AAMI Park, Victoria’s premier football and rugby stadium, is one of the world’s finest rectangular pitch venues. Nestled between the Yarra River and Melbourne Park, the site has served a myriad of purposes, enjoying a strong connection to the people of Melbourne since the city’s foundation.
Bound by nature
Prior to white settlement of Melbourne in 1834, the Yarra River Valley was inhabited by the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. Owing to its naturally lightly wooded grasslands, the area has always been idyllic for recreational pursuits. Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle surveyed Melbourne in 1837 and set the boundary for ‘Government Paddock’, an area that comprised the current Yarra and Melbourne & Olympic Parks. The lower reaches of the paddock near the Yarra (i.e. AAMI Park) were quite marshy, a chain of lagoons proving popular with duck shooters.
These riverside pastures of what was also called ‘Richmond Paddock‘ became the first location for Melbourne’s Zoological Gardens, the first established in Australia and one of the world’s oldest. In 1858 a meeting convened in the office of the Director of the Botanic Gardens and government botanist, Dr. (later Baron) Ferdinand von Meuller discussed the creation of a zoological garden by the Zoological Society. At the same time a separate Acclimatization Society had been formed by Edward Wilson, the retired editor of the Argus. Its aim included “the introduction, acclimatisation and domestication of all innoxious animals, birds, fish, insects and vegetables” (rather than a display of exotic animals).
The Zoological Society and the Acclimatisation Society were amalgamated in 1861; Wilson as President and von Mueller as Vice-President. In the same year the Society was granted 33 acres from the Government, located opposite the Botanic Gardens (where the Zoo’s first collection was housed under the dedicated care of von Mueller). Rumours of neglect began to circulate though, and it became apparent the site was too damp and swampy for the small collection of monkeys, native birds and mammals. Von Mueller reluctantly requested that the Government move the Zoo and in 1862 they granted £5,500 and a 55 acre site in Royal Park.
During the 1860’s the tract of land extending to the MCG and Yarra Park was variously called ‘Government’, ‘Richmond’ and ‘Police’ Paddocks. The Zoological Gardens area became the ‘Friendly Society’s Gardens’. The Combined Friendly Society used the land for athletic carnivals and social events. Eight Hour Day was of great significance for a number of years, the annual event held the same weekend as the current day Moomba Festival. In 1867 a free banquet for the people of Melbourne was organised in the Gardens as part of celebrations for Prince Alfred’s visit. However, what was intended to be a leisurely picnic turned to farce as many of the greatly underestimated crowd of 50-60,000 behaved ‘disgracefully’ in their efforts to obtain food. During the 1870’s athletic events such as the World 300 Yard Championship were held, in addition to the curious ‘Festival of the Druids’.
Despite council improvements in the 1880’s, the Yarra constantly flooded until the Yarra Improvement Act of 1896 empowered the Board of Works to realign the river between the City and Richmond. The League of Victorian Wheelmen completed a banked cycling track in 1897, which included a grandstand, bar and a range of amenities. Motocyclists also used the 32-35ft wide asphalt track which was enclosed by a picket fence. However, their machines became too fast and the track useless for racing purposes. As well as other cycling and running tracks (often flooded or swamp-like) the area was used for football, tennis, rugby union and women’s cricket either side of the century’s turn.
The area now encompassing Olympic Park, and then still part of Yarra Park, was proclaimed Crown land by the State Government on 24 August 1909. In its charter dated 19 April 1910, the Committee of Management stated the land comprising 25 acres would be a “site for the recreation convenience and amusement of people and as a children’s playground”. The ‘Amateur Sports Grounds’ basically consisted of two ovals – one rough and ready, the other encircled by the cycle track. The latter field (106×176 yards) was said to be the largest enclosed oval in the district. On these fields were turf wickets for cricket, and two adjacent double tennis courts. Athletics was still a regular feature, the St Stephens Harriers using both ovals regularly. Unfortunately, little was done to improve the area’s facilities for the ensuing 15 years, though in 1915 the Great War halted preliminary work on a private company’s £5000 motordrome, based on the popular yet extremely dangerous board tracks of the United States. Pioneered by Jack Prince, these banked tracks were capable of handling speeds up to 100mph, but overpowered motorbikes caused mayhem on a weekly basis.
Thrills and spills at the ‘Drome
Melbourne Carnivals Pty Ltd (formed in 1923 by Jim DuFrocq and Jack Campbell) developed and leased the site until the conclusion of World War II. Undeterred by carnage on similar tracks in America, dynamic and colourful local entrepreneur John Wren was a driving force (along with ace promoter Campbell) in reviving the previously shelved ‘Melbourne Motordrome’. Built over 18 months on the old cycle track, it opened on 13 December 1924 at a cost of around £30,000.
A campaign led by defunct newspaper, The Argus, condemned the appropriation of public space for commercial activities, however authorities maintained the land was still open to the community. From the venue’s inception official complaints about the noise levels arose – the ‘peace and tranquility’ of the nearby MCG test match disturbed, along with local residents. Criticism subsided as people attended all manner of entertainments such as wrestling (in March 1925 Norm McCance called the first live wrestling broadcasts in Australia on 3LO). Few were keen to make an enemy of the powerful Wren in any case.
