By Max Uechtritz
What could possibly connect two little boys born in New Guinea and China on either side of 1900 and the Olympic Games legend as portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire?
Rugby. The Scotland national rugby team, to be precise.
Those far-flung lads would go on to don the famous dark blue together and link arms as brave hearts before taking on England, Ireland, Wales and France in the Five Nations Championship of 1922.
Hector Forsayth – “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland ever had” – was born at Ralum, Kokopo on what was New Guinea’s first coconut plantation, in 1899. He was the grandson of legendary pioneer known as Queen Emma. His grand aunt was my great grandmother Phebe Parkinson. Hector was my father Alf’s second cousin. At The King’s School, Parramatta in Sydney, Hector was a star of King’s First XV and the combined GPS team. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in the UK.
Eric Liddell – “The Flying Scotsman” of Chariots of Fire fame – was born in Tientsin, China in 1902. The son of Scottish missionaries, he was schooled in China until he was five before boarding in England. He went to Edinburgh University and graduated in Pure Science.
Fullback Hector (1921-22) and winger Eric (1922-23) each was capped seven times for Scotland. They both played in their university XVs. Hector also was called up twice to play for the legendary Barbarians FC XV, the most distinguished invitational team in rugby.
Eric’s feats at the 1924 Paris Olympics inspired the Chariots of Fire film which won four Academy awards including best picture. The devout Christian was favourite for the 100 metres but famously refused to run in the heats because they were on a Sunday. Instead he raced and won the gold medal – in world record time – in his less favoured distance 400m on a weekday.
Soon after, Eric returned to China to serve as a missionary. He was interned by the Japanese in WW2 and died in a civilian POW camp in 1945. That’s another albeit sad parallel: three relatives of his former teammate Hector also died in Japanese prison camps (in New Guinea). One was his grand aunt Phebe Parkinson who had raised her grandson, my father.
So, how did Hector, the grandson of an American-Samoan woman who started a trading empire in New Guinea, end up playing rugby for Scotland? Heritage.
His grandmother Emma Coe, daughter of the American Consul to Samoa and a Samoan princess, married Scottish trader James Forsayth in Apia, Samoa in 1869. James Forsayth disappeared at sea soon after, leaving Emma with an only son, J.M.C “Coe” Forsayth.
Emma left Samoa and established a trading empire in New Guinea from 1879. She would become known as Queen Emma and her exploits would inspire books and a movie. Her son Coe was educated at Newington College, Sydney, before helping his mother run the business from the famous Gunantambu bungalow at Ralum, near Kokopo, the current capital of East New Britain in PNG.
J.M.C. Coe Forsayth had seven children. His second son Hector Heinrich Forsayth (middle name later changed to Henry) was born on Dec 18 , 1899, less than two weeks before the turn of the century. Some records have listed Rabaul as his birthplace. This is wrong. Rabaul didn’t exist then and was only stablished in 1910. Hector was either delivered by a doctor in Queen Emma’s Gunantambu bungalow itself or Coe’s house just behind it on the Ralum plantation.
It is unclear what year Hector was sent to boarding school in Australia. It’s most likely that his early schooling, like my grandmother Dolly Parkinson and his other Parkinson cousins, was at the catholic mission school at Vunapope in Kokopo.
But we know he later attended King’s and graduated in 1918.
Hector’s grandmother Emma had sold out her vast New Guinea enterprises in 1910 and died in Monte Carlo in 1913, leaving her vast wealth to son Coe. He moved his young family to a mansion at Vaucluse in Sydney’s establishment eastern suburbs and became prominent in social, yachting and horse racing circles. Probably because of his son’s rugby prowess – for Kings and the Combined GPS schools team – Coe also inaugurated the JMC Forsayth Shield for the annual match between GPS and United (military) Services. The Forsayth Shield existed until the 1950s.
Rugby history records show how Hector chose to play for Scotland over England: “Forsayth moved to Oxford University, where both England and Scottish official sought to woo him. He chose Scotland and played two solid seasons…Playing for Blackheath FC in 1923 critics judged him the best fullback in all English club rugby but, of course, he was now ineligible for England.”
In the book Rugger – The History, Theory and Practice of Rugby Football the authors wrote that Hector Forsayth was “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland had ever had.”
