The handsomest athletic trophy in the colony

Written by Senior Curator of Social History,  Mark Clayton

Dented, damaged and tarnished, there was nothing in the BRISBANE CHARITY CUP’s name or appearance to suggest that it was once this State’s most coveted sporting silverware.

As the floodwaters receded in the days following the 1974 Brisbane Flood it revealed for the  residents of Kooringal Street in Jindalee – then one of Brisbane’s newer outer suburbs – a scene of indiscriminate destruction. They’d returned with justified apprehension, most having already seen the Courier Mail photographs showing Kooringal Street, almost completely submerged.

Korringal Street, Jindalee (bottom left, closest the river), where the Cup was found in January 1974 (Courier Mail)

For most, the days and weeks following were spent cleaning, dumping, and picking through the debris for cherished possessions, there being little cause for joy even when – occasionally – the stupefying mud revealed someone else’s valued possession carried downstream by the floodwaters.

Even the backyard discovery of a large silver sporting trophy was insufficient cause for excitement or distraction, the discoverer being more concerned with knowing where she could sleep and eat that night, or how she was ever going to find some clean clothes? Besides, this was the pre-internet era when historical research demanded highly specialised skills, and lots of time. Forty-two years in fact were to pass before that same Kooringal Street resident resolved to satisfy her curiosity and visit the Queensland Museum, cup in hand. And we’re so glad she did…

One hundred and twenty-two years earlier, in mid-March 1894, Brisbane’s Mayor had presided over “a meeting of gentlemen desirous of establishing a Brisbane charity cup, in connection with the Queensland-British Football Association, on the lines of the Glasgow charity cup”. The latter had grown so greatly in public favour, that by 1889 the amount distributed had reached £1,700.”

Soccer, which was referred to back then as British Football, had grown rapidly to become the second-most popular sport in Queensland (after Australian Rules) with regular fixtures having commenced only a decade earlier.

Although a four team local competition – known as the Challenge Cup – had begun in 1892, the Mayor’s “gentlemen” (known thereafter as the Brisbane Cup Committee) were convinced that there was sufficient public interest in and around Brisbane to sustain an expanded (and parallel) knockout competition for first division teams only. As with the Glasgow charity cup, it was intended that gate proceeds from the new Brisbane Charity Cup competition should also be distributed amongst various city charities. It was further intended that this perpetual trophy should never became the property of any club but instead, would be held in trust by the Queensland British Football Association (Q.B.F.A.).

Mindful that it had borrowed the charity cup concept from Britain, Committee members were initially determined that the silverware at least should be manufactured in Australia, and tenders were invited by advertisement in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. In response three designs were received from the south, “but these did not commend themselves to the committee, and it was decided to abandon the idea of colonial manufacture and adopt the pattern of the East Lancashire Charity Cup, with certain modifications.”

Costing £52, and incorporating 75 ounces of silver, the finished trophy (made by Walker and Hall of Sheffield) was still en route from England when the first Cup final was played at the Exhibition Grounds in September 1894, between the Rosebanks (a Brisbane team) and the Bush Rats of Dinmore. That first encounter set the pattern for an ongoing rivalry – between city and Ipswich teams – which resulted in a lasting split in the early 1920s (following a dispute over the distribution of Gabba gate takings).

Thistle defeated Brisbane City (3:0) to win the Brisbane Charity Cup in 1921. Seated bottom right is Jock Cumberford, who scored Australia’s first goal on the tour of New Zealand the following year.

This was also a time of sweeping changes with the Queensland league becoming increasingly professionalised. International matches began to be played locally, and Queensland players were also beginning to compete overseas.  The QBFA morphed into the Queensland Football Association (eventually becoming the Brisbane and District Football Association in 1927), and an insurance scheme – for players –  had even been introduced some years earlier.

As the game’s popularity grew, so too did the number of trophies competed for by senior, junior and school grade teams. Ironically, it was this growing popularity which also led to the Brisbane Charity Cup’s eventual demise following the 1926 season, when it was replaced by the Ambulance Cup (intended exclusively for Brisbane teams). Other trophies being contested by then included the Hospital Shield, the Challenge Cup, the Charity Shield, the Austral Cup, the Tristran Shield and the Courier Cup.

The Brisbane Charity Cup was one of the longest running local competitions, having been contested almost continuously for thirty-two years (with a few exceptions, notably during 1916 – 1918). Between six and nine clubs would typically compete for the Cup in any one year, all of which having long since passed ….the Bulimba Rangers, the Ipswich North Royals, the Corinthians, the Toowong Caledonians and the Pineapple Rovers.

Even without it’s embellished lid and ebony base, the Cup still remains a striking piece of silverware.

Although still a striking piece of silverware, it’s clear from the following contemporary description that the Cup delivered (and generously donated) to the Museum late last year has lost some of its former splendour…

Urn like in shape, sterling silver, richly decorated, height 17 inches overall. At base, four footballers in costume; on the face, a representation of a severely contested game at the finish; goal posts form the handles, and the figure of a player, erect, holding the association ball, surmounts the whole.

The bottom of the bowl [sic] is fluted to receive the names of winners. On the neck will be the arms of Brisbane, and those of Australia at the foot. Two wreaths will surround the cup, one, a combination of the rose, shamrock, und thistle, and the other a representation of the passion flower. It is anticipated that the cup will be delivered in about five months, and will be the handsomest athletic trophy in the colony.” (Brisbane Telegraph, 20 August 1894, page 6)

We know from other accounts that the Cup was originally mounted on an ebony base, ‘defended’ by four solid silver figures holding footballs.

While it’s reasonable to suppose that these last adornments detached during the Cup’s downstream journey in 1974, we can only speculate as to how far it was carried by the floodwaters, and who was last caring for it (as a perpetual trophy it remained the governing Association’s property)?

At this distance in time the Cup’s delivery to Kooringal Street seems almost providential, although it would have been unthinkable to even countenance such a suggestion back in 1974. Queenslanders have been playing regular soccer fixtures for almost 140 years and curatorial staff are understandably keen to ensure that the Museum’s collection reflect the state’s rich sporting heritage.

Aside from its obvious visual appeal, the acquisition of the Charity Cup enhances our ability to interpret both sport and natural disasters which are important – recurring – Queensland themes.