On January 9, 1908, a meeting at the Glebe Town Hall containing the Metropolitan Rugby Union’s best side, Glebe, their officials and board members, politician Henry Hoyle and businessman James Giltinan lead to the iconic club deciding to switch codes and join the breakaway Rugby League for the upcoming season.
The club’s decision to switch codes was the catalyst for Balmain, South Sydney, Eastern Suburbs, Newtown, North Sydney and Western Suburbs to also abandon the MRU and join the Rugby League. It was just as integral to Rugby League’s birth as the procurement of star player Dally Messenger.
The story behind Glebe’s decision is very closely and heavily linked to the rise of professional Rugby in Australia.
In 1899, Glebe board member Lewis Abrams is made President of the MRU in its debut season of 1900. Abrams was an Alderman for the Glebe Council from 1893 til 1898. He was also Secretary of the Glebe Cricket Club from 1892-1900, President of the Glebe Bicycle Club and Secretary of the Glebe Free Trade & Liberal Association.
Abrams was largely responsible for the introduction of what was called ‘electoral cricket’, which was essentially the residential rule which would later be used in Rugby Union and Rugby League for many decades. Abrams was also a key man involved in the creation of the MRU in 1900.
In 1900, the MRU announced that clubs from Sydney University, Eastern Suburbs, North Sydney, Glebe, Newtown, Western Suburbs, South Sydney and Balmain would field teams in all three grades of competition. Glebe was one of the first teams entered into the competition as it was seen as “a stronghold of sport.”
Glebe’s side in the new MRU saw them change their jersey colours from Blue, Black and Yellow, to their iconic maroon (or Dirty Red as they would later be referred to). Abrams accepted the role of Glebe Club Secretary. The club patron was none other than Sydney Mayor, Sir Matthew Harris.
Sir Matthew Harris was a very valuable man to have on board, as he wasn’t just the Mayor of Sydney, but also president of the Wentworth Park trust, a ground which had never had a game of football played on it, but would become Glebe’s home ground for the 1900 season. Harris was also Vice President of the Royal Agricultural Society, whose ground was considered a marquee venue at the time as well.
Glebe’s dominance over the competition combined with an area full of talented and gifted athletes was proven when in the MRU’s debut season, Glebe won all three grades.
On July 23, 1904, Australia played Great Britain in a test at Brisbane’s Exhibition Ground. Glebe’s talented forward Alex Burdon, playing in his third consecutive test for the Wallabies, scored the opening try that gave the Wallabies a 3-0 lead at halftime. During the second half, he suffered a very heavy knock to his shoulder which forced him from the field. In typical Burdon style, he returned to the field 17 minutes later. Great Britain went on to win the game 17-3.
For Burdon though, it was the start of an extended lay off from playing and from work. He would return for the following season. His injury, like in sport today, was just an unfortunate risk every player took when they ran out onto the field.
However, Rugby Union was strictly amateur which meant players were not paid to play. Nor were they financially supported if their Rugby Union injury prevented them from working.
On July 14, 1906, Glebe hosted Auckland City at the Sydney Cricket Ground. In a close fought match, Glebe trailed 11-8 with 10 minutes remaining when Glebe’s George Riddell and Auckland’s George Little collided heavily when they both attempted to kick a loose ball. The collision saw both players suffer an horrific broken leg each. The sight of the injuries was so severe that the referee and players agreed to call the game off early and the players were sent to St.Vincents Hospital. Coincidentally, the same two players collided with each other in a game just 12 months prior which resulted in both players suffering broken collarbones.
The Glebe club decided to hold a benefit concert to raise funds for both players. Glebe officials asked the NSWRU to support their campaign; however the request was declined because the NSWRU would not support any activity that gave players money for their involvement in Rugby Union. Glebe went ahead with the fundraising and managed to raise £45 for each player (approximately 3 months wages).
Former Glebe Rugby Union board member Joe McGraw publicly criticised the NSWRU for their not helping Burdon in 1904 or Riddell in 1906. The NSWRU shortly after agreed to provide extra financial assistance to Riddell and Little.
In 1907, the MRU decided to abolish its insurance cover for players, instead leaving insurance up to the clubs. On May 4, Sydney played South Sydney in a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was towards the end of this game when Burdon infamously broke his arm. With no insurance to cover him while he was injured and unable to work, Burdon’s feeling of anger towards the Rugby Union for twice failing to help him reached its peak. Burdon began attending meetings at Test Cricketer Victor Trumper’s sports store. The meetings were frequently attended by James Giltinan, Trumper, Henry Hoyle and some players who were regular attendees included Trumper’s friend Peter Moir (Glebe), Arthur Hennessy (South Sydney), Bob Graves (Balmain) and Jim Moir (Glebe).
