Note: - This article was first published 16-September-2010 and is reprinted here with a few minor corrections and the addition of the photos.

Introduction

From the early Depression years to the 1960’s, the photographer Charles Edward Boyles (1888-1971) with his Thornton Pickard camera and tripod was a welcome and familiar presence at football matches and training nights. Boyles photographed hundreds of assembled teams and individual players – from the VFL, VFA and other competitions. Crippled since childhood, Boyles overcame physical and financial hardship, and supported by wife Vera and son Harley, built up a respectable family business.

Charles Edward Boyles - SLV H2008.122/451 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection
Charles Edward Boyles - SLV H2008.122/451 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection


The State Library of Victoria’s collection of Boyles glass plate negatives and photographic prints is now available to the public as a digitised online resource. The National Sports Museum’s even larger collection of Boyles images has been digitised but is not yet available to the public online. This paper will explore, with reference to idiosyncratic features of selected images in the SLV collection, how this historic and remarkable collection adds significantly to the social history of the game in twentieth-century Victoria.

The paper will also outline an extensive interview with Harley Boyles.1 Harley, then an intrepid youngster with earnest but unsophisticated marketing strategies, began hawking his father’s prints as a six-year-old, seventy-three years ago. He tells a story of vast changes in football culture, and details the ‘hidden history’ of the glass plate collection as it moved from the dark corners of suburban back sheds to the National Sports Museum and the State Library of Victoria.

Harley Boyles - Seller of his Fathers Photos - SLV H2008.122/399 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection
Harley Boyles - Seller of his Fathers Photos - SLV H2008.122/399 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection


Charles Boyles was born in October 1887 and spent his youth in the Western District of Victoria, at Merino and then Ballarat. Rheumatoid arthritis suffered in his early primary school years left him with a short and withered left leg, and life-long disability. Boyles always walked with a limp, sometimes with the aid of crutches or a walking stick. It would appear that Boyles had become a photographer sometime in his twenties. What I haven’t been able to ascertain is whether he initially established his photography business in Ballarat, or in Melbourne after moving from country Victoria.

Never one to be crushed by his physical limitations, Boyles was always looking for a business opportunity. His technique as a photographer was to initiate direct contact with potential subjects. His first ambitious venture was to travel to New South Wales during World War One. There is a photograph – the earliest known Boyles photo – showing an Australian military group (the ‘Boomerangs’) at Parkes (NSW) during World War One. He apparently made his way into Forbes Army Camp and was allowed to set up his camera. Homesick soldiers enjoyed being photographed and paid him 6d. Charles met and married Vera Moon at Forbes in 1916.

Later, in the thirties, Boyles tried ‘street photography'. He established a regular Sunday presence at the corner of St. Kilda Road and Alexandra Avenue in Melbourne and charged 3d (later 6d or a shilling) for a ‘while-you-wait’ photo. These were taken, developed and mounted ‘on the spot’. Also in the thirties, he tried, in non-football months, to open studios in Kyneton and Sydney Road Brunswick.

Don Boyles - SLV H2008.122/445 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection
Don Boyles - SLV H2008.122/445 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection


The second World affected the Boyles family as it did many other Australian families. Charles’s son Don signed up and Charles himself found a new focus for his photos.

During World War Two, American marines on sabbatical leave from the Pacific were stationed at Ballarat. Again sensing an opportunity, Charles and Vera moved their business to the inland city for eighteen months, camping in a tent near Lake Wendouree. They rented an empty shop where Charles set up a dark room and produced his photos. He took photos of a company of soldiers, or of a platoon, or individuals. The soldiers would post them back home to America.

Boyles captured on film the social life of ordinary Victorians. His main preoccupation however was sport, and in particular Australian Rules Football. Boyles became the ‘unofficial official’ photographer of VFL and VFA clubs, taking hundreds of photographs of teams assembled on the benches before matches. His work was not restricted to the elite competitions and he ventured into the suburbs and the countryside to record football life in its entirety.

According to son Harley, Boyles commenced his VFL work around 1920-21:

‘My father started photographing football teams in minor competitions, then thought ‘this is all right – I’ll try the League’. The VFL was always number one, followed by the VFA. My father also captured teams in the Monday, Wednesday (mid-week) and Services competitions. Other non-VFL/VFA clubs would sometimes ask him for a one-off. They would find their way to him. He did get into other sports but the main emphasis was always football – for the obvious reason that football was the most productive’.


