1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Sports Grounds and Venues

Sporting sites were assumed to be part of the implementation of European colonisation. Initially, however, they were largely alienated on behalf of the gentlemen of the colony: a racetrack and a cricket ground were the first priorities.

They were temporary expressions of a sporting interest. In March 1838 a racecourse was laid out to the west of Batmans Hill. 'Garryowen' (Edmund Finn) later described this in his Chronicles as a 'grassy flat that ... was as if formed by nature's hand for a racecourse, unless when inundated by floods'. The grandstand was equally rudimentary, comprising 'a couple of large bullock drays' lashed together. Although the report of the first cricket match in the Port Phillip Gazette of 1 December 1838 implied a civilised scene of 'camps pitched' and 'banners tastefully arranged', the ground was actually a paddock in William Street. Similarly, when some of Melbourne's gentlemen began playing golf in 1847 they were merely utilising the open spaces of the Flagstaff Hill.

The sporting interest was successful in gaining government support for its leisure activities. When the Melbourne Cricket Club moved from land west of Spencer Street to an allocation of land south of the Yarra River, they set about making a wicket, fencing the ground and building a pavilion, features considered essential to the playing of cricket. This was to be transient as the railway to South Melbourne cut through the ground, and in September 1853 the club moved to its permanent site, 10 acres (4 ha) in the government paddock in Richmond Park. The ground was clear, the wicket laid and a pavilion built. Early lithographs of the site show tents providing shelter for spectators at the intercolonial matches in the 1850s.

At the same time, land was allocated to horseracing. In March 1840 Flemington racecourse opened with a three-day meeting. There was a natural hill for spectators, and temporary grandstands were erected to ensure a view. When R.C. Bagot became secretary in 1864, he set about building a large grandstand, which was to be labelled 'Bagot's cowshed' but which was well positioned and gave the racecourse a permanent appearance.

Apart from these significant initiatives, other sporting activities were conducted in private spaces, such as the cricket ground established by W.J.T. Clarke at Sunbury or the hunting grounds used by the Chirnsides at Werribee. Hotel owners also established bowling alleys, cricket pitches and coursing for their customers. In this context, when entrepreneurs such as Spiers & Ponds organised a tour of English cricketers in 1861, they contracted for the use of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the match.

But this model of sporting sites was soon challenged. The development of Melbourne occurred at a time of changing living standards. The expansion of leisure and recreational opportunities for the middle class in the 19th century was linked to new ideas of civic responsibility. In Melbourne the conjunction of these ideas with the expansion of the urban centre, the development of organised sport and the wealth generated by the gold rushes resulted in a distinctive pattern of sporting grounds. Access to sporting venues was accepted as a community right, and sporting clubs, composed of a cross-section of the suburb's men, were encouraged to approach local government to establish playing fields. Sporting teams were an important means of defining identity in newly developing suburbs.

By the end of the 1870s, the pattern of the sporting sites established in the parks of an expanding city reflected a very different understanding of organised sport from that of two decades earlier. When Fitzroy was declared a city in 1858, one of the first acts of the council was to request the Crown Lands Department to reserve 7 acres (2.8 ha) for public recreation. In 1862 a cricket club was granted rights to 9 acres (3.6 ha) and by 1877 had established a wicket, a pavilion, a garden and a bowling green. The cricket club was open to all young men in the suburb and therefore lost the exclusivity attached to the clubs of the 1830s. This trend was accentuated in 1883 when the Fitzroy Football Club was formed and began to share the ground with the Fitzroy Cricket Club.

With the development of organised sport, Melbourne's independent and state schools also became sporting sites. From the extensive facilities at Melbourne Grammar, which catered for a diverse range of sports, to the local state school with designated areas of the schoolyard assigned to football and netball, sport was embedded throughout the society.

At the same time, the rise of the spectator introduced a new element: the demand for enclosed sporting sites. Cricket spectators were accommodated in grandstands, but the growth of Australian football as a spectator sport soon overloaded these facilities. At the Brunswick Street Oval in Fitzroy, the original grandstand was replaced by one designed by N. Billing & Son in 1888. By the turn of the century, a second grandstand was added, embankments established around the ground and a high fence erected with turnstile entries. Good public transport contributed to the amenity of the site. The grounds - Princes Park, Victoria Park, Windy Hill, Western Oval, Glenferrie Oval, Arden Street, Lakeside Oval, Punt Road Oval and Junction Oval - and the development of the outer as a physical space soon created strong cultural traditions that shaped a sense of local identity.

These sporting sites met the needs of the sporting community until after World War II. The sporting culture was based on the idea of sport as a Saturday afternoon outdoor activity, and indoor sporting spaces were limited to a few swimming pools and private gymnasiums. Boxing was the only indoor sport that commanded a public arena, and both the stadium in West Melbourne and the stadium in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, owned by John Wren, conveyed a strong mystique as the boxers emerged from the shadowy crowd into the light of the ring.

From the 1940s Australian sporting culture changed dramatically. A much wider range of sports was introduced, including sports that required indoor spaces. The stadium complex in Albert Park, supported by the Victorian Government, was developed to cater for sports such as basketball, badminton and squash, all growing in popularity. In the wider community, squash courts were developed commercially, but generally municipalities took up the challenge of providing indoor sporting sites.

Better communications were a catalyst in the development of international sporting competition, and this had a major impact on sporting sites in Melbourne. Test matches between Australia and England had been the main staple of international sporting competition, and building programs at the MCG expanded the ground capacity in 1927, when a new Members' Pavilion was built, and in 1936, when the Southern Stand was completed. The 1956 Olympic Games were to bring the rest of the world to the city, and its sporting sites were refurbished or built for the occasion. The Olympic Stand was built at the MCG, while in 1954 Kevin Borland, Peter McIntyre, John and Phyllis Murphy and the engineer Bill Irwin won the competition to build the Olympic swimming and diving pool complex. It became one of Melbourne's major sporting heritage sites.

The desire for a higher standard of living was also expressed through the expansion of swimming pools throughout the metropolitan area. The Harold Holt Memorial Pool in Malvern was designed by Daryl Jackson and Keith Borland in 1967, as municipalities across the city usually took responsibility for providing swimming facilities. Schools, too, expanded their sporting amenities.

From the 1980s the most significant changes have taken place in spectator sporting sites. Sporting bodies, responding to the demands of globalisation, have organised national competitions and, as a consequence, have developed sporting sites appropriate for national and often televised competitions. Annual events such as the Grand Prix in Albert Park, the Spring Carnival at Flemington and the Australian Open Tennis Championships at Melbourne Park are major tourist attractions.

Meanwhile, Australian football remains a winter-long event, but one that has, since 1981, attracted a broader, national following. The attempt by the Victorian Football League to assert its independence of the MCG and construct a stadium designed for Australian football saw the opening of Waverley Park in 1970. Its closure in 1999 and the league's downgrading of the refurbished Princes Park were a prelude to the opening of the Docklands stadium and to the centralisation of games there and at the MCG. The emphasis of the Australian Football League on a national competition has seen an erosion of local identity as clubs have left their traditional suburban grounds for the larger venues.

In many ways, because of the televised sporting event, Melbourne has come to be identified by its sporting sites and known as the sporting capital of Australia.

June Senyard