Interview with Maurice (‘Morrie’) McHugh on 12/02/2003

Pupil at Sacred Heart College, Auckland from 1931-34
All Black No. 458
Barbarian RFC member
Born in Auckland, February 19, 1917
Died in Auckland, September 25, 2010 aged 93

(This interview was given for the Sacred Heart College centenary in 2003, when many prominent old boys were invited to give their recollections. It had several additions until McHugh’s death in 2010. It was passed onto Kevin Barry by McHugh’s daughter Frances, and Barry in turn passed it on to Bryan Williams in early 2014).

Both my parents were born in South Canterbury, and my four grandparents were born in Ireland. I know one of my grandparents came from Swanlinbar in County Leitram and another from Knowley just across the border in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. All my grandparents arrived in New Zealand in the 1880s and settled in South Canterbury.

My father’s family had a farm in Darfield, Canterbury. My mother’s name was Slattery. Her family had a small farm in Hawkden, Canterbury.

My father Andrew was a blacksmith in Canterbury before joining the police force. He was posted to Auckland in 1911 and became a detective. In the 1940s he was transferred to other districts, including Hamilton during World War Two but retired to Auckland. When he first came to Auckland in 1911 he played for the College Rifles club. I remember he once said he thought the Marist club had liquor on the premises so did not play for them at first.

But a few years later he did join Marist. He represented Auckland as a loose forward in 1915 and in 1921 when he played against the visiting South Africans in the first international match played at Eden Park. This was for a combined Auckland-North Auckland side. My father marked the South African loose forward Morkel and a photo of my father tackling him was in the Auckland Rugby Union’s headquarters for many years.

He married in 1916.

In 1919-20 he was involved in the well-known Eyre murder trial. Captain Eyre, a former Canadian army officer who farmed in Onewhero, left his wife and children on the farm when he served overseas in World War One. A farm manager by the name of Thorne ran the farm. Eyre returned in 1919 and paid off his manager. In 1920, he (Eyre) was murdered one night when he was shot through his bedroom window. My father was involved in the case and, having been a blacksmith, was able to identify a horse belonging to the former farm manager by examining his hoof prints near the Eyre house. I remember the name of the horse: Mickey. This was crucial evidence in bringing about the conviction of Mr Thorne. This case was brought to the notice of the public during the Arthur Allan Thomas case in the 1970s as there were similarities, and the Thorne convicted in the case was a distant relative of Arthur Allan Thomas. In fact, one lawyer defending Thomas suggested that one of Captain Eyre’s grandsons could have been the killer of Harvey and Jeanette Crew.

I was the eldest of seven children (four boys and three girls). My second brother was Joe – he left Sacred Heart in 1934 and joined the police force. He died some years ago after he had served in the force for many years. Andrew, the third brother, attended SHC from 1936-39 and was in the champion 1939 First XV, later playing senior rugby for Marist. He became an accountant and died in 1993. He was an accountant for the Whangarei Harbour Board during a high profile case when the chairman was charged with misappropriation. My youngest brother Pat went to St Peter’s College in Epsom and still lives in what was the family home in Kenyon Avenue, Mt Eden. He was also involved in the motor car business and regularly made cars available to the clergy on good terms. At present he part-owns a restaurant in Devonport.

We were living in Rendell Place, Kingsland, when I was born in 1917, but in 1928 my father bought the house in Kenyon Avenue. I started school at St Benedict’s. I recall my first day there in 1923. The sister, a St Joseph’s nun, told me what to draw and copy, telling Pat Schollum, who had been there a few months longer, to help me. He immediately told me to do things slightly differently from what the sister had said, much to the annoyance of the good sister. Pat was the father of the SHC principal Brendan Schollum (who died in 2014). We were to be in the same class right throughout our schooling and Pat was always a real extrovert, a personality who always wanted to liven up things. Later at SHC he led the performance of the haka when the First XV were playing. John Mackey (the bishop), John Molloy (an Auckland rugby rep) and another John Molloy (well known Eden-Epsom and Auckland tennis player) were also at St Benedict’s with me. The Pascoe girls (from another well-known Auckland family) also attended, though I don’t think they were Catholics. There was also a Ken Maynyard who later became a champion long-distance runner.

