Bulli Woonona Sports Club

Bulli Colliery coal truck, Pix, 29 April 1940
Punters outside the Bulli Woonona Sports Club. The first on the left wearing a singlet is ‘Bunny’ Brown, and next to him with the hat is Kelly Swan (as identified by Rita Roberts). This image was taken during a visit to Woonona Bulli by a Sydney Sun newspaper reporter during the great coal miners’ strike of April 1940. Picture: Mitchell Library State Library of NSW, Courtesy ACP.

Police raids, seized pokies and SP bookie arrests


UNREGISTERED sporting clubs were scattered throughout the Illawarra last century; places where working class men gathered to socialise over a game of billiards or snooker, table games such as cards and dice, and to have a flutter on the pokies.

The clubs, although unlicensed were usually covers for illegal activities, such as gambling and drinking. While poker machines were illegal, authorities seemed to turn a blind eye when they first began appearing in registered bowling and RSL clubs in the 1940s. Not the same could be said though about unregistered sports clubs that were set-up in long-established billiard saloons.

The saloons usually featured a barber shop at the front, billiard tables in a large room, smaller meeting rooms for card games, and usually a shed with a radiogram and resident starting price (SP) bookie out the back, to take bets from punters on horse and dog races.

The police regularly targeted the unlicensed sports clubs that were unable to legally sell alcohol, although it wasn’t unusual for a barrel or two of beer to be occasionally bought from a local publican.

The Bulli Woonona Sports Club was established in a billiard saloon opposite the Royal Hotel in the early 1940s.

The earliest newspaper reference to the Club is in June 1941 after 18-year-old Edward Haberley was arrested and placed on a good behaviour bond for stealing a poker machines from the Prince’s Highway premises.

Young Haberley reportedly pumped all his pay through a pokie at the club earlier in the day, before returning after closing, breaking into the building, and stealing the machine and emptying it of its money.

The Woonona Sports Club was one of many in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, with others operating at Coledale, Austinmer, Thirroul and Bulli.

The sports clubs were often raided by police, especially for illegal gambling.
SP bookies regularly fronted the magistrates at Bulli Court House after they were caught peddling their trade at the rear of the clubs.

Albert Arthur Birch was fined £5 or 10 days behind bars on a charge of using a shed at the rear of Bulli Woonona Sports Club for betting purposes in June 1941.

At Bulli Court House in February 1950, 45-year-old Richard Thomas Mangles was fined £5 for betting in a shed at the rear of the Woonona club, while three months later Bill Williams was fined the same amount for the same offence.

During the 1950s, the Bulli was dropped from the club’s name, and it became known simply as “The Woonona Sports Club”.

While the authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to registered clubs, it was the pokies that finally seen the law smash the successful business model of the local sports clubs.

Bulli Colliery coal truck, Pix, 29 April 1940

Men playing cards inside the Bulli Woonona Sports Club. This image was taken during a visit to Woonona Bulli by a Sydney Sun newspaper reporter during the great coal miners’ strike of April 1940. Picture: Mitchell Library State Library of NSW, Courtesy ACP.

The year 1950 seen a number of police raids on the district’s sports clubs.
The South Coast Times reported on 7 December 1950:


Police who entered two northern Clubs by a special warrant last Thursday, played two poker machines and later seized them. The managers the Clubs appeared at the Bulli Court on Friday. Both managers were fined £20. They were John Edward Meades of 65 Russell Street, Woonona, who was charged with being the keeper of a common gaming house at 195 Prince’s Highway, Woonona, and William Morris of 250 Prince’s Highway, Bulli, on a similar charge involving the Bulli Sports Club. Police Prosecutor, Sgt. W. J. Smith told the court that a constable entered the premises by virtue of a special warrant, purchased £1/2/6 worth of tokens and played a poker machine. Seven tokens were delivered from the machine and these the constable cashed for 3/6d. Mr. F. Duncan Snr. (for Meades) submitted that these machines were part and parcel of all clubs where men gathered. He said they were perfectly fair, to which Mr. J. Fleeman S.M. remarked. “You can’t impress on me that poker machines are fair — a fair gamble maybe”. The magistrate refused an application for time to pay and said that clients in the club did not get a spin of the machine until they had purchased tokens. In the case of Morris, Sgt. W. J. Smith said the constable changed 3 florins into single shillings played the machine and cashed 12/- worth of chips that the machine paid out. He said that the machine was opened by the police and £6/7/6 removed from it. Mr. J. Fleeman took no action regarding forfeiture of the managers that the machines the managers that the machine would not again be used on the premises. The £6/7/6 was confiscated to the Crown.

