– Why? – Another Perspective on Sydney’s Failure to Grow

Football imageWe have written before to provide some type of response to the many enquiries we receive about why Australian Football failed to take on in Sydney like it did in the majority of other states in Australia.

Today we are going to relook at the subject but of course the result is well known.

Australian (or Victorian) as it was known in the very early days was first introduced into Sydney in 1881 when the NSW Football Association spawned the Sydney and East Sydney Club.

Already by then rugby (it was only rugby union then) had a very strong hold on the winter sporting interests in NSW and in particular,  Sydney.

At any one time there was only a maximum of five or six senior (Australian football) clubs participating in Sydney during the 1880s while rugby could boast anywhere above 50 or 60.  Each year the rugby code published increased numbers in their fold.

But it just wasn’t the fact that rugby had embedded itself into the NSW psyche.  There were some in the rugby community who saw the Victorian intrusion as a threat and used every opportunity and technique to bad-mouth the Victorian game.  One in particular was Monte Arnold, a stock broker and later a civil servant who joined his brother to work at the NSW parliament in Macquarie Street, Sydney.

He was for some time secretary of the Southern Rugby Union (later NSW Rugby Union) and a leading official with the very right wing, Wallaroo Club in Sydney.  He was very outspoken against the southern game and savage in his sarcastic idiom towards it.  He just did not stop.

So of course coming from such a well placed and educated member of society his type of rhetoric  permeated amongst the rugby fraternity despite at the time what could be described as a ‘sympathetic press’ towards the Victorian game.

Mismanagement, infighting and a real lack of foresight killed the game in Sydney in 1895 and it wasn’t until eight years later that it was resurrected.

Its revival saw a lot more supporters, clubs and players and prior to 1910 it was played in quite a number of Sydney’s schools.

And yet an article written in 1913 was pretty much on the mark.  By then Rugby League had been introduced and was continually outshining Rugby Union as the major code.  It said:

“Four codes will bid strenuously for public patronage, but it is recognised that the Northern Union game will stand highest in favour. British Association (soccer) is making giant strides, but until those controlling it can secure central grounds, there will not be much possibility of the League citadel being threatened. Australian Rules can never become as soundly established in Sydney as in Melbourne. The Rugby Union, has had to give way before the more spectacular League game, but the staunch enthusiasts who have stuck to the old rules (Rugby Union) are sanguine that the day will come when they will hold sway again. They must recognise, however, that so much ground has been lost that the chase after the League will be long Indeed…..

The Australian Rules, or as it is . more popularly known here, the Victorian game, does not seem to be making the progress that it promised a few years back. The advent of the (Rugby) League gave it a kick that took a lot of wind out of it.  The game Is undoubtedly a clever one, and I have seen many stirring contests In Melbourne by such teams as Carlton, Essendon, South Melbourne, and Fitzroy.

THE WORLD’S BEST. Summed up, a person who likes football, and wishes to put in a Saturday afternoon watching or playing it, has absolutely no excuse, to offer. Every branch is played, and the facilities are good. There Is no place in the world where there is such a variation in football as Sydney is provided with.”

Following WWI, the game in Sydney did not have the same hold on the public as it did before.  One interesting consideration as to the probable support given to Rugby League was from the very wealthy entrepreneur and newspaper giant of his day,  James Joynton Smith who was president of the New South Wales Rugby League between 1910-28, he was patron in 1929-43.

Of course Arnold was not the only adversary Australian Football had in Sydney.  Much later when Horrie (H R ) Miller was the secretary, he would go out of his way to schedule big games against any representative or VFL match played at the SCG not wanting to give “the Aussie Rules a free kick.”

This attitude continued way into the 1980s and possibly beyond with the fear that ‘that Victorian game’ would take hold.

Prime Minister Bounces the Ball

How often do you get the Prime Minister bouncing the ball to start a match – IN SYDNEY?

