Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Lakeside Stadium artefact Wednesday - Middle Park plaque

Like its Lakeside counterpart, which we looked at last week, this is located on the front of our grandstand, though on the right hand side of the players race as you face the stand.

It's a reminder that while it was typically associated as being the South Melbourne Hellas ground, Middle Park was in fact a venue that we shared with Hakoah, and later several other clubs, and that both Hakoah and Hellas contributed to the building of the grandstand.

Prior to the building of the stand, South Melbourne Hellas had barely existed. Of course it was the merger of 'Hellas' - itself a merger of Yarra Park and Hellenic - with South Melbourne United, the longer term tenant of the ground, which saw South Melbourne Hellas play out of Middle Park (it was of course a massive part of the reason for the merger occurring). In contrast, Hakoah had a history dating back to 1927, with a history of playing out of several venues before eventually settling down at Middle Park by about 1957.

While Middle Park and neighbouring suburbs such as South Yarra, St Kilda and Prahran (but not, curiously, Port Melbourne) all had a longstanding soccer culture and presence, Middle Park appears to have been the original heart of that culture dating back to the 1880s. Why this is so is still to be fully teased out, but one of the core reasons was the Albert Park precinct itself.

If you can think of a sport or hobby that could be pursued outdoors, Albert Park probably hosted it. According to the Gillard Report, a government report from 1961 on the management and usage of Albert Park, the following activities were all taking place at the time:

...on the lake, there is rowing, yachting, boating, speed boating and canoeing. Fishing and sailing of model boats is allowed. On land, the park is regularly used for golf, cricket, lacrosse, hockey, baseball, soft ball, girls’ basketball, Australian Rules Football, Soccer, Rugby, Irish football, Hurling, Archery, Tennis, competitive walking, athletics and the flying of model aeroplanes. In addition, the Park has at times been used for cycling, and on several occasions in the past has been used for motor car racing. In renovated buildings, provision has been made for indoor sports of basket ball, badminton and table tennis. 

So rather than being a special case in and of itself, it appears as if soccer was part of the great many activities that were played there, perhaps chiefly because it was the largest and most easily accessible space to use for a fledgling sport, and because of its reputation as being the 'lungs of Melbourne'. This intense sporting usage was at the heart of the conflict between some locals, who wanted to use what was one of the few public parks available to them for walking and passive recreation, and those sporting persons who often came from outside the local area, who saw it as just the right spot for their sporting interests.

The Middle Park field (oval no. 18) used by South Melbourne United by the early 1950s (in the south-west corner of the boundary between the South Melbourne and St Kilda councils, on a reclaimed landfill site) also saw conflict between different sports. For example, the venue at the time also had a cycling track around it, built at the expense of the Albert Park Management Committee in the early 1950s (and hence the odd curve behind the goals at Middle Park). The cyclists never paid that money back, but were also incensed at the damage caused to the track by both footballers' boots as well as the spectators who were coming in increasing numbers to watch the games. They soon abandoned it.

Postcard with a photo of what is probably a Hakoah game (opponent unidentified) at Middle Park, circa early 1960s. This is just one of a series of postcards depicting sporting life in Albert Park during this era. The postcard series can be viewed on site at the State Library of Victoria, though you need to book this in advance (hence the white gloves I'm wearing).

The Middle Park ground just prior to the release of the Gillard Report was an unenclosed venue. This was at the heart of how and why Middle Park eventually became enclosed. There were only three enclosed venues in the precinct - these were the South Melbourne Cricket Ground (Lake Oval), the St Kilda Cricket Ground (Junction Oval) and a bowls club. These weren't officially enclosed - the public was supposed to be able to gain access to those fields outside of match days - but the reality of course was quite different. There was also the concern of accommodating spectators as opposed to participants. Oliver Gillard's preference was for the latter, but the existence of the Lake and Junction Ovals with their grandstands and brick walls complicated matters.

Gradually, and not exactly legally, a fence started going up around the ground, with the public only left with access from the northern side of Oval No. 18, followed by introduction of turnstiles. In the Gillard Report, the exact way this enclosure had happened was never quite explained, and there remained rather a lot of doubt and confusion on this matter, as politics and non-minuted details combined to see the area enclosed almost by default. Labor senator Pat Kennelly, also a member of the management committee, had almost had his endorsement for the senate blocked by the union movement for denying access to public land during the early 1950s.

Kennelly himself was a supporter of the need of newly arrived migrants for a proper soccer venue and the ability of clubs to collect gate money. This was a view that went against some on the management committee, who thought of soccer as just one of many passing fads that had been seen in Albert Park (ignoring soccer's long history in the area), and not one with any chance of longevity once all the migrants assimilated. The example of the cyclists, too, was also fresh in the memory.

The Middle Park grandstand plaque, photo uploaded to Twitter on December 12 2013. Contrary to some scaremongering on smfcboard, the plaque was still there during the 2013 pre-season, even while the concourse in front of it was being being re-concreted. Photo: Paul Mavroudis. 

However it came about, the fact that the Committee loaned money to Hellas and Hakoah to build the grandstand necessitated or at the very least encouraged the quiet enclosure of the ground, to allow for more money to be raised at the gate, and therefore allow the grandstand debt to be paid off; in addition, the enclosure saw soccer quickly become one of the management committee's biggest earners.

Later attempts to improve upon the venue were frustrated by both the management committee, but especially local residents, but that's a story for another time. For those interested in reading further on the history of the Albert Park from the 1850s up to about the mid 1990s, I highly recommend seeking out Jill Barnard's People's playground: a history of the Albert Park. It was exceedingly helpful in providing the background for much of this article, as well as for referring me onto the Gillard Report.

As for the plaque itself, while many items supposedly went missing during the shift from Middle Park to Lakeside, this was not one of them. It famously appeared in this video with Greg Blake and Kyle Patterson during the demolition of Middle Park. And while Middle Park may be gone, 53 years on a piece of it remains with us, and long may it do so.

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