On a blustery May afternoon at the Gabba in 1909, before “a goodly number of enthusiasts” and the Brisbane Concert Band, the Queensland Amateur Rugby League (later the Brisbane Rugby League) unveiled before the good burghers of Brisbane.
North Brisbane and their star recruits, William Evans and Phil Dwyer saw off Toombul in the opener, while Valleys gave little hint of dynasties to come when they lost to South Brisbane’s “capital display” in the feature.
That first season was brief, involved just the four clubs and was won by Valleys, who stormed home with six straight wins to take the cup. But mostly it was unremarkable until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
On the Monday after the premiership final between Valleys and South Brisbane, reports were published about an unsavoury incident. By all accounts, sections of Souths supporters were incensed by the referee, Mr Fihelly, loudly suggesting, among other things, that he was Valleys’ fourteenth man.
After the game, a mob gathered outside the sheds and demanded admission to make their feelings about the referee and an unnamed league administrator more directly known. It’s at this point that accounts begin to differ.
The generally staid Telegraph reported that the crowd dispersed after some “idle protest”, and this version of events was corroborated by a letter to the editor of the Brisbane Courier (now the Courier Mail).
The Courier itself reported Mr Fihelly narrowly escaped the mob, that a Valleys official was assaulted and forced to fight off assailants with “a heavy stick”, that “about fifty youths” attempted to storm the sheds, and that “unruly” spectators “avowed their intention to wait all night if necessary for the umpire”.
Dramatic stuff indeed, but only the Courier saw it this way. The organ in question was quite hostile toward ‘the league game’ at first, perhaps even attempting to run something of a protection racket.
On the same day as the rugby league final, the reserve grade rugby union grand final between Valleys and Waratahs also ended in unsavoury fashion when a mob stormed the field and attempted to assault the referee, the aptly named Mr Laws, with the official only saved from harm by some of the Valleys’ number who escorted him to safety.
The Courier and the Telegraph again differed, with the Telegraph describing it as a “disgraceful scene” and the Courier claiming it devolved into mere “fights between supporters” which quickly dispersed. Whatever really happened, it’s a useful example. Rugby league had to work hard to win Brisbane in its early years, and it did.
It was into these early years that I recently wandered while researching something else. Alongside stories of war, pandemic, financial catastrophe, Bolshevism, and long-distance golf, I found some other colourful rugby league tales.
Not long after the great unveiling of 1909, a problem emerged. There were now four football codes in the city and not many decent grounds to go around. Football usually copped the pointy end of the pineapple, but the upstart league game wasn’t immune, and it led a peripatetic existence in 1910.
Round five in June was billed as a “gala” at the North Ipswich Reserve, with the Ipswich Times crowing “that the cream of the metropolitan fixtures should be played in Ipswich on the one afternoon speaks well for the success and popularity of the new league game in this city”.
So, there you have it, Ipswich invented magic round. The truth might be more mundane, though. There might’ve been nowhere else to go.
The BRL wandered all around Brisbane in its early years. While they eventually settled on Lang Park in the 1950s, rugby league HQ could easily have been Davies Park, or even Memorial Park at Toowong, though the thought of gameday traffic in West End is horrendous and it’s hard to imagine the rather grand Regatta Hotel as rugby league’s watering hole of choice.
I’ve a theory that when they had a choice, Valleys chose to play at Bulimba – still a slightly awkward place to get to – rather than New Farm, just to annoy their opponents.
Whatever, I doubt anybody wanted to play at Melrose’s Paddock on the weekend before the magic gala round at Ipswich. The paddock, now Melrose Park, a sleepy patch of grass surrounding a synthetic cricket pitch near Eagle Junction station, was in 1910 a holding pasture for the Melrose family’s livestock.
Goodness knows what the players landed in when Toombul skidded to a 13-5 win over Norths in the decidedly unmagical round four.
QRL Secretary Harry Sunderland was many things: a tireless raconteur, a talented writer, a dreamer and possibly rugby league’s truest believer. While a few of his grander schemes never came to pass, and while nobody ever accused him of having strong organisational skills, rugby league would be different today had he never dreamed and administered.
His entrepreneurial spirit is everywhere through the early history, not least in the often elaborate pre-match festivities at BRL games.
