Football in the Silver City
For a city which has never in its history boasted a population in excess of 30,000¹, Broken Hill’s contribution to the sport of Australian football has been extraordinary, and indeed arguably unrivalled. The fact that the city is situated in New South Wales makes its story even more intriguing, even if not quite unique.
The original Broken Hill settlement was founded by Charles Rasp, a boundary rider who discovered iron ore (although he originally thought it was tin) in the region in 1883. Almost forty years earlier, in 1844-5, Charles Sturt had coined the expression ‘Broken Hill’ when writing, in his diary, of the distinctive, boomerang-shaped orebody protruding from the earth right at the very heart of the region that he decided to name the Barrier Ranges. That region has proved to be far and away the world’s single richest source of silver, lead and zinc for well over a century. As for the city of Broken Hill, as intimated in the opening paragraph, this has proved to be one of, if not the, richest sources of Australian football talent anywhere in the world, on a per capita basis at any rate - of which more later.
Football first came to Broken Hill on 4 April 1885 when a scratch match between Day Dream and Silverton took place at the Day Dream mine. This was the first of many such matches, and by 1888 an informal competition involving Broken Hill, Silverton, and Silver and Blues had commenced. Two years later this competition achieved formal status with the establishment of the Barrier Ranges Football Association, precursor of today’s Broken Hill Football League.
Life in this remote corner of New South Wales was very rough and ready, but football rapidly became an important civilising influence (much needed in a region where the ratio of males to females often exceeded two to one), as well as a key element in the social fabric. One of the main reasons for this was that many of Broken Hill’s earliest inhabitants hailed from either the Victorian goldfields, which had long been, and of course remain, a hotbed of the indigenous game, or the copper mines of Moonta and Kadina in South Australia. Later on, there was much movement to and fro between the Barrier and the Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie axis in Western Australia, where gold was discovered in 1892. Once at the Barrier people tended, as is almost always the case, to emphasise and cling to those aspects of their lifestyles and behaviour patterns that they regarded as being quintessential to their identities, as well as to socialise and mix primarily with people hailing originally from the same geographical areas as themselves. Such predilection, needless to say, was as readily observable in footy as in any other walk of life, as is clearly evidenced by the fact that the two strongest clubs during the BRFA’s formative years were known simply as ‘Victorians’ and ‘South Australians’. Indeed, between them these two clubs shared all of the fledgling Association’s first ten premierships, with the South Australians indeed annexing all bar two². Fulfilling the role of ‘whipping boys’ at various times, and to varying degrees of ineptitude, during this era were Broken Hill, North Broken Hill, South Broken Hill and Hotham.
The days of generic clubs such as South Australians were numbered, however. In 1900, in accordance with what was happening in many other competitions throughout Australia, the BRFA was reorganised along district lines, a development which perhaps emphasised Broken Hill’s transmutation from transitory mining settlement to permanent town.The first premiership of the reorganised competition was contested by the same four clubs which continue to make up the BHFL today: West Broken Hill, which became the first ‘non-colonial’ premier, North Broken Hill, Central Broken Hill and Alma (later re-named South Broken Hill). The inception of the district scheme also brought a reduction in the number of players per side from twenty to eighteen, three years after the same innovation had been implemented by the VFL.
As the population increased, and the number of players boasting top level experience in other parts of Australia continued to rise, so the standard of football being played in Broken Hill improved. In 1904, a combined Barrier side took on and defeated a visiting Port Adelaide side, a result that was clearly no fluke as it was promptly repeated the following year. The 1905 season also brought the first ever match between a BRFA team and one from the VFL, when a Collingwood side that was to reach that season’s grand final visited the ‘Silver City’³ and left with honour and pride intact but also, one imagines, with rather less skin on their knees than when they arrived⁴.
