Australian Football has been played in New South Wales for over 140 years and we have been left little from those who came before us in terms of the history of the game.
The material that we, at the Football History Society have in our collection has been acquired, for the most part, by our desire to secure significant items that relate to our game in this state. Some have been donated and we really appreciate that gesture.
Australian Football started in Sydney in 1880 however by 1895 had collapsed. It was revived eight years later and took off with real fervency and zeal, the NSWAFL even purchased their own ground in 1911!
Then came World War I. Money was owed on the ground, times were getting tough and all the league committee resigned; it well looked like the game was set to fall over again.
However, in stepped Jim Phelan who had formed the Newtown Club in 1903 and had been its secretary and treasurer in those intervening years. He was appointed honorary League Secretary (General Manager) in 1915.
Jim surrounded himself with self-starters and the game was continued during those dark days of the conflict, even when the number of clubs fell to four. Yes there was a motion to suspend football following in the steps of the strong NSW Rugby Union competition, but we feel Australian Football continued mainly because the NSW Rugby League did so and so they soldiered on.
One reason for the game’s ability to continue was the number of interstate servicemen passing through Sydney at the time, many of whom played for the struggling clubs.
The war finished in late 1918 and the following year the number of clubs again fell from five to four.
On item the Society are very pleased to have are copies of League Meeting Minutes (amongst others) from 1919-20. They have been re-typed and can be read (click)here
Jim Phelan, after whom the Sydney AFL Best & Fairest Medal is named, was a prodigious writer on the game. He was during his time a contributing journalist for several Sydney newspapers and also wrote articles in the Sydney Football Record during the 1930s. We have re-produced these (click)here and they provide some very interesting reading on Sydney footballs former years.
Football in NSW has had some successes and failures and some incidents that are all that important.
Nevertheless the History Society wants to document all the significant football events that have taken place in NSW since the game was first played in this state since the late 1870s.
With that in mind we are calling on those from various parts of the state who have an interest in the game and who maybe able to provide some dated stats that we can add to the timeline that we intend to post on the site.
Australian football was first played in Sydney in 1878;
On 13 July 1878 a club was formed in Wagga Wagga;
In July 1881 a club was formed at West Maitland and called Northumberland;
The first football match was played in Broken Hill on 4 April 1885 when the teams, Day Dream and Silverton met;
It was first played in Grafton on 11 July 1885 when the Grafton and South Grafton clubs played off;
In 1890 Victor Trumper was playing in the Sydney Club’s second eighteen;
In 1911 the NSW Football League purchased an old racecourse in Botany Road, Alexandria and turned it into their own as the Australian Football Ground.
And the list goes on.
If you have information that you think might be important enough to add to our Timeline, let us know, drop us an email here.
The Society has moved more seriously into posting podcasts on their website.
To those who are not familiar with podcasts, this might explain: a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.
In our case they are interviews with football personalities from Sydney whose experiences throw some light on what Australian football was like in years gone by. We intend to carry out more of these in coming months. The Society has A grade audio equipment which will be used in this pursuit
A number of interviews were carried out over the past 15 years but with no-where to keep or maintain them at the time, the tapes were lodged with the State Library of NSW. Now there is a battle to get copies of these released back to the Society.
All of those interviewed are now deceased.
Nevertheless one or two or the tapes are still in the Society’s possession and they are currently undergoing the process of digitisation.
This interview with Frank Dixon has been segmented into nine parts and is slowly now being loaded onto the site. It is a very interesting discussion recorded in 1997 by the president of the Society, Ian Granland. Click Frank’s image to hear a short clip.
“I didn’t set out to make this a professional recording” Mr Granland said. “I was living on the Central Coast of NSW, not far from Frank and full well knowing his involvement in the sport in NSW, I was keen to get some of his experiences down on tape, given that he was in his late eighties. I just used an old reel to reel tape recorder that I purchased when I was in Vietnam.”
“The problem with these particular recordings is that the microphone I used was sub-standard so my voice might be a bit difficult to understand. On the other hand Frank’s voice comes over loud and clear and he gives a wonderful insight of his life from birth until the 1960s. I can really recommend you listening to these recordings if you are interested in local footy and his life in general. Click here to check out the recordings so far posted.A warning though, some of these are quite big files so may take a little longer than normal to load. Utilise the option: Play In New Window for faster results.
Frank was young enough to play on the NSWAFL owned Australian Football Ground at North Botany (Alexandria). He had a magnetic personality and was later captain-coach of the South Sydney Club during their stellar period in the 1930s.
He enlisted in the army early in the Second World War and was almost bombed out of existence at Tobruk where he was wounded.
After the war he was a vice president of the NSW Football League and tells of one of his experiences travelling to Melbourne in the train.
He coached the NSW state team between about 1948-55. Later he was elected Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney and became involved in the East Sydney club’s successful bid for a licensed club.
Frank Dixon was a good man and one the code can be very proud of. He is a member of the Sydney Football Hall of Fame.
This article is providing some news on events and activities within the Society.
Magical Football Tour Following on from an early discussion the committee is closer to organising a magical mystery tour of Sydney football landmarks with an oral description on this bus guided trip.
The idea is to take members and those interested on a bus tour around Sydney where various football sights and attractions will be visited and a brief description given on their relation to the game.Â It will take about four hours.
