home Historical, Netball The missing history of netball

The missing history of netball

We’ve played netball in Australia for decades. Yet, the origins of the sport are uncertain. It’s something historians and governing bodies are working to correct.

More than 1.2 million people play netball in Australia. According to Netball Australia, ‘it’s the number one participation sport for Australian girls’. Nielsen Sports claims that one in five Australians are ‘fans or consumers’ of the sport. And yet, the recorded history of the game is sparse. There is no overarching narrative for the early development of the game. No clear timeline or origin story. For a sport that has been such a significant part of the Australian sporting landscape for so long, this lack of origin story is surprising.

Image is a black and white photo of the Australian netball team at the 1963 World Cup. There are sixteen women in the photo. Nine stand and seven kneel in front of them. They were shirts and skirts and netball tunics.
Netball has been played in Australia for decades. Image: Netball Australia.

Played in the shadows

Historian Rob Hess, one of the co-founders of the Netball History Network, says there are several reasons for this lack of a recorded history. One reason is the press coverage of the sport, particularly in the early days.

‘Women’s sport didn’t get much of a go in the press and therefore [the] history was subdued or skated over because it was in the shadow of men’s sport. Much like it still is today.’

A disinterested press isn’t the only reason. The changing name of the sport—from basketball to netball—and the evolving rules make the creation of a clear narrative tricky too.

‘I’ve run up against the same problem when you have a description of, well the women were playing basketball and you think ok, so is that American basketball, five-a-side they were playing. Or is that actually netball, seven-a-side they were playing. And it’s often not clear from the press reports what sort of game it was. So there’s misunderstanding of and confusion about what kinds of games were actually being played and reported on,’ Hess explained.

Another obstacle to the creation of an overarching narrative or timeline for netball is the early players and administrators themselves. Women who Hess says were focused more on organising and playing the game.

Searching for the primary sources

While some work has been done by historians, Hess says that in many cases the primary sources haven’t been looked at and interrogated thoroughly. This makes pulling together a cohesive narrative difficult.

‘There’s still this murky grey area. We think [netball] was played in the primary schools and then it was played in the secondary schools and then the Melbourne Girls Basketball Association was formed and then a few years later they morphed into the Victorian Women’s Basketball Association but often when I read stuff it’s someone else saying the same thing. I’m trying to trace it back. Where are the primary sources for that?’

Related—5 moments in the history of netball you may not know about

But there are organisations, advocates and fans and historians working to fill the gaps in the history of netball in Australia. Organisations like the Netball History Network. Founded in 2019, the Netball History Network is a loose collective of academics, researchers and students who are interested in research and writing about netball. They aim to connect people across the globe, proving opportunities for the sharing of resources, ideas and opportunities.

The Netball History Network

The Netball History Network is not alone in their passion for the history of the game. Netball Victoria is also committed to celebrating and recording their history. Since early April, they’ve been regularly sharing stories from the Edith Hull Collection on their website. The eight stories so far published focus on an item from the Collection and tell the story behind it. These have come through the work of a group of ex-players and administrators, led by Hess.

The group is currently working their way through Netball Victoria’s Edith Hull Collection. It’s a vast archive that Hess estimates contains up to 10,000 objects and includes uniforms, pins and badges as well as film and slides, newspaper clippings and various other publications.

‘We’ve only scratched the surface,’ Hess said of the work the group had done.

‘You’ll open up one box and there’s a pile of newspaper clippings. You’ll open up another box and there’s some old uniforms. You open up another box and there’s the minute book from 1938, and you think oh there’s some treasures here.

‘So, we’re systematically going through [and] what we’re doing is putting together catalogue sheets that are searchable as a database.’

Netball Victoria’s commitment to history

Netball Victoria has embedded this respect for and appreciation of their history in the organisation’s strategic plan. The planned move to the redeveloped State Netball Hockey Centre will see parts of the Edith Hull Collection go on a rotating display

For Amanda Basu, Netball Victoria’s General Manager of Government Relations and Affiliate Services, the Edith Hull Collection is a treasure trove.

‘There’s a little bit of everything in there. If you dive in and hunt through, there’s so many gems.’

Image is black and white. In the image, six women are on a netball court playing the game. Behind them in a large multi storey brick building. The image is believed to date to the 1920s or 30s.
The origins of netball, one of the most popular sports in the country, remain surprisingly unclear. Image: State Library Victoria.

A self-confessed history fan, Basu—who has been with Netball Victoria for 15 years—says that while many would assume netball has a straightforward history, there’s far more to the story. She points to the rule changes and the negotiations that preceded the agreement of international rules.

‘Those women in our history are really amazing in terms of what they were able to achieve,’ Basu said.

‘In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about women’s sport. But we’ve not necessarily heard about how strong women’s sport has been for a long, long time,

‘It’s a frequently used saying, that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we really do in our sport,

‘We continue to build on these legacies. But if you don’t respect your legacy, what came before you, you can never grow it.’

Basu says that many of the achievements and developments, particularly of the Super Netball competition, would not be if not for the women who fill the history of the game.

‘It’s really important for us to recognise that and there’s also just a lot of joy looking back. Why we play the game now is still the exact same reason they played the game back then.’

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