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Wellington's Ghost Rugby Clubs - Part 5 Carlton Football Club

Swindale Shield | 20 November 2017 | Gordon Noble-Campbell

 Wellington's Ghost Rugby Clubs - Part 5 Carlton Football Club

Above: The White Swan Hotel is the three-storey building on the left of the above photo, around 1920


Part 5 – The Tale Of The “Dirty Duck” Non-Conformists & The Carlton Football Club

The carpark now located between Cuba Street and Swan Lane (at 159 Cuba Street), was once the site of the White Swan Hotel, which in the 1930’s earned the rather curious sobriquet, “the Dirty Duck”. The hotel was originally built in 1860 by William Churchill, who lived nearby on Ghuznee Street. Churchill sold the building in the 1860’s, later experiencing bankruptcy, a fate which also befell many fledging rugby clubs of the era.

The White Swan Hotel became the home to a number of “non-conformist” rugby football clubs, which in 1890, formed the Wellington Junior Rugby Union, as a result of the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association either refusing them membership, or the clubs not being able to pay the Association’s hefty affiliation fee.

As readers will be aware, the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association was formally formed in October 1879, although the Association had existed for some six months prior to this date, under the umbrella of the (Wellington) “Football Club Association”.

In that early era, both the Victorian (Australian) and English rules were played by different clubs (sometimes under a hybrid of both rules), with the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association formally formed in October 1879, for those clubs willing to abide solely by the Rugby Union (English) rules and willing to pay the annual subscription fee of between 2 and 3 pounds, (around $700 in today’s money).

Among the clubs to form the rebel body was the Carlton Football Club (CFC), formed in 1888. The CFC was one of a number of clubs which either did not apply for, or were not granted, affiliation to the new Wellington Rugby Union Football Association. Together with the Surrey, Sydenham, Addington and Empire Football Clubs, “the Carltons” (who played in red and white jerseys), used the White Swan Hotel as their clubrooms for socialising and for conducting official club business.


The Carlton Club’s first reported team in 1888 (which played in a match against the Pirates Football Club), comprised: J. Hickey, J. Nicholls, Shannon, Phillips, Moffitt, Noon, O'Shea, Porter, Curtice, Rose, Walker, Marshall, Wallace, O'Connor and C. Nicholls (Captain). The Club was loaned a ground owned by Henry Crawford, the former Mayor of Melrose and well-known Wellington land-owner, for practice purposes.

Following their exclusion from the competitions of the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association, in March 1891 at the White Swan Hotel, seven clubs, Sydenham, Surrey, Carlton, Roseneath, Thorndon, Albion, and Rugby formed the Wellington Junior Rugby Union, with an annual membership fee of 10 shillings, (which was less than a quarter of the cost of the 2 pounds levied by the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association). The Carlton club played an important role in the Wellington Junior Rugby Union’s formation, with the Secretary of the Club (William H Reeve) also becoming Secretary and Treasurer of the Union. (Reeve was later made a Life Member of the Carlton club.)

It was decided that the Junior Rugby Union’s member clubs would play in two divisions. Division 1 (the Seniors) played for the Campbell Trophy (donated for competition by Thomas Campbell, a Cuba Street Tobacconist), while Division 2 (the Juniors) played for the Evans’ Ball (donated for competition by James E Evans, a Lambton Quay Saddler). All matches were played on the Railway Reserve at Thorndon, with the Union’s teams not playing on any of the more renowned rugby grounds in Wellington, such as Athletic or Newtown parks.

In 1891, while the Surrey club won four matches in Division 1 and Carlton only two, the Campbell Trophy was awarded to Carlton as a result of Surrey having forfeited competition points for breaking the rules of the Junior Rugby Union, by fielding ineligible players (i.e. players who were also registered with clubs affiliated to the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association). The Albion club won Evans’ Ball in Division 2.

Charles Henry William Nicholls (the captain of the 1888 Carlton side), was elected President of the club in the year of their Campbell Trophy victory. A decision was made at the 1892 Annual General Meeting to re-apply for membership of the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association, with the goal of competing the Junior Cup and Third Grade Championships. A proposal was also made by the Sydenham club to amalgamate, with a decision reached to do so on 9 March 1892, again at the White Swan Hotel. The combined Sydenham-Carlton side was to play in the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association’s Third Grade Championship.

Carlton’s affiliation application to the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association was approved on 31 March 1892, with the club’s first game in the Junior Cup Championship resulting in a 7 points to 2 victory over the Oriental Club. Nicholls was appointed as a delegate to the Union.

The 1892 season was very successful for Carlton, finishing runners-up in the very competitive Junior Cup, winning 8 of 11 matches played. As a result, in 1892, three players were selected for the Wellington Junior Representatives which played Manawatu: Hunter, T Campbell and (another) Campbell.

Meanwhile, the Junior Rugby Union continued to grow under the presidency of Colonel Pat Boyle, (a notable Wellingtonian, who was Private Secretary to the Governor-General of the time, Lord Glasgow).

The Star, Merivale and Montrose clubs were added to the senior competition in 1892, replacing Carlton, Sydenham and Roseneath (who had all withdrawn from the Union). The annual subscription for being a member of the Junior Rugby Union was lowered to 2 shillings and sixpence.

As Carlton did not return to defend the Campbell Trophy, in 1892, George Cochrane (of the Rugby Football Club) and “an enthusiastic supporter of the game”, donated a new Cup (the Cochrane Cup) to the Junior Rugby Union for competition. The Cochrane Cup was won by the Rugby Football Club, the following year (1893).

By 1894, the Junior Rugby Union had expanded to three grades, with the St. John’s and Korokoro clubs also becoming members. Linwood club joined the Union in 1896.

The March 1894 Annual General Meeting of the Carlton Football Club was notable for the fact that the Treasurer failed to appear to present the annual accounts. It transpired that many players had not paid their subscriptions (or were in arrears), which according to the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association’s by-laws, meant that those players could not play. “Owing to the amount of outstanding subscriptions”, the club decided to disband, with the Club Secretary (Charles Nicholls), suggesting to the Union that “some rule protecting young clubs from having such large amounts of outstanding subscriptions should be passed”.

Nicholls, who performed almost every role with the Carlton club from Club Captain to President over its seven-year history, went on to become an influential member of the Wellington Education Board, serving in that role for 17 years. He died at this home at 15 Seaview Terrrace, Northland in 1957, at the age of 87.

The Junior Rugby Union continued unchallenged until 1897, when the Wellington Rugby Union Football Association appointed a deputation to propose amalgamation so as “to prevent defaulters (i.e. those who had not paid subscriptions to the Wellington Union) from taking an active part in football in any club”. It’s interesting to note that even in this very early era of Wellington rugby, rugby enthusiasts had to “pay to play”.

As for the White Swan Hotel, in 1939 it was expanded and refurbished to become the Wakefield Hotel., which survived until the early 1990’s, before being demolished to create today’s carpark. Passers-by to Cuba Street will note that adjacent to the site of the “Dirty Duck” on Swan Lane, is a new wine-bar, “Noble Rot”.

The “White Swan” (a coastal steamer, after which the hotel was named), foundered 18 miles south of Castle Point in 1862, near Flat Point. The concept of participation in the game without financial obstacle, also foundered on Cuba Street, 35 years later.

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