Some of the places identified are Trumper Park, Erskineville Oval, the site of the Australian Football Ground at Alexandria, Mascot Oval, three of the leagues offices at the Sydney Sports Club, 64 Regent Street Chippendale and the Newtown Rules Club. The tour will also visit some old club watering holes and a few other mystery venues where football had an impact all those years ago. If you are interested, let us know, click here.
More Football Records Online
Recently we have been loading more Sydney Football Records on our site. Today we will load the two remaining missing years in the 1950 decade which will provide all the Football Records we have from 1927 (the initial year of the publication) to 1960. You can access them by going to the Collections link on the front page of the website or by clicking here. Included in the 1953 Football Records is the programme for the Intervarsity Carnival held in Sydney.
Just as interesting are the newly posted 1957 Football Records. They too contain an Intervarsity Programme as well as a match programme for the Australian State Schools Carnival held in Melbourne. Also old league and club minutes have and will continue to be added.
Should you have any minutes that relate to football in NSW or annual reports, please pass them on for scanning and adding to our collection. We will post them online for all to see.
1978 Sydney Football Films
We have previously announced that we have digitised several 10 minute films of Sydney games taken in 1978. These are still on sale and we are working on having a film day at the Wests Club, probably now after the season, where all the films will be shown and the digitised copies can be obtained at a special price.Â These would make great presents for dad or an uncle etc. who played during that period.
The committee will be hard at it at Bunnings Ashfield on Sunday (3 May) selling sausage sandwiches in an attempt to raise more funds for the projects the Society enters into. Let us know if you can help out. Any time between say 7am – 3pm.
Out latest project is to give our website a facelift. The current one has been with us now for four years and we feel it needs a bit of refurbishment. We hope to have this done over the next few months.
Bertie Filgate If you go to our ANZAC profiles by clicking here or accessing them through the link on the front page of the website you will see an article about Bertie Filgate. Killed moments after he left the boat and headed up the hills at Gallipoli he was a star player in Sydney over 100 years ago.
Although born in Victoria, his last employment was as a eucalyptus expert (work that one out) at Braidwood, NSW. There, he is remembered on an honour board in the Anglican Church; a trip through the town last week also found his name on the cenotaph in the main street of the village. His story certainly is unusual. Have you read it?
We have written many times that Australian football was first played in Sydney in 1880.
Following some ups and downs it again got on its feet in 1903 and during the following number of years there was a particular player of some significance who was in the army and based at Victoria Barracks, Paddington who played for many years on and off in the Sydney competition.
He was killed in WWI when, as a Lt Colonel, a shell hit the foxhole he and some of his staff were sheltering in.
His name is Bert Watts and was the most highly decorated Sydney footballer we know in WWI. His life and time as a footballer and soldier are highlighted in our soon to be released book on Sydney Football and the First World War. As you will read, he also served in the Boer War.
The image below shows him on the left with an unknown soldier serving in the Boer War, South Africa.
We have been very fortunate to have found a newspaper article about Bert; his thoughts and experiences, where he mentions some of his ideas on the game and what rules should be introduced to make it a faster and a more attractive sport. Ironically, many of these have since been introduced to our game over recent years.
The fact that he was an outstanding Sydney footballer and man has been lost on us all. We knew nothing of Bert Watts and his colleagues, such is the fragility of the history of the game in the nation’s largest city.
Here is the article, taken verbatim, so any mistakes are from the article itself. We hope you enjoy the read:
One of the most striking personalities in the Australian ‘game in Sydney is Captain Bert Watts. A tall, dashing fellow, with shoulders which might well excite the envy of a champion wrestler; straight, well-shaped legs, he is the beau ideal of an athlete. Was it ever your lot, reader, to see him kick a football? No! Well, when at his best he would open your eyes to their fullest extent.
In the final at the Australian Football Ground last season Watts obtained a mark a tremendous distance from the posts. He placed the ball, and many of the spectators jeered. Even those possessed of the knowledge of his exceptional kicking abilities considered he put the ball on the ground with the idea of sending it in front of goal to give his forwards a chance to do the heedful. Now, that was evidently not Watts’ idea. He walked back a few yards, and then came at the ball like a speedy Rugby three-quarter back, who, when near the line, has visions of a try. ‘Boof!’ went his right foot, into the ball. Through the air at rocket-like pace it went, keeping low. All eyes were on that ball. Will it go between the uprights after all must, have been in the minds of not a few. When the ball neared the posts it took a rise, and the players jumped high in their endeavours to reach it. The sphere went gaily on and six points were hoisted for Paddington. Bert Watts was a hero! Everybody cheered him. Well they might, for rarely has such a kick been seen anywhere. In the course of a conversation he said:
“I learnt to play football in South Australia, and was captain of my State School team at Allendale. I also, played with school teams at Broken Hill. In 1902 I regularly took part in the practice matches for South Melbourne, and in 1898 I played with the Royal Australian Artillery team. QueenscIiffe, Victoria. I was in South Africa in 1900-1, and we ran a competition between the squadron of the regiment (the Victorian Imperial Bushmen), and played Australian football in Rhodesia, Cape Colony, and the Transvaal. We had some fine players, too, notably Charlie Moore, one of Essendon’s best, who was killed in action; ˜Joker” Cameron, who figured in South Melbourne’s colours for ten years; and George Angus, who was a similar period with Collingwood, and was captain when they won the Victorian premiership.