The Images

The first donation of Boyles glass plate negatives and photographic prints was made to the Australian Gallery of Sport and Olympic Museum (AGOS-OM) in 1986, by Boyles’s grandson Colin Boyles. Two years ago, the remaining Boyles glass plates and prints were donated to the State Library of Victoria by Harley Boyles.

The State Library had already commenced a two-year project to digitise its enormous collection of 40,000 glass plate negatives.2 It has made the Boyles collection available to the public as a digitised online resource. The 224 high-quality digital images of footballers can be downloaded without charge as high resolution files by anyone. We are blessed that most of the images are delightfully clear. A small percentage are blurry, out of focus, or fading. A significant number of the glass plates have some level of emulsion damage – obscuring faces in a few cases – but this does not detract from their historical value and only makes us all the more grateful the glass plates survived at all. The immediacy of the images – for example the clarity of expressions on spectators’ faces – is their most impressive feature.

VFL and VFA images predominate in the collection but Boyles photographed teams from Victorian country leagues, Melbourne suburban district competitions, and (we suspect) mid-week/workplace/Sunday League competitions. There are images of teams of juniors, schoolboys, aging past-players, and World War Two Services personnel (particularly RAAF). VFL Second and Third Eighteens are well represented. Photographs of individual VFL and VFA players, most often taken on training nights at near-deserted grounds, are interspersed throughout the collection. The Boyles family hawked these postcard-sized prints at Saturday matches and they sometimes pop up today in Collectables shops.

The idiosyncratic qualities captured in the images remind me of Greil Marcus and his notion of the ‘old weird America’.3. Marcus describes the discovery in the fifties of old 78 rpm recordings of backblocks ‘hillbilly’ string bands in the twenties. The Boyles photographic equivalent is the ‘old weird Australia’. Homogenisation of football culture is not evident, even in the same team. Players sit beside one another with sashes going in different directions, or with different guernseys and socks. Haircuts show no uniformity whatsoever. Military uniforms abound but the man with a hat and cane sitting in the middle of several photos could be a chaplain, Fire Brigade or Salvation Army. One would expect footballers and their clubs in this former era to be more relaxed and less professional but one is still struck by North captain Les Foote looking so laid back before a Grand Final at the MCG he might be about to play French Cricket, and taken aback by the champion Northcote VFA team from 1933 lining up for its photo beside an ugly smashed wall outside the clubrooms.

The State Library’s Boyles football collection adds significantly to the social history of the game in twentieth-century Victoria. The flowering of football literature, club histories in particular, over the last twenty years has resulted in the publication of many fine team photographs. Apart from several appearing in recent histories (no doubt because the clubs concerned inherited them from Boyles), almost all of the Boyles photos have probably never been seen before. They throw fresh light on the football story, showing for example how footy in the forties was overwhelmed by the exigencies of war but not flattened by it. Military uniforms are a conspicuous part of crowd scenes in the war years. AIF and RAAF teams included some of the all-time greats of the game.

The vast majority of the images have not been identified. A considerable number of the State Library’s attempted identifications and date estimates are wrong. Brunswick is confused with Collingwood for instance. A footballers’ ‘soccer team’ is in fact a basketball team; the very first photo is labelled ‘Richmond’ when it is clearly not; a 1938 Hawthorn team is labelled ‘1918’. Researchers and publishers need to tread warily.

No one person could hope to single-handedly complete the identification of all images. Only a very few images have markings indicating the team and date. However, a start can be made now to fill gaps and a few weeks intense effort should result in the positive identification (with a degree of certainty) of about half the teams if not half the individual players. There are ready-made tools for the intrepid: Jim Main and Russell Holmesby’s Encyclopaedia of AFL Footballers is the most useful, but cigarette and trade cards from the era, footy history books (including Marc Fiddian’s many VFA histories), The Argus newspaper colour team photos of the early fifties, and grandpa’s and grandma’s memories will all help too.4
The first step is to identify a player: for instance Hawthorn photos that show Allan Hird must date from 1938-39 for these were his only two seasons with that club. Grandstands and their signage offer clues, as do logos on guernseys. The number of hats in a crowd can suggest which decade. The presence of Arthur Calwell suggests North Melbourne. A collaborative effort involving as many football historians and club history committees as possible is the necessary next step in unravelling the awaiting heritage.5

The Business

Boyles was a pioneer in marketing football imagery, his business encapsulating in primitive form the basic elements of the marketing colossus that is today’s AFL. Like a modern urban equivalent of the independent medieval craftsman, Boyles was accountable to no one but himself and exercised absolute control of his product (production, distribution and sale). He neither sought nor required VFL permission, and in stark contrast to the mediated relationships of the latter-day football industry, approached the individual clubs directly, and sold to individual players and the consuming fans directly.

