Erskineville Oval – a famous old Sydney Australian Football Ground

Dr Rodney Gillett continues the series on famous football grounds in NSW with a look at Erskineville Oval which was the venue for grand finals and interstate fixtures and the home ground of the extraordinarily successful Newtown club from 1903 until 1986.

Newton captain coach Sam Kekovich, who led the
    Blood-stained Angels onto Erskineville Oval
  in 1980-81, storms forward in the preliminary
          final against North Shore at the SCG.

Erskineville Oval hosted fifty Sydney AFL grand finals in the period 1908 until 1990 during which time it was the major ground for local and interstate fixtures.

It was the home-ground for the Newtown football club that was a powerhouse in the Sydney competition from its foundation in 1903 until its demise at the conclusion of the 1986 season.

The Blood-stained Angels won nineteen flags – of which 15 were accrued from 1928 to 1950 including six in consecutive seasons from 1945-1950.

NSW beat Victoria twice in the 1920s – playing on Erskineville Oval.

In 1923, in front of 8000 spectators, NSW beat Victoria 15-15 (105) to 11-19 (85) with Paddington full forward Stan Milton (after whom the AFL Sydney goal-kicking medal is named) booting three goals. Then in 1925, NSW again beat the Vics, this time by one point, 13-10 (88) to 13-9 (87) with three-time Phelan medalist Billy McKoy of the Sydney Club, starring on the wing.

Long-time Newtown official and NSW league administrator Jim Phelan in a 1930s article in the NSW ANFL Football Record explained that the fundamental reason for Erskineville Oval hosting the Sydney finals and interstate fixtures was financial. A better result was obtained from Erskineville than either the SCG or at the R,A,S., Showground, Moore Park (now FOX Studios)

Further, that the “whole atmosphere is, on the whole, more congenial in a football sense than that of any other playing ground controlled by the League” (NSW ANFL Football Record, 21 September 1935).

Erskineville Oval was originally developed and opened in 1885 as Macdonaldtown Park, however, it was later renamed in 1892 to its current title following the change of the name of the municipality.

The original ground (pictured below in 1935) had an east-west orientation and was located further west than its present position, more near Binning Street, but in 1937 construction started on Department of Housing flats with the ground relocated further east to its present location, adjacent to Mitchell Road.

The ground was enlarged specifically to cater for Australian football and was reconfigured to run north-south. A new grandstand was also constructed. The new oval

1935 Erskineville Oval (old)

was first used for by the Newtown club in season 1940, and it was the venue for the grand final in the same year, won by Newtown.

From a player’s perspective it was a good ground to play on because it was specifically developed for football, according to champion Newtown full-forward Denis Aitken, who won the league’s goal-kicking in 1962 with 96 goals and played in the 1967, 1968 and 1970 premiership teams.

“It was a good-sized ground and provided for more open play, it was also good from a spectator’s point of view and the ground had a good atmosphere with a grandstand as well as good vantage points around the ground” Denis told me in an interview for this article.

“Because the ground was open to the elements, the wind was always tricky. I mainly used a torpedo punt to kick for goals but at the southern end when it was windy I used a drop-punt”.

Denis like so many of his team-mates at the time like key defender Dennis O’Connor, back pocket Greg Schroder, famed boxing trainer Johnny Lewis, speedy winger Alan Sigsworth, half-forward Johnny Egan, rover Max Dean, centreman Graeme and his brother Reg “Sunny” Sambrook and the Free brothers, Ray, Bill and Harry, all grew up in the area.

Denis’s father, Robert, better known as Bert, also played for Newtown and was a member of four premiership teams – 1936, 1939, 1940 and 1942 as well as playing for NSW.  He was later on the committee and a selector.

Denis remembers going to Erskineville Oval as a young boy with his father, who worked in a factory at Alexandria. They lived at St Peters and took the train to Erskineville station, then walked the half-a-mile to the ground.

History Society President, Ian Granland recalls first going to the grand old ground in the early 1960s to see his club South Sydney play Newtown in a local derby, “Newtown were the best performed and organized club in Sydney at the time, they had strong support, mostly locals who would walk-in from all around the neighborhood, as well as catch the tram from Botany Rd and get off in Mitchell Road”.

“The Newtown supporters were very parochial, they were used to success. After games, which they usually won, they’d stream into the nearby Kurrajong pub to fraternize with the players”.

Newtown won its last premiership in 1970 when it beat North Shore in the grand final at Trumper Park, which became the venue for grand finals from 1956 until 1978.

Newtown’s last “hurrah” was the 1981 grand final under North Melbourne premiership star Sam Kekovich, when they beat traditional rivals East Sydney in the 2nd semi final but two weeks later, lost to Easts who were under first-year captain-coach Greg Harris by 89 points in the decider.

After not winning a game and suffering demoralising defeats in the 1986 season the Newtown club folded.