Two weeks after Burdon’s injury, Peter Moir received a telegram from George Smith in New Zealand, who was asking if a team of players in Sydney could be assembled to play against a professional Rugby team from New Zealand who would be visiting Australia en-route to England where they would be partaking in a tour against the professional Northern Union clubs.
Moir took the telegram to Trumper’s shop and a brief meeting was held and the request by Smith was accepted.
Professional Rugby started to become a reality and a great attraction for many disgruntled players. Glebe RU board members who were delegates that sat on the MRU committee actually supported the Rugby League movement and made it clear that they felt that a player revolt towards professionalism was the fault of the Rugby Union for treating the players with such contempt and insincerity.
On August 17, 1907, New Zealand played against New South Wales in a game under Rugby Union rules, but where all players were paid in what is considered the first game of Rugby League in Australia. A huge crowd of 20,000 turned out for the match, which was won by the visitors 12-8. Two more games were played in the following 6 days, with New Zealand winning both. Glebe fullback Charlie Hedley and forward Peter Moir represented NSW in all three games.
The MRU held a meeting shortly after the series finished. Lewis Abrams proposed that the Rugby Union should give its players the same entitlements that Rugby League planned to, as it would ensure that the players would not leave their code. The committee ruled his comments out of order and he was forced to deny that his intentions were to turn Rugby Union professional. The committee then ruled that all players who participated in the games against the visiting New Zealand professionals would be disqualified.
And so on January 9, 1908, Glebe agreed to become a Rugby League club. Many of their board members supported this decision, including the most important of them all at the time, Sir Matthew Harris.
Harris’ switch of allegiance saw the Rugby League gain exclusive use of both Wentworth Park and the Royal Agricultural Showground.
At Glebe’s landmark meeting, Tom McCabe was made a member of the management committee and future Prime Minister Billy Hughes was appointed as club patron. Alderman Percy Lucas was elected as the clubs first President.
On April 11, Glebe played their first game as a Rugby League Club, losing a trial against Western Suburbs 10-9.
On Easter Monday, April 20 at 3.15pm, Glebe kicked off their first official game against Newcastle in front of 3,000 fans at Wentworth Park. Glebe won the match despite playing quite poorly, by 8-5. Glebe went on to win their first 5 straight games before falling to a dominant South Sydney side 21-5. They won the next two before dropping their last game of the season against neighbouring rivals Balmain.
On May 6, 1908, Glebe fullback Charlie Hedley and forward Tom McCabe were selected to play in Australia’s first test match against the visiting New Zealand side. Australia lost 11-10.
On July 11, Hedley and McCabe also played in the first interstate game of Rugby League, when they represented NSW against Queensland. NSW romped home 43-0, with McCabe scoring 2 tries.
Glebe finished the inaugural season third, winning 7 of their 9 games, but the loss of their star first grade players Alex Burdon, Albert Conlon, Arthur Halloway, Charlie Hedley, Tom McCabe and Peter Moir to the pioneering Kangaroo tour to England, saw them lose 16-3 to eventual premiers South Sydney in the semi-final.
The Kangaroo tour was a failure, on and off the field. By the time they returned, Giltinan and Trumper had been sacked and Hoyle had stood down amidst allegations of corruption. Messrs Weymark (Glebe) and Fry (Souths) were heavily amongst the animated discussions to depose the founding trio, when they were given the right to vote on behalf of the Newcastle side at the Annual Meeting, despite there being no official documentation stating such. This incident drew the ire of board members from other clubs and saw about the abrupt ending of the meeting and a second Annual Meeting planned, which sealed the fate of the games founding fathers. This turmoil and financial uncertainty of the code necessitated a change of epic proportions in 1909 to keep the Rugby League alive. So began the purchase of the Gold Medal winning Wallabies players, led by test captain and Glebe’s champion half, Chris McKIvat. The secret meetings between League and the Union players took place at the Shearers Hotel on Bay St, Glebe.
Glebe’s 1909 season was quite poor compared to the previous year, winning just 4 of 10 games and finishing fifth and consequently missing the finals.
