organised recreational and health promotional activities
Always a significant activity, sport within the Williams Valley has ranged from horseracing, polo and cricket to football, tennis and squash. Not to mention rifle shooting competitions, cattle drafting, and in more recent times, bicycling and running.
The first organised recreation was undoubtedly horse racing with the earliest reported horse races occurring at Clarence Town in 1844 at which some 300 people attended.1 In December 1844, a race course was laid out near what is now the site of Dungog High School and the first races held in 1845.2 Later races took place at Hanley’s Creek, as well as at Brookfield. Regular race days were held at the Hanley’s Creek course right up until the 1980s, until insurance issues made it all too onerous to continue. Race meetings were often held as fundraising for various causes, such as those on St Patrick’s Day to support various projects of the Catholic Church. Similar races were also held at Vacy on the Paterson River from at least 1863 through till the 1880s, and again in the 1970s and 1980s as the Vacy Picnic Races.3 At East Gresford, races were held at Clevedon Racecourse, such as the 1915 Belgian Races held in aid of the Belgian Fund, and the Gresford Cup of 1925.4
Not all horse racing was of the organised ‘race day’ type and individual races between horses were not uncommon – with betting of course. Such races took place at the Clarence Town course in 1885 when two local horses competed for ‘a fiver a side’ and ‘once around the course’. A sweep held later that day was won by the same horse.5
In addition to straight horse racing, polo has also been a popular sport with the first polo matches held at the Mackay family property of Cangon near Dungog town, and the Wirragulla Polo Club established there in 1936.6 Polo matches have usually been associated with the larger landowning families, particularly the Mackays, Hookes and others. Polo matches are still held at Cangon on occasions, with the latest occurring in early 2012.
Horse riding for farm work and at the many Agricultural Shows is a common aspect of life within the Williams River area and has led to the popularity of camp drafting as well as general equestrianism. The most famous exponent of equestrianism from Dungog was Kevin Bacon, who became an Olympic equestrian, a career that perhaps began when, as a 5 year old, a horse bolted under him.7 Though others report it was when a professional jumping team was visiting the Dungog Show in 1948 and allowed him to put one of their horses over some practice jumps.8
Cricket seems to have been the first sport unrelated to horses that was played in an organised fashion, including local teams and excursions to and from surrounding areas. Betting on these matches by the players was common with ‘10s per bat’ mentioned.
A cricket club was formed at Vacy in March 1872 and their team played its first match against a Gresford eleven; this was only one of several district matches played around that time.9 Gresford established a cricket ground and teams even came from Sydney to play in 1897. For a time women’s cricket was also very popular and was played by, among others, May Walters, mother of Dungog’s most famous (though not only), contribution to the game of cricket – Doug Walters; Arthur Miller being another Dungog boy.
Cricket was fun and games for some, but in the 19th century and well into to 20th century it also mattered when you did it, as a number of youths discovered in 1866:
Last Sunday senior constable Johnston suddenly came upon a numerous party of cricketers, who were playing a game of cricket at Wallarobba; some were young men, residents of the Paterson; the others, residents of Dungog. We understand the whole of those present will be brought before the bench for illegal desecration of the Sabbath.10
In addition to individual games, sports carnivals were popular at the end of the 19th century and were often organised by groups such as the School of Arts and the Oddfellows as fundraisers. When the ‘Star of the Williams Branch of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows’ held its ninth anniversary meeting in 1883, the event included foot races, a sack race, throwing a cricket ball at a wicket, and horse jumping.11 The Paterson Oddfellows mixed sports, cricket and more:
ODDFELLOWS’ ANNIVERSARY. – Friday last (the Queen’s Birthday), the members of the Loyal Paterson Union Lodge of Oddfellows, M.U., celebrated their 26th anniversary by a cricket match between eleven Oddfellows and eleven members of the School of Arts, a series of athletic sports, and public dinner, all of which took place on the Paterson cricket Ground.12
The public dinner [lunch], including ‘colonial wines’, was then followed by foot races.
