Cheltenham from the Tennis Courts, c1910.
Should tennis clubs be allowed to play tennis on council owned or managed properties on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day? This was a question that generated a strong response from various groups and individuals in the community, and created a division amongst councillors in 1936. Some said ‘Yes’ while others were equally adamant that the answer was ‘No’.
At the time, organised sport had been a feature of community activities for over fifty years but rarely was it seen on a Sunday. The Cheltenham Football Club commenced in 1893 with friendly matches between clubs drawn from Mordialloc, Caulfield, Oakleigh and Dandenong; the Federal Football Association being formed in 1909. The Moorabbin Bowling Club was established at Mentone after a meeting was held at the Mentone Hotel in 1902 but Sunday competition was not part of their program.  Like bowls and football, the cricket competition was held on Saturdays. But the Cheltenham Tennis Club sought the permission of the Moorabbin City Council for their members to play on their courts in the Cheltenham Park on a Sunday.
The Cheltenham Tennis Club’s deputation to council was lead by the club president, Mr Young, who was joined by the secretary of the Moorabbin District Tennis Association. Young pointed out that his club had existed for fifty years and therefore, in his view, deserved some consideration. At that time members only had Saturday afternoon to play and the courts in the Cheltenham Park could not accommodate everyone so some members had difficulty in getting a game. As a consequence members were leaving to play at other clubs where courts were available on a Sunday. There was a danger the club would go out of existence. Young completed his presentation pointing out that tennis was a working man’s recreation, unlike golf which was for the rich. 
Cheltenham Tennis Club Pavilion, c1930. Courtesy Moorabbin Historical Society.
The Rev A J Porter, the chairman of the Ministers Fraternal provided a strong defence for the status quo. He believed the sport free Sabbath was part of the British tradition and if council granted the tennis club’s request allowing sport, on a Sunday, on council-managed property, it would be the thin edge of the wedge. Football clubs would be next asking for similar permission and other sports would follow. Once legal sanction was given to one sport it would be impossible not to grant it to others, he said.
The Rev W Seamer stated Methodists were not against sport but believed that developing the character of citizens was something much more important. He drew attention to the fact that in the previous year 50,000 scholars attending Sunday School were receiving appropriate guidance. There were 695 scholars with 100 teachers in the Moorabbin Circuit and Sunday sport would interfere with this work. Temptation should not be put in the way of the young nor should they be encouraged to desecrate the Lord’s Day. A decision in favour of the tennis club would please a few while it would cause pain to many, he suggested.
Cr Sheppard at a meeting of the council moved the motion that the playing of tennis on courts in public parks and recreation reserves in the City of Moorabbin should be permitted between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on a Sunday and as such the by-law prohibiting such behaviour be repealed. He received the support of Crs Cronin and Butters but Crs Allnutt, Bevers, Le Page, and George were strongly opposed. Cr Le Page said the council should be supporting those who were trying to train the young. He saw the fault with the present generation was that they were creating muscle instead of brain. Cr George revealed that he had a tremendous aversion to seeing anyone with a racquet on Sunday “destroying the sanctity of the Lord’s Day by sordidness and selfishness.” He was fearful of the impact such a proposal would have on coming generations.
In response to this barrage of opposition Cr Butters called for tolerance and observed that some people who saw no harm in swimming or hiking on the Sabbath objected to Sunday tennis. He thought it far better for his own son to be “playing tennis on a Sunday rather than standing at the station telling doubtful stories.” Overall he thought it was the right thing for the young people of the district for the council to approve Sunday tennis. Nevertheless, Cr Sheppard’s proposal failed. 
A little more than two years passed before the matter of Sunday sport once again came before council. Cr Allnutt raised it when he pointed out that council regulations were being ignored and flouted. He wanted action taken against players from the Cheltenham Tennis Club who were breaching the regulation banning Sunday Sport by playing on the Cheltenham Park courts.  Police reported to council that two members of the club had directly challenged the council by-laws by playing tennis on the park courts on a Sunday. Both members, William Young, the president of the club, and Myrtle Howe admitted they were aware of the regulations and told the policeman they deliberately decided to play as they did not feel disposed to submit to regulations that the council was attempting to impose. Moreover, they would welcome the matter being taken to the courts.
Members of the Club, c1920. Courtesy Moorabbin Historical Society.
This police report on the attitude of the offenders caused the council to pause and reassess the situation. Do we have the power to take them to court? Is the regulation watertight? Should we seek the opinion of a solicitor? What will happen if the case is lost? The outcome of the discussion was the passing of a motion moved by Cr Allnutt that the matter be deferred until the following meeting of council and in the meantime the opinion of the council’s solicitor be sought as to whether the offenders could be prosecuted in a court of law. The motion was carried on the casting vote of the mayor (Cr Bevers). 
Correspondents to the local newspaper supported both sides of the argument. LM thought the council should be promoting friendly healthful games on a Sunday, believing if they did so it would result in a large decrease in vandalism that had been displayed in Bentleigh with the weekend destruction of shrubs and trees. Those who opposed such a provision, LM indicated, were ‘born a century too late.” The council by its attitude was encouraging many young men to become street corner loafers. ‘No Change’ on the other hand thought a few people were bluffing the council. He pointed out that the council had control over the public park and could stop the illegal activity if they wished. 
