Fighting as a Family and the Upward Reach of an Underdog

George Fforde

Among hundreds of images in the ‘Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd’ collection, many of them promotional mug shots which rarely show the same boxer more than twice, can be found an atypically extensive set of seven photographs depicting, of all things, a family. Their presence offers a counterpoint of tenderness amidst the hundreds of combative postures.

Figure 1: The Three Cooks, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00132.

These are ‘The Three Cooks’: Mr and Mrs George Cook and their young daughter. Mrs Cook’s given name is not attached to any of the photos (even when she is the sole subject) and their child is variously named as Julia or Julie.  Nor are there any dates or related metadata for the photos. Digitised press records available through Trove and other newspaper collections help provide some background to the otherwise sparse information on this family.

Figure 2: George Cook, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00133.

The 24-year-old George arrived in London to ‘an elaborate gymnasium’ where he would train in front of spectators. Cook was reported to frequent West End dance halls directly after his matches. It was at one of these he met Emily Rides: a widow four years his senior to whom he was married in July 1922. The couple’s daughter Julia was born later that year. Based mainly out of the UK (but frequently returning to Australia) from that point in his life onwards, George Cook’s success as an international boxer was ambivalent but not insubstantial. Of his prominent fights, he lost more than he won and missed four times the coveted ‘Empire Championship’. He nonetheless succeeded in making a remarkably long career from being consistently matched with world-famous fighters regularly considered to be out of his class, and whose legacies in boxing history have outlived his. This practice, and his willingness to travel frequently and far afield as an underdog ‘challenger’ secured him not only a good income but wide popular admiration for pluck and grit.

Figure 3: Mrs. Cook and Julia Cook, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd,  1987.0094.00130.
Figure 4: George Cook and Julia Cook Aged Six Years, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00126.
Figure 5: Julie Cook Holidaying in Miami, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00129.

As a family, ‘the Three Cooks’ were collectively represented in accounts of George’s dogged international touring. Photos of Julia in the sporting press described her as a ‘much-travelled child’, and the positive example of Emily was often brought up in debates in the sporting papers over the influence of marriage on boxers. After over a decade of attending all his fights and travelling ‘three times around the world’, Emily made UK history in 1933 as the first woman to secure an official license as George’s trainer and manager (though she was denied permission to act as a Second). Up to this point George had had a series of official managers (one of whom sued him for breach of contract), but Emily was described by George as “a wonderful pal and a great judge of boxing… I should be lost without Emmie in my corner”.

Figure 6: Mrs Cook Manager for George Cook, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00128.

In this newly official capacity Emily continued to promote George as a challenger to rising international stars with occasional returns to Australia. By his 400th fight the 38-year-old George was considered an old man for a boxer, and his staying power in the face of ever-younger opponents became part of his popular appeal. The partnership was evidently a close one, and Emily’s decisions had real weight. After Emily was hospitalised for a serious illness, she reported that “no one could do anything with George, We had never been separated in 15 years of marriage… he used to come down to the hospital at four o’clock in the morning to bring me letters he had written to me during the night”. After a knockout loss in 1936 Emily insisted on George’s retirement, but after two years he secured her agreement to a last fight to mark his 25th year of boxing. In somewhat classic fashion this final match was a loss (apparently after George failed to hear the bell ending a round) but his performance against a man sixteen years his junior was lauded for endurance and grit.

Figure 7: George Cook, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00130.

George Cook’s longevity as a fighter (overlapping what was considered three generations of boxers) was credited to his wife and manager’s support, alongside a notably strict fitness regime. Much was made in the press about his gymnasium (at which young Julia could often be seen) and devotion to ‘the art of physical culture’. As George’s boxing career entered its twilight, the couple took advantage of George’s reputation and the prevailing fashion for athleticism by opening a ‘physical culture school’ catering for the well-to-do denizens of Belgravia, complete with a residential annex for “business-men who want to keep fit”. Accounts of the family’s settled life in London suggest a busy and prosperous existence, with Emily described as owning a hat-shop and a list of George’s properties including a public house, a snack bar, and a café. With the outbreak of the War, the 18-year-old Julia joined the Red Cross as a nurse while George devoted himself to volunteer fire-fighting during London’s Blitz. At the age of 45, George Cook passed away after ‘a short illness’. His death elicited heartfelt commemoration in the Australian and British press about an “evergreen” boxer who “never quite succeeded” but whose gameness and tenacity marked him out as an example. The sporting obituaries made little reference to Emily (especially compared to his other managers), despite what George readily described as her crucial role in his career.

