The Forgotten Canadian Rugby Tour of 1902-1903: 22 Games Over 56 Days With Wins Over Ulster, Bristol, London Welsh, London Scottish and North of Scotland
The Canadian rugby tour of 1902-03 to the UK isn't well documented. It's a tour that deserves some recognition, it was the first Canadian rugby tour overseas, it even predates the famous All Blacks 1905 tour to the UK.
Canada played 22 games in 56 days, an average of one game every 2.5 days. During that time they travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and even took a short trip to Paris to play Racing Club. Their record was a modest 8 wins, 13 losses and 1 draw but 5 of those wins were against notable teams including Ulster, Bristol, London Welsh, London Scottish and North of Scotland. They only lost to Racing Club by a score of 8-3 and Racing Club had won the 1902 French Championship.
Canada opened with a huge win against Ulster on December 13th 1902 but then travelled south to play Dublin University two days later on December 15th and lost by a sizeable margin, such was the nature of the tour and the short turnaround time between matches.
The Canadians took a total of 20 players to last through the grueling 22 match tour, many local UK articles commented that the tour may have been too ambitious.
The timing of the tour was interesting as well, there was a divergence of rugby happening in Canada in the decades preceding the tour. The Ontario Rugby Football Union was spearheading the move towards American football rules and there was already some variance in the Canadian rugby rules played in central Canada. British Columbia and the Maritimes continued to play British rules rugby. The team makeup was almost split, 11 from Ontario/Quebec playing Canadian rugby rules and 9 from British Columbia and the Maritimes playing British rugby rules, yet at this time the codes were close enough to form a joint team to tour to the UK.
The captain of the team was James N.S. McClure (also spelled M'Clure) from Montreal, his comments in an interview in the Edinburgh News on December 20th 1902 were telling. He was asked about the purpose of the tour, the article elaborates, "Mr McClure mentioned that in 1899 an Irish team toured in Canada. The arrangement was to play part British game, part Canadian game, but as a matter of fact, the English rules were preferred, and from the present tour there will probably eventuate the general adoption of "home" rules in Canada, a matter to be desired in view of the possibility of greater intercourse between the home countries and the colonies". It seemed the idea was to use the tour to unify Canadian rugby and bring it back in line with "home" rules rugby, whether the Quebec contingent represented by the tour spokesperson and captain, McClure, was leading this endeavour is open to speculation.
The plan didn't succeed however, in 1903 after the tour returned home, the Ontario Rugby Football Union acted decisively to formalize the "Burnside" rules which put Canadian rugby rules solidly on the American football pathway. It reduced the number of players from 15 to 12, introduced downs, and a snapback system from a static line of scrimmage. British rules rugby went dormant in Ontario and Quebec for decades. A 1929 Macleans article, "Rugger or Rugby"
is well worth a read to describe the situation at the time. Written from an Ontario perspective it looks at a revival of Rugger (British rules rugby) in Ontario, noting that 2 years earlier (1927) there were only two teams in the province but now (1929) eight teams were playing "Rugger" in Ontario.
The 1902-1903 tour showed what could have been possible if the two codes had stayed in sync. Many of the match accounts from the hosts lauded the Canadians for their tenacity, athleticism and speed but noted their "rugby" skills and teamwork were disjointed. It's no wonder considering half the team were accustomed to playing different rugby rules. It's an amazing feat that they defeated some top club teams in the UK.
Some of the names from match reports show up later in Canadian history. S.S. DuMoulin is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and had a long career with the Hamilton Tigers, he's listed by Trinity College (Ontario) as a notable alumni, Class of 1896.
Canadian rugby hasn't been as kind to their servants, the first captain of a Canadian rugby overseas tour, James N.S. M'Clure has been forgotten in history, and for the most part, so has the 1902-1903 Canadian rugby team that made the historic UK tour.
The team left Halifax on Tuesday December 2nd and disembarked in Liverpool on Wednesday December 10th. For many players their journey started earier, the two Victoria players on the team, the halfbacks, Ken Scholfield and A. Gillespie left Victoria on November 19th on the Canadian Pacific Railway steamship Charmer. They would then head by rail to meet up with the team assembling in Halifax. The Victoria British Colonist newspaper lamented the lack of fanfare given the duo on their departure, "Had they been delinquent debtors instead of champions going forth to uphold the honor of their province, they could not have stolen away more quietly". There were two other BC players on the team, both forwards, J. Purvis of Revelstoke and O. Randle of Nanaimo.
On December 1st 1902 the UK journal, The Sportsman, published the tour schedule. They made a typo, dropping a one, and had the tour starting on Dec 3 against Ulster when the tour actually started Dec 13. The pre-tour schedule ended up being modified during the tour, Canada played Bristol on January 19th which wasn't initially listed. In total they added 3 matches to the planned itinerary, besides Bristol, they made a side trip to Paris to play Racing Club on January 31st and added one more match at the end against Berkshire Wanderers.
This was the roster for the first match vs Ulster. Part 2 - Canada v Ulster Match Report; Hybrid Rugby/Emerging Gridiron Team Claims First Tour Win; Ulster Surprised by Canadian Buck-kicking Attack - Predecessor of Garryowen Newspaper articles referenced
Edinburgh Evening News - Dec 20 1902
British Colonist - Nov 20 1902 https://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/1902-03-canada-rugby-team-on-their-way-to-united-kingdom-photo-taken-in-halifax