THE OLD BALMAINS WERE A FORCE

Billy Murdoch / Bob Craig
Billy Murdoch / Bob Craig

Revived in 2005, the Balmain Rugby Club was in the code’s pioneering first half century one of its most famous teams. The Referee wrote in 1900:

“In times gone by Balmain was a prominent and popular name in Sydney’s Rugby football. The old Balmain Club had many fine battles with the contemporary champions, University and Wallaroo, not to mention such other landmarks of Rugby’s former days as, Arfoma, Burwood, Redfern, and Gordon. They were shining lights when the big club matches were played upon the boundless Moore Park.”

BALMAIN SPORTS & RUGBY

Situated on a peninsula in Sydney’s Port Jackson, just a few kilometers to the west of Darling Harbour, today Balmain is a bustling inner city residential and commercial suburb. To its west lay the entrances to the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, and inland is the adjoining suburb of Leichhardt.

From the mid 19th century onwards Balmain was the centre of Sydney’s ship-building yards, and the surrounding area was speedily covered with streets, cottages and terraces that housed the thousands of workers and their families supported by the industry and its adjuncts. By the end of the 1880s the densely populated Balmain area was home to over 20,000 residents in just over 200 streets.

Since the first ‘Balmain Regatta’ in 1849, and right through the rest of the 1800s, the ‘marine suburb’ was an epicentre of rowing and sailing enthusiasts and their oarsmen clubs, the host to many internationally famous tournaments and sculling contests, including rowers Bill Beach, Peter Kemp, Henry Searle, Edward Hanlan and Charles Messenger – the latter, who was also a boat builder, was the father of Dally Messenger, born in Balmain East in 1883.

The largest enterprise in Balmain was Mort and Company’s Dry Dock and Engineering Works, which opened in 1855. In what came to be known as Mort’s Bay, it was the first dry dock facility built in Australia, greatly needed by operators of merchant and naval vessels alike.

The Company’s archives note in the c.1860 period the officers and crews of visiting ships arranged to meet in ‘friendly battle’ the Balmain tradesmen and labourers in what were some of the first football contests played in Sydney:

“Games of football were arranged with the local workers; these games apparently had few rules and the best you could say was that they resembled Rugby football, although the naval ships’ personnel  appear to have had an appreciation of how the game was developing in England. The games were unruly affairs, with the local community providing rabid, vocal support.”

These matches were played on what was then known as the ‘Pigeon Ground’ (used for the ‘pastime’ of pigeon-shooting, is now Gladstone Park), and an open field within William ‘Captain’ Cox’s dairy farm in Beattie Street.

BALMAIN RUGBY CLUB  est 1873

With the arrival of organised club Rugby at the start of the 1870s the sporting enthusiasts of Balmain were not to be left out. Founded in 1873, Balmain were one of the first clubs formed in Sydney that was not attached to a school, college or the University.

The Sydney Morning Herald of 1 August 1873 included in its columns a notice to alert players of the Balmain and St. Leonards clubs of their match the following day on ‘St. Leonards Ground’ (now North Sydney Oval). Teams were still at this time usually played with 20-a-side, and without a referee, the two captains settling any disputes over rules .

The colours of the club’s first playing kit remains unknown, however, the Evening News reported during the 1874 football season that Balmain were wearing “dark blue and white striped jersey and stockings, white flannel pants, and scarlet cap”.

Balmain's Ewen (left) & Charles Cameron in the NSW team, 1886.
Balmain’s Ewen & Charles Cameron, NSW team, 1886.

That same year Balmain were, along with Sydney University, Wallaroo, Goulburn, King’s School and Newington College, involved in meetings that ultimately led to the formation of the NSWRU (initially called “The Southern Rugby Football Union”).

At the end of 1875, in just the club’s second full season of existence, Balmain were declared ‘The Premier Team of the Colony’ ahead of University, Wallaroo and Waratah.  Until the 1890s the Sydney club premiership was decided by the NSWRU based upon the number of victories, points scored, and which clubs the wins were against.