As Harley Boyles explains:

‘The VFL was not a concern. My father didn’t have to get VFL permission. He approached the clubs directly and said ‘I’m Charles Boyles’. He showed them his photos. He was never rejected. Within two or three seasons he had every club covered. He just asked if he could take a photo. The clubs didn’t pay him. They were his photos. My father approached the clubs individually, and over the years cemented his own place in the football scene. He became quite a well-known person in the sporting scene. He twice went on end-of-season trips with South Melbourne, once on an end-of-season trip with Carlton, and once with Brunswick (VFA). Success came because he was persistent. He was well-known to many club officials and found acceptance a non-problem. He was in absolute control and not bound to anybody. Remember, in those days, the culture was very different. Even the players had to pay for their own (team group) photos - usually enlarged, framed and names posted. When marketers came onto the scene post-war (the sixties) things began to change’.

Harley also explains the family’s marketing strategy:

‘The team photos were always taken on match days, the photos of single players on training nights. The photos were taken and you’d have three, four, five weeks to sell, but then sales tapered off. The best results were from more recent photos taken. The market could only take a certain number. You’d move on to a later photo. My father could only take one photo per week of team photos. In the last four or five home and away games you’d take a second lot of photos of teams likely to be in the finals. The supporters wanted the current photo. My father took a second photo to meet the finals market. Collingwood, Carlton and Melbourne were the ones most likely to have two photos’.

Boyles had only two cameras for his outside photography. He used a ‘while-you-wait’ camera for street photography, and a Thornton Pickard camera for team photos and player portraits. This camera was portable, carried in a leather bag with the tripod legs folded up. He became a familiar sight on match days, the camera on a tripod and a cloth over his head. Until the late 1930’s, when it was superseded by celluloid film, glass plate technology was the only option. Boyles bought his glass plates from a supplier in Collins Street. The plates were loaded onto the back of the camera. He could take many copies off the one plate and therefore print an endless number.6 For copyright protection, Boyles stamped the backs of his photographic prints with his name and address – 40 Nicholas Street, or 8 Inverness Street. The East Brunswick addresses of Nicholas Street and Inverness Street were his business addresses as well as his homes. Inverness Street was bought with the money Charles and Vera made from military camps during World War Two.

Vera Boyles - SLV H2008.122/448 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection
Vera Boyles - SLV H2008.122/448 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection


Vera Amelia Moon, a country girl from Orange in New South Wales who met and married Boyles in Forbes, was apparently never really interested in sport or football, but performed an indispensable role nevertheless in the family photography business. Charles attended matches and produced the photos; Vera and Harley ran the commercial operation and accounts. Vera did most of the glazing work on the photographs, made up the packets of photos for Harley and the other sellers, kept lists of which photos had been taken, and gave the sellers change to get started. After the sellers returned from the game, she checked the takings and counted the photos (making a list of how many were left over or might need re-printing). Vera predeceased her husband.

Harley Boyles was born in July 1931, the last of six children. This was in the depths of the Great Depression and the Boyles family struggled financially. Money was spent solely on essentials. The Boyles children had few toys and made their own fun. It would appear Harley was enlisted at an early age for the family enterprise. From the age of four or five, he accompanied Charles to carnivals – while his father took photos, Harley supplemented income by running a sideshow. A year or two later he began helping his father practically with the photographic processes, either at their ‘while-you-wait’ spot in St. Kilda Road or in Charles’s dark room.

However, Harley’s most important and historic role was his sales activity.

He sold his father’s football photos at football club training nights, and at the grounds on match days. Harley was the only family member available to do this because he was the only Boyles child still living at home. After the (team) photo had been taken, Harley would take enlargements to the framer on Monday and pick them up on the Tuesday. He would visit the featured club on its Tuesday training night and take orders from those players wanting framed copies. On the Thursday night he would return to deliver orders and collect payments. A photo of an individual player was given to the player gratis (only extra copies were charged).

