Friday, 16 October 2015

One of Kawhia's Greatest Sons

Tom French
By David Bell

It's Friday morning, 15 September 2015. I'm sitting in a chiropractor waiting room thumbing through a magazine called, The Shed. It's about New Zealanders and amazing things they build in their sheds. I'm not at the chiropractor's for myself but for a couple of elderly friends in need of transport to receive a little bone-cracking. Wife Winnie is with me and she too is browsing a magazine. I'm in someone's shed putting together a home-built outrigger canoe when her voice jerks me out just as I'm starting to think I can do this. There's an excitement and urgency in her tone that demands attention.

"Who's the French in your family? I remember that name."

"Who are you talking about? Aubins and Lemprieres?" I'm thinking she's asking about our French ancestors from Jersey and wondering why.

"No, not those. There's an article about Tom French in this magazine. Don't you have a Tom French somewhere in your family?"

"Yes, he's my grandfather's half-brother from Kawhia." Now I'm interested. I toss The Shed aside and grab the magazine from her hands. "Holy smoke!" I exclaim. "It's old Uncle Tom!" 

I know I have to read this!

Things had quietened down recently. It seemed there was no more of the old folk to write about. I had plain run out of material. But this, I remembered, had happened before when out of nowhere an ancestor I knew little or nothing about dropped his or her story onto my lap. It was, therefore, no surprise that another one had reached through veil and bid me write. I have actually come to expect this sort of thing. I am sure those gone before desire to be remembered, to have their korero told to their living relatives. I imagine it's not nice to have labored and toiled on earth to carve out a living and raise a family, struggled to have a successful life and make your allotted time as meaningful as possible only to die and be forgotten a mere generation or two later; out of sight out of mind, so to speak. 

So I'm glad my wife picked up that magazine among the many on the table and amazed that she opened it at page 76. I'm even more amazed she remembered the name Tom French from the minuscule exposure she has had to my Kawhia whakapapa. Furthermore, if she hadn't the presence of mind to bring it to my attention I would have undoubtedly missed a glorious opportunity to learn about a great ancestor I knew so little about. 

The magazine she's holding is one I'm not very familiar with. This is the first time I had seen it in years and possibly wouldn't come across another for goodness knows how long, let alone this specific issue, and it has motivated me to search out more about Uncle Tom and write it into the Pirongia Bells blog so that we all get to know him a little better. His korero and some photos will bring him to life in our minds and hearts. 

At this point I must thank and acknowledge Simon Day, Uncle Tom's great-grandson, who wrote his story in the October 2015 issue of the North and South magazine, pages 76 to 81. Thanks to him much of Uncle Tom's story is told and published; his korero now available for all to hear. It's from this article that I will draw heavily to write about Uncle Tom for our Pirongia whanau.

TOM FRENCH was born under a tree at Waipapa marae near Kawhia. There is some confusion over the exact date because birth records were not a high priority in isolated Maori communities with the nearest government registration offices being two or more days away on horseback. His marriage certificate states his date of birth as 1890 while his military record says 16 September, 1889. Additionally, the family always celebrated his birthday every February 22nd. For this writing I choose to use the military record of 16 September 1889 on the grounds it is the most complete and most 'official'.

Before going any further it may be useful to tie him into our genealogy so we get a clear picture of our kinship to him. I will use Te Anu as the common ancestor.

Te Anu Pohe Pohe + Robert McGruther (1st husband) + Jean Paul French (2nd husband)

 ________________I ___________               ________ I______      
I                                I                       I              I                             I      
John                    Mutu                 Sam        Tom                      Bessie
I               I                I                                       
Jock      Colin          Jean                             

As can be seen from the chart, Tom and our own John (full name John Honi Ruki Pohe Pohe McGruther) were half-brothers. After Robert McGruther and Te Anu separated Te Anu married Jean (John) Paul French. John Honi Ruki went with his father, Robert McGruther, to live in Pirongia while Sam and Mutu remained with their mother in Kawhia. When she married Jean Paul Sam went with her and took the name French. Te Anu and John Paul had two offspring, Tom and Bessie. Tom had two wives in his lifetime and five children.

Tom's father, John Paul French, was born in India, having been commissioned by Queen Victoria to teach the English troops there to read. He later immigrated to New Zealand and settled in Kawhia where he eventually married Te Anu, the estranged wife of Robert McGruther and daughter of Pohepohe, a prominent Maori chief. There were four children in the family; Sam and Mutu McGruther from her first marriage and Tom and Bessie from her union with John Paul. Sadly, Te Anu died when the children were young and John Paul practically abandoned them, considering them too Maori for his liking. Sam and Bessie were raised by Te Anu's sisters Rangi and Pera while Tom went to stay with relatives on Matakana Island in the Bay of Plenty where he grew up. Little is known about his adolescent years except that he was quickly distinguishing himself as a skilled rugby player. In fact, rugby became such an integral part of his life that any conversation about Tom French inevitably turns to the sport and his place in it.

