Australian Football and Rugby League: Not always a Great Divide!

Social History, Sport

Rugby: the great divide
A couple of years ago there was some talk in the media about the possibility of a rugby match between the Australian Rugby Union and the Australian Rugby League sides under composite rules [‘Kangaroos Vs Wallabies hybrid game: Why?’, The Roar, 25 October 2011]. In the end nothing came of the proposed code versus code match, but it did have echoes of the past in Australian sport. In 1909 an exhibition game of sorts between the two national rugby codes did take place as a “one-off” [‘The game begins’, League of Legends:100 Years of Rugby League in Australia,].

The best empirical example of hybridised football has probably been the fusion of Australian football (AFL) and Gaelic football. An all-Australian AFL side has played a Gaelic national side from the Republic of Ireland in a hybrid form of football (known as “International Rules” in Australia and “Compromise Rules” in Ireland) every year or every other year since 1984.

Back in the early days of rugby league in this country (from 1908), fairly concerted efforts were made by the Victorian Football League (VFL) and the NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) to arrive at a single, universal code of Australian football using elements of both professional games (Australian Rules and Rugby League). On two separate occasions, 1914 and again in 1933, the executives of both associations sat down together and tried to negotiate agreement on a universal code of football. How serious the codes were about this goal, and whether the realisation of a single, composite set of rules would have led to an actual merger of the two codes, remains a moot but ultimately unanswerable point.

In 1914 the initiative for a merger appeared to come from the VFL. Elements within the VFL (with some support from the South Australian and West Australian Leagues) led by Charles Brownlow, Geelong Club secretary and delegate to the Australian National Football Council (ANFC), viewed the 1914 All-State National Rules Carnival in Sydney as much of a failure. Interest in the carnival and in Australian football in general was down compared to that in the fledgling sport of rugby league, which was drawing big crowds (especially the Australia-Great Britain tests of that year). A point not lost on the VFL – the 1914 Melbourne Grand Final drew only 30,000 spectators compared to crowds of up to 41,000 for rugby league test matches during the same season! Brownlow (later memorialised eponymously in the Brownlow Medal) was of the opinion that a new combined sport of rugby league and Australian rules could produce a better spectacle, which would add thousands of pounds to the gate takings for games. The NSW Rugby League’s long-time secretary, Horrie Miller, was also favourable to the idea of a merger [‘The Australian and Rugby League Game Combine?’, NSW Football History Society (July 2014),].

A series of conferences were held during 1914 where the representatives of VFL clubs, the other equivalent, state football bodies and the rugby league authorities, discussed the various pros and cons of such an amalgamation. The Australian Press conducted a running commentary on the universal code proposal, with some commentators wholeheartedly talking up its merits, eg, WH John in The Winner. John’s article in the Melbourne paper, ‘Universal Code further examined: Success predicted in Australia’ (9 December 1914), argued that 18 players-a-side in “Australian Rules” was too many and the field was too large! The Registrar (Adelaide) suggested that a fusion of the two codes would demonstrate the best of the “British race”, quoting outgoing NSWRL Secretary Ted Larkins’ view that the hybrid game would embody the “characteristics of Britishers” (a notion which seems to echo the then popularly accepted belief in the validity of eugenics) [The Registrar (25 May 1914)].

Other newspaper commentators were less sanguine about the chances of merging the two codes. JC Davis writing under the apt pseudonym, “The Cynic”, opined that the status quo would not change, because the love of the game of Aussie rules in Victoria and of rugby league in Sydney was too deeply-ingrained in each code’s grass-roots supporters to allow them to accept the proposed alterations to their own game [‘The Universal Football Code’, The Referee (Sydney), 14 October 1914].

Another factor in the dynamic, as Martin Sharp has observed, was that Sydneysiders, even prior to the advent of rugby league in 1908, were reluctant to embrace Australian football due to the perception that “Victorian Rules (was) a Melbourne invention” [M Sharp, ‘Australian Football in Sydney Before 1914’, Sporting Traditions, Vol 4, No 1 (November 1987)]. This point is endorsed by Matthew Healy who noted that Sydney was a rugby (union) stronghold from 1880 to 1914, with the Victorian football establishment making little inroad in promoting the ‘southern’ code up north during this period [M Healy, ‘Hard Sell: Australian Football in Sydney’, unpublished MA thesis, Victoria University (Melb.), 2002]. The era of the Sydney Swans was still far into the future in those says.