On leaving St Benedict’s, I went to the Marist brothers’ school in Vermont Street from 1928-30 (standards 4-6). Brother Calixtus was the principal and also taught me in my first year. Until I started at Vermont Street I had not played rugby apart from kicking a ball around and skylarking with my friends. Brother Calixtus was one of the finest teachers I ever had and a master rugby coach. His name is still remembered in primary school rugby through the Brother Calixtus Shield.

From 1917-25 Vermont St. won the Auckland primary school A grade championship seven times under his coaching. I remember once I had been sick and failed to complete my homework. He excused me, stating that I had played so well the previous week that no wonder I had become exhausted! I recall he stated once that he started teaching when he was 19, then some months later said he had been teaching for 30 years, and asked if anyone knew how old he was. To his surprise, I gave the correct answer immediately. He was only in his early 50s when he died in 1932. He had taken ill after a St Pat’s night concert. I remember the last time I saw him when he was resting on the upstairs balcony of SHC watching us on the near field. St Patrick’s Cathedral was packed for his funeral, with most of the Auckland Rugby Union executive being present.

When I started at SHC in 1931, the Depression was on its way and there were a lot of poor people around. With seven children to provide for, we struggled, but Dad had a secure job in the police force, so we never wanted for the essentials. But many Catholic children went on to Seddon Tech as their parents were poor and did not want to ask for financial help to attend a Catholic secondary school. The roll at SHC shows a steep decline during the Depression years, especially among the boarders. Many of the better-off Catholics were in the hotel trade and their children were able to attend SHC (the Dunns, Molloys, Coopers, Schollums, Sheehans, Trestons, et cetera).

I loved my years at SHC – the brothers were dedicated teachers and took a real interest in us. I recall that I was often late. I had to catch a tram to Karangahape Road, then walk to the top of Pitt Street to catch the Richmond Road tram, and invariably I missed it. The train boys from south Auckland arrived in Auckland at 8.40am, so they came on a tram which reached college at 9.10am. Sometimes I would get on the tram with them and make my way in unnoticed because we usually had drill (PE) first thing in the morning. However, I remember Brother Hippolyte coming into the room once and warning me about being late. He was a difficult man to fool. Brother Remigius, a very gentle, devout man, was acting principal for the year in 1933, and we then had Brother Tarcisius, whom I would describe as a devout, jovial, wonderfully composed and capable man. He never seemed to raise his voice. He taught me English in Form Six. I recall once he was reading us a poem by William Wordsworth in which the term ‘loafer’ was mentioned. He asked if anyone knew what a loafer was. My father, of course, had been a blacksmith and a horseman. I immediately put my hand up and was the only boy in the class that knew a loafer was a half-bred greyhound used for chasing hares at a hunt…

Brother Tarcisius, a South Islander, liked horses and said he once did riding work as a jockey when he was a boy. His nephew was the late Hon. Frank Gill, a former cabinet minister and later New Zealand ambassador to Washington.

I admired Brother Gerald, a nephew of the world champion boxer Billy Murphy, the only NZ-born boxer to ever win a world professional title. Br Gerald was very devout and some boys referred to him as ‘Creeping Jesus’. The Murphys were originally an Auckland family, but he came from the West Coast because his father had married a local girl and settled there. He once said that when he was a pupil at the brothers’ school in Greymouth and was only 14, a brother asked them if anyone would like to join the brotherhood. He said he would and in a few short weeks was on his way by boat to Australia. He was in his 90s when he died. An obituary was written by a good friend of mine, none other than the late Sir Terry McLean, the doyen of New Zealand sports writers. McLean and I were overseas together in North Africa.

