‘It’s a special place’: North Sydney Oval turns 155



North Sydney Oval, once one of Sydney’s most prominent sporting venues, is steeped in rich history. 

Over the course of its 155 years, the storied venue has hosted football, cricket, and rugby league. These days, it is mostly used for cricket, rugby union, and rugby league.

North Shore Living spoke with historian Ian Hoskins, North Sydney Bears chairman Daniel Dickson, and oval manager Nicholas Baglin to get their insight into the North Shore’s most famous ground as it celebrates its 155th birthday.

“Even back in 1838, there was an appetite for public green space,” Mr Hoskins says.

“The land the oval is now on was highly sought after and went to auction.

“There was much debate on what would be done with the land, but eventually it was earmarked to become a park that the public could enjoy.”

The land was part of a larger park that became known as St Leonards Park - a name which is still in use today.

“Sometimes parks become a place for quiet reflection in sync with nature, and sometimes their use is more focused on sport and active recreation.

“And sometimes, they need to do both. St Leonards Park strikes a good balance between both.”

These days, St Leonards Park still provides North Shore locals and visitors with ample green space on land that seems to appreciate by thousands of dollars by the minute.

First laid all the way back in 1867, North Sydney Oval’s cricket pitch is one of the oldest in Australia.

Cricket from the grassroots, all the way up to international level, has been played at the venue across all three formats of the game since then.

“The local council took over the oval in 1869,” Mr Hoskins explains.

“The pitch had a reputation for being quite hard, so efforts were made to relay the turf and curate the pitch so as to make it easier to play on.

“Players would lose skin diving for the ball.”

The oval was upgraded steadily over time. One of the most significant changes came in the 1920s.

“The stand named the Thompson Stand [named after soldier and rugby league player Duncan Thompson], that was the biggest. At the time, it became the biggest grandstand at a suburban venue in Sydney,” Mr Hoskins continues.

In the 20th century, rugby league made its debut at the historic stadium. The North Sydney Bears, who went on to play in the elite level of the sport before being demoted to the feeder competition, have called North Sydney Oval home since the club’s inception back in 1908.

For Daniel Dickson, former Bears player turned chairman of the board, the club and North Sydney Oval are closely intertwined.

“It’s just synonymous with the club and with the game of rugby league,” Dickson says, with plenty of deference for the famous arena.

“Of course, there are other sports who play there - cricket, soccer, rugby - but North Sydney Oval is an icon of rugby league, there’s no doubt about that.

“For our club, it’s a place where people would take their kids 30 years ago to watch the Bears play, and now those kids are adults with families, and they’re bringing their own kids to the ground.

“It’s a special place.”

There may have been temptation to fully modernise the venue, but upgrades that preserve the rich history of North Sydney Oval have been done gradually over the years, says Mr Dickson.

“The council has done a great job modernising the ground,” he says.

“It’s heritage listed, so obviously any work to upgrade it needs to be done within those parameters, but the upgrades Council has done have been really well received.”

Despite losing its standing as a premium stadium in Sydney, there is still plenty on the horizon for the famous venue.

The North Sydney Bears are a regular tenant, and more sporting events are coming to the stadium.

“Both the short and long-term plans are to have more major events at the ground,” says oval manager, Nicholas Baglin, when asked about the future of the venue.

“Our current fixtures with international and domestic cricket does not allow us to prepare the pitch for an A-League match at this point in time (but) we are open to it, should timing and fixtures make this a possibility.”

The oval is shifting its attention to women’s sport in the short to medium term, Baglin tells North Shore Living.

“We are in discussions with the Sydney Swans around their AFLW squad and the potential of having them play their home games at North Sydney Oval.

“We are also looking to get the Women’s State of Origin back.

“There is currently a big focus on women’s sport for us.”

Two matches of the Women’s Ashes between Australia and old rivals England were scheduled to be held at the stadium in January, but the fixtures were rescheduled and moved to other venues due to recently introduced COVID-19 restrictions.

David Shilovsky, Intern, North Shore Living Magazine

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