The battle to play sport in Camberwell on Sunday
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
I recently presented on this topic at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.
Just as High Street turns down the hill towards Glen Iris Station, there is a large, awkwardly placed stone and wood sign announcing ‘Eric Raven Reserve’. As most reserves in this area are, this unassuming patch of trees was named after City of Camberwell Councillor Eric Raven.
Cr Raven was a Malvern-born shopfitter before he was elected to Camberwell Council in 1938. He proceeded to serve on Council for 30 years. This was also not unusual as far as Camberwell Councillors were concerned back then. It may seem that Cr Raven’s Reserve merely honoured his long years of service.
But this is only part of his story.
For most of the 1950s and 60s, Cr Raven dedicated himself to forcing Camberwell Council to honour the democratically decided right of Camberwell residents to play organised sport on Sundays.
His main adversary in this battle was one man: Ashburton resident, W Gordon Sprigg.
Sunday Observance and the ban on Sport on Sunday
Up until the 1940s, it was generally accepted across Australia that nobody should play sport on Sundays. The reason for this was a Christian religious principle called Sunday Observance that prohibited sport, entertainment, work or anything fun on Sundays. There is a long history behind this principle that I won’t go into here.
ABS statistics only go back to 1971 but even then, 86.2 per cent of Australians described themselves as Christian. So you can expect that the vast majority of people thirty years earlier would have self-described as Christians and therefore adhered to the Sunday Observance doctrine as a normal part of life.
Since local councils owned the sports grounds, the Sunday Sport ban was mandated by local council by-laws, including in the City of Camberwell. For the most part, Victorians were ambivalent about changing the by-laws until well into the 20th century. It seemed many played sport casually on council reserves unmolested anyway. According to the 2015 book, Sport in Victoria: A History, the ban helped encourage amateur and local sport.
The massive immigration and baby boom after World War II caused a proliferation of junior and senior sports clubs across Melbourne, including its Eastern suburbs. Accommodating them all for Saturday matches became increasingly problematic. Another driver for change was purely practical: playing sport on fields without access to toilet blocks was creating a sanitary nightmare. So in 1947, Coburg Council held the first referendum about abolishing the prohibition on Sunday sport. It passed with a two to one majority in favour.
Other Councils followed suit. Some began implementing a hybrid-type model of Sunday sport; ‘gentle’ sports like golf, bowls and tennis were fine, but the ‘rowdy’ sports like cricket and football (that also attracted gambling) were prohibited. By 1951, only Camberwell, Box Hill, Prahran, and Sandringham banned Sunday sport outright.
Mr Sprigg digs in
As the honorary secretary of the Sunday Observance Council, W Gordon Sprigg dedicated himself to rigidly upholding the ban on Sunday Sport in Camberwell. As he would repeatedly say in his numerous letters to the Melbourne press during his long life; this was ‘the Lord’s day’ and to be kept for the ‘service of God’. 
He was not, in his own words, ‘a wowser’. In fact, he told a Sun reporter in 1940, ‘I get the best out of life.’ He just had a very strong view that Sunday was a sacred day to be ‘kept solely for God’ under all circumstances.
Sprigg was so unbending in this principle that during World War II, he decried the use of church property for issuing ration books on Sundays because it would interfere with church and Sunday schools. He begrudgingly accepted that entertaining servicemen on Sunday may be necessary but felt admission should be restricted only to them and not civilians. If practicable, it should be free. He complained to the Melbourne Lord Mayor Connelly about Connelly’s plans to provide Sunday entertainment ‘commonly accepted in England’ to Melbourne residents by stating ‘there was strong opposition to it’ the ‘desecration’ of Sunday there. He also complained about anything held on a Sunday for charitable purposes. This included a woman opening her garden to raise funds for injured returned servicemen, and a sports match to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital.
W Gordon Sprigg's central argument was that any kind of social or cultural activity on Sunday required labour. When it came to sport, someone had to engage in work to open ablution blocks, organise players and umpire games. Sprigg believed that to work on Sunday ‘belittled and destroyed the sanctity of the sacred day and interfered with the home and family life.’
Sprigg and Camberwell Council
A City of Camberwell resident, W Gordon Sprigg exerted particular influence among its conservative residents. As the push to allow Sunday Sport began in other parts of Melbourne, Sprigg spearheaded an executive committee to formulate policy that would encourage nominations of men of ‘Christian’ views to stand for Camberwell Council against councillors who supported Sunday sport.
