Rugby’s Original Rabbitohs

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens; Oct 26, 2012

The NRL’s South Sydney club rightly takes great pride in their heritage and traditions, the cardinal and myrtle colours, the “rabbitohs” nickname.

Rabbitohs

What few know is that the club name, colours and mascot were all originated by their predecessor, the South Sydney District Rugby Union Club, and that Redfern has been at the centre of top football in Sydney since the 1870s.

THE LEGEND OF THE RABBITOHS

Cartoon from 1916.
Cartoon from 1916 of a Souths player hawking rabbits.

The far coastal reaches of the South Sydney district were often commented upon in newspapers in the very early 1900s as a home to a great a number of rabbits, particularly in the sand hills and flat lands around Botany.

Men and boys short of money would visit the area to dig out burrows, trap and kill rabbits (selling or keeping live ones was illegal), then on foot or in street-carts hawk the rabbit meat and pelts through the residential areas of Redfern, Surry Hills and other working-class Sydney suburbs, crying out “Rabbit-oh!” in the manner of the milkman’s reveille of “Milk-oh!”, or the “Bottle-oh!” man who collected empty bottles

Samuel George Ball, a player and club secretary with the Waterloo Albions in 1900, was involved in the 1907-08 founding of the Souths rugby league club, and was still club secretary in 1965 when interviewed by Jack Pollard in Gregory’s Guide to Rugby League

“Fifty to 60 years ago when wages were £2 a week, rabbits were the staple diet around Sydney…Some of the players of the old South Sydney Rugby Union Club used to sell rabbits, and it was said they wore the same jerseys when they were selling the rabbits as they did when they were playing for the club. So the wags in the club got in the way of calling, ‘Come on the Rabbitoes’…” 

The Sydney Morning Herald [1906] suggested:

“An expert ‘rabbit-oh’ man could kill, skin, and clean a pair of rabbits in three to five minutes.”

REDFERN FC (c.1878-1886)

Sydney’s Rugby clubs in the 1870s-80s were mostly comprised of just one team, formed under what they called at the time a “cosmopolitan” basis – anyone could join any club, provided that club’s committee would accept them. Some had a local basis, many didn’t, especially the more powerful clubs who had ways and means to ‘tout’ for the city’s best footballers.

In June 1874 “A meeting was held at Darlington … to consider the advisability of forming a football club at South Sydney. There was a good attendance present, and it was decided that a club be formed, to be called the Victoria Football Club.” The latter club very soon afterwards became a founding member of the NSWRU. By 1878 (possibly earlier) a ‘Redfern Football Club’ was in existence, but doesn’t appear to have been among the Rugby clubs to have used the local Albert Ground (to the east of where Redfern Oval now is).

By the early 1880s ‘the Redferns’ had advanced into becoming one of Sydney’s most prominent clubs, and thus played most of their games on the Rugby fields at Moore Park (adjacent to the SCG). The club also now had enough members for a “2nd XV” team, held its annual club meetings at the Redfern Town Hall, and its club president was Edmund Barton (in 1901 Australia’s first Prime Minister).

In August 1880 the Redfern club crossed codes, providing an XI for a soccer game against the newly formed Wanderers FC. A month earlier the club’s secretary reacted to published claims the Redferns were behind a push to introduce Victorian rules to Sydney, declaring “that his club was heart and soul for Rugby.”

Redfern FC's George 'Jumbo' Walker, played for NSW vs Queensland in 1882.
Redfern FC’s George ‘Jumbo’ Walker, played for NSW vs QLD 1882.

In 1882 Redfern’s Herbert Clements and George Walker were selected for NSW in the inaugural series against Queensland, and only prior commitments stopped club captain A.P. Phillips from making it three. The Australian Town and Country Journal declared that “Phillips and Walker, of the Redferns, are fit to take part against a world  fifteen”. Walker was also a member of the NSW squad that toured New Zealand later that year.

Redfern were adjudged in October 1883 by the NSWRU committee as “the premier club of the past season” ahead of Wallaroo, Sydney University, Balmain, Burwood and Parramatta.

Their playing colours over the club’s lifetime are unknown, however they were mentioned in match reports as “blues” and “navy blues” in 1885, and “dark blues” in 1886.