Well it happened in 1933 when the Prime Minister, Joe Lyons was the country’s leader.  Lyons was from Northern Tasmania and trained as a school teacher.  He played both cricket and football before entering the Tasmanian State Parliament.  Originally a Labor man, he was Premier of Tasmania between 1923-28.Hotel Morris - Pitt Street

In 1933 the Australian National Football Council, since usurped by the AFL, conducted their triennial national carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground.  The NSW side comprised several players from Broken Hill, many of whom reported back to their league following the carnival that they were not treated well.  The eight players from Broken Hill were housed in the Hotel Morris in Pitt Street while those players in the NSW team from Sydney resided at their normal homes.  The Queensland and Canberra teams were also domiciled at the hotel.

Incidentally, the Hotel Morris is still there, at the Railway Square end but now caters mostly for backpackers.

Lyons wasn’t the main act in the opening of the Carnival.  Australia’s first locally born Governor General, Isaac Isaacs, did the honours in the middle of the ground surrounded by a number of other dignitaries, see image.

However, like the 1914 Carnival in Sydney it was not a success.  It lost over £1,000 which equates to $96,500 in today’s terms.

1932 NSW v VFL @ SCG PM bounces ball - Truth 12-6-1932 - ALyons however was talked into bouncing the ball in the opening game between NSW and Victoria and we have been able to obtain a photograph of the event with him in his suit and tie.  Its not in best of condition nevertheless, it captures the moment the prime minister of the time got himself involved in our game – literally.

New South Wales had a reasonably successful carnival despite being trounced in the first match against the VFL.  Having said that the draw for the series was contrived so that the locals were not that hard pressed in most of their games.  They played all but South Australia and finished in fourth place.  The only real standout for them was the naming of local star, Jimmy Stiff, as the carnival’s best player.

NSW results:

Date NSW G P T Opposition G P T Margin
2 August 14 18 102 VFL 23 17 155 53
4 August 19 22 136 Queensland 6 15 51 85
7 August 16 14 110 Canberra 12 10 82 28
10 August 20 12 132 Tasmania 15 17 107 25
12 August 16 18 114 West Aust 17 22 124 10



Grand Final Time in Sydney

Premiership favourites, East Coast Eagles, had a mortgage on the premiership a couple of years ago, that was before they made what could be described as the ill-fated and expensive shift to the NEAFL where they played as ‘Sydney Hills’.

They won the flag in 2009-10 & 11 after being defeated in the 2008 and 2006 grand finals, the latter following a season without loss but they did managed to eclipse the reserves premiership.

Clubs in Sydney have come and gone, who could imagine the most successful until very recent years, Newtown, would slide out of the competition? And for that matter, Sydney or Sydney Naval, as they were known as from 1944 and here was a club that was formed in 1881.

For the most part, the shift in population shows a shift in football domination.

Gone are those inner city clubs like Sydney, Newtown, South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs.

And the grand final venues. Many have been tried including Erskineville Oval (new and old), RAS Showground, SCG No. 1 & 2, Kensington Pony Track, Henson Park and of course the ever popular, Trumper Park.

Here was a ground that had an almost magnetic appeal to both players and spectators. The players who liked the confinement of a small ground and amphitheatre like atmosphere and the spectators who were always close to the play whether in the stand (old and new – since demolished) or on the hill.

Former league secretary, Rhys Giddey made headlines in 1963 when he declared the attendance at the Western Suburbs v Newtown grand final of over 11,000. He later confided that it all made good reading in the newspaper. Trouble is these written suppositions become fact.

There were other big crowds recorded at Trumper Park, including one of 10,000 in the early fifties when NSW played a visiting side. Again, the League’s ability to accurately record attendance numbers was very limited.

And to Blacktown, the current venue for finals matches. Despite the centre of Sydney now recorded west of Parramatta, getting crowds to Blacktown does present a challenge. The facilities are good but nevertheless it is a long way for those used to watching the game closer to town.  Last year’s premier division crowd was recorded at ‘around’ 1000.