By 1947, Sprigg’s strategy paid off. His advocacy helped ensure the defeat of a City of Camberwell referendum on the Sunday sport issue. Pro-abolition advocate Cr Dawson lamented that the result was hardly reflective of the residents views since only 20 per cent of the population had voted in it. Dawson argued that surely Council could decide the question without a referendum: ‘No one would like to see the ovals filled with large crowds of barrackers at a football match on Sundays, but no councillor should object to the use of municipal tennis courts on Sunday afternoons.’
Turns out quite a few of them did. As the 1950s progressed, Councillors were equally split on the issue, ensuring the by-law remained. By this time, even Adelaide’s Archbishop had been on record saying ‘recreation on Sunday was good for all’ for 30 years.
Sprigg retired from the Sunday Observance Council in 1952 at the age of 86. ‘Tell those people who are secularising Sunday that Gordon Sprigg is not a spent force!’ he told the Argus in a retirement interview.
He was true to his word.
Growing push for reform
As the decade passed, sentiment to overturn the ban grew within the City of Camberwell community. The Church recognised that sport provided a much needed outlet for young people, who were otherwise idle and prone to mischief.
In 1959, the Youth Christian Workers (all boys) began a campaign to allow non-commercialised sports to be played on Sunday. Camberwell became a key battleground. They successfully managed to lobby for another referendum, arguing that vandalism and delinquency were at their worst on Sunday afternoons because Camberwell youth were not permitted to use their energy for healthy recreation.
The ‘No’ advocates of Camberwell Council dragged their feet on the referendum, arguing over whether it should be a postal vote or a proper poll; and whether it should cover only non-commercial sport. Eventually, the Youth Christian Workers and a consortium of sporting clubs succeeded in getting it through.
The vote for Sunday Sport in Camberwell passed three to one in favour of Sunday sport on 24 June 1959.
But if Camberwell’s sports clubs thought they had won, they were dead wrong.
Democracy vs Sunday Observance
Two months after the referendum, the Council announced it had amended by-law 65 to read ‘no person shall, without permission of the council, play, practice or engage in any game of sport within lands controlled by the council on Sundays.’ It then proceeded to set the conditions permission would be granted.
Sunday Sport could only be played in the afternoon between 1 pm and 6 pm so it did not interfere with church attendance. Not only that, but only tennis and lawn bowls were allowed to be played and only every other week. Cricket could only be played on Council reserves on one afternoon per month. Football? Not at all.
To say the sporting clubs of Camberwell were not impressed would be an understatement.
Mr Rex Duckett of the Combined Camberwell Tennis Clubs, a lobby group organised to push the Council to reform the by-law, said the council had ‘completely ignored the result of the referendum.’ Mr F R Archer, president of the Burwood Tennis Club, was ‘completely flabbergasted’ by the restrictions. Mr Nokes, secretary of the Burwood Cricket Club, said the restrictions were an ‘underhanded way of flouting the will of the Camberwell ratepayers. The referendum was a waste of time and money, and might as well not have been held.’
W Gordon Sprigg, now the vice-president of the Sunday Christian Observance Council and 91 years old (so much for retirement) was also not impressed. But of course, this was for the opposite reason. As far as he was concerned, Camberwell Council’s decision would come at ‘great cost’.  And he was not talking about flouting the general principles of democracy. ‘Any invasion or weakening of the proper observance of the Christian Sunday, the vital necessity for which is becoming increasingly apparent to many thoughtful people, is deprecated by my council,’ he said.
Camberwell Football Club fights back
Camberwell Football Club (CFC) took up the mantle to challenge the Council’s prohibition on football on Sunday. I doubt it did this to uphold the voice of the people. Instead, I suspect it was because throughout the 1950s the CFC faced an unprecedented challenge to its seasonal supremacy none of the other local sports did: soccer.
The threat of soccer, combined with a couple of disastrous seasons and some poor management and financial decisions, caused local support for the CFC to plummet to an all time low. Soccer was a new winter competitor for football’s monopoly on Camberwell’s green spaces, bringing new supporters with it who preferred to see their national game over Australian Rules Football.
By 1959, CFC president Dr Frank Hartnett complained that ‘Camberwell was a mongrel city’ and ‘until these people [being European immigrants] settled down and got some city spirit, the club would have to wait for their help.’ Yikes. He then went on to complain about how the rules of football had been altered and the game wasn’t what it used to be and that’s why the CFC played so badly blah blah blah. If he’d also said ‘they lost because of the travel’ it would have been the same rant from any football commentator in any year since.
