Hurlingham Park

Hurlingham Park is one of many parks dotted around the suburbs of Melbourne. It is a place, a very special place, of my childhood. It is where I was first introduced to the playing of organised sport. I developed an overwhelming interest in sport as a child; an interest which has been a mainstay and one of the few constants of my life.

For a Melbourne boy of the 1950s and early 1960s, sport, whether it was organised or not, meant cricket and Australian Rules football. While we swam at Brighton Baths to escape the heat of February, and some of us ran and others jumped in activities called athletics in spring, sport for myself and other boys started and finished with cricket and Aussie rules. Hurlingham Park was the location for the serious playing of these two games, where my schoolmates and I competed against each other and teams from nearby schools.

Hurlingham Park was also used for practice and impromptu games by neighbourhood kids. If there were enough of us, or if we felt so inclined, we would gather whatever cricket gear we had, or a football, and begin the long march up the hill that was Gillard Street. We would then turn into Hawthorn Road, cross to the other side of the road, and after passing the second last tram spot on the 64 line (a stop I spent much of my youth running to so as not to miss the tram and be late for school), turn left down Howell Street and, there it was; Hurlingham Park. On other occasions, especially at the beginning of the football season, I would head off alone to practice sprinting, kicking (especially drop kicks), bouncing and picking up the ball on the run.

We also attempted to perfect our cricketing and football skills during recess and lunchtime at school, after school, weekends and holidays in the street, or in yards at home. Kick to kick was a favourite pastime at school. A major challenge, something which was frowned on by teachers but afforded as a mark of respect by one’s peers, was to really get on to one and send it over the back fence at Gardenvale Central, where I attended school from grades four to six and forms one and two. Having proved that you could kick like a mule, the next task was to become a monkey, climb over the fence and retrieve the ball from the backyard of those people unfortunate enough to live next door to the school.

In the 1950s, with cars scarce on the ground, let alone the streets of East Brighton, we played a lot of cricket and football on the street. Clinton Street was a site of many an epic ‘test’ series. This came to a shattering halt on the day we decided to take our cricket playing to a higher level. We dispensed with the tennis ball we had traditionally used, replacing it with a real cricket ball. My boyhood friend, Harry Unglik, who later became the club doctor at North Melbourne, bowled one down the leg side to my brother. Ross hit the ball sweetly, sailed towards and then smashed the dining room window of the Donaths. I can still see the ball heading towards its destiny, gritting my teeth and thinking we are really in for it now, before hearing the dreadful sound of the breaking glass. Our honesty saved us from any punishment, other than a severe tongue lashing. We ran home and told our parents what had happened. None of us gave any thought to denying the undeniable. After all, Harry’s fingerprints were all over the ball. My father was far from pleased about Ross’s skills with the bat. Dad had to pick up the pieces of his relationship with Mr Donath and find the cash to replace his dining room window. The cricket ball was never returned.

Wednesday afternoon was serious sport at Hurlingham Park. We would head down Landcox Street, past Gardenvale Primary, where I spent the first three years of my school days, turn left into and cross over Union Street and turn right into Hurlingham Street, after which the Mecca of our sporting life had been named. Alternatively, while walking down Landcox Street, we could turn right into Mavis Avenue and wander around Landcox Park. The major reason for this was to fish for yabbies in the pond. I do not know why we did this and what we would have done if we had caught a yabbie. It was just something we did. After having failed as hunter gatherers we continued on our way to Hurlingham Park.

Games at Hurlingham Park were serious. They were not like anything we did at school, or in the streets, near home, and the variations we invented in our front and backyards. We wore correct clothing and footwear. School provided balls and associated equipment that were used by real players. Games were umpired by teachers. Scores were kept. Hurlingham Park was where we found out whether or not we could actually play. It was where we scored our first runs, bowled or fielded a ball, held or dropped a catch, took a wicket, gathered a football in play, kicked or hand passed to a teammate, kicked a goal, or even a point, took a mark, bounced a ball on the run, effected a tackle, broke up an opposition attack; in short did something or anything that you were supposed to do as a cricketer or football player.

I can remember three ‘great’ moments of my Hurlingham Park days. I took up wicket keeping. The official version for this decision was and has always been because I would always be in the play. The real reason was that, as a leg break bowler I could not get the ball to bounce and my batting was worse.

The following happened when I was ten, or slightly less. I was wearing pads, slightly bigger than me, standing back to a fast bowler. The batsman edged the ball and it slowly floated through the air, but did not have, so I thought, enough strength to reach me. I stood transfixed watching the ball float through the air. A teacher, whose name I cannot remember, lying on the ground as a square leg umpire said, ‘You should be able to catch that’. Piqued by his comment, I somehow or other convinced my legs that they should move, dove forward, stretched out my wicket keeping gloved hands which landed on the ground before the ball landed on them.

