Act I: The Lead-Up
St George was without a home ground during the club’s first four years in the premiership. Occasional games were played at Hurstville Oval — two in 1921, three in each of 1922 and 1923, none in 1924 — but as Hurstville was not enclosed, it was impossible to make home games a profitable exercise. This changed after St George and the NSW Rugby League came to terms with Mr Lancelot Lewis Earl, who had made his fortune in the fruit business and was now a resident and significant landowner at Arncliffe. Mr Earl lived on a property on the western side of the railway line, and he agreed to lease some of that land, which had been a market garden, to be converted into an enclosed sports ground.
As St George’s fortunes improved through the mid-’20s, Earl Parl soon became an intimidating venue for away teams and fans. Rugby League News in May 1925 reported that ground featured ‘a pavilion which will seat 1100 spectators, and the ground will accommodate easily 10,000 people … the dressing rooms are the largest in Sydney, and measure 120 feet by 30 feet (36.5m by 9m) and are replete with lockers, showers, and every facility for the benefit of the players’. Early on, there was criticism of the playing surface and some of the amenities, especially away from the grandstand, but by 1927 most of these issues had been rectified. The addition of a bar in the venue appealed to many patrons, but concerned some observers. With a big crowd in, the fans seemed especially close to the action.
‘The playing field is on a par with that of any suburban ground, and this has been accomplished in a little over 18 months, which reflects great credit on the proprietor,’ wrote The St George Call at the start of the ’27 season.
A fan catching a bus from the city would travel down the Pacific Highway to Allen Street, Arncliffe, and then walk up to Illawarra Street and across the railway line to Wollongong Road, and then into the ground. Balmain fans who made this journey on 11 August 1928 found themselves among a crowd of more than 6000. The locals were in keen spirits; their team was unbeaten since round 2 and favourites to win the premiership. Just two years earlier, Saints had been wooden spooners but coach Frank Burge, now a rugby league Immortal, arrived in 1927 and quickly turned things around, building this resurgence around a rugged pack of forwards who, to use one of his favourite expressions, ‘took and handed out hard knocks’.
St George had played Balmain earlier in the 1928 season at Earl Park, winning 21–12 on the back of a superb performance by hooker Arthur ‘Snowy’ Justice, who dominated his opposite number, George Bishop, in the scrums. The Tigers were having a dreadful season, and Burge’s men piled on the agony in the rematch, cruising to a 13–3 lead early in the second half. To this point, the game had been largely incident free, except for a moment just before halftime, when Saints prop Jack Mogridge reeled out of a scrum with blood pouring from his nose. The home players were incensed that the thrower of the errant punch escaped scot free.
‘Thus started the “Battle of Earl Park”,’ wrote Truth’s representative at the game …
Act 2: The Riot
‘Saints had been scoring points,’ Truth’s man said of the early second-half action, ‘while a few Balmain forwards seemed intent on playing as dirty as possible. They most certainly deserved a trip to the pavilion, but did not get it.’
The Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent agreed.
‘The game in the second half was frequently marred by rough play, and it was apparent that the referee had lost control,’ he wrote. ‘That official repeatedly cautioned players, but sterner measures were needed to check them.’
The only player sent off was St George forward Harry Flower, who rushed to the aid of his captain George Carstairs, after seeing him being manhandled by two Tigers. Flower, who was accused of kicking an opponent but would be acquitted by the judiciary, was cheered and clapped all the way to the dressing room. Saints five-eighth Arnold Traynor, one of the smallest men to ever play first grade, was kicked in the ribs by Balmain forward Tony Russell, and Russell tackled Carstairs off the ball and then appeared to kick him in the head as he ran to rejoin play. Carstairs was knocked cold, and Burge and St George secretary Reg Fusedale dashed onto the field, as did the linesman, former international Charlie Hedley. Referee Mick Brannaghan insisted the Saints officials leave the field before hearing Hedley’s report, which was that Russell’s actions were reckless but accidental. There was no send off. The crowd could not believe it.
‘A weaker exhibition than that of the referee and touch judges has never been seen,’ wrote the Sydney Sportsman.
Carstairs, still unconscious, was carried from the field on a stretcher. The crowd was chanting, ‘Get Russell!’ and, ‘Send ’im off!’ The fulltime score was 21–3, but any hope that the fans might leave it at that disappeared when George Bishop, rather than shaking hands, suddenly took off after little Traynor.
‘Players from both sides kept the two men from exchanging blows, but hundreds of barrackers. now thoroughly aroused, jumped over the fence and swarmed over the field, shouting, “We want Russell!” and “Let’s have a piece of Russell!”,’ reported the Herald.
‘The big forward saw his impending danger,’ the paper continued, ‘but was powerless to escape.’
One of the incongruities of the Battle of Earl Park is that no one was convicted of any crime arising out of the affray. The only man arrested while the riot was taking place was 38-year-old Stanley Ferris, who was accused of assaulting a plain-clothes police officer, but that charge was quickly thrown out when the matter reached Kogarah Court. Ferris, once a policeman and now working as a salesman, told the magistrate that he had gone to Earl Park ‘for the sole purpose of watching a good, clean game’:
I was dumbfounded when arrested. Seeing No. 13 Balmain footballer, whom I subsequently learned was Russell, on his knees and being kicked and hit by the crowd, I pushed my way through with the object of helping the police. I brushed those close to No. 13 aside caught him by the left arm, and said to Detective Langworthy, who was on his right, ‘I’m with you.’
We were, successfully conveying No. 13 off the ground despite the antagonistic attitude of the crowd. Suddenly I received a severe blow on the head and felt an object slide down my back. A momentary glance indicated a shiny object which I took for a bottle and seeing a person who seemed beside himself with excitement stoop and pick up this article, I struck him believing him to be one of No. 13’s attackers.