The Globe reported early in 1886 that most of the players entering as members of the Imperial FC for the coming season were formerly of the Redfern club. During the season the football columnist of the Australian Town and Country Journal wrote that “the Redfern Club in my opinion not being the club it used to be” and at times it failed to have enough players on hand to make up its engagements. Unsurprisingly, the Redfern club did not return for 1887.

Another factor in the demise of the Redferns is likely to have been the rise in the mid 1880s of the Rosedale club. Founded in 1884, it held most of its formal club meetings in Redfern, including at the Town Hall, and in 1888 secured approval from the local Council to use Redfern Park for training and some matches. A senior club 1886-92, one of its most prominent players was fullback James McMahon, who gained representative honours with NSW (24 matches), including against the 1888 British Lions. He went on to be the manager of the Wallabies on their 1908/09 tour of the UK and North America.

SOUTH SYDNEY FC (1892-1899)

In 1892 two teams based around Moore Park, the Fernleigh and Richmond clubs, held a meeting and decided to merge into a single club – initially called the Richmond club, in 1896 they changed their name to the ‘South Sydney Football Club’.

South Sydney FC - the 1898 team (blue & white hoops). Jack Flanagan (back row, first from left) / T. Quirk (back row, fourth from left).
South Sydney FC’s 1898 team (blue & white hoops). Jack Flanagan (back row, first from left) / T. Quirk (back row, fourth from left).

The leading officials of the South Sydney club were players, Jack Flanagan (honorary secretary) and T. Quirk (hon. treasurer). By 1898 Souths had risen through the grades into the ‘First Juniors’ (one level below the Seniors aka First Grade).

After finishing runners-up to Marrickville that season, both clubs were to be automatically elevated to the Seniors. However, having seen in past seasons new clubs enter the Seniors and then soon disband due to a lack of competitiveness against the much more powerful established teams, the Souths members preferred the club stay in First Juniors for 1899. The MRU banned South Sydney from playing unless it was in the Seniors, but relented upon an appeal.

So strong was the code in the district that the Second Juniors competition in 1899 included “South Sydney Seconds” and “South Sydney Juniors” teams.

Souths beat Newtown to reach the 1899 First Juniors final against Glebe; after the premiership decider ended in a draw, South Sydney lost the replay 14-3.

SOUTH SYDNEY DISTRICT RUGBY UNION CLUB (est. 1900)

Seeing merit in moving to a district scheme for Sydney’s club Rugby, as early as 1894 the push began to do away with all the current clubs (apart from Sydney University), and divide the metropolitan area into clubs based on electoral boundaries. The 1894 proposal was for clubs at “Paddington (i.e. eastern suburbs), St. Leonards, East Sydney, South Sydney, Glebe, West Sydney, Newtown, Balmain, Central Cumberland, Redfern, and Canterbury, upon a residential basis, with the exception of the University.”

Understandably, there was great resistance to any vote in favour of disbanding clubs, many of which had been in existence since the early 1870s. It wasn’t until the first months of 1900 that the change was made, and the new district scheme clubs under the MRU would be Balmain, North Sydney, Glebe, Newtown, Western Suburbs, Eastern Suburbs, South Sydney, along with the University.

Souths 1900With Flanagan and Quirk taking a leading role, along with Alfred Dent of the South Sydney Cricket Club, “a large and enthusiastic meeting was held in the Redfern Town Hall last night for the purpose of forming a football club to represent the surrounding districts…” and it was resolved “That a district club be now formed, and that it be named the South Sydnev Football Club.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 1900).

The MRU allocated to South Sydney “The whole of the electorates of Redfern, Darlington, Waterloo, Newtown-Erskine, Botany, Flinders, Belmore, and Cook.” Only footballers residing within those electorates were allowed to play for the South Sydney club. Both Souths and Newtown clubs were puzzled why Newtown-Erskine was not allocated to the latter club, and though the matter was raised with the MRU, they refused to change the boundaries.

Souths adopted cardinal red and myrtle green for their jersey colours, though no record has yet been found of why. It may simply be a pictorial extrapolation of “Red-fern”, the club’s primary suburb (newspapers in early 1900 initially reported the MRU opting for Redfern as the club’s name). More likely is the colours were adopted from the waratah flower and leaves. In 1909 the club presented Flanagan with an “illuminated address … in the club colours of red and green with the waratah in full bloom” (The Arrow, 30 October 1909).

