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How Netball helped Girls find their Space in Ashburton

The history of netball in Victoria is a mystery. This is despite 120 years of the sport being played consistently in Australia. Even though its been the most popular sport for girls and women for decades, very few people have studied it. There are so few articles about netball that the only one I could find is about how there is so little historical interest in it. In fact, it is not even clearly established when the first game of netball, originally called women’s basketball, was played in Victoria.

The earliest record I could find in Trove comes from July 1902. This seems to track with the sparse narrative surrounding the origins of the sport. The article in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser refers to ‘the new American game of basket ball [sic], which was introduced to Ballarat about a fortnight ago by the Amateur Athletic Club.’ [1] It proved immediately popular. Observers also quickly noted its suitability for women.

Now women’s sport in the very early 20th century was largely relegated to skipping, marching, singing, dumb-bells and breathing exercises. Doctors genuinely believed that any strenuous exercise or contact team sport would inhibit women’s child-bearing capacity.[2] But this game, according to one commentator, ‘afforded splendid exercise for the mind and body, tends to make girls courageous and to give them habits of self-control and self-reliance.’[3]

The women's basketball court at Fintona Girls School, Camberwell c. early 20th century

Not only that, but basketball needed a hard playing surface instead of a green oval. This meant if girls played it, they were kept off the grassed sporting fields of cricket and football considered the domain of boys and men. With this tacit approval to enter the domain of team sports, girls took the metaphorical ball and ran with it.

Women’s basketball enters girls schools

With no competition from boys’ sport combined with privately-owned grounds that could accommodate dedicated playing spaces, the new sport of basketball quickly gained momentum in Melbourne’s private girls schools. In Boroondara, it appeared at Fintona Girls School in Camberwell soon after 1905; Presbyterian Ladies’ College in 1909; Ruyton Girls’ School in 1913; and Methodist Ladies’ College in 1914.[4]

Fintona's Basket Ball team, 1928

According to PLC’s archivist, ‘the sport was entrenched enough that when PLC opened a branch school in Mentone the first sports facilities it laid down were for tennis and basketball. By 1921, a tennis court at the main school was converted for basketball. Yet the sport must have still been quite novel as later that year a group of PLC girls went to Presbyterian Girls’ Grammar School in Berwick to demonstrate and teach them how to play basketball.’ Interschool competitions seemed to take hold by 1923; adding another spoke to the famous and enduring rivalry between MLC and PLC.

Fortunately, women’s basketball did not remain in the domain of upper middle class girls of Melbourne for long. Fed by the small space required to play it, the ball as the only piece of equipment, the relative small number of girls in a team, and the less likelihood of injury, the sport moved to state schools after Frank Tate’s Education Act of 1910 mandated primary school education for all Victorian children.

The movement of teachers between schools took the sport with them. After World War I, basketball played by girls quickly spread across the state. A perfunctory search of Trove revealed girls from Croydon and Ringwood State School playing a basketball match in 1925; girls in Williamstown and Coburg playing in 1927; and a match between girls from Irymple South and Irymple (near Mildura) schools in 1929.

1926 article on Basket Ball results

At the same time, a church-based league emerged called the Victorian Girls Basketball Association. The precusor to the present-day Netball Victoria, this appears to date to 1923.[5] The Association hosted teams from all across Melbourne: Malvern, South Melbourne, Coburg, Hughesdale, Ascotvale, Richmond, Caulfield and Brunswick. The superstar team though was one from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In her speech congratulating YWCA for winning the 1926 pennant, Mrs W W S Johnston noted the ‘friendship and good feeling that is the result of so many girls brought together’ by the sport.[6]

This statement very much captured why women’s basketball had become so popular so quickly. It offered girls the chance to make friends outside of their home environment and move around their town or city. They also liked the opportunity to win trophies recognising their skills and abilities in sport; something previously only in the domain of boys.

Yet rarely was the phenomenal and rapid growth of women’s basketball – or women’s sport at all – given much coverage in Melbourne’s press. The predominantly male reporters of the Sporting Globe, published from 1922 to 1996, barely mention it over the paper’s 75-year run.