Figure 8: George Cook, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00127.

George Cook fought his way from extremely humble origins in Wiradjuri Country and found freedom and joy in the Empire’s Metropole. The war-widow Emily was crucial to the unorthodox success of George’s career, but the full scale of her role was often overshadowed by how it was reported. The adult journey of Julia the ‘well-travelled child’ passes from view with her father’s obituary. In addition to the visual echoes of a remarkable set of lives, the Cook family’s photos in the UMA present an intriguing set of threads for further investigation.

George Fforde is a PhD candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies undertaking research on the KGB’s role in forced psychiatric treatment of Soviet dissenters.


“Big Changes at Sydney Stadium.” The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), March 15 1932. Trove.

“Boxer as Fire-Fighter – George Cook In London.” Kalgoorlie Miner (WA), January 16, 1941. Trove.

“Boxer Weds.” Chronicle (Adelaide, SA), July 1 1922. Trove.

“Boxer’s Daughter.” The Sun (Sydney, NSW), February 13, 1931. Trove.

“Boxing – Overweight Gloves: Carnera’s Offer.” Examiner (Launceston, Tas.), March 10, 1932. Trove.

“By The Way – Much Travelled Child.” Smith’s Weekly (NSW), November 23, 1929. Trove.

“Cook’s Wife His Boxing Manager: Discloses Offer By Carnera To Use Heavy Gloves.” The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), March 10 1932. Trove.

“Effect Of Marriage On Athletes.” Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay, and Burnett Advertiser (Queensland), October 19, 1937. Trove.

“First Woman To Be Boxer-Manager – Mrs George Cook Plans Matches.” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), December 19, 1933. Trove.

“George Cook Dead.” The Sun (Sydney, NSW), October 9, 1943. Trove.

“George Cook, Fire-Fighter.” The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), January 15, 1941. Trove.

“George Cook. Greatly Improved Boxer.” The Register (Adelaide, SA), April 23, 1923. Trove.

“George Cook Weds – Famous Boxer And A London Widow.” Sunday Illustrated (London, UK), April 23, 1922. British Newspaper Archive.

“Let Me Fight – Cook’s Plea To Wife – Veteran Australian’s Ambition.” The Armidale Express and New England Daily Advertiser (NSW), July 13, 1936. Trove.

“Memories of Evergreen Boxer, George Cook.” Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic.), April 12, 1947. Trove.

Miller, W. H. “He Was The Gamest Fighter – The Golden Age Of Boxing.” Good Morning (London, UK), November 26, 1943. The British Newspaper Archive.

“Mrs. George Cook.” Warwick Daily News (Qld.), December 20, 1933. Trove.

“Our Letter From London… George Cook And Physical Culture.” Queensland Times (Qld.), May 28, 1938. Trove.

“Veteran Boxer, George Cook, Passes.” Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic.), October 9, 1943. Trove.

“West Melbourne Stadium. Cook Scores K.O.” Referee (Sydney, NSW), April 1, 1931.

“The Wedding Ring. Boxer Cook’s Marriage.” The Journal (Adelaide, SA), April 19 1922. Trove.

“Women In Boxing: Mrs. Cook Seeks A Licence.” The Daily News (Perth, WA), July 3, 1933. Trove.

“Wife In Corner: George Cook’s Advisor.” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate (NSW), March 10, 1932. Trove.

Social and Urban Renewal – Melbourne’s Hidden Slum History

Anthony Jenkins

From his home in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the archaeologist John Lockyer O’Brien captured evidence of the inner-city’s evolving urban and social landscape, documenting a transitional stage between the overcrowded “slums” which attracted condemnation, and the construction of the Housing Commission Towers which sprung up from the razed grounds of urban renewal.1 Hidden within the collection of his photographs are vestiges of entire neighbourhoods condemned as “slums” by the Slum Abolition Board (precursor to the Victorian Housing Commission) that were consequently razed. The picture below from the roof of his own house depicts a more mixed architectural landscape taken, looking across a scene that combines the pediments of nineteenth century rooves, the first brick apartment blocks built in the 1940s, and large industrial buildings, on the horizon.

Figure 1: A View from the Roof of Number 35 Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958-1960, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00359.

