By Robert Messenger
Lock forward Harry Atkinson was selected for the 1913 All Blacks tour to North America from the Kohinoor club in Greymouth. But Harry and his brother Charles had begun their footballing careers with the State Colliery Rugby Club in 1907. The State Colliery club was formed in 1905, became known as Dunollie and in 1910 as Rūnanga. Rūnanga ceased playing football in 1915 but returned as a rugby league club in 1919.
Henry James Atkinson was born in Dunedin on June 22, 1888. In 1892 his father, William Atkinson, took up a position as manager of the Hercules No 2 Gold Mining Company in the Teviot Valley, Roxburgh. This company had been taken over that year by William Atkinson’s friend John Ewing, Central Otago’s so-called “Gold Baron”, after whom William Atkinson had named one of his sons, Harry’s older brother Charles Ewing Atkinson (born 1887). William Atkinson worked the claim using a single sluicing elevator, which had been introduced to New Zealand by Ewing from the United States.
Harry Atkinson and his siblings were educated at Roxburgh School, Charles being enrolled in 1892 and Harry the following year. In 1903, William Atkinson, who had developed a wide reputation as an alluvial mine manager, took his family to Charleston, south of Westport. The Cutten Brothers, engineers for George Griffiths’ pipeline contract to the Charleston Beach Sluicing Company, had appointed William inspector of works. The operation included a tailings elevator.
The work in Charleston complete, in 1905 the Atkinson family moved to Cobden, where William began working for the Dispatch Foundry in Greymouth as a boilermaker.
That same year the State Colliery Football Club was formed at the Dunollie Hotel, with James Sullivan and William M’Lusky as office bearers. It affiliated with the West Coast Rugby Union on April 12, 1905, along with the Reefton club. The state mine had been established at Coal Creek in 1901 by Richard John Seddon’s Government, and two towns were set up to house the mine workers and their families: Rūnanga, a government town, and nearby Dunollie, a private initiative.
In order to maintain player strengths and a viable competition, from 1910 the WCRU enforced a strict policy of residential qualification for its clubs: to play for Greymouth team, a player had to be resident in the town. The dividing line to the north was the Grey River, to the south the Taramakua River. The State Colliery club embraced Cobden as part of the Coal Creek “district”. Before the introduction of this rule, the Atkinson brothers had started out playing for State Colliery, Harry aged 19 and Charles 20, but later turned out for the Star, United and Cobden clubs. From 1910 they had no choice but to play for State Colliery, although the Atkinson family had no connection with the mine.
The State Colliery team was variously called Dunollie (as well as “State”, “Miners”, and “Colliers”) and by the end of the 1910 season was being almost exclusively referred to as Rūnanga. Rūnanga finished the season as runners-up in the WCRU cup competition, after losing its final match to United at Seven Mile.
From 1906, rugby in Rūnanga had grown in strength through a school team established and encouraged by headmaster Francis Edward O’Flynn. But, while in 1908 the Colliery club had acquired a home ground at Seven Mile, developed by local carpenter Leslie Hill, it had begun to struggle in 1909. The WCRU’s residential qualification rule impacted on it greatly, and another problem it faced was the train schedule from the mine to Greymouth and back – players often had to travel by dray.
In 1910 a Rūnanga junior team emerged, which included Cobden-based players and was eventually allowed to use Cobden as a home venue. Although earlier in the 1910 season the Atkinson brothers played for the Dunollie seniors, they became part of the Rūnanga junior team, and were thus selected to represent the West Coast “juniors” against the Inangahua Sub-Union at Victoria Park on September 3, 1910. They also played for Country against Town two weeks later, though they lived just across the river from Greymouth.
One of the more unusual matches Rūnanga played in 1910 was at Victoria Park, Greymouth, on September 24, against the British crew of the iron barquentine the Mary Isabel, visiting from Sydney.
No result for this match appeared in Greymouth newspapers, but in its preview the Grey River Argus pointed out the Mary Isabel crew had beaten Grafton in Australia and had played in first-class fixtures elsewhere in New South Wales. The ship with all hands disappeared almost exactly a year later, while returning to Australia from Whangape Harbour.
Rūnanga started the 1911 season with hopes of competing at senior level, after taking part in a seven-a-side tournament in Westport. But when these hopes soon faded, many of its players applied to the WCRU for dispensations to play for senior teams in Greymouth, in particular the Kohinoor club. Harry and Charles Atkinson applied on May 17, 1911, were refused transfers, but a week later granted a move to Kohinoor.
Both Harry and Charles were selected in the West Coast team which beat the Simon Mynott-captained Taranaki team 9-8 at Victoria Park on September 3, 1911. The pair continued to play for Kohinoor through the 1912 season and again in 1913.
In 1913 Harry Atkinson applied twice to leave Kohinoor, once to join Star in June and then to join Hokitika in July. Each time he was blocked by the WCRU, the second occasion coming two weeks after he had been selected in the South Island team for the inter-island match in Christchurch on July 26. Following a decisive 25-0 win by the South Island, Atkinson was included in the All Blacks team for their North American tour.
Atkinson had confirmed his availability by August 9, but on August 26 he read in the Grey River Argus that he was to be replaced by Charlie Gillespie of Wellington. Atkinson had become the victim of a cruel hoax. A typewritten letter signed in his name had been sent to the New Zealand Rugby Union from the Hokitika post office on August 19, just three weeks before the All Blacks assembled in Wellington. The letter stated Atkinson was unable to tour. The Hokitika police were called in and the WCRU immediately telegrammed the NZRFU that the letter was a fake.
Back in the touring team, Atkinson was farewelled by the WCRU at a function at the Albion Hotel in Greymouth on August 28. He said that he had “commenced his football career on the West Coast and if all went well he intended to close that career where he had commenced it.” As events transpired, he never played rugby on the Coast again.
In Wellington, Atkinson appeared in the First Test against Australia on September 6, and against Wellington four days later. In North America he played in eight of the 16 matches, but not in the one Test.
Before the tour ended, with an unofficial match against the Grand Pacific club in Suva in December, the Atkinson family had left the West Coast to return to Dunedin, where Harry Atkinson joined them. He played 11 matches for Otago in the 1914-15 seasons, while with the Southern club. He died in Dunedin on July 21, 1949, aged 61.