A concert band was mandatory, and festivities sometimes included athletics and cycling races, coursing, boxing, gymnastics, goal-kicking competitions, scratch races between the speediest footballers, all manner of games for kids and, during the war, patriotic displays from the troops.
The league was also careful that its schedule not clash with the big race days, with some games kicking off as early at 10:30am to allow the punters to take in the league game before hopping on a tram to Ascot.
But when Sunderland proposed bringing together rugby league and racing, specifically trots at the Gabba before the BRL opener in 1916, it was too much for some. Upon hearing of the plan, the Mayor of South Brisbane, Alderman J. Hilton, put an immediate stop to it on the grounds that trots attracted a “bad element”.
Be that as it may, there were apparently no official objections when the game between Coorparoo and Merthyr at the same venue in July 1918 was preceded by a goat race, with the winner a goat named ‘Troublesome’.
The only inference it’s possible to draw from this is that goat racing attracts a good element, and perhaps the NRL should take note. While the Tina Turner tribute act and 1990s nostalgia at the recent grand final was great, we’ll need something new next year. Why not goat racing? After all, it attracts a good element.
In April 1928, a quite remarkable game was held at the Exhibition ground. The score was Brisbane 33 vs Palm Island 22.
Let that sink in for a moment. This was most of Brisbane’s best footballers up against the best of a small, impoverished island just north of Townsville. The Palm Islanders were beaten, but not by much.
More than that, the game was evidently something to behold. Sunderland gushed in his report for the Courier, remarking that “as an entertainment and a spectacle no more enjoyable event has ever been staged under the code… and when the game finished two of [the Palm Island] number, the full-back Smith and the winger Bowen, were carried shoulder high by some of the crowd”.
According to Sunderland, Bowen had given Tom Miles, then the world sprint champion, a run for his money during a race meeting at Rockhampton earlier in the year. Clearly, he was a remarkable athlete.
But there’s something else that stands out about this game which, perhaps understandably, wasn’t talked about at the time. In 1928, Queensland’s infamous and draconian Aboriginal ‘protection’ laws were still very much in force.
For the common Palm Islander, travelling to nearby Townsville for work or personal affairs would’ve been, at best, a chore, and several conditions would’ve applied to their passage. In theory, an entire rugby league team travelling to Brisbane for a high-profile match could’ve been an immense bureaucratic exercise.
It probably wasn’t, though. The black-letter discrimination inherent in these laws was appalling, but the really insidious part was the banality; the wall of bureaucracy that could be taken up and down at the stroke of the police commissioner’s pen.
For example, the Cherbourg and Woorabinda league teams played a game at the Gabba in July 1933, while around the same time the great cricketer Eddie Gilbert was often prevented from leaving Cherbourg to play for Queensland.
On a trivial note, Gilbert is Selwyn Cobbo’s great-great-grandfather, and there was an A. Cobbo who played in Cherbourg’s 37-26 win at the Gabba in ’33.
By the early 1930s, the BRL was reaching maturity, but it’d been a rocky road. Strictly speaking, none of the 1909 foundation clubs survived long in their original form. Valleys are still sort of with us, though they went through an early metamorphosis involving a merger with Toombul and a strange season when they competed as Railways, before emerging again as Valleys.
The original Norths merged with Toowong and became part of Wests from 1915, oddly enough. The scene on the south side of the river was like something out of the Life of Brian, with the South Brisbane People’s Front, the People’s Front of South Brisbane and various others all intent on storming the citadel at Fortitude Valley, if only they could hang around long enough.
From 1909 to 1921, the composition of the league changed every year, with a series of clubs coming, going, merging, splintering and even storming off in protest. While the league never exceeded 10 teams in a season, 31 mostly discrete entities competed between 1909 and ’33. It was chaos.