In 1902 I was stationed at Newcastle, in Natal, and captained an Army Soccer team. But the two succeeding seasons I played for the R.A.A. (Royal Aust Artillery) team at Queenscliff (Victoria), though I was offered a place in several of the Victorian League clubs. I donned the Paddington colours in 1905, and represented New South Wales in the first inter State match against Victoria after the resuscitation of the game in Sydney. The season after found me in Brisbane, and I played for Brisbane and Ipswich clubs, and also represented Queensland against New South Wales.
In 1907-8 I was stationed at Thursday Island, and had a go at Rugby Union, but in 1908 I was once again in Brisbane. I represented Queensland at the first Australasian Carnival at Melbourne. I have played for Paddington since the beginning of 1909, and I play the Northern Union rules with regimental teams at present. Of the 1905 New South Wales representative team only Ralph Robertson and I now remain on the active list.
I consider Ralph Robertson the headiest player I have ever been associated with. Any scientific footballer would have no difficulty in teaming with him. I recommend young players to study his methods. You see, he never misses an opportunity of passing to a comrade in a better position than himself. And his play is always for the side, irrespective of self.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYERS
“As an old player, I would like to give a word of advice to young footballers. One of the first things I would impress upon them is to avoid cliqueism (sic). Don’t have particular pals to play to; always put your team before everything else on the field. Select a comrade in a good position to pass to as soon as you get the ball, and send it on to him at once. Never mind a tricky, pretty run. Get rid of the ball quickly before opponents have time to form up to meet your attack.
If a forward, try and escape from your opponent; if a back, follow your man wherever I he goes. Centres should not wander from their place. On a large ground they get more opportunities by keeping their proper position than by wandering towards the backs or forwards. Obey your captain without argument; you put him in that position, and should stand by him. When the hall is being kicked from a mark, arrange who is to fly and who is to stay down. One should be in front and the other behind the high-markers. The ball comes to the ‘floor’ offener (sic) than it is marked. Don’t bounce the ball when, beginning your run; travel a full ten yards first. But run as little as possible; kick the sphere hard and often, but always to a mate. Only handball to a man in a better position; handball is easily overdone. Don’t be selfish; you play a better game for yourself when you consider your side first.”
SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS IN THE GAME
Yes, although our game is now grand, I think it could be still further improved. I favour the erection of a bar, with 6 points for an untouched kick over the bar, 2 points if under, and 1 point touched over or under the bar and 1 point for a behind. This would improve the game by making a goal harder to get, and therefore of more value. It would give the full-back a better chance to participate in the play than he now enjoys. Then, again, dribbled goals are not worth six points.
â€œI suggested similar alterations in the ‘Referee’ some years ago. Many correspondents wrote, some in favour, some against. But, like you, I am of opinion they would immensely improve the game. But proceed.
Well, when the regulation size of the ground cannot be obtained, I favour the reduction of the teams to 15. We boast of the openness of our game, but 36 men on small areas make play congested. Instead of the ‘throw-in,’ when the ball goes out of bounds, I think a free kick should be given to opponents when the ball goes out on the full; at other times the ‘throw-in’ to be adhered to.
“I also suggested a similar rule, with the exception that a certain portion of the ground at each end should be exempt. It would certainly make the game much faster.
It would,â€ replied Bert. There is still another rule I would like to see introduced, and that is, the umpire should have the power to order an offending player off the field. The argument that it places too much power in his hands will not hold water. We must trust our umpires. Occasions are rare when an umpire spoils a game, and a man who strikes an opponent should not be allowed to play. Clubs would soon drop ‘fightable’ (sic) players, who are a disgrace to any game.
Well, there are many young players who are showing excellent football, namely, McLean (North Shore), McConville and Stewart (East Sydney), Chapman, McCann, Mahoney (Paddington), Ratcliffe and the McLarens (Balmain), Hortin (Newtown), and Mack and O’Grady (Sydney).
The best players’ I have been associated with? I am afraid the task is far too difficult; A flood of names of good, in fact, great footballers fly to my mind; but to name some means leaving out dozens of others.
Yes, I – have found Australian football as played in New South Wales a beautiful game. It is nearly always fought out in the best possible spirit. Both, contesting teams leave the ground pals, ‘and the spirit at’ strenuous rivalry is only maintained as it should be on the field. The game is clean. I have played – all codes, and, and whilst I enjoy any game of football, I consider the Australian invented pastime’s greatest charm is that .it seems to possess all the good and leaves out the bad points of the other codes. ‘It is strenuous, requiring well-trained men; it is fast, and – therefore attractive to spectators; it is clean, though not by any means ladylike, as its opponent’s endeavour to paint it. Then it is open, onlookers seeing all the game, and the scoring is fast, and therefore exciting. Drawn games ”always unsatisfactory ” are rare, and a match between two good teams always furnishes a clever exhibition. In short, it is full of incident; dull moments being very rare.
