Born: 31/12/1880 at Curramulka, South Australia
Died: 29/10/1948 at Puramahoi, Nelson, New Zealand
The story of Jim Abercrombie is one that typifies the struggle that pioneering players had with the Rugby Union and their motivation to join the newly formed Rugby League.
Abercrombie himself had a difficult personal life too, even as a child. He was born James Maskell in Curramulka, South Australia on New Years Eve 1880, the first child of dairy farmer Thomas and his wife Lucy’s 3 children. When he was 11 years old, his father died. The following year she married William Abercrombie and all 3 children adopted his surname.
Sadly though, William passed away just 2 years later. Lucy relocated with her children to Sydney and in 1897, married again to Joseph Appleton, giving Jim his third father before he turned 17 years old.
In 1898 Jim began playing lower grade Rugby Union, lining up for Bayview for 2 seasons before switching to Grosvenor in 1900. While there he was selected in a Moss Vale representative side.
In 1901 he made his first grade debut for heavyweight side Glebe, earning a place in the Sydney juniors side that took on Newcastle. In 1902 he played for Metropolitan v Newcastle. After the 1903 season, he left the Glebe club to play for North Sydney.
He continued to improve at Norths, despite several of his team mates not bothering to attend training.
In 1906, he married Grace Johnson and the following year he became a father, to twin boys William and James.
Jim was made vice-captain of North Sydney in 1907, captaining the side on a number of occasions, but one game changed everything in an instant.
On July 6 he was sent off in the game between North Sydney and St.George. 3 days later, his magnificent form saw him earn his highest representative honour at the time when he was selected to play for NSW on their tour of Western Australia.
His joy lasted just 1 day. On July 10 the Metropolitan Rugby Union suspended Abercrombie until September 1908 – a 14 month suspension – “for indiscriminate kicking.” Two weeks later the MRU decided to review the decision at a later date.
A shattered Abercrombie then decided to attend the inaugural meeting to form Rugby League in Australia, which took place at the Bateman’s Hotel on August 12, 1907. Joining him were a large number of players, most notably Dally Messenger, Tommy O’Donnell, Harry Hamill, Herb Brackenreg, Martin Laidlaw, Tom Costello, Albert Rosenfeld, Bob Graves, Arthur Hennessy, Alec Burdon, Frank Cheadle, Percy McNamara, Peter Moir, Dinny Lutge and Fred Henlen.
Four days after this meeting, the MRU agreed to remove the suspension on Abercrombie, exonerating him completely, however by then he was unable to join the NSW side.
The following week, Abercrombie lined up for the professional NSW rebel side in their third match against New Zealand ‘All-Gold’s’. The following month the MRU banned him and all his team mates from Rugby Union for life.
On February 7, 1908, Abercrombie attended the inaugural meeting for the North Sydney Rugby League club, also being elected to a position on the committee. Surprisingly, he was then in attendance at the Western Suburbs Rugby League inaugural meeting at the Ashfield Town Hall and again, was elected on the clubs board. He found himself work as a Blacksmith in Concord and thus lined up for the Western Suburbs side for the 1908 season.
He played in every game for Wests in their debut season, as well as being picked for NSW against the visiting Maori side and then for Metropolis against both Queensland and the Maori side again.
Abercrombie was named in the Australian side to play against the Maori team on August 1, but the match was cancelled. With the Kangaroo touring squad having been named just a few days prior, with Abercrombie not being picked, it appeared that he had missed his chance for national selection.
But on August 4, he was named along with Albert Rosenfeld, Tedda Courtney and Alf Dobbs. 4 days later he played for Wests in their last game of the season and a week later, boarded the RMS Macedonia and set sail on the six week journey to England.
Abercrombie went on to play in 31 of the 45 games on the ill-fated tour, including the first and second tests against Great Britain.
Upon returning to Australia in 1909, Abercrombie did not play any first grade football for the year. He played just 2 games in 1910 for Wests.
In 1911 his son John was born and in 1913, he made one last first grade appearance for Wests due to several players not being available. At the end of the year, the City Cup final between Norths and Glebe had half the gate takings donated to 4 pioneer players who had decided to retire – Abercrombie, Bob Mable, Ed Fry and Harry Hamill. Each player received the tidy sum of 80 pounds.
The following year he was awarded life membership of the New South Wales Rugby League.
In 1921, at the age of 40 he became a father again, to son Cornelius and in 1929 had a daughter who tragically died from meningitis at the age of three.
After his daughter’s death, he reverted back to using his birth surname of Maskell and then emigrated to New Zealand to become a farmer in Puramahoi, north of Nelson on the South Island.
His mother died in 1937 and in 1940 his son John enlisted for service in World War II with the 2/19 Australian Infantry. He was taken prisoner while serving in Thailand and died on June 18, 1943.
On October 29, 1948 James Maskell passed away.
In 2008 he was one of six men inducted into the Western Suburbs Rugby League club’s Hall of Fame, alongside club legends Keith Holman, Peter Dimond, Arthur Summons, Noel Kelly and Tommy Raudonikis.
Rugby League Playing Career
Wests (1908, 1910, 1913) – Played 12, 5 goals, 10 points
NSW (1907-08) – Played 2, 0 points
Metropolis (1908) – Played 2, 0 points
Australia (1908-09 Kangaroo tour games) – Played 29, 2 tries, 6 goals, 18 points
Australia (1908-09) – Played 2, 0 points
1907-13 – Played 47, 2 tries, 11 goals, 28 points