The national significance of the Barrier Ranges competition at this time is indicated by its being invited to send delegates to the first ever Australasian Football Conference, held in Melbourne in November 1905. In addition to the delegates from the BHFA there was representation from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie-Border, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Launceston and New Zealand. The Conference, which was chaired by H.C.A. Harrison, paved the way for the inaugural Australasian football championships, held in Melbourne in 1908, as well as constituting, in effect, the establishment of the Australasian Football Council (AFC), One of the Victorians’ two wins came in 1895 when the South Australians went into temporary abeyance as a mark of respect for two of their players, ‘Scrap’ Panter and Archie Trembath, who were among those killed in an underground disaster at the South Mine.
‘Silver City’ is just one of several popular descriptions for Broken Hill coined over the years. Others include the ‘Oasis of the west’ and the ‘Capital of the Outback’.
In 1905 the BRFA spent £300 on the Jubilee Oval, which remains the League’s headquarters to this day. For many years this oval had no covering of grass, meaning that players needed a special, if not quite unique, kind of courage in order to succeed. Clearly the Collingwood players were not found wanting in this regard as they triumphed over the Barrier combination with some comfort, eventually winning by 28 points, 7.7 (49) to 2.9 (21). which would provide a national administrative underpinning of sorts for the code for much of the twentieth century, until eventually usurped as an authority by the VFL during the 1980s.
The national significance of the Barrier Ranges competition at this time is indicated by its being invited to send delegates to the first ever Australasian Football Conference, held in Melbourne in November 1905. In addition to the delegates from the BHFA there was representation from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie-Border, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Launceston and New Zealand. The Conference, which was chaired by H.C.A. Harrison, paved the way for the inaugural Australasian football championships, held in Melbourne in 1908, as well as constituting, in effect, the establishment of the Australasian Football Council (AFC), which would provide a national administrative underpinning of sorts for the code for much of the twentieth century, until eventually usurped as an authority by the VFL during the 1980s.
The emergence of the AFC was a clear indication that football was becoming more professional in its outlook, a fact emphasised in Broken Hill in 1908 with the appointment, at Wests, of Bert Renfrey as the first paid coach in the Association’s history. Renfrey would go on to enjoy an auspicious career in the SANFL, leading South Australia to its historic carnival win of 1911, but at Wests he was less successful. Indeed, for much of the pre-world war one period it was Norths who dominated the competition, winning premierships in 1902, 1904-5, 1907 (unbeaten), 1908, 1909, 1911 and 1915. The Bulldogs’ main rivals during the early part of this period were Wests, who secured flags in 1900-1 and 1903, while Brokens (a temporary name change from Central Broken Hill) provided stiff opposition in the years leading up to the outbreak of war with premierships in 1910 and 1912-13.
Renfrey was just one of many ‘big name’ players, mainly from South Australia, to ply their trade at the Barrier during this time; most notable amongst the others perhaps were Magarey Medallists Jack Mack and Harold Oliver, both from Port Adelaide. Home grown champions also emerged, with North’s Dave Low, who went on to win the 1912 Magarey Medal with West Torrens, Jack Woollard, captain of Port Adelaide’s 1910 championship of Australia-winning team, and Algy Millhouse, who captain-coached Norwood in 1914, arguably the pick of these.
Meanwhile, the Barrier’s combined teams continued to engage in fixtures against powerful interstate clubs and representative eighteens. In 1909, East Fremantle became the first West Australian club to visit Broken Hill, losing the first but winning the second of a two match series en route to Melbourne. From the East Fremantle perspective it was certainly an educational experience, with “the hard gravel ground......as strange to the team as the WACA ground in a wet July would have been to the combined Barrier team”. Moreover, “interpretations of the rules frequently nonplussed the visitors, but the home team’s handball resembled throwing to such an extent that Wilson (Old East’s captain) protested strongly”⁵.