FUTURE OF THE GAME IN NEW SOUTH WALES
‘I consider the game should be developed principally by local talent. Second Graders should be taught that selection in the First Grade should be their ambition. There seems to be too much difficulty in getting the Association (second grade) players to come into the League. This is radically wrong. The club that builds up a complete team of local lads will have the biggest following. Besides, players living in the same district will have a chance working up combination, so necessary to success it is hard on a captain each year to have a new set of players. They are strange to each other, and the season, is well advanced before a thorough understanding exists between them.”
There should be only one club in each district, which should select its players for each grade. The selectors would have to watch the schools. The Third Grade team could be picked principally from schoolboys, who could work their way up to the seniors. Young players’ ambition should be to represent their districts in inter-State- matches.
‘Bert Watts, who is a Captain in the State Artillery, has had vast experience in his long football career. This interview is particularly instructive from the players’ and managerial sides. It is to be hoped his remarks will bear fruit. His own football has been of a most exemplary character. “The ball all the time” is always his motto, and his influence on the Paddington team, which he captains, is most marked. Players would do well to select skippers of the calibre of Watts. The matches would always improve enjoyable under such leadership. Captain Watts left Sydney for England yesterday, where he will pursue his studies in the British Army.”
Bert Watts married in the UK. They had a son but unfortunately his wife died soon after the birth of the child. What happened to the son is unknown.
We have written before about the grand ground that the NSW Football League owned between 1911-15 and recently more has come to light about the facility. This article was published in a Sydney newspaper in April 1912:
“This will be a memorable week in the history of Australia’s national game in Sydney. Why? Because on Saturday next will be a celebration opening the new Australian Football Ground at Alexandria. And what a ground! My! I was astonished on visiting it last. Saturday to see the wonderful improvements carried out in just a few months.
Quite an army of men have been employed for the past nine months, and the work reflects the greatest credit on Messrs. Polin and Preshaw, the architects, and Mr. Tom Sheeley, who has had superintendence of the work. A beautifully turfed oval, with a playing space of 200 yards by 150 yards (the finest in Australasia). This is a big thing to say, but it is a fact. And the grandstand to seat 1500, with training rooms, officials rooms, bathrooms, 1 press accommodation, which is fitted up on the model of the latest modern improvements.
Those in control are to be congratulated on their business acumen and foresight, as they have looked years ahead, and when in the course of time they see crowds of seventy or eighty thousand assembled around the arena, then they will feel that their efforts have been rewarded.
The members tickets for the ground have been selling like hotcakes this month, and amongst the subscribers, who will have their names on the honour board, are the whole of the members of the Victorian and South Australian Leagues.
Mr. Albert E. Nash, one of the finest amateur sports in this city, has a scheme to propound within a few days which he expects will add 500 members to the ground list before the first day of May. The opening match on the ground next Saturday at 3 p.m., will be between the Premiers (East Sydney) and runners-up (Sydney) and from all accounts as grand a game as the final of last season may be expected.
The Botany trams will carry visitors to the gates, first, stop city side of Gardiner’s (sic) road, 2d (2c) fare from railway.”
We shall try to explain how the ground was lost to the code in our next aricle.
Additionally, an interesting slice of information from around the same period (1914) was the production by the South Sydney Club of a form of Football Record, providing the names and numbers of their players together with a score chart:
“South Sydney improved on their type-written dips of the previous week, giving the names and numbers of their players by having them printed, also having a scoring table attached. There were many encomiums passed on the innovation, which, it is to be hoped, will be taken up by all the other clubs. The hon. secretary, Mr, Hughes, and the members of the team are to be complimented on the business-like manner in which they conduct their affairs.”
The Mr Hughes referred to here is Cyril Hughes, an engineer/draughtsman, who was South Sydney’s secretary at the time. He would later go on to serve in the army at Gallipoli and eventually survive the war only to be returned to the war site at Gallipoli where, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he and his staff mapped out the graves and dead. They also planned and erected a monument to the slain. Hughes was featured in Russell Crowe’s recent film, Water Diviner.
There have been several reasons why Australian football never kicked on in Sydney. Most of these have been offered by people who have little knowledge of the background and history of its development in the city.
Here, Hugh Stone, a Sydney based journalist of the late 1880s and early twentieth century offers his opinion. If you have a moment, its not a bad read. It was written in 1920 and appears verbatim:
” I have no intention of discussing the merits or demerits of either the football codes, but I dd think I can put my finger on the cause which prevented the Australian game catching on when first introduced, and also show why the game since revived some seventeen years ago still struggles for generous recognition. Like your correspondent; G. Saunders, New South Wales is my native state, but while he has all life before him mine lies behind. I can remember the visit of the Carlton Football Club is 1877″ like Adam Lindsay Gordon, ‘I can shut my eyes and recall the ground as though it were yesterday.’ That was the time when intercolonial jealousy ran strongly, and bitter rivalry often existed between the citizens of Melbourne and Sydney.