The point is that the CFC needed to play sport on Sundays if they were going to survive against soccer. And so they went into battle with Camberwell Council to fight for it.
Council allies: Eric Raven and Neville Lee
On 6 June 1960, the CFC made its first application to Council to play a football game on a Sunday on Camberwell Sports Ground. At the same meeting, the Burwood RSL Marching Girls made a request to use the ground too but for a marching display. Both requests were denied outright. The footballers were told bluntly that the ‘Council cannot agree to its request.’ The Marching Girls got the far nicer ‘Council regrets that it cannot give permission’ refusal.
However, a few weeks later, Council told the Marching Girls it would be fine if they wanted to use Burwood Oval for their marching display instead of Camberwell Sports Ground as long as the Burwood Reserve Committee were OK with it. Perhaps somebody on Council had whispered to them there was a way around the old guard who maybe happened to live near Camberwell Sports Ground and were among the small minority of Camberwell people who constantly complained about any noise whatsoever on Sundays? You know, the wowsers?
The names approving the request, Councillor Eric Raven and Councillor Neville Lee, held the key.
Eric Raven died many years ago but I had the good fortune to meet Neville Lee recently. I wrote about his advocacy in favour of Ashburton’s kindergartens. He told me he often butted heads with the other Councillors over their rigid conservative views. He was a self-described conservative himself but as the youngest man on Council by many years, his conservatism was more from the Menzies era than the ultra-orthodox Country Party from Victoria’s war years.
He told me these were deeply religious men, born and raised in a deeply religious state. They had all raised their families during the Great Depression. By the end of his time on Council, Neville came to realise these life experiences created a deep fear of change (and spending money) within them. The Sunday Sport issue was just one of the ways this manifested into a glacial acceptance of change on Camberwell Council.
The battle begins
In 1961, the CFC tried again to seek permission to play on Sunday. The request was ‘regretfully’ rejected. But Raven and Lee managed to get through a little movement in other sports: Council approved the request of the Willison Bowling Club and the North Balwyn Bowling Clubs – that rowdy bunch of ne’er-do-wells – to open their Clubs on every Sunday instead of every other Sunday. The next year, the East Camberwell Tennis Club asked to play on Sunday mornings but since that conflicted with church, it was a bridge too far for the Council. So too was approval for Hoyts Theatres to run late Sunday shows in Camberwell theatres.
But the new swimming pools in Balwyn, Camberwell and Ashburton were all granted permission to open on Sunday afternoons. It was almost as if the Council wanted to change but there was something – or someone – blocking them.
Maybe it is just coincidence but things finally started to move on Sunday Sport in 1963, six months after W Gordon Sprigg finally died at the ripe old age of 95.
Eric Raven’s fight
Now in his second decade on Council, Eric Raven was a religious man too and very much a custodian of the dry area by-laws. But it was also his opinion that what an individual did on a Sunday was their personal decision. He saw no reason for Council to be involving itself in it.
In receipt of Camberwell Football Club’s 1963 letter seeking permission to play on Sunday, Cr Raven pushed the issue to a Whole Council meeting. He had prepared a resolution to amend the by-law to give permission to play ‘totally enclosed’ sports with the approval of the Council; and to extend the ‘one Sunday a month’ rule with Council’s permission.
Six councillors, including Raven and Neville Lee, voted for the amendment. Seven voted against. The resolution failed.
Neville Lee retired from Council in 1964, leaving only Eric Raven to take on the ‘No’ councillors. Raven did not give up. When the CFC’s 1964 request letter arrived, he pushed again for a re-consideration of the issue. When this was knocked back by the others, he raised a motion to seek legal advice on whether they were allowed to do that. Unfortunately, they probably were as there’s no mention in the minutes what the outcome of this was except that in August 1964, Camberwell Football Club still could not get approval for a Sunday game.
The next year, Raven tabled CFC’s 1965 letter asking for permission to play on Sunday. Again the ‘no’ voters united to veto it. But then Raven pushed for debate and somehow, a miracle occurred: he managed to get permission for CFC to play on Camberwell Sports Ground on one Sunday a month on the condition it did not follow a Saturday game. The CFC took this as a win for its 1966 season.
