Tasmania’s Earliest Football Film Uncovered

BY SIMON SMITH

Action from the 1911 Tasmania State Premiership match

Frame capture from NFSA #11747

A recent investigation into footage of early Australian Rules football action has identified the earliest known surviving film of a Tasmanian football match. The surviving film fragments document the clash to decide the 1911 Tasmanian State Premiership between the premiers of the Northern (NTFA) and Southern (TFL) leagues. Cameras were present along with nearly 6000 spectators as they crammed into Hobart’s Tasmanian Cricket Association (TCA) Ground on Saturday 9 September 1911 to witness Cananore and North Launceston battle it out for the Apple Isle’s football bragging rights.

The surviving three minutes (see below) consists of four brief segments located within approximately 20 minutes of 35mm nitrate film sourced from two reels. Confusingly, these segments were not in their correct chronological order and had been spliced between sequences from other seemingly unrelated Tasmanian events such as a religious service, an athletics steeplechase event, a group of motoring enthusiasts and a soldiers’ march. The footage presented below is an attempt to edit the four isolated film fragments back into an approximation of their original correct running order. The original duration of the film, though presently unknown, is likely to have been between 6-10 minutes.

The two original 35mm film reels were acquired by the NFSA from the estate of Harry Davidson, a Melbourne film collector of international renown. Davidson would diligently follow leads around the country, contacting retired exhibitors, projectionists and evasive film collectors to uncover lost celluloid treasures. A rare interview he conducted for a July 1974 Cinema Papers article mentions him tracking down a reclusive collector of silent films living in Burnie, Tasmania. Though unconfirmed, it is highly probable these reels were acquired by Davidson via this contact.

Cananore players with black arm bands

 

The film commences with Cananore players (in the lighter striped guernseys) wearing black armbands as they walk onto the field at the start of the game. The armbands were out of respect for one of their players (Arthur Reardon) who, newspapers reported, did not play because of a family bereavement. Subsequently North Launceston players in their darker colours appear in shot.

Surviving footage from the actual game is brief, with more coverage of the crowd than of the on-field action. However, successful identification of this match as the 1911 Tasmania State Premiership was made possible due to the filming of the half-time scoreboard. North Launceston’s score of ‘1 – 4 – 10’ at half time would also be their score at full time! The match was barely a contest, as Cananore triumphed by 104 points. A massive margin in any era, The Mercury newspaper trumpeted it at the time as ‘the most decisive victory ever gained in a first class match in Tasmania’.

Half-time scoreboard

Frame capture from NFSA #11747

Surviving sequences suggest the camera was moved from one end of the ground to the other after the half-time break. Players can also be seen wearing numbers on their backs, a practice intermittently trialled in Tasmanian football since 1909 and introduced permanently by their Victorian (VFL) counterparts at the same time in September 1911.

Newspaper reports from the time suggest the film was likely first screened at The Academy of Music, 71 George Street, Launceston on Wednesday 13 September 1911, where it formed part of the supporting film program to a package featuring American Biograph’s screen adaptation of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (DW Griffith, USA, 1911) and Selig’s Jim and Joe (Otis Turner, USA, 1911). Launceston’s The Examiner newspaper tried hard to promote a positive spin for prospective local film audiences, proclaiming that regardless of the result, it ‘was yet a game of unending incident, strenuous endeavour, and most interesting situation’. To say this was stretching the truth would be an understatement, given that North Launceston only kicked one goal for the match and was held entirely scoreless in three of the four quarters!

Players contest a boundary throw in.
Frame capture from NFSA #11747

The first mention of a Hobart screening took place at The Grand Empire Theatre at 85 Macquarie Street several days later, on Friday 15 September. Both venues were operated by The English Amusement Company, an impressively-named local film exhibitor, managed out of Launceston by CS Timmins. Reports from Launceston’s Daily Telegraph one month earlier mentioned the company had filmed and screened highlights of a recent City v Launceston NTFA league match, indicating the company was the likely producer of this State Premiership footage.

One of the two reels also includes fragments of other early Tasmanian football action and local Tasmanian football historians are helping to identify this material. The NFSA is presently also undertaking further preservation work on the surviving footage, to ensure the longevity of these significant film fragments of our sporting past. I would like to thank Nick Richardson at The Herald Sun for his assistance in the identification of this game.

If you have any further information on the origins of this film, please contact Simon Smith at 03 8638 1508 or simon.smith [at] nfsa.gov.au.

The oldest confirmed surviving footage of Australia’s indigenous ball sport remains the VFL Grand Final played between South Melbourne and Carlton at the MCG on 2 October 1909. Watch this footage on NFSA YouTube.