The following year saw the Barrier take on the Ballarat Football League in another two match series, with its players kicking themselves out of contention in the first match, which was lost by 4 points, but making emphatic amends a view days later with a 16.13 (109) to 6.8 (44) triumph. Barrier and later Broken Hill representative sides took to the field wearing yellow and blue playing jumpers, a colour combination that was chosen to reflect the distinctive combination of blue skies and yellow wattle blossom that often dominated the region’s scenery.
In 1912 the BRFA’s representative team ventured interstate for the first time when it engaged in a return fixture against the Ballarat Football League, losing a hard fought match by 3 straight goals.
Mining activity in and around Broken Hill reached a peak in the years between the two world wars, and coincidentally the quality of the football being produced also “reached a previously unequalled standard”⁶. This was no thanks to the SA(N)FL and its clubs for whom the Barrier competition provided as rich and consistent a vein of readily plunderable talent as did the surrounding hills for the smelting works at Whyalla, Port Kembla and Port Pirie. Among the many top ranking players to make a highly successful transition from the outback to the city were Dick Osborne, an eventual South Australian state representative initially rejected by Sturt but who soon afterwards found success with West Torrens, Alan Beck, a premiership player with Port Adelaide, livewire, intelligent rover Matt Kinnear (North Adelaide), Len Sly (South Adelaide), ‘Singer’ Barnes (West Adelaide), ‘Tiger’ Potts and Roy Bent (both Norwood). Even better perhaps than these noteworthy players were a handful of bona fide champions in the shape of 1922 Magarey Medallist Bobby Barnes, brother of ‘Singer’, his team mate at West Adelaide, Bruce McGregor, who went one better with consecutive Medals in 1926-7, and one of the deadliest goalsneaks the game has seen in Jack Owens, who topped the SA(N)FL’s goal kicking ladder on three occasions (once jointly) and his club, Glenelg’s, on no fewer than ten in amassing what, until the emergence of Ken Farmer a decade later, was a South Australian record 817 career goals.
The Barrier Ranges Football Association became the Broken Hill Football League in 1927, a name it has retained ever since. The competition during the 1920s tended to be closely contested, with Wests proving the most successful club with four senior flags, one clear of Souths, and two more than Norths. The remaining premiership, that of the 1925 season, was not won by Centrals as you might imagine, but was actually withheld by the Association after Centrals refused to take the field after half time in the grand final against Wests because they maintained that the central umpire was not giving their players ‘a fair go’. This debacle led to the establishment of a much more accountable controlling body, in relation to which the name change can be seen as being virtually tantamount to a statement of intent; nevertheless, compared to the streamlined and highly competent administrative underpinning enjoyed by competitions like the VFL the BHFL remained, in certain senses, something of a backwater, a state of affairs which may not have been devoid of charm, but which nevertheless prevented the game in Broken Hill from developing in ways that hindsight tells us may have been feasible, such as by entering a team in the SANFL at some point, for instance.
During the height of the economic depression of the 1930s mining centres such as Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Broken Hill enjoyed, if not quite prosperity, then certainly an average standard of living measurably superior to that which was readily attainable elsewhere. This meant that, for a time at least, the escalating drain of players away from Broken Hill to clubs in the capital cities (mainly Adelaide) was arrested, and the standard of play, as intimated above, remained as high, if not higher, than ever before (or indeed since). Among the numerous matches engaged in by Broken Hill representative sides during the inter-war period was a long-running series of contests against South Australian ‘second best’ eighteens. The Broken Hill combinations were never remotely disgraced in these contests, and indeed were victorious on quite a number of occasions, including a hefty 40 point success at home in 1938.
