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HomeIssue 10Centre of attention: Glory days of Anzac Oval in the 1950s

Centre of attention: Glory days of Anzac Oval in the 1950s

2611 Anzac Oval & tennis OK

Anzac Oval and tennis courts, circa 1974.

2611 Anzac Oval Aussie Rules circa 1952 OKPart Two by ALEX NELSON
Despite the trying conditions of the summer of 1951/52, the community effort to grass the Alice Springs Recreation oval paid off as the year eased into the cooler months. With the exception of a single storm in January, it wasn’t until May that the situation was alleviated with the onset of a wet winter. 1952 was a year of consolidation for the newly grassed oval but its reputation began to spread far and wide. The recreation reserve became a venue of many firsts during the 1950s.
Voluntary contributions of labour and material continued to provide improvements for the oval. With the exception of provision for a triple gauge mower, the NT Administration provided almost no assistance at this time.
Volunteers made and erected 150 concrete fence posts and wooden seats that surrounded the oval. Pat Davis, of Hamilton Downs Station, donated piping for the top rail of the fence to go around the oval, and other pastoralists donated the fencing and gates. (See on the photo down the page.)
The new-look sports ground may have provided the lift for the Alice Springs representative team when it won its first inter-town Aussie Rules match against Darwin on April 16 (the fourth attempt since 1949) for the start of the 1952 football season. No longer were the games played on bare soil with the players obscured in dust.
A fairly standard season of Aussie Rules ensued for the three town teams; however, one game that year stood out when, for the first time, an Aussie Rules match between a town-based team – Federals – and an Aboriginal team was held at Hermannsburg on July 13, 1952.
“Employing unheard of positional tactics the aborigine team finished the match five goals in front to the wild enthusiasm of the great crowd of Mission spectators.
“The game was played in the friendliest of manners with the Federal players entering right into the spirit of the occasion to the huge delight of the Mission folk”. (Centralian Advocate – CA, 18/7/52).
2611 Anzac Oval Aboriginal sports OKThis game was the first town versus Hermannsburg annual matches that in future were held at the recreation reserve during the 1950s.
AT LEFT: Young Aboriginal sports participants, Anzac Oval.
As the footy season drew to a close it became the turn of cricket to return to the oval; however, the initial lack of enthusiasm almost led to the cancellation of the 52/53 cricket competition.
Things quickly changed after the Alice Springs Cricket Association held its AGM, when Ly Underdown took over as president and John Ryan was appointed secretary.
The first interstate game was held at the reserve on the weekend of 27-28 December, 1952, when Alice Springs hosted a cricket team from Mt Isa. The Queenslanders won.
Basketball was also played during this season, with day matches held on a concrete slab nearby Wills Terrace that served as a court, while night matches were held under rigged up floodlights on the oval itself. There were both men’s and women’s team competitions.

