|The Glebe Town Hall, Sydney. Photograph copyright Max Solling (used with permission).|
|Max Solling (Author)|
A sense of urgency could be discerned as Glebe’s unashamedly partisan supporters streamed down to Wentworth Park on 13 May 1911. They did not need to hurry but there was excitement in the air. Chris McKivat and the Burge brothers, Albert, Frank and Peter, carrying the hopes of the Reds on their shoulders, were matched against the men from Eastern Suburbs that included two great players, Dally Messenger and Sandy Pearce. The Bulletin reported Easts ‘received an ‘unholy doing’ from the men of Glebe who wear red, and live near the abattoirs…..Messenger did not’fizz’…with Peter Burge grassing him every few minutes...and the Glebe men continued the butchery tactics’.[i] The ‘game was fast and furious at times’, according to another football correspondent, ‘Two men were carried off injured. Two more were ordered off. Now and then the spectators worked to a pitch of excitement started melees of their own. The game itself was a triumph for the local forwards who ran over their opponents. Wentworth Park crowds are always demonstrative. They never hesitate to show on which side of the fence their sympathies lie. So when the play was at its fiercest on Saturday the crowd yelled ‘Red, red, red’ to encourage the local champions. Eastern Suburbs had a good following but it was on Glebe’s native heath and it was Glebe’s day out’.[ii]
Wentworth Park on a Saturday afternoon, only a stone’s throw from small workers cottages wedged in between warehouses and factories, was an important part of group life, a hallowed place where Glebe denizens gathered to watch their boys perform ritual slaughter on the visiting team. Rugby League in Glebe by 1911 was a staple part of local culture, and the passion partisans stridently demonstrated from the terraces for twenty two seasons had not abated in 1929 when their beloved club was unceremoniously dumped from the competition.
A powerful emotional attachment to their club came to the fore in November 1929. Thousands of locals signed a petition to the NSWRFL not to expel their club and filled Glebe Town Hall to vent their anger. But the people behind engineering the demise of the Glebe club carefully closed off all avenues of escape. The manner of Glebe’s elimination, in the best traditions of Tammany Hall, was something Glebe residents would neither forget nor forgive.
Football had a very strong tradition in Glebe. They were the team to beat when the Sydney District rugby competition began in 1900. Glebe District Rugby Union Club established a formidable reputation in the first year of that competition, losing only two of their forty one matches in all grades and emerging as premiers in first, second and third grades.[iii] Glebe emerged as the dominant rugby club in the Sydney competition to 1914, winning the first grade premiership on seven occasions (1900, 1901, 1906, 1907, 1909, 1912, and 1914). Thirty two members of the club won state caps, and 12 played for Australia against visiting international rugby teams.[iv]
Despite the success of the Glebe rugby club, there was an underlying discontent among players about the way rugby union was administered, and during 1907 a number of Glebe rugby players were at the forefront of formation of a breakaway movement, the New South Rugby Football League (NSWRFL).[v]
Lewis Abrams, former Glebe rugby union secretary, small in stature but a larger than life personality, understood injury on the football field could be crippling to an ordinary working man dependent on wages to pay the rent and support a family. He became the ‘bete noire’ of the Metropolitan Rugby Union as he unsuccessfully sought compensation for injured players, seeking to avert an impending schism in the game.[vi]
Abrams’ involvement with rugby and cricket clubs from the Glebe district dated back to 1883, and he was a prominent figure in the NSW Cricket Association in the reorganisation of cricket along district or electorate lines from the 1893/94 season facilitating expansion of cricket to ovals at Wentworth Park, Parramatta, Redfern, University, the Domain and Association Ground (SCG) where seven district clubs East Sydney, Redfern, Paddington, Canterbury, Central Cumberland, Manly and Glebe, and University played.[vii]