The 1875 team were not without their critics though. After returning victorious from playing in Goulburn, the Balmain side were pitted against the 1874 premiers Waratah at Moore Park (west of the SCG). When ‘crack’ teams met on these open playing fields, the crowds of over 3,000-strong would surge and sway along the touchlines as the play ebbed and flowed, and then in the most exciting moments, cross into the field of play to get a better view of what was going on.

With Balmain unable to break the Waratah goal line defence for any tries, frustrated players objected and argued each time Waratah crossed for a try of their own. Most observers thought Balmain had no case, but on each occasion the Waratah captain gave in, just to get the game going again. However, after it happened a third time, a frustrated Waratah skipper led his men from the field and ended the game, a nil-all draw. The Evening News was scathing of Balmain:

“If football cannot be played in better spirit than this match, the game had better never be attempted, for nothing can be more detrimental to the game than when such disputes arise. We hope we shall never again have to speak of such differences between one club and another, as it is both disagreeable to the players and annoying to us.”

The Balmain leader in 1875 was the team’s fullback, 21 years old Billy Murdoch. The following summer he made his first class cricket debut for NSW, and went on to become a famous Test batsman and captain for Australia in Ashes contests against England. The legendary WG Grace would later say of Murdoch, he was “a man of singular pluck and resource”.

Balmain were so strongly supported at this time that they were also operating a ‘2nd Balmain’ team in Sydney club football. As with other major clubs, most of Balmain’s first grade matches were played at Moore Park, with the rare treat of a home game at the ‘Pigeon Ground’ or ‘Cox’s Paddock’ (Birchgrove Oval was not available to cricket and other sports until c.1887).

When inter-colonial and international matches against Queensland, New Zealand and the British Lions began in the 1880s, Balmain was strongly represented in the NSW (later Waratahs) teams:

Henry Creer 1882–84 3 games; Bob Thallon 1882–83 10 games; Ewen Cameron 1882–1888 12 games; Michael Howard 1882 7 games; C Hawkins 1882–1884 8 games; Charles Cameron 1883–86 6 games; J Vaughan 1884 1 game; S Dean 1884 4 games; Henry Woolnough 1886 6 games.

Bob Thallon - Balmain player won selection for NSW 1882
Bob Thallon – in 1882 played in NSW’s first ever team (vs Qld) & a member of NSW tour to New Zealand later that year; upon retiring became prominent referee.

Pen pic profiles from the time describe Bob Thallon as a “Grand all-round man; can play anywhere, and has a thorough knowledge of the game”; Ewen Cameron as “The best and most brilliant quarter-back in New South Wales; is wonderfully fast with the ball, and almost impossible to hold”; and his brother Charles Cameron a “forward; fast and dodgy, and backs up well.”

Through the 1880s Balmain, Wallaroo and University occasionally played their bigger matches against each other on the SCG, and in the ever-changing list of teams in the Sydney competition, new clubs arrived on the scene in the form of Burwood, Parramatta, Newtown, Randwick and Redfern.

At the start of the 1890s the growth and interest in Rugby in Balmain was so strong that it led to a plethora of local ‘Balmain’ clubs, including ‘Balmain Ormonde’, ‘Balmain Wellington’ and ‘Balmain Elvira’. Conversely, the original Balmain club, with its reduced and disparate membership spread too thinly to sustain the necessary enthusiasm to keep the club going, became an anachronism, and disbanded.

In 1892 the ‘Balmain Football Club’ was back in the field, adopting a royal blue jersey, with a gold sash two inches wide. Balmain entered the Senior (first grade) competition, but after playing a trial game against the Zealandia club, decided it couldn’t commit to a full season and dropped out.

As part of an attempt to bring ‘district’ or ‘electorate’ clubs to Sydney, the Balmain club joined the ‘First Juniors’ (equivalent of second grade) for 1894. The Referee noted mid-way through the season that “Balmain are invincible when playing on Birchgrove Reserve”, and the team went on to reach the premiership final, losing to Surrey.

