Northcote Park, originally and briefly named Jika Park, was set aside as parkland in the 1860s. Trees, such as an elm near East St and pepper trees near the oval were probably planted as long ago as the 1880s. Northcote Park was the only land reserved for recreation in Northcote until 1907.
The first pavilion at the Park was originally the gatekeeper’s residence at the toll gates in Northcote, near High and Westgarth. Northcote Park Cricket Club moved the disused house shortly after the tolls were abolished in 1878. The house served as a pavilion for many years before becoming a curator’s residence.
In an 1881 report of the Northcote Park Cricket Club, Northcote Park was described as rough and rubbled. Northcote Star played at Plants Paddock and although this ground was said to be better, few batsman managed double figure scores, which makes one shudder at the thought of what Northcote Park would have been like!
Despite concern over the need for public recreation grounds, by 1894 Northcote Park was rarely used. The Northcote Park Cricket Club had been disbanded. The council granted use of the oval to a North Fitzroy business, W. and A. Bennetts Co., to use for occasional matches between other businesses.
In 1895 the Northcote Free Library Committee organised a Moonlight Carnival at Northcote Park as a fundraiser. The attraction of the carnival was supposed to be the first public display of electric light in Northcote, and some three thousand people were said to have turned up to witness an anti-climactic event; the lights didn’t work!
By the late 1890s Northcote Park was all but abandoned. The financial crisis that gripped the world in the 1890s had taken its toll and there was little money to spend. The council though was under pressure from a local citizens committee led by Walter Stott to acquire more parkland in the north of the municipality. The area proposed by Stott’s committee was part of the “Thornbank” estate. The site was on the eastern side of St Georges Rd, between Arthurton and Hawthorne roads. Stott proposed the council acquire 6 acres, either on lease or bought outright, with a view to sharing any takings from events held between the council and participants. Given its more central location, the idea was this new park would replace Northcote Park.
The mayor, Cr. McLean was antagonistic toward Northcote Park and football declaring “he did not believe that such a rough and tumble game as football should be played in the centre of town”. McLean’s statement provoked some cynical responses. Cr. Bastings proposed that the council should acquire some of the Whittlesea common, as that should be far enough out of town, whilst other councillors suggested McLean’s real objection was that neither site were near to his tannery.
Over subsequent council meetings it became clear that a number of councillors were interested in abandoning Northcote Park in favour of a more centrally located park. But despite low land prices at the time, the council could not raise the required funds and the deal fell through.
The collapse of the deal to acquire a new park, as well as the moderate success of the moonlight carnivals helped to galvanise residents from the southern part of Northcote. Local resident and school teacher, Richard Tobin, sent a letter along with a petition, which asked for Northcote Park to be controlled by a committee of both council and rate payers. He pointed out that a payment of just four guineas would obtain a permanent Crown grant. Mayor McLean continued his opposition, declaring it a waste of funds when the north of the town required so much.
The moonlight carnivals were revived at Northcote Park in the early 1900s by a newly formed Northcote branch of the Australian Natives Association.
In 1903, after many promises, the council employed a part-time gardener named J. Ahern. At long last there was improvement at the park. Over the next two years more than 100 trees were planted to the west of the oval. The area would become the Oldis Gardens in the 1930s, in honour of a former mayor. Life was tough for Ahern, who had to contend with roaming cattle, and gangs of roaming youths, both of which had a tendency to break down the young trees.
As well as the gardens, the playing ground was improved, the Pavilion was extended and a dressing room was built. At this time both the Northcote Football and Cricket Clubs were playing at the Croxton Park ground. The cricket club moved to Northcote Park from 1904. This turned out to be a real boon for Northcote Park as the Club became part of the elite District Competition, when it was formed in 1906. The council also offered use of the ground to Northcote Football Club. The Football Club did become a tenant of Northcote Park from 1904 but the move was temporary and very controversial.
Throughout the next decade the issue of football at Croxton Park, instead of Northcote Park, would dominate local news. Eventually, following the construction of a new stand at Northcote Park in 1914, Northcote Football Club moved back to Northcote Park for good. For more information read the entries on the Northcote Football Club and the Northcote Cricket Club in the Darebin Historical Encyclopedia.
Northcote Park had a second grandstand constructed and completed in 1926. At the time, Northcote Football Club were attracting big crowds. A match against North Melbourne in 1919 drew 5,000; a game against Brunswick in 1925 drew 16,000.
During the Second World War, Northcote Park was the venue for Military Demonstrations and Massed Band Displays which were designed as morale boosters. Such rallies were regular occurrences in 1941.
In 1947 Pastor Doug Nicholls took up the job of coach at Northcote Football Club. While this was an unsuccessful one season appointment, Nicholls also took up the role of curator at Northcote Park. Nicholls stayed in this role for 14 years, which included taking up residence with his wife in the curators cottage at the Park.
The Pavilion at Northcote Park became a venue for youth clubs in the 1950s, particularly the Police and Citizens Boys Club. However the youth clubs did not have enduring popularity and most were wound up within a few years.
In 1987 the Northcote Football Club folded after decades of financial struggle. However the Westgarth St ground would only be without a football club for one year, as the Northcote Park Cougars took up residence in 1989 after 37 years at McDonell Park. In 1996, in partnership with Darebin City Council, the Club embarked on a major redevelopment of Northcote Park which included extending the club rooms and the viewing area as well as constructing new change rooms and a gymnasium.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Membrey, Brian (2003)? The pubs, the parks and the Rose. Unpublished manuscript.
Northcote Historical & Conservation Society. (1988). Northcote: Glimpses of Our Past. Northcote, Vic: Author.
Further information courtesy of John Lewis, Secretary, Northcote Park Football Club