02 April 2019

First organised Australian team to go to England: Aboriginal cricketers

Many thanks to the National Museum of Australia for opening this amazing story to analysis. Friendly cricket games were an important aspect of early colonial society in Australia. Then by the 1850s, First-Class Cricket developed as a result of clubs being formally established. In 1851 the first inter-colonial match was played at Launceston between a Port Phillip team and a Van Diemen’s Land team.

So it was inevitable that Australian cricketers would want to travel back to England. What was not inevitable was that the first Australian cricket team to travel overseas was an Aboriginal team! Starting in the Western District of Victoria, where cricket was played on many stations, the Aboriginal team consisted of station hands and stockmen. Coached by local pastoralist William Hayman, this owner of Lake Wallace station formed a team of 13 men from three tribes. Hayman arranged a match in Melbourne for Boxing Day 1866 and whilst the team lost to the Melbourne Cricket Club, the large crowd loved the match.

Entrepreneur Captain Gurnett persuaded the men to begin a planned tour of the Australian colonies and England. However, after their arrival in Sydney, Gurnett embezzled the funds raised to finance the enterprise, leaving the team stranded. Charles Lawrence, an ex-All England player who had remained in Australia after the 1862 tour, took over coaching the team and raised enough funds for them to continue. They completed a tour of NSW before returning to Victoria in May where four players unfortunately became very ill.

Another attempt to organise a tour of England was started by new financial backers; the new Aboriginal team included the surviving members of the 1866 side, plus a handful of new players. On Boxing Day 1866, in front of 10,000+ spectators, this team played the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle reported: "Seldom has a match created more excitement in Melbourne than the one under notice, and never within our recollection has a match given rise to so much feeling on behalf of the spectators." The Sydney Mail said "A dark skin suddenly became a passport to the good graces of Victorians."

A poster was produced as part of the promotion of the 1868 tour that depicted each of the players, either in a traditional cricket stance or holding an Indigenous weapon. The photos were taken in Warrnambool and assembled into a composite souvenir lithograph: Australian Aboriginal Cricketers. 

Australian Aboriginal Cricketers 
The cricketers were selected from the stations the men worked on.
National Museum of Australia. 

Led by William Hayman and coached by Charles Lawrence, the First Aboriginal XI Australian cricket team left Sydney in Feb 1868, the first time an organised sporting group had travelled to England as Australian representatives.

The players were Johnny Mullagh, Bullocky, Sundown, Dick-a-Dick, Johnny Cuzens, King Cole, Red Cap, Twopenny, Charley Dumas, Jimmy Mosquito, Tiger, Peter and Jim Crow. Some were exceptional athletes and some just made up the numbers. The top player was all-rounder Johnny Mullagh - he made 1,698 runs, took 245 wickets and made 4 stumpings as wicket-keeper.

Sadly King Cole died from TB and was buried in Tower Hamlets in London. Sundown & Jim Crow went home from to ill-health. Cuzens died of dysentery the following year.

As well as cricket, the team also performed a range of traditional sports and displayed skills like boomerang and spear throwing at the conclusion of a match. These Aboriginal sports often drew large crowds, impressed by the unusual skills.

The first event was at Surrey’s home ground, drawing 20,000 spectators! They played a total of 47 matches across England in a six month period, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19; a surprisingly good result for the Australians.

The tour earned mixed reactions in England. The Sporting Life said: The Australian Aboriginal cricket team arrived in London in May 1868 and were met with fascination - that being the period of the evolutionary controversies following publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. The Times described the tourists as, "the conquered natives of a convict colony’a travestie upon cricketing at Lord's and the conquered natives of a convict colony." The Daily Telegraph said that, "nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold nuggets and black cricketers."

Advertising poster for the 1868 tour

Questions about the civilising aspects of cricket, the intentions of the organisers and the skill of the players were also raised. The Times said “it must not be inferred that they are savages; on the contrary … They are perfectly civilised, having been brought up in the bush to agricultural pursuits under European settlers, and are quite familiar with the English language." Good grief.

The team arrived back in Sydney in Feb 1869 and split up. Twopenny moved to New South Wales and played for the colony against Victoria in 1870. Mullagh became a professional with the Melbourne Cricket Club and represented Victoria against England’s 1879 touring team. The other cricketers returned to rural station life.

The Central Board for Aborigines introduced the Aboriginal Protection Act in Victoria 1869, making it illegal to remove Aborigines from the colony without the approval of the Government’s Protector of Aborigines. This Act made it very difficult for Aboriginal cricket players to play competitive cricket. Apparently the successful tour in Britain had changed nothing at home.

John Mullagh lived, worked and died in Harrow in the Wimmera; his statue stands in the Harrow Discovery Centre, along with other 1866 artefacts.

The Aboriginal team sailed from Australia in 1868 for a series of matches against county teams, ten years BEFORE the first Australian XI team travelled to England. The 47 matches the men played between May and Oct 1868 created a gruelling schedule against middle-level English teams. The tour made headlines in England and Australia, marking an important moment in British Empire cricketing history, racial relations and Australian national identity. But how celebrated were the cricketers, once had they finished the tour?


