Australian Rugby Union team photo

Wallabies 1939 UK tour abandoned

Abandoned: The Wallabies UK Rugby Union Tour of 1939

Home movies of 1939 rugby union stars
 Heather Gill

This rare home movie footage from 1939 features the Wallabies Australian rugby union team en route to the UK – a tour that would never take place due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that this article contains images of deceased persons.

Fond farewell to the Wallabies

In July 1939, Australia's Wallabies rugby union team embarked on a 6-week boat trip for a 10-month tour that was to start in the United Kingdom. The tour was to include 28 matches, culminating in an international match against England at Twickenham Stadium. A group of journalists accompanied the Wallabies, tasked with keeping Australia updated. Their tour manager, Dr Wally Matthews, recorded some of their journey as a home movie:

The Wallabies leaving Sydney on the RMS Moolton, in July 1939. NFSA title: 6896

Among those attending the Sydney farewell were former prime minister Billy Hughes and notable test cricketers SJ McCabe, WJ O’Reilly, WA Oldfield and Board of Cricket Control member Mr K Johnson. The siblings of Cecil Ramalli – the first Indigenous Australian Wallaby – travelled all the way from near Mungindi on the NSW-Queensland border to see their little brother off.

The challenges of sea travel

Newspaper clipping recording the Wallabies on board ship
'Increasing Weight No Worry To Union Men', The Daily Telegraph, 26 July 1939. Courtesy: National Library of Australia. Trove article identifier 247777669.


Early on, the Daily Telegraph regaled readers with reports of growing waistlines, with the team dining on dishes of 'printanière omelets, calf’s liver, entrecôte steaks, potatoes boulangère, royons bordolaire [sic], grapefruit au kirsch and cumquats'. The rich menu, combined with the inexperience of some of the travellers, resulted in more than a few cases of seasickness!

The nausea largely dissipated once the RMS Mooltan left Fremantle, although the monsoonal squalls and humid conditions as they approached Colombo proved challenging. The first casualty of the trip was Len Smith, who slipped on deck and dislocated his finger. Later, Basil Porter came down with pneumonia and captain Vay Wilson had ptomaine (food) poisoning. 

This was the first overseas trip for many of the players and they needed to be inoculated against smallpox in order to travel to the United Kingdom. In the following clip, white bandages can be seen on some of their arms while they are in the pool, with the resulting scar acting as a form of vaccination passport:

The Wallabies onboard the RMS Moolton (1939). NFSA title: 6896

Maintaining Fitness

The effects of vaccination were a factor in temporarily limiting vigorous physical exercise, but activities such as deck tennis, darts, table tennis and quoits occupied some of their hours on the ship. The following footage shows another solution was found for maintaining a degree of match fitness – while simultaneously providing entertainment for their fellow passengers who had all been declared honorary Wallabies:

The Wallabies entertaining themselves onboard the RMS Moolton (1939). NFSA title: 6896

In the next clip, Aubrey Hodgson, Keith Windon and another player make themselves useful to a Sister by balling yarn, then the team undertakes more established drills to maintain their fitness:

The Wallabies exercising onboard the RMS Moolton (1939). NFSA title: 6896

Some of the men in the clip above can be seen wearing All Blacks jerseys, which were swapped during the 1938 New Zealand rugby union tour. The Australian teams lost all matches against their stronger rivals.

Tourists abroad

Travelling by ship allowed for stopovers at Colombo and Aden. The Courier-Mail correspondent reported that 'all went ashore early, buying silk presents for friends at home'. There was an eagerness to record some of their new experiences, including one instance where the camera is wildly recording the sky, before focusing on a boy conveying fish to their seller. Other experiences recorded include them travelling along the Suez Canal; and past the Rock of Gibraltar.

The Wallabies stopover in Colombo and Aden (1939). NFSA title: 6896

Sailing via the Mediterranean Sea included a stop at Marseilles. Here Dr Matthews recorded in his diary, 'This morning we find all the windows painted black, learn that lights will be out at night, and no smoking on deck'. All signs of the impending war.

Declaration of war

The team arrived at Plymouth on Saturday 2 September and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany the following day.

After a little uncertainty, the matches were abandoned. The players discussed signing up in England but their manager convinced them they should return home first.

The fortnight in England now involved filling sandbags at their hotel in Torquay. They were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, made a brief visit to the already re-purposed Twickenham Stadium and attended a farewell cocktail party at The Savoy, organised by the British Sportsman’s Club.

Dr Matthews described their time away as 'a pleasant and interesting cruise', expressing his hopes that the war would be over within 12 months and that the tour was simply postponed.

What happened next

Many players joined the army or air force, while Albert Stone was in a reserved occupation as a laboratory chemist. Mac Ramsay, Mick Clifford and Winston Ide died while serving.

After the Second World War, Bill McLean and Keith Windon were the only 2 players to represent Australia internationally as Wallabies.

Others, such as John Kelaher and Mickey Gibbons, continued playing at club level, with John Turnbull and Ron Rankin making state teams. Players like Cecil Ramalli and Aub Hodgson became integral to their local clubs.

John McDonald became a rugby coach for Toowoomba Grammar School, a referee for representative matches in Toowoomba and a Queensland selector.

Every effort has been made to identify people in the footage. Please email if you have more information.

Main image: The Wallabies, 1939. World Rugby Museum, Twickenham.