Erskineville Oval had again become the venue for Sydney league grand finals in 1981. This was after respective grand finals at the Showgrounds (1979) and the SCG (1980) for the same reasons that Jim Phelan outlined in 1935. It continued to host the grand finals until 1990.

However, with no permanent tenant the lease on the ground was taken over by the South Sydney Rugby League Club for training, thus ending over eighty years association with Australian football.

One Hundred Year Old Minutes On Our Website

  James Phelan,   Secretary NSW   FL, 1915-1925

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.An image of where the Australian Football Ground was located

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.

– Erskineville Oval – from the Old to the New

Jim Phelan, Newtown Official and NSWFL Secretary 1915-22
Jim Phelan Newtown FC Official and NSWFL Secretary 1915-22

In the latter part of his 79 years, Jim Phelan, largely regarded as the father of football in NSW, wrote articles for the local press and more particularly for the Sydney Football Record.

As far as the Record Editor was concerned, these were good to use as ‘fillers’;  something to fill a space when the normal correspondent had not submitted his literary obligation.

But to the reader all these years later, they provide a more personal explanation of what and when things took place in football.  Phelan quite often wrote about the old times in Sydney and while his passing years may have clouded his memory somewhat the essence of the facts were still there.

1933 Erskineville Oval
Players on the old ground.
You can see the trees from McDonald Park in the background

Hereunder is an article written by him not long before his death in 1939.  It talks about the reconstruction of the now not used Erskineville Oval, the scene of many great games and grand finals over the years.  The original ground, very much smaller than the present oval, ran east-west and was located more well to the west of the present ground.  In fact it took up an area where the public housing flats are now located in a section of land between Copeland and Ashmore Streets known as McDonaldtown Park and ran from Binning Street through to Mitchell Road.

In the reconstruction of the ground was very much under the eye of Phelan, who lived in the adjacent Binning Street and was an alderman on the then Erskineville Council.  A number of adjoined tenement houses in Swanson Street were demolished and new streets in Elliott and Fox Avenues were constructed together with quite a number of public housing units or flats.

The new ground was then built in a north-south profile as it now appears however because of its size the end boundaries were quite close the the adjacent streets.

The Alexandria-Erskineville Bowling Club was not built until 1956.

1890 Erskineville Oval 2 thumbnail
1890 Erskineville Oval (MacDonaldtown Park)

2016 map Erskineville Oval thumbnail
2016 map
Erskineville Oval

Here is what Phelan wrote and remember it was written in 1939:

“As the new oval progresses towards completion, numberless questions have been asked as to its future tenancy.  To one and all my answer has been that such is in the lap of the Gods.

The present day anxiety being evinced has been displaced the one time aversion and antipathy to Erskineville Oval.  One sees many changes in the relatively short space of 40 years.  Evolution is all around us working perhaps slowly, but nevertheless surely.  Such can be said of the game itself.

The 20 aside game of my day, and the concomitant little marks have improved, others in the mind of enthusiastic old timers, have declined and the day is not far distant when a halt will surely be called to the alternation of rules of the game.  So much, by the way.

By reason of the many changes in the administrative personnel of the NSW League since its inception in 1903, and the fact that early books and records are not in possession of present officials, a complete history of the league operations is well night impossible.  However, as one (and the only one) who can lay claim to have been present at every annual meeting of the League since its inception, I am confident that memory will serve me right in this effort to set forth details in connection with playing grounds and Erskineville Oval in particular.

Following the great success of the Fitzroy-Collingwood initial match on the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1903 the following clubs were formed:- Sydney, Paddington, East Sydney, Balmain, North Shore, West Sydney, Redfern, Newtown,  Ashfield, Y.M.C.A. and Alexandria.  As Rugby League was then non-existent the securing of playing grounds was simply a question of ability to pay for the use of them.

The formation of eleven clubs following the Fitzroy-Collingwood game is indicative of the enthusiasm aroused at the time.  The wisdom of accepting such a number of clubs was questioned at the time by some of the then League members.  Within a short space of time Ashfield and Alexandria clubs dropped out.  The remaining clubs, however, continued to exist for some years.

Since the inception of the League, premiership final games have been played on the following grounds:- 1903, 1904, 1908 and 1909, Sydney Cricket Ground No. 1; 1905 and 1915 Sydney Cricket Ground No. 2; 1906, 1916, 1917 and 1918 Agricultural Showground (now Fox Studios); 1907 Kensington Racecourse (now University of NSW), 1911, 1912 and 1913, Australian Football Ground, Alexandria; 1910, 1914, 1919 and from thence on, Erskineville Oval.

