Australia’s first leagues’ club closes

By Gemma Chilton 11 December 2015
Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page
The NSW Leagues’ Club building has closed its doors after 101 years, for most of which it stood as ‘the heart and soul’ of Australian rugby league.

ON 8 DECEMBER 1914, when the NSW Leagues’ Club first came into being, rugby league as a football code in Australia was still in its infancy, with the first clubs forming in 1908 and the first English league team touring Australia in 1910.

It was in these burgeoning years that the General Committee of NSW Rugby League saw the need for a social club for the growing numbers of followers of the new code. At the time, most social clubs in Australia were either for professionals such as engineers, Masons or for the wealthy horse racing fraternity. “This was the first opportunity for people in the game to have a social hub – something that hadn’t been available for working class sports people until then,” says Terry Williams, resident historian at the NRL Heroes and Legends Rugby League Museum in Moore Park, Sydney.

By 1918, the club had outgrown its original premises in a narrow three-storey stone building at 169 Phillip Street, Sydney, and relocated down the road to a bigger building at 165 Phillip Street – where it stayed until doors finally closed in October 2015.

Heart and soul of rugby league

“The club was the heart and soul of rugby league from the beginning,” says Ian Heads, a respected rugby league journalist and author, and former editor of Rugby League Week. “The majority of the important decisions that were made about the sport in Australia were made there at the meeting of the General Committee over a few schooners on Monday nights. It was the engine room of the sport.”

During the Club’s 101 years, the only other time it moved from 165 Phillip Street was during renovations in the 1930s, and again during World War II when it was used as a hostel for Allied troops and later to house the American Red Cross Society.

According to club documents, membership grew steadily over the years – from 289 members in 1915, up to almost 1500 during the ‘40s, and then 13,500 by 1959. At its peak in the 1960s and ‘70s – with growth driven largely by the legalisation of poker machines in 1956 – the club had up to 35,000 members, many of them businessmen from the surrounding district. The dress code was suit and tie, members were men-only (until the 1970s) and the building’s 13 stories included several dining rooms and bars, ladies’ and mixed lounges, a billiard hall, board rooms and administrative offices, as well as accommodation.  

No more beer and snooker lunch breaks

“It’s hard work pulling something down you’ve spent almost 30 years building up,” says Chris Bowden, who has been the CEO of the NSW Leagues’ Club since 1989, and first started working there in 1981. Chris is staying on at 165 Phillip Street until early 2016, overseeing the closedown while the Club’s future is decided. For now, the once impressive interiors are dimly lit and mostly empty, aside from the odd stack of chairs and 101 years’ worth of framed rugby league photos and paraphernalia leaning against bare walls.

A number of factors led to the Club’s shrinking revenue and eventually the need to sell its iconic premises. In particular, Chris points to the extension of poker machine entitlements to hotels in the 1990s which increased competition, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.

But the changing culture of inner city Sydney also played a role, says Terry – who suggests that the traditional working class supporter base of the code is no longer as represented in the city’s urban centre. “People who work in the city and what they do for recreation and on their lunch breaks is vastly different now,” he says. “While rugby league is more popular than ever, that part of town is changing and so is the demographic – look at how different Darling Harbour was 40 years ago; it was a slum. Sydney’s changed, it’s gentrified.”

A rich history of sport and culture

While the club has always operated as a separate company to NSW Rugby League, the two have always been closely entwined; often sharing directors and chairmen, and the Club housed NSW Rugby League for most of its history.

As such, the Club’s history is inextricably tied to the history of the sport. “The code was established in clandestine meetings just a dropkick down the road in [Australian cricketer] Victor Trumper’s sport’s store on Market Street,” says Ian. Founding Australian league player Henry “Dally” Messenger – who gave the new game of rugby league its chance when he shifted from union to league in 1907 – even lived in the club on Phillip Street in his later years, adds Ian. “Country blokes would come to the club just to meet him and shake his hand,” he says.

It was within the walls of 165 Phillip Street that the State of Origin series became a reality in 1980; where Australia’s national team, the Kangaroos held their annual reunion up until the mid-2000s and where touring British Lions were hosted. It was also where key decisions by the NSW Rugby League judiciary were made and where, as the home of the traditional game, the Super League wars between Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch played out in the mid-90s. (Chris recalls personally ushering Packer past hordes of press and into the club, where Packer then addressed a full committee room, employing a not-to-be-repeated colourful one-liner before being leaving the Club.)

However, the Club’s significance in Australian history extends beyond its ties to rugby league, and it has been home to a century of significant sporting and cultural events. Among other highlights, in the 1940s Australian billiards champion Walter Lindrum played exhibition matches there; in 1955 renowned Australian artist Margaret Olley painted one of her best known murals – a scene of Circular Quay – for the club; and in December 1965, famed Australian boxer Rocky Gattellari and Italian Salvatore Burruni weighed in for their Sydney Showground fight.

As recently as 2014, during the siege on the Lindt Café at Martin Place (just around the corner from the Club), police officials set up ‘forward command’ inside 165 Phillip Street, using it as a base to make key tactical decisions. Chris, who stayed in the building for 18 hours straight during the attack, recalls standing on the club’s balcony for a smoko when “the fireworks went off” and the siege came to a head in the early hours of the morning. For the role it played during the siege, the club won the Emergency Services category in the Clubs NSW awards earlier this year.

A beer, a smile and a yarn

In the face of dwindling revenue and membership, 165 Phillip Street was sold to developers for $15.5 million in 2013 – a year before it celebrated its centenary – and the building had been leased by the club since then.

“This isn’t the end of the NSW Leagues’ Club,” insists Chris, who is working with the Board to decide the Club’s future, which will likely either include relocation or amalgamating with “another like-minded leagues’ club” – of which there are about 80 in NSW, with member numbers totalling in the millions.

However, whatever the future for the club, the move represents the end of an era in Sydney, and reflects the shift of the working class to the city’s outskirts and beyond.

For many loyal members, this is sad news – Chris recalls recently receiving a phone call from his son, who was drinking with colleagues at a trendy harbour-front bar since the close down. “His beer was warm and it cost him $9,” says Chris. “He was annoyed because he knew that back when he could come here, he could get an ice cold beer, a smile and a yarn for half that price.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivers a video message to mark the NSW Leagues’ Club’s centenary in 2014.