In 1910 when he was twenty one years old, he moved to Westport on the western coast of New Zealand's South Island where he joined up with his half-brother Sam who had gone there to work as a fitter in the coal mines. He joined the local rugby team where his rugby skills were swiftly recognized. In 1911 he was selected to play for the Buller province. The following is a brief sketch from the Buller Rugby Union historical records. 

Tom French is a well known name in New Zealand rugby, particularly in Maori rugby. French played his club rugby for the Westport club and in 1911 was selected for the New Zealand Maori rugby team. He played again for New Zealand Maori in 1913 during their tour of Australia. Tom French went on to become a distinguished administrator in Maori rugby and was accorded the honour of having a trophy named after him. This trophy is the Tom French Cup which is awarded anually to the New Zealand Maori player of the year.
French’s representative record
Buller – 8 matches
South Island Country – 3 matches
New Zealand Maori – 25 matches

Tom was a tall, broad man measuring in at 190 centimeters (just under 6 foot three) and fast on his feet. He was a wing forward ~ which is a loose forward in today's rugby jargon ~ becoming renowned for his fast, running style of rugby, so typical of Maori players back then. 

He obviously stood out because in that same year he played for Buller (1911) he made the New Zealand Maori team and two years later toured Australia playing seven games and scoring four tries. His style of play earned him the praise of the Australian spectators, newspapers there giving him the title, Idol of the Crowds. That same year the All Blacks toured California and many rugby followers believed he should also have been included, questioning why a player of such caliber could have been left out. A New Zealand Herald report on a game between Buller and Canterbury stated, "Tom French stood out on his own among the forwards and it is difficult to understand why he is not included in the California team". 

In 1914 he caught the attention of Dave Gallaher, the captain of the famous 1905 All Black 'Originals' and now manager of the Auckland provincial rugby team. Gallaher, a loose forward himself, invited him to join Auckland and the two became great friends. Gallaher was the foreman on the docks in downtown Auckland and also secured Tom a full time job as a wharfie loading frozen meat heading to Britain.

Tom played his first game for Gallaher's Auckland team on 15 August, 1914, against Canterbury. It was the first representative game to be played at the new Eden Park. He played many games at Eden Park after that, many Auckland representative matches and others for his club. Interestingly, he was the first player to be sent off Eden Park for foul play. In a game between his club City Newton and Marist, he became aware that one of the opposition players was paying too much attention to Hannah Courtney, his girlfriend watching in the stand, so he dealt him a right to the nose. The referee had no hesitation in sending him off. Tom lost his place in the team for the rest of that game but not the maiden. She later became Hannah French.

Tom's burgeoning rugby career was curtailed by World War One when he enlisted and was shipped to Egypt with the Maori contingent. While in England he learned that his brother Sam had also enlisted and was due to arrive at Devonport. He hurried to the dock to meet him only to be given the dreadful news that poor Sam had succumbed to meningitis on the trip over and had been buried at sea. It was devastating news and one can only imagine Tom's anguish and heartbreak, especially when the two were so close.

Even in Egypt there was no escape from rugby. It seems that wherever New Zealanders go they take rugby. In 1915 so many of New Zealand's finest rugby players wound up in the deserts of North Africa or the fields and forests of Europe and, of course, rugby instantly became the great distraction from the rigors and horrors of war. In Egypt Tom was appointed captain of the Maori team before his pal Gallaher arranged his transfer to the Auckland Battalion so he could play for the New Zealand Army XV (also known as the Trench Blacks) in France. Below is the article about him from the NZ Rugby Museum exhibition commemorating WWI rugby players.

                             Tom French
                                                                Corporal Tom French              

Had Tom French been playing his rugby in Auckland or Wellington, instead of remote Westport, he could well have been an All Black before the war. He was tall, fast, and fit, a tireless loose forward who had made two lengthy tours with the NZ Māori team before playing in a provincial game. His talents were eventually recognised by Auckland and New Zealand selector David Gallaher who enticed the southerner to Auckland, gave him a job, and put him in the Auckland rep team in 1914. It seemed All Black honours would come within a year or two. They didn’t, war came and hopes of an All Black jersey were gone. Three years later, on the fields at Passchendaele, French, the All Black in the making, and Gallaher, the All Black legend, were playing a different game. Both were wounded on the same day and attended to at the same casualty clearing station. French lost an arm, Gallaher lost his life.

