Don’t crowd for netball history

Researching netball and other sports on Trove
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The thrill of the chase

Most of my academic life has been devoted to the niche field of sport history, where my particular interest has been the social and cultural history of Australian Rules football. This journey began in 1978, during my second year as an undergraduate Arts student at Monash University, when a single lecture dedicate to sport in a three-term, year-long Australian History subject, delivered by the renowned historian, Associate Professor Ian Turner, and a subsequent conversation with him, inspired me to pursue postgraduate studies and then forge a career in what was then an embryonic area of study.

This was years before the widespread use of computers and decades before the advent of search-engines such as Trove, with the default methodology for many historians consisting of painstaking examination of hardcopy and/or microfilmed newspapers, usually only available on-site at selected libraries and archives. Even so, I became enamored with the ‘thrill of the chase' having both good and bad days in my quest to track down relevant press coverage that revealed much more than just the scores and results of games. The eventual outcome (in 2000) was the first-ever PhD devoted to the history of Australian Rules football, covering the period 1896 to 1908, and drawing on a wide range of different newspapers.

My growing expertise in sport history also appealed to undergraduates (and a few postgraduates) in sports studies at Victoria University. This enthusiasm was reflected in the popularity of supervised field trips  to the State Library of Victoria to undertake assessment-driven newspaper research on Australian sport history.


The routine was disrupted, however, by two developments. First was a secondment of six months to the Western Bulldogs Football Club (a new partner of Victoria University), in order to assist in the setting-up of a club museum. Second was:

…the revelation, spreading like wildfire among historians, that digitized newspapers (and other sources) were now easily accessible via an aptly named portal, namely Trove.

Both these developments were game-changers for me. At the Western Bulldogs, I became directly exposed to the importance of material culture, and the necessity for very succinct stories to be told about objects on display, requiring pinpoint research and refined writing skills.

Concomitantly, a whole new world of digitized sources expanded my horizons (and my ease of access) to an ever-growing repository of newspapers that could be used for both teaching and research purposes. The fact that electronic searches of Trove could now be undertaken opened up new methodologies and allowed different questions to be asked of the data in a time-effective and geographically unhindered manner.

Moreover, it became apparent that when coupled with in-person searches of microfilm or hard copy newspapers at libraries, the scope for methodical trawling and cross-referencing of press sources was greatly enhanced, leading to the construction of new theories and new narratives in terms of how, when and why sport was developed, and by whom. In my case, the fine-grained detail of games played, personnel involved and the specific socio-cultural contexts for sport could now be more easily unveiled.

A tea towel with a bulldog on it along with the words "The Bulldogs"
Australian Football League (AFL) & Dickies Tea Towel - 'The Bulldogs', Footscray VFL Football Club, Dickies,​​​

Netball Victoria joins the game

Against this background, it was not long before another new partner for Victoria University emerged. While associations with sporting bodies were par for the course in what was then known as the College of Sport and Exercise Science, and its research arm, then titled as the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, most of these partnerships revolved around the benefits of sport science. However, the experience at the Western Bulldogs showed that the humanities, especially targeted historical research, could be leveraged as an additional aspect of so-called industry partnerships. Hence, Netball Victoria came on board not just because of the sport science benefits it could reap from the Institute, but because it was aware of the additional expertise that could be tapped into in terms of the history and heritage of its sport. Thus, an initiative was rolled out, including an oral history project coordinated by Victoria University staff, and on-site orientation tours of the offices of Netball Victoria, where memorabilia and relevant archives were on display, and where undergraduate students were allocated highly specific, individual Trove projects related to very small segments of Victoria’s netball history. This arrangement was followed up by in-class Trove tutorials and discussions, and the eventual submission of not just the required assignments in electronic form, but also the tendering of diaries kept by the students in terms of their reflections about working with Trove.

For most of those involved, the interactions with Netball Victoria and with the Trove data-base were a very positive and eye-opening experience. Students felt that they had learned new research skills, and they were also appreciative of the fact that their work had a tangible benefit, that is, their research contributed to a better understanding of the history of netball, with all the completed assignments becoming part of the archives at Netball Victoria.

A gold award consisting of a brooch and a medal showing a netball
Netball service award in the form of a circular nine carat gold brooch badge, awarded to Margaret Pewtress in 1973,

After several successful years of this pattern of activities, the formal partnership between Netball Victoria and Victoria University was dissolved.

Coincidentally, I decided to take a voluntary redundancy from my institution at around the same time, but almost immediately took up the offer of an (unpaid) adjunct appointment. Netball Victoria were keen to retain my services, and so it was late in 2017 that I became a heritage consultant to the organisation, where I continued to coordinate a volunteer group of former netballers and several interested academics and researchers, who met weekly to catalogue the vast collection of items (known as the Edith Hull Collection), perhaps one of the largest repositories of netball heritage materials in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Going beyond newspapers

However, it was clear from the experience of trying to provide the background of the history of netball to students that there are tremendous gaps in knowledge and understanding of how the sport initially developed. The academic literature on the history of netball in Australia is extremely limited, and very few scholars have given this sport the attention it deserves. Indicative of this fact is that more than 40 PhDs have now been completed on the history and/or management of Australian Rules football, but there has only been a single PhD that deals in any substantive manner with the history of netball, and even that was written in 2000, well before the launch of Trove. Moreover, perhaps remarkably given the widespread popularity of the sport, the definitive narrative history of netball in Australia still remains to be written, let alone published.

