Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Wednesday 23 March 2022

Well, it’s in the paper!

Newspaper records of soccer and Rugby League in Newcastle in the 1920s

This research idea is based on the hypothesis that soccer in Australia achieved a level of popularity and growth in the 1920s that is often overlooked. In some areas of Australia, particularly Newcastle, the game may indeed have been the dominant code for well over a decade, if not even longer.

Guided by this assumption, I searched Trove to ascertain the extent to which soccer achieved substantial recognition in a variety of local media. My first search was ‘soccer’ in the Newcastle Morning Herald, which was a present term in over 4500 items (articles, lists and advertising) in the newspaper during the 1920s. During the same period ‘Rugby League’ was present in 2400 items. A similar comparison in the Illawarra mercury revealed 1470 soccer items as against 693 for Rugby League. The Brisbane Telegraph revealed numbers that were roughly equal (over 9000 each) during that decade. Surprisingly, the Ipswich newspaper recorded 4000 Rugby League items to soccer’s 3000–the 1927 split seemingly having a retarding influence on soccer numbers at the end of the decade. Despite the Ipswich result, this data largely aligned with my original assertion that soccer was a dominant code in Newcastle and elsewhere in the 1920s. The Brisbane and Ipswich figures indicate a code that is equally dominant with Rugby League. 

A number of questions arise from these observations. 

  1. How useful are the search terms?

  2. Do the Trove searches find substantial and relevant items?

  3. How reliable is the newspaper content?

  4. What is the correlation between newspaper content and cultural reality?

  1. Are the terms ‘soccer’ and ‘Rugby League’ useful catch-all terms in the newspapers? Are they inclusive enough to capture all relevant items while excluding irrelevancies. Will they capture enough of the data to make the statistics accurate? My sense is that they are adequate; however, I need to pay attention to alternate terms: ‘BA rules’, ‘Association football’ for soccer, and ‘league football’ for Rugby League. Though again, I suspect these factors are not enough to skew the data.

  2. Can I trust that the Trove searches find substantial items? Or do a great proportion of them represent incidental references? A brief perusal of the hits suggests that most items have a direct and substantial reference to the game under search. It seems that in the Newcastle papers, lists and advertising make up approximately one third of the total items. For soccer, the Newcastle Sun includes 3500 articles, 1200 lists, 600 advertisements while for Rugby League the figures are 2100 articles, 520 lists, 330 advertisements. A similar spread exists in the Herald. The Maitland Daily Mercury yields for soccer: 1000 articles, 276 lists, 83 advertisements; and for Rugby League 1350 articles, 241 lists, 153 advertisements. In the Maitland figures, lists and advertising make up approximately a quarter of the total items.

    Sporting representation in three Newcastle region newspapers in the 1920s







Newcastle Morning Herald






Rugby League





Newcastle Sun






Rugby League





The Maitland Daily Mercury






Rugby League





  1. Are the newspapers chosen representative of actual numbers or do their editorial policies hold a distorting bias? For example, the Newcastle Sun during the period had over 5000 items that referred to soccer and 3000 that referred to Rugby League–a similar difference to the Herald. The Maitland Daily Mercury, however, had more references to Rugby League over soccer (1750 to 1350). This latter figure may represent a regional preference for Rugby League or it may itself represent bias towards Rugby League. My sense is that the Newcastle Morning Herald and the Newcastle Sun as the main newspapers of Newcastle at that time are likely representative. Because the Sun contains most items relating to each code I will provisionally establish it as the more significant reporter for the whole region. 

  1. Can a correlation be assumed between representation in the newspaper and 1) what is actually happening in a sports culture and 2) the extent to which a regional culture accepts a game as its own? This is a general/theoretical question that applies to all locales and cultures that are represented by a newspaper.

Notes for later work

  • Cumberland Argus: soccer 2000 Rugby League half that

  • Sydney Morning Herald: rugby combined 9000 soccer 1500

  • Referee newspaper: RL 300