Meanwhile I, of course, was forced to let No. 13 go and I have no hesitation in saying that had I not been interfered with, this footballer would not have been so seriously injured … ‘
Ferris, with blood seeping from a head wound, was told to wait behind the grandstand, while Detective Langworthy managed to get Russell to the dressing-room, from where he was helped out a side-door to a waiting ambulance. Folklore has it that George Carstairs was already in that ambulance, and when the two footballers were placed next to each other they resumed hostilities. Carstairs was eventually allowed to go home after being diagnosed with concussion (or what the doctors called ‘shock to the spine’) while Russell was kept in overnight for observation. A Balmain official had thrown an overcoat over Bishop’s head, which allowed the hooker to reach safety relatively unscathed.
The riot continued even with the players and officials locked in their rooms, though exactly for how long depends on whom you talk to. Years later, long-time St George official Glyn Price would recall to journalist Ian Heads that he was at the game, went home for tea, and then came back and the battle was still raging. But though many hung around long after fulltime, the worst of the fires were put out reasonably quickly. Truth reported that the arrival of police reinforcements, led by an inspector, ‘saw a return to law and order’. The Singleton Argus, which wrote of police using batons and handcuffs to subdue the mob, claimed ‘it was five minutes before the riot was quelled’. For at least a short while, however, there had been genuine mayhem.
‘Eyewitnesses are convinced that but for the meritorious action of the small [police] force, loss of life would have occurred,’ was the view of the Evening News.
At one point, ‘Jockey’ Kelly, the great Saints lock, stuck his head out the dressing-room door and shouted,
‘You’re giving Earl Park and St George a bad name. Why don’t you go home and let it go at that?’
Harry Flower made sure Mick Brannaghan got out of the ground safely, and the two walked to the train station together.
Act 3: The Aftermath
The NSW Rugby League mounted an inquiry into the riot that ran over two nights, but ultimately decided it was the crowd that caused the trouble, and that ‘the players had nothing to do with it’. Brannaghan, ridiculously was quoted as saying it was ‘one of the cleanest games I’ve ever refereed’, while Hedley sort of concurred, claiming that the game was ‘not all that rough, I’ve seen many rougher’. Burge and Fusedale were censured for not leaving the field when told to by the match officials.
There was disagreement among eyewitnesses over whether Russell had deliberately kicked Carstairs, but perhaps the most telling evidence came from Herb Gilbert, St George’s foundation captain and one of the game’s finest ever players, who said that he thought it was an accident. Carstairs said he remembered being tackled by Russell when he did not have the ball, but nothing more. The cheekiest intervention came from Wests official Ern McFayden,
‘If St George players cannot control themselves, the game should be rid of them,’ McFayden said. ‘If the officials have not the power to control them, then we would also be better rid of them. If the evidence is not satisfactory, I will move for the disqualification of the St George club from the League.’
When St George had entered the competition in 1921, they took a lot of Wests’ old territory. There was no question who would gain most from Saints being booted out of the premiership.
St George finished the season equal top of the table with Easts, eight points clear of third-placed Souths, but were then beaten 13–5 by the Rabbitohs in front of a crowd of nearly 15,000 and a strong police presence at Earl Park in the first semi-final. Just like that, their season was over. Eleven days later, the riot was back in the news when The Sun revealed that Bishop and Russell had been charged by police with ‘having behaved in a riotous manner in the enclosure of Earl Park on August 11’. The defendants were remanded to appear at the Kogarah Court in a week’s time. However, the matter never went to court, as the charges were quietly withdrawn. By this time, with the season now over, it seemed everyone was happy to put the affair behind them.
But there were still some aspects of the story to be played out. Mr Earl died in 1938, and a year later St George decided to move back to their original home ground after convincing the council to finally enclose Hurstville Oval. They said it was because Hurstville was now more central for their fan base, but there were also suspicions that Earl Park was soon to be sold. It was offered to Rockdale Council, but not at the right price, and then in 1943 it was announced that a factory was to be built on the land. The Cook Confectionery Company was operating there by the end of the decade.
In 1946, St George were the dominant side for most of the year, and were clear favourites to win the premiership. In the grand final, they met Balmain and scored four tries to three but went down 13–12. There was much criticism of the referee, who appeared to err by awarding the Tigers two tries that should have been disallowed. ‘Those errors cost St George the premiership,’ said club president Clem Madden.
The referee was George Bishop.
Those with long memories might have thought back to the Earl Park riot. Did the referee still bear some scars from that most acrimonious of games? The day after the ’46 grand final, Saints had scheduled a charity game, as a testimonial to Joe McGraw, the club’s foundation secretary. Bishop had agreed weeks earlier to be the referee. He turned up.
‘After the heckling Bishop received on Saturday, we thought he would be too scared to come near us,’ said Snowy Justice, now the Saints secretary. ‘He arrived and walked out before 5000 people, and refereed the match.’
‘It looked simple, but it was the most courageous act I’ve seen in football. Not one person in the crowd said a word.’
* there is very little photographic or video history of Earl Park available – the video attached to this article is highlights of the 1934 St George v South Sydney game – St George 31 (L. Kelly 3, F. Gardner 2, L. Brennan, P. Fairall tries; S. Robinson 5 goals) defeated South Sydney 8 (P. Williams 2 tries; P. Williams goal). Date: Sat, 5th May. Kickoff: 3:15 PM. Halftime: St George 11-0. Referee: Lal Deane. Crowd: 5,000. Courtesy of Rugby League Project