The value of linking a sporting club with a particular district, not introduced in Sydney until 1893, was justified by rising attendance figures. A growing sense of identification with place ensured that any club by taking the name of the town or suburb received strong support, and cricket officials were the first to recognise the phenomenon. ‘Wentworth Park has been the venue for some very large congregations’, JC Davis reported in 1896, that ‘10,000 being reached on several occasions’.[viii] The standard of the cricket competition was also improved by the continued participation of a number of internationals long after the end of their first-class careers helping to enhance the popularity of the competition. By 1897 district-based cricket had spread inter-state to Brisbane and Adelaide.[ix]
Success of the reorganised Sydney cricket competition, based on residential eligibility to play within a particular district, convinced Abrams a comparable rugby competition would be equally successful. At Glebe Town Hall in March 1894 Abrams told a meeting that ‘good football teams representing suburban districts would attract crowds between 15,000 and 20,000 people’.[x] The existing Sydney senior rugby competition was a mixture of old established clubs such as Wallaroo and Pirates competed with several district-based clubs. After considerable debate the rugby fraternity accepted appearance of local players on their own grounds would generate spectator interest and on 24 May 1900 the Sydney rugby district-based competition began with seven district clubs participating, Glebe, Western Suburbs, Eastern Suburbs, Newtown, North Sydney, South Sydney and Balmain, and University.[xi]
Sporting traditions in Glebe were deeply rooted in its popular culture. Blood from sheep and cattle, slaughtered at Glebe Island Abattoirs, found their way into the waters of Blackwattle Bay which, at times, were described as ‘blood red’.[xii] Glebe Rowing Club discarded its red, white and blue colours in 1888 for a maroon jersey and cap but in 1893 the local rugby club still played in black, blue and gold jerseys.[xiii] By 1900 they had adopted the maroon jersey and were proudly proclaimed ‘the Dirty Reds’. The making of sporting traditions in Glebe began in the final quarter of the nineteenth century with its rowing club, and especially the district cricket club, winning two premierships in the 1890’s, and fielding a team with international players. Competition in Sydney Tennis was organised on a district basis by the NSW Lawn Tennis Association from September 1907, and the following year the NSW Rugby Football League organised a competition with eight newly formed district clubs and Newcastle to begin in late April 1908.[xiv]
Opportunities for leisure, and for those bent on self-improvement, increased when a suburb reached sufficient size to attract enough participants to form and fund a club. But women were largely excluded from the new world of sport. Eleven different sporting clubs took the name of Glebe, rowing (1879), rugby (1880), lawn bowls (1883), bicycle (1888,1899), baseball (1891), cricket (1892), athletics (1892), lacrosse (1894), soccer (1903), pigeon racing (1908) and swimming (1910). Two new distinctly working class institutions joined the workingmen’s institute in 1905. The Glebe Pastime Club conducted in a local hall with the main feature, a twenty round boxing bout, a military band, sing and skipping. Its rival, Glebe Athletic Hall featured tin whistle playing, singing and dancing, and ‘new moving pictures’.[xv]
In the decade after 1890 Australia was transformed from a rural to a predominantly urban-industrialised nation, with two thirds of the population living in cities. Henry Lawson came to Sydney in 1883, working as a Sydney coach builder and recorded a grim picture of a boarding house existence. He identified the working class, concentrated in inner suburban Sydney, as the traditional peasantry with their own manners, morals, customs and rituals, and developing a culture of their own, recognisable by a style of life and leisure, by a certain class consciousness expressed in a tendency to join unions, and to identify with a class party of Labor.
