Source: The Bulldog Story 1908-1990 

IT is certain that pick-up matches, and unofficial games, were played in the Canterbury areas not long after the game started in Sydney in 1908.

The first evidence of formulated Rugby League is provided by a photo of a 1909 team, believed to be the first Canterbury junior league side. The team was 'Campsie District Football Club - Juniors'. The inscription under the photo reads, “Winners of St George District B grade competition, Season 1909.”

Campsie Juniors, 1909, reported to be the first junior Rugby League side in the Canterbury area.

It was a time when the best means of transport to matches for the players was by the horse-drawn bus. The Canterbury area was purely agricultural until 1841, land grants being made freely for farming purposes as far back as 1793. The Reverend Richard Johnson, a Yorkshire Chaplin, and Australia's first clergyman, gave Canterbury its name, although he first called it 'Canterbury Vale'.

As a reward for accepting the appointment as Chaplin to the NSW settlement, he was given 600 acres of prime land in the area. He later became a wealthy farmer, taking all of what he earned back to England some time later.

Canterbury became the home of the earliest timber getters, splitters and shingle makers, although it is recorded that there was little attempt to build a settlement in those times. Because of the attraction of the sugar mill toward the end of the 19th century, land was twice as expensive at Canterbury as it was at Redfern.

It was an area of great character where the old-timers would meet at Parkes Camp, Campsie to watch the cock-fighting, and famous old-time fighter Bill Sparkes was legend. Sparkes cleaned up the best in Australia and later fought the unbeaten champion Nat Langham, breaking his wrist in the 67th round. Sparkes had knocked Langham down many times before the fight was stopped. These were the forefathers of Canterbury, toughened timbercutters and farmers. They would indeed have fine, sturdy Rugby League players.

It is not surprising then that a Canterbury team of young men, presumably under-19 then for B grade, should go across to the St George area in 1909 and clean up the best around. Prior to 1908 Canterbury residents would have played in Rugby competitions conducted by the Western Suburbs Association. Yet Rugby Union was never strong at Canterbury. Rugby League quickly took over, just as the game in general flourished with the decision of Dally Messenger to turn professional in 1907.

It is not known how many junior sides were formed in those very early years but one of the first of the Belmore area was the Belmore Black and Whites in 1915. According to the now deceased Vic Meinrath, a member of the team who later became a graded referee in 1927, the Black and Whites also had to play in the St George competition.

Meinrath lasted one season, explaining that life became unruly and rough for a Belmore boy in a time when suburban gangs fought for supremacy. It was a fact of life that the Belmore and Bankstown gangs would board the 11.30pm train from Central and use the first carriage as a battle ground.

The second Belmore team was the Belmore Rockley Football Club in 1916, a team that was reputedly among the best junior sides in the western areas.

To get to matches in the St George area, the Belmore players would meet near Belmore station and take the horse-drawn bus.

Other clubs followed -Bankstown United, Punchbowl Waratahs and the Belmore Federals, although the order is not readily known.

Yet it took until 1921 before any positive steps were made to form Canterbury's own junior league competitions. A small band of men, headed by Frank Miller – later to become a major force in the district club's attempts to reach Sydney grade status – and Tom Johns, met to decide Rugby League's future in the area. It was a significant year for others as well. St George had been accepted into the grade competition; North Sydney won its inaugural first grade premiership and it was just one year after Australia's 13-strong Olympic team to Antwerp were unable to bring back a gold medal. But the 1914-1918 was was three years behind, and as Sydney's outer suburbs grew, so did the need to improve and help the sporting needs of the growing population.

Those in the Canterbury area who wished to play Rugby League had to join junior clubs in either the Newtown, St George or Western Suburbs Junior Leagues. For instance, Canterbury Fernleigh, another pick-up team of local lads, played in the Western Suburbs Junior League. But for a youngster living in the Canterbury area before 1922, making progress to a district club was virtually impossible.

Junior matches received reasonable publicity in local Canterbury papers even before the formation of the Junior League. Below are some excerpts from a match report in 'The Torch' in 1920. The heading said simply: FOOTBALL -Bankstown United F.C. V Arncliffe Rainbows.

