The House of Stoush

The House of Stoush
Ashley Smith

This map shows an empty lot of land near the current railway bridge at Dudley St, West Melbourne. While empty at the time, in the century to follow, generations of dock and railway workers and other Melburnians would flock to the site for an evening’s entertainment.

This is a detail from a Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works map, dated sometime between 1892 and 1913. The map includes Victoria Dock and Spencer Street Station as well as the gasworks. It also gives us a glimpse of a time before Dudley St was occupied by a complex that is still part of Melbourne’s fabric today: the West Melbourne Stadium, later renamed Festival Hall.

The story of the stadium starts with the Sydney-based boxing promoter Reginald L. “Snowy” Baker (1884-1953). In his prime, he was a sports wunderkind who competed in more than 20 sports, including swimming, rowing, boxing, horse-riding, and rugby union. Famously in the 1908 Olympics, Reginald competed in swimming, diving, and middleweight boxing, winning a silver medal in the latter. His life after sport was just as eventful, as he went into journalism, owned the famous Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay, acted and did stunt work in several Hollywood films, and managed a country club in California.

In 1913, he was in Melbourne to promote an upcoming boxing rematch between England’s Mat Wells and local hero, Hughie Mehagan, for the lightweight championship of Australia. While there, he made an announcement (The Herald, August 19) that a new 12,000-seat stadium would be built for the occasion. With the help of architect Frank Stapley, a stadium between Dudley and Rosslyn streets was constructed. Amazingly, despite an early delay due to the weak foundations, the whole stadium was completed in six weeks, with the louvred roof added days before the fight. The building opened on November 3, 1913, with an estimated 10,000 people witnessing an epic 20-round (no, that’s not a typo) battle won on points by Mehegan.

In 1915 the stadium’s ownership passed to Stadiums Ltd, a business run by infamous Collingwood-based bookie and businessman John Wren. His associate, Dick Lean, was the general manager and, under their company’s ownership, he turned the stadium into Melbourne’s home of boxing. While for a short time in the late 1910s it was used as a wool storehouse, the so-called “House of Stoush” would soon again hold weekly bouts involving the best boxers in the country and from abroad and dramatic pro-wrestling fights. The stadium was multipurpose with various workers’ unions such as the Waterside Workers and the Tramways Union using it as a meeting place, and it was a venue for big musical acts such as Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra who needed something larger than a regular concert hall.

Then, mid-way through Sinatra’s tour in 1955, disaster struck on the morning of January 24. The stadium caught fire, gutting the building. The fire was such a sight that according to The Argus (January 24, 1955) up to 8000 people crowded to see the burning wreckage, and the flames were so intense that the night sky above Victoria Dock “was deep scarlet” as the stadium burned for hours.

The fire was barely cold when Dick Lean announced, the very next day, that a new, 15,000-seat stadium would be built in time for the Melbourne Olympics. Within months construction began, and by October 12, 1956, the new brick structure was completed as fans rushed to see Italian boxer Bruno Visintin beat George Barnes. Unfortunately, Lean’s plan for 15,000 seats wasn’t met, with the new building capable of housing only around  8000. Four-thousand disgruntled fans found out the hard way when, at 8pm with the match starting, they were barred from entering the building. In the chaos, those angry fans blocked traffic and two exit doors were torn off their hinges.

Unsurprisingly, following that early drama, Festival Hall, the new moniker for the phoenix-like stadium, has experienced an eventful second life. It hosted the boxing and gymnastics events at the Melbourne Olympics, and it continued to host a new generation of boxers such as Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon who fought for glory and the world championship. Baby boomers may remember watching the chaos at the Hall from their homes through programs such as TV Ringside and World Championship Wrestling. Under Dick Lean Jr’s ownership, the hall’s status as a stadium was overshadowed by its use as a music venue; most famously when The Beatles performed a series of concerts during their 1964 Australian tour in front of thousands of hysterical fans. Before and since then, the list of acts that has graced the stage is long and stellar: Australian acts such as John Farnham, Olivia Newton John, AC/DC, Midnight Oil and Powderfinger, and a diverse range of international artists such as Shirley Bassey, Black Sabbath, Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Police and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. However, in-between all the sweaty boxing and guitar solos, Festival Hall has also hosted countless conferences, cultural and religious functions, and ballroom dancing contests.

By 2018, the stadium was at risk of being torn down for an apartment complex. Fortunately, the Heritage Council of Victoria was able to save it by adding it to the Heritage Register. In 2020, the long-time owners, Stadiums Ltd, sold the stadium to the Hillsong Church before folding altogether.

Festival Hall is functioning again after all performance venues ceased to operate due to the COVID pandemic of the last two years. To hear the familiar sounds of loud music and screaming fans ring across the site is a great sign than normalcy is returning to the city. •

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