Harley claims to have started selling football photos when only six years old:
‘I started selling photos at the footy grounds in 1937 as a six-year-old and finished when I was about 18 – I did it for twelve years. I could find my way to every football ground on tram or train. I was the only one selling them at the ground. I recruited some of my school friends (from South Brunswick Primary School) to help sell them. They sold at other grounds. (They were paid - I wasn’t). On a particular match day, we would cover three or four grounds. This continued until I went to Brunswick Tech, and later Coburg High. My father attended matches, but only to take photos before the game. He was not at the same ground as me as he had already taken photos of these teams and individual players’.

Harley followed a set routine on match days. He would arrive early, enter the ground, and focus his attention on the keenest fans, the most likely market. Some were already occupying seats in the grandstand. Others had taken up their vantage points in the first one or two rows along the fence. He would work his way around the ground. Sometimes, even while the game was on, he was inside the fence, like the lolly-boys. Harley sold right up to the final siren. By then he knew where the ‘after-the-match’ market was. If the visiting team won, he’d go to the main outer exit. If the home team won, he’d go to the home team entrance. He did not sell outside the ground before the game, only after the game.

‘When I sold at the grounds on match days, I would carry around a bag of photos and hold out a photo of a team and an individual player and let people know they were available. I might have, say, fifty photos of Ron Clegg. I remember a photo of Bob Rose. I sold 180 on one day. That was a record at the time. Bob Rose was very popular at Collingwood. On a good day, you could sell heaps at Carlton and Collingwood. They were standouts in volume. Anyone could sell at Collingwood. Some teams were better sellers than others – Richmond and South Melbourne were good. We would sell the football photos for 3d to 6d in pre-war days. When I started they were 3d. I carried a money bag on my shoulder. Once, at Arden Street (North Melbourne), I was robbed. There were two of them and they took everything I had, thirty or forty photos worth. I went to North Melbourne police station with my parents but the police weren’t all that interested’.

Unlike his father, Harley made no secret of his prime allegiance. The rest of the family barracked for Carlton but he refused – he was Collingwood. As a teenager visiting Victoria Park, Harley suffered the cheek of Lou Richards, got to know Len Fitzgerald, and became a firm friend of Thorold Merrett:

‘Merrett was such a fluid player and his kicking was a delight. He was the best deliverer of the ball I’ve ever seen. His stab pass was poetry in motion’.

The Hidden History of the Boyles Photos

We can talk of a hidden history for two reasons. Firstly Charles Boyles is a hidden personality. It may require a historical excavation to add to the little we already know about him. Secondly his glass plate negatives and photographic prints were hidden away for many years, some for eighty or ninety years.

Charles Boyles is, unfortunately, a hard man to know. There is only one photo of him available to us. As Harley comments:

‘I have only seen two or three photos of my father. Like most photographers he only took photos of others, not of himself’.

The one photograph that is available shows him standing in front of a doorway at Inverness Street. His facial expression gives little away. Only his bow tie might offer a hint of his personality.

Boyles also left no written documents that I am aware of so we must rely on Harley’s testimony. The personality that emerges from Harley’s portrait is unremarkable. Apparently Boyles was not highly educated, nor was he, according to his son, ‘much of a family man’.

Boyles is described as a ‘psychologically self-sufficient’ and ‘very quiet’ man’ who spoke little about himself, his family background or his schooling. One can easily speculate that physical difficulties turned Boyles inward. It certainly appears Boyles was handicapped and effected by his leg.

‘He was short – about 5’8’’, maybe 5’9’’ – and the short leg made him a little shorter. Sometimes the knee swelled up. He copped the pain, and learned to live with it. At times he was cranky with it but not often. He was a poor driver because he had little use of his left foot. He was not an excessive drinker. He was a light drinker at home. Sometimes he might go a bit over the top if he was having a bad time with his health’.

Harley describes his father as a ‘homebody with few interests apart from photography’ (and his ‘assiduous’ reading of The Age newspaper). At the same time, though not outgoing and only a ‘light drinker’ who ‘lacked the opportunity for much social life’, Boyles apparently enjoyed social contact. He made friendships, particularly in the football world. Harley can remember Jim Cleary (of South Melbourne) and ‘Skinny’ Titus (of Richmond) and other footballers visiting Inverness Street.

‘He just seemed to know so many football people on a first-name basis. He could get into any of the teams’ clubrooms. They all knew him - Charlie the photographer. My father always barracked for the team he was photographing. He wasn’t a fool. However, I think he had more than a passing interest in South Melbourne, Carlton and Richmond. Also Brunswick in the VFA’.