Ubiquitous in Melbourne’s inner suburbs today, the Housing Commission Towers are imposing in stature and form, incongruous in comparison to the suburb’s late-Victorian shops and dwellings alongside more modern cubic buildings. Despite their location in these highly-sought after, historically-rich areas in Melbourne, the enduring association of the Towers (and their residents) is of divergence from the housing profile of mainstream Australia, as was seen during their targeting for isolation during Melbourne’s lockdowns.2 Towers like Fitzroy’s Atherton Gardens Towers, are home to some of the most vulnerable in these suburbs; recent migrants from war-torn and underdeveloped countries, low-income and first nations’ people.3

For most of the twentieth century, however, Fitzroy had been regarded by a rising affluent class as impoverished, unsightly, and crime-ridden, with its houses dilapidated and home to menacing, feeble dwellers.4 Proximity to the city’s resources (markets, hospitals, childcare, employment) had always ensured high residential demand as had their proximity to work in factories in Collingwood and along the river. The late-nineteenth century economic optimism of terraced dwellings gave way to depression in the 1890s, and by the Great Depression’s concurrent housing/rental crisis in the 1930s, Fitzroy’s streets were overrun, undeveloped, and teeming with the remnants of waste, human and industrial.5 Many families were forced into overcrowded, dilapidated residences, while being charged exorbitant rents.

Enter F. Oswald Barnett, reformer extraordinaire. A Methodist motivated to clean up the “slums,” Barnett distributed a collection of emotive photographs of inner-city alleys and residences in the 1930s to newspapers and ran an emotional campaign about the need to reform living conditions as a form of social improvement.6

Figure 2: ‘Carlton. Entrance to a Slum Pocket.’, Photograph gelatin silver (irregular) mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1930). 7
Despite ostensibly impassioned intentions, slum clearance campaigns contained unconcealed condescension towards the inhabitants.8 The residents’ character was critiqued as being faulty, and any proposed planning lacked considerations of the effects of housing shortages, high rents, and poverty upon this inner-city neighbourhood.9

Figure 3: ‘Carlton. Two Mothers.’, Photograph gelatin silver mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1935). 10
As these two pictures in the State Library collection show, Barnett’s photography served to titillate audiences with sordid descriptions of poverty, and slum abolition projects made little account for where the displaced “dwellers” would go.11

Beginning in the years following WWII, the campaign for ‘slum clearance’ began again and journalists gave expression to moral outrage about living conditions in Fitzroy.

Figure 4: Lindsay Mudge, ‘Unhappy Folk Herded into Fitzroy Hovels,’ The Argus, 11 October 1955.

With new models of social housing arriving from Europe, plans were in place to modernise the inner city. A newly formed Housing Commission oversaw the razing of condemned areas, as this photo from the O’Brien collection graphically shows – a weatherboard house torn apart that with its four rooms would have substantially provided shelter and a home to a family.

Figure 5: A House Being Demolished in Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00366.

Having cleared a large block below Gertrude Street, between Brunswick and Napier Streets, the Atherton Gardens Estate was erected between 1965 and 1971.12 With 800 flats, and twenty stories high, it became home to thousands of low-income families and immigrants and is so to this day.13

Figure 6: Housing Commission of Victoria, ‘Atherton Gardens Estate,’ Architectuul, 1970,

Their history has however been intrinsically linked with larger, timeless forces of social mobility, urban renewal, and community solidarity. Eventually, the patriarchal slum clearance policymakers were faced with fierce resistance by residents, in Melbourne and beyond, and community groups successfully campaigned against further demolitions of homes.14 Many houses which have survived and are now likely investment properties, or leased sharehouses are the later twentieth century product of middle-class migration to the inner-city with consequent renovation and gentrification of the once-condemned properties. The lovely row of brick buildings pictured below were not considered the lucrative, bohemian, cosmopolitan dwellings of today and were in fact, houses in Atherton street that were demolished to make way for the Towers.15

Figure 7: Houses in Atherton Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00167.

The O’Brien collection provides invaluable insight into the Fitzroy of the Barnett and post-war era. Research possibilities are wide-ranging and multidisciplinary; one can visually track the physical transformation of urban renewal on a single address, from terrace house to “hovel” to Commission tower, with supplementary information gleaned from ‘Social Surveys’ maintained in the University of Melbourne Library. Stories associated with inhabitants in the photographed abodes could be uncovered by incorporating personal and familial databases like or street directories.

