‘Go the Eels’ banners adorn the Town Hall, 2001, City of Parramatta Cultural Collections, 2002.127
The connections between Parramatta and eels are strong and historic.  The word ‘eel’ derives from Old English and German, with similar pronunciations appearing in early Dutch and Norse languages. Stories of these fascinating and enigmatic creatures weave through early European folklore . When Europeans first arrived in the Parramatta area in 1788, finding eels in the local river was an important and welcome discovery. Indeed, the significance of the eels for the early colonists is reflected in the very name of our city: ‘Parramatta’, selected by Governor Phillip in 1791, is derived from the term for the area used by the traditional custodians meaning “the place where the eels lie”. The eels of Parramatta River have been significant to the Darug people for tens of thousands of years, and are the totem of the local Burramattagal clan. In more recent years, the eels have also given their name, and imagery, to the popular and successful local rugby league football club.
Support of the Parramatta rugby league football club is evident across the city, and the eel depicted on the club’s logo winds its way through the city’s streets: An Eels flag draped in the doorway of a takeaway restaurant; a sign in a hotel window delineating ‘Eels territory’; and the eel motif jostling its way through crowds on the caps and jackets of supporters as they navigate the city. The mascot is now unmistakably entwined with the identity of the club. However, the team was not always known as the Eels. Casual use of the nickname only began in the 1960s, and the name was not formally adopted until the late 1970s.
‘Eels territory’ declared in a Parramatta hotel window, Michelle Goodman, 2017
The early days of rugby league in Parramatta
Rugby league was first played in the Parramatta district in the early part of last century. The local side, then known as ‘Cumberland’, joined the Sydney league in 1908. The fledgling sport suffered a significant and tragic setback in the years that followed shortly after, as the early teams lost many of their young players on the battlefields of World War 1. One such player was George “Horrie” Thorpe of North Parramatta, described decades later by a fellow team member as a “nippy five-eight”, who enlisted in 1915 and was killed in action in France in 1916, at the age of 23.
George “Horrie” Thorpe, an early Parramatta rugby league player, killed in action in WW1, “’The Argus’ War Book”. The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower’s Advocate, 20/11/1920
The Parramatta District Rugby League Football Club
The Parramatta District Rugby League Football Club was formally admitted to the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) Premiership in 1947. The vibrant team colours of blue and gold were selected to reflect those of the local secondary school, now known as Arthur Philip High School. During these early days, there was little marketing or promotion of the clubs, and Parramatta jerseys did not feature the names of sponsors or a team logo. When the first Parramatta club logo was introduced in the early-1960s, its imagery was based on the official crest of the Parramatta City Council (which features two Burramattagal fishermen in the Parramatta River, with a European paddle steamer passing nearby). The original, colourful logo was replaced in the 1970s by a more stylised version, depicting only one fisherman, with the club’s name on a scroll below. Over the following years, as the NSWRL premiership became increasingly professionalised, overt marketing of the brand identities of clubs in the competition became more prominent. In 1980, the Parramatta club’s logo was changed again to a design featuring a coiling eel. Further adaptations of the eel logo have been introduced subsequently, with a return to the iconic 1980 design being implemented in 2009.
Fan clothing, featuring the iconic Eels logo, for sale in Parramatta, Michelle Goodman, 2017
The introduction of the eel logo in 1980 coincided with the most successful period for rugby league in Parramatta to date, with the club earning five Grand Final appearances and four Premierships from 1981 to 1986. The club were also Minor Premiers in 1977, 1982 and 1986. Many of the talented and famous players of this era including Peter Stirling, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny, Peter Wynn and Dundas-born Ray Price, have since been inducted into club’s Hall of Fame.
Resolution for a Civic reception for the Parramatta rugby league football teams, Minutes of the Meeting of the Parramatta City Council held on 28 September 1981
Cumberland Oval and beyond
The great Eels teams of the 1980s trained and played home games on the same site that had been used since the earliest days of the Premiership. Originally known as Parramatta Oval then for a long period as Cumberland Oval the grounds have, like so much of Parramatta in recent years, undergone a significant amount of change and redevelopment over recent decades. Rebuilt as Parramatta Stadium in 1986, and most recently known as Ptirtek Stadium, the space is transforming again, and it will soon house a new multi-purpose, 30,000 seat stadium.
Parramatta Eels playing at Cumberland Oval, c. early-1980s, City of Parramatta Cultural Collections, ACC002/074/013
The Mighty Eels
The importance of recognising, recording and reflecting on the import history of district sporting clubs, as well as many other aspects of popular culture, is becoming increasingly recognised. Formal administrative records and histories are, of course, vital in framing the structure of evidence that underpins our society. Now, however, the personal and detailed memories and stories of communities and neighbourhoods are beginning to supplement and enhance the historic Civic narratives.
When the world-class Western Sydney Stadium opens in 2019, it will stand on ancient Darug land, in a space already saturated with stories from the past. The history of The Parramatta Eels rugby league club is now entwined in the memories of this special place: The early competitions, the talented players, the exciting games, the Grand Finals, the heartbreaks and the triumphs. Next to the newly-built stadium, Parramatta River will continue to flow slowly by, and under the surface the mighty eels will weave their way through the city, as they have done for countless generations.
Eel imagery on The Riverside Walk, Parramatta, Michelle Goodman, 2017
Michelle Goodman, Archivist, City of Parramatta, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2017
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