Part One by ALEX NELSON
Anzac Oval occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of many long-term residents of Alice Springs. Originally known as the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve, the town’s first sports ground was established by veterans of World War One, for whom the oval later came to be named in their memory. This is the first article tracing the history and significance of this highly valued asset in the Alice. Anzac Oval has been nominated for listing as a heritage site, for which public submissions are now sought by the Heritage Council until February 18.
In the 1930s the Alice Springs sub-branch of the Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia (unsurprisingly changed to the Returned and Services League, or RSL) lobbied to have the flat area between Anzac Hill and Todd River north of Wills Terrace set aside as a recreation reserve.
This objective was achieved by 1937 and a board of trustees appointed to manage the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve. This land was mostly a flood-prone claypan devoid of trees, with its most notable structure the distinctive Welfare Hall building directly opposite Todd Street, set up on stilts to avoid the occasional flooding.
In September 1950 the chairman of the trustees, Reverend Harry Griffiths – also chairman of the Alice Springs Progress Association – reminded members at a momentous public meeting of some of the early history of the reserve: “I was one of the first appointed to the Board in 1937.
“The ground was then unfenced. There was no water on it. By 1939 it was fenced, and a children’s playground was erected”. (Centralian Advocate – CA, 15/9/50).
This early improvement work was financed from the sale of the Welfare Hall to former Afghan cameleer, Akbar Khan, who dismantled the building and rebuilt it (minus the stilts) in Hartley Street as a general store. In 1968 this building was converted into an Italian restaurant, La Tosca, but was destroyed by fire a year later and eventually replaced by The Overlander Steakhouse.
Improvements for the recreation reserve were suspended with the onset of the Second World War. In early September 1940 two Army officers arrived in Alice Springs and negotiated arrangements for commandeering the reserve as a military camp for the duration of the war.
Soon afterwards the Darwin Overland Maintenance Force (DOMF) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Noel “Tommy” Loutit arrived in the Alice and established its camp on the reserve. Within a day of arrival the first truck convoy was on its way to Darwin with supplies offloaded in the railyard.
The DOMF began with up to 800 men and 150 three-ton trucks and many smaller vehicles. In October 1941 it was re-organised as a part of the Central Australia Motor Transport Column, and in early 1942 was split up into several Australian General Transport Companies.
In its various guises the Army’s transport operations, based in the Alice, grew to 8000 personnel and a fleet of 3000 vehicles, shuttling supplies, munitions, and nearly 200,000 troops through the town until December 1944.
The camp on the recreation reserve spilled across the Todd River onto its east bank, which after the war became the Alice’s first suburb, Old Eastside.
The Army made several modifications to the recreational reserve, including a channel from Anzac Hill to the Todd River to facilitate drainage from the hard surface of the campground.
Several structures were built on the reserve; mostly Sidney Williams huts on the eastern perimeter of which two survive – the heritage-listed Totem Theatre.
The town’s population grew significantly during and just after the war, leading to an acute shortage of housing; so the buildings were retained for temporary accommodation during the late 1940s but most were eventually removed.
Another cluster of huts were built at the foot of Anzac Hill near Wills Terrace, and this became the RSL Club after the war.
The Army had signed a contract to restore the “Anzac recreation reserve” to its original condition upon its departure; however, responsibility for this was transferred to the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing which was largely pre-occupied with rebuilding war-ravaged Darwin.
There were few trustee meetings, considerable confusion and little progress made on the reserve during the late 1940s but pressure began to build by the end of the decade to resolve these management difficulties.
Overcrowding at the Hartley Street School required planning to commence for a new school at the north end of the reserve, on an area set aside for that purpose about 1941.
There was also considerable demand for improved sports facilities; the bare ground of the reserve was already in heavy use by Aussie Rules football and cricket.
On June 14, 1947, there was the first competition between two towns at the recreation reserve when the Alice Springs Cricket Team took on Tennant Creek and won the game (and also won the return match in Tennant Creek).
The nascent “Centralian Football Association,” comprised of Federals, Rovers and Pioneer, undertook some of the ground management, especially by transport operator Dave Baldock who frequently graded the playing surface.
Students from Hartley Street School used the grounds for athletics competitions; and the Alice Springs Motorcycle Club, with some 50 members, also held the Centre’s earliest motorsport race meetings and competitions on the reserve in 1949 and 1951.
Other sports groups, especially tennis and basketball, also clamoured for space on the reserve; as did the Alice Springs Free Kindergarten (based at the CWA Hall) and the Children’s Social Club, managed by Agnes East.
Many leading lights of the town were involved with the Board of Trustees but in 1950 Jock Nelson, recently elected as Member for the Northern Territory, stood down from the committee and was replaced by businessman Bob Rumball (at left).
