In the studies and history of football in Western Australia, we rarely come across the characters that existed in the early part of the foundations of the code in this state.
Harry Brown was an influential member of Perth society and as the first chairman of an organised soccer association in Western Australia has been inducted alongside his fellow members of the Western Australian Football (Association) Hall of Fame. This article will flesh out more about this controversial, yet influential contributor to the code in Western Australia.
Brown was born in Leighton Buzzard Beds in 1861, had served in South Africa in the Cape Mounted Rifles in 1883 and then sailed to Perth in 1887. He would spend the next four years with the Perth Benefit Building Society where he rose to secretary of the company. Fellow members of the first British Association Committee, Burt and Messrs worked at the same company. In 1897, upon the resignation of M.D North, Brown became Secretary of the WACA – a highly sought after job within the colony.
The administration of multiple codes in a city of limited grounds would play a significant role in code battles in the early 20th century.
The Daily News reported on the 19th May 1900 that British Association Football had approached Australian Rules to allow a game to be played at the WACA on September 8th 1900.
Australian Rules rejected this request and so the round ball code used its political advantages to usurp this decision and utilised a day on the sporting calendar that had been reserved for finals.
Soccer and its officials had political advantage, particularly for games that were to be played at the city’s premier enclosed facility. Harry Brown’s actions were defended in the Daily News, who did not disclose the conflict of interest between his roles as a member of the management of the British Association and as Secretary of the WACA.
This would have created tension between the codes in a city where the population was increasing due to the gold rush. Australian Rules Football was a game not played by the gentry of Perth and for Brown, a servant of the British empire would be determined to give every advantage to British sports.
Another point of tension arrived during 1904, Brown who had by now become the Mayor of Perth but still was in influential positions at both the WACA and British Association.
The shortage of grounds was at critical point by 1904 and local sport had come together to try and enforce council action to deliver more sporting facilities for the city.
The Stadium debates, which decried how the WACA treated sports in the state showed the conflict of interest Brown had as Secretary of the WACA and as Mayor. A previous blog goes into greater detail about the conversations and unity of the various sporting codes to get a new facility.
By late 1904, Perth City Council bought the privately held Perth Oval and there was another enclosed facility for sport in the city. But again his conflict of interest was laid bare for all in the state to see. He made political decisions that would be of benefit to his preferred sport. He was less than keen on developing another gated ground because of the monopoly the WACA had on gated grounds within the city.
Brown would resign as mayor in 1906 after continued legal battles with a fellow councillor. His election to State Government in 1905 as the Member of Perth ensured he would still have significant political power. He was now also President of Rugby WA to add to his role as Secretary of the WACA and Vice President of British Association Football.
With his powerful links to sport still in tact, the 1907 Rugby Tour of the NSW Rugby Union tour showed the influence of Brown on Perth’s sporting landscape.
Soccer had suspended all fixtures for the game on the 3rd August 1907. Brown was determined that Australian Rules Football would do likewise.
In the lead up to the tour he combined the councils that hosted all Australian Rules Football teams to have a unison model of ground hire fees and charges, which across the city had largely been seen as revenue raisers for councils.He was aiming to compel Australian Rules Football to suspend their season for this Rugby Union match in Perth.
The Ground Combine through Harry Brown demanded that Australian Rules Football should postpone all Australian Rules fixtures for this NSW tour match. If they did not do so, the Grounds Combine would not allow access to their grounds for the WAFL season. According to Simmons the chairman of the Western Australian Football Association, Australian Rules Football would have been happy to suspend their games had their not been a compulsion, an arrogance to the order.
Through lobbying and protracted discussion, Australian Football was able to seek agreement to play games across the variant council run grounds without suspending all games on this first weekend of August.
Simmons mentions they were prepared to postpone their game on agreement that Rugby would do likewise for an exhibition of Australian Rules Football in Sydney. This was refuted and so Australian Rules Football played a game head to head with the State of Origin against NSW.
Harry Brown used his influence to try and change the status quo. He triggered antagonism both in council, in public and within the sporting community. His preference for British Sport would be at the contradiction of the highest gates being reserved for the Australian Game.
The conflicts of interest within Perth; a long with ground shortages; a battle between professionalism and amateurism, and strong population growth is reflected in the instability within the sporting landscape of Perth.
The heshen tents of the mulberry plantation across from the East Perth Cemetery were only a few hundred meters from the WACA, the bastion of gentry. Men who came to seek out their fortune in a city of high costs and lack of accommodation came with their game of preference – Australian Rules.
The gentry would do their up most to ensure that the capital was not run by this class. The actions of Brown, emphasise the power of the elite.
Counter to this narrative is the 1904 decree that banned soccer from cricket grounds in Western Australia. Political decisions which allowed the Australian game to have more votes when the Perth City Council allocated grounds in April 1907.
The complexity of understanding sport in the city of Perth in this period is the ever changing variables that sport faced in the capital. Brown’s influential role in the administration of British sports in Perth is countered by the financial strain the WACA found itself in.
Soccer in Perth was not a code on the periphery of political power in the pre-1914 period. Politicians such as Harry Brown shaped a sporting landscape unlike anywhere else in the Federation.
By Chris Egan