“We are going to kill Rugby as dead as Queen Anne.” So reportedly said Essendon football club president, Dr Wilfred Kent Hughes, in Sydney in the late autumn of 1904.
The Victorian Football League (now AFL) had sent the Essendon and Melbourne clubs to Sydney to play a competition match at the SCG, in the hope of building upon the previous year’s re-launch of Australian rules football in the NSW capital.
After disappearing from the sporting landscape of Sydney and Newcastle in the mid-1890s, the Melbourne-born game was revived in 1903, cloaked in a post Federation nationalist sentiment.
In addition to starting the Sydney club competition, two VFL games were held at the SCG in 1903. The entire gate receipts were given over to the local football league (NSWFA), and the Victorian teams paid all their own expenses.
“It indicates what might be termed colossal belief in the future of the Australian game here, besides unbounded enthusiasm,” wrote Sydney’s The Arrow in April 1903.
Of the first match between Collingwood and Fitzroy, The Sydney Morning Herald reported:
We find that 20,000 people attended the Sydney Cricket Ground to see the match and to be in a position to pass individual judgment upon its merits. It was a great compliment to the visiting teams that there should have been such an attendance. Curiosity also had a good deal to do with the matter, but many who went out of curiosity soon found themselves cheering vociferously, and therein lies a surprise … As to what will be the ultimate effect it is hard to say. We have been shown that the game is a good one, and one worthy to be played. It is a healthy exercise, with a minimum of danger. It is s0 open that even minute foul play may be recognised by anyone on the ground, and as such should be welcomed.
The game in August between Geelong and Carlton was not so successful. The eager interest that had been triggered by the first match had been satiated. The situation was made worse when so much heavy rain fell on the Saturday morning that, despite Rugby and soccer games going ahead, the two Victorian teams decided to move the contest to the Bank Holiday two days later. An attendance of 6000 was the disappointing result.
In Melbourne a few days later The Leader questioned the VFL’s strategy:
Furthermore those zealous Victorians who consider it unreasonable for any game but their own to be popular, evidently forget, or don’t know, that, whatever they may think of Rugby football, it is a firmly-rooted British institution. Personally, I prefer the Australian game to either Rugby or Association [soccer]; but I certainly recognise the rights of other people to hold views on the subject different from mine.
That is just where our over-zealous Victorian enthusiasts appear to differ from me, and, consequently, in endeavouring to force their game on the Sydney people, not satisfied with having very effectively inserted the thin edge of the wedge, they ill-advisedly attempted to drive it home at one more blow, and have made a hash of it.
Considering that quite recently 30,000 people assembled at the Sydney Cricket Ground to witness a Rugby match, it could hardly be expected that the public taste in Sydney was to be wooed away even by an exhibition of prowess by Geelong and Carlton, and, without wishing to throw a damper on the sanguine ambitions of those whom I have heard declare that “in a few more years nothing but the Australian game will be played in Sydney,” I can only say “Bah!”
Surely they forget that matches between England and Australia (or Australasia) are possible in connection with Rugby football, and absolutely impossible at the Australian game—and this is no slight consideration.
Come the following season it was again decided to send two VFL teams to Sydney to play a competition game (Melbourne vs Essendon in late May).
At a reception to welcome the Essendon party to Sydney, Dr Hughes could not hold back his ideas of how he saw the future of the football codes in NSW and Queensland playing out. He suggested that, having been an Australian rules footballer and administrator, and “as one who has played and watched Rugby for nine years in London” (while gaining a medical degree after Melbourne University) he was in a position to speak as an authority on the subject.
His most provocative comment appeared in a letter he wrote to The Daily Telegraph (3 June 1904) in which he declared:
We have killed Rugby dead as Queen Anne in West Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and Victoria, and we will win here.