Balmain were promoted to first grade in 1895, with The Referee observing:

“The athletes of Balmain are, however, not satisfied with winning honours with oar and sail. Animated by a worthy spirit of ambition, they are desirous of winning a high place as exponents of Rugby football, and as in the past the old Balmains were a force to be seriously reckoned with, let us hope the new Balmain team will fare as well.”

Unfortunately, it was an inglorious and brief campaign, with the gulf between the two grades being ruthlessly exposed. Though Balmain once gain played on the SCG, and against old foes Wallaroo, University, and Randwick, the team failed to score a solitary point in any of its six fixtures. The club received some recognition though, with forward G. McGregor chosen to play for NSW against Victoria in two matches.

BALMAIN DISTRICT RUFC 1900-1915

Balmain first grade team c.1905
Balmain first grade team c.1905

The arrival of the “district scheme” in 1900, which did away with all the previous clubs (apart from the University), and divided the Sydney metropolitan area up into new suburban clubs brought ‘Balmain’ back into Rugby prominence. The Referee writing in May 1900:

“It is about five years since the last Balmain Club entered the premiership lists. But the district still loves its football…The new Balmain Club, with an untiring hon. secretary in Mr. F. Matthews, bids fair to have a very successful season. It has the advantage of one of the finest football grounds of the colony in Birchgrove Park, and lacks no end of financial and public support.”   

The Balmain district in 1900 was laid out as “The electorates of Balmain North and South, Leichhardt, and such part of the electorate of Ryde as is within the municipality of Drummoyne.”

1911-season
1911 season: Newtown vs Balmain

The other clubs were South Sydney, Eastern Suburbs, North Sydney, Newtown, Glebe, Western Suburbs, and University. Balmain initially chose a black jersey with a 6 inch single gold bar, but by the start of the competition had changed to the more readily available black and gold regular hoops.

The ‘Watersiders’ didn’t capture too many big names by the application of the new residential rules; most pundits predicted they would finish at the bottom of the ladder. The opening round game against North Sydney though didn’t quite go to script, as The Referee noted:

“Baimaln went within an ace of creating a boil-over in their engagement with North Sydney at Birchgrove Park. The match was very well patronised, and the local people were provided with an exciting, if to them, unsatisfactorily-ended contest. North Sydney put about their best team into the field, and were expected to gain a comparatively easy win. But, although they won, it was narrowly and luckily. In fact, Balmain literally flung away what ought to have been a certain victory.”

Balmain had scored a converted try to lead 5-3, and with time just about up, were awarded a free kick. To waste a bit more time, the Balmain captained called on his kicker to take a place kick to find touch, but he failed to apply the correct rules about placing the ball, and the referee ordered a scrum. Norths won the ball, and via some clever hand-passing conjured a try that secured for them what had seemed moment earlier a most unlikely victory. The Birchgrove crowd hooted the referee but the result stood.

In the first nine rounds Balmain failed to win a game. However, they finished with a late season rally of four wins in five games, including a 20-3 win over Norths at North Sydney Oval, which was enough to avoid last place on points for/against (ahead of Newtown).

The years immediately following were a nadir for the club, finishing at the bottom of the table, and the inability to win more than a single game each season from 1902 to ’04 tells its own tale. Relief finally came in 1905 when Balmain managed to rise to equal sixth-place with four wins, finishing above Norths and Easts; without doubt the season highlight was the district club’s first victory over University (10-9 at the Sydney Showground).

Bob Craig - 1908/09 Wallabies tour to UK & North America
Bob Craig – 1908/09 Wallabies tour to UK & North America

In 1906 the competition had grown to 11 teams (St. George, Manly and Sydney had been added), and with one more win Balmain during the regular season would have gained a place in the Top 4 semi-finals.

The arrival of rugby league in 1908 saw Balmain and the NSWRU lose its lease of Birchgrove Oval, forcing the club into a nomadic existence that quickly served to deflate enthusiasm for players and fans alike. Losing support of a home ground was a big factor, particularly as The Cumberland Argus declared, “The Balmain barrackers — worse in our opinion than even the Glebe”.

