Burnett brothers score British and Irish Lions first

Mornington Peninsula resident, David Burnet, is the 86 year old the grandson and great nephew of Robert (Bob) and William Burnet respectively, the first set of Scottish brothers to tour with the British & Irish Lions.

They both played for Roxburgh County and Hawick Rugby Football Club and were chosen to represent Scotland on the first tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1888, as team members in what became known as the British & Irish Lions.

David has fond memories of his grandfather, who stayed in Australia at the end of the tour and went on to become a pioneer in the Queensland wool industry and Melbourne resident.

“Grandfather Robert Burnet had great memories of the 1888 the Lions’ tour and before he died he gave me his Tour cap. Robert played in the forwards, his brother William at half-back. Robert and William followed rugby throughout their lives and would have been so pleased that 125 years later the Lions Tour continues,” said grandson David Burnet.

In March 1888, Robert and William Burnet and fellow Hawick player Alex Laing left Hawick on the night train, cheered off by a large crowd. As rugby union amateur rules were strict the players were not allowed to be paid so were compensated by a ‘clothing allowance’ of £15 and a promise of between £90 and £200 each for ‘travelling and hotel expenses’.

The games were played in front of big crowds, as many as 25,000. The colonies were eager to see the matches against the ‘mother country’ and the overseas players were treated like celebrities, with receptions and entertainment provided wherever they went.

“Grandfather Robert kept souvenirs of his tour and we still have the programme from one wonderful dinner which was hosted by the Fitzroy Football Club in the town hall after the match on June 30th.” said David. “It shows a gourmet seven course banquet including oysters, mock turtle soup and roast teal, washed down with champagne, port and cigars,” David continued, “The match played against Fitzroy earlier that day was played to Victorian (now Australian) Rules which the overseas visitors had only learnt when they arrived in Australia. Unsurprisingly, Fitzroy won 12 goals to 3 goals, although the press reports noted the side ‘played a fearless game, and are not afraid of a spill’.

The schedule was very demanding and travel was slow, by steam train or horse drawn coach. Proof of the punishing schedule was shown by that week’s play. The day before the Fitzroy match the Lions had played Aussie Rules against South Ballarat on June 29, and two days earlier had played another country team, Maryborough.

David said: “Robert made up his mind to stay in Australia after the Brisbane match. Such was the antagonism from the rugby union governing body back in England that William Burnet and Alex Laing had to appear in front of a rugby union hearing in Glasgow to face questioning about their amateur status as soon as they returned. Both were found not to have contravened the rules and were able to finally return in late November 1888 to a hero’s welcome in Hawick, nine months after first setting out.”

After the tour, William Burnet also emigrated, but to Buffalo Wyoming in the USA where he set up a successful sheep farming ranch with fellow Hawick player Alex Laing. He died in Scotland, aged 86.