Another well-known brother was Brother Mark, who taught French and Latin. He was somewhat feared among the boys and was the sort of brother I would describe as being ‘quick on the trigger.’ He was quite young at the time but probably over-strict.
I suppose rugby was my favourite sport, as I was in the First XV for three years and gained secondary school representation. We had a very good First XV in 1934 when we were runners-up, losing only two games – one to King’s College, whom we beat in the second round, and one to Auckland Grammar School, with whom we drew in the second round. Six of this team were later to play provincial rugby: halfback Frank Cooney (Auckland), wing Jack Barry (Auckland), wing Jack Molloy (Auckland), Tom Kawe (Otago and NZ Maori), fullback Bill Hare (North Island and Auckland) and myself. Eric Wordsworth, the college athletics champion and an Auckland schools title-holder, was an outstanding centre. Given the ball quickly from set play, he could get through a gap in a flash. He was small of stature. Unfortunately he was out injured for several games and I am sure we could have been champions if we had him for every game. Other members of this First XV were Barry O’Regan, later a knight and a High Court judge, and Pat Dunn, later Doctor Dunn, father of Bishop Pat Dunn. Most of us served overseas in World War Two. Brother Aloysius was our rugby coach. Only two of us are still alive (in 2003): Dave Gamble, a former naval lieutenant, and myself. I was also the college shot put champion and was second in the secondary schools competition, along with being the college heavyweight boxing champion for a couple of years, and a school prefect.

I recall John Mackey (later to be bishop) taking part in the college boxing championships. He was beaten by a tough country boy – a Ryan – but he showed courage and determination. I remember one of the brothers later congratulating him, saying ‘like St Paul, you fought the good fight.’ He was a real pleasant young lad whose father died in Ireland in 1919 when he was very young and his mother came out to New Zealand with him and kept house for her brother, who was the parish priest of Epsom, Father O’Brynne (died 1934). It did not surprise me that he later became our bishop. During the August holidays in 1934, I managed to play a few games for the Auckland Marist senior team.

I was pleased to leave SHC with my matric and am forever grateful for what I learnt at the college. The Catholic faith has always been strong in our family life and I have never had any hang-ups, fear or guilt complexes about the Catholic faith. I am often disappointed as regards the attitude of many young people towards the faith today. Perhaps a bit more moral and religious fervour would do them no harm.

On leaving SHC, I worked in the customs department in 1935 and started to study law. Pat Schollum likewise started law with me. However, after two years, I gave law studies away. I was too involved in sport: rugby, athletics and boxing. My father, who was an extremely mild and quiet man, never criticised my decision, but I felt that he would have liked his children to pursue a profession. He did not have a secondary education, but he did his best to give his children the opportunity he never had.

In 1938 I was the New Zealand amateur heavyweight boxing champion. The finals were held in Gisborne.

Late in 1938 I sailed to England on the Rimutaka for my overseas experience. In London, I played rugby for the Catford Bridge Club. Rugby in London was not really competitive and was a middle class game played by professional men. As one Englishman famously said, ‘We play rugby to keep fit, whereas you New Zealanders keep fit to play rugby.’

I travelled on the continent in the northern summer of 1939 and got as far as Northern Italy, where there were a lot of Italian troops training. With the threat of war likely in Europe and many tourists leaving, I cut short my trip and set sail back to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland a few days before the war broke out on September 3, 1939.

I joined up with the NZ Army medical corps and went into Burnham Camp in November 1939. I went overseas with the First Echelon in 1940 and we were stationed in Egypt. (While in Egypt, Morrie was the army boxing champion, beating George Nelson, an army captain and a lifetime friend, in the final). We went out on several patrols in North Africa but it was in April 1941 that we really went into action in Greece and Crete. In Greece I was with the 16th Battalion as a medic. George Nelson, a captain in the 18th Battalion, asked me to join his battalion, so I transferred to the 18th. By May we retreated to Crete. There I remember at 8am on May 20, 1941, we had just had breakfast on what was a clear, fine day, the sky suddenly filled with German aircraft, not like the previous mornings when there were brief bombing raids. The sky was crowded with what looked like 100 aircraft, and within a few minutes thousands of German paratroopers, while German fighters strafed the fields around the airfield we were supposed to defend. Then gliders were dispatched from a second wave of aircraft. The Germans suffered heavy casualties as the gliders slowly landed and the German troops leaving them were immediately machine-gunned by our men. There were so many Germans landing that, without an air force, we did not have a show from the beginning, and it was only a week before we started evacuation procedures, especially after the Germans captured Maleme Airfield. Many Germans were able to land at one end of the island without any opposition whatsoever. Our company was soon surrounded and we had no chance whatsoever of continuing the battle with any hope of survival. Thus I was a POW in Crete from May-June 1941 and also spent a few weeks in a ‘military hospital.’ We were in a prison camp near the coast and there was a sandy trench and scrub between the camp and the shore. Part of the prison camp was a former hospital. The German guards would allow us to go swimming most days. After six weeks, learning that we were to be shipped to Germany, another prisoner, by the name of Yeo, and myself decided that we would make a dash for freedom. The guards would patrol the fence and report every few minutes at the sentry boxes during the night. We carefully determined how long it took them to patrol each area then stealthily slipped under the wire at about 4am one morning. We hid in the sandy trench outside the prison fence until we heard them report to one another. It was soon evident that they had not seen us so we carefully wormed our way through the scrub and made off. It would be six weeks before we got off Crete. The locals fed us, but we could only approach them at night because if they were caught helping us they could be shot, whereas we would only be taken back to the camp. I remember one night we called at a Cretan farm house and a woman in there started screaming hysterically, no doubt realising who we were and what could happen to them. However, the Cretan farmer gave us food and took us down the back of the farm to a hut where we were able to spend a few nights. We eventually reached the cliffs on the south side of the island. There were quite a few of us in hiding and the Germans were closing in on us so we were constantly ‘on the run.’