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Judging from many old photographs and some descriptions from the early days, there were those who appreciated the original character of the Australian continent and its natives. However, England was not famous for appreciating things without a vigorous "English" quality, so the reports you quoted do not surprise me. At that time, even worse things were happening in America, both to the indigenous people and to the newly freed Black population.

I just read a biography of Bert Williams, a very popular Black entertainer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even though his talents were constantly lauded, in the 1920's he was still considered more as a curiosity susceptible to Jim Crow treatment, than as the admired, wealthy and influential actor he was.

I have never read an English newspaper account of a cricket match, old or new, but I probably have been traumatized by British schoolboy books, which are approximately 50% comprised of tedious, blow-by-blow accounts of cricket matches. Even the great P.G. Wodehouse does not stray from this sacred formula in his early stories.

bazza said...

It's very ironic that one of the cricketers was called (or given the name) Jim Crow. This is am enlightening story which I had vaguely heard of previously so thank you for presenting it.
Have any aboriginal players represented Australia in Test Cricket recently or is there still a prejudice against them?
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s sometimes sclerotic Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


it is interesting that the Melbourne match, before the cricketers left for Europe, created a great sense of excitement in the audience. And the team played plenty of games across the UK, drawing excellent numbers of fans. There was (and still is) no greater bonding experience between Australia and the Motherland than cricket!

The awfulness was when the cricketers returned home, and if they survived, they were returned to rural station life and obscurity. Instead of celebrating the sportsmen, the new Aboriginal Protection Act in Victoria 1869 totally ended any freedom of movement they may have had.

Hels said...


oops, I didn't notice. Yes Jim Crow (1808–1860) in the USA was a real person who copied blacks in his theatrical presentations. So I doubt that anyone in remote Western Victoria would have ever heard of the New York entertainer. However it is amazing that colour was the issue that tied the two men via their English name.

Aboriginality is not even the slightest handicap today in sports like football... every team has stars that take the viewers' breath away. But I don't remember who is in the national cricket team.

Ex Pat said...

The high number diseases and deaths must have been very frightening. I don't remember ever hearing about this trip.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

I imagine there wasn't much immunity to contagious diseases in Far Western Victoria for aboriginal families. So we might have expected TB, small pox and cholera. But dysentery sounds like very poor medical and hygienic support for the team :(

*nod* It is strange that most of us have never heard of the first organised Australian cricket team to go to England. After all, we know every run that W.G Grace got in the 1870s.

Andrew said...

I knew a little about the Aboriginal cricketers visit to England. I know more now. I feel bad about King Cole being buried in Tower Hamlets, in the cold and the damp, under grey skies. Do you know any more about him?

Hels said...


The ABC said that Bripumyarramin, known as King Cole in English, was from the Wimmera where most of the of the players of that tour where recruited from cattle and sheep stations where they worked as stockmen. A week after the team's game at the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's and was taken to Guy’s Hospital, dying in June 1868, aged 30. Cole was buried at Victoria Park Cemetery in East London.

Did he not have parents or children who loved him, and wanted his body brought home?

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - a fascinating post on cricket from down-under. There was an awful lot of shipping going on in the 1800s ... word seems to have travelled relatively fast ... having just spent time on Vancouver Island, and earlier time in South Africa - I've been amazed at how much travelling (and thus subjects, recreational ideas etc) was done back then ... things spread - not like the internet topsy today ... but still amazingly fast.

I was surprised how much India influenced the Canadian and American west coast ... let alone the other nationalities ... i.e. Japan - it's one extraordinary story of life going on. Then the huge continent of Australia - that came within the British sphere ... so much - while it looks like cricket was first played in South Africa in the late 1700s/ early 1800s ... History of all subject is so interesting. Thanks for this ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


I am so glad you mentioned South Africa, a country that was comparable with Australia in its relationship to the British motherland. South Africans loved their domestic cricket and played it before Australia did, yet they too did not create a national team to play an English touring team until 1888-9. Mind you, once they got the taste of international cricket contests, the South Africans played them regularly.

Even today, I am full of admiration whenever I see a South African cricket team! The Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, West Indies and New Zealanders etc are also impressive, but perhaps less so.

Jenny Woolf said...

How interesting it must have been to see them - not so much for the cricket (I have a blind spot as far as cricket is concerned) but because they were aboriginals who still had traditional skills and could show them off. I suppose many of the blinkered whites were not very interested in those, but I hope that some were inspired and interested.

Hels said...


it was difficult to know, back in 1868, what sort of reception the cricketers would have expected. My hope was that the British public was already fascinated by the exotic and the rare, wanted to see lions and tigers in British zoos, and wanted to appreciate decorative arts from China, Japan and Egypt. Perhaps they didn't know much about traditional skills, but they seemed to turn up in substantial numbers to games starring the Australian aboriginal sportsmen.