Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

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Playgrounds : Princes Park

After the rejection of the Showgrounds as a major site for the location of the Games, the potential construction of the main stadium in Carlton came with a surprise announcement by Cr. William Brens, chairman of the Melbourne City Council's Parks and Gardens Committee (and Lord Mayor, 1952-53) in February, 1952 recommending he would suggest 68 acres of Princes Park "as an ideal site" and that the University had offered its resources as an Olympic Village.

It was also suggested that a Council playing area near the Zoo could be used as a training area. The Carlton ground had previously held a crowd of just under 63,000 when it was used as the Victorian Football League during the Second World War with the Melbourne Cricket Ground occupied by the military.

The revelations came after the Melbourne Cricket Ground Trustees finally announced after months of dithering that they would not make their venue available because of concerns that the surface could be irreparably damaged by levelling operations required bring the facility up to Olympic standard.

It was said the surface of the ground at that stage fell away by over seven feet following the natural slope from the north-west to the south-east and that spectators in the first two or rows of seats on the lower side could often not see fieldsmen patrolling the opposite boundary.

Several other sites were briefly mentioned, but Carlton was confirmed as the potential site at the special meeting of the Prime Minister Robert Menzies, other Commonwealth and State representatives, members of the City Council, and the Olympic Organising Committee (including the Chairman, Wilfred Kent Hughes) held in Melbourne on 19 March, 1952.

It was suggested that the Committee's vote was eight to two in favour, the two dissidents the Victorian Premier, John McDonald and the State Labour Minister, Mr. Harvey, who both retained a preference for the original Showgrounds site.

It was revealed around a month later that while much re-building at Carlton would be required to bring Princes Park up a capacity of at least 70,000, the Princes Park trustees already had plans in place.

Leading the push for the development were Mr. William ("Big Bill") Barry, the M.L.A. for the seat of Melbourne and also a Melbourne City Councillor, and Kenneth Luke, president of both the V.F.L. and Carlton Football Club and prominent in the Olympic Organising Committee.

(Barry was also demanding that the Olympic Village should be constructed in a northern part of Carlton as part of a slum-clearance program; it is also worth mentioning Menzies had been legal adviser to the Carlton club for many years and was their No. 1 ticket holder).  

The V.F.L. also threw its not inconsiderable weight behind the plan, believing it may be able to switch its administrative headquarters and play finals at Princes Park and become independent of its reliance on the M.C.G. and in turn, the Melbourne Cricket Club; it gave Carlton nominal permission to play at Coburg while construction was in progress, after a proposal that they play at the M.C.G. on alternate Saturdays while Melbourne were away was strenuously opposed by Richmond who claimed that their gates next-door at Punt Road on these days would be seriously affected.

Princes Park was officially confirmed as the centre for the main stadium on 19 March - The Age the following day suggested the plans "do not envisage extensive changes", but then added that they included the removal of the northern stand with the erection of a modern structure with 29 rows of seats in its place, use of materials from the northern stand to extend the Heatley stand on the west side; terracing of the rest of the ground with installation of 41 rows of a mixture of permanent and temporary seating, extension of the arena by fifteen feet on the east side, appropriation of small sections of parkland on the east and south side, and finally erection of administrative offices and dressing rooms outside the north end of the ground (this to be  connected to the ground itself by a tunnel).

(Other schemes were submitted by the Royal Agricultural Society, who controlled the Showgrounds, the Olympic Park trustees, the Exhibition trustees and the St. Kilda and South Melbourne Football Clubs).

The cost of upgrading Princes Park was eventually put at £547,000, half to be provided by the Federal Government, the balance split equally between the State Government and Melbourne City Council.

One of the major advantages of the Princes Park location was the availability  of the University to accommodate athletes (later rejected as unviable and disruptive to academic life during a period where many examinations were held) and the use of grounds at the University, Princes Park and Royal Park for training.  It was also suggested that a section of Royal Park in Flemington Road, Parkville, known as Camp Pell, a Second World War army base being used a migrant hostel might be demolished and either the Olympic Pool or cycling stadium erected there.

The design for the Stadium was an open competition, the award in October to 44-year-old architect and town planner Frank Heath astonishing observers with plans to accommodate 125,000 spectators, 50,000 seated and another 30,000 under cover, the oval to be 615 feet long by 490 feet wide to accommodate an estimated 4,000 competitors in the opening parade, and provide space for 200 athletes to compete on other days.  (Although slightly narrower, this would have been about 55 feet longer than the M.C.G. of the time and beyond the maximum of 200 yards established as the length established in the first "Melbourne Rules" in May, 1859).

In the first week of December, Mr Ernest A. Watts, one of Melbourne's leading builders, was awarded the contract to build the "£1 million" main stadium at Carlton. The target date for completion was December, 1955 with construction to commence about the middle of 1954. Watts was appointed on a fixed fee based on the estimate of cost "which would be available as  soon as plans were developed far enough".

