What it takes to wear black

The inspirational tale of Henry Butland highlights the incredible determination and commitment required to represent New Zealand at the highest level.

Henry was just 21 when he found out he’d been selected to play rugby for New Zealand in 1893. It was the very first tour to be officially sanctioned by the New Zealand Rugby Union, which had been founded a year earlier.

But Henry lived in the remote gold-mining town of Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island, and needed to get to Lyttelton on the east coast in order to catch a ship to Australia to play; and with the towering Southern Alps lying in his path, that wasn’t going to be easy.

Henry’s feat has been reimagined in the inspirational children’s book ‘What it takes to wear black’, available to purchase here.

Henry would have normally travelled by stagecoach, a journey that should have taken about 36 hours depending on the weather, but for some unknown reason this wasn’t an option. Perhaps the rivers were in flood or an early winter’s snowfall may have made travel through Arthurs Pass impossible.

But Henry wasn’t about to give up and legend has it that he packed his footy boots in his bag and set off on foot to walk over the Southern Alps. He made the 250km journey to Lyttelton in time to catch the ship to Australia and helped his team thoroughly thump the Aussies, winning 9 of their 10 games.

An English player on the ground on Saturday said he never saw a better half than Butland, not even in England.

New Zealand representative rugby union team, 1893 – Alexander Turnbull Library /records/23075966

There were no test matches played as Australia didn’t have a national team at that time. Henry’s team played against regional and district teams, with the key fixtures against Queensland and New South Wales. They ended the tour on a high with a 16-0 victory over New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of a 20,000-strong crowd.

Butland, who will return to New Zealand as one of the best halves in the Colony, is undoubtedly one of the stars of the team…and the West Coast people have gone into raptures over their representatives play.

Henry again represented New Zealand against a touring NSW side in Christchurch in 1894, the first by a New Zealand selection on home soil. He played 13 first-class matches in all and remains one of only a few players to have played for their country before representing their Union.

Henry in playing kit – courtesy of Hokitika Museum

Henry’s adventures didn’t end there however, and a few years after representing New Zealand in rugby, he travelled all the way to Alaska to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush. Nobody knows if he struck it rich, but he was renowned in Hokitika for being a generous man, with a pinch of gold from his pouch seeing many a poor prospector through to their next meal.

Henry had 10 children, with his eldest son Sir Jack Butland founding Chesdale Cheese, and another son William Camille Butland making the ultimate sacrifice in WWII on the battlefields of North Africa. Henry is buried in the Hokitika cemetery, surrounded by the rugged natural beauty of the West Coast, with the mighty Southern Alps watching over him.

Henry’s feat has been reimagined in the inspirational children’s book ‘What it takes to wear black’, available to purchase here.

Henry’s full player profile can be viewed here.

Visit West Coast Tourism and start planning your West Coast road-trip today!

Toby Butland
[email protected]
7 Comments
  • Janine Wilson
    Posted at 23:12h, 11 July Reply

    Awesome book, my rugby mad kids are so inspired by the story! Appeals to a wide range of ages, brilliantly written with beautiful illustrations.

  • Nick Butland
    Posted at 19:16h, 19 June Reply

    Thanks for sharing Henry’s amazing story, he was a great man. Henry was my great great grandfather.

  • Claire
    Posted at 05:54h, 18 June Reply

    Fabulous story. Henry was also my great grandfather, had never heard many of these details of his life. Thank you so much for sharing, will certainly be buying a copy.

  • Bob McKerrow
    Posted at 00:27h, 18 June Reply

    I wrote a book on a West Coast Surgeon, doctor and mountaineer Ebenezer Teichelmann 1859-1938. On pages 226 and 227 I record a trip Harry did with Teichelmann up the Whataroa, Perth and Scone valleys for two weeks.. Teichelmann describes him as a splendid bushman and good cragsman.

    • tobybutland
      Posted at 00:43h, 18 June Reply

      That’s amazing to know. Thank you. I’ll have to look out the book. Cool connection to my days as a glacier guide, and I’ve been for a look up the Whataroa and heli-rafted down the Perth, spectacular part of the world.

    • tobybutland
      Posted at 06:53h, 18 June Reply

      What was the name of your book Bob?

  • Adam Gilshnan
    Posted at 03:33h, 08 June Reply

    Well done on a fine publication, and for the efforts you’ve gone through to bring Henry’s amazing story to life, for people of all ages to enjoy.

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