The late 19th century was far more productive as far as competitive Aussie Rules matches were concerned than many of us know. It’s true that the VFA in Melbourne and Geelong was well and truly established, just a few years before the all-conquering VFL was inaugurated in 1897.
But did many of us know that footy was being played in NSW country towns such as Goulburn and Bowral in the early 1890s?
I didn’t although had a vague concept of Sydney footy’s background passed on by renowned NSW Australian Rules historian and writer Rodney ‘Rocket’ Gillett. Perhaps my knowledge should have run deeper. After all, I’d played for Sydney University in the NSW metro competition for two full seasons in 1962 and 1963.
Now Dr Rocket and his team’s research has revealed two important 1892 matches played in NSW’s Southern Highlands at Bowral and also at Goulburn. A Bowral-based schoolteacher, a Mr Charles Church, organised a match between his old club East Sydney and a representative Bowral side. Mr Church was no donkey. Not only had he played for East Sydney in the late 1880s he’d also represented NSW against Queensland and had served on the East Sydney footy club’s committee.
The match, originally scheduled for mid-August, fell through. Mr Church wasn’t daunted. He carried on with his preparations and eventually the match was listed for Saturday, 10 September, at the Bowral Athletic Grounds.
Unfortunately the oval wasn’t in great nick. Overnight and morning rain, plus an early morning Saturday soccer fixture, had turned the ground into a pretty poor state.
Nonetheless the Bowral Free Press reported “a large crowd gathered to witness the game” and saw East flying away to an early lead.
It was four goals to one in East Sydney’s favour at half-time, and as I’ve pointed out in earlier articles about 19th century footy only goals were counted and the games were almost always contested over two halves.
“The second half saw the locals equalise their opponents’ score and but for full-time being called Bowral might have overtaken them,” the Free Press noted.
One interesting sidelight which came out from this clash was the Bowral team “was made up entirely of former Melbourne players,” the match report stated. Captain of the East Sydney team, Harry Hedger, encouraged the Bowral players to continue to play the following season.
Unfortunately not much was heard about Australian football in Bowral until many seasons later.
Meanwhile 1892 was notable for another regional NSW match, this time between the newly-formed Goulburn Imperials and the Sydney Football Club. The Referee newspaper report stated that it was to be the “first match ever played in Goulburn under the Australian rules, the district hitherto being a very big stronghold of Rugby.
“But after this match was played a very large number (of people) have decided to play the Australian game in the future which speaks well for the career of the local club,” the Referee stated.
About 1,000 spectators turned out to the Olympic Ground located between the Goulburn Paceway and Garoorigang and the Referee’s man-at-the-game noted that among the crowd “there was a very big gathering of the fair sex.”
Although the report doesn’t specify why, the match was played in quarters. “The Sydneys, captained by Joe Arnold, scored four goals to one in the first quarter.
“The Goulburn team, captained by W. Sandford, played splendidly after that especially in the third quarter when the Sydney players seemed disorganised.
“However in the last quarter Sydney played more together and scored a couple of goals,” the Referee’s match reporter wrote.
Considering it was their first game together Goulburn was adjudged to “have played splendidly”. Their major goalkicker was George Crisp who nailed three. He’s been recognised as one of the Aussie Rules foundation members in Sydney and was still playing with the Sydney club in 1892. It seems he played with Goulburn Imperials that day to help out.
Final scores: Sydney 8 goals 20 behinds defeated Goulburn 6 goals 8 behinds.
Sydney’s major goalkickers were Noonan (3) and Sullivan (2).
A Mr Murray umpired the match and he joined the players in the evening at “a splendid banquet in the Oddfellows Hall, chaired by Mr Siegel,” the Referee scribe noted.
“After justice had been done to the excellent spread, various toasts were gone through with musical honours, while six Goulburns gave assistance with songs and recitations.
“The Sydneys returned to town on the Monday morning with everyone thoroughly pleased with his outing to the country.”
FOOTNOTE: A few games were played in Goulburn over the following few years, but interest petered out until a Goulburn club was formally established in June, 1905.