The match between South Australia’s second eighteen and the BHFL at the Adelaide Oval on 29 July 1939 was a near classic which, although eventually won narrowly by the home side, emphasised in no uncertain terms that the football being played at the Barrier at the time was of comparable standard to that being played almost anywhere in Australia. The South Australian team was by no means the ramshackle collection of ‘has beens’ and ‘not quites’ that might be supposed. It was captained by Sturt’s Parker ‘Bo’ Morton, one of the finest full forwards of his day, and included the likes of George ‘Bluey’ Johnston of Glenelg, a young Jack Broadstock (West Adelaide), plus Magarey Medallists Bill McCallum (Norwood) and Jack Cockburn (South Adelaide). Despite this, and the unfamiliarity of the cold, wet conditions, the visitors dominated the early exchanges to lead 5.6 to 1.1 at the first interval. South Australia played its best football of the match in the second term to seize back both the initiative and the lead (by 7 points) at the main break, but thereafter it was only poor kicking for goal by the Broken Hill combination that prevented what might nowadays, in hindsight, be regarded as something of an upset. Almost certainly this would not have been the case at the time, however: Barrier football was widely, and rightly, respected, and had there been any kind of national competition in existence during the 1930s it might have been reasonable to expect to see the name ‘Broken Hill’ appearing more than once on any roll of honour. The final scores in this particular match were South Australia 19.14 (128) to Broken Hill 16.17 (113) with the Barrier’s forwards in particular proving that they were the equal, if not better, than anything South Australia had to offer.⁷
Other noteworthy matches engaged in by the BHFL during the inter-war period included an 18.14 (122) to 3.10 (28) annihilation of CANFL club Acton in Canberra in 1929, a 26 point defeat of a CANFL combined side, again in Canberra, in 1935, and wins against East Fremantle and Claremont (both at home) in 1938 and 1939 respectively.
Since world war two the profile and standing of competitions like the BHFL has steadily diminished, but the key word here is ‘steadily’ as it was certainly not an overnight occurrence. Indeed, as late as the 1970s the BHFL’s representative side was still enjoying a fair amount of success, recording wins over the likes of Woodville (by 24 points in 1970), Coburg (by 25 points the same year), and West Adelaide (by 7 points, 1972). By the early 1980s, however, the developing professionalisation of the code was beginning to have a distinctly detrimental effect on the competitiveness of ‘non-league’ combinations such as the BHFL; when the league took on perennial SANFL wooden spooner Woodville in 1982, for instance, it was unequivocally beaten.⁸
The talent conduit between BHFL and other, ostensibly superior competitions, notably the SANFL, was still in full swing, however. Neil Davies, for example, was a star with Glenelg, Richmond and St Marys, Colin Casey played 251 league games in thirteen seasons with Sturt, while Andy Bennett enjoyed a successful career as a player and coach in three states, and these are just a few of examples. As late as the 1970s Broken Hill could realistically lay claim to still being one of the genuine hotbeds of the game, but one is forced to wonder whether that is still the case. For example, a glance at The ‘AFL Record’ Guide To Season 2005 reveals that only two players then on AFL club lists (Essendon’s Dean Solomon, and Brent Staker of West Coast) actually hailed originally from the city which could arguably, at one time, lay claim to being the per capita capital of Australia’s only indigenous sport. Of course, it may simply be that football is undergoing a temporary slump, and that all will be well once more in a few years time, but somehow this is hard to accept. Football today, for both participants and observers, is increasingly perceived as providing just one among many potential ways of utilising the leisure dollar, and in country Australia, once the heart and soul of the game, it is all too easy nowadays to choose alternative spending outlets. This state of affairs is likely to be here to stay, one senses, forever leaving the history of Australian football in Broken Hill as perhaps the code’s quintessential tale of romance, sparkling ambition, excitement, allure, and against-the-odds achievement - but, ultimately, one is constrained to admit, of unfulfilled potential, missed opportunity, and acutely exasperating failure.
BHFL Premiers 1890 to 2011
Summary of wins
35 North Broken Hill
28 South Broken Hill
24 West Broken Hill
24 Central Broken Hill/Brokens
8 South Australians
The official population of Broken Hill at the 2001 census was 20,096, but there have been a number of occasions during the settlement’s history when this figure has been exceeded. Indeed, within ten years of Broken Hill’s founding as a discrete settlement the population was estimated as being in the region of 27,000, while during the 1960s this figure reached approximately 30,000.