In 1910, the NSWRL introduced a team from Annandale, which automatically impacted on the region that Glebe once had to obtain players. They won 6 of 14 games in 1910 and again finished fifth on the ladder.
Glebe however had picked up former Wallabies Chris McKivat and Jack Hickey for the 1910 from the previous seasons coup. Both were named in the first test side to face England in the first test between the two nations in Australia. Hickey scored the first try for Australia but it wasn’t enough to overcome the British side, who won 27-20.
1911 saw the Glebe club finish the season as Minor Premiers, winning 11 of their 14 games, as well as scoring more points than any other club and conceding less points than all the other clubs as well. The finals system in place at the time was to be a final between first and second. As South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs were both equal second, they had a play off to determine who would play Glebe in the final. Easts had not lost any of their last 7 games and star player Dally Messenger was in vintage form. Easts accounted for Souths 23-10, Messenger scoring 20 points. Easts then defeated Glebe in the final 22-9. This meant that Easts and Glebe were now essentially equal first on the ladder and so a second final was played, which was also won by Easts 11-8. Glebe was without test half Chris McKivat and test forward Peter Moir, who were both on a boat with the Australasian touring side to England.
1911 was also the year that their greatest ever player, Frank Burge, made his debut, aged just 16. He was so impressive that he was seriously being considered for the 1911 Kangaroo tour to England, but it was his young age that prevented him from being selected.
The first final was also declared a testimonial match by the NSWRL for Alex Burdon, Bob Graves and Arthur Hennessy, to thank them for their roles as selectors in 1908. Each man received £152 each.
Glebe also played a representative match against a representative team from Newcastle, winning 12-10. They were the only Sydney team who managed to defeat the Newcastle side.
Glebe continued their run of good form in 1912, when they won 11 of 14 games, finishing second on the ladder. Glebe also managed to reach the final of the inaugural City Cup competition, but were convincingly beat by Souths 30-5. In August, Glebe President Thomas Keegan, a Labor member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, mentioned his displeasure at the omission of Tom Gleeson from the NSW side selected to tour to New Zealand. He also was very critical of the NSWRL for their omission of Chris McKivat from the tour. Keegan finished with a final attack on the NSWRL when he stated that the Glebe players Fritz Theiring and Jack Redmond received very severe suspensions in comparison to Easts Arthur Halloway.
The Glebe club won their first title, when they won the 1912 reserve grade competition.
Champion Glebe centre Jack Hickey is admitted to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital suffering from typhoid fever, of which he eventually made a full recovery.
September 6, 1913, the day when Glebe’s 10-8 defeat of North Sydney at the Sydney Cricket Ground, gave them their first and only ever first grade title, when they won the City Cup. In the premiership, they slumped, winning 8 of their 14 games and finishing fourth.
In January 1914, the NSWRL announced that it had completed a review of club boundaries, after a request by Glebe the previous year for more territory, as they were finding themselves fighting with Balmain and Annandale. The NSWRL decided that no boundary changes would be made in the short term. March 1914 saw the creation of the Glebe Junior Rugby League.
1914 saw the club slip to fifth on the ladder, winning 7 of their 14 games. In their defence of the City Cup title, they faced Easts in the semi-final, going down 26-9 at the SCG.
January 28, 1915 saw Glebe defeat Balmain 3-0 to win the ‘Australia Day’ Carnival. Frank Burge also won the 100 yards race for Rugby League forwards on the same day.
The outbreak of war saw around 95 players and officials from the Glebe club alone, enlist for service over the duration of the conflict, 66 of whom signed up in 1915-16 alone. Despite this immense loss, the competitions continued and Glebe was in a hard fought battle for first place with neighbours and rivals, Balmain. Both clubs finished the season with 12 wins from 14 games, however, Balmain drew their other two games, whereas Glebe lost theirs, giving Balmain their maiden premiership. In the City Cup, Glebe again reached the final after defeating Balmain 18-13 in the semi-final. They were outclassed by Easts 22-3 the following week.
1915 also saw legendary forward Frank Burge top the try scoring list for the competition, amassing 20 tries.
Burge again topped the try scorer’s board in 1916, this time with 22 tries. Glebe finished third behind Balmain and Souths, who were equal first with 11 wins from their 14 games. Glebe had 10 wins and a draw, The City Cup final was again played out between Easts and Glebe and again, Easts were victorious 18-15. Glebe finished the year playing against Newcastle, but were outclassed 25-6.