Nevertheless, a dispute over dirt (gleaned from the Myer store construction) and other issues resulted in the builder Henry Harris Eilenberg taking Melbourne Carnivals to court in 1926. Interestingly, future Prime Minister Robert Menzies represented the lease holder who lost the case. Eilenberg was awarded ownership of the Motordrome until the £10,000 claim was settled.
The VFL sought to utilise the ground for a new club or as an advanced forerunner to Waverley Park but the deal didn’t quite eventuate. The Motordrome hosted three VFA Grand Finals from 1925-27 (Brunswick v Port Melbourne 1925 below), as well as the popular mid-week industrial competition. In addition to rugby union representative matches, junior cricket was played during the summer and it was estimated that 1000 public used the fields each week for training and engaging in various amateur sports and athletics.
The treacherous 629 yard concrete drome’s primary attraction was two lap ‘professional wheel racing’ events. Recruited by ace promoter Campbell, American star motorcyclists Jim Davis, Ralph Hepburn and Paul Anderson regularly thrilled crowds whilst Ron Hipwell was the local favourite. Crowds nearing 30,000 also thrilled to eclectic programs that featured sidecars, cycling, athletics and wrestling bouts. Some novelty events bordered on the farcical; racing ostriches were imported from South Australia in December 1926, but in what The Argus labelled ‘a complete fiasco’, the confused and terrified beasts (with cardboard cutout ‘jockeys’) wandered aimlessly, scampered in all directions, or simply stood stupefied. ‘Motor Push Ball’ was another bizarre affair, as were children being pulled by billy goats in two wheeler carts.
Tearing around at over 80 miles an hour with no brakes on the steep banks, it was little surprise that five riders lose their lives, the track earning the nicknames ‘Suicide Track’ and the ‘Murderdrome’. Due to instances of flying debris and that the vertical wall at the top was only half the height recommended by Jack Prince, the Motordrome’s innovative ‘saucer’ track featured ‘Danger – don’t lean over’ signs and additional strategically placed fencing. A red danger line half way up the daunting 48 degree bank acted as a guide for riders, however serious trouble often ensued when oil spilt on the track, riders ‘wobbled’, skid on the painted red line or tried to ride more than three abreast.
In one spectacular crash, Hipwell suffered concussion and assorted injuries (including his hip!) and never regained the form that saw him once defeat Davis in front of a full house. More tragic accidents saw Alec Staig, Allan Bunning, Charles Grigg, Reg Moloney and two teenage spectators lose their lives. Riders even contended with foolish attempts at sabotage; such as double sided tacks, or on one occasion, a five foot length of barbed wire that officials thankfully spotted. The final tragedy, local star Jimmy Wassell on 2 January 1932, appeared to be the last straw. Crowds declined and racing was restricted to slower side-cars in the final season.
Jumping aboard dirt track’s motorcycling’s wave of popularity in Britain, a new 494 yard track was added by 1928, enclosed by the ‘drome. Huxley and Van Praag were stars of these meetings. Cycling also became popular as the Great Depression took hold. The nature of this unique ‘velodrome’ lent itself to motor-paced feats such as Legendary cyclist Sir Hubert Opperman covering 100 miles in 90 minutes in 1930 and in a world famous performance, 1000 miles in 28hrs 55 mins. He also broke the world record for the dangerous five mile motor paced event. The Motordrome also hosted the historically significant Austral Wheelrace five times between 1923 and 1929.
The world’s richest professional footrace, ‘The Melbourne Thousand’ was established by Wren in 1928. The inaugural £500 winner’s prize went to South Melbourne star footballer Austin Robertson, the sprint last run in 1932. Other much hyped events such as the ‘World’s Championship’ sprint appeared on ‘sensationally historic’ athletic programs.
On 4 June 1932 the Motordrome became part of VFL/AFL history when Melbourne played the first of three VFL home games owing to the MCG undergoing resurfacing works. Melbourne lost all three games at the Motordrome.
Olympic Park Speedway
Plans to build a school on the site in 1933 were aborted, the Government having tested the ground without notice by digging large holes, thus raising the ire of long time Committee of Management Chairman Basil Parkinson. An untenable safety record, and declining financial viability, saw 20 charges of dynamite reduce the ‘Drome to rubble in 1932. The venue was reconstructed as the ‘Olympic Park’ sporting arena in 1933. Interestingly, this reference predated the ’56 Games. Said to better reflect the usage of the site than ‘Amateur Sports Grounds’, the name was prophetic, if not lacking in logic. Promoted successfully by Dick Lean Snr, popular midget speedcars debuted and were pioneered in Australia here in 1934 on a newly constructed dirt track around the sporting field.
Football returned on 30 March 1935 when a floodlit game between 1934 Grand Finalists Richmond and South Melbourne remarkably drew 25,000 spectators (causing Jack Dyer to walk to the ground, unable to get on the packed trams). The practice match was interspersed with midget car races in the breaks. Amid some controversy, around this timeWren almost closed a deal for Richmond to relocate to Olympic Park.
