Philip Barker ©ITG

Eighty years ago, they celebrated the 150th anniversary of arrival of settlers to establish modern day Australia. As part of the festivities, Sydney became the first Australian city to host the Commonwealth Games.

For The Sydney Morning Herald it was ‘"the most important athletic carnival ever held in Australia".

Officially they were "British Empire Games" but many referred to them as an "Empiad" or Olympiad for the Empire.

In 1930, Australia had taken part in the first Games held in Hamilton in Ontario, and a small team had also made the trip to London in 1934.

They were bullish about staging them under the Southern Cross in 1938.

"I do not anticipate any trouble in getting the games nor in making them a success," said Alderman Ernest Marks, a former Sydney Mayor and Australian Empire Games Association (ABEGA) chairman since its formation in 1929.

"’If an international exhibition was held here, it would be greatly helped by the holding of the 'Empiad' here," said official James Taylor.

Australian Minister of Labour and Industry John Dunningham was put in charge of the 150th anniversary celebrations. He was part of the delegation to London in 1935 for the Silver Jubilee of King George V. Dunningham was also a New South Wales Amateur Athletic Association official and seized the chance to promote Sydney’s "unrivalled advantages".

‘"I feel sure that the impetus which will be given athletics in this state as a result of the holding of the Games here, will be beneficial in more ways than is generally realised," he said.

It was pointed out that Australian official Richard Coombes had been a major player in the 1911 Festival of Empire , a much smaller event regarded as the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games.

Marks, meanwhile, continued to lobby New South Wales state Premier Bertram Stevens. The sum of £10,000 was needed to cover transporting the teams to Australia. Miniscule by today’s standards, it took much negotiation before the Government agreed.

"I am quite sure you have the right kind of men to stand behind an Empiad," said British Empire Games Federation (BEGF) Secretary Evan Hunter after a visit that year. "My chief concern is whether there are the necessary facilities to make a good job of it."

The 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney were held as an important part of the 150th anniversary of the first settlers arriving in Australia ©Philip Barker
The 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney were held as an important part of the 150th anniversary of the first settlers arriving in Australia ©Philip Barker

In November 1935, Sydney was given the official nod at a BEGF meeting in London. The decision was said to be unanimous, but until late in the day, Toronto had been a major contender.

In Australia ,the news came through on Melbourne Cup day.

"It a singularly happy coincidence. Perhaps no better day could have been chosen," said the Sydney Sun.

"Our chief concern was whether other ports of the Empire would agree to their representatives travelling so far and being away from their occupations for so long," ABEGA secretary and treasurer Jim Eve said. "We proved to the BEG Federation that we had the facilities to stage an international meeting."

The Organising Committee included Eve, Marks, and Hugh Weir, later to become an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and help organise the 1956 Olympics Games in Melbourne. 

"It is a case of mapping out a plan and setting to work seriously and immediately," Weir said. "This will be a glorious opportunity to advertise Australia and we must tackle our task with confidence."

Sydney Cricket Ground was the main stadium. It had a grass track instead of cinders, which worried those in Canada and Britain. There were also concerns that scheduled domestic cricket might clash with the Games.

The BEGF met again shortly before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The sports programme was confirmed. Bowls was removed from the schedule used in 1934. A request for a lacrosse exhibition match was rejected.

They later changed their minds and bowls was included as part of the programme in Sydney alongside the rowing.

There was even been talk of admitting the Japanese as guests but as the world situation worsened, this idea petered out.

The Swimming venue was a priority. When the Australians visited London , they had spoken in glowing terms of the Empire Pool - now the SSE Arena - at Wembley.

A sum of £40,000 was set aside for a new municipal pool close to Sydney Harbour Bridge. This usually had salt water but for the Games, fresh water with chlorine was pumped in.

In early 1938 all was ready. The 150th anniversary began on Australia Day with military parades, the arrival of flying boats and warships in the harbour complete with a costumed re-enactment of the arrival the "’First fleet" in 1788 ‘’ A small group of aborigines from Menindee had taken took part in this ceremony and others were seen on a float in a and a pageant through Sydney to celebrate Australia’s history.

