– Erskineville Oval – from the Old to the New

Jim Phelan, Newtown Official and NSWFL Secretary 1915-22
Jim Phelan Newtown 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 (McDonaldtown 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 occasion 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 ressurected, 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 to the Swanson Hotel.

Don’t Trespass

1906- Robert ErrolThere is a message in this for those who might be prone to take a short cut and walk across an Australian football field, rather than around the boundary.

In 1907, Bob Errol (pictured), who was a pretty fair player of the game was charged with ˜maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm” upon one such person.

Errol was playing for the YMCA side in a Sydney competition match against East Sydney on Moore Park in Sydney. Now this ground would have been directly opposite the SCG between Driver Avenue and what is now Anzac Parade.

A seventeen year old, Thomas Lambert, together with a couple of mates had just left the Sydney Cricket Ground after watching a rugby game between University and Glebe and began to walk across the field of play whilst the Australian football game was in progress.

They were abused by the footballers telling the group in no uncertain terms to ˜get off the ground” and ˜give the players a chance.” Lambert and co. refused and retorted in an aggressive manner that the game was “a dirty rotten Australian game.”

The three lads stood in front of the not so tall ruckman, Errol obstructing his path towards the ball. ˜Give me a chance” he requested of the trio but they came to him in a menacing manner using what was described as ˜filthy language.”

Lambert threw a punch at Errol, but he was picking on the wrong man. At 26 and a former professional fighter Errol fended off the blow while another grabbed him around his shoulders.

It was then that Errol threw a straight left which broke Lambert’s jaw.

This action eventually saw Errol in the Sydney Quarter Sessions at Taylor’s Square in Sydney before a judge and jury.

Errol had some very well regarded persons on his side with a number of these giving supporting evidence. One of whom was the former legendary Sydney footballer, Harry Hedger, a magistrate and a member of the board of directors of the Young Men’s Christian Association as well as a vice president of the NSW Football Association.

He was found not guilty with the jury concluding that Errol, a nine time representative player, had acted in self-defence.

Army
Errol had served with the Third Victorian (Bushman’s) Contingent in the Boer war and later in Gallipoli, where he said of his time: ‘I was blown clean out of a trench by a shell and now I am stone deaf, and suffering from shock, but I understand they are going to send me back to Hell’s hole ” Gallipoli, but I don’t mind.’

Errol was discharged from the army in 1916 but re-enlisted for garrison duty in Australia. He died of wounds in 1924.

1970

As this season fades into history, we have been looking round for something to write about.  The question is, where do we start.

Then we identified a year which heralded so much change to football in NSW: 1970.

It would take several sessions to outline what did take place in that year, so we have centred on just a few events.

It was Australia’s Bi-Centenary.  The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh together with Princess Anne and Prince Charles visited Australia to join with the rest of the country in the celebrations.

And they didn’t miss watching a game of Australian football as shown in the photo – details below

And in Sydney, a show for the Royals was put on at the Trocodero in Sydney’s George Street.  This was a large dance and concert hall that operated between 1936 and 1971.  It was once regarded as the “most glamorous dance palace in Sydney and accommodated up to 2,000 people”. It was the favoured venue for university and school ‘formals’, and hosted many important local rock and pop concerts during the 1960s.  The block of cinemas has replaced the old Troc. between Liverpool and Bathurst Streets.

It was April when the Royal party “met young sportsmen (we don’t know if the word sportsmen refers to both genders) from all parts of the state” we were told.

Our Australian Rules representatives included David Sykes, captain coach of Newtown, Rodney Tubbs the captain coach of Sydney University Club, Bob Sterling and Emmanuel (Manny) Keriniaua from the St George Club.  Also Ian Allen, North Shore and NSW centre half back and Chris Huon, one of the young brigade of umpires making their mark on Sydney football.”

Both David Sykes, Ian Allen and Chris Huon are members of the Football History Society.

On the opening day of the season a team of Northern Territory Aboriginal Schoolboys played a Sydney Schoolboys team in an Under 16 match.  The boys from the north cleaned up the Sydney side, 17-12 (114) to 11-12 (78) at Picken Oval.

It is interesting to look at the names of some of the Sydney players and the junior clubs they came from. For example:

PLAYER

CLUB

Alan Bouch (son of NSWAFL Board Member, Doug) Warringah
Graeme Foster  –  later Balmain, East Sydney and NSW player Ermington
Mark Andrews(son of Brian, a former state player and Balmain coach) who played with North Shore Warringah
David McVey –  who went on to win a Kealey Medal with St George
Boystown
Mark McClurelater captain of Carlton FC Eastern Suburbs
Greg Harris –  later state player and captain coach of East Sydney FC St George
Bill Free  – former Newtown player was the coach
Other junior clubs that no longer exist or have had a name change: Warwick Farm, Holsworthy, Green Valley, Bankstown Sports, Manly/Seaforth

 

In 1970, the long term league secretary Ken Ferguson retired and was given a well attended sendoff at the Western Suburbs Club.