One way is to compare the gate takings and while there has been a variance in the entry fee over the years, it is still an indicator of crowd numbers. It would be interesting to dig deeper for the reason of the large disparity between 2009 and 2010 -.  Click image to enlarge.

Sydney Grand Final Gate Takings small




Other records of crowd numbers were kept, but not maintained. Here is a graph of gate takings from 1930-60.  Click image to enlarge.

Sydney Football Attendance I small

VFL Moves to Sydney

How long is it since South Melbourne relocated to Sydney and went on to become the Sydney Swans?

If you said thirty-three years you would be right.

They have now established themselves as part of the Sydney sporting scene, trend setters in a number of ways and accepted by many whom 30 years ago could not spell Australian football.  Of course now its the turn of GWS to make their mark in Sydney.

But those who orchestrated the move, who pushed the VFL into playing outside of Melbourne, a move which eventually led to the creation of a national competition?  Who were they? Well, they now have all but gone.

You might ask, who was it that came up with the Sydney idea and why?

The VFL president at the time, Allen Aylett, (pictured) certainly was in the box seat for the change and history will probably recognize him as the man responsible for change.

Allen is now 82 and there is no doubting his footballing talent.  He played 220 games with the North Melbourne club, captain and later president leading North to change its image from also-rans into that of a football powerhouse.

But the VFL had to tread on egg-shells in their effort, not so much to make a presence in Sydney, but to convince their clubs of the move, to overcome the straitlaced Victorian Government’s ‘no football on Sunday policy’ (apart from the VFA) and at the same time appease the struggling grass roots football fraternity in Sydney.

In 1980 the fractured NSW Football League administration met with Aylett and VFL General Manager, Jack Hamilton with regards to the possible establishment of a VFL club in Sydney.

The then erstwhile secretary of the NSWAFL, Kevin Taylor, a fastidious administrator who left no stone unturned in documenting a record of the meeting, gave a very factual account of the gathering in the league’s 1980 annual report which can be read here.

More specifically, Kevin’s record of the meeting and what was said is set out here.

Let us not forget that certainly in the first year of South Melbourne’s move to Sydney, the VFL:  rostered a Sydney Football League match as curtain raiser to the main game, paid the Sydney Football League $1,000 as compensation (for what is unsure) each time a VFL game was played at the SCG and most importantly negotiated with the VFL television carrier to telecast the match Australia wide.

And how will history judge Allen Aylett, the dentist who gave so much of his time and energy to change only to have his wings clipped by the VFL in 1983.  We hope people see Allen as a true champion and leader of our great game.

Alas these memories are soon cast aside as life moves on through time and some other issue grabs the attention of the footballing public.  But never so much as the time of the VFL’s move to Sydney.

Norwood FC 1908 Visit to Sydney

1908-05-20 SMH P.12 printed smallLeading up to 1911, Australian football in Sydney was played on a number of grounds, unfortunately most were arenas which were not enclosed and accordingly football suffered from two major issues.

These were:

  1. Crowds continued to encroach on grounds during play and in some circumstances this caused games to be called off.  In fact this was not just common to Australian football.  Other codes suffered the same fate and this was a time in Sydney where there were a limited number of fenced grounds.
  2. No admission could be charged at grounds and with this the major source of revenue for the league (the league took the gate) the NSWAFL continually finished their season well  in debt.

Some of the grounds used in this early period in Sydney football included: Moore Park (opposite the Bat & Ball Hotel), Redfern Park (now known as Redfern Oval), Birchgrove Oval, Hampden Oval (Trumper Park – then unenclosed) and many others.

Nothing highlights the then growing problem of grounds better than a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1908 prior to a visit by South Australia’s leading football club, Norwood who were fresh from a victory over VFL premiers, Carlton in Melbourne.