The first meeting of intending players and supporters was held on the evening of April 18 at the Waterworks Hotel (then known as Hammond’s Hotel) in Bay Street, Botany. Just over a week later Souths held a match amongst their prospective players at the St. Joseph Banks Pleasure Grounds in Botany. The club’s first full trial game was a 17-12 victory over Western Suburbs at the Sydney Showground on 5 May 1900. Redfern Oval was considered to be too small and lacking facilities to be used for first grade (the eastern embankment and western stand were not added until after WW2).

THE RISE OF THE RABBITOHS (seasons 1900-1906) 

South Sydney tie up the University 'professors' (blue & gold).
South Sydney tie up the University ‘professors’ (blue & gold).

“South Sydney came out with flying colours from their engagement with the University,” wrote The Referee of the club’s first official match, an 11-6 win. “Both teams were heartily cheered at the finish by the spectators, the majority of whom were South Sydney residents.”

It was a big scalp for Souths to open with. University went on to challenge for the premiership title, while the “red-and-green men” finished the season in 4th, ahead of fellow new-comers Easts, Balmain and Newtown. 

Souths improved through 1901, and entered the final round game against University (who were in 1st place) with an outside chance of reaching the final. Despite the support of a very big SCG crowd, the Rabbitohs inexperience told, falling 22-0. The team’s young front rower, Arthur Hennessy, was Souths’ sole inclusion in the NSW (Waratahs) team that toured New Zealand. In 1900 Arch Chisholm had become the club’s first state rep, when he won a place against Queensland.

The prospect of a good season in 1902 was dashed when the club lost a host of prominent players through them changing address and joining other clubs. The season included a surprise victory over the powerful Glebe club, but closed with Souths one place above Balmain at the bottom of the table, and both remained there in 1903. 

South Sydney first grade team in 1902.
South Sydney first grade team and club officials in 1902. Arthur Hennessy (vice-captain, holding football); Arch Chisholm (back row, 2nd from right); Jack Flanagan (back row, first on right).

The winter of 1904 saw the Rabbitohs, now with a much stronger pack, challenging the top clubs again. Souths were an outside hope of winning the premiership in the final round, and their chances improved when lowly Balmain didn’t bother to front up to play them, but the 1st placed University held on in its game, and took the 1904 title.

The Rabbitohs side of 1905 included new talent that would become big names in both rugby codes, including Hennessy, ‘Son’ Fry, Billy Cann, Arthur McCabe, Billy Spence, John Rosewell and Peter Burge. Souths finished 1905 as premiers, one point ahead of Glebe. The Referee writing:

“This club has well earned the laurels, for, without possessing any great star among its players, it has gone through the season with only two defeats…Without the shadow of a doubt, they have been the most consistently successful tackling team in the competition. When one considers the struggle the club had to secure a few good wins in 1902 and 1903, the present position is one that reflects very high credit on the members of the team. They are a light lot of players, who have frequently succeeded against much weightier opponents by working together on a system, as opposed to individuality…no other team has allied with bright football a similar degree of soundness in play, and similar consistency match after match.”

The second game of 1906 saw Souths meet an Easts side full to the brim with newly promoted local players of immense talent, including Dally Messenger and Albert Rosenfeld. The new Sydney Sports Ground had its gates pushed open by the massive crowd, estimated to be over 25,000, that had come to see the contest. It arguably remains today the greatest attendance ever at any Sydney (now Shute Shield) club game. The match didn’t disappoint, though Messenger’s kicking left Souths behind 6-3 at the end. A last round victory over the new St George district club (Sydney and Manly clubs had also been added) wasn’t enough to get Souths into the Top 4 finals, ending a disappointing season.

One highlight in 1906 was a SCG game against the Auckland city club that had come across for a four-match tour – a club outfit boasting many of the famous 1905 All Blacks that lost just one game in Britain (a controversial defeat by Wales). Both Souths and Auckland were reigning premiers, and unsurprisingly produced a hard battle – the Rabbitohs, who now included Alby Burge, pushed them all the way, losing 8-6.