In 2018, Gold Coast organisers have established a "Reconciliation Action Plan’" and have undertaken to "respect and celebrate" indigenous cultures.

Yet in 1938, first nation peoples were largely excluded from many aspects of life. A week before the Empire Games began, a group "day of mourning"’ drew participants from across the country.

"We as Aborigines have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday," ’said Jack Patten co-founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association. "We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress."

They resolved to "hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people and ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality".

The protest fell largely on deaf ears and it would be a long time before a true spirit of reconciliation emerged. 

England, as the previous hosts of the British Empire Games at London in 1934, were the first country in the parade of nations at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 1938 ©Philip Barker
England, as the previous hosts of the British Empire Games at London in 1934, were the first country in the parade of nations at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 1938 ©Philip Barker

By now, teams had started to arrive for the Empire Games. The Opening Ceremony was very formal and military. Proceedings opened with the national anthem God Save the King.

A single bearer carried the Union flag followed by England as previous host nation.

Canada numbered 69 men and 10 women. They were "the best team for international competition ever to leave Canada"’ according to their manager Melville Marks Robinson, better known as "’Bobby", who had done more than anyone to launch the Games back in 1930.

In contrast, Bermuda had just a single competitor, 26-year-old swimmer Percy Belvin.

Indian cyclist Janki Das was another lone competitor He wore a bright blue turban and received an ovation .

"There seemed in the cheering a particular warmth for the smaller countries," wrote The Sydney Morning Herald.

The flags of competing nations were raised by local boy scouts.

Australia entered last, the men dressed in white sweaters and trousers and the women in "bolero jackets". Many were disappointed they did not wear the traditional green blazers. They were managed by Wilfrid Kent-Hughes, later to head Melbourne’s Olympic Organising Committee in 1956.

New South Wales Governor Lord Wakehurst, resplendent in morning suit and top hat, took the salute accompanied by Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, equally formally dressed.

Lord Wakehurst read a greeting sent to King George VI, patron of the Games. "Athletes and officials assembled at Sydney offer their humble duty to your majesty with profound loyalty," the message said.

The Queen’s Baton Relay has been an integral part of the build up to Gold Coast 2018 but there was no such event in 1938. Australian long distance runner Rowley Bateman had suggested one, from Canberra to Sydney but organisers decided against it.

Even so, the King still sent a message to the athletes.

"I am particularly glad to know they have attracted to Sydney, the representatives of so many parts of the Empire," his message said. 

Then Lord Wakehurst made the formal opening.

"We are looking forward to keen contests, which will not only provide us with entertainment and interest, but will, by the spirit in which they are conducted, assist the object for which these Games were founded," he said. 

The oath was taken by veteran cyclist Dunc Gray and included a pledge of loyalty to the crown. The choir sang Rule Britannia and a flight of pigeons were released along with clusters of balloons.

"Only the scoffers and cynics could fail to be moved by this spectacle of triumphant youth in its assembled glory," reported The Sydney Morning Herald.

Diving at Sydney 1938 took place under the Harbour Bridge ©Philip Barker
Diving at Sydney 1938 took place under the Harbour Bridge ©Philip Barker

Competition began that same afternoon and proceedings broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on "the wireless"’ which in those days meant radio. The audience was considerable smaller than the 1.5 billion expected to tune in 2018

Those who were not immediately in action headed back to the Athletes ‘ Village.

Gold Coast 2018 organisers expect around 6,000 competitors and officials. In 1938 only 464 took part but accommodation was scarce so the council of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales offered their showground as a Village.

Free lodging was provided for four weeks. The rooms were described by one observer as "commodious and airy, there were linos on the floors, brand new beds, new bedding and blankets and curtains. Each room had its own electric light switch which could be utilised at will." Rooms were also fitted with mosquito nets.

Competitors had complimentary travel by tram or bus and the "’right of free entry to theatres, sports grounds, racecourses and speedways".