The first game of the 1917 could arguably be the start of the demise of Glebe, when they constantly battled with the NSWRL over a number of issues. Round 1 saw Glebe play neighbours Annandale. Glebe had recruited a player from Newcastle, Dan Davies. Davies moved to Sydney and lived with relatives, in Annandale. Glebe changed his address in the hope that no one would notice. But officials from the Annandale club did and after the game, in which Davies scored a try and helped lead Glebe to a convincing 26-5 win, issued a protest to the NSWRL demanding that Glebe’s 2 competition points be taken from them and given to Annandale. The NSWRL decided to strip Glebe of their points for the win only. Then they banned Dan Davies from playing Rugby League for life. Davies returned home to Newcastle to return to his job in the mines.
Events came to a head in July, when Glebe officials complained to the NSWRL that a number of their players were harshly treated by the referee in their Round 12 game against Newtown, when a number were sent off for seemingly minor indiscretions.
During the week, leading up to their Round 13 clash with rivals Balmain, which was scheduled to be played at the SCG, the NSWRL instead switched it to Balmain’s home ground, Birchgrove Oval. This meant a much smaller gate and far less funds for Glebe.
This time the players had decided to revolt, choosing to go on strike for the game against Balmain. Glebe fielded a reserve grade side that was thrashed 40-9. The NSWRL then decided that all players who abandoned the match would receive a 12 month suspension. Glebe lost their last game of the year against perennial strugglers Wests 33-16 to finish the season sixth. Glebe also failed to reach the finals for the City Cup.
After much negotiating, the NSWRL agreed to overturn their month suspension on 12 of the 14 Glebe players by seasons end. Frank Burge and Alby Burge had to wait until May 1918 to have their suspensions lifted.
The 1918 season Glebe finish third, with 9 wins from their 14 games. They also made the finals of the City Cup, but this time they lost their semi-final to Wests 12-8. Burge again scored more tries than anyone else in the competition, this time scoring a club record 24 tries for the season.
Glebe’s reserve grade side picked up their second premiership.
In a match against Easts in 1919, the crowd, angered by the officiating, rushed the ground and upended the referee. It was the same game that also saw Frank Burge score his 100th try for Glebe. The year again saw Glebe again finish third with 9 wins from 14 games. However in the City Cup, they reached the final, against Wests. Defending their title, Wests went on to defeat Glebe 14-10.
Glebe’s reserve grade side won their third premiership.
In 1920, Frank Burge scores a club and competition record 8 tries in a game, when Glebe defeats new club University 41-0. Burge scored 32 of his side’s points in the match. Glebe finished the year second behind rivals Balmain, with 8 wins from 13 games. They failed to reach the finals of the City Cup.
The year also saw Glebe’s long serving official Mr CHJ Upton resign from his role due to a health issue with his eyes. Upton had been a long respected official and his departure saw communication between the club and the NSWRL suffer immensely.
Glebe’s reserve grade side won their third straight title.
On October 13, 1920, the NSWRL decided to axe Annandale from the competition. This decision gave Glebe some of their old territory back and seemed certain to ensure their future.
Glebe finished third in 1921 despite winning 6 of their 8 games. They lost to Souths 28-14 in the semi-finals of the City Cup. Their reserve grade side won their fourth consecutive Grand final.
The 1922 season finished with Norths and Glebe equal first and thus a final was played. It was the first premiership final Glebe had played in since 1911. However they were completely outclassed by a star studded North Sydney outfit, who ran away 35-3 winners. Glebe lost 21-3 to Easts in the semi-finals of the City Cup.
Glebe celebrated their favourite son, Frank Burge, with a testimonial match against Souths in Round 11 of 1923. The match was played at the Sydney Sports Ground in front of 15,000 fans. Souths won 10-0 in a tough contest. There were suggestions made at the time that the NSWRL tried to schedule other events on at the same time to try and minimise the gate for Glebe, however if it were the case it failed. The testimonial match attracted 15,000 fans, while the other three games of the round attracted a combined total of 9,500.
Just three weeks later in Round 14, was the infamous game where North Sydney’s Test halfback Duncan Thompson was sent off for allegedly kicking Glebe forward Tom McGrath. Thompson was illegally held back after passing the ball and was trying to free himself when he accidentally struck McGrath in the face. Many supporters from both teams supported Thompson’s response that it was an accident; however the NSWRL suspended him for the rest of the year. When they wouldn’t overturn the decision, Thompson returned to Toowoomba and vowed to never play in Sydney ever again.
It would turn out to be the single event that brought North’s two year reign undone.
