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Bledisloe: man and cup

Thu, 18 Oct 2012 13:03
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On Saturday New Zealand and Australia again play a Bledisloe Cup, the third this year. But who/what/where was/is Bledisloe?

It could have been the Bathurst Cup, for the gentleman after whom it was named was really Charles Bathurst, wealthy, well-connected, English, a Tory, a member of parliament, a privy councillor, a lord, the governor-general of New Zealand, a farmer with no interest in rugby. The name itself is centuries older than the cup.
 
Charles Bathurst was the heir to a grand estate, Lydney, in Gloucester, looking over sweeping lawns past azaleas and rhododendrons and stately trees out over the Severn. The estate has been in the family for some three centuries.

Charles Bathurst was born in London on 21 September 1867. He was educated at Sherborne School, Eton College and University College, Oxford, where he studied law, graduating BA in 1890. He was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1892. Like his father he became a barrister, but his real interest was in farming.
 
He married twice, first the Honourable Bertha Susan Lopes and then, after she died in 1926, the Honourable Alina Kate Elaine Cooper-Smith in 1928. His second wife died in 1956, he at Lydney on 3 July 1958.

Bathurst was knighted in 1917 and elevated to the peerage the following year, taking the title Lord Bledisloe, first baron of Lydney and Aylburton. In 1930 he had been appointed GCMG and on his return to England he was created Viscount Bledisloe of Lydney.

Bledisloe?  Where on earth is that?  The family estate with its grand house is roughly equidistant from the villages of Lydney and Aylburton in the Forest of Dean. Bathurst was afraid that if he became lord of either, he would disappoint the other. He looked up an ancient Anglo-Saxon map and found that in Anglo-Saxon times, the estate was in an area called Bledisloe. It is an Anglo-Saxon name, suggesting a forest clearing.

The rugby cup is not the only Bledisloe Cup. There is one dating back to 1937 and the first of the Best Kept Village trophies, this one in Gloucester.

On his second marriage Bledisloe gave up all political activity and devoted himself to agriculture – or intended to. Instead he was sent off to New Zealand as its governor-general in 1931. He and Lady Bledisloe stayed there till March 1935 when they returned to England. Their only other visit to New Zealand was in 1947 with a goodwill mission from the Royal Agricultural Society of England, of which Bledisloe was president in 1946.

Bledisloe gave New Zealand two wonderful gifts.

In 1932 he bought the beautiful area where the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed in 1840 and gave it to the New Zealand people, a wonderful place of pilgrimage and celebration since.

That was his second gift. His first, in 1931, was a cup for competition between Australia and New Zealand, the Bledisloe Cup.  In fact it is debatable if it was actually a gift from his lordship. He never presented the cup to anybody and the idea of having one at all first cropped up on the very eve of the 1931 match in Wellington. But it is posh - probably the biggest cup in rugby, designed in New Zealand by Nelson Issac, and crafted by Walker and Hall in London.

It may well be that the New Zealanders, by analogy with Lord Ranfurly's shield, named the cup after the popular governor-general who showed so much interest in farming.

Had he presented the cup in person, the world would have known about it. After all, the New Zealand press called him Chattering Charlie!

It’s a big cup – a metre tall on its base.  It has two handles and a lid.  It is plated in pure silver.  Being large it can contain much beer and/or champagne.  They say the All Blacks would fill it with 26 jugs of beer and then proceed to empty it.

For many years there was little interest in the cup. But recently international rugby, which originally had only the Calcutta Cup, has invented all sorts of trophies and the Bledisloe Cup has come more and more into its own, especially as the Wallabies have become more competitive.

There is no record of Lord Bledisloe’s ever having played rugby or indeed of showing any interest in rugby football at all. His grandson, the present viscount, is very keen on rugby. The family have always regarded it as “an incredible honour” that the cup is named after the viscount.

The cup was in fact “missing” for several years until again unearthed in a New Zealand government tourist office in Temple Court in Melbourne in the early Fifties.

Lord Bledisloe was a popular governor-general. He was in New Zealand in depression years. Civil servants’ salaries were cut, and Bledisloe ordered that his, too, be reduced proportionately – a 30% decrease.

Bledisloe became famous for his Red Poll cattle and his orchards. He promoted pig farming, and he kept dairy cows and grew potatoes and grain on his estate.

On one occasion he arrived at Knox College of the University of Otago on an official visit. To welcome him the students installed a pigs’ pen with four white pigs before the entrance.

He had three honorary doctorates conferred on him by the universities of Bristol (DSc), Edinburgh (LLD) and Oxford (DCL), and he was made a fellow of University College, Oxford.

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