We received a message that a British submarine, ‘The Torbay’, would be coming to pick us up one night. On the appointed night we swam out to this waiting submarine holding on to a rope which was attached to the submarine. There was a group of us and those of us who could swim had to assist any non-swimmer. The captain of the submarine was Captain Myers, a very devout Catholic, as I soon discovered. Later in the war he was awarded the Victoria Cross. We were brought back to Egypt, later lined up before the NZ Division and praised by General Freyberg for our courage. He then said that as a reward he would give us two weeks’ special leave, “knowing” that we would be anxious to have another go at the Germans. Sadly, one comrade who had escaped with us later lost his life in action in North Africa. During the later months of 1941 and early ’42, we spent some time in Lebanon and made several forays into Libya before taking part in the great battle of El Alamein from October 1942. This was a turning point in the North African campaign.

In the weeks before El Alamein, Freyberg organised several sporting events. The main contest was the rugby series between New Zealand, England and South Africa. I was determined to make the NZ Division team and after several trials was selected. The final against South Africa was like a test match. We won and were congratulated personally by Freyberg. I do not recall any of what became the Kiwis in 19456 being in this New Zealand team, but most of them joined us later in the war. Sadly, several of the 1942 NZ players lost their lives later.

In 1943 many of us from the First Echelon were brought back to New Zealand on leave. I had a broken bone in my lower arm as a result of one of our army rugby matches and it took some time to mend. As a result, I was discharged from the forces. I returned to my customs job but did not stay there very long.

So in 1944 I was back in Auckland playing rugby for Marist and Auckland. My parents were then living in Hamilton where my father was in charge of the Hamilton police station. It was in Hamilton that I met my wife Sylvia McLaughlin, whom I married in 1946. She died in 1991. We had four daughters, one of whom died in 2001.

In 1944 I settled in Auckland and lived at the Victoria Hotel in Victoria Street, run by the Trigg family (ex-SHC). I met up with Ivan Stonex, who ran a huge dairy farm in Papatoetoe and was head of the Stonex Brothers milk factory in Auckland. Ivan was a keen rugby supporter and offered me a job as a driver of a milk truck. This was an essential service and I felt I needed an outdoor job after the stress of the North African campaign. Don Wright, and Auckland league rep and an allround sportsman, also worked for the Stonex family. He ran my milk-carrying contract when I was away playing rugby. I was in the Marist senior teams from 1934-38 and from 1944-50. We won the Gallaher Shield in 1939 when I was absent overseas, and in 1947 and 1950.

Morrie played in both tests against the Australian touring team in 1946 as a side-row forward, openside in the first test and blindside in the second. He was not selected among the 26 to go on tour to Australia in 1947. Morrie was still a top player, but the selectors preferred younger talent.

In 1946 Morrie fought in the final for the New Zealand amateur heavyweight boxing championship against Jack Boyd of Taranaki in the Auckland Town Hall. This was in the same week that Morrie played in a test match against Australia. He lost the final. In 1947 he was beaten in a preliminary by Kevin Skinner, whom Morrie had beaten in 1946. Skinner went on to win the title in 1947. There were no All Blacks matches in 1948.

