21 April 2020

Through Time: Trustees, Great War and Spanish flu

By Rodney Cavalier and Geoff Armstrong (Part I of III)

Numbers dominate this story. Pounds, shillings and pence. SCG membership. Revenue from events. A cash reserve that is ever diminishing. Only through numbers could we convey the poor hand that Trustees were playing with by mid-1915. Behind the numbers were people – members and the paying public, ground staff, management and Trustees. We have sought to tell all of those stories.

Throughout we have referred to the Trustees of the Sydney Cricket Ground in the plural. That is how the Minutes refer to the group of men responsible for the care, control and management of the SCG and surrounding lands. In 1876 the NSW Minister for Lands appointed three Trustees to take responsibility for the cricket ground and other lands to the south of Victoria Barracks. Beyond the Minutes, in all correspondence and self-description the Trustees used the plural. The NSW Government in 1876 had created a trusteeship, not a trust.

 

PRELUDE TO WAR

The departure of Sydney Fairland

In the course of four special meetings held in April and May of 1913 the Trustees expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the work performance of SH Fairland, secretary of the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Fairland had been with the cricket ground since 1884 serving as secretary to the Ground Committee, a role which required him to attend all meetings and keep the record. The Ground Committee operated under a delegation from the Trustees so broad that the committee made all decisions on behalf of the Trustees and in their name. After the meeting in 1876 the Trustees did not again meet in formal session until 1898.

From 1876 executive control had been in the hands of Philip Sheridan, a powerful identity in NSW cricket circles, one of three original Trustees. Although appointed as the representative of the NSW Cricket Association, Sheridan charted a course of independence from cricket from his early days as a Trustee. He asserted his power by the title his fellow Trustees accorded him - Managing Trustee. In 1895 he resigned as a Trustee to become the Manager full-time on salary.

Sheridan died in January 1910 - a major moment in the history of sports administration in NSW.

Fairland took over the role of manager while continuing as secretary. His duties had been largely as keeper of the record, ensuring an efficient flow of correspondence, handling the formal aspects of membership and membership renewal. He revealed a specialist interest in the assessment of soil as a suitable base for a wicket; he travelled to the Illawarra to sift the soil on offer and make decisions. He was adept in organising the social side of tours by England XIs that the Trustees were underwriting.

Throughout his stewardship of the office he was subject always to direction from Sheridan. Fairland’s dismissal and the recruitment of a replacement from outside the ranks brought to an end the founding era. The link with Philip Sheridan was broken.

What Fairland had done to cause so complete a loss of confidence is not known except for the obvious explanation that Fairland was no Sheridan. One suspects that dissatisfaction with Fairland had been brewing for some time. A dominant chief executive had been replaced by an office manager. The Trustees wanted someone as forceful as Sheridan, a leader who made decisions on their behalf, who could negotiate with the confidence that Sheridan had possessed of the feelings of the Trustees.

At the special meeting on April 21, in Fairland’s presence, the Trustees resolved unanimously that “the time has arrived when the secretary should take a more active part in the management of and be a stronger personality in connection with the Cricket Ground”.

A long discussion resulted in a resolution that the secretary and manager needed to be: “a stronger personality in connection with the Cricket Ground. Before taking action, present secretary should state in writing his qualifications to discharge additional duties that will attach to the position, appertaining to office, improvement of the Ground and maintenance of buildings.” The adjective present was ominous.

The Trustees were determined on a future without Fairland. They placed advertisements in newspapers seeking applications from qualified persons for the position of secretary and manager on a salary of £500, a marked rise on Fairland’s then salary of £350. Fairland was invited to apply as an act of grace by the Trustees. It should have been obvious to him he had no chance of securing the position. Fairland submitted a letter that the Trustees discussed at length over three meetings (May 6, May 13 and May 15).

A decision so grave was sensational. The Trustees had not previously dismissed a chief executive nor considered such action. Fairland decided to make the dispute public by making statements on the record. In an interview with the Evening News in June 1913, Fairland sought to have the best of all worlds by declining to answer questions about what had gone wrong while handing over strong letters in his support from cricket, rugby union and cycling. The absence of such a letter from rugby league is revealing.

To understand and appreciate Sheridan is to get to the heart of how the Ground evolved and the Trustees exercised power and influence. That exploration is a separate essay. Trustees understood their debt to Sheridan, which is why they named the new stand at the southern end of the ground after him in an era when grandstands were not named after people.

Sheridan was never an office bearer of the NSW Cricket Association. A prominent committeeman, yes, but never president, secretary or treasurer. His influence was behind the scenes, a man who was untraceably involved in the most important decisions. Fairland could not be Sheridan and likely did not aspire to be.

 

Robert Wyly takes over

From one hundred or more applications a short list of three was drawn up. Fairland was added though Trustees expressed doubt about his eligibility. In August the Trustees were unanimous in their choice of Robert F Wyly, an accountant with Penfolds & Co., the leading wine producer. His principal sport was lacrosse, a sport which had first been played on the SCG in 1889. In his home state, Wyly had been the secretary of the South Australian Lacrosse Association and a strong supporter of amateur sport. Since his move to Penfolds office in Sydney in 1904, Wyly had become treasurer of the Manly Golf Club. Being involved in a committee administering a sport was an essential qualification for the Trustees.