Perhaps his Samoan heritage played a part in Hector’s athleticism. For those who don’t know rugby , Pacific Islanders are the most naturally gifted players in the world and dominate All Blacks and Wallabies line-ups and star for other teams like England. Hector’s father was of quarter Samoan heritage and his mother Ida was part Samoan (it is thought half Samoan).
The famous Barbarians team – called the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby – is picked for flair and entertainment so we can assume Hector was an elusive and dashing running fullback.
A newspaper report from 1921 describes how King George V was present for a game in which Hector starred for Oxford against old rivals Cambridge. One of his 1922 Oxford teammates was Tommy Lawton who in 1929 would captain the Australian Wallabies to a rare 3-0 whitewash series win over the mighty New Zealand All Blacks.
We have no way of knowing whether Scottish teammates Hector and Eric Liddell were close off the field. I’d like to think they would have had a rapport based on their shared unusual backgrounds in comparison to the rest of their team. Eric was an intellectual and would have been fascinated by Hector’s stories of New Guinea, including how one of his uncles (John Coe) was killed and eaten by cannibals and his grandmother Emma nearly suffered the same fate after being hog-tied to a pole and carried away by warriors before being saved by her brother-in-law Richard Parkinson with his own praetorian guard of Buka islanders.
I am still trying to find out more about Hector’s life after he returned to Australia in 1923. We know it was a very different one to Eric Liddell. Both died young. Eric in the Japanese prison camp in 1945 aged only 43 and Hector “suddenly” in Gladstone, Queensland in 1952 at the age of 53. He had served as a signalman in the Australian army in WW2.
Hector was married in 1926:
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Thursday 17 June 1926
The wedding of Miss Josie Baker, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Langford Baker, of North Sydney, to Mr. Hector Forsayth, second son of Mr. and Mrs. J. M. C. Forsayth, of Vaucluse Hall, Vaucluse was’ celebrated on Wednesday night at the Church of England Grammar School chapel, by Rev. Davis. The bride wore a bouffant white satin frock trimmed with silver. Her veil was lent by her sister ln-law, Mrs. L. Falkiner. She wore a lace train and carried a bouquet of lilly-of-the valley, orchids, and hyacinths. There were two bridesmaids, Misses Edna Samuels and Ruth Baker. Their frocks were of apricot satin and gold lace, and they carried gold lace fans. Mr. Neville Goddard was the best man, and Mr. Grant Forsayth the groomsman. After the ceremony, a dinner party was given at the Australia (Club).
I began this research primarily because our daughter Isabella is currently studying for her doctorate in veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University – forever linked to Eric Liddell – and am very glad that I did.
I discovered an inspiring Eric Liddell, so much more than a rugby and Olympic ‘hero’. When the war came, he evacuated his wife and daughters to Canada and stayed on to continue missionary work in China before being interned in 1941. It’s reported that Winston Churchill himself tried to get Liddell freed in a prisoner exchange with the Japanese – but Eric refused and gave his place to a pregnant woman.
Conditions in Weihsien camp were harsh. Food supplies were short. Eric himself was emaciated. But he was constantly looking out for his fellow prisoners, providing care and support. He arranged sports events, taught science using a home-made textbook, carried supplies to the old and sick, and ran a Sunday School for the children. He died a prisoner of a brain tumour with complications from starvation and exhaustion in February 1945. He is interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.
In August 2008 a poll in The Scotsman newspaper found Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. Meanwhile, because he was born in China and died there, some Chinese claim Eric Liddell to be that country’s first ever Olympian, something that would no doubt please him greatly.
In 1991 the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite and carved by a mason in Tobermory, at the former camp site in Weifang. The city of Weifang commemorated Liddell during the 60th anniversary of the internment camp’s liberation by laying a wreath on his grave.
The Eric Liddell Centre was set up in Edinburgh in 1980 to honour Liddell’s beliefs in community service whilst he lived and studied in Edinburgh. Local residents dedicated it to inspiring, empowering, and supporting people of all ages, cultures and abilities, as an expression of compassionate Christian values.
There’s a modest plaque for Liddell at Edinburgh university. Isabella can pass it on the way to her lectures and perhaps muse on the connections and achievements of the two little boys from New Guinea and China who wore the dark blue of Scotland.