Hughes’ comments were reported back in Melbourne, and even there many thought his outspokenness in the Australian home of Rugby was no way for the code to win over new supporters. ‘Follower’ in The Age (15 June 1904):
I am not surprised to find that the oldest and most prominent members of the Essendon Football Club openly and strongly deprecate the recklessness with which their president has been airing what he is singular enough to call “enthusiasm”.
‘Gulliver’, the Rugby columnist for The Arrow, could not help but fire back at Hughes “amusingly windy statement” (28 May 1904):
This gentleman from Essendon builds up giants of straw, and tries to demolish them with a sledge hammer.
Seeing that real Rugby was but little known in West Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and Victoria, Dr. W. Kent Hughes claims a very inglorious, though imaginary achievement, for the Victorian game.
“And we will win here,” despite its Napoleonic flourish, is peculiarly amusing when it is remembered that for very many years, aided by very influential persons, the Victorian game endeavored to live alongside Rugby in Sydney, but eventually became quite as “dead as Queen Anne”.
And it was then played in infinitely better style than it is now played in Sydney. But apart from this being a Rugby stronghold, many of the enthusiasts who were running the Melbourne game here largely helped in its killing by misguided and tactless club partisanship. Tho Victorian is a good game when decently played; but a poor one as it is now usually played in Sydney.
Perhaps Dr. W. Kent Hughes, “as one who has played and watched Rugby for nine years In London”, has forgotten the many efforts made in the past [1877-1895] to establish here the game of his own heart. We had some rattling good clubs here; we had visits from Victorian and South Australian clubs; and we had Intercolonial matches with Queensland. Think of all those things in the musty fusty history of the game.
Dr. W. Kent Hughes is not unaware that the Victorian game once flourished in Queensland, but is now as dead as the lamented Queen Anne. And, strange to say, Rugby is flourishing there. Let the Victorian game flourish, too, if it can.
If there has been any ‘killing’, it has been a suicidal sort of business, with the Victorian game the victim.
The season of 1904 saw the visit of the British Lions to Sydney, playing six games (including two Test matches at the SCG). The international element of Rugby in Sydney and Brisbane has always provided the greater public patronage, and a clear distinction from the club-based Australian rules in Melbourne.
The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People observed after the Lions tour (13 August 1904):
The attendance at the Rugby football match (says ‘Javelin’) by the visiting English team on the Sydney Cricket Ground averaged 30,000 per day. These crowds have been recorded, despite the fact that the first match proved conclusively that no Australian team could have a possible chance of even extending the visitors.
If I remember rightly, I read somewhere that somebody had killed Rugby football as dead as Queen Anne in various parts of Australia, and was going to reduce it to a similar condition in New South Wales. That sanguine individual appears to have taken on a contract that will not leave him much spare time for garden parties and other light recreations.
In July 1907 the SCG hosted a crowd 52,000 at a NSW Waratahs vs New Zealand All Blacks game. It was the largest attendance to ever attend a football match, of any code, anywhere in Australasia. It also easily surpassed the best single day crowd for a Test cricket match in Australia (42,500 at the SCG in 1897, v England). A few weeks later Australia played the All Blacks at the same venue, drawing another 48,000.
The sheer scale of the money being accumulated by the NSWRU led to a bitter war that ended with the founding of rugby league — and Australian rules’ northern expansion having to contend with two Rugby codes instead of one.
For Hughes, rather than Rugby being as “dead as Queen Anne”, it was a case of “Queen Anne’s Revenge”.
© Sean Fagan
The now rarely used proverb “Dead as Queen Anne” came after so many false stories of the death of Britain’s Queen Anne (1665— 1714) had been put about London over the years of her reign, that upon hearing the latest ‘news’ people never gave up hope their Queen and protector was in fact still alive. When she finally did pass away, it took an official proclamation to convince the public it was not merely another rumour.. Hence the saying, “Dead as Queen Anne,” came to be the most emphatic possible way of asserting that somebody or something was gone beyond all hope of life or resurrection. “Queen Anne’s Revenge” was the name of the flagship of the English pirate ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach c.1680—1718).