It is an accepted practice in all Australian country towns for the residents to show an interest in sport in some form or another. Walhalla was no exception but it was at a disadvantage with the hilly country which did not leave any reasonably large flat areas to be used for sporting activities. In the 1880's the men of Walhalla decided to make their own recreation ground by levelling a hill above the town for this purpose. The work was all done with picks and shovels.
The following account, written by Jim Usher for "Sporting Life", August 1970, gives a graphic account of the ground and some games of football played on the "oval" and should be read with this date in mind. This story was also republished in the Walhalla Improvement League Newsletter dated November 1979 -- we apologize for this second republication but feel we have many new members who would not have read the 1979 report -- and I am sure you will agree that it makes good reading.
The football ground in the old Victorian gold mining town of Walhalla is on top of a mountain 700 feet above the township.
The only way up is by a narrow bush track, and you almost have to be an experienced rock-climber to reach it. The track is steep and winding, almost sheer in places, and even the fittest of footballers would take 20 minutes to walk the 700 feet from the township to the top.
The goldminers who worked in the famous Long Tunnel Mine at Walhalla built the ground in the early 1880's. With picks and shovels they worked for years to shave the top off the mountain, to carve a football and cricket ground 140 yards long by about 90 yards wide.
In all, they sliced about 30 feet off the top of the mountain. By 1885 the ground was level and they poured a concrete cricket pitch in the centre, and played their first game. No grass ever grew on the Walhalla ground. The outfield was rough gravel, and the boundary line was formed by a row of gum trees.
You could almost peer over the edge of the ground and look down on the Walhalla township below. The situation of the oval prompted former Australian Test cricket captain Warwick Armstrong to make a bet with the Secretary of the Cricket Club, Harry Rawson, that he could belt a cricket ball onto the roof of the Star Hotel in the township 700 feet "over the side".
Harry took up the bet, and was well prepared for the match, which was between the visiting Melbourne - East Melbourne club and the Walhalla Cricket Club during Easter 1907.
He carried 13 spare cricket balls up to the oval that day just in case Warwick lost a few in trying to win his bet.
Home ground advantage was on the locals' side that day. They planted a fieldsman, Dick Merrington, behind a gum tree 25 feet outside the oval and he caught Armstrong in the trees. The umpire was a local goldminer and he, naturally, gave Warwick out. Armstrong didn't achieve his ambition to land a cricket ball on the roof of the Star Hotel, but he did spend a few pleasant hours inside the pub after the match with his hosts, the goldminers.
The first football match was played in Walhalla a few years after the oval was built. Two Walhalla sides, North United and Commonwealth, met in combat for the first time around 1888. United played in yellow and black guernseys and Commonwealth in red, white and blue. they were joined later by YMC, and until the gold ran out in 1913 the three sides played the local competition, one having a bye each week.
Few teams visited Walhalla because of its remoteness and poor transport facilities. (Walhalla, incidentally, is 112 miles from Melbourne, and 29 miles from Moe in central Gippsland.)
One man who remembers the football days of Walhalla well is Mr Charlie Lee, now 85 and living in retirement in East Malvern. Mr Lee was a rover with North United and won two gold medals for best and fairest. He also copped an elbow in the ear during a match at Walhalla, which he says contributed to his deafness today.
Actually the main injuries footballers suffered in those days, he says, were caused by fists and elbow jolts. Very few suffered cuts and abrasions on the rough gravel surface.
The story of the most famous match ever played in Walhalla, between Walhalla and the Baw Baws on July 21st, 1924, is a football classic. In the first quarter the football burst, so they sent a miner on horseback down to the township to get another one. The players adjourned for a drink and a chat with the ladies.
The horseman returned with a new ball and play resumed. In the second quarter, a player kicked the ball out of bounds in the wing position. It landed at the feet of a horse, grazing quietly on the sidelines. The horse became so startled that it reared and brought its hooves down on the ball with such force that the stitching split.
So the horseman was sent down to the township for another football. Play stopped and the rugged players flirted with the ladies again.
The rider returned with a new ball, but this one had to be inflated and laced by the local saddler. The poor fellow made an error of judgement with his needle and punctured the bladder.
So off went the miner again for yet another football. And off went the players for a quiet drink and a further chat with the ladies.
The horserider himself by this time was getting a little thirsty, so he dallied in the township for an hour to relieve his parched throat.
By the time he returned, dusk was settling in on the mountain top. By three quarter time it was pitch black. But bushmen are a resolute bunch. They lit a roaring fire at each goal end and the footballers directed their kicks towards the fires. The goal umpires signalled goals aand points by waving blazing torches.
In the pitch black, of course, players got away with murder. Bare knuckles, elbow jolts, strangleholds and many other ungentlemanly tactics were used in the darkened areas of the arena, but when play emerged into the goalmouth areas lit by the huge bonfires everyone behaved like perfect gentlemen.
Walhalla won, but it is said that the scoreboard was rigged in the darkness. After the match, in one of the 15 hotels in the township, the players decided that the most gentlemanly thing to do was call the game a draw.