Anzac Oval Peterson
Anzac Oval Peterson

However, when the summer sport season ended, more significant changes were made. The concrete slab was demolished to make way for five bitumen-surfaced tennis courts (now the carpark area between Anzac Oval and Wills Tce), effectively rendering the day basketball teams “homeless”.
AT RIGHT: Queen’s crown made with kids. Photo Meredith Peterson 1953.
The plan was to build new basketball courts near Anzac Hill but this work was delayed until construction of a road to service the new school at the oval’s north end was completed.
The women’s day basketball association opted for a new sport – hockey.
The first match was held on the recreation reserve on April 19, 1953: “Centralian sporting history was made last Sunday when the clear cut cracking sound of hockey sticks and shin bones heralded the opening game of the first Alice Springs Hockey Association competition.
“The sportswomen to enjoy this privilege were the enthusiastic members of the Federal and Rovers women’s hockey clubs”.
The report continued: “Aware of all the implications of a new sport, to Alice Springs, being played by girls entirely new to this game, umpire Neil Hargrave, a player of very considerable experience, allowed a fair amount of latitude.
“Federals ran out winners in this lowest possible scoring match. The victory – one goal to nil.” (CA, 24/4/53).
The women’s hockey matches became the curtain-raisers for the Aussie Rules games on the oval.
Not long afterwards, Federals hosted a return match with the Hermannsburg Harriers football team: “Playing their very first game of competitive Australian Rules football, strictly to the rules, the Hermannsburg Mission team of full-blood aborigine sportsmen went down gallantly, by three goals to Federals last Monday.
“Like another famous band of fine fighters, they literally ‘died with their boots on’ – and were pressing strongly full of vim when the final bell announced the end of this historic match. Spectators from the Bungalow provided most of the fun with some spirited barracking for their fellows from the mission – but it was fast, genuine, solid football that the big crowd saw.” (CA, 8/5/53).
In early June, half a world away, the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II took place but Alice Springs was equally caught up in the fervour of this royal occasion as any place in the Commonwealth.
On the morning of June 2 the town staged the Coronation Parade, following the template set by the Jubilee Parade in 1951, with floats assembled near the hospital then proceeding up Todd Street onto the oval, driving around the perimeter for judging.
This was followed by a tableaux of a crown formed by several hundred children, which was best viewed from upslope on Anzac Hill.
The Alice Springs Motorcycle Club organised the afternoon’s entertainment at the oval, including foot races, motorcycle stunt performances, and novelty events – chasing the greasy pig, pillow fight on a greasy pole, kicking a football into a bucket, and wheelbarrow races. They were the kind of madcap events that later characterised the Henley-on-Todd.
There was also an exhibition of “weapon throwing by warriors of the Wailbri [Warlpiri] tribe.”
Other events in town included the first CWA flower show and an exhibition of art and craft, cooking, and produce held in the Catholic Hall in Bath Street – effectively a prototype of the Alice Springs Annual Show.
It was also during this year that a new service was beginning in town – St. John Ambulance; and the District Superintendent, Claude Merrill, began the practice of attending football matches to provide first aid for injured players.
On 28 August there was another event that attracted a large crowd of spectators to the oval – the Annual Sports Day for the Alice Springs Public School (old Hartley Street School). There was a significant difference to the occasion in 1953.
2611 Anzac Oval sports function OKThe day began with children marching from the school to the oval where a senior dignitary awaited them.
AT LEFT: School sports day or function, circa 1957-9; Photo courtesy Sandra Moore.
He officially “opened the sports day [and] urged all to try hard, and then with obvious enjoyment, started the first race of the day, between six little girls, who charged panting towards him over a 25 yard course.” (CA, 4/9/53).
The dignitary was the Governor-General of Australia, His Excellency Field Marshall Sir William Slim: “One of the Governor-General’s Aides, Col. Gilliatt, commented that in all his travels he had never seen better organised sports, and he was not just being nice.
“The programme swept through, event after event, in perfect order, a credit to the teachers and the children.” (CA, 4/9/53).
(Popular across Australia, British Sir William had been a primary school teacher and been wounded at Gallipoli in 1915 – two themes that came together at the “Anzac recreation reserve”).
The recreation reserve was at last receiving government support: “Northern Territory Administration has given considerable assistance to the trustees of the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve Oval in recent months.
“The finance provided for several important jobs has been most welcome and points to a new approach by the authorities to Alice Springs needs.
“Prior to the assistance referred to, many people who are directly concerned with the sporting and social requirements of Alice felt that the town was being left out in the cold a bit by comparison to the assistance Darwin sporting bodies were receiving.” (CA, 18/9/53).
The assistance included work on the playground for the new kindergarten under construction, leveling ground for new basketball courts, and – for the first time – top-dressing of the oval. All of this was done in conjunction with ongoing volunteer labour and resources.
The topdressing involved spreading manure across the oval – done by volunteers organised by the trustees – in turn covered by a layer of soil, which was provided by the NT Administration.
This work prevented the Alice Springs Cricket Association from playing on the oval early in the 1953/54 season, instead relocating temporarily on the bare Eastside field (now Ross Park Oval, the town’s second sportsground).
The topdressing also buried the existing cricket pitch on the Recreation Reserve oval, necessitating work to remove the turf and build the pitch up with a three-inch thick concrete pad. Organised by Cricket Association secretary John Ryan, this work was completed by volunteer labour in late November.
The concrete pitch was then covered with a layer of coir matting, all ready for games to commence at last on the oval.
However, the rains failed again and forced the town onto water restrictions, which in turn delayed the recovery of the turf through the topdressing. The trustees sought to overcome this problem by sinking two bores in the reserve but both attempts failed after striking solid rock deep below the surface.
Finally, games commenced on the oval in mid December: “For some weeks a number of bowlers had been rubbing their hands in keen anticipation of being able to exploit the potential of spin and “bite” in coir matting.
“Last Sunday, Alice Springs cricket was played on coir for the first time and batsmen flogged hell out of most bowling.” (CA, 18/12/53).
