Almanac Footy History: When Carlton Conquered Canberra



Every now and then you stumble across a story so crazy you wonder how it could have been hidden for so long. Like many of these discoveries it started innocently enough, a conversation with Rod Austin lead to a search for a Carlton exhibition game in Canberra in the 1970s which lead to an obscure reference in an AFL/ACT annual report. Then to the discovery of the biggest sporting event to ever happen in the history of Canberra.


The year is 1939, Australia is on the brink of joining WWII amid debates about conscription in the twelve year old parliament building in Canberra. Since the formal launch of Australia’s new capital in 1927 the city was still a work in progress. At the time a population of under 10,000 was an unusual mix of white-collar public servants and an army of tradesmen busily building the vision of Walter Burley Griffin.


After the sudden death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons from a heart attack in April of 1939, the Attorney General at the time, none other than Robert Gordon Menzies was chosen to lead the United Australia Party to become the Prime Minister.


At the same time an invitation was extended to the VFL from the Canberra Australian National Football League (CANFL) for two teams to play an exhibition game at Manuka Oval in Canberra. The two teams chosen for this historic match, the first of it’s kind by VFL teams in Canberra were Carlton and Hawthorn.


This no doubt would have pleased Robert Menzies who was a keen Carlton supporter who famously later in life had his chauffer driven Bentley squeezed into the terraces of Princes Park so he could watch the game from his car. It is no doubt just a pure coincidence that the other team, Hawthorn, resided within Menzies electorate. The then current acting President of the Carlton football club, Mr. G.W. Westcott having two sons as part of the playing and administration of the CANFL would also have had an influence on any decisions made.

It was decided that on Wednesday July 26th the two teams would meet. The event would involve nearly 100 people travelling to Canberra including players, trainers, doctors and officials. Canberra would go to extraordinary lengths to make the game a success.


A half holiday would be declared so that everyone had the opportunity to attend the game in the afternoon. This was not without conditions. While white collar workers were free to decide on their activities in the afternoon the 1800 strong workforce of manual laborers who worked for the department of the interior were told that the only possible way they could claim their pay for the half holiday was to attach the stubb of a ticket to the game to their fortnightly wage claim as proof of their attendance. The Minister for the Interior threatened “If an employee claims to be an Australian Rules enthusiast, and doesn’t attend the match, he will find himself in trouble. A check will be kept”.


The fledgling city would be at a standstill as shops were ordered to close during the game. Tickets cost 1/6 (one shilling and six pence), equivalent to about $7 in today’s money. A special football designed by local, Mr. H.C. Chalker was used for the match.


This game would set yet another precedent when Duntroon, the military academy which had outright banned Australian Rules from being played by their cadets since 1927 made an about face and allowed a team from the college to play a Canberra seconds team as a curtain raiser for the main game. The fortress of Rugby Union had been breached.


After all was said and done an incredible crowd of over 4,000 people attended the game. This represented roughly 50% of the population of Canberra at the time. Equivalent to 200,000 people attending a single afternoon event in Canberra today. This easily broke the previous record for Canberra when a touring All Black side played in front of a crowd of 3,000 in 1938. Some might say the attendance of this game was an eery foreshadowing of the conscription that would come just weeks later as WWII was declared.


The match itself was a thrilling affair with the Blues getting up by nine points after kicking two late goals to seal the game. Accurate kicking and superior fitness were the keys to the Blues win. On a bouncy Manuka Oval the Blues got off to a fast start, kicking five goals before Hawthorn could manage their first. Despite dominating play in the second quarter, poor kicking for goal cost Hawthorn dearly as the quarter time lead only shrank from 17 points to 11 points at half time. A determined Hawthorn buoyed by the honking of 300 cars around the boundary line fought back again in the third quarter to only trail by 4 points and set up a close final quarter. The lead changed several times in the final stanza only for Carlton’s Cooper to mark and goal from 50 metres out in the dying minutes. Schmidt settled the matter not long before the siren with a snap that put the contest to bed.


So ended the biggest sporting event in Canberra history, also the beginning of their first and last ever traffic jam.




CARLTON          5.3     8.3    12.4      15.8 (98)

HAWTHORN    2.4     5.10   10.12   12.15 (87)



Carlton: Baxter 4, Schmidt, Wrout 3, Skinnner 2, McElroy, Cooper, Price

Hawthorn: A. Albiston 4, Deague, A. Naismith 3, Sutherland, Angwin


Carlton: Francis, Park, Anderson, Carney, Jones, Baxter, Rae, Cooper

Hawthorn: Mills, Moore, Bohan, Angwin, Pabst, A. Naismith, Williams





B: Bignell, Park, McElroy
HB: Jones, Francis, Anderson
C: Carney, K. Rae, Green
HF: Skinner, Wrout, Schmidt
F: Price, Baxter, McLean
Ruck: Hollingshead, Savage, Cooper
Emergencies: Mclnnes, G. Cameron.



B: H. Albiston. Carter, L. Murphy
HB: Bohan, Wellington, Godfredson
C: Pabst, Moore, Angwin
HF: Hird, Sutherland, Burke
F: R. Williams, Deague, A Naismlth
Ruck: Mills, Byrne, A. Albiston
19th: Vanderbist

Reprinted from the Blueseum (Find their site HERE)




To return to the  home page click HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.


Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE





  1. Hint: I’m very subtle in saying that Menzies had his newly Prime Ministered claws all over this game to the maximum degree! This type of political influence would be unthinkable today.

Leave a Comment