carried out before a large crowd including Kevin Nicholas President of the Rugby Football League, John Henry Chairman of the Civic Society, John Rawson the Mayor of Cheltenham, Martin Horwood MP, Tony Collins Professor of the Social History of Sport at Leeds Met Carnegie University along with representatives from the New Zealand Rugby League and Cheltenham Rugby Union.
Referee: William McCutcheon from Oldham
Northern Union/Great Britain:
H Taylor Hull
Try – J Jolley;Goal – T White.
New Zealand All Golds:
H S Turtill
Tries – H H Messenger,W Johnston;Goal – E Wrigley.