The year 1954 saw new initiatives in sport at the recreation reserve. It was also the first full calendar year of operation for the new Alice Springs Higher Primary School at the north end of the oval.
In early January, local umpire Vic Lomas put forward a proposal: “I write as one of a group of people who view with alarm the number of young people in Alice Springs who have no access to sporting facilities such as football, cricket, basketball, etc, and are left to their own devices.
“It is our intention to form a Junior League so that these youngsters be given a chance to take an active part in the coming football season.” (CA, 8/1/54).
2611 Anzac Oval Children in theme costumesAT RIGHT: Children in theme costumes, Anzac Oval circa 1957-9. Photo Sandra Moore.
The Junior Football League began in March: “When 45 enthusiastic youngsters ranging in age from 9 to 16 ran out on to the recreation oval last Thursday evening an organisation of great importance to sport and social welfare was under way.”
The story noted: “The league will certainly provide the opportunity for youngsters who may possibly have a future in football – their natural ability will have a chance of developing, instead of lying unknown and unexploited. Energy and exuberance will be directed into proper channels – youth with nothing to do, is a bad situation, fraught with dangers.” (CA, 12/3/54).
A month later came another significant development: “Two teams, footballers and soft ball players, from the Hermannsburg Mission School will meet the Alice Springs Higher Primary School on the Recreation Oval on Saturday afternoon. The matches will be the first ever contested between the two schools and may be the beginning of regular meetings.
“The young aborigine children at Hermannsburg are reported to be very thrilled at the chance to come into Alice and play on the big green oval.” (CA, 30/4/54).
Attracting a large crowd, the first inter-school sports carnival was a big success with honours shared between the two campuses – the Hermannsburg boys won the football and the Alice Higher Primary girls took out the softball match. Its success guaranteed more carnivals over the next few years.
This was quickly followed with another children’s event: The first Centralian Native School sports meeting ever held will be conducted on the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve on Tuesday, May 18.
On Friday, Mr Jim Gallacher, Head Teacher of the Bungalow Native School, advised that the following schools will be represented: Hermannsburg Mission School, Santa Teresa Mission School, Phillip Creek, Yuendumu, Areyonga, Jay Creek and the Bungalow.
“Mr Gallacher said that the purpose of holding such sports meetings is to help broaden the native children’s outlook, encourage free mixing among the different tribes and to develop a sense of competition among the children.” (CA, 9/4/54).
Gallacher’s scheme had the full support of Federal member Jock Nelson who believed “that eventually inter-school sports in which all the native schools and the Alice Springs schools take part will become recognised annual events”.
The inter-school sports carnival was a resounding success and was repeated for several years.
Another significant milestone for the recreation reserve at this time was the revival of competitive tennis commencing with an American Day Tournament on June 5 on the newly completed courts adjacent to Wills Terrace.
During this time the Territory went to the polls, with both Federal and NT Legislative Council elections held simultaneously on 29 May, 1954 – and the recreation reserve had a major bearing on the outcome in Alice Springs.
The Federal Member, Jock Nelson, had no trouble retaining the seat of the Northern Territory for Labor.
The Member for Alice Springs, Frank Johnson, also a major Labor Party figure, was re-elected unopposed in 1951 – the only time this has occurred in the town’s political history.
However, in April 1954 Neil Hargrave announced he would contest the seat as an independent candidate – and he had the full backing of Bob Rumball, the recreation reserve visionary who had replaced Jock Nelson on the Board of Trustees in 1950.
In a letter published the day before the elections, Rumball declared: “We are fortunate in having amongst our candidates a citizen, Mr N. Hargrave, who has proved beyond doubt to have all the qualifications set out above.
“In fact, it is the writer’s experience of the good work done in the various children’s, youths’, sporting bodies, Recreation Board of Trustees and other public organisations, both in committee and in the field, often against great odds, that has prompted this letter.
“The writer is confident that Mr Hargrave, if elected would not only be a most efficient representative of all sections of our community, but with his legal training, energy and determination, would be an extremely valuable asset to the council.” (CA, 28/5/54).
In the three-way contest, Johnson and Hargrave gave each other last preference; however, it was Hargrave who took the day, and in doing so became the first candidate in Alice Springs to defeat an incumbent member.
For the first time (but by no means the last), Anzac Oval played an influential role in the town’s politics.
In late September the old Hartley Street School was the venue for a new event in town – a children’s show: “The almost spectacularly successful A.S.H.P School Show on Saturday afternoon last could form the basis for a general Alice Springs Show is the opinion of many local people.
“There was a greater variety of fun, entertainment and interest packed into the old school grounds and class rooms than at any other Alice Springs function in recent years.” (CA, 1/10/54).
The outstanding success of this event necessitated its relocation to the recreation reserve in 1955, where annual children’s shows and pet parades were hosted by the combined venues of the oval and new school over the next few years.
The first “pet show” (as it came to be known) was held at the school and reserve on July 2, but exactly two months earlier the Alice Springs Youth Centre had also held its inaugural May Day Carnival.
This occasion was so successful that it, too, became an annual event – and both unwittingly anticipated the times of year that respectively host the Bangtail Muster and Alice Springs Annual Show.
A year later the recreation reserve witnessed another major milestone.
July 1956 was a big month for the town – the premiere of the film “A Town Like Alice” was shown at the Pioneer Walk-In Theatre on the 24th; but on the 2nd had also hosted its first international sports event when the Indian women’s hockey team took on the local women’s representative side on the oval.
“Alice Springs turned out in force on Wednesday afternoon’s public holiday to see the local hockey girls narrowly defeated by the visiting Indian team. It was a hard, fast, and close game. India won, 3 – 2.
“Watchers of the match constituted the biggest crowd seen at any function on the Alice Springs Oval for many a year. It was estimated that about 800 people were present for the game” (the town’s population was then about 2500). (CA, 6/7/56).
Well within the space of a decade, the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve had proven to be by far the most important public space in the Centre; but the town’s increasing population and growing demands on the reserve were now threatening to overwhelm it.