Charles Boyles is also, unfortunately, a hard man to romanticise. Harley is almost at pains to play down any suggestion of artistry, or concern for posterity:

My father’s motivation was quite limited to financial outcomes – it was for money to feed the family. His photography was not a hobby: it was just a way of making money. By selling directly at match grounds, he had a ‘captive’ market. Supporters became closely involved and emotionally attached – photos had a lasting quality and were on the ‘I want’ list of most keen football supporters. It was income and it worked. He wasn’t trying to ‘capture’ football life at all. The players cooperated so they could get on with their footy game’.

In the course of Charles Boyles’s life, and for almost forty years since, his historic collection of images has been accommodated in many dark corners – from bungalows and back sheds in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, to the hidden recesses and dungeons of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Only recently have they emerged in the light of day.

The Boyles family moved from Carlton to a small house in Lygon Street East Brunswick (just north of Glenlyon Road) in the 1920’s. In 1931 they moved to 40 Nicholas Street East Brunswick – off Lygon Street, two streets south of Glenlyon Road. In 1945 they moved to 8 Inverness Street East Brunswick. Charles Boyles was there until he died in 1971.

At Inverness Street, Boyles stored the glass plates in labelled boxes in the dark room, in a cupboard under a bench. He kept the plates because often people would come and ask for a photo taken years before.

Charles died in April 1971 and Inverness Street was put up for sale. Harley rescued the plates and photos.

‘The amount of stuff was huge – forty or fifty years of photography. The plates were in boxes for thirty-forty years. I was the first to look at them. My father never mentioned anything about what should happen to his work when he retired or died. He had no feeling for posterity. There was nothing in his will about what should happen to his glass plates and photos. He never mentioned it at any time. He only thought of it as a resource where he might make a few bob. Their historical value didn’t cross his mind. I thought ‘This is History. History is important’.

In April 1971 Harley and Wanda Boyles were living at 22 Erin Street Preston (after having moved there from 87 Arthurton Road Northcote in 1965). The glass plates and photos were moved to Erin Street, and were there for about six months. In December 1971 the couple moved to 14 Howard Street Reservoir, taking the Boyles collection with them.

Harley adds reassuringly:

‘At Reservoir we had a bungalow out the back and a couple of cupboards in the bungalow. Nothing was ever stolen’.

Harley says that when he was moving the glass plates and photos in 1971 he thought the VFL would be interested. He contacted Jack Hamilton, then an administrator of the VFL. Hamilton ‘didn’t show a lot of interest’.

‘After Jack Hamilton, I tried to find an alternative. This turned out to be the MCG Museum (officially the ‘Australian Gallery of Sport and Olympic Museum’ – AGOS-OM). My son Colin Boyles was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club. In 1986 Colin donated the ones I had sorted out to the MCG Museum. Years went by. They were in a dungeon. About two or three years ago they did something. This was when they were building the new Museum - the National Sports Museum - at the MCG’.

The remaining glass plates and photos went to the State Library of Victoria from 14 Howard Street in 2008. Harley and Wanda Boyles retrieved the historic collection from their back shed when moving house.

The State Library had already commenced a two-year project to digitise its enormous collection of 40,000 glass plate negatives. It has made the Boyles collection available to the public as a digitised online resource. The 225+ high-quality digital images of footballers can be downloaded without charge as high resolution files by anyone. We are blessed that most of the images are delightfully clear. A small percentage are blurry, out of focus, or fading. A significant number of the glass plates have some level of emulsion damage - obscuring faces in a few cases - but this does not detract from their historical value and only makes us all the more grateful the glass plates survived at all. The State Library’s Boyles football collection adds significantly to the social history of the game in twentieth-century Victoria. Almost all of the Boyles photos have probably never been seen before. They throw fresh light on the football story.


1. Telephone interview with Harley Boyles, June 21, 2010 and June 23, 2010.
2. State Library of Victoria News, No. 42, November 2009-February 2010.
3. Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Picador, London, 1997, chapter four
4. Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, The Encyclopaedia of AFL Footballers ( Every AFL/VFL player since 1897 ), Seventh Edition, Melbourne, Bas Publishing, 2007.
5. See Ken Mansell, Historic Football Photographs Identified – the Charles Boyles Collection State Library of Victoria ( A Research Guide ), May 2010. This Research Guide is available as a reference at the State Library of Victoria.
6. For an interesting essay on changing photographic technology in the twentieth century, see Introduction ( ‘Capturing a Nation in the Blink of an Eye’ ), Great Sporting Moments – the Best Images of the Twentieth Century, Herald Sun/Daily Telegraph/ Hardie Grant Books, 2001.