Morrie was one of 30 players selected in September 1948 to tour South Africa in 1949. In April of that year, at the age of 32, Morrie went on the long tour of South Africa where he played in 13 of the matches, including one test, the third, where he played in the No 8 position. Much was expected of this side, but all four tests were lost, though two of these were lost on penalty kicks. Okey Geffin was an outstanding goalkicker and he was the obvious difference for the Springboks. The All Blacks coach Alex McDonald was 65, but Morrie said he had been a good coach and deserved the tour. He had served New Zealand rugby well and this tour was a just reward for his services to the game. He once said that good coaches are good coaches because they have good teams. He agreed to share coaching responsibilities on the tour. Much ill-informed criticism has been written about this tour. Morrie said there were neither disputes nor revolts among team members. Most of the players were from Otago and Auckland, but there was no ill-feeling, nor were there any cliques or differences between the ex-Kiwis and the younger members. He said that the Springboks were better organised and made the most of their opportunities in the tests, which were all close. There were some weaknesses in the team as New Zealand’s best halfbacks were not on the tour – Percy Tetzlaff had just retired, while Vince Bevan and Doctor MN Paewai were both Maori and could not tour South Africa. In the third test, Neville Black, a first five, played halfback. For each of the four tests, New Zealand had a different No 8. Morrie said the day of the third test, in which he played No 8, was an extremely hot 80 degrees Fahrenheit (36 Celsius) in the shade. The All Blacks lost 9-3, scoring the only try with South Africa kicking three penalties. Two of these were scrum penalties and hooker Has Catley seemed to get the blame, but both were doubtful penalties. The second penalty in the seventh minute was the most controversial. South Africa had kicked across field to the All Blacks’ 25. Bob Scott took the ball and kicked for touch, but was immediately penalised for shepherding behind the winger Bill Meates. Morrie said he had run back and was in a good position to see the incident. He did not think Scott had used Meates as a shepherd, but from the position of the referee Morrie said he could see how the referee misjudged the incident. Referees do not always see it from the players’ point of view, nor are they always in the best position. The All Blacks always considered they were robbed in this test, as they played the better rugby and Morrie himself had a good game. The referee – Hofmeyer – came in for much criticism after this test.

There were nine Catholics in this All Blacks side (10 in the group with Winston McCarthy). They all attended mass regularly on Sundays and suffered no discrimination or criticism from other players. Morrie had the task of finding out the time of Sunday mass at each location and informing the others.

Harry Frazer, who was a member of the team, became engaged to a South African girl during the tour. Morrie said her remembered one morning the engagement was reported to the paper in South Africa and this was the first many in the All Blacks’ side knew of it. They woke up Frazer to tell him that it was in the morning paper with many details about him. The first thing Frazer said was ‘Have they got my weight correct?’

Morrie retired from rep rugby after this tour. He spent another two years working for Stonex Brothers delivering milk to schools and dairies in Auckland’s eastern suburbs. His wife was a Hamilton girl and his parents settled in Hamilton in 1953 where he worked as a carrier for his friend Flynn for a while, then as a salesman for the Dunlop Tyre company, which enabled him to travel about the Waikato and meet up with many sportsmen, then for Brian Faire, who was a land agent and eventually Morrie worked for an insurance company. In Hamilton he became player/coach for the City club. Some Marist supporters were unhappy with this move but Morrie said he wanted to coach at the senior level and Hamilton Marist were well set up.

From 1958-62 he worked as a clerk for the Meremere Power Station. Returning to Auckland in 1963 he continued to work for the same insurance company he was involved with in Hamilton, and he also had a season coaching the Auckland Marist seniors, without much success.

Living near the motorway in Papatoetoe, Morrie for many years was a great help at Otara’s St John’s Parish. He would frequently help at school with a reading recovery programme for young Polynesians. For several years right up until 1999 he drove each week into St Matthew’s in the City to collect food parcels for the deserving poor in the Otara district. He was also an active member of the third Order of St Francis. In 2004 he was a Eucharistic minister at Holy Cross parish in Papatoetoe. His surviving three daughters and their families lived in Papatoetoe and Manurewa, while his deceased daughters’ family live in Kawakawa, Northland.

In September 2004 at the SHC sports centenary dinner, Maurice McHugh was named as a member of the SHC First XV of the Century.

For a period of some seven weeks until his death in 2010, he was the oldest surviving All Black.