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Grey Rugby’s Early Ring-in

Ring with his sons, from left, Leslie, Gus and Claude.
Ring with his sons, from left, Leslie, Gus and Claude.

By Robert Messenger

Rugby was being played with great fervour in Greymouth long before the West Coast Rugby Football Union was formed in 1890.

One clear piece of evidence of this is the serious facial injury which was suffered by the famous English-born photographer James Ring in a match played by the Greymouth Football Club on the Greymouth Local School grounds (“Camp Reserve”) on Saturday, May 14, 1881. The match was played just 11 years after rugby football had been introduced to New Zealand.

The Grey River Argus reported on May 18, 1881:Ring_Photo

“The friends of Mr James Ring, photographer, will regret to learn that he met with a nasty accident last Saturday, while playing football, so much so as to make ‘the human face divine’ much less presentable than it had been before he disported himself in that exciting but rough and dangerous game. The Rugby Union has a deal to answer for.”

Ring’s appearance must have improved considerably in the following months, because less than a year later, on on April 17, 1882, he married English-born milliner Kate Maria Vinsen in Greymouth. And they had six children, one of whom, Claude, followed his father into photography.

The Greymouth Football Club had opened its 1881 season on April 30 with a match played under rugby union rules between teams selected by bank agent George Rowley Boulton and Henry James Bishop.

greys2After this, the Argus reported, “No doubt with judicious management the game of football will become one of the attractions of Greymouth. It is perhaps as well to mention the somewhat unusual conduct of one of the spectators who took up a position in the field and kicked the ball while the game was in progress. It is to be hoped that such unseemly behaviour was merely the result of ignorance of the usages of the game football, and will not occur again.”

James Ring had just turned 25 when he was injured played rugby in Greymouth. He was born at Camberwell, Surrey, on April 6, 1856, and started his photographic work in America, with Allen and Rowell in Boston. Ring sailed for New Zealand on April 1, 1879, arriving in Wellington on July 16. He arrived in Greymouth on November 2 that year. His rugby-playing injury of 1881 did his business no harm at all.

Ring became world famous for his more than 1000 photographs of the spectacular West Coast scenery, the gold industry and the frontier settlements. From his studio on Mawhera Quay he was able to record the frequent shipwrecks and floods that were to mark Greymouth’s history. He amalgamated in 1924 with L. A. Inkster, the business continuing as Ring and Inkster until his retirement in 1929. He died at Greymouth on July 19, 1939, aged 83.

It has been said that Ring’s work over 50 years was instrumental in defining the distinctive character of the West Coast. “Ring’s images still convey the beauty and power of the land that awaited the settlers, and the vigour of the communities that arose there.”

West Coast rugby was not confined to Greymouth in 1881, as a match between teams picked by James Malcolm and John Chisholm Scott was also played at Brunnertown on May 14 that year.

The Argus said, “No casualty occurred to mar the enjoyment of the game, which was fast and furious from beginning to end.”

Ring took this photo of the West Coast representative team in 1907
Ring took this photo of the West Coast representative team in 1907