Fortunately, Dot Debnam, a leading women’s cricketer of the interwar years, wrote of the advancement of women’s sport in 1946 for the paper.[7] International women’s cricket had progressed considerably, Dot wrote, despite Australian girls having no opportunity to play until after they left school (English girls could always play in a private girls’ school setting). But the progress of basketball was even more remarkable than cricket, she continued. In 1946, the Victorian Women’s Basketball Association controlled around 70 teams in Saturday afternoon competitions and 70 in evening competitions. Hundreds of teams throughout the state were affiliated with the Association either through church, school, trade unions, or other associations.

Dot's article in the Sporting Globe, 5 October 1946
Yet nobody but Dot bothered to note how remarkable this was for a sport only 40 years old. Unfortunately, this sad neglect of such a ground-breaking cultural development for Victoria’s women persists today.

Women’s Basketball in Boroondara

The only mention of basketball I can find in a published local history of the area is from J Alex Allan’s 1950 History of Camberwell. He noted, ‘basketball was first played in Camberwell in 1945, is growing in popularity, popular at scholastic institutions and played by both sexes.’[8] Although Mr Allen’s history is very comprehensive and contains lots of useful information, he is totally wrong. Like most histories of that time, women were … not in it. It appears Mr Allen did not realise women’s basketball had been played at Fintona Girls School for nearly 40 years already.

Thanks to trusty Trove, it appears women’s basketball was just as popular in the Boroondara area as it was in other parts of Victoria. Aside from Fintona, two teams from Camberwell Girls Grammar were playing basket ball in 1925 within the Girls’ Schools’ Association of Victoria.[9] By 1935, representatives from Camberwell’s Methodist churches were playing in a women’s league while members of the Catholic church in Kew played in their own league.

It is a very rare event when history in Ashburton is on par with the rest of Boroondara. However, it appears that the playing of women’s basket ball is that event.

It began at Ashburton State School in 1929, a year after the school opened. Unfortunately, the girls were defeated by Camberwell South, 10 goals to 1.[10] Perhaps the girls of Ashburton can be forgiven since they probably had absolutely no idea what they were doing.

The same results listing indicated a very comprehensive local league. Teams played from local state schools across Melbourne. In Boroondara there was Camberwell, East Kew Central, Deepdene, South Auburn, Surrey Hills, Balwyn, Glenferrie, Kew and Canterbury among them. This shows that as it had in other parts of Victoria, women’s basket ball successfully jumped from the private to public school system in Boroondara in the 1920s too.

But it would be some time before women’s basket ball – renamed netball in the early 1970s to differentiate it from the growing popularity of men’s basketball – would receive its own dedicated facilities.

The Ashburton Netball Club

Former residents of Ashburton remember playing netball in the 1960s ‘in the courts behind High Street’ often for a church-affiliated team such as Hartwell Presbyterian. This was not a dedicated space for women to play basket ball by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it was a large car park, installed by City of Camberwell in 1961 and built to help stimulate Ashburton’s High Street when it was up against the newly opened Chadstone Shopping Centre. Since most shops closed by 12 noon on Saturdays back then, women’s basketball matches began soon after.

‘The surface wasn’t even flat,’ said Eike Shields, a PE teacher at Ashburton State School in the 1970s. ‘Someone rustled up some nets and balls. Sometimes we had to wait for people to move their cars before we could start the game.’

Eike arrived at Ashburton State School in 1975 and quickly stepped into a brouhaha over the school’s sports program. ‘Girls were strongly discouraged from using the oval,’ she said. ‘But the school considered athletics the most important school sport.’ How were girls supposed to participate in athletics if they were not allowed to practice on the oval? This situation greatly excluded girls from participating in any sport at the school.

Fortunately, it was now the 1970s. The rise of feminism saw women teachers begin to push back on the school traditions that excluded girls and favoured boys. In an attempt to “resolve” the sport dispute, the principal at the time, who did not care much for sport anyway, moved to ban Ashburton’s participation in interschool sport entirely.

Eike, with the support of several prep mothers of girls, decided the girls needed a sport of their own to play. Since the mothers had all loved women’s basket ball back in their day, they decided to start their own netball club. Eike stepped in to coach, and the two mothers administrated the new Ashburton Netball Club.

