William Harrington Atack, of Canterbury, was the first sports referee in the world to use a whistle to stop a game.
Today the referee’s whistle is a ubiquitous feature in sport. It now seems logical and obvious, but it was a New Zealander who first thought of it in June 1884.
Blowing the First Whistle
Until W H Atack’s innovation, referees had used their voice to control games. According to historian Arthur Swan, official historian for the New Zealand Rugby Football Union:
“When both sides were appealing, the voice had to be exercised loudly and Atack found it exhausting. Thinking it over one day while refereeing a rugby game, his fingers strayed into a waistcoat pocket where they encountered a dog whistle. The inspiration occurred to him that it would be a fine thing to use a whistle to stop the game. The next time he refereed, he called the teams together and they agreed to play to the whistle. It was a great success and was adopted all over the country.”
While sports historians differ on the date rugby referees were permitted to use a whistle, it is widely believed that Atack, far away from his game’s lawmakers in England, was the first to actually use it. At the edge of the world, rules and long accepted common practice meant less than an effective solution to a vexing problem.
Born in England in 1857, Atack (pronounced ay-tack) travelled with his parents to New Zealand two years later, aboard the “Cornwall”. He had an older sister who died during the voyage.
An excellent student, Atack won the Canterbury Provincial Government scholarship at age nine. A year later he won the Provincial Open Scholarship. He attended Christ’s College from 1870-74, was the Senior Somes Scholar in 1873 and Head of School in 1874.
He excelled at rugby and cricket. He continued playing cricket after leaving school and represented Canterbury at provincial level. Although he won a university scholarship, he elected instead to go into journalism, joining the Lyttelton Times in 1875. An accomplished sports reporter, Atack covered Shaw and Lillywhite’s 1882 England cricket team tour. He also represented Canterbury against them.
In 1884, aged 27, he first used the whistle.
Atack moved from Canterbury to Wellington in 1886, where he became General Manager of the United Press Association (later to become the New Zealand Press Association), a position he was to occupy for a remarkable and distinguished 44 years. These were serious years for New Zealand and the world. Atack was responsible for bringing to New Zealanders news of war, revolution, plague, disaster and tragedy including earthquakes, eruptions, floods, shipwrecks and derailments.
Former NZPA Chairman, Alan Burnet, recalled Atack as being “beyond a doubt a legend in his lifetime, he steered the growing agency through long years of barely adequate financial support with an austerity that belied his own humanity and gentleness.”
James Saunders, in his 1979 book Dateline – NZPA The New Zealand Press Association, 1880-1980, has recorded that although Atack was known affectionately to the staff as the ‘Old Man’, he was regarded with somewhat less warmth by Press Association agents who received very plainly expressed complaints about their work.
“He arrived on the scene at a most important time in UPA’s early history – the period when the association had to make its decisions on which service would continue to supply cable news. And surely his directors had foreseen the need for strong authority during the coming events when they decided to appoint him to control their day-to-day affairs?
“That he remained in office for 44 years despite his sometimes autocratic – some would say irascible – mannerisms and moods was proof enough of his worth. He was a man of action who knew that the first duty of a manager was to manage – and not to ask his directors how he should do that.”
The “Atackian attacks”, as they became known, were especially directed towards military and government war censors who “took all the marrow out of a war correspondent’s work.” He exhibited a natural directness of speech that lost nothing in transcription. Atack railed against the covert manner in which New Zealand declared war on Germany in 1914; and against censors who mined the harvest of news during the war for double meanings – including Caufield Cup results and Bank of England quotations.
During his tenure Atack’s precision with results was often directed towards the sports desk. Saunders again:
“Some of his choicest phraseology was embodied in criticism of extensive reports of sport. As a former Canterbury cricket and rugby union representative, he had a particular dislike for technical weaknesses in reports of these sports. If the bowling analysis did not tally with the cricket scores or if the details of points scored in rugby union were not substantiated by the total scores, it was an occasion for a characteristic explosion.”
His correspondents were left in no doubt as to the Atack style: “Brevity was not only the soul of wit but the very heart of telegraphic economics.”
Saunders records the temper of the time:
“So far as the UPA was concerned the 19th century went out without much clanging of cymbals or sounding brass. In almost two decades it had achieved much. It now had a sound and business like manager in Mr Atack, who could be relied on to keep a watchdog eye on the Association’s local affairs and overseas involvements. And its membership now stood at about 56 subscribers, some of the latest recruits being the Wairarapa Star, the Waikato Argus, the Egmont Settler and the Egmont Post. And it could expect more. It could face the new century with supreme confidence.”
In 1902, the UPA took the momentous step and approved the purchase of one typewriter for the office.
William Atack is remembered by his family as a precise and demanding man, character traits that suited him to refereeing, but also saved his bacon on one occasion. During a visit to San Francisco he wanted to post a letter and became annoyed at a bellboy who wasn’t sure what time the post went each day. Not wanting to leave his precious correspondence in the care of the youth, he left the hotel to post the letter himself. Several minutes later the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck and he returned to the hotel a short while later to find the place had been flattened.
Sport’s first whistle-blower retired from the NZPA in 1930 aged 74, and died in 1946, aged 89.
Richardson, Matthew. (1997) The Penguin Book of Firsts. Penguin Australia Limited.
Cairns, Ray. and Taylor, Alan. (1994) One for the Ref: A Centennial History of the Canterbury Rugby Referees Association 1894-1994. Canterbury Referees Association.
Sanders, James E. (1978) Dateline – NZPA The New Zealand Press Association 1880-1980. Wilson & Horton Ltd, Auckland.
Swan, Arthur. (1948) History of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union Vol 1, 1870-1945. Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd, Dunedin.