‘Being a College Man’: Sport and the Male Colleges at the University of Sydney 1850-1950

Geoffrey Sherington

Abstract


The origins of university sport in Australia lie in the creation of ‘modern games’ and the ‘sporting revolution’ in schools and universities in nineteenth century Britain. Recent studies of sport at Oxbridge make it either a form of spontaneous sociability amongst undergraduates or a form of imposed moral and physical endeavour under the ideology of ‘athleticism’ brought from the public schools. But we need also to recognise the colonial and national transformation that gave sport in Australian universities new dimensions associated with both social class and gender.

The University of Sydney was a secular foundation with teaching and examinations centralised but with attached residential Colleges. Denied a teaching function, the Colleges soon became one of the main pillars of sport at the University. College students assumed the leading role in sporting teams, defining the meaning of appropriate games for the student body. This role remained unchallenged until the early to mid-twentieth century.

These overall changes can be understood through three eras:

Foundation 1850-1890: The University remained small until the 1880s but the student experience and ‘sociability’ was soon defined principally in terms of sporting achievements, with the sanctioning of five appropriate games ¬– cricket, rugby, rowing, athletics and tennis. College students were at the forefront of all these activities. By the 1880s many University teams were predominant in colonial competitions.

Consolidation 1890-1914: The ‘golden period’ of male sport at the University, including the formation of the Sports Union in 1890 – a movement sponsored from within the Colleges. The dominance of sport in College life related to the growing significance of athleticism and the formation of such bodies as the Athletic Association for Great Public Schools from whence many College students now came. It also led to resistance from women students who formed their own competitions and eventually their own umbrella body. Sport in the University was thus becoming part of both class and gender relations.

Challenge 1914-1950: The First World War weakened the hold of the Colleges on University sport and brought in a student body less enamoured of old values of athleticism and amateurism. By the 1930s the student experience had spread well beyond sport to involve politics and other student activities. By the 1950s many College students had withdrawn from general participation in University life, though the Colleges were still well represented on traditional sporting teams, such as rugby and cricket. Well-founded College traditions such as the Rawson Cup provided a continuing focus for what had become an elite minority culture in the University.