With the current rental and housing crises in Melbourne and beyond, it is vital to examine the different methods that communities have used historically to cope with larger economic forces which constrain the ability to find safe, affordable habitation. In a strange historical repetition, between first writing this blog and finishing it, recent news from the State Government has announced that 44 Housing Commission towers will be demolished by 2051. Once again, the language surrounding the condemned buildings is critical and emotive, stressing the unsightly nature of the Towers, and once again, residents will be left without rooves over their heads.16 As urban landscapes change, a greater understanding of how buildings, streets, suburbs come to create neighbourhoods is worthwhile, as they might not be the same for long. Perhaps we need a new O’Brien to document the next transitions taking place in Fitzroy.

Anthony Jenkins is a PhD candidate in the new field of Public Health Humanities, studying the history of Australian smoking cultures and anti-cancer advocacy.


  1. Anne O’Brien, ‘Housing the Homeless: How Revisiting the 1940s Assists the Struggle’, <em>Australian Journal of Social Issues</em> 57, no. 4 (2022): 800-802, <a href=""></a>.
  2. Kristian Silva, ‘Hard Times to Hard Lockdowns: Melbourne’s Endless Housing Challenges’, <em>ABC News</em>, 11 July 2020, <a href=""></a>.
  3. Fitzroy History Society, ‘Remembering Fitzroy: A Walk Along the Lost Streets of the Atherton Precinct’ (Fitzroy History Society, 22 April 2017), <a href=""></a>.
  4. Alan Mayne, ‘A Just War: The Language of Slum Representation in Twentieth-Century Australia,’ <em>Journal of Urban History</em> 22, no. 1 (1995): 79, <a href=""></a>
  5. Tony Birch, ‘”These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss”: Slum Photography in a Melbourne Suburb,’ Australian Historical Studies 35, no. 123 (2004): 3-6, <a href=""></a>
  6. E. W. Russell, ‘Barnett, Frederick Oswald (1883–1972)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, 18 vols (Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1979), <a href="">
  7. F. Oswald Barnett and Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, ‘Carlton. Entrance to a Slum Pocket.’, Photograph gelatin silver (irregular) mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1930), H2001.291/12, <a href=""></a>.
  8. Grahame Shaw, ‘Slum Clearance and Urban Renewal,’ Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal 3, no. 5 (1965): 170–74, <a href=""></a>.
  9. Birch, ‘“These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss,” 1–15.
  10. F. Oswald Barnett and Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, ‘Carlton. Two Mothers.’, Photograph gelatin silver mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1935), H2001.291/9, <a href=""></a>.
  11. Birch, ‘“These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss,” 1–15.
  12. Mayne, ‘A Just War’, 92; Silva, ‘Hard Times to Hard Lockdowns,’ ABC News, 11 July 2020.
  13. Julie Szego and Christopher Hopkins, ‘“A Completely Different World”: The Rich and Resilient Communities inside Melbourne’s Towers’, The Guardian, 8 July 2020, sec. Australia news, <a href=""></a>
  14. Renate Howe, ‘New Residents—New City. The Role of Urban Activists in the Transformation of Inner City Melbourne,’ Urban Policy and Research 27, no. 3 (1 September 2009): 243–51, <a href=""></a>.
  15. Andrew Sells, ‘The Gentrification of Inner Melbourne: An Integrative Framework for Explanation’ (Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1991), 32.
  16. Margaret Simons, ‘Australia’s Public Housing Towers Are Regarded as Dated and Ugly. But What Will Happen When They’re Gone?’, <em>The Guardian</em>, 2 October 2023, sec. Housing, <a href=""></a>.

The “Brawny Farmer from Dubbo” turned International Boxer

Alexia Rutkowski

Figure 1: The Three Cooks, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00132.

In the digitised images of the Stadiums Pty Ltd archive collection, Australian boxer, George Cook caught my attention as several photographs included portraits with his wife and daughter, Julie, therefore, relating to his personal life as well as his boxing career. Intrigued to learn more about George, I questioned how a man from Cobbora, Dubbo, New South Wales could have a successful international boxing career during the 1920s and 1930s. Matthew Taylor explores how boxers in the 1920s and 1930s became “transnational icons” as sporting labour became incorporated into global networks and provided motivations for migration from the mid-nineteenth century onwards (Taylor, 2014, p.171). After World War I (1914-1918), there were also improved transportation and communication services which helped form international competitions, causing a new transnational sporting arena during the inter-war years (Taylor, 2014). These factors enabled George to compete internationally as a boxer.