Storm clouds were building, however - there was a State election due in mid-December with the Opposition Labor Party believed highly likely to resume power and with their Leader and former Premier John Cain (senior) known to be highly concerned at the seeming out-of-control cost increases.

Cain was duly elected, and immediately on taking office in January, Cain reiterated that the State Government "will not provide a penny more than £312,500", the figure agreed as the State Government's contribution in March, 1952.  Arthur Coles, chairman of the Olympic Control Committee's response : "Make up your minds, otherwise Chicago is ready to step in and take the Games from us".

Figures quoted by Cain showed that the estimated cost of the new main stadium in Princes Park was 200% more than the amount estimated in March of the previous year.  A few days later, Cain announced that he had  also rejected the proposal that an Olympic village "to cost thousands of pounds" be erected at Heidelberg to house athletes, instead the work was unnecessary as the Chairman of the Organising Committee, Wilfred Kent Hughes had arranged that the 3,000 athletes be housed in the University of Melbourne with lecture rooms be available for meetings..

Despite their political differences, Cain approached the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies asking for a conference to re-examine the cost of staging the Games (it probably should be pointed out that under the Olympic charter, the Games were technically of no concern of either Cain or Menzies - they are awarded to a city, not a state or country).

Cain also insisted all work on the Carlton site cease immediately and expressed his annoyance that erection of a security fence around the site was continued the previous day. He refused to comment on the possibility of the Melbourne Cricket Ground becoming the main stadium if the Carlton project failed through a lack of finance.

He suggested that in 1952, Kent Hughes had submitted "checked" figures stating that the Carlton site would cost £547,000, the swimming pool £200,000, the cycling stadium £120,000, and contingencies £80,000 (with no mention of the Olympic Village, apparently because it was assumed that any costs would be covered by the accommodation reverting to public housing).  The then Premier Mr John McDonald and the Prime Minister agreed to raise the estimate to £1,250,000 to cover rising costs - at the time of Cain's veto, the estimated cost of the new main stadium alone was £1,500,000, although a subsequent meeting between architect Heath and builder Watts resulted in modifications believed likely to save  £250,000.

By March, 1953, The Age was reporting that little hope was being held that the 1956 Games would be held in Melbourne.

Cain was still refusing to condone Heidelberg as the site for a Village, the University was now considered woefully inadequate and the last-ditch alternative being considered was for the Defence Department to evacuate some 3,000 military and civilian workers from the Albert Park Barracks and re-house them elsewhere, a move which required the full approval of the Federal Cabinet and which was immediately rejected.

Menzies said: "We are not prepared to give the Olympic Games priority over the defence effort of this country.  The Federal Government greatly values having the Olympics in Australia, and would regard as foolish anything which prevented the Games being held, but in a time of international tension, the Albert Park barracks are part of the defence effort."

After two days of negotiation, it was agreed that to allow construction of the Village, the Federal Government would bring forward £2 million of its 1957 housing grant as an interest-free loan to Victoria in the financial years ending 30 June, 1955 and 1956.

The development of Princes Park, however, was "dead in the water".

A crucial conference on 2 February drew together the Prime Minister, the Premier, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Arthur Calwell (all three members of the 12 Trustees of the M.C.G.) and most of the senior Olympic representative  with it being noted prior that an engineer from the Public Works Department had already drawn up plans for re-grading and laying the arena tracks at the M.C.G.

The following day, the switch to the M.C.G. was formally announced after approval was given by the secretary of the M.C.G.; extensive plans for upgrading to Olympic standards outlined and for the O.O.C. to have exclusive use of the ground and all facilities, as well as exclusive rights to radio, television, press, cinema and photographs during the Games.

There were suggestions - unconfirmed - that Heath would be paid £37,000 (3 percent of the latest estimated cost) as compensation for the switch, the liability to be met by the State Government and the Melbourne Cricket Club - and that the total cost of the transfer would exceed £40,000.  

Charges by the builder, E .A. Watts were said to be separate to Heath's claims; his company had in fact built outer stands at the M.C.G. in the late 1930's.

Arthur Coles stated he was not in a position to give guarantees as to the compensation as the Premier had relieved the Organising Committee of responsibility for the builder and architect by declaring the M.C.C. "would do its own work".


Above : Frank Heath’s architectural model of the proposed stadium

Below : An artist’s impression showing the main features of the stadium from the same aspect.

Bottom : Artist’s impression of the proposed entrance with the Olympic Tower in the background. This was part of a Pathe Films newsreel distributed world-wide


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The ground as it actually looked in 1950’ The northern stand which was initially mooted for demolition is left, the Heatley Stand bottom right