Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay was the city’s premier entertainment and sporting venue for most of the twentieth century. It was where ‘politicians and wealthy men in tailored suits rubbed shoulders with broken nosed battlers and ticket scalpers.’*
The Stadium had its beginnings in mid 1908, just before the Great White Fleet anchored in Sydney Harbour. Thousands of American sailors were about to hit Sydney, and entrepreneurial Hugh D. McIntosh, with an eye for a lucrative market, set about staging a boxing match between stocky Canadian heavyweight Tommy Burns and Australian Bill Squires. McIntosh acquired land in Rushcutters Bay, on the site of a former Chinese Market Garden, where he built an open-air hippodrome out of corrugated iron and timber; it would later be nicknamed the Old Tin Shed.
Roughly circular in shape, the stadium had a central ringside surrounded by raked, timber planked seating. It had a capacity of up to 15,000 people. McIntosh had made a fortune on the Burns-Squires fight, and he decided to stage a world heavyweight title in Sydney with Tommy Burns (who had stayed on in Australia) and the African American boxer Jack Johnson. This would be the first time a black person was permitted to compete in a world heavyweight title. The match was set for Boxing Day 1908 and attracted around 40,000 punters. It was a terrible mismatch, with Jackson clearly the stronger of the two. He was declared the winner after police stopped the fight in the 14th round.
Sydney Stadium was roofed in 1912 after a mishap where a contender almost drowned when he fell face down in a puddle after being knocked out. Boxing, and later wrestling, was staged at the stadium almost every night of the week. Famous boxers who fought at the Stadium included Les Darcy, Lionel Rose, Jimmy Carruthers and Dave Sands.
From the mid 1950s, Sydney Stadium had a new lease of life as a music venue. Lee ‘Mr Showbiz’ Gordon was an American who, after meeting an Australian used-car salesman in Canada, saw an opportunity to tour international music acts to Australia. Sydney Stadium was the only suitable venue in Sydney, even though the revolving stage had to be moved manually, and the tin roof made for unusual acoustics. Music acts toured by Gordon included Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Cash. Music acts at the Stadium in the 1960s included the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
In 1970, Sydny Stadium was demolished to make way for the Eastern Suburbs Railway, ending a colourful chapter in Sydney’s history. A plaque near the White City Tennis Club marks its spot.
* Terry Smith, The Old Tin Shed: sydney Stadium 1908-1920, Eric Spilsted Publishing, North Sydney, 1999.
** For photos showing boxing matches held at Sydney Stadium, see the Arnold Thomas collection online at the National Library of Australia: http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3046935