THE COMING OF THE LEAGUE (seasons 1907-1910)

Souths returned to the play-offs in 1907, finishing in 4th place, but under a convoluted seeding system, could not appear in the premiership final no matter which way results turned out. By that time the NSWRL had been founded, and as a result a number of senior players, including Arthur Hennessy, had been banned by the NSWRU.

The club’s annual meeting in March 1908, held at a packed St. David’s Hall in Arthur Street, Surry Hills, was no less enthusiastic than in other seasons. Things got a little heated when Hennessy suddenly appeared in the audience, challenging club official James McMahon to withdraw remarks he had made in the press about why Hennessy had swapped codes. McMahon responded by saying he was only repeating what Hennessy himself had said. Other officials and players staying loyal to the amateur club made passionate speeches, rallying support.

Frank Burge - made debut for Souths as a 14 y.o. in 1909, played with the club until end of 1910.
Frank Burge – made debut for Souths as a 14 y.o. in 1909, played with the club until end of 1910.

The meeting’s chairman, Mr. Cole “referred to the loss of some of the finest players in the club. But if they thought they could do better with the opposition body, they were at liberty to do what they liked. Still, he thought they had made a mistake.” W. J. Burleigh, a long-time member of the team “in commenting on the loss of players, pointed out that when South Sydney won the premiership in 1905 the team included only one player who had figured in senior football before. He also referred in the highest terms to the work of the hon. secretary; Mr. J. Flanagan.”

Flanagan was interviewed by the Evening News:

“Flanagan…is bubbling over with enthusiasm as to prospective triumphs by his club. To what extent has the League movement affected South Sydney? ‘We have lost to the League three of our best players in Hennessy, Cann, and Fry’ he said. ‘The two latter can be replaced, but Hennessy’s loss is a very severe one, for the reason that as centre forward [hooker] in the front rank of the scrummage, the members of the club generally consider him to be unequalled in the State. He is simply a marvel in getting possession of the ball, and I can assure you, we deeply regret his defection. But, apart from this, the prospects of the club were never brighter. The roll of members is the largest we have ever had, and the stamp of players who have come in since last season is also the best we have had the good fortune to posses. I am particularly pleased with the youth and liveliness and ability of the new blood.”

In  a short time the club also lost first graders Rosewell, Jarman, Tommy Anderson and Jim Davis to the rugby league Rabbitohs. Flanagan though continued to bring forth a competitive team, and Souths reached the 1908 play-offs, losing to Newtown.

South Sydney RU Club's 1909 first grade team.
South Sydney RU Club’s 1909 first grade team.

The following year proved to be a great season – 14 years old Frank Burge made his debut as a winger against St. George in July, while Herb Gilbert, Billy Spence, McCabe and the two elder Burge brothers were the foundations of a Rabbitohs team that ultimately reached the 1909 premiership-decider – unfortunately in the days before the game the latter three players all signed to take part in the Wallabies-Kangaroos series, were immediately banned by the NSWRU, and Souths lost the final (to Glebe 17-6).

Despite the regular loss of its top players to the rival code (Spence left too), Souths continued to maintain its presence at the top of the competition, finishing 1910 in second place.

However, after the season more defections came, with Herb Gilbert (to Souths) and Frank Burge (joining his brothers at Glebe). The Arrow commenting in May 1911:

“The three Burges wearing the ‘Dirty Red’ colours look very unfamiliar. The old South Sydney and Glebe were such keen antagonists in the Rugby Union game that seeing the Burges wearing the old colour that was as a red rag to bull is somewhat strange.” 

A c.1915 photo of the Burge bros in Glebe jumpers (L-R) Laidley, Peter, Albert & Frank. Laidley, the youngest, played lower grades for Souths RU club.
A c.1915 photo of the Burge bros in Glebe RL jumpers (L-R) Laidley, Peter, Albert & Frank. They first came to fame at South Sydney RU club.

After four years of having experienced senior players and promising young stars leave, and many juniors following their lead, the toll finally began to tell on the club, dropping to last place in 1911 and ’12 seasons. It is probably of no little significance that given Flanagan spent most of 1910 in hospital, suffering complications from appendicitis, there was a dearth of club juniors properly prepared to enter first grade in 1911-12.

