written by Sean Fagan

Rugby got off to such a violent start in Newcastle in 1869, it was nearly a decade before anyone dared attempt it again.

The first ever Australian team in 1899 included Hunter men Charlie Ellis (Newcastle) & Charles White (Maitland)
The first ever Australian team in 1899 included Hunter men Charlie Ellis (Newcastle) & Charles White (Maitland)

Founded in the first years of the 19th century as a military and convict coal-mining settlement, Newcastle’s proximity to Sydney (10 hours by ocean-steamer in the mid 1850s) led to it becoming the colony’s 2nd largest coastal city.

As with other population centres in the colonies, folk football was played in Newcastle in the first half of the 1800s. The first attempt at organised club Rugby football came on 5 June 1869 when a match “between eight of the Volunteer Artillery and eleven of the United  Cricket Club” was played at St. John’s Green (now Centennial Park, Cook’s Hill).

The Newcastle Chronicle reported the contest was a best of three goals. Each team scored a goal, and:

“After a short rest all went at it with energy, both sides doing their utmost to win, but although the youngsters [unclear which team this is referring to] did exceedingly well by kicking the ball almost exactly over the goal, we can not say that they won. The players disagreeing as to the issue, we regret to say that the game is still undecided.”

How far this “disagreeing” went the newspaper did not say, though according to the history page of the Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union [link], “The game erupted into a violent brawl (Battle of St. John`s Green)”.

No record exists of the teams meeting again to finish the contest, and it seems the Volunteers found another opponent, with The Newcastle Chronicle reporting: “Volunteer Artillery v. Young Australians. — A football match was played on Saturday last, between the above clubs (ten being on each side).”  The ‘Young Australians’ kicked two goals to claim victory, and in perhaps a reflection upon the first game, the newspaper wrote: “We compliment the members of both clubs on their play, and we were glad to see that such good feeling existed during the game.”

Nevertheless, while folk football would continue in Newcastle well into the 1870s, the two contests in 1869 are the only instances of organised matches in the city for nearly a decade. Football clubs came into existence in nearby Maitland [Albions FC] in 1872, Singleton in 1876, and finally in 1877 at Newcastle and the neighbouring mining town of Wallsend.

The meeting to form the ‘Newcastle Football Club’ was held on 1 May 1877 at the Ship Inn on the corner of Hunter and Bolton Streets (now the Reserve Wine Bar, though not the original building). From newspaper reports it appears students and ‘old boys’ from Newcastle Boys’ Grammar School were amongst the first players for the club.  The Australian Town and Country Journal writing in late May of 1877: 

“The Newcastle Football Club has been successfully started with a large number of playing members. A scratch match was played at St. John’s Ground on Saturday between members of the club…The members meet on Saturday next, in full uniform, in a picked match between themselves. The Wallsend people have also opened a football club, and it is expected others in the district will follow suit.”

The Newcastle club quickly began to find opponents to play, including an open invitation to “All Comers” to form a team, and a game against past and present students of the Grammar School. The Newcastle Morning Herald informed readers that the club had adopted “black and scarlet jersey” for its team colours. Within weeks home and away matches were being exchanged with the clubs in Maitland and Wallsend. A major boost was given in August with visits from Sydney by the Woollahra and University clubs.

In 1878, both Newcastle and Wallsend introduced “second fifteens” teams, which strengthened each club, rather than seeing new one-team clubs formed. The same year saw a major milestone with Newcastle undertaking the sea voyage south to make its first appearance in Sydney, meeting the Toxteth club at the Albert Cricket Ground in Redfern.

The 1879 season saw Newcastle play the Wallaroos at Moore Park (on the open fields that still exist opposite the SFS and SCG), and defeat Maitland for the first time (which was also purportedly the ‘Albions’ first loss in the club’s 7 year history).

The rivalry between the Hunter towns was ‘spirited’, and the football matches provided a ready means to display it. The Maitland Mercury stating “The whole of the game throughout was played in ‘Larry Foley’ [boxer] style by the Newcastle men, mixed up with diver’s threats of total annihilation” upon the Maitland players. The same newspaper later adding:

“Readers will no doubt wonder how it is that these two clubs cannot meet in friendly combat without ‘getting their hair off’ – to use a vulgar term. The reason of this defiant attitude between both parties is, I believe, from the great spirit of rivalry for supremacy in the manly game [Rugby football]. The match played in Newcastle…was a most exciting game, and nearly ended in a free fight between players, spectators, and all interested in the match. And all this arises from the great desire of gaining the championship of the Hunter River. There are no other clubs yet strong enough to contest for the honour.”