The earliest suburbs of Sydney began as semi-rural retreats of the well-to-do but towards the end of the nineteenth century their sylvan fields were rapidly being filled with new people, new houses and industry. The flight of the better off from the inner city to suburbs on the outer limits of development gathered momentum from the 1890s and took place like a series of rings on the townscape, accompanied by a gradual but perceptible change of class. Taking their places in a zone embracing the municipalities of Alexandria, Balmain, Darlington, Glebe, Marrickville, Newtown, Paddington, Redfern, St Peters and Waterloo were transients, the boarding and lodging house population. The aggregate population of these municipalities which climbed from 136,172 in 1891 to 192,297 in 1911 as they became increasingly industrialised, predominantly tenanted and more working class in identity and public life.[xvi]
Glebe Point remained ‘a favourite place of residence for businessmen’ in 1895 according to an assessment in a handbook of metropolitan Sydney which attempted a kind of social ranking of suburbs, leaning towards respectable and generally accepted information. More than two decades later the perception of Glebe’s stature by a similar type of publication had altered; Glebe was now described as ‘mostly a large industrial and manufacturing centre’.[xvii]
The findings of the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its suburbs in 1909 was a blanket condemnation of the pattern of life in inner Sydney, reinforcing the belief that its social and physical fabric was doomed to decay.[xviii] Residents unable to abandon these places lived with the slum stigma.
Increased leisure hours, an extension of tram tracks linking the city to the suburbs, and the sheer growth of Sydney facilitated the development of an urban popular culture and made mass spectator sport possible and which soon became a feature of modern industrialised urban society. In the early years of a new nation the working class began to assert themselves in industrial society at large, and adopted sports distinctly working-class in character. Along with the pub, workingmen’s institute and picture show, Saturday afternoon rugby league made possible a new sense of belonging.
After formation of the New South Wales Rugby League, James Giltinan moved about Sydney’s inner suburbs taking the gospel of rugby league with him, promoting ideas of solidarity, collectivism and ‘a fair go’, recognising the needs of working men injured playing the game.[xix] The masculine orientation towards work and leisure were part of rugby league’s appeal to Sydney’s working class communities, segregated in its inner industrial suburbs and within the Glebe club the predominant occupational group was manual workers. The game was ideally suited to fit in with the timetable of labouring life and also served as an escape from the drab reality and exploitation of working class life; the long grinding hours at factory benches, or the hard, unremitting physical toil of pick and shovel.
As more took up the new game, Rugby League consolidated its identity through political and religious connections. The vast majority of Glebe players voted Labor, though paid up branch members were less numerous as were active unionists. And adjoining Wentworth Park, St Ita’s Catholic school, provided a steady stream of recruits, reinforcing another of rugby league’s connections with the working class, its Catholicism through its separate school system.[xx] The proportion of Catholics in Glebe was above the state-wide average in 1901 and George Parsons also found that in its formative years St George Rugby League Club had a strong sub-cultural rump, Irish Catholics, mostly poor and largely isolated from middle-class society.[xxi]
What can we say about the social background and life of a place that spawned a pioneer rugby league club? Glebe had always been a well defined social mosaic of middle class, lower middle-class and working-class neighbourhoods, a highly stratified and unequal society, sharply divided along class lines. People lived in the same suburb but inhabited different worlds. Glebe’s population increased from 19220 (1901) to 22754 at the 1921 census with 4337 houses.
A mix of main street retailers, living behind or above the shop, stretched along the eastern side of Glebe Point Road from Broadway to Bridge Road and beyond. Vendors selling food, grocers, butchers, bakers and fruiterers were most numerous, together with a group selling clothing and household goods, boot-makers, dressmakers, tailors and milliners. The corner store, heavily concentrated towards the southern end of Glebe, open till late at night and extending credit to regular customers, offered a lifeline to poor families open late and extending credit to regular customers, and the cluster of pubs in this locality also played a strategic role in the organization of working class culture. On Saturday evening Glebe Point Road was a crowded place, the best trading time of the week when many working people came out to shop.[xxii]
The local government franchise ensured Glebe Council was composed of self-employed local businessmen in 1909, three real estate agents, two carriers, two grocers, a chemist, contractor, hide merchant, fruiterer and a wine and spirits merchant, all fiercely opposed to extension of the adult franchise.[xxiii] In occupation and status the councillors were not representative of the suburb in which they held office, regarded by working people as creatures of employers and property interests. The Labor Party, after the war became firmly entrenched in working class communities and would wrest control of Glebe Council from local businessmen in 1925.