The foregoing supplies a most effective answer to those who continually assail me for my advocacy of Erskineville Oval, with the one plea “that the game generally, and the finals in particular should be played on a central ground, to wit the Sydney Cricket Ground, or the Agricultural Showground”.  In their ignorance, or antipathy to Erskineville Oval, they did not know, or if knowing would not admit the fact that central grounds had been tried and financial results were overwhelmingly in favour of Erskineville Oval.

While I have always thought, and expressed myself as occasions arouse, that false modesty is as bad an attribute as overweening vanity, I feel that it would not be desirable to set forth in this short article the various episodes that arose in connection with the retention of Erskineville Oval as the home ground for the game in Sydney.

The concern that was almost wholly mine, during the past 21 years is now being shared by others as the time approaches when “farewell” must be said to the ground that has served the League for a generation, and whose atmosphere is, on the whole, more congenial in a football sense than that of any other playing ground controlled by the League.

“Gone from the old home, gentlemen, moved up into the now,” will, I trust, be the greeting to patrons of the game in 1940.”

With the changing nature of the area, the Newtown Club has been resurrected, albeit in a junior club, and a very successful one too, which plays out of Sydney Park, the old brick pit at St Peters.

It is interesting to note in the current day map, the change of the name of the Kurrajong Hotel, opposite the ground, to the Swanson Hotel.

Sydney and the Military

But for the MilitaMilitary image thumbnailry football would have struggled in Sydney.

These were the words from Jim Phelan in 1918 when he wrote in the Referee Newspaper: “that but for soldiers from other states etc. who reside in camps near to Sydney playing senior football in Sydney, the senior league would not have been able to operate.”

And that statement is quite true in fact Sydney football was fairly dependent on servicemen right through to the 1960 and into the 70s when junior football became much better organised and the system started to more regularly churn out senior players from its junior ranks.

This is one reason the St George Club has been so successful.  Their general success followed the formation of a fully functioning junior association in their area in 1955 and while they may not all be with us now, junior clubs like Cronulla, Bangor, Heathcote, Penshurst, Peakhurst, Miranda, Como-Janalli, Ramsgate, Sutherland, Boystown and Hurstville Diamonds formed the core of a nursery for the senior club in particular as well as other local clubs who benefited from the Association.

In the days of WWI and right through to the 1950s Sydney football was lucky to have a four team Under 16 competition.  Yes there were exceptions and also there were some isolated schools like Hurstville Tech, Gardeners Road, Double Bay and Erskineville pumping young boys into the football system.

However it was the military who supplied, if not the most then a fair portion of the complement of senior players, certainly during both wars and most markedly  in the 1950s and 60s.

it was during that period that clubs like Sydney Naval, Balmain, South Sydney, Bankstown, Liverpool and North Shore survived, in terms of talent, mainly on the military.

There was a naval establishment at Middle Head in HMAS Penguin, the submarine base at Chowder Bay and more recently the patrol boat unit on Balls Head Peninsular.  It was these places that fed the North Shore Club but their numbers were especially supplemented by the School of Artillery at North Head.

Most of the inner city clubs picked up players from the ships based at Garden Island, particularly Sydney Naval.  South Sydney had several army units in Bundock Street at Randwick.  Easts recruited from Victoria Barracks, which at one stage boasted a number of army establishments on both sides of Moore Park Road, those on the southern side since engulfed by the Sydney Football Stadium complex.  In the early seventies a club called Combined Services participated in Sydney’s Second Division.

Ostensibly their number was made up from across the military spectrum but there was more RAAF and Navy personnel than Army.

When HMAS Albatross was established at Nowra, many of their players filtered through to Sydney Clubs as did players from the Richmond Air Base and other smaller RAAF bases in the western suburbs.

Again many clubs benefited from the soldiers based at Ingleburn, Moorebank and Holdsworthy, particularly Liverpool, the closest side to those bases.  Thousands of soldiers were stationed in that area over the years.

Such was the case during the wars when the SCG and a number of race courses in Sydney were taken over by the Australian and US military.

And while we have St George and their juniors, they too did well with service personnel.  Phonse Kyne, a 200 game player, captain and coach of Collingwood, played and coached at St George during WWII.

South Australian great, Graham Cornes also played with the Saints before he left for Vietnam.

Several of the Phelan Medal winners over the years were in the services:  Ralph Turner who won took it out in 1959 & 61 was in the navy, as was Norm Tuxford in 1966 and Peter Body the following year.

Tony Wish-Wilson who was the award in 1959 was in the air force, so too was the 1964 winner, Ray Gwilliam.

Noel Stewart, playing for Southern Districts just about pulls up the servicemen-players.  He took out the trophy in 1971 whilst undergoing his two year national service in the army at Holdsworthy.

Just as there were players coming from the military so too did umpires and these officials were recorded as officiating in Sydney games as far back as WWI.