At that early stage and prior to the visit, Norwood were scheduled to play their games as curtain raisers to major Rugby Union matches, at the SCG.

We have republished the letter which expresses a degree of concern that the SA premier club, which travelled “1000 miles – at their own expense” should be relegated to the inferior position of the early game before another code.

Nevertheless, the two Saturdays of 13 & 20 June, Norwood played at the SCG,were in fact played before major Rugby Union fixtures.  We have since1908-05-13 Referee Newspaper, Wed P.9 printed smaller discovered that the Metropolitan Rugby Union, who had the winter lease of the SCG, offered the league use of the ground for the two dates but were over ruled by the SCG Trust who did not want to miss the opportunity of a major Rugby match at the ground where the rental was calculated on a percentage of the gate takings.  It is obvious that that Rugby matches drew a far greater crowd than a Norwood game could attract.

The third of the 1908 Norwood FC contests was played at the SCG on Wednesday 17 May as the major contest for the day with a Public Schools v Catholic Schools as the early game.  The attendance was described as ‘scanty’ which indicates a poor turnout for this midweek encounter.

Norwood left behind a shield valued at £40 ($80) for the Sydney premiers in the Sydney competition when they departed.  We wrote about it a few weeks ago and it is still on display at the league rooms at Moore Park.  The Reserve Bank has calculated this amount in today’s terms, with inflation, at $5,163.03

The question of grounds and particularly enclosed ones at the time, is a very interesting subject and should we get time may well be the subject of either a chapter in this year’s Society Journal or other publication.

Harry Hedger – MBE

Harry HedgerIn 1923 Harry Hedger travelled with the NSW team which played Victoria on the MCG.

Hedger was not particularly involved in football during that period but if it were not for his foresight and enthusiasm the game may not have been revived in the NSW capital twenty years before.

Henry or Harry Hedger, to his friends was from Tasmania.  He moved to Sydney in 1880 to take up a job as teacher at the Industrial Blind Institution Woolloomooloo.  Harry was a footballer but not just an ordinary footballer, he was committed to his sport.

He firstly played for the new East Sydney club and later three other clubs between 1881-94,  During this period he represented  NSW on 16 occasions, almost all of the representative matches the state participated in.

He was captain of several clubs and the state and took on official positions at club level.  While the game was poorly administered which eventually led to its demise, he never once shirked his responsibilities.  One of his assets was his kick and for a number of years held an Australian record of kicking the ball  just over 59 metres

In 1903 it was he who visited Melbourne and spoke passionately at a meeting of the VFL pleading for help to have the game re-established in Sydney.  This resulted in two leading clubs of the time, Collingwood and Fitzroy playing a premiership match on the SCG in May of that year.  This was the catalyst for the start of an eleven team competition in Sydney in 1903.

Hedger had little to do with football after that.  He attended a few meetings, his sons played with the then YMCA club and later East Sydney but he devoted himself to his work in the school for the blind which by this stage had shifted its premises to Ashfield where Hedger was manager.

He attended the official welcome for the NSW team in Melbourne in 1923 and was called upon to respond on the team’s behalf at a function in their honour.

He told the gathering that he played in the first interstate game for New South Wales in 1881 and in the first game ever in Sydney.  He could never forget what the Victorian Football League had done and recalled his first visit to the league rooms in 1903 when they first aroused the sympathy of the Victorian League and enlisted their support.  It was not until half-past two in the morning of the same meeting that he had managed to get Fitzroy and Collingwood to agree to play their premiership match in Sydney.  Since then, he said, the NSW league had received encouragement and financial assistance from Victoria for which they were eternally grateful.  He finished by saying he was satisfied after seeing1886 NSW Team v Qld - Harry Hedger small every kind of football that the Australian game was easily the best.

And yet, who remembers Hedger and what he did for the game in NSW and most particularly Sydney?  No-one.  He was honoured by the queen in 1935 for his services to the blind when awarded an MBE, he also had a street in Ashfield named after him.