While some came and went leaving little legacy, most were at least distantly related to the group of clubs who became staples of the BRL.
|Clusters||Lineage and Strands||Details|
|Valleys absorbed Toombul and Bulimba. There’s a strong suggestion the original Railways of 1913 were actually Valley-Toombul in disguise – they certainly had a few of their players. Railways emerged again, though, probably as a graduate of the ‘junior’ circuit.|
|This isn’t too complicated. There was an Easts team in 1910. It then competed in a couple of different guises before districting in 1933. The ’33 team absorbed a reluctant Wynnum, before Wynnum diverged again in ’51.|
|This is very complicated. The original Souths and South United were both breakways from rugby union. But present-day Souths are more closely related to the second generation offshoots, principally Carlton.|
Merthyr has a faint strand here because they partly dissolved into Carlton. The other four are more direct ancestors. Kurilpa was a state electorate and the short-lived team were probably part of an early attempt at districting before West End succeeded them in 1913, and Wattles succeeded West End in 1916. Carlton sort of became Souths in 1933.
|Wests began as a merger of Toowong and foundation Norths, with Valleys ruling much of the northside. Westerns were based at Paddington and seem to have dissolved into Wests.|
|There was a strand of Valleys from their early imperial phase that eventually became part of present-day Norths, along with Grammars.|
Ipswich West End
|Ipswich (1910) and Ipswich A were the same thing. Ipswich B was essentially the district reserve team, including a number of Starlights players, with Starlights later competing in their own right. Ipswich West End are still going around in the local league as the ‘Bulldogs’.|
Brothers Old Boys
|Merthyr were refugees from rugby union during WW1, before taking on their true identity (Christian Brothers/Old boys) and partly dissolving into Carlton. Old Boys splintered in the late 1920s with union undead, league split, and some old boys, including Tom Gorman, intent on forming their own club.|
|The earliest version of Wynnum (1914) was an electoral district team. Present-day Wynnum-Manly are more closely related to the incarnation of the ’30s which came from the district rugby union club, via Easts.|
|Natives were Premiers in 1912, then abruptly quit the following year in a blaze of referee-blaming. Unsurprisingly, they were from Red Hill. There were some loose links to Norths and Toombul, but no lineage. They were definitely not a forerunner to extant Brisbane Natives.|
The amateur club went back to union shortly after districting in 1933.
The principal reason for the chaos was that the early BRL did not, like the NSWRL, have a comprehensive system of districting, though attempts were made before a system evolved from a loose form of common law to statute in 1933.
One of the earliest attempts was a proposal that the catchments of rugby league clubs in Brisbane should align with state electoral boundaries. Yes, really.
The original version of Wynnum in 1914 was an electoral district team. It’s highly likely the short-lived Kurilpa team were based on the electoral district which existed until the mid-1980s. Woolloongabba (still an electorate) emerged at the same time as Kurilpa, while Toowong (a former electorate) and Bulimba (still an electorate) were introduced either side of Wynnum.
Thankfully, this idea didn’t take hold. In a city and state that became increasingly besotted with rugby league and synonymous with pork-barrelling and gerrymandering, having rugby league teams based on electoral districts could’ve added an extra dimension to Parliament and general elections, and probably not a good one.
The mind does boggle. Would curbing the dominance of Valleys under the guise of legislation ostensibly about proportional representation have been out of the question? Could the idea have spread to other cities and regions?
The history of Queensland could conceivably have been different if rugby league was organised differently.
While there were clearly some problems, the BRL became beloved despite its shortcomings – or perhaps because of them. It contains stories of remarkable and unlikely triumph, despair and futility, a selective goal-kicker, some truly appalling attitudes toward referees, chaos, and hope.
The Brisbane Tigers (formerly Easts) are currently Queensland Cup champions, though things weren’t always rosy. Between 1939 and ’45, Easts were truly awful, winning just six league games over that seven-year span. Their annus horribilis in 1940 saw them lose every game by an average score of 51-7. Every club lost lots of players to the war and struggled. Easts very nearly folded.
Then, suddenly, things changed. Easts were minor premiers in 1946 and champions in ’47. There’s hope for everybody, maybe even Wests Tigers and Dragons supporters.
I’ll give the final word to a delightfully enthusiastic reporter from the Telegraph who in May 1913 remarked that “nothing but the best is provided for the paying public, such as the distribution of neatly got-up programmes, which are handed out at the turnstile, and enable the players to be easily distinguished… the provision of a scoring board on which the results are posted… the matches on Saturday were expected to produce some brilliant games – and they did”.