Played on St. John’s Green, the crowd was so dense along the touchlines and behind the goal posts that all available space had been occupied. In one instance the Newcastle supporters played a hand in holding back one of the Maitland team from grounding the ball in his own in-goal area, allowing one of the local men to score a try.

Even without the spectators help, the Newcastle men had the physical advantage, with “half of the points secured by sheer force on the Newcastle side, the ‘Albions’ being carried off their legs by the heavy weight brought to bear upon them. Pullen [of Maitland] was forced to the ground by a heavy-weight opponent, and was rendered hors de combat for a time and was carried off the ground.”

The teams met again in 1880, and in the opening game in Maitland, the captain, umpires and referee were all encircled by players and spectators as they tried to sort out if Newcastle had crossed for a try. The Maitland Mercury:

“…this stage a large crowd gathered round the disputants when some very tall talk ensued. Some of the Newcastle team began to use insulting language and called their opponents ‘the scum of the town,’ and other opprobrious sentences, which greatly excited the ire of some of the more pugnacious of the Albions who very foolishly retaliated in language not altogether parliamentary. However it all ‘ended in smoke,’ and the local team gave them the touchdown [try] so as to go on with the game.”   

Later in the contest the Newcastle umpire was so caught up in giving a Maitland player a tongue-lashing, he missed seeing the home side score a try, meaning it couldn’t be counted. The Maitland captain reacted by leading his team off the field, refusing to come back until the Newcastle skipper found a less antagonistic umpire to complete the game.

There was great excitement in June 1880 when in front a very large audience at St. John’s Green the Newcastle men lowered the colours of the Wallaroos, who were making their first visit to the ‘coal city’. The Newcastle Morning Herald banner-headlined the victory as “A Feather In The Cap Of Newcastle”. The return match in Sydney saw the Wallaroos exact a terrible revenge, belting the Novocastrians at Moore Park by five goals and three tries to nil.

The new decade began with Newcastle now playing regularly against an ever-growing list of Sydney clubs, including Wallaroo, University, Parramatta and Redfern clubs. The city also saw its second Rugby club formed, called ‘Advance’ – a timely arrival, as across the Hunter region Victorian rules was gaining increasing popularity, while Rugby clubs were dying out or switching codes. In May 1883 the Newcastle City FC (Australian rules) was founded, joining with the two established clubs in Maitland in 1881 (Northumberland & Carltons), and others recently started in Singleton, Wallsend-Plattsburg, Lambton, and Hamilton. The South Melbourne FC toured the region in July 1883 to further help the southern code’s development.

The first New Zealand Rugby team to come to Australia made a visit to Newcastle for a mid-week match in June 1884. Played on the Newcastle Cricket Ground, very stormy weather still wasn’t enough to stop 4,000 people paying to watch the game, though the Newcastle Combined XV losing 19-0 was a disappointment.

While Rugby via the Newcastle and Advance clubs (which both retained second XVs) was able to hold the upper hand over Victorian rules’ one club  in Newcastle, from 1885 onwards the English code also began to recover support in the other Hunter townships, particularly West Maitland where a new Rugby club had been established.

In 1885-88 further Rugby clubs (indeed some with second XVs as well) also arose in Maitland (Cambridge, Imperials), Raymond Terrace, Newcastle (Oriental FC, Ferndales, Union, Centennial), Waratah and Singleton.

A great boon for Rugby came in June 1887 via the start of the “Raysmith Challenge Trophy”. As in Britain where knockout cup competitions had been introduced in Rugby and soccer, great excitement ensued – special trains were chartered to transport teams and their supporters, player and crowd numbers significantly increased, and betting was prominent.

Before the final game of 1887 to award the trophy, “excitement was rife” in Maitland and Newcastle; adding fuel to the fire the Maitland captain took exception to one of the players listed for the Newcastle club’s team, claiming he wasn’t a resident of the city. Newcastle won the game and the prize, but Maitland disputed the result.

The same club won the trophy again in 1888, and on that basis appears to have retained permanent ownership as it was not played for again. In the meantime The Richmond Tobacco Company donated the “Black Diamond Cup” [‘black diamond’ being coal] for the region’s Victorian rules clubs to compete for [after Wallsend won the Cup in 1888 & ’89, it too was no longer played for].

Through this period visits by Victorian rules playing teams were made to Newcastle and Maitland by Fitzroy (1888), Port Melbourne (1889), British Lions (1888), New Zealand Natives team (1889) and Tasmania (1890).