1903 H Hedger sketchHedger spent 58 years of his life working for the blind, 44 of those as manager of the Sydney Institute.  It was a fall at work in 1937 which eventually took his life that forced him out of the environment he loved.  Two weeks later he died aged 78.

The image shows him in the 1886 NSW team which played Queensland at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

When he pioneered the return of the game he put so much effort in that in his forties he turned out to play with the YMCA with his son.  YMCA was a team in the first grade competition between 1903-11.  We have unearthed a wonderful etching of him in a newspaper interview from 1903 and have reproduced it here.


In an effort to kickstart the game in Sydney after it had imploded in the mid 1890s, Fitzroy and Collingwood played a competition match at the SCG on 23 May 1903 attracting 20,000 spectators.

We have displayed a very rare programme from the match where, for the first time, players names and jumper numbers were published for spectators to view.

Both clubs paid their own costs and left the six hundred pound gate with the newly formed, NSWAFL, to further promote the game in Sydney.

Prior to these arrangements the Collingwood fans attempted to veto their involvement in the match because it meant losing one of their competition games, so it was decided that the entire gate from that weekend’s football in Melbourne would be pooled and divided equally amongst the then eight clubs of the league.  The club (Fitzroy) that lost their home game in this encounter was also allocated a semi final to their ground.

In round 2 of the same year a rail strike prevented the Carlton players from journeying to Geelong for their match so the game was postponed.  Quick to act, NSWAFL officials asked that the game be played in Sydney, which it was.

However this game too had trouble when rain washed out their 1 August clash at the SCG forcing a postponement until the following Monday.  Then, before 5,000, including the Governor of NSW, Geelong defeated the Blues by 10 points.

But, it doesn’t stop there.  The following year Melbourne played Essendon on 28 May also at the SCG.  As things would have it the rain came again and this time it was torrential.  Newspapers reported that the rain “was phenomenal” and that in the morning of the match, any chance of a game would be remote.  However, the rain stopped around midday and after 1.00pm there was not a cloud in the sky.

The rain however had done its damage however and only 6,000 ventured to witness the match which was easily won by Melbourne.

The Bombers took their time going home, this time by ship.  They did not get to Melbourne until late on the following Thursday night after a rocky journey in big seas.  The side did not train and four of their best were unavailable for their subsequent game against Fitzroy which they lost convincingly.

One or two VFL matches were played in Sydney following this period but generally, the euphoria had gone and the Sydney officials were left popularise the game themselves.

South Adelaide Football Club Tour

In 1884, only a few years after the, NSW Football Association (a forerunner to the NSW Aust Football League), South Australian Club, South Adelaide, which were formed in 1876, toured the Eastern States and played a series of matches in Sydney.

They stayed for two weeks and played in five games and team included most of the players who would go on to be premiers in South Australia the following season.

Their first, in Newcastle had to be abandoned because of the state of the ground following tumultuous rain so in an impromptu match on Thursday 26 June at the SCG, they played local club, Waratah.  This was the only club to change its allegiance from rugby to the Victorian game during those very early years of the formation of the game in Sydney.

A crowd described as meagre attended the match where the South Australian club ran over the top of Waratah, 10-8 to 1-1.  In those days behinds, although displayed, were not counted in a teams score, goals counted with a value of one point and as well,  matches were not played in four quarters, but two halves.  South Adelaide kicked 9 goals in the second term.

The following Saturday also on the SCG, they drew their game with NSW 3-15 to 3-9.  The tramway department arranged for additional trams to run at frequent intervals to the ground during the afternoon in an expectation of a large crowd.  Only 1500 turned up to watch the match.

During the afternoon the City Temperance band kindly volunteered their services and “performed some choice selections of music which were greatly appreciated by the occupants of the grand stand.”

