History of the Christchurch Polo Club

The Christchurch Polo Club was the first New Zealand club to be formed in 1890 shortly after the game had been introduced by visiting Navel officers at Auckland in 1888. There were a number of keen riders ready to absorb something of the enthusiasm which E. D. O’Rorke, who organised the first games in Auckland, brought with him to Christchurch and for a start a field at the top end of the present-day suburb of Fendalton was used for the introduction of the game. This was about four miles from the city and soon after players had the use of a paddock belonging to J. C. Peacocke at Papanui which was half a mile nearer the city. Regular practice was indulged in every Saturday afternoon and then the Club moved to the original grounds of the Canterbury A. & P. Association which were located near the Sydenham Post Office. The playing field here was a decided improvement on the other grounds but it lacked the size needed. Round about 1891 it was decided to arrange for the use of a portion of Hagley Park, a reserve of some 500 acres situated on the west side of the city of Christchurch and within a mile of Cathedral Square. Enthusiastic members completed arrangements for the use of an area in south Hagley Park. Here after considerable outlay for the tile drainage etc., the club was successful in providing a full sized ground with a good turf and playable in nearly all weather. It was an ideal ground and became known to polo enthusiasts throughout New Zealand for the next forty years. It was highly praised as being the best ground in New Zealand by the Victorian polo team which played on it in 1901 and those New Zealand players who galloped over it in later years were well pleased with its playing qualities. The picturesque setting, the green turf and the trees, always appealed to the aesthete.

The club was ready for the initial contest for the Savile Cup which was played in Auckland. The Christchurch team comprised A. E. G. Rhodes (captain), A. W. Bennetts, R. Heaton Rhodes (afterwards Sir Heaton) and G. J. F. Palmer. With their ponies they travelled by steamer to the Queen City to participate in a triangular contest for the Cup. The Auckland Polo Club provided a team and there was also a team of Navel officers. The visiting team from the South Island won the contest and the added distinction of being the first quartette to have their names engraved on the handsome Savile Cup. The same team defended its title on Hagley Park next year and again in 1892 when B. L. Lane and W. F. M. Buckley replaced A. E. G. Rhodes and A. W. Bennetts as No. 1 and 2. Next year with A. E. G. Rhodes as No. 1 in place of B. L. Lane, the team took the long steamer journey to Auckland to win the coveted trophy for the fourth time on end.

At this period the game had been taken up in other centres and the Savile Cup went to the Rangitikei Club and was held in the Manawatu district for some years. Country interests were taking a hand in the game and in the saddle more often naturally produced the form which rose above that of their city friends. The Christchurch Club, however, had strong support with plenty of players, foremost among whom were Sir Heaton Rhodes, his cousin Arthur Rhodes, G. F. J. Palmer, A. W. Bennetts and B. L. Lane. Other players the Buckley brothers, B. Todhunter, George Gould, the Hon. E. W. Parker, Alister Clarke, F. A. Archer, F. N. Robinson, C. Miles, E. W. Lascelles, G. B. Starky, J. Macdonald, J. Dampier-Crossley, Dr. Walter Fox, Dr. A. G. Maitland, H. G. W. Gray, H. Beswick, grandson of Bishop Harper, was hon. secretary and also played regularly in the early 90’s. He was later to become widely known in the field of mountaineering.

The Savile tourney came to Christchurch in 1895 when the Manawatu team of Southey Baker and Wattie Lloyd took the Cup from the Rangitikei team. Next year the tourney was at Palmerston North and the club was represented by the same team and saw the Manawatu team win again. The Savile Cup had slipped from the firm hod the club had established in the early years.

At the turn of the century the club had games with a visiting team from Victoria and also with an Indian Army team. Early in 1901 polo enthusiasts of the city welcomed a Victoria team comprising George Robertson, Clive Roberston, Eddie Manifold, R. A. D. Hood and R. A. Affleck who had crossed the Tasman with their ponies for a sporting holiday. Preparing for the visit the Christchurch club held practice games on Hagley Park on February 11 when the following players turned out: Heaton Rhodes, A. E. G. Rhodes, E. D. O’Rorke, W. H. P. Woodroffe, Alister Clarke, Turrell, Claridge, J. D. Hall, Dr. Fox, and Clarkson. Several different combinations were tried and weaknesses noted particularly bad directional hitting and failure to ride off an opponent. A pep talk on the ground directed attention to these points. The Victorian team arrived on February 14th from Wellington with 14 ponies and were warmly welcomed and hospitably entertained, members of the club providing accommodation for both visitors and their ponies. For the first game Christchurch was represented by Heaton Rhodes (captain) and R. A. Affleck, back. Having recently come off a sea voyage the visitor’s ponies were not seen to their best advantage. Victoria won by 5 goals to 4. Alister Clarke and Eddie Manifold were umpires. Two days later the visitors turned out for another game and this time the programme announced that they would play the South Island. The Victorians fielded the same team while the personnel of the South Island team was Heaton Rhodes (captain), E. D. O’Rorke, W. H. P. Woodroffe and A. Clarke, back. Early in play the South Island were leading two goals to nil but as play progressed Victoria gained the upper hand and finally won by 6 goals to 4. The press report of the match stated that the Victorians and their ponies appeared to greater advantage than in the match against Canterbury. A boisterous nor-west wind affected the platers. Messrs J. D. Hall and E. Manifold were the umpires. Eddie Manifold was one of four brothers, all noted players for Caramut, Victoria. On his return to Sydney Eddie Manifold praised the Christchurch ponies and also Hagley Park ground.