Though Balmain in the pre WW1 era would never again collect the ‘wooden spoon’, the ‘Watersiders’ could not rise any higher than mid-table at best.

The club though was able to boast of having Herbert Moran, captain of the 1908/09 Wallabies tourists, accepting the role of president from 1911 until the start of the war called him away late in 1914.

BLACK & GOLD WARATAHS & WALLABIES
NSW Waratahs:
Ed Halloran 1900–02 6 games; Alf Dobbs 1901 3 games; Robert Graves 1907 4 games; Robert Craig 1908–1909 4 games; George Widmer 1909–1910 7 games; Fred Kirkby 1911–1912 4 games.
Wallabies:
Robert Graves 1907 1 Test (v NZ); Robert Craig 1908-09 Wallabies tour, 1 Test (v Wales).

GLEBE-BALMAIN RFC 1916-1930

Despite more recent accounts of the history of the Balmain club claiming the impact of WW1 led to a merger with Glebe when competition resumed in 1919, the initiative was already on the table before the end of the 1914 season, with MRU plans posted in The Referee:

“… 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.

At Balmain’s annual meeting it was found that sixteen players had enlisted from the club’s three grades. Sufficient players were on hand for the first grade side to continue for the coming season. In line with actions of the NSWRU to allocate certain Saturdays for military training and ‘drill squads’, Balmain formed a ‘Rifle Club’ for its footballers.

In early May 1915 the Black-and-Golds made their first appearance on the Rugby field for the season, playing Manly in a ‘friendly’ match in front a large attendance at Manly Oval.  In the months that followed Balmain were able to play against University, St. George, Randwick-Souths (combined), Newtown and Glebe.

In April 1916, with further men having enlisted over the summer, meetings of neighbouring clubs were held to determine what playing stocks were available for the coming season. A gathering of Balmain, Glebe, Newtown and St. George district clubs was initially thought likely to produce one combined XV, however, it was found that ‘Glebe-Balmain’ and ‘Newtown-St. George’ were viable. 

The Glebe-Balmain union remained in place through the remainder of the war, and in March 1919 when the ‘club’ held its annual meeting, the prospect of having quite a formidable team seems to have silenced anyone who may have thought the two districts should have severed their alliance. In fact the NSWRU had done away with any residential qualification, and Glebe-Balmain was not restricted to local players.

Through the 1920s Glebe-Balmain won four Sydney club premierships wearing a maroon jersey (Glebe) and (apparently) black and gold socks (Balmain). In 1930 a black and gold V chevron was added to the jersey.

1930 Glebe-Balmain vs Wests
1930 Glebe-Balmain vs Wests at SCG [‘The Referee’, 21 May 1930]

ONCE GLEBE-BALMAIN, NOW DRUMMOYNE (1931-present)

Significantly, The Sydney Morning Herald of 12 March 1925 recorded “the tenth annual meeting of the Glebe-Balmain”, which suggests the club saw its founding year as 1916, not 1900 when Glebe and Balmain were formed by the ‘district scheme’, and not a continuation of any of the earlier Glebe and Balmain clubs of the 19th century.

In April 1925 the club commenced week-night training at Drummoyne Oval, though the University Oval was also used. Increasingly the club was being connected to Drummoyne. A function to farewell the six Glebe-Balmain players in the 1927 Waratahs about to embark on their trip to the UK was held at the Masonic Hall in Drummoyne.  In 1928 (6 July) The Arrow asked:

“Will Club Name Be Changed? The name ‘Glebe-Balmain’ is cumbersome. The club realises this. A special extraordinary meeting has been called for July 30, when a proposal will be considered to change the name to Drummoyne District. If the proposal is carried, it will seem strange to see the name of either Glebe or Balmain missing from the Rugby Union list.”

No alteration of name came, but in March 1929 the club held its annual meeting at Drummoyne School of Arts. Reported in the Evening News (6 March 1929), the members had been informed:

“It is likely that, with the help of the local council, and the Cricket Association, conditions at the club’s training ground, Drummoyne Oval, will be considerably improved in the near future.”

