– 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.