Born in Cobbora, New South Wales, Australia, on January 23, 1898. According to Boxer List, a database of title fights, George’s boxing career started on July 17, 1917, as he lost to Jim Tracey at Sydney Stadium. George’s last match took place in London at The Ring on Blackfriars Road on December 18, 1938. His career spanned twenty-years, and he boxed in Australia, America, Britain, and even in Europe. During international travel, boxers relied on journalists to share their experiences abroad through local and national newspapers, and updates on George’s career, in his matches and travel movements, can be traced through local Australian newspapers found in Trove, the National Library of Australia online search engine (Taylor, 2014).

Overall, George won 43 matches, lost 50, and drew 10 (BoxerList, 2023). The first image in the University of Melbourne collection that alludes to George’s international boxing career is however a photograph of his daughter, Julie, on a Miami beach.

Figure 2: Julie Cook Holidaying in Miami, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00129.

While the photo is undated, and Julie’s age is unknown, other articles confirm that George was in Miami in February 1930. “Serving as a sparring partner” to Jack Sharkey, an American heavyweight boxer (“Boxing”, 1930). George reports to The Northern Miner and Sunraysia Daily, that he did not enjoy sparring with Jack as he had been “treating him rough”. Despite the family portraits suggesting George had an international boxing career which started in America, George started his international career with three title fights in New Zealand where he was acclaimed as the ‘brawny farmer’ from Dubbo, and then sailed to Britain on the Orsova. Arriving in Britain in early 1921, George met his wife, and an issue of British Pathé on April 27 1922 includes a short video reel with the caption: “Australia’s Champion Heavy Weight boxer and his bride pose for the Pathé Gazette”. From the video, we also learn that George, was living in London and that by 1922, he had a significant reputation as a heavy weight champion boxer with an international career. Furthermore, a newspaper article from April 19, 1922 in the Geraldton Express stated that George was soon to marry a Mrs. Rider a war widow, in London, who he met at a dance. Wed between April 19 and April 27, 1922, George’s marriage to a British woman and his career in Britain, could explain why he decided to permanently reside in Britain as opposed to moving back to Australia. Another publication by Taylor documents that many international boxers settled in London or surrounding areas as it became the ‘capital’ of the boxing world in the mid-twentieth century (Taylor, 2009).

In February 1937, with little explanation, it was however announced by the British Boxing Board of Control that George needed to retire. After his retirement, Britain declared war on Germany, and George claimed, “I am too old to be a soldier, but nobody is too old to fight fires” (“George Cook, Former Heavyweight Boxer”, 1943). George passed away on October 8, 1943, in Surbiton, Surrey. The Burnie Gazette reported that George died from a short illness, and that in his retirement he was a member of the National Fire Service. At his time of death, George’s investments in Britain included a public house, café, and a snack bar.

To trace George’s travel movements in this blog post throughout his boxing career, you can follow this story map:

Alexia Rutkowski is a PhD candidate in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. She is undertaking research on the history of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, focusing on transnationalism and the role of individuals.


Taylor, M. (2009). Round the London Ring: Boxing, Class and Community in Interwar London. The London Journal 34(2), 167-170.

Taylor M. (2014). The Transatlantic Migration of Sporting Labour, 1920-1939. Labour History Review 79(2).

“Watching the Gladiators”: Feminine Fandom in Mid-Century Melbourne

William Hoff

Figure 1: Crowd at boxing match, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00062.

The subjects of this photograph are attending a boxing match at West Melbourne Stadium, but their identities are anonymous. In the metadata, there are no known details for the unseen athletes, nor any definitive transcription of the handwriting on the back of the object. Taken from the Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd collection, held in the University of Melbourne (UoM) Archives, this photograph is logged in the catalogue as being taken in 1950—with a broad estimate between January 1948 and December 1952—with a unique catalogue number: Sixty-Two. This anonymity, however, does not prevent the image from telling a compelling story of women and sporting spectatorship in post-war Melbourne.