This particular match was played 11 years after the main source of gold -- the Long Tunnel Mine -- ran out in 1913.
But in the days when Walhalla football was at its peak and rivalry between the three sides was as feverish as was the desire for gold, miners of the Long Tunnel Mine thought nothing of working the Friday night shift from midnight to 8 am 2500 feet underground, not worrying about sleep on Saturday morning, and playing football in the afternoon.
They toiled in most severe conditions for one shilling and a halfpenny per hour, eight hours a day, six days a week. Many died in their prime from lung complaints.
Others were killed by premature dynamite explosions and other accidents deep in the mines. The Walhalla cemetery (where 1148 people are buried) is full of miners who died in their late 20's and early 30's.
The death toll had its effect on the three football teams, but there were always plenty of youngsters to fill the gaps.
And Walhalla turned out many a footballer who made the grade in the Victorian League football competition, among them the names of Treleor, Waterson, Clarkston, Hoare and Marchbank.
A Methodist parson from Walhalla also made league ranks.
Combined Walhalla teams also had success against other Gippsland district sides. In 1907 they beat a combined Central and West Gippsland side at Moe. Charlie Hardy, captain of Essendon at the time, was a "ring-in" with the Gippsland side. Mr Lee remembers roving against him and "giving him a bath". The following year Walhalla beat Maffra for the North Gippsland championship.
One of the local characters in the Walhalla side was Dick Merrington (the man who hid in the gum trees to catch Warwick Armstrong). Dick used to walk 24 miles to Walhalla every Saturday to play cricket and football and 24 miles home again. He ran a pub called the "Wayside Inn", the doors of which were always open to the public even when Dick was journeying to his sporting engagements at Walhalla. When no-one was there to serve liquor, Dick left a series of notices around the bar inviting customers to help themselves. Notices like, "You'll find change under the counter", and "Whisky on the left". It is sad to report that Dick didn't die a millionaire.
The umpire at most of the football matches was a chap named Jack Shepherd, and he ruled the game with an iron fist. Jack was a part-time miner, athletics coach and town businessman. There was no boundary line, so Jack decided the ball was out of bounds when it disappeared into the crowd of spectators, and he threw it in from the boundary himself.
Mr Lee says that even in those days there were a few Ted Whittens and Ron Barassis who told the umpire how to run the game, but Jack Shepherd took little notice. And there was never any liquor at football matches. The players saved their thirst for an after-match celebration at any of the town's 15 hotels. The pubs were always open until 10 pm, and the beer is reported to have been superb. Walhalla had two breweries to supply the hotels and the owner of one of them, Lewis Loan, won a prize for his beer at the Paris Exhibition. His secret, he said, was the water he used from a spring near his brewery.
On Saturday nights after the football the spruikers from Melbourne came to Walhalla to peddle their wares. They sold bottles of amazing new scientific achievements that guaranteed to "put hair on your head overnight", "grow a new tail on your dog in a week", and "toothpaste that would make black teeth white with one brushing".
The whole town on a Saturday night was a fairyland of lights and gaiety, of dancing and merriment.
But if there was no beer at the football, there certainly was at the sports day held once a year on the football ground. This was the social event of the year for Walhalla, and miners would hike up to the ground a week beforehand to build timber and bark shelters for their families (kind of like private boxes!).
On sports day the ladies were attired in their finest Victorian era gowns, the men in suits and bowler hats.
Events of the day included bike races (eight laps of the oval to the mile), tossing the caber, tug-of-wars, rifle shooting, pigeon shoots and athletics. And there were several booths which sold pies, sandwiches, etc., but their best trade was gained from the sale of this superb Walhalla beer.
The festival day began early morning and lasted until dusk. At the end of the day, many miners were hopelessly drunk and completely incapable of making the precarious hike 700 feet down to the township. And this is where the strapping young men of the town made their pickings. For 1/- a time they would strap the helpless miners' hands and feet to gum tree saplings and carry them down the mountain in the way that a hunter carries a shot stag.
And always they made sure of getting their money in advance.
Those who were dead broke spent the night on the chilly hilltop.
Today the town still has a rugged pioneering charm about it, set in a tiny valley between towering mountains. Remains of the old days are still to be seen.
A long pile of overburden from the Long Tunnel Mine overlooks the township. Entrances to long disused mine shafts are to be found hidden in the hillsides. The headstones of about 200 graves of the 1148 people buried in the Walhalla cemetery are still to be seen. But the other 948 graves are unmarked, among them that of Henry Dendy, the founder of the Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
The track up to the old cricket ground is still there and many tourists make the walk up for a thorough cardiovascular workout and to view this unique sports ground. It still boasts a concrete cricket pitch, but the "outer" now has a grass covering, seasonally sprinkled with native wildflowers.
At least one cricket match is played there each year when the Walhalla Heritage League arrange a Christmas social match, followed by a social evening in the Mechanics Institute as the climax to another year's activity.