The Australian Imperial Force assumed control of Olympic Park in 1940, although with the permission of the Fuel Board one last speedway meeting was held on 1 April 1946 in aid of St Vincent’s Hospital. Continued petrol rationing spelled the death knell for the speedway in the aftermath of WW2. The venue met with the wrecking ball in 1946 but few local residents lamented the demise of the noisy motorsports. Further deconstruction occurred inadvertently when a fire destroyed a large wooden grandstand in 1951.
Olympic Park lives up to its name
The welcome 1956 Olympic Games transformation began in 1951. A new sports arena at the southern end of the AAMI Park site hosted the field hockey preliminary rounds, subsequently known as the Eastern Sportsground or the No. 2 Oval. A 4400 seat, 333 metre long velodrome was also constructed, situated on the northern/Swan Street side at a cost of around £120,000. One of the fastest tracks in the world, it was made of reinforced concrete over a New Zealand pine base. Our cyclists won a gold and a bronze at the ’56 Games.
Entertaining the masses
The Victorian Amateur Football Association took up residence at the Eastern Sportsground in 1957, using the venue as its administration base and a weekly marquee game. Victoria comfortably defeated South Australia in an amateur state game played the same year, televised by the ABC (the first full coverage of an Australian Rules game). By 1961 the ABC was also televising the VAFA’s ‘match of the day’, but commercial realities saw the Olympic Park Management Committee reluctantly bid farewell to its valued tenant at the end of the year, before greyhound racing begun their 34 year tenure.
The Victorian Rugby Union competition used the Eastern sportsground, as did three Victorian Soccer Federation teams and even the Australian Equestrian Federation held twice yearly championships here. In one of Olympic Park’s more controversial moments, hundreds of protesters against the 1971 Springbok rugby tour clashed with mounted police armed with batons on 3 July. The demonstration was a forerunner to other protests around Australia and preceded Australia pulling out of its upcoming cricket tour of South Africa. Several court cases ensued with accusations of assault levelled towards, and against police. The game itself saw South Africa thrash Victoria 50-0. Victoria regularly played against touring nations during its lease period (1962-1987).
Racing at Olympic Park
A £50,000 investment by the Melbourne Greyhound Racing Association saw their relocation from Arden St. North Melbourne to a redeveloped Eastern Sportsground in 1962. On 20 August 6000 punters braved the cold for the first meeting. The velodrome was demolished in 1972, becoming a 800 space carpark, and the following year saw a new $6m 2200 seat grandstand built for greyhounds, soccer and rugby. The facilities pre-empted the dishlicker’s halcyon days which lasted until the 1980’s. Regular crowds of 5000 were also entertained by athletic races during the Monday night program, as well as promotions tied to Moomba, glamorous models and various celebrities.
A changing landscape
The Eastern Sportsground was upgraded with a synthetic pitch, practice running track and throwing area to coincide with the 1985 World Veterans Athletic Championship. As well as facilitating commercially viable sport and entertainment, Olympic Park Management’s other primary objective to increase the variety of sports. Consequently, hockey and American football utilised this field during winter, the latter playing their Victorian Championship on the ground between 1985-1993.
A 2.43ha stretch of land between Batman Avenue and Swan Street (on the eastern side of AAMI Park) was purchased from the Commonwealth by the Victorian Government in 1988 for $15m. Here the Swan Street Army Depot was built in 1935 at a cost of £36,000. A ‘Swan Song’ ceremonial march out was conducted in 1991 to mark the facility’s closure. The Depot was variously used by Royal Australian Engineers’ (RAE) militia troops (1935-39), RAE headquarters and important tactical base during WW2, a meal and rest area for Olympic athletes and officials, an assembly point for Vietnam National Servicemen and a security HQ for events such as CHOGM (1981) and Pope John Paul II’s 1986 visit.
In November 1991, billowing smoke permeated through the greyhound track grandstand causing the evacuation of 2000 enthusiasts, moments after the last race. Forty firemen were dispatched to the blaze that began in a storeroom. Over 1992-93 restaurant facilities were upgraded and the betting ring refurbished to become a well furnished function room. Olympic Park Management and the Melbourne Greyhound Racing Association committed to a 20 year licence unaware that in late 1994 the planned CityLink Burnley Tunnel required a temporary relocation for the MGRC. It then became apparent the tunnel necessitated a permanent move. The last race was run in February 1996 as 3000 punters sadly bid farewell, the club relocating to Broadmeadows.
The loss of the No. 2 field also stymied a desire to relocate athletics and turn Olympic Park into a dedicated 40,000 seat covered rectangular pitch stadium, in recognition of soccer and the rugby codes potential for growth. This was demonstrated by international soccer, Union and state of origin League matches lost in the 1990’s to larger but unsuitable Australian Rules fields. The old Eastern Sportsground was reborn as Edwin Flack Field (right), whereupon Collingwood used it as their training ground from 2004-06 – some irony given their legendary patron John Wren had built the Motordrome on the same patch of turf.