“Bankstown United were again unlucky in the daw for grounds last Saturday as they had to journey to Arncliffe to play the Rainbows. The game was very fast and even in the first half and after a long tussle Arncliffe, by a nice piece of work, managed to score their first try...

“From the kick-out Bankstown livened up, and from (sic) centre J. Russell picked up, and with a nice run, sidestepping four of the opposition, scored for Bankstown...

“In the second half both teams were confident, and the Bankstown forwards played a splendid game... the Rainbow's pace began to tell and playing a brilliant game they wore down the defence of the town, which had been good to watch. Vic Meinrath, F. Blake and E. Miller played a fine game, and were the pick of the town... the opposing wing men were too fast, and it was this that caused the scores to be 23-3 at fulltime.”

The writer of the article, displaying his obvious impatience, added: “The second row of the pack should not forget the half wants to handle the ball occasionally.” And... “R. Munnery caught the ref's eye on several occasions last Saturday. Don't be overanxious, Snow.”

The report underlined the obvious interest in the game in the Canterbury-Bankstown area at the time.

Miller and Johns, and a number of other officials, including the first junior league president, Jack Cruickshank, set about gathering support. The interest in forming an organised junior league competition was surprisingly intense. At no time did officials believe they had started something they could not finish.

And so, after this inaugural meeting in a hall above 'The Ideal Milk Bar' in Beamish Street – opposite the Campsie Railway Station – Canterbury-Bankstown Junior League began, officially.

For the inagural year, 1922, seven clubs were formed, from which 18 teams played in A and B and C-grade competition. Those clubs (and their colours) were: Bankstown (green and gold); Belmore (black and white); Campsie Ionas (royal blue); Earlwood (cerise and sky blue); Hurlstone Park Fernleigh (royal blue and white); Lakemba (red and green) and Punchbowl (sky blue).

Canterbury also had to convince the New South Wales Rugby League that the area was capable of supporting a strong and virile junior competition, sufficient to provide a competitive President's Cup (under-21) team.

Although not successful in winning the Cup in their initial year, it did unearth some promising talent, one of which was Jerry Brien, who had played for Lakemba C-grade. In 1923, Brien was elevated to grade with Western Suburbs. He went on to play for NSW against Great Britain and coached Canterbury first grade side in 1939.

There were others, too, who rose from the growing Canterbury junior competitions and found their way to other district clubs. Players such as Frank Sponberg, a Punchbowl and Lakemba junior, who played with Wests before returning to play in Canterbury's pioneer years in grade; George Mason, a halfback from Bankstown, and it was said that Hurlstone Park Fernleigh became a nursery for Newtown.

After the first year, new clubs were added and others dropped out. In 1925, there were nine clubs, the new members being Campsie Federal, Earlwood Ferneligh, Earlwood Waratah and Greenacre. Gone was Hurlstone Park Fernleigh and Earlwood. The donation from the NSWRL that year was 10 pound while the cost of a club protesting against another was 10 shillings. The cash balance at the end of the year was just over nine pound.

The game remained highly popular into the late 1920s and early 1930s with the main source of discontent being the “poaching” of young players by neighbouring district clubs. It was not improper for those clubs to take the juniors of Canterbury, for it was the young players' only chance of a grade career. But it began to anger Canterbury officials who saw the need for their own district club.

In 1930, club officials met to discuss the future of the Canterbury area. It was deemed then – unofficially – by NSWRL officials that the area was not ready for elevation. Yet in 1931, the club won the President's Cup for the first time, a reminder to the league, at least, that the junior strength of the area could not be denied.

Canterbury's first President's Cup winning team, 1931

The next attempt to convince the league that Canterbury deserved first grade status was made in 1933, but according to Jack Ford, a secretary of both the junior league and later, the district club: “The league told us to come back when we were stronger.”

It was also significant that neighbouring clubs, St George, Newtown and Wests were strong in those years -Saints and Newtown playing out the 1933 final -and the inclusion of Canterbury to grade would reduce their junior league strength. Such a prospect did not delight them.

But these were tough times, as one would expect. Ford recalled that the junior league grounds were controlled by the council and they charged threepence entrance fee. “Thirty three per cent of the gate went to the Lady Mayoress' clothes fund,” said Ford. Ford also rode his bike from Punchbowl to Earlwood each week to supply the local paper with results of the weekend's matches.