Glebe Point was the most prestigious residential precinct, occupied by the professional class, by people who owned and staffed their own businesses together with a collection of less affluent self-employed people. Most of the suburb’s social leaders lived here. Occupants of terraces and cottages in a broad belt of land between Wigram Road and St Johns Road were drawn from an array of occupational groups, clerical workers employed by private firms, government school teachers, railway and post office officials, together with skilled workmen and shop assistants who formed a lower adjunct of the middle class, firmly attached to notions of respectability and supporting conservative politics.[xxiv]
The third tier of Glebe’s social stratification, its earliest residential precincts, territory that stretched from St Johns Road to Broadway and occupied by families closely identified with manual labour. They lived on the margins of society. These wage labourers worked irregular hours for low pay, a disparate collection of landless individuals who had little in common besides their poverty.[xxv] The hard core of those who either played for Glebe Rugby League Club, or followed it, lived in this neighbourhood, or in close proximity.
The neighbourhood offered families the chance to piece together the social fabric they needed in order to exist with some measure of security, and the values and practices of these communities embraced neighbourliness and mutual aid. It was assumed if you lived there you would do two things, vote Labor and barrack for the Reds. Loyalty was a prized virtue, whether it be to kin or friends, political party, lodge, church or league club. Without the sustaining services of a welfare state many sought out relatives and lived with or close to them. Kinfolk could be trusted in a way neighbours could not during periods of sickness, unemployment or old age.
Women occupied a central position in neighbourhood networks. They were the constant factor within the household, and whatever crisis arose, they coped as they were expected to. A narrow house in a narrow street was not merely the centre of the lives of married working class women but the setting of virtually all their marriage. Women, Josephine Law recalled, were regarded as ‘over the hill’ when they reached fifty years of age. Two things could not come quick enough for them, the change of life, and being eligible for the age pension.[xxvi]
In close, crowded neighbourhoods, Hoggart argues ‘one is inescapably part of a group, from the warmth and security that knowledge can give, from the lack of change of the group, and from the frequent need to ‘turn to a neighbour’ since services cannot often be bought’. And in joining a club, ‘there is something warming in the feeling that you are with everyone else, taking part in some mass activity…being able to feel one of the main herd’.[xxvii]
In a period of restricted geographical mobility and limited cultural horizons, the world of the neighbourhood was divided into notions of ‘us’ against ‘them’, a feeling that the world outside is strange, often unhelpful with ‘us’ at a disadvantage. In working class parlance ‘them’ is ‘a world of people at the top’, and those in authority such as policemen, council employees, the headmaster, school teacher.
The policeman was primarily regarded as somebody who was watching them and the magistrates always believe them. Almost invariably policemen came from working-class backgrounds and their constant presence as an alien force within the community smarted as a betrayal.[xxviii] Sergeant Hogg, the scourge of Glebe publicans trading on Sunday or after hours, dispensed with his heavy boots for sandshoes for raids conducted on a wet evening, when with umbrella pulled down over his head, he was not readily detected.[xxix] And Glebe Court, overlooking their neighbourhood, was a reminder to the working class to behave themselves.
The Glebe Rugby League Club became an integral part of the life of the neighbourhood, and a world perceived in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The networks established were an important part of rugby league’s strength, and attraction, for it was more than a sporting club; it also was a vibrant social institution. Its lively social life revolved around smokos, dinners, ‘drag picnics’ and other gatherings described as ‘social’, and if a member of the club fraternity fell on hard times, or a breadwinner died, there was a spontaneous response in the form of a benefit, social or some other activity to raise money.[xxx]
Jack Flitcroft [1903-1989], born and bred in Glebe, recalled rugby league patrons of the Burton Family pub ‘were strong on loyalty and comradeship, and had little interest in property and possessions. Saturday afternoon rugby league was their food and their drink’.[xxxi] Players were spoken of with genuine pride as ‘our boys’ and most were local boys, born, educated and living in Glebe. They would not reject the sub-culture that nurtured them and were more than happy to meet supporters, often at a local pub, to talk about the game. Working a 48 hour, five-and-a-half day week, supporters were determined to enjoy themselves, joining mates to become fierce partisans in the Saturday afternoon struggle of their team, and its associated rites at a Glebe pub. On Monday, the post-mortem on the last game took place, and anticipation of the next one carried them through the week.