It wasn’t from any lack of trying! The VFL certainly made a wholehearted effort to create a foothold for Australian football in the harbour city. The Vics had a good local advocate for its game in NSW politician Edward O’Sullivan who declared that NSW should “support a game that was invented by Australians for Australia”. The VFL invested money into promoting the code in Sydney via visiting school ‘lecturers’, but by the early 1910s rugby league was easily pulling the biggest crowds in Sydney [Sean Fagan, ‘Aussie Rules almost had Sydney’; ‘The Superiority of the Melbourne Game’, Australian Rugby History,]. The Sydney Football League competition launched in 1903 remained a minnow in Sydney when compared to either rugby code.

At the conferences on amalgamation Brownlow and Miller’s proposals to combine the codes met with a mixture of vocal and determined opposition from individual VFL club delegates (especially Carlton) and indifference. Despite the NSWRL and the SANFL in February 1915 agreeing to amalgamate, no decision was reached at the conferences involving Victoria, Tasmania, West Australia, Queensland and NSW. With the nation becoming more preoccupied with its involvement as part of the British Empire in the Great War, the issue of amalgamation soon ran out of steam [op.cit. ‘Australian and Rugby League Game Combine?’].

In 1933 elements within the Australian football and rugby fraternity reignited the cause of a single, universal code of football. Again, the catalyst seems to have been that year’s 10-day interstate carnival in Sydney. Consequently, a conference was held in August, bringing together the state delegates of the ANFC and the delegates of the NSWRL (significantly the discussions were boycotted by the Queensland Rugby League). Supporters of an Australian football/rugby league fusion (including once again the NSWRL Secretary HR Miller) held the view that the future of football would be assured by adopting one code which combined the best features of both games [‘One Code of Football’, Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 28 July 1933].

This time the proponents of code amalgamation approached the issue in a more systematic manner. HR Miller drafted a specific set of rules for the new code which included 15 players-a-side (splitting the difference in numbers between AF and RL), an oval field but reduced in size, abolition of the scrum and replacing it with a bounce, limited off-side would be allowed, behind posts replaced by a H-shaped rugby goalpost, and the scoring of both tries and goals permitted. In talks Miller pitched the new rules’ appeal to the Australian football leagues in terms of making it more of an open, action-plus game, “We are giving what you Australian rule (sic) people are asking for and what the Australian public require – that is action … at no stage of the game would the ball be dead.” [‘Amalgamation of Games – Second Time Round’, NSW Football History (July 2014); Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1933; ‘Rugby League Proposed Unification in 1933: The game they never played’].

On the basis of Miller’s “compromise rules” a clandestine match was played at the RAS Sydney Showground at Moore Park with the players drawn from the Queensland Football League supplemented by some local rugby league players. The game was somewhat of a shambles – it was supposed to be 14-a-side contest but there was not enough numbers available, none of the participants were familiarised with the new rules, the Queensland AF players had just completed a hard game against the Canberra AF side the previous day – and so did not advance the cause of the composite code game! [op.cit. (‘Amalgamation of Games’)].

The proposals put to the ANFC by Miller on behalf of the NSWRL were taken back by the state delegates to their leagues for consideration. The football leagues ultimately however did not consider themselves bound by the ANFC’s recommendation. In the end the respective authorities of each code were not prepared to compromise by making concessions to any meaningful degree in the alteration of their game (the off-side rule remained a particular “bone of contention” to the negotiators[ibid.].

As a consequence, the case for amendment leading to a universal code of football floundered. The NSWRL committee subsequently voted 15 to 10 against further consideration of a fusion with Australian football [‘Football Merger: Rugby League not to Pursue – Not Impressed by Conference’, Canberra Times (ACT), 15 August 1933; ‘Football Merger left in Air – No decision for renewal of Conference’, Canberra Times, 12 August 1933]. Thus, all discussion of a hybridised AFL/RL football code was quietly dropped … this time for good!

A Day-Trippers’ Paradise: The Vogue for Pleasure Grounds in 19th/20th Century Sydney

Heritage & Conservation, Local history, Social History, Society & Culture, Sports history

Long, long before megaplex cinemas, massive outdoor theme parks and home entertainment centres, Australians were discovering new outlets of activity to occupy their precious and increasing if hard-earned leisure time. In the 19th century one outlet for Sydneysiders which filled the bill was the suburban pleasure ground.

Europe: Medieval fair
The origins of pleasure grounds in Australia can be traced back ultimately to British and European antecedents such as the Medieval countryside fairs, whose purpose was primarily trade and commerce but included an important element of “merry-making” []. In England these would be occasions to celebrate feast days and milestones in the calendar like Midsummer Solstice and St Swithuns Day, and would involve feasting and drinking, bawdy games, musical interludes, races and other physically active pastimes.