Fairland was retired with a gratuity equal to two years of salary. He duly entered six months’ leave. Wyly began on September 8. Fairland lived until 1940. He wrote letters disagreeing with his removal. The Trustees declined to respond; they chose not to acquaint reporters that they had effectively dismissed Fairland because he was not equal to the job.

The SCG was in a strong position financially and politically. It was (and is) a truism that the Cricket Ground is only ever as strong as the political skills of its Trustees. Numbering eight with a vacancy to fill, Trustees included a former NSW Premier and men powerful in business and politics. Chairman was Charles Oliver CMG, once a first-class cricketer, a champion oarsman, formerly Under Secretary of Lands, formerly the Chief Railways Commissioner.

Oliver continued to wield considerable influence in state politics. Chairing the Trustees was one source of his continuing power. Other Trustees in December 1913 included Jim McGowen, the state’s first Labor Premier, party leader 1894-1913, who had resigned the premiership earlier in the year. McGowen was the founder of the Balmain Cricket Club. The first Labor Government capped its success by re-election with a comfortable majority in December.

No international cricket, traditionally the biggest revenue earner, was scheduled for the 1913-14 season. The Sheffield Shield competition, with only NSW, Victoria and South Australia participating, started in November. War was on the mind of cricket’s administrators but the Board of Control decided the Shield should proceed. The SCG hosted three timeless matches. The 1914-15 season provided modest returns. The attendance of members was only 10,995, the public 17,085. The gate brought in £842.

A cricket-associated wages bill of £147 included wages paid to bowlers employed by the SCG to give members batting practice.

Cash reserves were healthy, more than £5000. Membership was growing. In November 1914, 282 new members were admitted. Membership for 1913-14 stood at 2376. These were sound numbers historically.

Trustees were able to grant annual leave to the grounds staff - two weeks after one year’s service without the ability to accumulate. The Trustees authorised a new shed to be built at the northern side of the Ladies Pavilion to store soil, mowers, rollers, tools, hurdles and sight board. The lease in the Trust office in the city was extended for two more years at £208 per annum.

The Basic Wage set by the Arbitration Commission each year and of universal application was vital to most staff. In March it increased by 1/- per day. Grounds staff usually worked five and a half days per week.

As the Great Powers were moving their armies into place, the SCG enjoyed the bulwark of a financial membership in the financial year 1914-15, with more than 2600 on the books. In the hope that matters might return to normal soon enough, the Trustees ordered 2300 membership medals at a production cost of 9d each.

NSW Cricket advised its charges for the coming season of the Sheffield Shield: 2/- to the grandstand, 1/- to the outer, gates to be thrown open at 5pm. Hirers required the approval of Trustees for proposed admission charges.

As one with the patriotic fervour that gripped the nation, Trustees agreed to a contribution of £1000 “for patriotic purposes”. Representing one-fifth of reserves, this was a handsome sum. The recipient was be the Lord Mayor’s Patriotic Fund following a discussion between Charles Oliver and Lord Mayor Richard Richards.

Rugby league had enriched the ground in the 1914 season with minor contributions from Australian Football and soccer. (No rugby union was played at the SCG that season.) Members and the public had come through the turnstiles to the number of 419,668. Gross revenues were £16,727, out of which came SCG staff wages. Trustees’ share was £1062.

Past generosity to Sydney High School and Grammar in the remission of hire fees ended. Trustees will give remission, sometimes of 100 per cent, only to events that donate all of the proceeds to patriotic purposes.

The price of whisky increased. Trustees bought 12-month supply and insured the stock to a value of £200. The year of 1915 would end with membership renewals standing at 1728. The ranks of the Trustees were changing. MH Stephen, a Trustee since 1882 resigned. Trustees suggested JC Watson, the first Labor Prime Minister, no longer an MP, as Stephen’s replacement. Trustees could count on a favourable response from a Labor Government as well as banking goodwill by these nominations.

The NSW Rugby League wanted to extend its agreement into 1916-18 on existing terms, setting off a long round of negotiations.

A member who had enlisted in “Lord Kitchener’s army in England” sought a refund of his membership subscription. We cannot know how seriously Trustees examined the impact of refunds to all enlisted. Trustees understood only one decision was possible. The Trustees made the refund. Any enlisted member seeking a refund was given a refund.

The tradition of a Christmas or end-of-year bonus continued. Office staff received a uniform five per cent of their salary. Eligible outdoor received one week’s wages. For the Secretary and Manager that meant £25, for the chief attendant £2/8/-.

 

1915

Another 190 members renewed in the early weeks of 1915, bringing the total to 1918. This number included four new members. Membership peaked at 1935 in June and remained there.

JC Watson had been appointed Trustee. The ranks of Trustees then included Labor’s first leaders in the NSW and Commonwealth Parliaments. Watson took his seat and immediately requested five months’ leave of absence, as he was set to leave for the United States and then Europe.

