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Savage streets: What happened to the Glebe Dirty Reds?

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Roar Guru
31st March, 2022
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On 9 January 1908, a meeting was held at Glebe Town Hall. As the delegates disbanded, the minutes recorded their agreement to form the Glebe District Rugby League Club, the first of its kind in Sydney.

There are supporters of Newtown who’ll claim their club was formed the previous day, but even Terry Williams who wrote Newtown’s official history has cast doubt on this claim.

It matters little. Seven of the nine foundation clubs were formed in the early weeks of 1908. They were responses to increasing disaffection among rugby union players about the lack of compensation for injuries suffered and wages lost while playing union, and the proselytising of league’s founding fathers, JJ Giltinan and Henry Hoyle.

Glebe just got their incorporation papers in quickest.

The seven clubs were all clustered within a small area in Sydney’s inner-city and were founded during a period of profound socio-economic change.

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Sydney’s relentless outward sprawl had begun, industry and working-class families were moving in, while the middle classes were moving out, enabled by improved transport links.

The crowded inner-city streets saw plenty of poverty, disease and industrial strife in the early 20th century. The Labor party was on the rise and Glebe and their neighbours became beloved cultural institutions for the proletariat. But those streets were a battleground. Larrikins ran amok and not all the beloved survived.

Glebe’s working-class credentials were unimpeachable. Their nickname, Dirty Reds, derives from the blood that spilled from the Glebe Island abattoir. The club’s decline in the late 1920s coincided with a bitter industrial dispute involving timber workers around Blackwattle and Rozelle Bays.

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From humble roots, the Dirty Reds would produce four Hall of Famers, including the immortal Frank Burge, in their 22 years of top-flight rugby league.

They won 55 per cent of their matches, had a positive points differential, won the 1911 minor premiership and the 1913 City Cup. By these measures, they’re the seventh most successful club in Australian rugby league history.

Then, in November 1929, after a few lean seasons, Glebe was excluded from the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL), never to return.

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The Dirty Reds live on through the Glebe-Burwood Wolves of the Ron Massey Cup. Like Newtown and Norths, they trade on nostalgia for a long-lost rugby league. Glebe and Newtown have even played a pre-season game or two at Wentworth Park in recent years.

So, what happened to the Dirty Reds? In 2014, Sydney lawyer and academic Max Solling wrote An Act of Bastardry: Rugby League Axes its First Club, an early history of Glebe, both club and district, including an account of the Dirty Reds’ exclusion.

As the book’s title suggests, it’s not exactly a dispassionate account and should be taken with a small grain of salt. While the author jumps to a few conclusions, I can’t fault the depth of his research. It is, by far, the most detailed account I’ve read of the circumstances leading to Glebe’s demise.

For almost half a century, Sydney’s rugby league clubs were limited by the city’s internal geography. They could recruit from Queensland and New Zealand but not from the districts of their neighbours.

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District boundaries were almost as contested and controversial as congressional boundaries in the USA. Clubs jealously guarded them and looked on enviously at the fruits of neighbouring districts.

Glebe fell afoul of the residency rule in 1917 when their prized recruit from Newcastle, Dan ‘Laddo’ Davies, was found to be residing at Annandale. This was part of a series of disputes between Glebe and the league which led to Frank Burge and other senior players going on strike in late 1917 claiming unfair treatment.

Solling argues that lingering resentment between Glebe and the league was a factor in their exclusion. It’s possible – league folk have been known to hold a grudge – but Burge and his fellow strikers were suspended for their actions at the time and Solling doesn’t demonstrate a link between the events of 1917 and ’29.

He does demonstrate that contested boundaries in the late 1920s, declining on-field results and some questionable diligence and decision-making by officials from Glebe and other clubs were the proximate causes of Glebe’s demise.

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It took a plot of diabolical cunning, skillfully executed by Balmain Secretary Bob Savage, for the proximate causes to coalesce and seal Glebe’s fate. While Souths had their fingerprints on the plot as well, credit where it’s due, Glebe were Savaged.

District boundaries were, as ever, hot topics in the early and mid-1920s. Despite tensions between the club and the league, Glebe did well out of redistribution in 1920. Norths did very poorly, perhaps an underrated factor in the decline that followed their two premierships in the early ‘20s.

But when the need for redistribution came up again in the late ‘20s, it was accompanied by another narrative: the declining standard of rugby league after the post-war boom.

Whether the narrative was started by the press, powerful clubs seeking the elimination of rivals, or both, it was pervasive.

Enter the work of the NSWRL’s Boundaries Revision Committee between 1927 and late ’29. The backroom machinations of Phillip Street, even when masterfully manipulated by a NSW Labor Party numbers man, Bob Savage, make for dry reading. Here are the edited highlights.

Balmain and Glebe both had something the other wanted: territory. Balmain had more of it and were more successful, having recently completed a run of six premierships in 10 seasons. They also had a powerful ally in Souths, who shared Balmain’s interest in preventing a more equitable distribution of territory.

When, in December 1927, Glebe’s committee delegates proposed the boundaries be reviewed afresh with a view to a more equitable distribution, the Savage gambit commenced.

Savage agreed to the review on the condition that it also consider whether district boundaries were contributing to the allegedly declining standard of play, and whether the standard could be improved by the exclusion of one club at the end of 1928. William Bruce of Souths supported Savage’s motion and it passed easily.

There didn’t appear to be any debate at the committee about the merits of a broader review or the criteria upon which an exclusion might be decided. Glebe’s delegates couldn’t possibly have missed the significance of the Savage motion – a potential merger between Glebe and Balmain had previously been discussed in the popular press – but any objections were muted at best.

It was the beginning of the end. As you’ll note, no club was excluded at the end of 1928. The work of the Boundaries Review Committee dragged on, meetings were deferred and it wasn’t until November 1929 that the NSWRL General Committee considered their report.

In the interim, Savage executed the killer move. In September 1929, he gained the General Committee’s agreement to change the voting rules for boundary changes. Rather than a three-fifths majority, changes would only require a bare majority, or 13 of the 25 delegates.

Two months later, the General Committee voted, you guessed it, 13-12 to exclude the Dirty Reds.

Was it a pre-determined outcome? Multiple newspapers gleaned the likely outcome once Savage succeeded in changing the voting rules. Balmain stood to gain the most from the exclusion of its nearest neighbour. Bob Savage was the prime mover. It seems likely.

Regardless, it’s inconceivable that Glebe would still be around today. The Sydney market crunch was already in progress and Glebe would’ve perished eventually, like Annandale before them and Newtown subsequently.

But rugby league is full of alternative histories. If one committee vote had flipped and Glebe survived, would Canterbury be with us today. Would Newtown have been next in the firing line?

Somebody was going to be Savaged.

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