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The 1926 Black Ferns?
There's a story to uncover behind a photograph which may yet rewrite our history.
An unknown women’s rugby team, poses in Gloucester, England in 1926. They wear black uniforms emblazoned with the letters NZ and the fern. This photo can be viewed in Wellington at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
In a little envelope, at the Alexander Turnbull Library, sits a photograph that shouldn’t exist.
Current records tell us that international women’s rugby wasn’t played until 13 June 1982, when the Netherlands lost to France at the Ultrecht Rugby Club. New Zealand’s first recorded international and starting point for the Black Ferns caps, wasn’t until 22 July 1989. We played the Pacific Coast Grizzlies at Lancaster Park, Christchurch.
So who on earth is this New Zealand Women’s side from 1926? And why were they photographed in Gloucester, England? And who is HK Fox?
Short answer? I have no idea. But I am now determined to do my best to figure it out.
This image was the only item donated by the individual to the Alexander Turnbull Library. It had been lot 118 at an Art + Object, Rugby Memorabilia auction on 13 October 2011.
A quick google of HK Fox tells me they were taking group portraits around Gloucester at the time. I can find shots of men’s rugby teams, choirs and cricket players all attributed to their hand. There’s an old address, 7 Kings Square, which Google now shows you is a Fruit and Vege shop.
Because men’s rugby is much better documented, we do know that the All Blacks were in Gloucester two years before in September of 1924. They played Gloucester RFC at Kingsholm Stadium just a 10 minutes walk from Fox’s premises. The dates feel a bit off for this to be some sort of promotional tool in relation to that match but that’s one working theory.
Perhaps they were a group of local women dressed up and brought together to play an exhibition match. In 1926, there was a strong league of at least 9 teams in operation in France (albeit of the barette style). So the idea of women playing is not beyond imagination and this may in fact be a women’s rugby team. But are they actually from New Zealand?
The most fabulous theory? The one that seems improbable? That this is a team of talent selected after the well documented attempts of women around New Zealand to try and play rugby in the early 1920s.
The romantic in me likes to think Wellington’s fiery captain, Phyllis Dawson, didn’t stop after her organising efforts after she fought to establish a women’s side in 1921. And that she penned this letter to the Truth as she set sail with her team mates on her tour to England (this is a total fiction but her words are too good not to share!).
The truth of the photograph is yet to be found but that there are so many stories still waiting to be told is exciting. It’s exactly the type of thread I want to be pulling with this newsletter so hopefully we can find out more together.
Do you know know who these legends might be?
Her encyclopaedic knowledge is soon going to be available for us all via her book, Scrum Queens - The Story of Women’s Rugby which you can pre-order here.