League was suburb against suburb, creating a form of theatre between the neighbouring tribes of inner Sydney. In a parochial, street-corner society, with limited horizons, rivalry was intense, ensuring the game prospered; a victory over Souths or Balmain was a source of great satisfaction, and an occasion to have at least another middy. The Glebe club was a way men created and sustained close-knit groups amid the alienation of modern industrial society and fostered a strong sense of belonging among local people, of shared triumph with their gladiators who carried the hopes and fears of the community, its sense of worth, on their broad shoulders. The men who wore Red on the football field, representing your territory, often lived just down the street. If you didn’t know the player personally, you certainly knew all about him and his football feats. At the pub they marvelled at the football talent of Chris McKivat, Frank Burge and Bert Gray.
Losing was a fact of life for ordinary working people, and like all team sports, they were drawn to the new code because they cared about who won or lost. They cared because they identified with the club, the team, the players. And perhaps their only victories came on the football field.
Most young boys growing up in the suburb received a basic education in literacy and numeracy at Glebe or Forest Lodge Schools, crowded places in 1913 with enrolments exceeding 1,000 children. Few had an opportunity of going beyond primary school.[xxxii] At 14-years-of-age young males went out in search of a trade, and once they served their apprenticeship they were sacked. If he pulled on the Red jersey, however, he gained self-esteem by excelling on the football field, and an enhanced status in the community, especially. Perhaps rugby league gave them their only opportunity for self-esteem, an experience that sustained them through their lives. But football prowess didn’t bring upward social mobility.
The sporting champions were the creation of the cities, Ian Turner argues, perhaps part substitute for the challenge of the ‘bush’, and part compensation for the lack of excitement of suburban life and the alienation of modern industrial society.[xxxiii] Between 1890 and 1920 the Sydney sporting press was a powerful influence on elevating sculler Bill Beach, cricketer Vic Trumper and boxer Les Darcy to hero status. In its formative years in Sydney rugby league supporters marvelled at the wonderful skills of backs Dally Messenger and Harold Horder and lock forward Frank Burge. At the club level, Glebe rugby league supporters had many local heroes.
In writing this history I owe much to local people born between 1891 and 1908 whom I interviewed more than 35 years ago. They possessed an intimate knowledge of Glebe gained from a life long association, whose oral testimony filled in gaps, particularly in relation to its rugby league club and working-class life which the manuscript material failed to yield. I gained so much from Jack Flitcroft, Bill Gough, George Borwick, Josephine Law, Laidley Burge, Alec Bolewski, Jack Regan, Paddy Gray and Ray Blissett. All have since died and I much regret their passing. They gave an identity and character to people who would otherwise remain mere names in an annual report, street directory or electoral roll and restored to some who left no written record of their lives, their original importance.
I have benefited from the generosity of the following people who provided biographical information, photographs of teams and individual players and other matters pertinent to the activities of the Glebe Club: Pearl Burge, Al Benson, David Davis, Erla Dunne, Matthew Elliott, Brian Ellis, John Flitcroft, Warwick Flitcroft, Bruce Gallagher, Vince and Bert Gray, John Gray, Ron Gough, David Gronow, Florence Ireland, Venese Lewis, Beryl Nesbitt, Sid Pert, Eileen Scannell and Robbie Wright. These people are either sons, daughters, grandsons and relatives of Glebe players, or had a close association with a club that meant a lot to them.