Presumably, the man with the cigar, centred in frame and in focus, was the intended subject of the photograph. Perhaps the man on his left, who wears a dinner jacket and bow tie, was an additional subject—a row of men watching this most masculine of sports. Internationally, Australia was the perfect breeding ground for these gladiators—“Australia itself [tests] physical endurance and strengthening character [with] floods, droughts, bush fires and pests”, boasted the Horsham Times in June 1950. Add to this the voyeuristic lens of class, being primarily a working classes’ and immigrants’ game. Prime candidates for the enjoyment of the sport, both men in the photograph are instead obscured by the woman leaning forward in her seat, encouraging, or criticising, the unseen athletes in full-throated fandom.

The moment is powerful not only for what it captures but what it reveals. Had the woman not leaned forward in her seat, the camera would not have captured the older woman behind her—the woman whose furrowed brow and tightly pursed lips reveal a concern, or a disgust, for the scene before her. The women have more in common than not—both are emotively struck by the spectacle.

Sixty-Two is the most striking of the images in the Stadiums collection which, for the most part, depict the boxers, all male, who were the heroes of the West Melbourne venue now known as Festival Hall. The photograph is notable as it acknowledges women’s attendance at, or involvement in, Melburnian boxing matches, though women’s spectatorship in fighting sports was not always as enthusiastic. The Australian Woman’s Mirror ran a piece by ‘Ringie Rosie’ in August 1939 in which the author described being invited by a male friend to attend a wrestling match, after being assured that women were a large part of the audience.⁵ Rosie detailed her shock at seeing women file into the stadium “quite on their own, by twos and threes, sometimes even singly, just as if this was the pictures”. Opening the evening were several bouts of boxing, which the audience seemed not to appreciate: “I wasn’t much interested. Neither were the women round me. [One] of the fur-coated girls in front of me remarked [on the match] in a superior and rather bored voice”. Hardly the promise of “watching the gladiators”!

Women can be spotted in several of the Stadiums collection’s wider-angled photographs (Figures 2 and 3), though they are outnumbered by male spectators. Fights were certainly marketed to women. A 1954 issue of Sporting Globe advertised a fight at West Melbourne Stadium with the headline “This’ll Suit the Women”, promising Canadian Doug Dawkins was “a real glamour boy [and] good-looker”. As a shallow but typical advertisement for the time, it attempts to draw in female audiences while undermining the rugged masculinity of the visiting sportsman.

Women’s engagement in this hypermasculine space was clearly significant and not always as passive viewers, but to be cultivated as avid fans. Indeed, Pix would report in 1950 that the bleachers, which once were sites of drunken brawls, were now pacified by waves of female fans.

An additional image, taken prior to 1954, shows several women of various ages spectating ringside:

Figure 2: Frank Johnson versus Frank Flannery, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00089.

To the right of the ring, a younger woman holds her clenched hands to her face, reacting sympathetically to the fallen man on the canvas. To the bottom right are several older women in floral dresses, averting their concerned gazes, and by way of contrast to the more stoic faces of the men beside them. Smaller events had their female spectators, perhaps even as private contests, as the image below shows:

Figure 3: Photograph of a boxing match taking place inside a ring, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00288.

Visitors to Australia even commented on the keenness of the female fans. American fighter Joe Campbell told the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1950 that “Australia is the only country where I’ve seen women turned out of a fight [by] policemen” for rowdy behaviour. And female fans ranged from “white-haired women [who] harangued the contestants” to small children—the Argus ran a piece on six-year-old boxing fan Judy Whitworth in 1953, who cheerfully recounted, “My daddy gives me a lesson whenever he can, I’d sooner see [favourite fighter] Micky Tollis than Santa Claus”.

The presence of women in male-oriented sporting environments was, however, worth commenting upon in the tabloids. The wife of Giulio Avelli caused a stir by attending her husband’s training sessions in June 1951, with trainers bewildered as to why she bothered attending at all. When questioned, Avelli dismissed them with a wonderfully dry response: “I come to the gymnasium because I like boxing, and because I like my husband”. The accepted presence of women would not only be relegated to spectatorship but, ironically, to business. E. L. Cook would act as a manager to her husband, prize fighter George Cook, a role she assumed in 1925 with her Australian licence confirmed in 1933.

Figure 4: Mrs Cook Manager for George Cook, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00128.

Cook would appear to be something of a pioneer, spending her earlier management career attending her husband’s training in his London gym, and despite this apparently progressive presence in the men’s world of boxing, not one article describing this endeavour, whether in Australia or abroad, used Mrs Cook’s given name, therefore it cannot be included in the present article. Despite women’s clear interest and investment in the sport, even accounting for Ringie Rosie’s disparaging commentary, acts of documentation from this time have ensured their anonymity and, for most, their absence from the historical record.

