photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
In this photo extracted from Frank Burge’s Kangaroo Tour album some of the team can be seen in a training session on the deck of the passenger liner Tahiti. The ship left Sydney on 28 July 1921, on what was for the Australian footballers the first leg of their long trip to England.
I don’t know who took this photograph, but it’s an excellent image, beautifully balanced and, as distinct from most of the pictures in the album, it doesn’t appear to be posed but rather simply documents some action. Frank certainly wasn’t behind the camera, because he’s in the shot with his back to the lens, shaping up to an opponent. Sparring was one of the key fitness routines the men used on their sea voyage. Apparently the sessions would usually end with the redoubtable Sandy Pearce jumping into the centre of the circus and calling for any comers to take him on, which involved punching him in the stomach as many times as they liked while he just stood there and smiled and took it all.
It wasn’t easy, keeping a football team toned while confined to a ship for weeks, especially so as they were leaving the Australian Rugby League season midway through and so were at the peak of match fitness. Sparring, lifting weights, jogging around the deck, these were really the only serious options. Just a few years earlier the Australian Army had to ponder the same problem: how to keep hundreds or thousands of men healthy and occupied while transporting them across the oceans to be fed into the meat grinder of the Western Front.
When the Sydney Morning Herald announced in April 1921 that an Australian Rugby League team would tour England later in the year, it did so under the headline ‘Revival of Sport’. Sport, which the Great War had put into what the SMH called a ‘long period of suspended animation’, was coming back to life. Such journalistic understatement was as endemic a century ago as it is unknown today, but the argument itself was sound. 1921 would see the Australian cricket team travel to England to defend their Ashes for the first time since 1912, just as the Kangaroos would be returning to England’s playing fields for the first time in decade. In fact, the two sets of tourists would even cross paths at one point.
Looking at these men having a spar on the deck of the SS Tahiti we need to remember that military service and sporting representation were just about the only ways working class Australian men got to see the world in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Some of the Kangaroos had actually served in the War. Frank had even tried to enlist in 1915, but had apparently been rejected because he had a speech impediment. Now he was finally on his way to England and France, and, from my point of view at least, much more fortunate to be traveling in the neat green blazer with gold trim that was the Kangaroo’s uniform, than in khaki. Quite a few rugby league players from New South Wales and Queensland had worn that khaki uniform and never come back. Their sporting careers would never be revived; they’d ended, just like every other aspect of their existence, on the battlefields of France.
Guest Post by Lindsay Barrett, Writer and Cultural historian.
This project is supported by the Tom Brock bequest.