Rumball was commissioned by the “Panel of Sporting Bodies and Associated Bodies” to prepare a report “on all matters in connection with the reserve” which he delivered in a comprehensive document at a meeting on August 25, 1950, also involving the Board of Trustees and the Alice Springs Progress Association, both of which Reverend Harry Griffiths was president.
Rumball’s report was supported unanimously and became the blueprint of all future development and use of the recreation reserve for decades to come.
An area was set aside for the Free Kindergarten on the southeast corner of the reserve, later to become the Natalie Gorey Preschool opened in 1954, the Territory’s first purpose-built preschool (now the Senior Citizens Club).
Similarly the Children’s Social Club was allotted the buildings of the RSL club at the foot of Anzac Hill, once the latter relocated to the new Alice Springs Memorial Club. This became the Alice Springs Youth Centre in 1951.
New tennis and basketball courts were to be constructed, later also to include a hockey playing field. It was envisaged that students attending the new school planned for the north end of the precinct would share use of the recreation reserve and sports facilities.
A key recommendation noted: “Discussing temporary buildings, the report said that these, where necessary, should be in an inconspicuous position on the reserve, with the approval of the Board of Trustees” – thus was the building that became the Totem Theatre saved.
There was another important measure: “Other temporary buildings, such as booths or sideshows … should be allowed only on the approval of the Board and in places specified by it and should be removed immediately the function for which they are erected has terminated”. (CA, 1/9/50).
Thus did the recreation reserve become the venue for parades, shows, displays and concerts, much loved for this purpose to this day.
Rumball made another suggestion: “There is sufficient development in the town and district for a local show which, besides encouraging local industry of all kinds, both household and commercial, could be made to cover school exhibits.
“One of the essentials of such a show is a suitable building, the report continued”. (CA, 1/9/50).
Rumball’s suggestion for a local show was made two years in advance of the first Royal Darwin Show in 1952 but it was to be another decade before his idea came to fruition in Alice Springs.
Yet another significant decision was made: “Reporting on the question of the requirements of the various bodies concerned in the use of the oval, Mr Rumball said that the needs of the football and cricket associations were identical and seasonal as regards the use of oval and association rooms. The first step to be taken in grassing the oval was the provision of a suitable water service … and should be undertaken immediately”. (CA, 1/9/50).
By year’s end it was resolved: “It was decided at the last meeting of the Alice Springs Recreation Council to recommend to the Board of Trustees that work commence on the grassing of the Anzac Hill oval immediately after the conclusion of the next football season”. (CA, 1/12/50).
In early May 1951 the town staged the Jubilee Parade, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Federation, featuring floats depicting local history themes assembled near the hospital which then proceeded up Todd Street onto the recreation reserve. It was an early forerunner of the Bangtail Muster.
During 1951 the “Griffs” left town, and solicitor Neil Hargrave replaced Rev. Harry Griffiths as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Along with Bob Rumball, Hargrave was to become most influential in the development of the oval.
In 1949 Neil Hargrave moved from Adelaide to Alice Springs, replacing Dick Ward (the first Member for Alice Springs) who in turn left town to go to Adelaide.
Hargrave’s professionalism and attention to detail quickly led him becoming heavily involved in the town’s affairs, where he took on leading roles – overlapping or simultaneously – in many organisations: chairman Alice Springs Recreation Reserve (1951-62); chairman Alice Springs Regional Grants Committee; chairman Alice Springs Higher Primary School Committee (the old school that is now the NT Government’s preferred site for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery); vice-president NT Branch Australian Pre-school Association; member NT Central Grants Committee; vice-president Alice Springs Youth Centre; president Alice Springs Kindergarten Committee; President Alice Springs Memorial Club; coach Centralian Hockey Association; and was a keen tennis player, too.
Most of these roles were directly connected with the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve.
Hargrave was also the independent Member for Alice Springs 1954-62 where he became (along with Dick Ward, who moved to Darwin) the most effective elected representative in the NT Legislative Council.
It was Hargrave who initiated and led the Remonstrance against the Commonwealth in 1962, much to the embarrassment of the Menzies Government.
One of Hargrave’s most important achievements was the foundation of the Northern Territory Reserves Board in 1956, of which he became the first chairman 1956-62, and commenced the acquisition and management of the Territory’s parks, reserves and historical sites. The Uluru-Katatjuta National Park, the first major park in the NT established in 1958, owes its origin to Hargrave.
A man of immense achievement during his time here, Neil Hargrave is now shamefully all but forgotten not just in the Territory but especially in Alice Springs for which he did so much.
Hargrave’s immediate priority for the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve in 1951 was to establish a grassed playing surface on the oval. In this aim he was ably assisted by Bob Rumball and Dave Baldock, who organised the labour and materials required undertaking what at the time was the largest community volunteer project in the NT.
Residents dug up runners and turf from their home lawns and grass seed (all couch grass at the time) was donated for the oval. On the weekend of October 13-14 a team of volunteers set to work digging and planting the 10 tonnes of donated grass cuttings and seed across the ground; and this was followed up the next weekend with additional volunteer work.