Much has changed in the services.  Many units have been moved out of the area; the army’s School of Artillery is now located at Puckapunyal in Central Victoria.  The Infantry Training Centre has moved from Ingleburn to Singleton.  Chowder Bay is now a park and the submarine base is at Rockingham in WA, quite a number of army units in south western Sydney have also been shifted while many RAAF establishments which were formerly within the Sydney metropolitan area have either been closed down or moved.

So Sydney, once a competition which thrived on servicemen, where it was not uncommon for personnel from the same unit to be opposed to each other of a weekend could be seen in the same team in the midweek services competition, played of a Wednesday mostly on Moore Park.

Obviously there are still many servicemen who make up the ranks of Sydney’s senior football today.  We are told, the RAAF/Hawkesbury/Nor-West Jets Club, as they changed their name, still rely on personnel from Richmond as do others who have military bases near to their place of activities.

But for the most part it is now all down to nurturing and succinctly fostering players through their junior clubs to ensure the continuance of the game in the nation’s biggest city.


Jim Phelan 1920“NEVER in the history of the Australian game in N.S.W. have the prospects been brighter than at present. The introduction of the district scheme has infused new life and vigor into the various clubs comprising the League, and the coming season promises to be particularly brilliant and busy.”

So said a news report from 1926.

This year was a particular watershed in Sydney football, as were a number of other years, that heralded change.

*   The Railway club morphs into Western Suburbs.
*   Balmain amalgamates with Sydney FC, to become ‘Sydney FC’  (???)
*   Paddington amalgamates with East Sydney to become Eastern Suburbs FC
*   North Shore FC changes their colours to red and black.

During the leadup, the drum had been beating for some time in Sydney football to again adopt the ‘District’ System.

District football meant that a player could only play for the club within whose district he resided and if he moved and wanted a transfer to a new club he would have to prove residency for at least three months.

District club were also responsible for school and junior football within their area.

This method and manner of regulation all sounds good but proved in future years a joke as clubs continually and openly cheated the system.

In July 1925 a committee was appointed by the League to investigate the District Scheme. One of its eventual recommendations was that the competition be reduced to five senior clubs. Opponents of the District Scheme wanted it maintained at its level of eight and possibly more.

Again Jim Phelan (pictured) again led the push, this time as the outgoing honorary League secretary (general manager), suggesting that the number of clubs too be reduced from eight to five. This time he gave as one of his reasons: “that with the depleted finances of 1924 to retain more than two revenue producing grounds, Erskineville and Hampton (Trumper Park) Ovals”.

This was not the first time the League had embarked down the District football trail. Much trumpeted by Jim Phelan, after whom the Phelan Medal is named, the District Scheme was adopted in 1913 which saw the disbanding of the YMCA and Railway Clubs to make way for the new plan. WWI put a stop to these re-arrangements when the League was forced to take any club who wanted to play. Subsequently Railway re-entered, later a police team played as did one representing the public service.

District football had been introduced in other states as it had in cricket and Rugby League in Sydney.

Phelan though had strange ideas: he wanted Paddington and East Sydney to unite to form Eastern Suburbs and Railway and Balmain to join and form the Western Suburbs Club. Not finished, he also wanted Sydney and North Sydney (North Shore) Clubs to amalgamate and form a ‘Northern Suburbs Club’ with Newtown (his side) to remain as it was and South Sydney to establish their headquarters at the former league owned ground at Rosebery.

His motion failed so he resigned.

The League eventually decided on a “revolutionary measure which, we believe, is going to be the greatest stimulus the game, has received in this State.”

The committee’s report said that the proposed districts be North Sydney, South Sydney, Eastern Suburbs and Central (Sydney-Balmain-Glebe). Provision was also to be made for the two districts of Western Suburbs and St. George, which would be regarded as unallotted territory, and “if and when they show they have the necessary organization they will be admitted as district clubs.”

Late 1925, while the vote was recorded at 9-3 in favour of the change, not all were happy. Walter Thompson, secretary of the Railway Club wrote a scathing letter to the Evening News suggesting that justice was denied them. His was one club to be abolished.

The 1926 makeup of the league became: Eastern Suburbs, Newtown, North Shore, South Sydney, Sydney and Western Suburbs Clubs.

The Australasian Football Council executive has decided to vote £300 ($23,000 today) to New South Wales and £250 to Queensland for propaganda purposes. The money to be spent in encouraging the game in the schools, and among junior players.

They also submitted a proposal to the various State Leagues for the appointment of a secretary-organiser in NSW for a term of three years at a salary of £400 ($30,666 today), per year. The cost of such to be borne by the following State Leagues on the basis of: Victoria £200; South Australia £120, Western Australia, £110; and Tasmania, £20 The South Australian League had already given unanimous approval to the proposal. It never got off the ground.

However 1926 did introduce a big change in Sydney football, and change is always so hard to implement and accept.

It did lay the foundation for the introduction of St George, which had already fielded a team in the reserve grade in 1924 but failed to materialise the following season. It wasn’t until 1929 that they came into the competition in first grade.