One of the Victorians’ two wins came in 1895 when the South Australians went into temporary abeyance as a mark of respect for two of their players, ‘Scrap’ Panter and Archie Trembath, who were among those killed in an underground disaster at the South Mine.
‘Silver City’ is just one of several popular descriptions for Broken Hill coined over the years. Others include the ‘Oasis of the west’ and the ‘Capital of the Outback’.
In 1905 the BRFA spent £300 on the Jubilee Oval, which remains the League’s headquarters to this day. For many years this oval had no covering of grass, meaning that players needed a special, if not quite unique, kind of courage in order to succeed. Clearly the Collingwood players were not found wanting in this regard as they triumphed over the Barrier combination with some comfort, eventually winning by 28 points, 7.7 (49) to 2.9 (21).
Celebrating 100 Years Of Tradition by Jack Lee, page 60. East Fremantle was one of the most regular interstate visitors to the Barrier. Between 1909 and 1965 Western Australia's most successful club engaged in a total of 5 matches against Broken Hill combinations, winning 3 and losing 2.
From an article by Ian Stewart entitled 'High Standard At Broken Hill' in 'The SA Football Budget', 29/7/39, page 11.
Morton booted 6 of South Australia's 19 goals in this game, with ruckman Reg Mullins (West Torrens) chipping in with 4 while resting up forward; for Broken Hill, however, key forwards Smith (7 goals) and Brenton (5) did even better.
The following match report, which was originally printed in The Broken Hill Football League Year Book 1966, provides some insight into the importance of these games to the public of Broken Hill, as well as to the game's administrators and players:
We Were Powerless Against W.A. Giant
He was 6ft. 5in. (196cm).
He had represented two states.
He had played in 10 league grand finals.
Bob Johnson, the ex-Melbourne star, gave a magnificent exhibition of 'power' football to rip the Broken Hill Combined team's defences to shreds in the match against East Fremantle at the Jubilee Oval on July 3, 1965.
How lucky for the locals that 'Big Bob' couldn't kick the goals as easily as he could get the ball. He kicked seven from countless shots.
Broken hill gave a good account of themselves, but as seems always the case in matches such as these, they fell down in attack again.
Dick Dally (BH) won the Craven 'A' Trophy for the best man afield. Ray Egan (BH) and Mike Regan (EF) trophies for outstanding play for their respective teams, and Jarvis Petit (BH) and John Martinson (EF) for the best placed men.
Johnson captained the visitors and Dave Schmidt the BHFL team.
The local team comprised:
BACKS: J.Johns (West) M.Hurley (Central) T.Rimmer (South)
HALF-BACKS: N.Fillery (South) J.Petit (North) R.Preston (Central)
CENTRES: P.Squire (Central) W.Hardy (North) V.Gauci (West)
HALF FORWARDS: M.Andrich (South) J.Richards (North) G.Lakes (West)
FORWARDS: J.Eddy (North) D.Dally (North) R.Parkes (Central)
RUCKS: D.Schmidt (North) G.Bennetts (West)
ROVER: R.Egan (North)
RESERVES: B.Goldring (North) G.Milne (West)
COACH: G.Hill (Central)
East Fremantle: 4.1 11.5 16.6 16.10 106
Broken Hill: 2.1 5.5 9.6 12.10 83
East Fremantle: Johnson 7; Schnell 4; Regan 2; Nylander, Prowse, Shorthill
BHFL: Egan 3; Dally, Parkes, Rimmer 2; Eddy, Gauci, Richards
East Fremantle: Regan, Martinson, Johnson, Watson, Schnell, Holt
BHFL: Dally, Egan, Petit, Lakes, Squire, Andrich
Attendance: 5,000 (approx.)
Note: An indication of East Fremantle's strength is that they defeated Swan Districts in that season's WANFL grand final