Local officials persisted in their attempts to convince the head body that the area was ready for promotion. On May 14, 1934, they held a meeting to enlist public support for their plans.

Canterbury had two municipalities to consider – Bankstown and Canterbury. The Canterbury municipality had an area of 17 square miles and a population of 85,000 while Bankstown municipality contained 28,000 people in 29 square miles. Canterbury officials claimed that the areas were not adequately catered for by the St George, Wester Suburbs and Newtown district clubs.

In the district at the time was Alderman Stan Parry, the Mayor of Canterbury. He was a well respected member of the community, a livewire who dabbled in real estate. Parry had developed a love for the game and with his alderman, gave Canterbury every support in their venture. It was the kind of encouragement that was not lost on the NSWRL.

Then, on June 26, 1934, at a public meeting at Campsie Dispensary Hall, it was resolved that “this public meeting of Rugby League supporters consider the time opportune for the formation of a District Grade Club in the Canterbury Bankstown Municipality”. The resolution was carried unanimously and this time the feeling of optimism was strong. How long could the NSWRL deny these persistent officials?

After a series of meetings with adjoining clubs and a special committee of the NSWRL, the Canterbury officials were advised on September 25, 1934 that they had been successful. They would be part of the NSWRL premiership in 1935.

Boundaries remained a problem. It was decided that the Hurlstone Park and Earlwood areas, as defined by the NSWRL, would be neutral, as between Canterbury and Newtown, a review to be made in three years' time. But the league agreed to Canterbury's inclusion, with one stipulation. To gain entry, the club had to obtain a first-class ground, enclosed, and with the necessary accommodation and spectator comfort for a first grade fixture.

Alderman Parry again gave his support. However, it is ironic that although Canterbury selected Belmore Oval, called Campsie-Belmore Park in those days, as their headquarters, it wasn't fit for use in the first season. But the NSWRL allowed the club to compete anyway, all matches played 'away' from home.

The inaugural meeting of the now Canterbury-Bankstown District RLFC was held at the Paragon Theatre, Belmore, on Tuesday, October 30, 1934, at which more than 300 people, many of them prominent citizens, gave their support.

According to the Annual Report of 1935: “On the motion of Mr B. Russell, seconded by Mr C. Mills, it was unanimously resolved 'That a District Grade Club be formed, to be known as the Canterbury-Bankstown D.R.L.F.C., whose boundaries shall be defined by the NSWRFL'.”

With 306 financial members, the foundation meeting of the club was held, again at the Paragon Theatre, on Tuesday, January 15, 1935. The president of the NSWRL, Mr Harold 'Jersey' Flegg attended, as did Parry, who became co-patron with Fred Rose. The newly formed club had to borrow five pound from the junior league to pay it affiliation fee with the NSWRL. But such items were minor hiccups along the road to determining a first grade team of sufficient standard to bring honour to the club.

Tom Johns was the club's first president; George Russell was the treasurer and Frank Miller was the first secretary. They were the backbone of the successful attempt and men of foresight. Johns and Miller were delegates to the NSWRL, with Russell as the deputy.

Barney Russell, twin brother of George, was another of the important foundation officials.

They were brothers of the famous Newtown and Australian winger Charles 'Boxer' Russell, who toured with the 1908 Wallabies, the first Australian Rugby Union team to tour the British Isles. He scored most tries on tour and won an Olympic gold medal as part of the Australian team that competed in the London Games. 'Boxer' switched to Rugby League, as did a number in the team, on return to Australia. Some of the first year players, Tom Carey, Jack Hartwell and Bob Lindfield, were on the first committee, and coach Tedda Courtney, was a vice-president.

These pioneering men from the junior league were the breath and soul of the club, many of them never receiving the praise and rewards they might have deserved. But few, if any, did it for the publicity. Simply, there was very little. Rugby League had become a way of life for them and they saw in their area, a need for a district club -that's all the recognition they wanted. They certainly did nothing for money. It wasn't there for the taking and it seems the motivating force was pride in the district and a belief they were pioneering something big. No one could argue then, nor could they now. That “something big” is more than 70 years old.   

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