Then in November 1966 the CFC asked Council if it could play on every Sunday for its 1967 season. Cr Raven pushed it into discussion again. Enough of a churn of councillors had finally occurred that the request passed 6 to 5.
The winds of change had finally shifted in Eric Raven’s favour.
It turned out there were plenty of groups willing to take up W Gordon Sprigg’s mantle objecting to the playing of football on Sunday. Aside from several residents, Council received letters from The Salvation Army, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camberwell, the Camberwell Brotherhood of Ministers, Camberwell Methodist Church, the Canterbury Circuit of the Methodist Church of Australasia, and the Camberwell Congregational Church.
Letters came in from the ‘yes’ side too. Most notably from a couple of Roman Catholic reverends who had no problem at all with people playing of Sunday Sport. Anything to stick it to the Protestants I guess.
The Council ‘No’ advocates tried to get a motion through for a special meeting to hear these peoples’ concerns. But now they were outnumbered. Eric Raven and the other ‘Yes’ advocates vetoed it. After this win, more amendments flowed through. Sports clubs still required Council permission to play but the delineation between the ‘quiet’ sports of bowls, tennis and golf and the ‘rowdy’ sports of football, hockey, soccer and lacrosse finally eroded.
Eight years after the referendum gave them a mandate, Camberwell Council – thanks to Eric Raven – finally allowed the residents of Camberwell to play Sport on Sunday.
Other Sunday Entertainment activities also started to flourish in Camberwell. But it still took a few years for the City of Camberwell Sports Clubs to figure out how much they were going to be allowed to get away with.
By 1968, Eric Raven’s name was attached to Council permission for local Scout troops to use the ovals on Sundays. The number of games Camberwell Football Club could play on Sunday increased from one to five. A year later, the number rose to nine. Council agreed to a request from the Doncaster Districts Junior Football League to play an additional Sunday game on Council land. Camberwell Tennis Club were the first sporting club to be allowed to play tennis on a Sunday morning. A few other tennis clubs were also given this permission.
Then the Balwyn Bowling Club really tried to push their luck and applied for a liquor license for ‘special occasions’. They were quickly shut down.
The Cricket Clubs had remained quiet through the whole affair. They already had a well established Saturday league and faced no real competition from other summer sports, so had no real need to play on Sunday. Unlike the rest of the sporting clubs, the condition of their playing fields was vitally important to the success of their games. So they were fine with giving the turf wicket an extra day of rest.
Funnily enough, as all the permissions were going through in 1968 for other sports, Camberwell Council banned the cricketers from playing on Sundays on Camberwell grounds.
But for the first time in Camberwell history, the ban was to protect the pitches during a period of extended drought, not because of Sunday Observance.
Some information compiled from City of Camberwell Minute Books 1960 – 1970, available at the Public Records Offices. Historic pictures courtesy of Sport in Victoria: A History (see below).
 Nadel, Dave and Graeme Ryan, eds., Sport in Victoria: A History (Melbourne: Ryan Publishing, 2015). xiii  "Move in Sunday City Sport," The Herald, 7 June 1951.  "Sport on Sunday," Argus, 8 August 1940.  "Move in Sunday City Sport."  "Church Halls as Polling Booths," The Age, 29 May 1942.  "Sunday Entertainment," Argus, 22 June 1943.  "Greatest Aim," Herald, 22 August 1946.  "Camberwell Fight against Sunday Sport to Continue," Argus, 18 March 1947.  "Sunday Sport Poll Rejected: Churches Protest: Council Divided," Progress Press, Ashburton, 8 November 1951.  Ibid.  "Archbishop Favours Sport on Sunday," Reigser News Pictorial, Adelaide, 21 May 1929.  "No Referendum yet on Sunday Sport," Progress Press, 1 April 1959.  "Sunday Sport by-Law Gets 5 More Words," Progress Press, Ashburton, 24 June 1959.  Ibid.  "No Morning Sport: Ban Angers All Clubs," Progress Press, Ashburton, 26 August 1959.  "Three Reasons for Camberwell's Plight," Progress Press, Ashburton, 18 February 1959.  Council, City of Camberwell, ""Sunday Games and Sport"," Minute Book (1960)  "Three Reasons for Camberwell's Plight."  Council, City of Camberwell, ""Sunday Games and Sport"," Minute Book (1960).  "No Morning Sport: Ban Angers All Clubs," Progress Press, Ashburton, 26 August 1959.