Flashback Friday - The early years of tramway football

Friday 21 March 2014


The AFL season starts in earnest this week, but for many years men went to battle in their own version of the 'big' league as players in the Tramway Football Association. The league existed until the 1980s, but achieved peak importance in Melbourne's sporting landscape before the Second World War when match reports and results regularly featured in the daily newspapers.

The first public transport teams had formed in the railways during the late 1860's, and in 1869 the Hobson's Bay Railway side were so well regarded that they were invited to pre-season meetings with Melbourne, Carlton, South Yarra and Albert Park - the biggest clubs in the game at that point in its history.

In the early 1900's tramway football sprung up as an off-shoot of the various "Wednesday Leagues" that operated around Melbourne for industrial and shift workers who weren't able to play on the weekends due to work. The Wednesday Leagues featured sides representing most of the largest companies in Melbourne at the time. In 1903 the premiership had been decided in a all-butcher battle between South Suburban Butchers and TK Bennett & Woolcock of Smith Street, Collingwood. The Collingwood side - aptly playing in black and white - won the flag. In 1914 the Union Steamship Company were the champions of the Trades League.

Before World War II tramways competition was well known for featuring professional players who also worked with the tramways as their 'day job'. In 1917 the North Carlton cable tram team had two league players in their side when they beat Hawthorn electric tramways by 34 points in the semi-final, and three years later a tramway team that played in Seymour featuredfive Carlton players.

TramwayfootbalWhile most players were genuine tramways employees there were often rumours that some were given jobs at the depots under suspect circumstances merely to boost the strength of the local footy team. In 1914 a Prahran team which defeated Brunswick featured eight senior players from the Victorian Football League (the predecessor to today's AFL) or the second tier VFA.

There were also some players who went the other way and started in the tramways league before hitting the big time. Records show a Frank Richardson being recruited by Melbourne directly from Malvern Depot in 1925 and playing two VFL matches. Carlton's Jim Wills was picked up by VFA side Brunswick from the tramways then joined Carlton in 1914.

In its early years the goings on of tramway teams were important enough to be reported in local papers - details of the Brunswick tramway side's Annual General Meeting made the papers in 1914, including the sad story of a Mr. E Williams who worked at the depot and played on the football team until he had a leg amputated when he was trapped between two trams while supervising traffic at Flemington Bridge on Show Day.

The tramways league mirrored its senior counterpart by organising interstate matches against the best players of other tramway systems around Australia. In 1928 Victoria welcomed players from New South Wales, and in 1936 they returned to favour by touring both New South Wales and South Australia - winning all the matches they played.

Despite the fraternal nature of the competition, with tramway men playing against each other in what was meant to be a friendly competition, tempers often boiled over. In 1932 six players were reported in a match which descended into "a series of running skirmishes" and in 1937 R. Crispen from Malvern Depot was suspended for 10 years for disputing an umpires' decision, 'unseemly conduct' and attempting to strike the umpire. Another player was reported for striking an umpire two years later. It's not clear whether these villainous deeds affected their employment in the tramways.

The league was one of about 20 industrial and junior competitions affiliated to the VFL in the 1940's, allowing it to receive funding from what the league described as its 'propaganda committee. Games continued to be played on Wednesdays for many years to come but the glory days of the competition ended with the conclusion of the war. During the conflict tramways men had played the railways in a patriotic match to raise funds for the war effort. The tram team won a special "V for Victory" uniform and romped home to win with a 6.4 to 0.1 last quarter.

Early Tramway Football Association premiers - an incomplete list

1917 - Brunswick d. Malvern 7.8.50 - 3.4.22 (played on the MCG)
1918 - Brunswick
1921 - Malvern
1923 - Hawthorn
1924 - Clifton Hill d. North Melbourne
1925 - Clifton Hill d. Port Melbourne by 37 points
1932 - North Melbourne vs Malvern/Glenhuntly
1935 - Kew/Malvern d. North Melbourne 12.21.93 to 10.10.70 (played at Olympic Park in front of 800 fans)
1936 - South Melbourne d. Essendon 11.6.72 to 10.10.70 (played at Olympic Park - a one mile walk was held at half time, and won by J Wallace from Malvern who was 62-years-old)
1937 - Kew
1945 - Essendon
1946 - Essendon
1947 - Essendon
1948 - Essendon
1949 - Essendon


A social history of workplace Australian football, 1860-1939 - Peter Burke

Trove - National Library of Australia