A major event on the social calendar of a number of picturesque villages in the Camden district were the annual New Year’s Day Sports Carnivals. They were part of the English traditions brought to the area by colonial immigrants, and in 1915 they were held in the villages of Cobbitty and The Oaks. Sports carnivals were wonderful community events that included all classes of villagers regardless of their station in life and during the First World War they held special appeal for patriotic fundraising.
These social and cultural traditions were not isolated to the Camden district and have been held in many other parts of Australia. They are still carried on today in some localities, for example, Glenlyon in Victoria (started in 1857) and Perlubic Beach in South Australia (started in 1914).
English village sports
The origins of these festivals, according to Peter Hampson Ditchfield’s Old English Sports (2007), lies in ancient Saxon customs, particularly in Devonshire and Sussex, associated with ‘wassailing’ (carousing and health-drinking) to ensure the thriving of orchard trees (mainly apples) and exchanging presents. On New Years Day village youths undertook indoor and outdoor sport to keep out the cold by ‘wholesome exercise and recreative games’. Sports included bat-and-ball, wrestling, skittles, blind-man’s-bluff, hunt the slipper, sword dancing and mumming (play acting).
Cobbitty Sports Day starts in 1866
The New Year Sports Day in the village of Cobbitty was a hallowed community event which started in 1866. The day included a variety of athletic and novelty events and finished with a gala concert in the evening. . It was one of the premier events on the social calendar, and local resident Donald Howard, maintains in his Cobbitty’s Finest Hour (2010), that spectators and participants came in their ‘droves from miles around’.
Prize purse for main event ‘Narellan and Cobbitty Handicap’
The Camden News reported that there was a ten event programme starting with the major event of the day the ‘Narellan and Cobbitty Handicap Footrace’ over 125 yards for male competitors. The running track, according to Donald Howard, was on the village green between the parish hall and St Paul’s Church. Entries had to be in by Boxing Day with an entry fee of 1/- and an acceptance fee of 1/6. There was fierce competition from the young men of the village for the handsome first prize of £5, which was twice the weekly wage for a rural labourer. Quite an amount for any villager, and first place attracted quite a bit of status and prestige for the winner. Even the second prize was a respectable 25/- and third prize 5/-.
Dress regulations for competitors in the ‘Handicap’ were strictly enforced with ‘trousers to the knee, or amateur trunks and singlets’ that had to be approved by two male members of the local gentry, Mr FWA Downes of Brownlow Hill and Mr TC Barker of Maryland. Race organizers conveniently started the programme of events after lunch for competitors, which allowed village revellers to recover from the New Year’s celebrations. The ‘Handicap’ was put in the hands of the starters at 2.00pm.
Nail driving for women
Village youth were not left out of the story and were able to get a feel for the main event by entering their own footraces, one for youths (14-18 years) and another for boys (under 14). Here they rehearsed the tactics that they might employ in main event when they were old enough.
Other events on the programme catered for those locals not able to qualify for the footraces, and included high jump, ‘stepping’, and ‘throwing at wickets’, while the village women were allowed to take part in ‘nail driving’.
Village elders held positions of importance as starters, judges and referees and supported their social status by donating appropriate cash prize for races. The Camden Brass Band was located in the ‘grounds’ and provided rousing patriotic tunes throughout the day. These tunes were enjoyed by the village ladies who entertained themselves during the day with tea in the parish hall.
Red Cross support
Village women sold their cooking, sewing, knitting and other ‘fancies’ at the sports day bazaar. The bazaar raised significant amounts of money for village causes, particularly the St Paul’s Church missions. The bazaar auxiliary was made up of village women who were good organizers, but never sort the limelight that was bestowed on the male race organizers. During the First World War the village women’s fundraising efforts, which were considerable, were directed to patriotic purposes, including the local branches of the Red Cross.
Evening Grand Concert
The sports day festivities were closed in the evening with the Grand Concert held in the parish hall. The concert started at 8.00pm and the front seats were sold for 2/- while those less financially able bought seats at the back of the hall for 1/-. Local personalities and school children performed a variety musical items for the entertainment of the assembly, and occasionally a ‘big name celebrity’ was hired from the city. Donald Howard sadly recalls that the last Cobbitty Sports Day was held in 1941, due to a combination of petrol rationing, material costs and a general pre-occupation by villagers with the war effort.
1915 The Oaks New Year Sports Day
Another district sports day was organized on New Year’s Day 1915 in the village of The Oaks. While not as prestigious as the sports day at Cobbitty, it did attract an enthusiastic crowd. It was organized by the Literary Institute and held in ‘Mr WS William’s paddock’, just outside the village. There was a 15 event programme starting with the premier event, ‘The Oaks Handicap’ over 130 yards. Prizes were awarded to the first 4 place-getters, with the winner receiving £2. The sports day was more inclusive of the wider village community than Cobbitty and included a tug-o-war, guessing competitions and a number of horse events. The horse events were a village specialty and the village even had its own race track. Refreshments were sold on the grounds by local women and the day was topped off by a night-time social which had ‘first class music’ from a local band.
1915 Mount Hunter Boxing Day Carnival
District sports day was not confined to The Oaks and Cobbitty. The village of Mount Hunter had earlier held a sports carnival on Boxing Day 1914, while the Camden Cycling Club was to hold a major gala day on Anniversary Day (Australia Day) 26 January 1915 at the Camden Showground, with a range of ‘bicycle, athletic and military events’.