“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 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72802758.

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, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-506249586.

“This’ll Suit the Women”, Sporting Globe, 26 May 1954, accessed 27 August 2023, p.20, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article176557234.

“The Stadium”, Pix Vol. 25, no. 25, 16 December 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.26–27, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-471671578.

“Women Fight Fans Are Really Keen”, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 17 May 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article135306512.

“Judy Meets Mickey–Her Boxing Hero”, The Argus, 27 February 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22813003.

“An Italian (g)love story”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1951, accessed 30 August 2023, p.5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page27461604.

“Secrets of Boxer’s Wife”, The Telegraph, 11 November 1927, accessed 30 August 2023, p.16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page20092765.

“First Woman to be Boxer-Manager”, The Herald, 19 December 1933, p.9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page26385407.

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