Foot races were also popular for betting on and at Clarence Town in 1885:
a footrace was run between J. Sellars and A. Hare, two local pods, for £2 aside, distance 125 yards. After a great race, Hare managed to get home some two feet ahead of his opponent.13
Local schools also began to organise sports for their students on a regular basis in the 1920s and for many years this also involved regular competitions between the schools of other districts including a street parade.14 In more recent times the idea of sports fundraising has been revived with Dungog holding a GP Stakes in 2011 to raise money to advertise for a doctor, and a JT Stakes to do the same to restore Dungog’s James Theatre in March 2012.
Possibly the first mention of football in the district occurred at Gresford in 1885:
There is talk of a football club being started at Gresford. It only requires being made public for a strong team to be formed amongst the young men of the district. From the conclusion until the beginning of the cricketing season, there has always been a want of a universal game in the district. In football we have the connecting link. The rules and regulations have only to be adhered to and the game is no more dangerous than cricket. Gresford can stand its own at cricket. Why not at football?15
Certainly football began to grow in popularity towards the end of the 19th century when teams such as the Dungog Rovers were established. Regular matches were played against the teams of surrounding districts and later junior teams also became popular. Games were held at Bennett Park and later at ovals established on the High School grounds, partly with donated land. Teams would visit from as far away as Maitland, playing a game and being entertained at night before returning the next day.16
Rifle shooting as a sport was popular in the first half of the 20th century and a rifle range was set up on Dungog Common and another existed at Gresford.17 Rifle clubs were formed and competitions held.
Boxing has never been a major sport within the Williams Valley apart from a few Police Citizen’s Boys Club bouts at the Victoria Hall and one at the James Theatre at Dungog. However, Paddy Slavin, Heavyweight Champion, was born at Brecon near Vacy in 1861 and a memorial stone commemorating this fact was erected at Vacy in 1944.18
A quieter sport was fishing, which, for many seems to have implied trout. A school teacher at Vacy in the 1890s, for example, released many thousands of fingerlings provided by the Fisheries Department into the Paterson and Allyn River.19 A few year later the Clarence Town progress committee applied to the Department of Fisheries for a supply of trout, two hundred of which duly arrived by the steamer Erringhi, and were ‘liberated’ into the Williams River at a point six miles above Clarence Town.20
Perhaps the sport that attained the greatest popularity at any one time was tennis. In the 1920s tennis became very popular and numerous tennis courts were established in nearly every locality. Players would travel long distances, usually by bus, to matches and competitions at surrounding locations such as Tea gardens, Stroud, and Dungog.21 Vacy had a tennis club in the 1920s, with many private tennis courts and a public one completed in 1928.22 The popularity of tennis led to a continuing controversy over playing on Sundays until 1957 in Dungog town at least, when sport was allowed there on Sundays after 12 noon.23
Golf was another game that quickly rose in popularity and led to a number of courses being built such as Paterson and Dungog golf courses. Before these courses were established many tried out the game by playing it on the Dungog showground.24 Competitions and regular visits to attend games at other courses, as with tennis, were common.
Lawn bowls with their associated licensed club rooms also proved popular and both the Williams River towns of Dungog and Clarence Town have their Bowling Club and greens. On the Allyn River, the Gresford Bowling Club was not established until 1953.25
Swimming as a leisure activity was popular at various pools along the many rivers of the area. Though this did not mean that they lacked the organisation of modern aquatic facilities, and in 1938 we have this account:
… crowds flocked to the various river pools about Dungog. The big pool under the control of the Dungog Swimming Club was particularly well patronised everyday, while swimming at night under the powerful floodlights has proved very popular.26
With the building of public swimming pools in each town, swimming as an organised sport has become popular with schools, and the youth of the district have participated strongly in many State-wide competitions.
The natural environment of the Williams River Valley has also attracted many to come from outside the district to undertake particular sports on a one-off or sometimes regular basis. One-off events which have occurred within Williams Valley have included canoeing down the Williams River, motor-cross rallies, and, in recent times, various fun runs. Since 1995, Pedalfest, a gathering of bicycle riders, has come to Dungog every year. Begun as a fundraiser for the Westpac Helicopter service, it has been consistently popular and attracts 500 to 600 riders each year from Newcastle and Sydney. Originally competitive, Pedalfest has evolved into a family oriented weekend of 20km rides around the Fosterton loop and other activities.
Most of the traditional range of sports continue to be popular among younger people, a range of choices that has expanded to include netball, soccer and skateboarding.
playing fields – cricket, tennis