Details of the first organised sporting event in European New Zealand are not certain. The earliest recorded game of cricket, which involved the children of English settlers and almost certainly some Māori players, was at Paihia in the Bay of Islands on 20 December 1832. The earliest organised horse racing was probably held in the Bay of Islands in 1835, with the first race meeting in Auckland in early 1840 under the direction of Lieutenant Governor William Hobson.
Regular sport was an important feature of the increasing European settlement after 1840, especially on occasions such as settlement anniversary days and the Queen’s birthday.
The anniversary days and other public gatherings of the 1840s and 1850s were mixtures of competitive sport and traditional village activities, influenced by the uniquely New Zealand setting.
Events in Wellington on 22 January 1842 included sailing and rowing races, a hurdle race, climbing a greasy pole, catching a soap-tailed pig by its tail (the prize being the pig), a one-mile foot race and a rifle match. Prize money and rules for each event were published in local newspapers beforehand.
The first ‘Anniversary Sports Meeting’ in Dunedin in March 1849 included rowing races for various types of boats, including a ‘Maori boat race’, along with numerous athletic contests such as sprints, hurdles, a wheel-barrow race, putting the stone, hammer throwing, caber tossing and a ‘sword dance’.
In Auckland in the 1840s the anniversary was marked by horse races and a regatta on the harbour. The first two Canterbury Anniversary Day celebrations, in 1851 and 1852, featured cricket, quoits, foot and horse races, a sack race, a hurdle race, a shooting match, a greased pig and a soaped pole.
Sport for life
From the beginning, those encouraging sport in New Zealand saw it as good for success in life. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, founder of the colonising New Zealand Company, wrote in 1850, ‘I tell the boys in summer time to play at cricket and play well, that those who are the best cricketers most likely will be the best readers and writers’.1
Purposes of sport
Sport was encouraged to provide reassuring features of ‘home’ in a new colony, to create social harmony, and to develop discipline and cooperation among players. But sporting growth was not always straightforward. Often clubs were founded and events staged during the enthusiasm of the first few years of settlement, only to fade over the next decade or so, as more immediate demands took over.
Emergence of clubs
Perhaps the first organised sports club in New Zealand was a short-lived Wellington Jockey Club established early in 1842. There were also two cricket clubs in the settlement by the end of the same year – a Wellington Cricket Club for prominent colonists and officials and an Albion Cricket Club for working men.
Other cricket and racing clubs were established in Auckland, Whanganui and Wellington throughout the 1840s and in Dunedin and Christchurch from the early 1850s. Most lasted only a year or two.
What makes a team?
As there was only one cricket club in most settlements, fixtures had to be arranged within the club between different groups. Such matches included married against single; surnames A to L against M to Z; tall against short; and the best XI of the club against the next XVIII or XXII. At other times the clubs played against outside teams such as butchers, bakers, publicans, visiting ships’ crews and military garrisons.
Sport and the military
In the North Island, the military presence was crucial to the growth of sport. Military garrison settlements, some of which would eventually become established towns such as Hamilton and Te Awamutu, encouraged athletics, cricket and other sports for both recreation and discipline.