The code was then known as ‘the Melbourne game,’ and though occasionally referred to as Victorian, was never called Australian. If I am not greatly mistaken the first game of football ever played on the Sydney Cricket Ground (for the then trustees were averse to it) was under this code in or about 1881, and was between the newly-formed clubs, Sydney and East Sydney. The outcome wag promising, but up rose antagonism straight away. One man in particular (I -am not going to mention his name) – [We can – it was Monty Arnold who was a very big wheel in rugby circles in the 1880s. A stock broker very well placed in Sydney Society at the time with a caricature of him shown here – ed.] was keen enough to see that the surest way to crush the game was to play on jealousy’s string, and he sneeringly spoke of it as ‘the Melbourne game.’ Then came the added sneer, ‘the ladies’ game.’: I do not know if he coined this unjust phrase, but he freely used it, and once in the early ‘eighties when there was a split in the then thin ranks of Rugby club’s, and the Glenheads, a fast brilliant team, threatened to go over in a body to the new code this man entertained a Rugby gathering vide the press by telling them that at half-time in the Melbourne game, as played on Moore Park the mothers brought their exhausted darlings cakes and ginger beer . He sowed a fruitful crop when he set the seeds of jealousy and ridicule, and to him more than any one else belongs the credit of killing the game, in its early stages, for at no time till it petered out did it have a grip on the sport-loving section of the community.
In the early nineties circumstances compelled me to move to the Victorian border and from thence I went on to West Australia; and when I returned in 1899 the Australian code was not only dead, but the few Rugby, clubs of the early eighties had grown enormously. and any attempt to re-establish the Australian, game, seemed useless. Yet the attempt was made and made under circumstances slightly more favorable than in the eighties.
First, Federation had been brought about and the old jealousy was slowly dying and, secondly, the title of ‘Melbourne game’ had been, dropped for the larger one of Australian. Then why has it failed? There is now surely no single person strong enough to block its advancement as in the old days? Candor compels one to admit that though, failure in the first place came from without, now it comes from ‘within.’, Many of the men standing behind the game to-day are whole-souled sportsmen generous in their giving, and energetic in their labors, and this acknowledgment is rightly their due. But if one searched Australia for men least able to foster the Australian cause in New South. Wales, these could hardly be displaced for their credentials ‘how not to do it.’ [remember this was written in 1920 – ed.]
This is not satire, but comes of that deadly earnestness born of conviction. What has been the position in the last 15 or 16 years? A man who has figured in football in the other States has but to comes to Sydney and identify himself, with a club and he is soon a delegate. He knows nothing of Sydney conditions, but he knows that in Melbourne, Adelaide, or Perth where the native-born game draws its crowds of thousands, and he feels assured that he has but to mention the game’s excellences and all Rugby enthusiasts will abandon Union or League to follow him as the children did the Piper of Hamelin. Looking back over the years, I can recall, dozens of men whose enthusiasm dragged the League into all sorts of difficulties, but who to-day have retired, enthusiasm and cash gone. And New South Wales is still unwon for the national game, and it will remain unwon till the native born largely predominate in the League and in the representative teams.
All honor to the men who in the past and in the present have given their time and money for a cause that is dear to them, and who have seen the latter vanish with their optimism. It is strange but true that this very optimism has been the game’s undoing. But for some of this type the League would never have entered into that transaction which a few years ago temporarily lost them Erskineville Oval and saddled them with the Australian Football Ground. Had they listened to the native-born contingent they would have stuck to the well worn but truthful tag, ‘hasten slowly,’ and the game might-have been’ spared its heavy set-back. Oh, the League wreckage because of- the wrong men at the helm. Wrong, only because they were at the helm, otherwise their pence and their presence are invaluable; they are Australians. If ever the game succeeds in this State it will be by the help of those born here, the younger generation so finely typified by Ibsen in The Master Builder. When these knock at the door of the League the day of Australian football is assuredly at hand. In the meantime, let us learn to hasten slowly, and stick to Erskineville Oval, where our first and most lasting success has been won. The world knows the sorrow that follows the kicking away of the ladder by which one has climbed to success.”
His above assessment is a very blunt and maybe slightly blinkered for the reason football failed in Sydney. It was not all due to Arnold’s attitude, who, incidentally, never let up in his criticism of the Victorian game during his lifetime.
Basically, the interstate jealousy was a founding reason, but there were others:
RUGBY (there was no rugby league then) was almost intrinsically entrenched in Sydney when the Victorian game emerged in Sydney in 1880;
THERE was a suggestion that in 1877 an intercolonial game be played, which at first accepted, saw those in charge proffer the idea that the two games (Australian and Rugby) could not mix. Reading between the lines, it was clear, that NSW would not be dictated to from those in the recently emerged Victorian colony;
RUGBY officials very much feared a takeover when the game was first introduced but in reality, a maximum of only six or seven clubs ever existed in Sydney to rugby’s clubs which numbered in the forties;
THERE was no real clear and defined leadership with the Australian game while rugby had as its active president, clerk of the NSW parliaments and clerk of the Legislative Council from 1871-1914, John Calvert; Australian football had the Irishman, Phillip Sheridan as its president. He was the man in charge of the SCG but records will show he only attended two meetings of the NSW Football Association in his nine years at the top. (in those days, presidents were really only titular heads, but Calvert was an exception. He also refereed rugby games and attended and chaired most meetings of the SRFU).
IT is true that Australian football initially had sympathies in the press and this situation was very much maligned by the rugbyites. And when this support waned those in the media who embraced the rugby code showed the Victorian game little compassion.
AS the game self destructed in 1892-94 it was on a road of no return.
