From The Old Club: The History of the Christchurch Football Club 1863 -2013.
Written by Tony Murdoch
On 30 May 1887 the Otago Witness reported that William Millton had suffered a severe attack of typhoid fever and was “coping as well as could be expected”. A few weeks later, on 22 June, William Varnham Millton passed away at the relatively young age of 29 years old. His death was widely noted and The Press’s obituary said that, “…he was a wonderfully popular young man; and take him all round we have lost a really good man.”
For the Christchurch Club William Millton set down an unofficial template for leadership, both on and off the field. Like his All Black captain successors he loved playing rugby, like them all he committed himself to his club, his province and his nation. Millton set high personal standards and to a man Jack Manchester, Bob Duff, Jock Hobbs and Richie McCaw followed in a shadow probably they did not know existed but in some way sits around All Black captains and especially those from the Christchurch Club.
For members of the Christchurch Football Club Millton’s untimely death would have been a hammer blow for he had been at the heart of the club almost from the time he left Christ’s College, where he was a member of the 1st XI and 1st XV, and an able scholar winning a University Scholarship in classics in 1875. An old photograph of the 1877 1st XV from the College archives has the nicknames of the players on it and has Millton as “Scruffy Millton” and his cousin JD Millton, who also played for the club and for Canterbury as ‘Luce”. As both a player and an administrator William Millton helped set the pattern for future clubmen with unstinting service to the club on and off the field before graduating these skills to the fledgling Canterbury Rugby Football Union and finally to captaincy of the first New Zealand team in 1884.
Match reports of Christchurch games in the late 1870s and 1880s frequently mention his work on the field. He was a frequent points scorer and very industrious. While the records are sketchy it would seem that he played when and wherever he could, for a time playing for the fledgling Merivale club before committing himself to Christchurch. Coming from a relatively prosperous background and working as a solicitor he may have had more flexibility than others but this does not explain his whole-hearted commitment to rugby. This was not only as a player but as an enthusiastic member of the CRFU where he served as secretary, succeeding Monty Lewin, selector and often as chairman. In 1883 the Union did not make a profit and a note in the annual report said that there were liabilities of around 42 pounds, mostly owing to Mr Millton who “advanced money to the Union.”
It would seem that Millton was a prime mover in the planning of the tour of NSW and in soliciting support of the other major unions, Auckland and Wellington. In alliance with Mr S Sleigh, a Dunedin businessman, Millton seems to have initiated the idea of a tour and then encouraged the Otago and Canterbury unions to support it and with their backing he then got Auckland and Wellington on board. Selection was by quota, and each union nominated four or five players. It also seems that Millton assisted in dealing with the NSW organisers. The team played a Wellington XV before heading to Sydney and it was at this point that Millton was made captain by popular vote among the players in view of his background and involvement with tour arrangements he was hardly a surprise selection to captain the New Zealand team.
The Star said of him prior to the tour, “[He] has been captain of the Canterbury team since 1879. [He] plays football imperturbably as he does cricket and is consequently rather slow for a crack team. His strong points are dribbling the ball, taking ball from touch and above all place-kicking in which he is probably superior to anyone in the team.” This analysis adds some balance to the Millton legend and it was around this time that he was fined 10 shillings for driving his horse and gig at night without lights. There is no mention if he had been drinking.
Usually a forward (some records suggest he played one tour game at fullback), Millton appeared in eight of the nine tour matches and, with four tries and nine conversions, finished as joint top points scorer. He was described by tour manager S E Sleigh as “the right man in the right place. A steady dribbling forward, always near the leather. His good-natured unselfish play tended in no small degree to make the games pleasant and at the same time successful.”
Millton seemed a young man certain to succeed. He represented Canterbury at rugby and cricket between 1876 and 1886, captaining the province in both sports. In addition he served as secretary of the Christchurch F C and the Canterbury RFU. As a twenty year old he had been the hero of a passenger rescue from ship wrecked off Timaru in 1878. In the language of the time “the dauntless fashion in which he plunged again and again into the boiling surf full of broken spars and wreckage to save life was not more marked than the perfect silence which he afterwards kept of his share in the day’s events.”
In an address to the boys of Christ’s College, his old school, he said, “…play the game right tough and hard. Do not slacken off or droop your heads because you are being hopelessly beaten; do not get careless when you are winning. Take a beating cheerfully and in good spirit and if victorious wear your laurels modestly.”
In 1885 Millton married Miss Anderson, the sister of John Anderson, another Christchurch man who played international rugby, for Scotland in 1872, and went on to serve the Christchurch Club for many years. At this point in time he had everything to look forward to but sadly did not live long enough to fulfil the hopes so many had for him.
William Millton, the bright hope of so many, was buried with full honours at the Riccarton Cemetery. The funeral procession was over a quarter mile long and there were a number of groupings involved. Not surprisingly his friends from Christ’s College and the Christchurch Football Club were to the fore. The pall-bearers were, in a way, a snapshot of his life. The group included his brother in law, John Anderson, his brothers - James, Frederick, and Arthur; his cousin James who had joined the club at the same time, and TD Condell, a founding figure in the club. Assisting at the service was the Rev. Croasdale Bowen, one of the Rugby School men who started the game in Canterbury, There is no record of his thoughts or words but it must have been a time of deep and unrelenting grief.
Seasons for CFC: 1876 - 1885
Matches For Canterbury: 11
Matches For New Zealand: 8