It is tempting, therefore, to believe that access to Trove might easily and quickly unlock the secrets of netball’s history, especially its origins in Australia. However, the task is something of a minefield, as my own recently published article entitled ‘Origin Stories: Tracing the Development of Netball in Victoria During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century’ reveals. A major obstruction is the fact that the sport, which had its origins in the United States of America in 1891 based on the game of basketball invented by James Naismith, was almost immediately adopted by women, and then made a transatlantic leap to the United Kingdom, where it soon underwent several changes in format, including the division of the court into restrictive thirds, and became known as netball. In Australia, the rules of Naismith’s game for men were featured in the press as early as 1893, but the subsequent nomenclature for netball in Australia was confusing to say the least, with the sport first being known as women’s basket ball (two words), and then women’s basketball (one word), until it officially changed its name (under protest) to netball in 1970, bringing it into line with all other netball-playing nations. This makes searches of Trove from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century particularly problematic, as it is sometimes not clear what game is being played, or even if it is being played by men or women. Other variations of the game, such as basquette, with the ‘field’ divided into six different court-markings, also existed, but the distinctions between all these games are not always clear in the press.

A news article titled a new game showing a hoop
A New Game, June 3 1893. Evening News (Sydney, NSW),

In short, the take-home lesson from such obstacles is the importance of supplementing Trove searches with archival discoveries. This is clearly the case with netball in Victoria, where it was a serendipitous surprise to come across previously unknown archives of primary source documents related to netball (especially those containing elements of visual culture) that were not only well organised and easily accessible, but maintained by professional, helpful staff. In fact, it was the chance discovery via Trove of a press item from the Ballarat Star announcing that: ‘Probably the first contest in basket ball ever held in Australia, took place on Friday [March 15, 1901], between the students of Loretto Abbey and those of Loretto Training School, Dawson street’, that eventually led to the unearthing of an important archive at Loreto College in Ballarat (115 km north-west of Melbourne).  

A surprising source

When the match report of the 1901 game was shared with volunteer cataloguers at Netball Victoria, it was established that not only did Loreto still exist as a Catholic College, but that the spouse of Kaye Gill, one of the group, had previously worked at a Melbourne campus of Loreto as a school teacher for 30 years. She then volunteered to contact the College in Ballarat in order to share the 1901 match summary from the press. Initially the College archivist could find no relevant information for the 1901 game, and the trail seemed about to go cold. It was then something of a revelation, if not a shock, to have the archivist send back the results of her search of the school magazine, Eucalyptus Blossoms, which revealed multiple entries related to the playing of netball at the College between 1899 and 1922, along with photographic material extending back possibly even further.

In what seems to be the first mention of basketball (netball) in a December 1899 copy of Eucalyptus Blossoms, the Loreto school magazine, the ‘School Record’ includes a note as follows: ‘May, 30th. – Basket-ball, a new American game, introduced; it threatens to rival hockey in interest, but is a milder form of exercise’.

However, there are no images of basketball (netball) in the 1899 College magazine, and it seems that a magazine was not produced (or is missing from the archive) in 1900. Therefore, the first photographic depiction of the sport at the College does not appear until 1901, the year that the report of a game between teams from Loreto was published in the Ballarat Star.

A black and white photo of a group of school girls  participating in basketball (netball) at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, 1901. The photo is in a circle with a goal written on it.
Students participating in basketball (netball) at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, as depicted in the annual publication of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Australia, Christmas, 1901, p. 22. Courtesy of Loreto College Archives.

In the Loreto College archives, however, there is a separate sepia landscape photograph of the same image, with much better definition. 

A photo of a group of school girls  participating in basketball (netball) at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, 1901
Students participating in basketball (netball) at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, 1901. Unpublished image courtesy of Loreto College Archives, POO23.

Strangely, there is no mention in the 1901 College magazine of the particular game that the Ballarat press reported on.

Fortunately, another image in the College archives, not published in the College magazine in 1901, almost certainly depicts the participants from the game between Loreto Abbey and Loreto Training School.

Depicted are the two teams of nine students who participated in a basketball (netball) game at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, March 15, 1901
Depicted are the two teams of nine students who participated in a basketball (netball) game at Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat, Victoria, March 15, 1901. Note the chalked inscription on the easel: ‘T[raining] College 3, Loreto Abbey 7’, the final score from the match. Note the two different uniforms worn by each team. The girl in the lighter coloured uniform may be a prefect, an umpire or have had some other role. Resting on her knees appears to be two embroided banners, presumably one for each team. Unpublished image courtesy of Loreto College Archives, POO22.

Regular coverage of the basketball (netball) games played at Loreto College can be traced further in the College archives, particularly through subsequent annual publications, with the names of participants also supplied in additional team photographs. By 1920, the embrace of basketball (netball) seemed complete.

With the formation of the Melbourne Girls Basket Ball Association still two years away, the evidence from Loreto College in Ballarat provides a clear indication that women’s basketball (netball) had already become a strong and resilient aspect of the curriculum at private schools in Victoria, with this particular institution having links to, and sharing information with, other Catholic colleges around Australia. The activities, records and archives of such educational institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are therefore a key element of netball’s early development and represent a prime topic for future researchers, especially when used in concert with Trove and other newspaper archives.

Clearly, multiple sources are extremely useful in providing a great deal of narrative detail, particularly for netball games that occurred in the public sphere and attracted sizeable audiences. However, there is a hidden wealth of knowledge and understanding to be mined from less public repositories, such as those kept and maintained by educational institutions, churches, and workplaces, not to mention cultural/social groups or organizations such as the YWCA, or the memorabilia collected by individual administrators or players. The text and the images discussed here, therefore, should not be considered as comprehensive or complete. In fact, the opposite is true. The very selective pieces of evidence discussed are but a pointer to potential areas of research and investigation, especially regarding aspects associated with the less elite levels of the game, not always covered by the press.

For more stories about the history of netball in Victoria visit,