LITTLE credit is given to Harry Hedger MBE, who sacrificed his football career in the 1880s to promote the code in Sydney. He then led the way in the resurrection of the game in 1903.
WHEN re-introduced, it again looked good, but as Hugh Stone said, unfortunately, despite all the good intentions, shot itself in the foot.
By this time and particularly following WWI, the door had shut and the horse had well and truly bolted. Both rugby codes were firmly entrenched in Sydney and most of NSW so Australian football had to adopt the reserve grade position.
The latest Russell Crowe movie, Water Diviner, demonstrates a significant bond between one of our WWI footballing diggers and his story.
Central to the early core of the film is the character, Cyril Hughes (pictured), played by Jai Courtney. Hughes, after entering the army in January 1915 in the 1st Light Horse as a trooper, was whisked away to the Middle East two weeks later.
He was a Tasmanian born in 1890; after serving four years as an articled engineer/surveyor with the company, C M Archer, he moved to Sydney probably in about 1912. Because of limited employment opportunities at the time in Australia, it is reasonable to assume that Hughes was one of a wave of young men who travelled the country in search of work.
Cyril Hughes was a footballer, but not one of particular note, it was his brother Eric who inherited those genes. But Cyril had the brains and by 1913 was secretary of the South Sydney club and the following year, assumed the responsibility as delegate to the NSW Football League. At 1.83m he was tall for the times but weighed in at only just over 68kg.
A surveyor and single, he volunteered to survey the league’s major new purchase of a 10 acre former racecourse in Botany Road at Mascot and spent his spare time organising earthworks and other structural duties at the site.
It is quite likely that Hughes’ professional work included surveying duties in the adjoining model suburb of Rosebery, which at the time and from 1912 was being divided into building blocks.
His unit, the Light Horse, were initially considered unsuitable for the Gallipoli operation, but were soon deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry. The 1st Light Horse Regiment landed on 12 May 1915 and was attached to the New Zealand and Australian Division. It played a defensive role for most of the campaign but mounted an attack on the Turkish position known as ‘the Chessboard’ as part of the August Offensive on 7 August. Two hundred men were involved, 147 became casualties. Hughes was part of all this.
Someone realised his ability and in October 1915 he was transferred to the 4th Field Engineers. Like many, he was in and out of hospital suffering pyrexia, diarrioeha and finally malaria. By 1917 Hughes was in Egypt and given administrative duties. At one time he was promoted to the unit’s quartermaster. By February he was elevated to commission rank and later began survey duties.
At the very end of the war Hughes was asked to ‘soldier on’ and was given the onerous task of surveying the battle and grave sites at Gallipoli. He was part of the Graves Registration Unit. His promotions slowly continued however he was finally discharged as a captain in England in July 1919.
In the same year he went back as part of a British unit where he and his men began the task of locating cemeteries, marking graves and burying the unburied dead. And that is how his character had a part in the movie.
During the Gallipoli campaign at Anzac many battlefield cemeteries were constructed. With war’s end in 1918 and the defeat of Turkey, British units were dispatched to the Gallipoli peninsula where they began the task of locating cemeteries, marking graves and burying the unburied dead. This work was carried out initially by British Graves Registration personnel and in the Anzac sector it was overseen by Australian Gallipoli veteran, and now Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes following his appointment as Inspector of Works and Supervising Engineer at Gallipoli
The image shows Hughes mapping out a grave at Gallipoli with Sergeant Woolley. click to enlarge
Under him was a mixed labour force of Turks, Greeks and White Russians, none of whom spoke English. Hughes, in his own words, communicated with them in ˜a mixture of Arabic, Turkish, and Greeks. He found that ˜the fact that I’m an Australian is better still. Hughes was also impressed by their capacity for work and remarked ˜Thank goodness all my fellows can do about fifteen things.
For the building work Hughes developed a Turkish quarry on Gallipoli at Ulgardere. According to one authority, the stone there was of ˜that same class as that of which the Homeric walls of Troy were built. Some of this stone was brought in by lorry but the rest was transported by sea to North Beach where an aerial ropeway was constructed to take it up on to the ridge and down to Lone Pine. As construction work proceeded, the peninsula received its first visitors, although the intention was to keep them firmly away until all work was finished. In April 1920 Hughes wrote of someone who may have been the first Anzac pilgrim:
One old chap managed to get here from Australia looking for his son’s grave; we looked after him and he’s pushed off to Italy now.
For his contribution to the war effort, Hughes was awarded a British Empire Medal in the military division in 1919. The following year he was awarded a CBE by the King and the British Government for his work with war graves etc.
He never did return to live in Australia. Hughes married the daughter of a British Government Official in Egypt after WWI and lived there for the majority of his life, working for the War Graves Commission and as Australian Trade Commissioner in Egypt. He returned for brief visits to Australia in the 1930s.
Hughes died on 2 March 1958.
So if you have seen the movie or intend going, you will see the handsome young man who portrays someone who played a significant part in Sydney football and accordingly will receive appropriate recognition in our forthcoming book.
This is a bit of a read, but is interesting and demonstrates the passion of Mr Joseph J Jagelman, a solicitor who was tied up with the NSW Football League in Sydney in the first decade of last century. He came from Tasmania, studied law at Sydney University and admitted to the bar in 1897.
