Book review

An Act of Bastardry - Rugby league axes its first club

By Max Solling Walla Press Sydney 2014

Max Solling’s book is a readable reminder of the origins of rugby league and its growth in NSW and Queensland. It covers the period 1908-1929 when the Glebe team was unceremoniously dumped from the NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) and their area handed over to the Balmain club.

This was an act which generations of locals still believe and the author shows to have been unjust and unfair and hence, as the book’s title declares, ‘an act of bastardry’.

Max Solling, with fascinating historical forensic skill, has dissected the available records which conclusively prove that Glebe was the first NSWRL club to be formed.

Rugby league had its origins firmly in the working class life of Sydney. Players and supporters came almost exclusively from people of modest means, tribal loyalty dominated and sport provided a sense of identity and pride.

Catholic schools run by the Marist Brothers and the Good Samaritans signed up for rugby league and gave it a boost. State primary schools signed up later which finally cemented the supremacy of rugby league.

The Glebe Rugby League team wore maroon and were called ‘the reds’ or ‘the dirty reds’. Team supporters were passionately partisan and would never accept that a referee was correct when he penalised a Glebe player during a match.

One of the most interesting chapters is Max’s analysis of working class culture in inner Sydney in the early decades of the last century. This is a fascinating look at the issues the working class faced and how they survived the depression, war and government attacks on their working conditions. Many of these issues are still with us today.

He covers the impact of the growth of unionism, the industrial landscape and the growing importance of the Labor Party at that time. Within this context Max shows how sport took some of the rough edges off the lives of sometimes desperate people. Sport was also a safety valve for workers to let out pent up anger over their treatment at the workplace or to relieve tensions in the home.

Max’s book is full of detail and it is never dull. Famous players including Giltinan and Dally Messenger are featured while Glebe players are extensively documented. The most famous was Frank Burge who held the record for the most tries in a season for a forward for about 60 years.

This is a must-have book for fans of the game, those interested in the social history of the working class in Sydney, the growth of trade unionism, and labor politics in first few decades of the last century. It is one of those books which should be read and treasured by all unionists.

Reviewed by IEU member
Denis Doherty