As requested, council solicitors, Messrs Macpherson and Kelley, reported to council their opinion that a prosecution against the two members of the Cheltenham Tennis Club who defied the regulations prohibiting Sunday sport would fail. This was seen as a victory to the tennis club in what was described in the local newspaper as a guerrilla war between the council and the club. The solicitors explained that the regulations made by the Board of Land and Works for the care and management of such parks, prohibited organised games, and not casual or friendly games being played on the Sabbath.
Cr Allnutt response to the legal advice was to move that the council should write to the Lands Department and ask them to amend the regulations by deleting the word, ‘organised’ and to inform the tennis club that the council would have to seriously consider the question of refusing their application for the use of the courts next year. In his view the council should act to prevent their authority being undermined. 
The Cheltenham Progress Association entered the debate at their annual meeting in the Mechanics’ Hall on September 8 when about sixty people were present to hear Cr Allnutt present his personal views about Sunday sport. Cr Hoffman spoke against a motion to suspend the meeting’s standing orders to allow Cr Allnutt to speak because he believed the progress association should not associate itself with a question that could easily develop into sectarianism. However, the majority of members did not agree with him so John Allnutt’s presentation proceeded.
Cr Allnutt commenced his speech by announcing he was not speaking on behalf of the council. He was speaking personally and his ideas were not dictated or inspired by any section of the community or church or organisation. He then went on to say the council was not attempting to harm the tennis club in particular but it did seek to control the park of which they were trustees. Touching upon the Sunday sport issues he said, “I have been told that I am narrow minded and born a hundred years too late, and such like. My definition of a narrow-minded person is one whose policy is governed by the wishes of friends or sections of the community. I say that I am not swayed by any of those things. I claim to take the up-to-date view in asking myself whether this thing is for the benefit of the community as a whole, irrespective of what individuals think.” In conclusion Allnutt stressed that the council had the right and responsibility to say how the park should be managed. People can do as they like on private property but they must abide by the regulations governing the park. 
The tennis club, not to be deterred by its lack of substantial progress, once more wrote to the council requesting permission to play tennis on Sundays, and in support of their case reiterated the facts that the club had been in existence for over fifty years, and had spent over £1000 on the courts and grounds without ever asking for a contribution from the council. In the course of the debate Cr Le Page threw in the possibility of a referendum to identify the attitude of the community at large when he asked the town clerk what the approximate cost of a referendum would be. But the request of the tennis club was not answered. 
Cr Le Page pursued his idea of a referendum while repeating his opposition to Sunday sport under any conditions. He offered to contribute £2 2/- towards the cost of conducting a referendum to decide the matter if nine other ratepayers would contribute an identical sum. Apparently the offer was not taken up but the local newspaper did conduct a plebiscite on the issue in which 434 people responded.
The newspaper plebiscite asked three questions; “Should Competitive sport be allowed?” “Should non-competitive sport be allowed?” and “Are you in favour of the unqualified banning of all sport on Sundays?” Of the 434 individuals who responded 116 people voted no on all three questions. The first question attracted 285 yes votes while the second and third questions had 318 yes votes. The newspaper saw this result as a clear indication of the wishes of the community and advised the council to “take steps to place themselves in accord with the wishes of the citizens.” 
The tennis club made its position plain in a statement made to the Moorabbin News, which read, “the question of organised Sunday sport is one that may not be favoured by many people, and the Cheltenham club agree that the time is not yet ripe for such an innovation, but the action of the council in threatening local citizens with police action if they indulge in Sunday tennis, for health or recreation purposes, is to our mind, the action of a body of men who are out of touch with public feeling. As a club we feel that we are being treated unjustly and we intend to make a very definite public protest against such treatment. As a club we do not desire to interfere with any other body or lay down any rules of how people should spend the one day of rest and recreation they have, and we also desire to receive the same treatment. We think this is a fair-minded attitude, and we feel confident of the support of a large majority of ratepayers. 
When reviewing the events of the year of 1938, the Moorabbin News noted the council had not relented on its stance concerning Sunday Sport. Council properties or properties they managed were not available for recreational purposes on a Sunday. While noting the opposition had won several skirmishes, it concluded that the council had won the war. 
The following years saw the dissipation of the tennis club’s resolve to challenge the council. Reports of the club’s actions, if any, failed to appear in the local press and ultimately, as predicted by some, the club collapsed. This may have been due to a combination of factors and not just the Sunday sport issue, for the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and attention was more focussed on that and national issues, rather than local concerns. In addition, public all weather en tout cas courts, such as ‘Ivern’ at Mentone, were built on private land in 1938 where play was welcomed on Sundays. The asphalt courts at Cheltenham Park fell into disrepair and were subsequently removed to allow for the formation of the Memorial Park where Boer War and World War One and Two monuments were placed until 1999 when they were transferred to Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham. The efforts of the Cheltenham Tennis Club to gain approval to access council controlled property for recreational purposes on a Sunday failed yet in the longer term the clash of views was resolved on their side of the debate.
Graham J Whitehead
- Gamble, L., Mentone Through the Years, 2003, page 78.
- Moorabbin News, May 23, 1936.
- Moorabbin News, Ibid.
- Moorabbin News, June 25, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, August 6, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, August 13, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, August 20, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, September 9, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, September 9, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, September 16, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, September 23, 1938.
- Moorabbin News, January 6, 1939.
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