Joe Jagelman, wrote verse for the “Tasmanian Mail” in the late 1800s under the nom-de-plume of “Alastor.” He was a vice-president of the N.S.W. Football League and worked hard to successfully send the game ahead in Sydney. He was a very able speaker and his knowledge of requirements, second to none.
At the same time Jagelman was the honorary solicitor for the NSW Rugby League. He resided in Bellevue Hill an eastern suburb of Sydney where he died in 1947.
This passage was published in the Referee Newspaper in May, 1912 and it gives some insight of the game in Sydney at that period.
“The Australian game of football In Sydney, and in the State generally, has had a slow, but steady growth. If its progress has not been meteoric, its supporters have much ’cause for congratulation and for feeling confident about its future. In 1902 it was practically dead in Sydney, with Rugby holding the public interest in the same way as this game holds way in Melbourne and Adelaide. In 1903 it was revived, and under capable guidance has made a permanent home for itself in New South Wales. It has been an uphill fight, but enthusiasm makes light of the struggle. To-day we are looking forward to the great Inter-State Carnival of 1914 taking place on the League’s own ground in Sydney, and to its being marked by all those features which marked the Carnivals of Melbourne and Adelaide as such outstanding events in the history of the Australian game. The rise of native talent from the schools is a grand thing for the revived game here, and one is sanguine that at the Inter- State Championship Carnival in 1914 this fact will be amply and pleasingly demonstrated.
The senior clubs form the New South Wales League having control of the game in this State and having country associations affiliated with it. The Government of Affairs is vested in six trustees, viz. Messrs.H.R Denison A.E. Nash, L. A. Ballhausen, H. Chesney Harte, J. J. O’Meara and J. J. Jagelman. Under their management great strides have been and are being made.
WHY PROGRESS WAS BLOCKED?
For some years progress has been blocked by two causes. The first was the want of enclosed grounds. Until recently important matches have been played on open spaces, with encroaching crowds hampering players; and there is no reason for feeling grateful to the trustees of sports grounds during past seasons for their treatment of the Australian game. Now this is all changed.
The trustees of the League have bought land at Alexandria, within three miles of the Sydney GPO and have made a splendidly turfed, levelled, and fenced ground, with a fine grandstand. It is called the Australian Football Ground, and experts pronounce it one of the best sports grounds in Australia. Its playing length is 200yds, and its width 150, and around this area is a fine lawn and terrace, capable, of holding 25,000 people. It is 20 minutes by Botany tram from King-street, city, or 13 minutes by Botany tram from Central Railway Station, and forms an ideal ground for athletic sports and school demonstrations.
In addition to the Australian Football Ground, the trustees have secured the use of Erskineville Oval and of Hampden Oval for the current season, with special dates on North Sydney Oval No. 2 and it is a great thing for us to be able to say, in the face of so many competitors, that all the principal matches this year will be played on enclosed grounds for the first time in the history of the game. Thus the first obstacle has been overcome.
THE ATTITUDE OF SYDNEY UNIVERSITY
The second remains, and it is simply the conservative attitude of the authorities controlling sport at the Sydney University. The Universities in Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania play the game, and so, of course, do all the colleges; but here in Sydney the University does not give it a chance, and the colleges follow suit. One would think that such a nursery of sport as the University necessary, and would give equal opportunity to a game which is indigenous to the country and typical of the cleverness and skill of Australians.
It must be admitted that the University and colleges have many fine traditions and records of’ the particular game they have played for years, but this is not sufficient justification for stifling the introduction of a game which has no objectionable features, and which, besides being an Australian game, is played by the other Australian Universities, and by the bulk of the footballers of the Commonwealth. This obstacle is likely to remain for some time. One can only hope that more liberal and Australian views will ultimately prevail.
NOW FOR THE FUTURE
It is a difficult and often a foolish thing to attempt the role of prophet. One can only be guided by what has been done, then what Milton calls ‘Something of prophetic strain’ may appear in the deductions made from experience. The factors that point to continued progress are, first, the capable management and control of the game which has marked it up to the present. The men working for it are shrewd, careful men In all ranks of life. The secretaries of the clubs are enthusiastic and energetic workers, and the outside supporters are keen to a degree.
PLAYERS, ARE GENUINE AMATEURS
The second factor is the loyalty of the players. For years the players of this game in New South Wales have been men whose only reward has been the game itself. There has been no outpouring of trophies, no excited crowds to cheer them on, and no pleasure trips at the expense of the controlling body. With but few exceptions the players have had to bear pro portion of their expenses on the occasional trips they have had, and every year they have to pay into their clubs for their upkeep. At times they have paid the hire of a ground upon which to play a match. With the large body of players who for the past nine years have played it, the game has been a matter of love and patriotism. The men playing Australian football in Sydney are a very fine class of Australian and a credit in every way on and off the field to their native country.