That District Scheme Again

For some time in the first decade of the last century, many involved with the game wanted Sydney football to adopt a ˜district scheme.

District football meant the league determined an area of ˜accountability  for a club”. This would involve defining club boundaries by means of streets, landmarks and waterways.

Players who lived within the boundary of a particular club would have to play with that club or, obtain a clearance from them to play with another within the league. After establishment though, it would be difficult to apply these boundaries to current club players living outside these limits and expect them to change clubs if they had been with their club for some time.

Sydney cricket had adopted the ˜district scheme” in the 1890s and both rugby codes were either in the process of investigating the scheme or had adopted it by 1913.

The implementation of such a scheme for Sydney football was discussed for many years leading up to that year and Jim Phelan, after whom Sydney’s B & F is named and who is often regarded as the ˜father of Sydney (Australian) football’ was a fierce supporter and promoter of the scheme.

To his advantage, Phelan wrote for one or two Sydney newspapers during the leadup to 1913 so had a particular advantage in fostering his cause.

When it was eventually introduced in 1913 two senior clubs, Y.M.C.A. and Railway were immediately excluded from the competition although there was the offer for them to participate in the reserve grade, they declined.

Sydney adopted a similar arrangement to that of the South Australian National Football League with their District procedures. These district rules though, whether the Sydney officials understood it or not, had many more implications than those in other states.

Sydney had, and still has, a huge transient football population, whereas it would appear that the District Scheme was really meant, for the most part, for home grown footballers. So if someone moved to Sydney and lived in one district but had friends or colleagues in another, they would have had to provide a false address on their application to play in order to participate with their friends. And over the years, thousands did and the District Scheme became nothing short of a joke amongst all club officials.

But take it to a league meeting for change and next to no-one wanted to alter the status quo.

With the onset of the first world war, the district scheme was relaxed, particularly when clubs were forced into withdrawing from the competition.

Following the conflict Railway and Police teams were participating in the first grade and Jimmy Phelan was again on his soap box about the reintroduction of the District Scheme, presuming it would solve all the issues of an even competition.

And so a ˜select” committee was set up to look into the situation. As a prelude, districts in Sydney were defined for the following clubs: North Sydney, Sydney, South Sydney Eastern Suburbs, Central (Sydney-Balmain-Glebe). It is interesting to note that provision was also made for the inclusion teams in the Western Suburbs and St George areas.

The NSW league president of the time, Herb Ryall, was a dissenter. He claimed the game had made enormous strides (in Sydney) and should be left alone. In opposition, a certain critic highlighted the poor team equipment, partial numbers on players jumpers, the lack of umpires, “a few old wooden seats in a tin-roofed pavilion at Erskineville (Oval), the old dilapidated press-box, the standard of play, the league’s finances, lack of organisation etc.” He also said the only clubs that showed some organisation were Paddington and East Sydney, both of which were subsequently amalgamated to form a new club, Eastern Suburbs (later renamed East Sydney).

Nevertheless, the following clubs were admitted for the 1926 season: Eastern Suburbs, North Sydney, Newtown, Sydney, South Sydney and Western Suburbs with provision made for clubs at St George and Manly. Many records of the league were recorded from 1926 and it has taken eons to retrieve those that preceded that year.

At the same time there was a strong suggestion in 1926 that the major interstate leagues would combine to contribute four hundred pounds ($800 or $30,000 in today’s money) for the employment of a fulltime official in Sydney. His employment became “improbable in light of recent events.” although assistance in another direction will probably be forthcoming.â (we are working on this cryptic description).

So all this ˜District” business, again created the ridiculous but accepted situation, of players being registered under bodgie addresses, a practice continued for so many years the number is impossible to calculate. And yet this was done by ALL clubs and the practice laughed at over a beer or in unofficial situations. Even well placed league officials knew of the routine.

And in the Beginning….

1888 Footballer 2 smallAustralian football has been played competitively in Sydney since 1880, save for the period between 1895-1903.

It has had its ups and downs in all of that period;  successes and failures and of course some were minor catastrophes for the code here.  There are too many to list at this juncture but it makes for good copy in future postings on the website.

And yet with this pessimistic opening to this story there were often glimpses of hope, just like the feelings of a league official in 1908 when he wrote:

“There is no smooth path for workers in the cause in Sydney; It is filled with rocks thorns and interminable bush, which have to be cut away by real hard graft and whole-hearted enthusiasm. There is a light shining through the bush, however,   and that is the increased attendance at matches.

True, there has not been any charge for admission at most of the games; still, one could not help being struck with the sangfroid of hundreds while standing round the boundary in drenching rain watching the semi-final,   East Sydney v. Redfern. It said much for their enthusiasm and love of the pastime. The final last Saturday attracted a large crowd to Erskineville Oval, where a charge was made for admission, the pavilion being crowded with ladies.