The Arrow (5 April 1929) added:

“Glebe-Balmain…will hold a further practice tomorrow at University Oval. Despite its remoteness, this is practically regarded as their home ground, while facilities and conditions at Drummoyne Oval are so poor. The council in charge of the latter should see that matters are improved there.”

During late 1930 and well into 1931, Drummoyne Council was able to make use of a NSW Government grant from an ‘unemployed relief fund’, employing local workers into enlarging and fencing Drummoyne Oval, as well as providing a 300-seat grandstand.

In March 1931 the club members, by an overwhelming majority, voted to change the name to Drummoyne (Evening News 20 March 1931) “the fact the club hopes to have the use of Drummoyne Oval influenced many”. The Referee (25 March) explaining:

“Drummoyne having developed as a residential district, the club gets its main support there, so the change, unlike some one can recall, has reason, and perhaps sentiment, on its side.”

At the NSWRU’s annual meeting at the end of April 1931, James Henderson:

“…moved a resolution of appreciation of the loyal services to the Union of the players and administrators of the districts of Glebe and Balmain, names which have gone out of the game with the change of the club from Glebe-Balmain to Drummoyne. He said the two districts were steeped in Rugby tradition and mentioned names of their stalwarts from early until modern days. The resolution was carried unanimously.”

Some nine months after the renovated Drummoyne Oval was opened, The Sydney Morning Herald reported (1 June 1932) the Council entered into leases with the Drummoyne Rugby Union Club (five matches) and the Balmain Rugby League Club (four matches) for the remainder of the season.

Drummoyne 1983
Drummoyne 1983

It has been claimed in recent times that the change in name to Drummoyne was made with some reluctance, or even forced upon the club by the Council in exchange for use of the local ground, however, the chronology of events laid out above would suggest Drummoyne was increasingly the club’s quarters for training and meetings, and the double-barrelled name was always destined to be replaced.

The Drummoyne club continues today, playing in the NSW Suburban competition.

The team’s jersey was swapped from Glebe’s maroon to Wales’ scarlet red in 1931 at the time of becoming Drummoyne, but the black and gold of Balmain has been retained in the socks.

THE BLACK AND THE GOLD

Edward Hanlan / Bill Beach
Edward Hanlan / Bill Beach

Though not used by any of the senior incarnations of the Balmain club in the 1870s-90s, the now famous black-and-gold colours were adopted by the new Balmain district club in 1900. Through the 1890s the two colours had increasingly become synonymous with Balmain teams in other football codes and cricket.

Their origin lays with those adopted by the Balmain Working Men’s Rowing Club at its founding in 1882, and worn by its representatives in competitions, as well as in the festooning of club socials with bunting and flags.

The colours gained national and international recognition and association with Balmain when in August 1884 the Rowing Club bestowed honorary life membership upon Illawarra sculler Bill Beach – he swapped his black and white racing vest to instead wear the club’s black and gold (also reported as yellow) when he defeated Edward Hanlan (of Canada) on the Parramatta River to claim the title of ‘Champion Sculler of the World’.

Beach retained the Balmain colours for the rest of his stellar career on the water, The Sydney Morning Herald writing in 1888, “As everyone knows, Beach always wore the black and gold as his racing colours.”

If there is any significance in why the Rowing Club chose black and gold as its colours in 1882, it remains unknown.

France's Sebastien Chabal (
France’s Sebastien Chabal (“The Caveman”) played a one-game cameo for Balmain in 2012.

In 2005 the first Balmain Rugby Club since 1915 returned to the game, wearing the black and gold sports colours of the Balmain district.

The club has successfully enticed international players to undertake cameo appearances with Balmain, including Wallabies Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Matt Dunning and Ryan Cross, as well as France’s Sebastien Chabal. 

The 2013 season saw the Balmain club [link] finish as joint premiers of first grade under the NSW Suburban competition’s First Division.

© Sean Fagan

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