The type of pleasure grounds that evolved in Australia also drew inspiration from the great English pleasure gardens of centuries gone by. These pleasure gardens, of which, Vauxhall Gardens in South London, was arguably the most famous in Britain, were the primary providers of mass, public entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries. Vauxhall (AKA New Spring) Gardens charged admission to see performances of tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks. Vauxhall and others such as its closest London rival, Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, were the forerunners to the modern amusement park, eg, Luna Park/Coney Island, Blackpool Pleasure Beach [‘History of London: Pleasure Gardens’,].

In Sydney pleasure grounds popped up at all points of the metropolitan compass during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They could be found in districts as far afield as Prospect Creek/Fairfield (Latty’s Boatshed and Pleasure Grounds), Waratah Bay/Hawkesbury River (Windybanks’ Paradise), Vaucluse (Nielsen Park), La Perouse/Yarra Bay (Howe’s Pleasure Grounds) and the Kurnell Pleasure Grounds at the southern tip of Botany Bay.

The original Banks Inn
The original Banks Inn

One of the earliest such venues was the Botany (or Sir Joseph Banks) Pleasure Grounds (BPG), established along with the Banks Inn on 75 acres of land and seafront in the 1840s by Thomas Kellett. At its peak, BPG was described variously as “zoological gardens”, “a Victorian garden with arbours” and an aggregation of first-rate sporting fields.

BPG was a popular spot for annual St Patrick’s Day Sports Carnivals which comprised, in addition to sports, singing, dancing, drinking, the riding of penny farthings and various circus acts. The road from Sydney to the Pleasure Grounds was of such a poor condition that many visitors came to the Botany attraction by steamer – a round trip fare on the “Sir John Harvey” in the 1850s cost 10/-. An indication of the popularity of the grounds and hotel can be gauged by the fact that over 5,000 people attended on Boxing Day 1852 [‘Australia’s First Zoo’, The World’s News (Sydney), 15 March 1952].

Control of BPG went through many hands with new leasees and owners regularly being turned over. The zoo was introduced by leasee William Beaumont in the early 1850s. It was Australia’s first private zoo with a menagerie acquired from the original colonial zoo at Hyde Park that included Australia’s only elephant, Manila red deers, Indian goats, black Bengal sheep and Bengal tigers, both a Himalayan and a Californian grizzly bear, and an ape.

The Banks pleasure grounds and zoo were purchased in 1875 by Frank Smith, an entrepreneur and publican, and incorporated into the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel complex. A grand ballroom catering for up to 1,000 diners and a bathing house were also added to BPG [M Chaffey, ‘A review of Botany’ (Botany Library local history files) quoted in M Butler, ‘Botany’ (2011), The Dictionary of Sydney,; ‘Sir Joseph Banks Pleasure Gardens Botany Bay’,].

Sir Joseph Banks Athletics Track
Sir Joseph Banks Athletics Track

Sporting fields for cricket, football, archery and athletics were also appended to the Joseph Banks Gardens. Aboriginal runners from the Randwick/La Perouse area participated in foot races on the Botany track (quaintly known in the day as “pedestrian contests”). In the 1870s and 1880s BPG hosted Australia’s earliest professional footrace, the Botany Bay Gift, which attracted top international athletes and large crowds. 1888 was probably the high point of professional sprinting in Australia with £800 being offered in prize money at that year’s Bay Gift.

Wagering on the outcome of the Botany running contests was extensive and eventually the money involved led to some sharp practices occurring which affected the outcome of races. As a consequence, after several years the annual Gift was discontinued, though it was briefly resurrected in the late 20th Century. A well-known running club, the Botany Harriers (later the Randwick-Botany Harriers), had its beginning at the Sir Joseph Banks track [‘History of the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel’,].

Around 1908-1910, after yet another change in ownership, BPG became the Olympic Recreational and Picnic Grounds. In March 1908 the Joseph Banks Ground hosted the first-ever game of rugby league in Australia, a match between a South Sydney Probables team and a Possibles side which preceded the inaugural season of the Sydney Rugby League [‘Centenary of Rugby League’,].

Another suburban pleasure ground that greatly captured the imagination of Sydneysiders in its day was Fairyland Pleasure Grounds. It was situated on the Upper Lane Cove River in an area now incorporated into the Lane Cove National Park. From its inception as a pleasure ground in the early 1900s, up to when a main arterial road in North Ryde (Delhi Road) was linked with it, it was largely only accessible by boat to a wharf specially built by the operators of Fairyland (FPG).