In 1951 there were five clubs operating in the Bulli district:

  • Austinmer Sports Club, manager, Thomas Heeney
  • Thirroul Sports Club, manager, Robert Ernest Meades
  • Woonona Sports Club (Pacific Club), manager, George Armstrong
  • Coledale Sports Club (Pacific Club), manager, Victor Meades
  • Bulli Sports Club (Illawarra Club), manager, William Morris

Poker machines were the means of making quick money and were unfair, Judge J. J. O’Sullivan stated in the Wollongong Quarter Sessions in September 1951.

The judge was dealing with appeals by several proprietors of sports clubs and their employees against the severity of fines following convictions and orders to forfeit their machines after police raids.

“If you ask my opinion,” he said, “all should be banned. The public should be protected against these ‘one-arm bandits’.”

Appealing their convictions for managing and keeping common gaming houses were Thomas Heeney, of Austinmer, Robert Ernest Meades, of Thirroul, George Armstrong, of Woonona, Victor Meades, of Coledale and William Morris, of Bulli, who were seeking a reduction in their fines and overturning an order to surrender 16 pokies.

The machines were valued at £300 each and in the case of Robert Meades, proprietor of Thirroul Sports Club this meant a loss of £1200.

When the sports club managers and proprietors had seen the machines in use in registered RSL and bowling clubs throughout the district they thought the crack-down on them had ceased and they began using them again. The defence for the sports clubs explained in court how pokies had been used in registered clubs with little interference from authorities for a number of years.

Bob Meades charged six pence for a game of billiards at his Thirroul saloon, when the price in the city was two shillings. He said he was able to do this because of revenue from the pokies.

Mr Twigg, who was representing the sports club managers, said it was unfair that non-proprietary or registered clubs were able to use the machines and yet proprietary clubs were not.

The Crown Prosecutor said the managers claim that profit from the machines reduced the price of billiards was a doubled edged sword. If punters played billiards, he argued, and the machines, they were paying a lot for their game.

Judge J. J. O’Sullivan said the policy of the NSW Government had nothing to do with the Court. O’Sullivan said the machines were “traps for young players”.

“They could be so profitable that it would pay a proprietor to pay maximum fines.”

Bob Meades told the court the machines could only be adjusted by the manufacturer. A player might win, but over the months the machine would win.

“It’s a gamble,” he said.

Judge O’Sullivan delivered his verdict in November 1951, when he ordered the destruction of 16 poker machines seized during the raid on the four gaming houses.

The fines remained the same for four of the five men after the vice squad raids in June 1951 had been made on the premises.

The manager of the Austinmer Sports Club Thomas Heeney had his fine of £20 reduced to £5 as it was his first offence. However, he was forced to forfeit three of his seized pokies.

At Thirroul, Robert Ernest Meades was fined £60, and ordered to forfeit six of his poker machines. The manager of the Woonona Sports Club (Pacific Club), George Armstrong was fined £30.

The manager of the Coledale Sports Club (Pacific Club), Victor Meades was fined £100 and a forfeit order made on three machines. At Bulli Sports Club (Illawarra Club), the manager, William Morris was fined £100 and a forfeit order made on four machines.

The crack-down on the billiard saloons continued into the 1950s, with the Illawarra Daily Mercury reporting on May 2 1953 that William Morris, of the Bulli Sports Club was charged with “keeping a common gaming house” and was sentenced to six months in jail. A poker machine was also ordered to be destroyed.

The Bulli Sports Club, also known as the Illawarra Sports Club, was located in the building where the Bulli Hardware Man store traded, opposite the Bulli Heritage Hotel.

The government of NSW legalised gaming machines in registered clubs in 1956 hammering the first nail into the coffin of sports clubs in local billiard saloons.

The demise of the sports clubs came with continued police regulation and the government taking control of illegal betting in the mid 1960s.

The introduction of the government controlled Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) hammered the final nail in the coffin for the colourful institutions.

Betting became legal in registered agencies with the introduction of suburban TAB agencies. By the 1980s, one of the last remaining billiard rooms, where once the Woonona Sports Club operated, was clinging to life opposite Hooper’s Royal Hotel.

By the 1990s it had closed, and by the new millennium the building had been demolished.

For more visit: The rise and fall of billiard saloons

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019

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