Such is the legacy left by the records for Sixty-Two, in which an avid female boxing fan is similarly anonymised. She is not just a member of the unhelpful description “crowd at a boxing match”. A more accurate, if not more detailed, impression of the narrative inherent in the image would specify exactly what is happening in the photograph: “Female boxing fan engaging with athletes”. Such a description in the metadata would both confirm and validate the presence of women in typically masculine spaces, not through transgression or sexualised ogling, as the tabloids would patronisingly claim, but through a fandom earnestly and passionately felt.

William Hoff is a PhD candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, and is undertaking research on popular constructions of the Middle Ages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, using
Robin Hood as a comparative case study.


“Snatching Happiness”, The Horsham Times 3 June 1950, accessed 9 October 2023, p. 2

Peter A. Horton, “The ‘Green’ and the ‘Gold’: The Irish-Australians and their Role in the Emergence of the Australian Sports Culture”, Sport in Australasian Society: Past and Present, ed. J. A. Mangan and John Nauright (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 69, 82–83.

“Watching the Gladiators”, The Australian Woman’s Mirror Vol. 15, no. 39, 22 August 1939, accessed 27 August 2023, p.12,

“This’ll Suit the Women”, Sporting Globe, 26 May 1954, accessed 27 August 2023, p.20,

“The Stadium”, Pix Vol. 25, no. 25, 16 December 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.26–27,

“Women Fight Fans Are Really Keen”, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 17 May 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.5,

“Judy Meets Mickey–Her Boxing Hero”, The Argus, 27 February 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.3,

“An Italian (g)love story”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1951, accessed 30 August 2023, p.5,

“Secrets of Boxer’s Wife”, The Telegraph, 11 November 1927, accessed 30 August 2023, p.16,

“First Woman to be Boxer-Manager”, The Herald, 19 December 1933, p.9,

Shifting Racial Attitudes Through Music: African American Performers at West Melbourne Stadium

Shannon Peters

On the evening of Sunday July 25th, 1954, an enthusiastic crowd of around a thousand people gathered at Sydney’s Mascot Airport, eager to catch a glimpse of celebrated jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s arrival in Australia had been delayed by a few days due to her mistreatment by prejudiced Pan American airlines’ staff, who had refused to validate her first-class ticket.1 Despite this controversy, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that she ‘waved happily to the crowd and signed autographs for her fans’ before departing on a transfer flight to Melbourne.2 Although this event may have seemed like a typical fan meeting with a popular musician, it in fact held deeper significance. Fitzgerald’s visit marked an important milestone in Australian entertainment and social history, signifying the end of a two decades-long ban that prohibited African American performers from touring Australia. Indeed, as revealed by the University of Melbourne Archives’ collection “Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd” (1987.0094), Fitzgerald’s tour became the first of a succession of music concerts featuring African American performers held at West Melbourne Stadium throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Figure 1: Chuck Berry – Promotional Concern Booklet, January 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022.

As the “Records of Stadiums” collection demonstrates, West Melbourne Stadium, which opened in 1913 at 300 Dudley Street, West Melbourne, was originally used in the early twentieth century as a venue for much publicised boxing tournaments. However, by the mid 1950s onwards, the venue was increasingly used to host musical performances, resulting in its renaming as “Festival Hall.” Many famous American music stars were brought to Melbourne to perform at Festival Hall in this period by American music promoter Lee Gordon, called by Harry M. Miller ‘the pioneer’ of large-scale arena concerts in Australia. Lee had arranged a deal with Stadiums Limited to use their stadiums in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane to host visiting acts from the United States.3 Gordon was responsible for bringing both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Australia in 1954, followed by a range of other African American artists over the next decade, including Nat King Cole, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and Sammy Davis Jr. While Lee Gordon appears to have been motivated by financial gain rather than by any overt desire to combat racial prejudice, his efforts nonetheless had the effect of helping to challenge the stronghold of ‘white Australia’ through the unifying power of music. A rival company, Headliners, soon began emulating Gordon’s approach, bringing over stars such as Chuck Berry and Johnny Mathis.

