Gibsonvale was perhaps the Maher Cup’s most unlikely contender. These days, on Google Earth only ribbons of white mine scars remain. Gone are the hessian and corrugated iron huts built by battlers and fortune-hunters along the stockroute. Gone is the post office, the store, the school and the unfenced football field. Stoneham’s billiards hall and the Kikoira Pub remain, abandoned.
This is close to where the bush meets the outback. Flat with big skies, the concrete grain silos signal the rail line to the horizon. Stunted Mallee gums suit the thin soil and dry conditions. The Flying Doctor used to drop in. High school was only available to families with enough means to board the kids in West Wyalong, Yanco or further afield. It was, and is, a place where the scarcity of water often threatens life and livelihood.
Jack Gibson went to the first war, got wounded in both feet and legs, and returned home determined to never take orders from anyone He never did. After sinking a mine in the middle of a road, he told the flummoxed inspector that, as the so-called road was not mapped anywhere, Council had no proof that this was indeed a road. (Remember When, p.196-197)
He found some gold at Weethalle, but the motherload came in 1938 when he divined a huge reef of tin outside Kikoira. By 1939 hundreds of tents and improvised dwellings were in place. The war effort demanded tin. When the Japanese advanced on the mines of Malaya the price went through the roof. Some people got rich. In the shanty town of Gibsonvale many men went down the mine to get a leg up in life.
Gibson married bush nurse Nea Baldwin who from time-to-time needed to enter a mine:
Some had buckets to go down in, some had ladders built into the side of the shaft, you went from daylight to a different world of darkness in a space of a minute or two. You were immediately conscious that the earth was all around you, and not underfoot. The continual noisy creaking of the mine was like the noise of a ship straining in heavy sea. The men assured me that it was only ‘the earth speaking’ , and there was no danger of a fall of earth while it ever continued to ‘speak’. The time to worry was if it became quiet (Remember When, p.198)
The community was a mix of farmers, many from Victoria, and miners from all over. It straddled the Rugby/Aussie Rules border. Keen sportsmen like Phil Hoskinson and Jim Keys played Rules at Four Corners – a ground hacked out of the scrub a few miles north of Kikoira – on Saturday, and backed up for Rugby League at Gibsonvale on Sunday (Remember When, p.72). And of course there was much travelling to away games. By 1946 Gibsonvale and Kikoira men had become well-known in football circles.
The team was a mix of local farmers and tin miners – not that there was a clear divide. Young locals brave enough to go below supported their mortgages.
Jim Keys came to Gibsonvale to work for farmer Norm Hoskinson. Norm also wanted Jim to play Aussie Rules for Four Corners, and paid him to do so (Remember When, p.205). He also ‘washed dirt’ for Gibson, who soon appointed Jim as his manager. Keys knew all the sportsman around and encouraged them to come and work at the mine. Gibson concurred. He saw that ‘sport meant team work in the work force’ (Remember When, p.216). Jim Keys later started his own mine with local sporting mates, including Gibsonvale’s fullback and champion tennis player Ted O’Kane (Remember When, p.206).
The Gibsonvale Maher Cup players were not novices. Graham Ridley, Kevin Maybury, Jim Dale and Les Tomlinson had all played for Ungarie in their one and only Maher Cup challenge in May 1946. Phil Hoskinson, Ted O’Kane and Jack Stonham had represented West Wyalong. Maybury and Ridley later became key players in Wyalong’s formidable Maher Cup team.
The team’s talent was recognised in 1946 when Gibsonvale was awarded Division One status within Group 9 – and thus became the smallest and most isolated place eligible to contest the coveted Maher Cup. Drawn last amongst 13 teams, when their turn came the ‘Old Tin Pot’ was back at Tumut, the furtherest possible place from Gibsonvale.
The team for the first challenge on 3 August was Ted O’Kane, Graham Ridley, Russell Mears, Leo Ireland, Jack Stonham, Ernie Boal, L. Miller, Kevin Maybury, Joe Neddrie, Jim Keys, Fred Hill, Phil Hoskinson, and H. Miller. They crowded into the back of Phil Hoskinson’s Chevvy truck. Benches were chained into place and the journey began – 190 rough miles across the length of Maher Cup Country.
The long, dusty and shaky journey started some 45 miles north west of West Wyalong along gravel roads, and passed through key Maher Cup towns, Barmedman, Temora, Cootamundra, Gundagai and finally Tumut, the home of the Cup.
Around Tumut it had been a wet winter. A month of gentle rain had made the ground soft, some said muddy. Phil’s truck arrived on a perfect sunny winters day amongst Australia’s highest poplars. A beautiful town in a verdant valley with elms, acacias, hawthorn and blackberry hedges, venerable churches, surrounded by all sorts of industry – tobacco, maize, dairy, potatoes, fruit and forestry. At the Racecourse Ground the willow fringed river bubbled past, engorged with Snowy waters. Likely snow would have been visible on the distant hills.
While the miners from the dusty Mallee were not favoured to make a concerted challenge, they still attracted some 2,000 interested punters. They even bought their own intrepid supporters, but perhaps not all made it all the way. Laurie Young, the previous night succeeded in turning his motor car ‘completely over’ outside a pub in Coota, injuring himself and passengers Ben and Peter Birks and Vince Curtin. Fortuitously the eight bottles of beer on the back seat were undamaged. The next morning a perhaps sober Mr. Young fronted the Cootamundra court and left town £10 poorer and somewhat sorer.
The game itself was reported as drab, but going down to the champions 8-2 was no disgrace. Just making it this far was a victory.
In new Cup draw, as luck would have it, Gibsonvale were drawn second. So that they would return to Tumut just two week later, on 17 August 1946. Although losing again, 10-3, Jim Dale scored a rare try against the champions. The Tumut and Adelong Times congratulated the visitors on their gentlemanly conduct off the field and sportsmanship on it.
I suspect these Mallee men were untarnished by the gamesmanship and chicanery that made the Maher Cup notorious. They were simply there to play and compete. Sport for them was leisure – not a commercial endeavour. The chance for fortune was under the ground, and in the soil, not on a football field.
Although Gibsonvale is no more, I believe many people will retain memories of a hard place but also a place of opportunity and warm camaraderie.
Reference: Much of the information for this story comes from a wonderful collection of reminiscences called Remember When: 75 years, a collection of memories of people who lived at worked at Kikoira and Gibsonvale. The stories were collected over a period of ten years by Maxie Hoskinson and others, and published in 2000.
Pictures from Pix Magazine 12 April 1941