Although the Athletes's Village had a post office and hair salon, there was no tuck shop, prompting the Sydney Sun newspaper to plead ‘"Is there no patriotic Hot-Dog Man who will come to the aid of the Empire Games committee?’’

In most other matters, Village manager George Thursfield must have satisfied residents because the teams presented him with a cigarette case "in appreciation of his kindness and courtesy".

At Gold Coast 2018, organisers claim gender equality will be finally achieved with equal medals available to men and women.

In 1938 it was reported that, "The general impression in London is that women's events may not figure prominently at Sydney, partly due to the difficulty of fully representative women obtaining long leave, also the relatively small proportion of women. athletes in Australia."

The women countered with enthusiasm.

"It can be taken for granted that Australia will see the best women athletes at the Games," said Mrs Muriel Cornell, secretary of the Women's Amateur Athletic Association. "The women's enthusiasm is so great that some are willing to sacrifice jobs to go."

Only 88 women took part in the Games. Once in Sydney, they came under the stern gaze of female team managers.

"The chaperone of our mothers’ day has vanished, pushed into oblivion by the ever-growing independence and self-reliance of the modern girl," wrote Pat Hansen in the Sydney Sun.

‘"In her place has arisen a highly skilled official - a woman, who, by her success or failure can make or mar a team.’"

The women did not stay in the main Athletes' Village but in rooms at the Kirketon Private Hotel in Darlinghurst.

"Victualling and accommodation arrangements will be identical with those obtaining at the village," it was claimed by organisers. 

Mrs Mary Chambers was appointed liaison and housing officer. She had been a powerful advocate of women’s sport since 1907.

"It is a tribute to Mrs Chambers that she is able to hold important positions in swimming and athletics without jealousy between her two committees," said a report.

The English swimmers were looked after by 41-year-old Miss Verrall Maude Newman, an Olympic diver at Paris 1924 and who listed hobbies as painting silk lampshades and working in wax.

"Her sense of humour is subtle," it was reported. "A merry twinkle in her eye often belies her taciturn remarks."

Women were only allowed in athletics and aquatics so there was a certain happy irony to the fact that the star performer of the entire Games was a woman.

Only 88 women took part in the 1938 Empire Games but one of them, Australia's Decima Norman, was the biggest star, winning five gold medals ©Philip Barker
Only 88 women took part in the 1938 Empire Games but one of them, Australia's Decima Norman, was the biggest star, winning five gold medals ©Philip Barker

Decima Norman from Western Australia missed out on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because her home state did not the necessary affiliations. No such problems in 1938 .

"Her style is not graceful, nor easy, but it is effective in her case," wrote The Sydney Morning Herald.  "By the time the Games are held she may be expected to be at the top of her form."

On the first afternoon of competition, Norman set a new 100 yards Games record. This was run across the infield to avoid a difference in level of almost four feet from the North corner to the South.

Norman later won the 220 yards, long jump and added two relay golds to give her a grand total of five.

England’s Cyril Holmes completed the sprint double but bronze medallist in both was home athlete Ted Best, who in 1969 became the Lord Mayor of Melbourne.

Dunc Gray, Australia’s outstanding cyclist, won the men’s sprint and boxer Barney Henricus crowned a first Games for Sri Lanka - then known as Ceylon - with featherweight gold.

The majority of competition took place in the city but rowing - for male crews only - was held on the Nepean River near Penrith.

But for England’s victory in the eight, the Australians would have swept the board. As it was they won three out of four. The coxed four included Gordon Freeth, later Australia's High Commissioner in London.

There were no events held on Sundays, but local sports clubs arranged functions to entertain their guests.

‘"The Empire Games are not the most spectacular feature of the anniversary pageants, but they are without doubt the healthiest and the happiest," wrote one reporter.

The Australians now had greater ambitions. "The Empire Games will further strengthen those who urge the right of the Commonwealth (of Australia) to the Olympic Games," it was reported. 

Although war soon came, it was in fact little more than a decade before Australian sports officials had their wish granted. 

In 1949 at the IOC Session in Rome, Melbourne was selected as Olympic host for 1956.