On Tuesday before a crowd estimated at only 100, South Adelaide defeated East Sydney by one goal, but because of their inaccurate kicking, they kicked twenty one (uncounted) behinds while East failed to score however were noted as registering three behinds.

Two days later their scheduled game against the Sydney club was postponed, again because of the weather, and on Saturday 5 July at the SCG they easily defeated a defiant NSW team 9-8 to 5-7.

The Sydney Club wanted their share of glory and challenged South Adelaide to a game on the following Monday – the day of their departure from the city!

     Billy Goer

Sydney fared better than East however the captain of the Sydney team, George Crisp, complained that several members of his team failed to follow his direction in the game and the committee of the Association indicated that if it re-occurred they would “name the delinquents.”

A strange comment coming from Crisp who along with Billy Goer, former Carlton Vice Captain, did not play.  The fact that the game had to be played early because of the scheduled departure of the South Australian team by rail in the afternoon could well have accounted for their late non-appearance.

Following the game, some members of the Sydney club drove the opposition team to the (then) Redfern rail head (Central Station was not opened until 1906 ) by a four horse drawn bus where, after “after the usual shaking of hands, three lusty cheers were given as the train moved away.”


In 1903, Harry Hedger, who worked for the NSW Blind Society, visited Melbourne where he addressed a meeting of the VFL asking for two clubs to play a competition match in Sydney as a promotion for the re-establishment of Australian Football.

The game had been played competitively between 1881-95 in Sydney but, mainly due to bad management, it folded.

Born inTasmania, Hedger, was very much a dedicated employee of the NSW Blind Society, eventually receiving an OBE in 1935; his other passion was Australian football, and all this took place in Sydney.

During the 1880s & 90s he played for East Sydney, Sydney, Waratah, City, West Sydney and Our Boys clubs, for the most part, to keep them viable and in existence.  As well he turned out for the Sydney University team which visited Melbourne in 1888.  He represented both Sydney and NSW on numerous occasions and at various times umpired several games.

Hedger was captain of several of these clubs where he also took on official positions as he did with the Association.

He was passionate about his football and at his own cost took the train to Melbourne where on 27 February he met with VFL officials.  He implored them to send two teams to Sydney for a match which he believed would help kick-start the game in the NSW capital.

The Fitzroy Club secretary, Con Hickey said his club was willing to travel to Sydney at its own expense and forego any share of the gate receipts.  Eventually, Ern Copeland, secretary of the Collingwood club said that his club would also make the trip under similar conditions.  To engender interest, the game would be part of the home and away competition matches.

The VFL then resolved that the proceeds of all games played in Melbourne on the day of the Sydney match would be pooled and divided equally between all clubs in the league and the ground on which their scheduled encounter was to be played would be awarded one of the semi final matches.

It was estimated that the game would cost each club at least three hundred pounds ($600) each.

Hedger left the meeting quite happy but when Copeland confronted his members at the 9 March Annual General Meeting, a motion was passed that the game not be considered a competition match and that it be merely an exhibition.

This was greeted with dismay and resentment in Sydney resulting in an immediate letter to the VFL outlining how the decision would detrimentally effect the standing of the re-emerging code.

Eventually the VFL upheld their earlier decision and the game went on to be played before a crowd of 20,000 at the SCG on May 23.  The six hundred pound gate ($1,200) was left to the new football league in Sydney to promote their activities.

The reigning premiers, Collingwood took a party of 43 with them and a budget of four hundred pounds ($800) while Fitzroy, who were to that date undefeated, had 50 in their group.  These two clubs went on to play off in the 1903 grand final which Collingwood won by two points.

Also in 1903 Hedger chaired the formation meetings of several clubs, including North Shore, and for some time in that decade was the president of the YMCA Club.  He died in 1937 aged 78 years never really receiving the recognition due for his long standing commitment to the game in Sydney.

Our photograph shows Harry (or Henry) Hedger in 1923 when he accompanied the NSW team to Melbourne where they played Victoria.