I am indebted to Michael Foster for his extraordinary expertise and effort in digitisation the photographs in this book, and finally I am deeply appreciative of the wonderful assistance I have received from Terry Williams over a long time. I greatly benefited from Terry’s vast knowledge of rugby league, and his infectious enthusiasm for the game knows no bounds. And this is a much better book for the skilful editing of Richard Cashman of Walla Walla Press. Richard was a central figure in the emergence of Australian sports history in the late-1970s, and creation of the journal Sporting Traditions in 1984, and has had a remarkable career researching, writing and teaching on the history of sports in Australia.
[The chapters of this book are published online here through the kind permission of the author Mas Solling. The physical-copy book An Act of Bastardry: Rugby League Axes its First Club was published in September 2014 by Walla Walla Press.]
|Photographs copyright Max Solling (used with permission).|
[i] Bulletin 18/5/1911.
[ii] Sydney Mail 17/5/1911 p.54.
[iii] Referee 5/9/1900 p.8.
[iv] Referee 2/9/1914 p.14.
[v] Referee 21/8/1907 p.10.
[vi] Sydney Morning Herald 6/8/1907 p.8. Cyclopedia of NSW 1907, McCarron, Stewart & Co, Sydney, p.660.
[vii] Max Bonnell, Richard Cashman,James Rodgers, Making the Grade. 100 years of Grade Cricket in Sydney 1893-94 to 1993-94, NSW Cricket Association, 1994, pp.6-9.
[viii] JC Davis (ed) Australian Cricket Annual, 1896, p.126.
[ix] Max Bonnell et al, op cit, p.6.
[x] Sydney Mail 24.5.1894 p.611.
[xi] Referee 16/5/1900 p.8. 23/5/1900 p.8.
[xii] Noxious and Offensive Inquiry, NSW Parliamentary Papers 1883, 3. pp.202-3.
[xiii] Sydney Mail 20/1889 p.821.
[xiv] Sydney Morning Herald 7/9/1907 p.16.
[xv] Sydney Sportsman 19/7/1905 p.6. 18/6/1908 p.6.
[xvi] T.A.Coghlan, General Report on the Eleventh Commission of New South Wales, 1894, Sydney Commonwealth Census, 1911 R.V.Jackson, ‘Owner Occupation of Houses in Sydney 1871 to 1891’, Australian Economic History Review, vol 10,No 2, p148
[xvii] H.J.Samuel, How to Know Sydney, 1895, pp. .40-41. W.Harris, Where to Live. ABC Guide to Sydney, 1918, p.38.
[xviii] Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs, V & P NSWLA 1909, vol 5. Pp. .379-703.
[xix] Referee 21/8/1907 p.10.
[xx] Good Samaritan Archives, St Scholastica’s Glebe
[xxi] T.G.Parsons, ‘Labour, Rugby League and the Working Class. The St George District Rugby League Football Club in the 1920’s, Teaching History, 1978, pp.28-36. 1901 Census. Journal of NSWLC part 2
[xxii] Royal Commission, Re : Saturday Half-Holiday, NSWPP, 1909, vol 5 pp.81,353.
[xxiii] NSW Parliamentary Papers 1915/16, vol 4, p.509.
[xxiv] Based on West Sydney Electoral Roll 1913 (Commonwealth), Sands Sydney Directory 1913
[xxv] Sands Sydney Directory 1913
[xxvi] Josephine Law, Interview with Max Solling, 9 October 1991
[xxvii] Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy. Aspects of working-class life, 1957, Hammondsworth, Penguin Books, p82
[xxviii] Richard Hoggart, op cit, pp.72-74
[xxix] Royal Commission to Inquire into a Charge against Sergeant James Hogg of the Police Force, Journal of NSWLC, 1902, part 2, pp.9-36.
[xxx] Annual Reports, Glebe District Rugby League Football Club 1911-1914, 1916-1922
[xxxi] J.F.Flitcroft. Interview with Max Solling 30/4/1983
[xxxii] Abstract of Returns of School Attendance 1913, SRNSW X1947
[xxxiii] Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, Up Where, Cazaly? The Great Australian Game, 1981, St Albans, p.82.