It was a very pleasing sight, and gladdening to the heart of the enthusiast.

If an enclosed ground can be secured next season, revenue will come in, ladies will be able to attend matches, and an increased inducement given to many young fellows to don a jersey. An official ground as the headquartcrs of the game in Sydney is badly needed, and must be obtained somehow.

Perhaps that prince of organisers, Mr. J. J. Virgo, may do something in this connection for his club and incidentally for the League and the game generally. Should he set the machinery in motion, success is almost assured for he is Napoleonic in his ideas regarding that small word, ‘impossible.’ ”

Well the league did purchase a ground;  an old racecourse which was located on the north-west corner of Botany and Gardeners Roads, Mascot, now overtaken by factories.  After spending thousands of dollars on this project an over enthusiastic administration saw it swallowed up in debt as the first world war began.Australian Football Ground  Click the image to show where it was located.

One of the major problems with the advancement of football in Sydney was the lack of enclosed grounds, where an admission fee could be charged.  Normally there was at least one ground where a fee could be applied but the remaining games were played on open parks like Birchgrove Oval, Rushcutters Bay Park, Alexandria Oval and Moore Park.  Yes hundreds, if not thousands, watched the games in those early days but without money, and the main source was from gate takings, the exercise was futile and it did not get any better as time went on.

At one stage in the 1920s, League Secretary, Jim Phelan, advocated a reduction in teams which would then lower expenses and give the league full control over the two grounds over which they, for the most part, had control, Erskineville Oval and Trumper Park.

This attitude, of course, was a nonsense.  Sydney was expanding and yet the league did nothing to facilitate new clubs in the developing areas.  For many decades their focus was on established and populated areas such as Newtown, East Sydney, South Sydney and Sydney itself.  All of these clubs have since disappeared.

Even in 1963 when a successful effort was made to establish a club at Parramatta, there were no real concessions.  They were given lip service until a year or two later when coerced into amalgamating with the Liverpool/Bankstown club, which itself was a combination of two sides in a burgeoning Sydney.  They formed the Southern Districts Club, now, they too are long since gone.

Its all well and good to preach “what if” now but even if a little foresight could have been applied then, some planning some forecasting, football in Sydney may well have developed differently.

[i]   Up to about 1980, grounds used by the league were managed and operated by the league.  They took the gate receipts and paid the bills relating to the ground.
[ii]   The Erskineville Oval referred to in this article is the old Erskineville Oval, situated about 100m west of the present ground with an east-west orientation.
[iii]  The ground at Moore Park is still used for Australian football and now the home of the Moore Park Tigers junior football club.

Jim Phelan’s Writings

Jim Phelan 1920When we get stuck for some stories to present, its handy to look back through old Sydney Football Records where, before the Second War, Jim Phelan, after whom the league’s best and fairest medal is named and who is credited with virtually saving the game in Sydney “when not only the dark clouds of the first world war descended the nation but again, mismanagement with the game in the city almost proved fatal,” wrote about his experiences.

Here is one of those tales and you will probably have to join the dots, because it is written at a time when patrons of the game in Sydney could recall their times in the twentieth century:

“Fate and faulty administrating during crucial periods has played a big part in connection with the Australian game in Sydney.

To old time followers who can recall the period between 1881 and 1893 it seems almost incredible that no master mind came to light to save the game from the destroying forces of club rancour and bitterness as exhibited in the latter year by the then Sydney and West Sydney clubs, and which unfortunately brought the game to an untimely end – players and public being heartly sick of the win, tie or wrangle methods.

How effective the methods of the clubs named had been can be instanced by the fact that the late Dan Hutchinson (Carlton FC player and captain) came to Sydney early in 1894 and made an attempt to revive the game by advertising that a scratch match would be played at Moore Park.  The effort failed lamentably.

Present day followers of the game will, probably, be surprised to read that in the period between 1884 and 1889, teams from Newcastle, St Ignatius and St Joseph’s college were regular participants in games at Moore Park and, alternately, at the College grounds.

The playing standard of the senior clubs was excellent and when Victorian clubs visited Sydney (which they did more frequently then than now) they invariably made offers to some leading players.  Among several who went to Victoria was E Reynolds who shone as one of Fitzroy’s best half backs and gained intercolonial honours in games against South Australia.

The most memorable intercolonial game that took place in Sydney during that period 1886 to 1891, was that between the Carlton Club (Vic.) and Tasmania in 1890 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.  In that game Bob Dawes (a regular attendant at present day games) was in the Tasmanian side and was one of the youngest players in the team.

Later he took up residence in Sydney and as an employee of the ˜Referee” newspaper, for very many years, he has rendered wonderful service to the game by his writings, apart from the period he played the game in Sydney with the old Waratah club.