The winter of 1888 saw the formation of the ‘Northern Branch’ of Rugby clubs under the NSWRU, and its ‘Northern Districts’ representative team for matches in Newcastle against Queensland (won by the locals 9-6) and the first British Lions tourists. In 1890 the Northern Districts played a ‘Metropolitan’ selection in Sydney, and travelled to Brisbane for a brief visit that included two games against Queensland.

The 1890 season also witnessed a revival of open hostilities between Newcastle and Maitland Rugby footballers, even if the latter were no longer under the old Albions club. The Newcastle Morning Herald describing the events at length:

“One of the most disgraceful exhibitions ever seen on a football ground in this district. For years past a good deal of jealousy has existed between those two clubs, and several rough encounters are on record, but the climax was recorded on Saturday…It was soon seen that the game was to be a rough one, while several of the players used unnecessary force in collaring from the commencement. In the middle of the first spell Maitland secured a goal from the field, and after that the game became a brutal exhibition. Hacking, or in other words, the deliberate kicking of shins in the scrimmage was common among a few of the Maitland forwards, while expressions a hundred times worse than ‘jump on him’ and ‘chuck him’ could be heard wherever a back player on the Newcastle side secured the leather. One of the Maitland forwards, after a scrimmage, deliberately struck an opponent in the face…the Newcastle team secured an unmistakable touch down [try], but it was disputed by tho Maitland team, and for nearly five minutes the scene beggared description. The referee was challenged in several places to fight, and a free rough-and-tumble was only averted by the Newcastle players withdrawing from the spot, and remaining many yards away. A Maitland back, who is well known in Newcastle, was very bad, and he should be compelled to retire from a game to which a cannot add credit. The language at times can only be characterised as fearful, and for the sake of the Rugby game it is to be hoped that Newcastle teams in future will object to play Maitland if at least two of the present members are included in the lot. The captain of the Maitlanders did not stir a hand to prevent the exhibition, and in this he showed that he was utterly incapable to command a 15 in a football field. The referee intends reporting the whole matter to the [Northern Branch] Union, and two of the Maitland men will be charged with using vile language, unnecessary roughness, striking a player, and insulting the umpire [referee]. The Northern Union will then know what course to take to put a stop to a practice which will, if continued, lower the status of Rugby football to that of a a free fight.”

Carlton FC (Newcastle) 1897
Carlton FC (Newcastle) 1897 : winners of the 1897 ‘Northern Branch’ Rugby competition. The ‘Carltons’ began as a junior club in the early 1880s.

Interest and rivalries in Rugby were pushed further along in 1891 by the decision to introduce an organised premiership competition for all senior clubs across the Newcastle, Maitland and Singleton region, culminating in semi-finals and final to decide “the championship of the Northern district”.

Despite their preeminent position since founding Rugby in 1877, the Newcastle club were not the inaugural winners, losing to Advance 9-3 in front of more than 1,000 spectators at the Newcastle Cricket Ground. 

In May 1894 letter writers to The Maitland Daily Mercury debated the question as to whether Victorian rules was on the wane in the Hunter region – from the supporters of the code there was agreement that in Newcastle itself “the old City Club was the only one [that had existed and it has now] been dead years and years,” but there were 5 to 6 senior clubs in 1893-94 still active in other townships, as well as many junior teams. However, in 1895 not one of the Victorian rules clubs in the Northern districts, nor in Sydney, took to the field.

In contrast The Newcastle Morning Herald (16 May 1895) stated:

“Football [Rugby] this year promises to have a bigger boom than ever…By way of illustrating the amount of interest taken in the popular winter pastime in this district, it may be mentioned that no less than 1066 names of members have been submitted by clubs affiliated to the local branch of the parent Union [NSWRU], and these do not include several up-country teams, half-holiday clubs, and clubs competing for the school badges.”

© Sean Fagan

Walter Cobb
Walter Cobb – Newcastle Centennials (blue, black & gold) captain of the 1890s. Cobb was a star fullback who played for NSW against New Zealand and Queensland. In early 1899 he helped found the Central Newcastle club (‘Centrals’), and it was from there that he was chosen to play for Australia in the final two Tests of that same year’s British Lions series. Also a great goal and drop kicker, many old-timers judged Cobb the best Rugby footballer the Hunter ever produced. ‘The Referee’ in 1935 recalled, “A trim athletic fullback, named Walter Cobb, came down to Sydney and donned the colors (of NSW) against Queensland. He astonished the crowds by catching at top speed the ball flying above his head in the tips of his fingers, and then kicking it with the gusto and distance of a Messenger.”


© Sean Fagan