Next month, March, the club entertained a team drawn from a contingent of Indian troops who were the guests of the New Zealand Government. The match was played on the Hagley Park ground on March 5th and according to the press report the game attracted an attendance of fully 8,000 including the Hon. C. H. Mills, M.P., the Mayor of Christchurch, Colonel A. P. Penton, R.A., Commandant N.Z. Forces, besides a number of bemedalled veterans of the contingent “whose many coloured uniforms, mingling with the gay dresses of the ladies and more sober khaki of the local volunteers, lent a picturesque colouring to the surroundings . . .” Though the match could scarcely be described as exciting very great interest was taken in the play. The turban-covered warrior spectators noted and appreciated every alteration in the quickly changing game, and excitedly urged in and cheered their comrades when opportunity offered . . . The Christchurch players, as might be expected, had the best of the contest all through the four 10-minute spells played . . . The visitors expressed the opinion that though the ponies (they used) were fully equal to those used by them in India, the ground was not so fast.

The teams were - Indian Army: Troop Capt. Muhammad Abad Khan (2nd Bombay Lancers) 1, Troop Sergt.-Major Ghalam Rasul Khan (Hyderabad Contingent) 2, Troop Capt. Thakur Agur Sing (Poonah Horse) 3, Troop Sergt-Major Ibrahim Khan (Central India Horse) 4; Christchurch Club: R. H. Rhodes (captain) 1, E. D. O’Rorke 2, W. H. P. Woodruffe 3, Dr. Fox 4. For the visitors Ibrahim Khan played a capital game and had his comrades been equally proficient Christchurch would have had its work cut out to win. The home side won by 4 goals to nil.

The full-size ground at Hagley Park proved an ideal headquarters and setting for polo in Canterbury. Settling down after the close of the first World War, interest in the revival of the game in Canterbury mounted and in 1920 the club was again active with Tahu Rhodes as club captain. He held this office until 1925 when he proceeded overseas and was succeeded by Derrick Gould who held office until polo ceased in the South Island in 1939. The Hawke’s Bay team which won the Savile Cup in 1920 came to Christchurch in 1921 to defend its title which it did and continued to hold the cup until 1925 when the fixture came to Christchurch and the home club win with the following team: Major G. F. Hutton, D.S.O., R. M. D. Johnson, Capt. Tahu Rhodes, D. W. J. Gould. For this match G. H. Grigg was emergency. Major Hutton who served in World War I met his death in a railway level crossing smash just out of Christchurch on October 26, 1955. Of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he was A.D.C., to Lord Liverpool when Governor of New Zealand and was wounded on Gallipoli. The club won the Handicap contest in 1921 with the following team: Major G. F. Hutton, J. G. Grigg, P. Johnson and J. H. Macdonald, and in 1925 in addition to winning the Savile Cup the Handicap Cup was won also by a team comprising G. H. Grigg, R. M. Johnson, Tahu Rhodes and D. W. J. Gould. The club won the Savile Cup again in 1928 on their own ground and a year later at Feilding defended the title in a sparkling game. The last occasion when the club competed for the Savile Cup was in 1937 at Hagley Park when the successful Cambridge team won the day. That year Christchurch took the Handicap Cup with D. Livingstone, Sir Bruce Stewart, C. B. McCredie and R. B. Johnson. In the 20’s F. O’Rorke, H. G. Livingstone, R. B. Bennetts, P. D. Hall, and Harmer Macdonald with B. B. Wood were prominently identified with the club.

The success in the Savile Cup rounds in 1928 and 1929 were in part due to good combination and to the better control of the ponies, most of them being played in double bridles with Pelhams, or bit and bradoons. Most efficient hitters of the ball on both sides of their ponies, members of the team played orthodox polo with fast forwards turning on long backhanders coming from the powerful hitting of Derrick Gould, at that time New Zealand’s foremost No. 4 and carrying the highest handicap, namely 10. Gould certainly stood out as a sure hitter from almost any position and his confidence was never astray when delivering a backhander which often lifted the ball half the length or more of the field.

Christchurch club also participated in the provincial tournaments held for South Island teams. The Stead Cup, presented by W. G. Stead for the championship of the South Island, was won on occasions by the Christchurch Club.

In the field in intercolonial contests the Christchurch Club sent a team to Australia in 1934 to take part in the Australasian Gold Cup contest which that year was held in conjunction with the Melbourne Centennial celebrations. The team comprised G. H. Grigg, R. M. D. Johnson, Capt. G. Hennesey and D. W. J. Gould. D. H. S. Riddiford of the Wairarapa club and P. D. Hall of Christchurch, were emergencies. Others who played for the club included T. L. Cowlishaw, Dr. P. Jones, A. E. Allen and J. L. Carl.

The Christchurch Polo Club was the last of what were virtually the “Cuff and Collar” Clubs in New Zealand. The Auckland Polo Club, constituted in 1891 dropped out about 1905 but before that there was the Dunedin Polo Club which had a very short life going out of existence in the early 90’s. The Wellington Polo Club which had its ground at Miramar, a suburb of Wellington, ceased activities in 1910. Christchurch continued on until 1939 and because of the vastly changed conditions, found it impossible to continue. Farms had become mechanised and the hack had disappeared while the motoring age seemed to dominate the landscape of the Canterbury plains. Today there are still the fill country men but they are all far back with, as one supporter observed, just a few up each gorge - too few, in fact, to form a club and keep the game going. So the dwindling coterie of supporters found themselves reluctantly resigned to the inevitable - the end of their polo.