At last the league introduced a second division after years of half-hearted attempts to cater for burgeoning clubs in Sydney.  The clubs that comprised the league’s other open age competition since the demise of the Metropolitan Australian National Football Association in 1952 were: Warringah, St Ives, Salasians, Penshurst, UNSW, Sydney University and Western Suburbs.  Later, North Shore and South Sydney also entered teams.

The second division thing just wasn’t right, it was unbalanced.  Because they didn’t have enough clubs to go round in a stand alone competition, Sydney Uni, UNSW, South Sydney and Macquarie University fielded their senior teams in the normal open age reserve grade, which, like today, created problems at away games.  This was corrected the following season.

1970-04-01 - Chris Huon Invitation to Royal Reception small1970 was Sydney Naval’s last hurrah.  It was their final year in the competition after such a splendid involvement in the game dating back to 1881.  There was an attempt to combine the club with the struggling South Sydney side but that too failed. South in fact, were on their knees after being relegated following a number of poor seasons.  But with a band of willing workers they managed a further half a dozen years.

There were early moves to play a Victoria v South Australia game at the SCG mid season.  The expenses were estimated at in excess of $30,000 (assessed using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s calculator today at $317,647.06), seems a bit rich, but thats the reason the game did not go ahead and Sydney had to wait until 1974 to see the Vics play the Crows at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Big news during the season was that Wests were to lose their home ground of Picken Oval to a supermarket complex.  Canterbury Council failed to give the idea the green light so it was shelved but it didn’t take too many years before a further and very damaging issue effected the relationship between Wests and their ground.

The Newtown club opened clubrooms on the normally unknown mid level in the grandstand at Erskineville Oval.  It wasn’t long though before they moved their social activities to the old Stage Club at 303 Cleveland Street, Redfern which became the Newtown Rules Club.

And finally for the first time in Sydney, the ABC telecast highlights of two VFL games each Saturday Night at the very late time of 10:50pm, well before the introduction of domestic VCR – recorders.  It didn’t take long before the then very conservative ABC decided to ditch the show producing howls of complaint from footy followers.  So much so that the league printed a form on which supporters could register their PROTEST to the Director of Programmes, ABC 2, Sydney. It worked and these highlights were retained for the rest of the season.

Our photograph of course is not Sydney football, but the Queen being introduced to the Fitzroy team in the same year.  Some questions for you about this event:

*  What ground was the game played at?
*  Which team played Fitzroy on that day?
*  What was the most unusual and in fact unique circumstance of this game?

And seeing Australia lost probably its most iconic prime minister this week, it is worth a mention that either in the late fifties or early sixties, Gough took one of his sons along to Rosedale Oval to learn the game of Australian football.  We don’t think there were many follow up visits.

You can send your answers to this address: Click here.

Looking back at the future

Jim Phelan 1920Jim Phelan is virtually regarded as the father of football in Sydney.  This is not our description of him because none of today’s people had the privilege of knowing him but was a quote often appearing in various publications before his death in 1939.

He came to Sydney in about 1886 from Bendigo via Ballarat and Melbourne and subsequently played with Waratah and the East Sydney clubs.  From our research Jim was not an outstanding player but he was an outstanding administrator and they are the ones who make a success or failure of an organisation.

He was founding treasurer of the Newtown club and later their secretary.  When the game almost fell over after the start of WWI he took on the position of Secretary of the NSW Football League, a position he held for ten consecutive years and during his tenure saw the game return to its status as a recognized and strong sport in Sydney.

Besides a life member of the Newtown club, he was elected life member of the NSW Football League and the Australian National Fooball Council, of which he was this state’s delegate for a number of years.

Erskineville Oval in 1988

During his time with football, Jim wrote on the game for a number of Sydney newspapers, including the Sydney Morning Herald.  He had a deft hand with the pen and it is with this in mind that we reprint a little known article written by Jim and published in a Sydney Football Record in 1939, only months before his passing.  The main subject was Erskineville Oval and its re-construction at its present location pictured on the right.  Jim penned several like articles during the 1930s almost all of which referred to Sydney’s football past and, as he says in this article, if there was anyone who knew about the game then, it was him:

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 nigh 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 the site of  the University of NSW), 1911, 1912 and 1913, Australian Football Ground, Alexandria; 1910, 1914, 1919 and from thence on, Erskineville Oval – pictured left.

1935 Erskineville Oval (old) 001 smallThe 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 occasion arose, 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.”

Jim was a great man for football and to have the league’s best and fairest medal (re)named after him is a fitting reward for his work and commitment to the game.