Incidentally, he acted as field umpire in that bitter game between Sydney and West Sydney which marked the demise of the game in 1893.  It is worthy of note that after many disagreements between clubs as to the choice of field umpire, both agreed on the choice of Bob Dawes.

Reverting to the match between Carlton and Tasmania, it was a pleasurable sight to find a attendance of 15,000, each of whom thoroughly enjoyed the fine play which the match produced and which was graphically described in the Sunday Times of the following day by A G (Smiler) Hales who later became a successful book writer eventually migrating to South Africa and from there to England where he died.

On the following Saturday, South Melbourne who had gone to Brisbane to meet a Queensland led by Jack Gibson (an ex-South Melbourne player) were to meet Carlton on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the most pleasurable anticipations reigned in my mind during that week of the coming clash between those great rivals.  And for many reasons.

Not yet thoroughly weaned from the glamour and excitement of the stirring games I had witnessed in Melbourne in the early eighties, I was all agog to see my early Ballarat pals, Peter Burns and Harry Purdy in action again, as I had oft seen them both in Ballarat and in Melbourne.

Again, had not Peter Burns brought discomfiture to Carlton when, in 1889, he kicked that wonderful goal on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Would we in Sydney have the pleasure of seeing him repeat it?

On the Friday Night while the Carlton and South Melbourne teams were being entertained, rain commenced to fall, and continued throughout the night and all day on the Saturday, with the result that the match had to be abandoned.

On the following morning, as the sun shone brightly, it was a disconsolate party composed almost wholly of South Melbourneites, which sat in Hyde Park, lamenting with Peter Burns, Harry Purdy, ˜Dabbera”  Decis and others over the vagaries of fate and the “might have beens” of life.

Fate and faulty administration had much, if not all, to do with the loss of the Australian Football Ground, situated on the boundaries of Alexandria, Mascot and Waterloo Municipalities.”  (By the way, these latter local government areas were swallowed up in the 1948 statewide council amalgamations)

Writing in 1927

Jim PhelanThis is an article written by a person to whom football in Sydney owes its very existence.

The game has had many, many ups and downs in the state’s capital and Jim Phelan was responsible for keeping it going, particularly during WWl when the organised playing of many sports ceased and our game’s existence became very precarious.

James Edward Phelan was born at Huntly near Bendigo in 1861 (the same year as Charles Brownlow) and following some schooling in Ballarat he moved to Melbourne where he played both cricket and football it was said, with  South Melbourne.  The level of intensity and professionalism then, was not what it is today.  So maybe he did and that is when he fell in love with the red and white.

He migrated to Sydney in the 1880s playing with the West Sydney club of the Ultimo-Pyrmont suburbs during the days of the Flanagan Cup.

He had a marked impact on football, being league secretary for a period of 10 years between 1914-24 and an ardent supporter of the game.  Few realise it was him, who, as an alderman on the then Erskineville Council was a driving force in the game’s headquarters from 1910-1970, Erskineville Oval, to be rebuilt specifically to cater for AFL in the late 1930s.  Now of course, it is lost to the game.

The league best and fairest medal in Sydney is named after Mr Phelan, a small legacy to a man who did so much for Australian Football.  He was one of the leading forces in the game’s reintroduction into Sydney in 1903 and founder of the Newtown Club in the same year and subsequently,  its secretary (general manager) for the next 11 consecutive seasons.  Later he was elected life member of the Australian National Football Council.

The following article, transcribed exactly as he wrote it in a copy of the Sydney Football Record of 1927, is interesting to us because of his consistent reference to football in Newcastle in the late nineteenth century.

In penning, by request of the Editor, a series of short articles on the early days of the Australian game in Sydney I am mindful of a somewhat difficult task I have undertaken.  In the absence of absolutely reliable data these articles, compiled from memory, may be found wanting or imperfect in minor details.

How far the experiences of the past may be linked with the present or serve as a guide to the future is a matter which may be left to the conjecture of readers or administrators of the game.

The game was first played in Sydney in or about 1880.  From that year until 1894, when it came to an untimely end for the time being, the games was known only as the Victorian game.  Just when or how the title Australian Rules came into being I do not know, but certain it is that it is both distinctive and needful.

During the period between 1880 and 1894 the game was strong in public favour, due largely to the fact that the game was a most supreme in and around Newcastle and Maitland and that annual fixtures in Sydney, Newcastle, Wallsend and Maitland were customary.  Those games invariably drew attendances in thousands and were played with a keenness and skill which still carries pleasant memories to those who witnessed or participated in the games.

The Duguid brothers, Tobin, Giles, Bowers, Watson, Leon and W. Moore (relatives of C G Macartney, the famous international and Australian cricketer, and themselves cricketers who gained interstate honours) were but a few of the many brilliant footballers that Newcastle and its outlying districts could boast of while, if memory serves me right, Mr D Watkins, MHR and one of the oldest members of the Federal Parliament was a player of outstanding ability in those far-off days.