FROM RABBITOHS TO WALLABIES

Given the club’s lowly position, no Souths players were included in the Wallabies tours to USA-Canada (1912) and New Zealand (1913).  The club’s first Australian representative had been forward Peter Burge, who won a place in the 1905 tour to New Zealand (though injury kept him out of contention for the tour’s one-off Test). In 1907 Burge played in all three Tests against the visiting All Blacks, and was captain in the two Sydney matches (playing alongside Alby Burge in the final Test). Peter Burge then gained selection in the 1908/09 Wallabies tour to the UK, but suffered a broken leg in the opening game (against Devon). When the Wallabies suffered further injuries, Alby Burge was one of two replacements sent to join the team, and he played (and was sent-off) in the loss to Wales. Arthur McCabe (halfback) was also on the 1908/09 Wallabies tour, appearing in the Test versus England at Blackheath and in the Olympic gold medal winning game in London.

Herb Gilbert - played for Wallabies and Kangaroos
Herb Gilbert – played for Wallabies and Kangaroos

Herb Gilbert was Souths’ fourth and final player to be selected for Australia. Chosen as a centre in all three Tests of the 1910 home series against the All Blacks, Gilbert won great praise, especially after taking a starring role in the 2nd Test, crossing for two tries in the Wallabies first ever victory over the New Zealanders.

Souths RU Club first grade players who crossed to league and then went on to play for the Kangaroos in Tests or tour games include Tommy Anderson,  Billy Cann, James Davis, Arthur Hennessy, Johnny Rosewell, Billy Spence, Herb Gilbert, Peter Burge and Frank Burge.

SOUTHS LAST HURRAH (seasons 1913-1915)

After dropping from second in 1910 to last in 1911 and 1912, the club finally began to recover. In 1913 Souths won the “B Division” of the first grade competition (the teams were divided into two half-way through the season), and along the way played their first home game at Redfern Oval, scoring an upset 16-6 victory over arch-rivals Glebe. In the last round of 1914 season the two clubs met again with the premiership title up for grabs – played on neutral ground at University Oval, Glebe won 29-11. The undoubted star of the team through this period was goal-kicking centre Reg Fusedale (who later became a long-time Secretary at the St. George rugby league club).

Though that last game of 1914 was played after World War One had commenced, few were predicting it would have great impact on happenings in Australia. In September 1914 the MRU pushed on with its plans to rationalise the club boundaries – the addition of Randwick (taking some of Easts area) for 1914 had stretched the first grade out to 11 teams.  The Referee summarised the proposals:

Souths RU“…provide for North Sydney and Manly to be amalgamated, under the name of Northern Districts, Balmain to go in with Glebe, Newtown and St. George to be grouped as one, called Southern Districts, Randwick to be again classified with Eastern Suburbs, and South Sydney to gain some of Eastern Suburbs and be called Sydney. Thus the six districts would be Glebe, Eastern Suburbs, Western Suburbs, Sydney, Southern, and Northern. With the University and YMCA clubs, eight competitors would be in existence.”

By the time the 1915 season neared the full impact and seriousness of the war had put aside all plans. The NSWRU resolved that any clubs able to muster enough players could take part in non-competition games. Given how many Rugby players had enlisted, it was a difficult task from Saturday to Saturday to be certain of what games, if any, would go ahead. The Arrow reported in May 1915:

“South Sydney has determined to form a team and take part in the matches of the Union…at a meeting, held last Tuesday, sufficient support was forthcoming to make the appearance of the Red and Greens certain…The Souths have had many ups and downs, but with true characteristic grit they are tackling the task again this year, and may be depended to come through.”

In late May games were played against what were essentially Second Grade clubs, Mosman and Randwick, but after both resulted in disappointing losses, whatever enthusiasm was left at Souths quickly fell away. In June Souths and Randwick opted to combine resources, but no victories came (beaten by University and then Manly). 

In 1916 life for all the remaining clubs became even tougher. In April a report in The Referee tells us that at a meeting of Sydney clubs, it was agreed that Souths would join with Glebe and Balmain. However, while the latter two did combine forces, ultimately becoming the Drummoyne Rugby Club, the Rabbitohs club that had been founded in 1900 was now defunct.

© Sean Fagan

SaintsAndHeathens.com

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