The Swan family, owners of the bushland, initially cleared the area for market gardens but also constructed a timber siding on the river which they called “The Rest”. Robert Swan later turned the site into a pleasure ground for day-trippers to visit, adding a kiosk, a playground, a dance hall and picnic area. ‘Fairyland’ was chosen as the name for the pleasure ground apparently because it exuded the atmosphere of a magical and mysterious place, Swan enhanced this theme with fairy-like structures and motifs – quirky fairytale huts, a slippery-dip in the shape of a sleeping giant (thought to be modelled on the character ‘Bluto’ from the ‘Popeye’ comics), and cardboard representations of imaginary and supernatural creatures such as fairies and elves positioned high up in the trees [].

Swan acquired a good deal of equipment from the closure sale at White City Fun Park in Rushcutters Bay in 1917. Amongst the items Swan brought to FPG were strength-testing machines, coin-operated machines through which you could view silent movies, and entertainment rides such as the’Ocean Wave’ (a “razzle-dazzle”) and a fairly rudimentary ‘Flying Fox’. image

Just getting to Fairyland in the early days could be quite a prolonged process. Walter Baker, a schoolboy during WWI, recalled how it took one hour to get to FPG travelling by motor boat from nearby Gladesville! [reported in The Catholic Press (Sydney), 18 July 1918]. Many associations and organisations held their yearly outings at FPG. In 1963 Sydney radio station 2UW sponsored a “Rock ‘n Roll Spectacular” on the grounds. After WWII there was widespread availability of private cars allowing people to journey further afield, consequently Fairyland’s popularity declined [‘Heritage and History’ (FLCNP),]. It lingered on as a venue for leisure activities, but falling attendances aided and abetted by a series of floods and more modern leisure choices saw the pleasure grounds close in the early 1970s.

A similar pleasure ground to Fairyland was Palmer Pleasure Grounds, also on the northside at Castle Cove. Danish migrant HC Press started his entertainment venue in 1910 (which survived till 1964). Palmer (later Press) PG was replete with picnic area, pergolas, fernery, three dining pavilions, swings and slippery dips, swimming pool, wharf, and a 100-yard sprint track. Press charged for admission with crowds of up to 900 pleasure-seekers visiting daily [Gavin Souter, Time and Tides: A Middle Harbour Memoir, 2012]

Wonderland in 'Glamarama'
Wonderland in ‘Glamarama’
In Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Tamarama was the location of a popular if relatively short-lived pleasure ground, which was known under various names at different times, the Bondi Aquarium (though not situated in the suburb of Bondi), the Royal Aquarium, Wonderland City (this name resonates with the later sobriquet acquired by Tamarama, ‘Glamarama’). The Aquarium, opened in 1887, was the first coastal amusement park in Sydney. It comprised a collection of sea creatures including tiger and wobbegong sharks, seals and a solitary penguin. The distinguishing physical icon of Wonderland was the serpentine-like roller coaster (called the “Switchback Railway”) which weaved around the cliffs of Tamarama beach. The carnivalesque entertainments included a ‘camera obscura‘, ‘merry-go-rounds’ and vaudevillian acts. Later, a waxworks was added to the park.

In the early 1900s the Aquarium was purchased by theatrical entrepreneur William Anderson who revamped the complex (now renamed ‘Wonderland City’). Under Anderson, the ‘Airem Scarem’ (an airship tracked on a cable from cliff to cliff), an artificial lake and open-air ice skating rink, was added to the entertainment venue. A haunted house and maze further underlined Wonderland City’s position as a precursor to the later Luna Park at Milson’s Point. The opening night in 1906 lured an estimated 20,000 visitors (during summer-time on weekends 2,000 Sydneysiders regularly attended the Wonderland park).

Wonderland was dogged by controversies such as William Anderson’s attempts to block swimmers from the beach by erecting a barbed wire fence across the Tamarama site. After a tic-for-tac exchange between the disaffected local swimmers and management, the NSW Government eventually intervened in the conflict and re-established beach access. The bad press experienced by Wonderland over the blockade of the swimmers was followed by further adverse publicity – safety concerns over breakdowns on the Airem Scarem, complaints made about the treatment of the animals, local resident unhappiness about the disruptive nature of weekend revellers. By 1911, with attendances having declined for several years, Wonderland closed its doors. Anderson was said to have lost £15,000 on the venture [‘Wonderland City’,; J Spedding, ‘Wonderland City’ (2011) in Dictionary of Sydney,].