At this time the Children’s Youth Club moved into the former RSL buildings at the foot of Anzac Hill, which became the Alice Springs Youth Centre.
The Board of Trustees arranged with the Youth Centre’s director, Agnes East, a “giant” emu parade competition for all school-aged children under 17 that was held on Saturday afternoon, November 24, to clear the newly grassed oval of all stones and rocks across the field.
This proved a great success – some 200 children (about a tenth of the town’s population) turned up with buckets, soap boxes, go-carts and wheelbarrows, and systematically worked their way across the oval picking up stones, rocks, rubble and bricks that was estimated “to be more than a ton” in total. The children were rewarded with cool drinks, ice cream, and cash prizes.
Soon, however, all the hard work threatened to be undone – 1951 was a dry year and these conditions intensified in the summer of 1951-52 across the Territory as the Wet failed to materialize in the north.
Alice Springs relied on the Todd River basin for its water supply, which began to run dangerously low and water restrictions were enforced.
A small dedicated team of volunteers persisted throughout the long dry summer irrigating the oval each night with hand-held hoses and watering cans.
This led to another difficulty: “Early morning passers-by, and those who are watering the grass on the Recreation Reserve, say that rabbits are still coming in their hundreds to feed on the new greenery which is sprouting well.
“Permission was sought and received to destroy the rabbits, but the only certain way of stopping their depredations is to net the whole circumference of the ground”. (CA, 7/12/51).
Despite the difficulties, this tremendous effort paid off by early autumn 1952: “The new oval at the end of Todd Street is beginning to look a picture and opinions of last year’s footballers are encouraging to those who have worked to make the only grassed oval in the Northern Territory a reality.
“The Recreation Reserve Board of Trustees have battled along for a long time without any financial authorisation and are to be commended on the result of their efforts. Special recognition must be given to Mr Bob Rumball whose dynamic personality and bulldog tenacity have made the oval possible”. (CA, 28/3/52).
There was further praise: “The Oval is Green – a visitor driving into Alice Springs from the north could not help but be impressed by the picture now presented by the recreation oval.
“The great expanse of green surrounded by the white fence, and the bench seats; with the tall goal-posts each end and the gum trees as a background, is a fine sight indeed.
“It is also a monument to the vision and energy of Mr Bob Rumball and the few stalwarts who worked hard with him to make the dream of the first turfed oval in the Northern Territory a reality for Alice Springs.”
Prophetically, the article went on: “When such a project as this establishment of a grassed oval is almost finished, people are inclined to forget too easily the efforts that went into it. In two years the oval will be accepted without any thought as to how it got there.”
Fittingly, this last comment was published in the Centralian Advocate on Anzac Day, April 25, 1952.
Author’s note: The Heritage Council’s Statement of Heritage Value for the proposed listing of Anzac Oval as a heritage site states: “In 1955 it became the first grassed sports oval in Alice Springs, when the small Alice Springs community banded together to ‘grass’ the area in what can be considered an extraordinary achievement for the period.”
This is incorrect – as my article demonstrates, the grassing of the oval commenced in October 1951, and in 1952 was claimed to be the first grassed oval in the Northern Territory.
The Statement of Heritage Value must be corrected because, if the heritage listing is successful, it will become fixed in law and, currently, there is no legal means of amending such statements.
PHOTOS (from top):
1: An early view across the flood prone land that became Anzac Oval. The Welfare Hall is the building on stilts on the far left. It was sold to raise funds for the first improvements on the recreation reserve before the war intervened. Photo (1932) courtesy of J. A. Poole.
2: Group photo taken at the time of Reverend Harry Griffiths’ departure in 1951. Griffiths is seated in the middle of the front row. Neil Hargrave (seated, far left) replaced Griffiths as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the recreation reserve.
3 & 8: The Australian Army transport operations set up camp on the Anzac recreation reserve in September 1940 where it stayed until the end of 1944. Alice Springs was under military control during WW2 and was the headquarters of a major sustained logistical operation throughout the NT.
4: Bob Rumball, the man whose vision defined the future development and use of Anzac Oval.
5: The Sewell family in their Sunday best for church, who were residents living in former Army huts at the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve in the late 1940s. The bare ground of the oval and Anzac Hill are visible behind them. Photo courtesy of Chloe May.
6: Map of Alice Springs, 1938, depicting the new recreation reserve between Anzac Hill and Todd River. There was already much forward planning for the town, including immediate subdivision of the reserve (intended for a new school), urban development on the east side of the Todd, and another proposed recreation ground south of the hospital which eventuated as Traeger Park in 1961.
7: View across the grassed recreation reserve towards the new school, circa 1953-4. Photo courtesy Prue Crouch. Her father Doug MacCormac was one of the key volunteers who helped establish the grass surface by hand-watering at night.
Part One by ALEX NELSON