Sunday, April 01, 2007

“The famous All Black Team.”

July 2, 2006

The origin of the name the "All Blacks" has been a foggy mystery for the better part of a century. New Zealand Rugby Museum has a good essay that offers several theories, some more likely than others.

New Zealand sports historian Ron Paleski has what is almost certainly the definitive version from his book The Jersey which is reprinted by permission at the New Zealand Rugby Museum. I haven't asked for permission, but in the interest of Fair Use I'll quote a passage:

The manager of the Originals [1905], George Dixon, kept a diary throughout the tour and at times he referred to the players as "the Blacks," even while they were still on board ship and far from a keen printer's eye. They played their first game against Devon at Exeter and walloped the locals 55-4. The next day, a local paper, The Express and Echo, recorded: "The All Blacks, as they are styled by reason of their sable and unrelieved costume, were under the guidance of their captain (Mr Gallaher) and their fine physiques favourably impressed the spectators." So much for the free hand of a typographer or even the wit of a reporter coming up with a catchy phrase. By his reference, it was clear the team was known as the All Blacks before he happened along. Now back to Hartlepool. The name "The All Blacks" seems not to have appeared in print again until the night of the win against Hartlepool when the Northern Daily Mail, Football Edition, got in on the act. This was one of those newspapers, like the old sports editions in New Zealand, which were rushed onto the streets for sale as soon after a match as possible. Its report of the match traversed 14 paragraphs before this introduction to a listing of the players' vital statistics: "A glance at the undermentioned weights of the invincible 'all blacks' will convey some idea of the calibre of the team." The name didn't recur in the paper's coverage, which filled two pages. The next morning, the Northern Daily Mail's parent paper, the London-based Daily Mail, took up the name. Its report recorded the score in the second paragraph and continued: "This is a record in the tour, which is yet barely a month old, exceeding as it does by eight points the 55 points the 'All Blacks', as the Colonials are dubbed, piled up against Devon."

Source: New Zealand Rugby Museum.

Everything in that is almost certainly true, and I urge you before going any further to familarise yourself with Mr. Paleski's extended account here. The NZRM is convinced; they call it "conclusive" and I can't dispute it.

Nevertheless, scratching deeper into the origin mystery, there's still the unanswered question of why the "All"? What I gather from Paleski's account is that the kiwis were calling themselves "The Blacks" and then British newspapers appended the prefix "All" to it. As the NZRM essay "Black, black, black" explains, the team uniform is the obvious reason they attached the prefix. The reporter in The Express and Echo supports this, writing the All Blacks name was "styled by reason of their sable and unrelieved costume." And yet, none of this dismisses the idea that reporters could have simply called the New Zealand team "The Blacks" the way George Dixon did.

The casualness in the way that more English newspapers started using the new name has me curious.

I don't know what this means, but I tripped over a small entry in the Illustrated London News dated October 15, 1921.

There's a photo of a war memorial dedicated to the "F" Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. The battery is called the "All Black Team" (in caps). I tried doing a google search of the name and that particular battery, but found very little despite the ILN calling them "famous."

The famous All Black Team

The 1921 publication of the ILN came 16 years after the 1905 Originals tour. But the Royal Horse Artillery goes back a couple centuries. And the Royal Tournament had been around since 1880. The Tournament was held at Islington. The first usage of the name "All Blacks" to refer to New Zealand's national rugby team comes from comes from The Express and Echo newspaper in Exeter. Islington and Exeter are 293 km apart. "Presumably" (I say with inverted-commas) the Royal Tournament would not have been unknown by newspaper reporters in the south of England.

The inference from the ILN caption suggests to me the name "All Blacks" was not only unfamiliar at the early part of the 20th century, but may have actually been "famous" as early as the late part of the 19th century. That 1905 Originals tour was only four years after the reign of Her Majesty Victoria Regina -- I'm guessing those Royal Tournaments were big stuff with the public, but I don't know any of that for a fact.

I might do some more digging at the library and search more ILN back-issues and microfiche of newspapers of that age for articles and engravings of the pre-1905 Tournaments with reference to "All Blacks" or "All Black Team." My preliminary (read: lazy) internet search indicates that knowledge of the old battery has fallen down the memory hole. When Brits today talk about "the famous All Black team," I'm guessing hardly any of them are thinking about the "F" Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery.

I don't know that for certain. And I don't know what any of it means. Just wondering out loud...


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