These Festival Hall performances represented a considerable cultural shift, given the antagonistic treatment African American musicians had received a few decades prior, when the Musicians’ Union of Australia had called for the prohibition of black American performers.4 African American performers had not always been excluded, as evident in this timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia. However, a 1928 controversy involving vaudeville group ‘Sonny Clay and the Colored Idea’ had resulted in a quarter-century long ban restricting the entry of African American musicians. 5 The band’s abrupt deportation following several members’ sexual relations with white women in Melbourne was driven by heightened concern over the need to protect Australia’s status as a white nation. By the time Lee Gordon brought jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to the country in 1954, the early-twentieth-century fear over the morally and racially degrading effects of jazz music was giving way to similar concerns over a new genre, Rock ‘N’ Roll. The first appearance of Fitzgerald and Armstrong in Australia also coincided with the year most often considered the onset of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Figure 2: Ella Fitzgerald – Souvenir Programme, 1960, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003
Figure 3: Sammy Davis Jr. – Promotional Concert Booklet, April 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003

Included as part of the “Records of Stadiums” collection are an extensive range of souvenir concert booklets from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into the ways in which music promoters sought to generate excitement among Australian concertgoers towards the visiting African American stars. These materials are not currently available online but can be viewed in person by appointment with the University of Melbourne Reading Room. The booklets for each concert feature glossy, brightly coloured covers, photographs of the visiting musicians, multipage biographies, setlists, and advertisements for various airlines, radio stations, and albums. Given that the booklets were created as promotional materials, they fittingly include glowing praise for each artist’s impressive career achievements. A 1957 concert booklet, created for Nat King Cole’s third Australian tour, describes Cole as ‘a creative pianist with originality, sensitivity, artistry, and polish.’ Similarly, a 1960 concert tour booklet proclaims Ella Fitzgerald as ‘the foremost singer in the field of popular music,’ possessing instinctive technique and effortlessness. While the booklets include occasional references to the musicians’ struggles with racial and economic adversity, such as Little Richard’s triumph over ‘bone-aching poverty,’ they appear primarily aimed at portraying the artists in a relatable and endearing manner to Australian audiences. For instance, Sammy Davis Jr.’s love of photography was emphasised, as was Nat King Cole’s devotion to his family.

Figure 4: Louis Armstrong – Promotional Concert Booklet, March 1963, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022

Taken together, this collection of concert memorabilia provides a useful record of the impressive range of well-known African American musicians who performed at Festival Hall during a period of increased American influence on Australian popular culture. When considered alongside media coverage of the era, it is evident that these artists were widely embraced by the Australian public, thus helping to shift racial prejudices in a nation long defined by its commitment to whiteness. Nat King Cole attracted attention not only for his music but for his contributions to charity while visiting the country.6 Likewise, the 1960s shows of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were both televised as part of the Australian variety series BP Super Show, receiving much commendation.7 8 In addition to offering insight into shifting race relations, the memorabilia in the Stadiums Collection would also be of value for researchers interested in exploring the relationship between the entertainment industry and other aspects of society, such as gender, consumerism, advertising, and celebrity culture. While the souvenir booklets contain limited reference to the concurrent Cold War tensions or civil rights movement, they nonetheless offer an interesting glimpse into the role of music in facilitating a transformation of cultural attitudes amidst such a turbulent period of social change.

Click here for a timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia.

Shannon Peters is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. Her research explores the intersection between progressive education and social activism in early-twentieth-century New York City.


  1. “Ella Fitzgerald May Sue Airline,” <em>Advertiser</em>, July 27, 1954, <a href="">
  2. “1000 to Greet Singer,” <em>Daily Telegraph</em>, July 26, 1954, <a href="">
  3. “Leading U.S. Entertainers to Play Here,” <em>Sydney Morning Herald</em>, July 8, 1954, <a href=""></a>
  4. See Deirdre O’Connell, <em>Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age</em> (Melbourne University Press, 2021).
  5. Kyla Cassells, “Sex, Scandal and Speculation: White Women, Race and Sexual Desire in the Colored Idea Scandal, 1928,” <em>Lilith: A Feminist History Journal</em> 19 (2013): 4–17.
  6. Nat King Cole and patient at the Royal Children’s Hospital, 1950s, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences Museums Collection, MHM2021.4, Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.
  7. “Ella’s Show Best of Its Type Seen on Melbourne TV,” <em>Age</em>, January 19, 1961,<br /> <a href="">
  8. “Satchmo on Channel 7 Tonight,” <em>Canberra Times</em>, April 20, 1963, <a href=""></a>.

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