The 'Trench Blacks'. Tom is seated third from the right.
Tom's rugby playing days came to a tragic end in October 1917. After heavy fighting his New Zealand division overwhelmed the Germans near the Belgian town of Graventafel. Having secured those positions the division trudged on through rain and mud to Passchendaele where they once again engaged with the enemy in what became the Battle of Broodseinde. During a lull in the heavy shelling Tom spotted a sack of bread lying invitingly out in the open. Soldiers were always hungry and on the lookout for extra food and the bag full of bread was too enticing to resist. Tom took the gamble and scurried out to retrieve it. As it turned out the Germans likely placed it there as bait. Unfortunately, Tom took the bait and paid the price. As he went for the bag he was was either shot by a sniper or the bag was booby-trapped and exploded; he never remembered which. As a result a hunk of shrapnel or a bullet hit him in the left arm and rendered it useless. The lower part of the arm was amputated in a field hospital in France but an infection set in and he was shipped to England where an operation took the rest of it off at the shoulder. If that wasn't bad enough, on the same day he was 
wounded his great friend and rugby mentor, Dave Gallaher was fatally hit in the face.
In the space of a few hours Tom had lost both his arm and best friend. It could have been worse, he could easily have been killed as well. At least 2,800 of his fellow Kiwis were wounded or lost their lives at Passchendaele. He spent the rest of 1917 recuperating in England before being invalided back to New Zealand for good. In the space of a few hours Tom had lost both his arm and best friend. It could have been worse, he could easily have been killed as well. At least 2,800 of his fellow Kiwis were wounded or lost their lives at Passchendaele. He spent the rest of 1917 recuperating in England before being invalided back to New Zealand for good. 
Whilst the injury released him from the killing fields in France and Belgium, it also put paid to a promising All Blacks career. But it in no way dimmed his love of rugby and his involvement in the game. He saw it as a great vehicle in which to strengthen Maori pride and help his people rise to their potential. For the rest of his life he worked tirelessly coaching, managing, and officiating in Maori rugby. He was an accomplished referee, an influential selector, and an inaugural member of the Maori Rugby Advisory Board from 1922 to 1962. 

He was also a champion of Maori rugby in a time when it was threatened with extinction. Throughout his tenure on the Maori Rugby Advisory Board some powerful rugby people in high places were determined to disestablish Maori rugby so as not to upset South Africa, New Zealand's traditional football foe. There was only one thing our rugby-mad country loved more than competing with the Springboks; beating them. Our national pride (and probably a lot of money for the rugby union) was at stake and because of Apartheid, Maori rugby was problematic; not only were Maoris unwelcome to play against  South Africa, they were banned from entering the country. Many rugby and government officials saw Maori rugby as a threat to cordial relations with apartheid South Africa. According to Maori rugby historian, Malcolm Mulholland, whispered threats were made at dinner functions and after- match activities that if Maori didn't keep their heads down and mouths shut about playing South Africa, the Maori would find their team disbanded.

Shortly after the war (WWI) the Springboks first tour of New Zealand in 1921 highlighted the attitudes of the time when a South African journalist on the tour wrote home that the Springboks were disgusted that they had to play a 'colored' team and were astonished that the crowd actually cheered for the Maoris. The telegraph was sent from Napier and the telegraphist, realizing he was the only person in New Zealand to know about it, quickly typed a few extra copies and distributed them to people sure to get the comments into the papers. The actual telegraph read: Most unfortunate match ever played. Bad enough having play a team officially designated New Zealand natives but spectacle thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.  It's debatable who should have been the more disgusted, especially when the Springboks turned their backs on the pre-kickoff poi dance demonstration in their honour, and then refused to shake hands with their Maori opponents. In the end the Springboks only just squeaked home with a victory of nine points to eight. 

Seven years later The All Blacks made their first tour to South Africa, minus any Maori players. An agreement was struck between the two rugby unions to exclude whoever the South Africans deemed as non-whites. Tom and many others openly expressed their disgust, anger and indignation at this official kow-towing to apartheid and the New Zealand rugby union's hurtful snub of its Maori players. The great Maori full back, George Nepia wrote that all New Zealand "was indignant at this deference to apartheid". Tom also refused to be silenced and lent his criticism to the situation.