  1. Enjoyed many footie matches at the oval in 1955-56.
    Don Robertson played briefly for the Federals until he broke his arm and no more footie for the Yanks.
    We did, however, played basketball and won the premiership in 1956, our first year of competing.
    We beat Darwin in one game but lost the rematch. Wonderful days in old Alice. Thanks to you all!

  2. Congratulations Alex, this is wonderful stuff.
    I was a member of the Darwin footy team that was soundly beaten by Alice in April 1952.
    Wow, a grass oval! Darwin Oval was still a gravel pit.
    I was playing full back, opposed to Terry Clements at full forward.
    Protecting TC in all clashes were two thugs, Jack “Kadaitja” Higgins and Reg “Mophead” Harris, who took great delight in flattening me.
    Fond memories, too of the first Bangtail Muster (1969?) led by Wallaby Bill and a group of Yuendumu athletes and elders. We had a band from Papua New Guinea on that occasion, if I recall correctly.
    Correct, too Alex regarding the short memories.
    Neil Hargrave deserves much greater recognition in this town.
    But there are so many other names mentioned – Bob Rumball, Dave Baldock, Pat Davis, John Ryan, Agnes East and Joan Higgins to name just a few – all with specific links to Anzac Oval and the Youth Centre.
    There should be, perhaps, a museum building erected to the honour of those forbears who did it so well for us.

  3. I have restored and posted the entire first Bangtail Muster of 1959, filmed by Mr Fred Angerer on his excellent German 8mm Eumig movie camera.
    I know many other genuine senior town elders who well know the sound masonary construction High School building.
    With its old asbestos insulation safely removed it should be completely modernised in accordance with latest BCA standards.
    It should be turned into to a financially prudent and viable National Trust listed museum and cultural centre befitting our town’s ex service personnel who also constructed the oval soon after postal services were handed back to the civilian post office in Railway Terrace on the 1946 anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.

  4. @ Peter Bassett (Posted February 19, 2019 at 7:33 pm): Appreciate your comment, especially about the old high school, Peter.
    Contrary to what has been reported in the some media, the old school building is a very well constructed building with enormous inherent heritage value.
    There has been – and is – a deliberately false and misleading campaign initiated by the NT Government, amplified by vested interests through a complicit and compliant print media, to denigrate the worth and value of that old education complex.


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