Many Public Schools have formed teams, and this season the number of schools playing the game has been increased; After school days are over the Young Australian League offers scope for the ex-schoolboy to continue playing. This League has done excellent work, and has brought out a crowd of clover players for the senior clubs. It has been found that the gap between the young Australian League and the senior clubs was too great, and therefore this year has seen the formation of the New South Wales Australian Football Association, which will take In players over the age limit of the Young Australian League and other players who are (through the necessary limitation of senior clubs) unable to get games each Saturday. This Association has already increased the weekly total of players by over 170, and under the able presidency of Mr. Quinn (former president of the Y.A. League (Young Australian Football League) will undoubtedly prove a huge success.
Another factor which must help is the number of supporters of the game from other States who have made Sydney their home. If they would only realise that the standard of play here is but little inferior to that in other states they would lend it both moral and financial support. Some of them do so now, but a great number require rousing. Probably the new ground will revive their interest. Still another factor to make for the success of the game in the Mother State Is the introduction of the game into England, America and Canada.
In Sydney the, value of- International sport is known hotter than in the other States, where they have not seen the beauties of International Rugby. The day is not far distant when’ International contests will be arranged under Australian rules. We have had American boys here playing our game, and Canadian boys are coming to play it, too. Interstate contests we already have, and once Sydney University takes up the game and has its matches with the other Universities, New South Wales, will be able to place a team in the fluid fit to conquer any of the other sides, and be not only the premier state in cricket but also the premier state in Australian football. “
Australian football has always owned the tag as the poor relation in Sydney.
The game was first introduced to the city in 1880 upon the formation of the NSW Football Association. It took until the following year before any clubs were formed: Sydney and East Sydney were the first and the East Sydney of those days should not be confused with the East Sydney of the 1980s & 90s.
Immediately the game attracted the wrath of rugby officials led by top protagonist, Monty Arnold who said at the Association’s formation “if the Melbourne and Carlton clubs were playing a match in Melbourne, and the Kelly gang were firing within a quarter of a mile of them, he did not believe there would be a soul looking at the football”
Arnold and his co-horts were absolutely opposed and vitriolic to the new game and its introduction was made all the worse when some tried to change the rules of rugby because of its many dangerous aspects. Paradoxically, they welcomed the formation of the soccer association.
A few Sydney journalists were sympathetic to the Victorian game but when it sank into anarchy, in-fighting and bitterness they dropped off and the game failed to move into the 1895 season.
It was left the since unrecognized enthusiast and former player, Harry Hedger, pictured, to lead the resurgence of the game in Sydney in 1903.
Its development went well and the game became stronger reaching out to schools and junior grades. Poor management in the purchase of the original Rosebery Racecourse site on the corner of Botany and Gardeners Road, Mascot and the onset of WWI put the game back to almost a zero base. But with steady work and commitment from officials of the league it clung on, despite being comprised of only five clubs in 1917. There was no second grade during the war and for the most part the junior competition also disappeared.
There was a spark of hope during the 1920s when NSW defeated the VFL in 1923 and again in 1925 but it again slumped into its familiar rung on the ladder as the least favoured game in the city.
The depression years of the thirties brought no solace and for the most part the league was locked with six clubs and only two grounds where they could truly derive a gate â€“ the strength of their income.
Then WWII brought new hope. Australian football was the first sport to move to Sunday football, for no other reason than they desperately needed that additional venue where a gate could be charged. It was during this period that servicemen from interstate were in or moving through Sydney and they played with local clubs.
Names like Collingwood’s captain, Phonse Kyne was the captain and coach of St George, Alby Morrison who was chosen in Footscray’s team of the century was with the RAAF team, future Brownlow Medalist, Bill Morris played with South Sydney while 17 year old Western Australian, Jack Sheedy, another AFL Hall of Famer, turned out for the Sydney Club.
These are just a very few of the football talent in Sydney during the war.
Following hostilities the game was riding high in public opinion, particularly so when three new clubs, Western Suburbs, Balmain and Sydney University were added to the competition in 1948.
During the fifties the image of the game lapsed especially when newspapers highlighted the negative parts of the game: fights and problems in matches.
More clubs were formed and joined the competition leading to twelve in 1962 “a perfect time to turn the competition into two divisions.” It didn’t happen and the change from 18 aside to 16 aside in 1960 was also overturned mid-season.
By this time though, Western Suburbs gained their liquor licence and became very much a supporter and promoter of the game playing out of the same Picken Oval as now, but then it was surrounded by a training trotting track and privately owned. The club though pumped thousands of dollars into the game and supported the league’s purchase of offices in Regent Street, Chippendale.
Football didn’t really move, they had lost many chances though by the seventies two new divisions had been formed.
In 1978 a coup threw out the popular league president Bill Hart and eventually his cronies went with him. The VFL backed move with promised support didn’t last long before the administration in Sydney really struggled.
Then came the Sydney Swans and new VFL money and finance through the Swans licence scheme. This eventually fell over and the club was subsequently taken over by the league. Sydney football though had solidified and were well led with a move to more permanent offices in the Wentworth Park Grandstand, Glebe, where a number of other sports were domiciled.
Of course things always change and in 1998 there was a further takeover by the AFL which has funded the league and NSW football ever since. It resulted in more staff, more people on the ground but are there more playing the game?
The elected officials have gone and the game is run by bureaucrats in their central Moore Park Offices.
Makes you wonder with all the changes the game has endured over the past 134 years, what the future holds for Sydney football?
In some sense it doesn’t have much but in others it has a lot. It certainly has a rich past.