A tender was let for the repair of the comparatively new grandstand named after the late Mr Sheridan. From the amount of attention this new stand required (and would continue to require), the Trustees were beset with a stand that was jerry built. W Gowrie and Sons won the job with a tender of £260. Sargents, the caterers, sought an increase in the price of serving afternoon tea - from 6d to 9d. Trustees approved.

Trustees have decided on the terms for rugby league. A clause is inserted that prohibits players from using the dressing rooms in the Members Pavilion. Rooms below the Sheridan are available. The League was unhappy about the exclusion, asking  Trustees to accept a deputation and repeating the request for use of the Members. The Trustees held a special meeting and again refused.

Repairs and maintenance continue unabated. The roofs of the pavilions will be painted. Roof guttering will be examined and replaced as required. A plumber was engaged on weekly wages for the following four to six weeks.

The Athletic Sports Rifle Club sought permission to undertake a Sunday drill. In ordinary times the SCG was closed to all activity on a Sunday. These were not ordinary times.

The NSW Rugby League threw itself into fundraising for the war effort. It sought to use Empire Day for a monster athletics carnival with proceeds to the Belgian National Relief Fund. Permission was granted less expenses. The League asked Trustees to forego all charges for a match to be played on Prince of Wales Day (June 28). Proceeds were to be the nucleus of a fund to provide a motor ambulance for Australian soldiers. Trustees approved and undertook to donate to that cause.

Rugby League also pressed access to the Members Pavilion. By reducing the request to first graders, they hoped for success. They were wrong.

At the annual election of officers, Charles Oliver was re-elected as Chairman. There was no ballot for that position or any of the committees.

Sports at all levels developed plans for fundraising events on the SCG and SCG No.2 for the war effort. Enthusiasm of the moment occasioned clashes with regular hirers who enjoyed a contract that set out guaranteed days for hire. Rugby League declined to surrender Australia Day – a new nationwide public holiday established for fundraising purposes and to take place on July 30 – for a gala proposed by the Amateur Sportsmen Fund.

The size of the ground’s permanent work crew was under scrutiny. In August Trustees laid off four men including the plumber. Casual short-term hire is becoming the practice. A bricklayer is employed for a short period.

Mr Charles Lloyd, who regarded himself as the representative of cricket, resigned to enable John Clayton, President of the NSW Cricket Association, to become the Trustee representing the Association. Trustees expressed their appreciation of the contribution of Lloyd and regretted the circumstances that necessitated his retirement.

Revenue from rugby league in the football season of 1915 was built on a proportion of gate takings. In the football season of 1915, members and public attending rugby league numbered 117,117 out of a total footbal attendance of 118,394. Revenues generated were £3416, of which the Trustees’ share was £202, wages covered £289.

Relations with the sport reached an impasse. The League did not reply to the Trustees’ letter outling an agreement to cover 1916-18. No reply was a situation unacceptable to the Trustees who resolved to send what effectively was an ultimatum - if no reply to the Trustees’ letter received before September 21, Trustees will regard the agreement to be “at an end”. No such reply was received until September 21 itself which asked for an extension until September 28. The request was declined, the Trustees regarded the agreement at an end.

The SCG financial year ran from September 1 to August 31. Revenues from membership were sliding. At the end of the membership year 1914-15 the number of members was 1989, well down on the 2578 who were on the books a year earlier, before the War had its impact. Membership income of £3822 compared to £5357 the year before.

Decline in income was causing the SCG to draw down its reserves: cash on deposit had fallen to £2509, a significant depletion of the balance of £3449 at the previous August.

Membership renewals were well down. By year’s end some 580 had renewed. There were no new members. Trustees resolve not to reduce the subscription. Revenues were under threat on all front. How will catering and bar rights fare with an expected drop in custom? Not well. Sargents, long-term and efficient caterers, offered to continue for 12 months but will not pay for once lucrative rights. The Trustees were grateful just to be able to maintain a service.

Playing fields will have to suffer: top dressing of SCG No.2 will cover “only cricket portion” owing to cost of soil.

Big occasions kept the grounds relevant and central to the public imagination. Of revenues arising there was little or none. The Great War was spawning days with special names for sacred causes. The first Anzac Day was still ahead. There was much else to commemorate. Allies Day on Saturday 13 November warranted a carnival which returned a handsome £591. The Trustees charge of £71 became a donation to the day. That is, a zero return to the SCG.

A long, sustained era of ever building reserves has come to an end. Trustees had always sought to be providential about a rainy day from their beginnings. In 1915 rainy days showed no sign of ending. Trustees were compelled to withdraw a term deposit of £1000. That was like slashing a main vein.

The Finance Committee concluded the year with an examination of the consequences of such a serious fall in subscriptions.  Survival “necessitated economy”. Finance recommended reduction of the outdoor staff from 11 to six. Measures taken were going to save £13/10/- per week. In the office a departing staffer was not to be replaced. The Secretary and Manager each had his pay reduced by £100. Cuts across all positions were going to yield office savings of £400. Overall cuts and dismissals were estimated to save £1100 over a year. The Trustees approved the recommendations.

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