Glebe finished the season sixth on the ladder, winning 6 of 16 games; however they managed to reach the final of the City Cup, against rivals Balmain.
At fulltime, the scores were tied at 5 all. An extra 8 minutes of extra time was played, however the scored remained unchanged. So another 12 minutes of extra time was ordered, but the duration of the match seemingly took everything out of the Glebe players as Balmain ran in 20 points to win 25-5 in the competition’s first game to last 100 minutes.
1924 saw Glebe climb back up the ladder, finishing third with 4 wins from 8 games. Glebe failed to reach the finals of the City Cup.
Glebe won just 5 of 12 games in 1925; however they managed to reach the City Cup final against a remarkable South Sydney side that had not lost a single premiership or City Cup game all year. They continued that run with a 15-8 win over Glebe in the City Cup final.
1926 was Frank Burge’s last year playing for Glebe, as he decided to accept a captain/coach role with St.George for the 1927 season. In his Round 8 game against University, Burge got badly injured and was carried off the field. Glebe finished the season equal second with Easts, having won 9 of 16 games (with 1 draw). Glebe however lost to finals debutants University in the first semi-final 29-3.
At the Glebe Annual Meeting on March 18, 1927, Alex Burdon suggested that the club consider importing players to improve their results and performances on the field, just like Norths did a few years earlier. His suggestion was met with great opposition and was refused. Consequently, the season saw Glebe turn out their worst season ever, winning just 4 of their 16 games, only one more than the last placed University. Glebe’s administration had become quite poor, as had the coaching. It wasn’t long before the on-field performance dropped immensely as well.
Glebe’s third grade side won their maiden title, giving the club 7 titles over all 3 grades, but the first grade side being the only one not to win a premiership.
In 1928 Glebe won 4 of their 12 games and finished sixth. They also lost their long-time home ground of Wentworth Park at seasons end. A match against Easts at the Agricultural Showground saw angry scenes amongst the crowd.
On June 8, Lewis Abrams died. Some people at the time suggested that the heart and soul of Glebe died with him.
In 1929 Glebe won 3 of their 16 games and finished second last again. A NSWRL special committee revealed its report regarding revised boundaries on November 4. When NSWRL Secretary Horrie Miller unrolled a map of the boundary changes, all of Glebe’s territory had been absorbed by neighbouring club and rival, Balmain. The meeting grew very animated and an adjournment was made, whereby the matter would be readdressed in a weeks’ time,
On November 11, 1929, a ballot was held to determine if Glebe should be axed from the competition. The result was 13 votes to 12 in favour. The NSWRL stated that there were a number of reasons, but most prominent were Glebe’s recent poor form, a lack of home ground, low crowds and a growth of interest in soccer in the area. It’s also suggested that Glebe’s many battles with the NSWRL hierarchy helped sway the decision against Glebe’s favour.
Local politician Tom Keegan, who had been a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly since 1910, lobbied the community in the week between the two meetings, in a bid to get the Glebe team reinstated for the 1930 season. He managed to obtain 3,000 signatures which Messrs E.Lloyd and F.Benning presented to the NSWRL, along with a provision that Glebe be retained. The petition and the request were ruled out of order by Harry Flegg. Non-voting delegates from nearly all the clubs sided with Glebe (including the benefactors of Glebe’s demise, Balmain) and suggested that if Glebe were to be given some of South Sydney’s territory, then they would stand a chance of not only survival, but prospering once again.
But the NSWRL stood by their decision and Glebe were no more.
On November 18, a public meeting was held at the Glebe Town Hall, convened by the Mayor of Glebe with the intention of forming a protest against the NSWRL decision. But despite their efforts and good intentions, the decision would not be overturned.
The decision decimated the area and its interest in Rugby League died off very quickly. It was such a proud sporting area full of very loyal and passionate athletes that when it was announced that Glebe would no longer compete, almost their entire squad of players from the 1929 season retired from game. Syd Christensen moved to Balmain and helped lead their resurrection in the late 1930’s. When he retired at the end of the 1937 season, he was the last man that had played for Glebe left playing.
And it was on Armistice Day, 1929, that the NSWRL finally got their peace with the Glebe club. A team whose history was integral to Rugby League’s birth and growth had given way to plans for an expansion to the Belmore region of Sydney. In fact, it would take 6 years before a team from that area was introduced into the competition.
****************This article appeared in 2 parts in the Rugby League Review Magazine***********************