Now they just needed a playing space. There were no courts at the school then but the creation of the new Club coincided fortuitously with the decline of participation in the church-based leagues. Across all the local team sports (being football and cricket, with soccer only just starting to find its footing), the plummeting rates of church attendance affected the supply of recruits. Space on the Marquis Street Car Park became available for the new Ashburton Netball Club.

The Maquis Street Carpark today - still not that flat.

‘We wanted the uniform to reflect the Australian women’s side,’ Eike said. ‘So we chose yellow. But we couldn’t source the skirts so we just made them ourselves.’ The girls wore their school t-shirts with them [this was a predominantly yellow t-shirt, unlike the bottle green one now] and thanks to the miracle of Velcro, they could stick their position description bibs onto the shirts.

‘We wanted girls to experience the team environment, have an opportunity to compete and train,’ Eike continued. ‘There really was not much else on offer for them then. They didn’t want to fight the boys and the broader sporting culture to try and play football or cricket.’

Netball meant girls didn’t have to be super fit or skilled, they could play with their friends, and it was all done in an hour. ‘And they really loved the trophies. They loved the public recognition it gave them.’

Eike and the mothers sought to take on the anti-sport principal about creating a space for girls to play at the School, instead of a car park. It seems with Eike onboard, the School came around to netball within a few years. In 1978, according to the school history, the netball team won the Glen Iris District Competition and went on to become premiers of the region.[11]

There’s no record of exactly when the School laid down the netball courts. But by 2023, they were so decrepit they underwent a massive refurbishment.

Ashburton Primary School's netball court today

There’s also few records of the Club’s performance. But perhaps this doesn’t matter much. Much like fathers and sons with their sporting interests, a love of netball passed down the generations.

A netballer from the mid-1980s, described as a 'lazily active person'.

Many former students recall playing for the Club and their mothers coaching them. Today, the Ashburton Netball Club continues to thrive under the watchful eye of school mothers who just happened to have played netball at the highest levels in Victoria.

Why is it so hard for Netball to attract attention?

It took until 1995 for dedicated netball facilities to be built for local girls and women. That’s 90 years since they started playing it in Victoria. On this side of the city, these ultimately emerged as the Waverley Netball Centre at Jells Park, in the Monash Council jurisdiction.

‘It took years to get that stadium built. it was very difficult to get funding for anything at all,’ Eike says. ‘It is so hard to understand. The sport is consistently immensely popular. Eighty-five percent of women control the family budget. They make financial decisions all the time. You would think Woolworths or Coles would get onboard to sponsor netball, but nope.’

Eike wonders if its because women don’t talk themselves up enough. ‘Men like to talk about sport, all their prowess and accomplishments. Women just get on with it.’

I think she’s definitely on to something there. I found it really hard to find anything written on any netball club websites about when they opened, how long they’ve been around, the club’s successes/challenges. Even the Waverley Netball Centre has nothing at all about when it opened, I found that in a Herald Sun article.

A rare history of netball

Today, netball is one of the only sports that did not form in the shadow of men playing the same sport.[12] Good netball offers just as much excitement as other spectator sports.

Perhaps the problem is that there’s no ‘star’ in a netball team. It is the very definition of a team sport. This contributed to why, despite hundreds of thousands of players across Australia for decades, it never attracted much media interest. The ‘hero’ model surrounding cricket and football – built by a media almost entirely controlled by men in Australia – does not apply to netball.

‘Men don’t understand the game because they don’t play it,’ lamented national team coach Joyce Brown in 1984. ‘In any case, sportswomen have to be twice as good to be recognised half as much.’ Is this why Victoria’s most famous netballer is arguably the fictional Sharon Strzelecki?

Sadly, the latter part of that statement has not changed much but men’s participation in netball certainly has. ‘There’s no barriers to men playing netball at all,’ said Eike. These days lots of men play netball for exactly the same reasons girls played all those years ago: its fun, you don’t have to be that fit, it’s all over in an hour, no-one is the ‘star’, and you can play it all year around. There’s also far less of the aggression and umpire abuse there is in other team sports.

Although the attitude of parents has certainly changed for the worse… but that’s a different story.

Thanks to the archivists at Ruyton, PLC and MLC for their help with this article and to Eike Shields for her time.

Pictures of Fintona Girls School courtesy of Reichl, P. 1986. Fintona 1896 - 1986: The Story in Pictures. Fintona Girls' School, Melbourne.


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