Clontarf Pleasure Grounds (Source: Manly Art Gallery & Museum)
Other pleasure grounds in Sydney in the 19th and 20th centuries didn’t have quite the colour or pulling power of Fairyland and Wonderland, but were significant providers of popular leisure pursuits in their own right. The Clontarf Pleasure Grounds (CPG) in Sydney’s north was founded in 1863 by hotelier Issac Moore (see FN: at bottom of the page for the link between pub-owners and pleasure grounds in Australia), who provided an off-liquor license at the grounds. Day-trippers would arrive by ferry to engage in games (quoits, skittles, cricket, etc), dancing, swimming and picnicking. The steamer Illalong ferried visitors from Circular Quay to Clontarf in the last quarter of the 19th century for the sum of 2/-. CPG was a particularly favourite venue for picnics and anniversaries like St Patrick’s Day, and for the celebrations of religious and trade union organisations (eg, Catholics Youngmen’s Societies, United Protestant Societies, Telegraph Construction Branch, Amalgamated Slaughtermen).

Attempted royal assassination @ Clontarf
The Clontarf Pleasure Grounds had another association in the 19th century, this one noted for its infamy. It was the site of an attempted assassination on the life of Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s son) in 1868 by a Irish supposed supporter of the Fenian movement. Issac Moore’s sons took over the family business from their father and continued the Clontarf Pleasure Grounds for over 35 years…at one stage the sons sued The Bulletin paper for labelling the Pleasure Grounds’ dance event an ‘orgy’ [;].

The southern suburbs of Oatley and Como had their own pleasure grounds. Harry Linmark started Oatley Pleasure Grounds in the early part of the 20th century (the park where it was located still retains this name). OPG was popular for fishing and swimming parties and for picnics. When it acquired by Hartlands, they introduced a miniature zoo and a noisy wine bar which earned the ire of local residents. In 1934 Kogarah Council acquired the pleasure grounds and closed down the bar []. The nearby Como Pleasure Grounds was created in 1895 to celebrate the extension of the southern rail link to the Shire. It boasted a ‘RazzleDazzle’ circular ride (similar to the one in operation at Fairyland on Lane Cove River) which drew the crowds to Como by train [].


Pleasure grounds in Sydney came into fashion in the 19th century, providing an outside outlet for people away from their everyday, often unexciting urban existences. The locations of pleasure grounds allowed workers to escape on the weekends by taking a nice train day trip or a ferry boat ride. The venues conveyed a romantic connotation for day-trippers, a kind of rustic paradise which promised carefree social and recreational activities. Some of the operations floundered financially and were closed down within a relatively short interval. Others that managed to achieve a measure of longevity, like Fairyland and the Botany Pleasure Grounds, eventually became simply “old hat”. Society had changed, there were new, slicker forms of entertainment that people preferred. The convenience and proximity of big amusement complexes in the city like Luna Park made them a more attractive option for workers’ leisure time, and as the pace of life quickened, the appeal of pleasure grounds as unhurried, bucolic ‘paradises’ receded.

PostScript: Pleasure Grounds in Melbourne – a lesser feast for the public
Interestingly in Melbourne at that time, pleasure grounds/ gardens for whatever reason didn’t catch on to anywhere near the same degree as in Sydney. Probably the only one that rose to any significant heights, albeit ephemerally, was Cremorne Gardens on the Yarra River at Richmond – which acquired the somewhat pretentious appellation “Cremorne Gardens-Upon-Yarra” (CGUY). Under its proprietor, theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin, CGUY had an amusement park aspect to it, with trapezes, balloon ascents, dances, theatres, a Cyclorama (a panoramic painting set against a concave wall), a bowling alley, a menagerie, firework displays, with a few extra features taking advantage of the Yarra, such as regattas and gondola rides. It also had a hotel on-site as with many of the Sydney pleasure grounds. Coppin’s gardens was inspired by the prototype Cremorne Gardens in London.

Cremorne Gardens-upon-Yarra, 1865
Though Coppin poured a lot of money into it, CGUY lasted only from 1853 to about 1863, unable to attract the patronage required to sustain it as a viable enterprise. The wowser element in Melbourne played its part in CGUY’s demise, many in the community objected to the presence of alcohol and the use of the Gardens by prostitutes to ply their trade. Dreamland, on St Kilda Beach, was even less successful than Cremorne, winding up after barely three years in 1909 (although the same site became a permanent entertainment fixture a few years later with the advent of Luna Park) [R Peterson, A Place of Sensuous Resort, (Online edition),]. Some people at the time concluded that the Melbourne weather (more inclement than Sydney’s) was not conducive to outdoor amusements [‘# 1933. Cremorne Gardens Plan’ (Picture Victoria),].

FN: An intriguing if not exactly surprising footnote to the pleasure grounds in Australia were the large number of proprietors of the operations who were also publicans!