In 1949 the All Blacks again toured South Africa without any Maoris. This time the New Zealand Rugby Union sent the Maori team on a tour of Australia as compensation for their exclusion. Tom was the manager and the team won nine of their eleven games.They played three test matches against Australia which was testament to the skill of the players because they won one test, lost one and drew one. Later that year the All Blacks played the Australians and lost two test matches. 

During this tour Tom's amicable personality, management style and rugby knowledge was much admired by the Australian captain, Johnny Morris who gifted a trophy to the Maori team which became the Tom French Cup. From 1949 on, this cup was awarded by the NZRU to the country's most outstanding Maori rugby player. Maori center, John Burns Smith was its first recipient. Today, the annual winners of the Tom French Cup are selected by a panel of former players, sports writers and rugby administrators. The following is the list of those players of Maori descent who have been awarded the cup. 


Winners of the Tom French Cup 1949 ~ 2014

Johnny Smith                        Mike Clamp
Manahi Paewai                     Wayne Shelford x 4
Percy Erceg                          Frano Botica
Keith Davis x 3                      Steve McDowall
Pat Walsh x 2                        John Timu
Bill Gray                                Zinzan Brooke x 2
Muru Walters                         Robin Brooke                      
Bill Wordley                           Errol Brain
Mack Herewini x 2                 Mark Mayerhofler
Vic Yates                               Tony Brown
Waka Nathan x 2                   Norm Maxwe
Ron Rangi x 2                        Darryl Gibson
Sid Going x 6                         Caleb Ralph
Tane Norton x 2                     Carlos Spencer x 2
Bill Bush                                Carl Hayman x 2
Ken Lambert                          Rico Gear
Bill Osborne                           Daniel Braid
Eddie Dunn                            Piri Weepu x 2
Vance Stewart                        Zac Guilford                      
Hika Reid x 2                          Hose Gear
Frank Shelford                        Liam Messam
Steven Pokere                        Aaron Smith 

During the 1956 Springbok tour of New Zealand he hit the news again when he expressed his anger at government interference when a highly placed official told the Maori team Tom was coaching to go easy on the Springboks for the sake of future All Black ties with South Africa. It was tantamount to asking the team to throw the game.

His whole life Tom spoke out against racism in rugby. In the 1960's he took to the media to vent his views and give his support to the 'No Maoris no tour' cry. Despite the opposition that tour went ahead but as history shows, it was the last official All Blacks tour to South Africa without Maori in the team. 

It would be safe to say that Tom French was one of the key personalities in the struggle to keep Maori rugby alive. For example, during his days as a rugby selector, manager and coach in the Hawkes Bay he was renowned for turning the Bay into a 'talent nursery' for Maori rugby stars. His Hawkes Bay team successfully repelled 24 assaults for the Ranfurly shield from 1922 to 1926. He cultivated rugby greats like George Nepia, Jimmy Mill (both of whom became part of the famous All Black Invincibles), Sam Gemmell, Tori Reid and Everard Jackson. And, thanks in large part to his work, Maori rugby is alive and well and remains a great pool of talent to this day. Despite comprising about 15 percent of the population, Maori represent about 25 percent of all the professional rugby players in New Zealand's two major competitions. The 2015 Rugby World Cup has eight players of Maori descent in the All Blacks squad.

                  Even with only one arm Tom could turn big lumps of soil in his garden

Uncle tom died on July 15, 1970. In his later years he suffered from emphysema caused by a gas attack in Belgium during the war. Fittingly, his casket was borne by some of the old rugby greats that he knew so well: Waka Nathan, Keith Davis and Albie Pryor. After his death, history neglected him somewhat and his legacy to Maori rugby began to fade. Be that as it may, we should be glad to be part of his whakapapa, and it is pleasing to see that some of his descendants are now researching and writing his story. Perhaps he will yet get the recognition he so rightly deserves; if not by the world then more importantly, by us.


Sources used:

1. Tom's Dream by Simon Day, North & South magazineOctober 2015, pages 76-83.

2. Wikipedia: Google, Tom French Cup.
3. Exhibition XVI. Google, New Zealand Rugby Museum.
4. Beneath the Maori Moon, by Malcolm Mulholland. 


1 comment:

  1. Late 2016 the Rugby Museum published the book Balls Bullets and Boots by Clive Akers noted rugby historian. Lavishly illustrated, superb quality, insightfully written it profiles 30 rugby players whose lives were violently intersected by World War One. Among the chosen is Tom French maori allblack and compatriot of Dave Gallaher. Brother Sam French is also included in the profile. Available from the Rugby Museum Palmerston North. ..... Karl French