The second time was wicket keeping to Philip Lipton’s leg spinners when I was thirteen in form two. Phil lured South Caulfield’s star batsmen down the pitch, he missed, I whipped off the bails in a trice and he was out stumped. Fabulous Phil and I recall this moment whenever we meet up.

The third occurred in a football match. I was twelve, playing in the backline against a team that was giving us a football lesson. An opponent was making another forward thrust. I read that he was going to handball to a teammate on my left. I veered in that direction stuck out my left hand and grabbed the ball. I cannot remember what happened next; if I kicked it or went for a run down the ground. All I can remember is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. I had done something football players are supposed to do.

One Saturday afternoon, in 1961, I wandered down to Hurlingham Park. I saw Jimmy Read and Carl Ditterich play football for East Brighton. Jimmy Read played on the wing in my beloved St Kilda’s premiership team of 1966. Big Carl would have done so if he had not been suspended because an opponent had attacked one of his elbows with his head.

After I left Gardenvale Central, on one Wednesday afternoon I found myself at Hurlingham Park. I spied my first form master, Mr. O’Brien, umpiring a football game of teams from my old school. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked me to take over his umpiring duties. Looking at my first form photo, taken four and a half decades ago, I see a tallish man with smiling eyes whose hair is as grey as mine is today, who didn’t; as I don’t now, have the legs for umpiring. This was the only game I umpired.

My life as a child was simple. I didn’t have any expectations of things to come, of goals that needed to be achieved, or thoughts concerning the future. Even though it was obvious that people did different things as they became older, I never had any sense beyond what I happened to be doing at the time. Childhood was a time when time stood still. It comprised home, school, what would be for dinner, most importantly, what was for dessert and would there be enough of it, avoiding trouble, which translated into keeping away from adults and playing cricket and football. We didn’t have the pressure of having to do well at school or thinking about finding a job or a career. This is something that awaited us as teenagers. And it was only in form two, when I turned thirteen, that I discovered the distraction of girls.

Cricket and football were staples of the life of boys of my generation. Free of distractions both games consumed much of our time and energy. Moreover, these were activities which parents and teachers encouraged us to pursue, with the qualification of not repeating our feat of hitting a cricket ball through the dining room window of the Donath’s. We played both games, learnt their mysteries, dissected and discussed what we had achieved in our relentless playing, kept a close eye and became experts on games played by favourite players and teams. We owned both games. They were ours. We still own them. It is this ownership of them by us which explains their continuing popular appeal.

When I return to the neighbourhood of my childhood, wander around its streets and walk up and down Landcox Street, past my two Gardenvale schools, nothing seems the same. Neither I nor time has stood still. The trees and shrubs of Gillard and other streets have grown in the half of a century since they were planted. Houses have been modified and changed. They are more substantial than I remember. East Brighton has been transformed from a post World War Two development suburb to a place in the mainstream of suburban life. What I remember as the hill of Gillard Street is nothing more than a gentle incline. The two Gardenvale schools, which loomed so large in my childhood, now seem so small.

Then I find myself in Hurlingham Park. I recall the banter with schoolmates of the contest that lay ahead, getting changed, the special sound of the contact between bat and ball, the whistle of an umpire during a football match, and the post mortems after we had won or lost. I remember my ‘great catch’, my stumping of South Caulfield’s star batsman and the football match where I broke up an opposition’s attack. Those of us who have been bitten by the various bugs that are sport have learnt and developed our appreciation at different locations.

For me, that place was Hurlingham Park.

Comments

  1. Peter Fuller says

    Braham,
    This account resonates powerfully for me, even though my childhood was in rural Victoria rather than the suburbs.
    There were two significant factors that differentiated our generation from those younger. Organised sport commenced at a later age, so that our early football, cricket (and any other sporting experience) was informal. The dulling effect of television on the endless after school cricket and football matches in the parks or paddocks was largely in the future.
    I also happen to have met in adult life a couple of the people who get a guernsey in your reminiscences.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Braham,

    I’ve lived in East Brighton East since moving over from Adelaide in the 90’s (the wrong side of Thomas St), so you’ve given me a pretty solid picture of my neighbourhood’s past. Thanks

    Like you, I can remember some of the smallest details from decades ago. I hope you do better than me at remembering the recent.

    And the 64 tram isn’t getting any quicker.

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