The rules of the game in those days provided for twenty a-side teams and the strength of the game in Newcastle and its district may be gauged by the fact that teams representing Newcastle City, Newcastle, Hamilton, Mereweather (sic), Northumberland, Wallsend and Maitland were in existence.  In 1884 the Northumberland (representative) team visited Victoria playing matches at Melbourne and Bendigo with a fair measure of success.

In Sydney the following clubs were in existence:- Sydney, Waratah, East Sydney, City, West Sydney, Redfern, while the game had been espoused by St Ignatius College (Riverview) and St Josephs College (Hunters Hill).

With such favourable conditions and the game commanding public patronage equal to rugby union (rugby league was then unknown) and considerably in advance of soccer, it will probably seem puzzling to the present day follower of the game whose knowledge of the vicissitudes of the game in Sydney would not, in most instances, extend as far back as the inception of the present NSW League in 1903, why the game fell from its then high position and came to an inglorious end in 1894.

The years between that date and the re-introduction of the game in 1903 found the prominent players going over to rugby union and they so enriched that code that the names of some of them will live imperishable in the annals of rugby union.

Club rivalry and bitterness engendered and fostered by a system which permitted the more favoured clubs to fatten their ranks at the expense and in cases, extinction of other clubs was the cancerous microbe which killed the game in Sydney at a period when its popularity was undoubted.  At its demise, ˜there was none so poor as to do it honour.”  This pity of it all lies in the fact that with basic structure crumbling the game flickered out in Newcastle and on present indications revival in that seems remote.


We shall endeavour to publish more of Jim Phelan’s articles in succeeding weeks.

An Interesting Article

Recently, we came across and interesting article written by Jim Phelan, after whom the Phelan Medal was named, in a 1934 Sydney Football Record.

His recollections of times that passed before him are spelt out in some detail in a number of those publications during the 1930s.  This one concerns an interstate match between NSW and Queensland.  The most interesting part is the contribution players made to offset costs.

“To-day’s (1934) match at Brisbane should provide be of interest to followers of the game in both of the States named.  In Carnival games N.S.W. hold an unbeaten record against Queensland, but in interstate games played in Sydney and Brisbane, the Queenslanders have proved worthy opponents.

The last victory gained by N.S.W. over Queensland in interstate games was at Brisbane in 1928, when a thrilling match was won on the post by N.S.W. which scored 6-10 (46) to 5-13 (43).

J. Phelan (Jim Phelan’s son) then playing his first season in the first grade, scoring 3 of the six goals credited to N.S.W.

The 1928 N.S.W. team were: Clendon Eastment, Frank Cawsey, Preston, Gordon Shennan, Burns, Clarke, Loel, F Hudson, Gough, Vernon, Ossie Green, Rex Ferguson, A Ferguson, James (Bub) Phelan, Frank Smith, J Kennedy, Bert Brown-Parker and M. Lane (captain).  [The article also listed the Queensland team].

Loel, Phelan, Hudson, Preston, Brown-Parker, Lane, Clarke and the two Fergusons were singled out for good play by the Brisbane Press.

It is perhaps noteworthy, that the majority of the players in the team and each of whom paid two pounds ten shillings (in today’s terms with inflation this equates to $184.00) towards the expenses of the trip, were overlooked by the selectors in 1929, when Queensland beat N.S.W. after a splendid game at the S.C.G.  The team was given a rousing sendoff at Central Station by officials and friends who were there in numbers as the 7.33pm train slowly steamed out of the station.  Such was the enthusiasm of the1934 June 3 - Qld v NSW @ Perry Park - 2(2) small supporters with their streamers etc. it took the conductor until Gosford to clean up the bunting. (how times change…)

The N.S.W. team contained Reg Garvin, who would later go on to play for then captain and coach St Kilda FC.  Also Jack Williamson who won four Phelan Medals and Jimmy Stiff, of whom we have written so much.

The coach of the N.S.W. team in 1934 was Dave Ryan.

“Dave Ryan has been for the past few seasons the coach of the Sydney club and his methods have proved to be very successful, judging from the position the Sydney Club generally occupies in the premiership table.

His association with the National Code dates back quite a long while.

For many years he was associated with the famous Collingwood Football Club (played 101 games between 1906-12).  Since his arrival in Sydney he has associated himself with the Sydney Club.

Its strange to note the jumpers worn by the N.S.W. players which were red, white and blue.  It is very doubtful that these were club jumpers, given that this period was deep in the 1930s depression and money was scarce.  The Eastern Suburbs FC of the day wore a different jumper design.  Both the jumpers and socks look to be in new condition and were again worn later in the year when N.S.W. again played Queensland at the SCG.  They were never worn again by the state team.