1 month ago

Netball - an historical basket case!

Take a look back at some of the earliest moments for what we know as netball today.

This story is part of The Coffee Club Centenary Series, helping celebrate 100 years of netball in New Zealand.

By Tobey Keddy & Margaret Henley

The first photographic evidence we have of an early netball game being played in Aotearoa New Zealand, is of a game between two teams from the St Luke’s Presbyterian church bible class group, which was held on a lumpy Remuera farm paddock in 1906. It was by no means the first time this ‘new game for girls’ was played in the country, but it is the earliest image we have on record which gives us a glimpse of our game and its enterprising pioneers at the turn of the 20th Century.

St Luke's Ladies Bible Class A & B basketball teams, 1906
St Luke's Ladies Bible Class A & B basketball teams, 1906

Aside from the challenging amount of clothing the players had to contend with, another significant feature of the photograph is the jerry-rigged pulley system using two sets of sapling poles and clothesline ropes to raise and lower the woven goal baskets. Surprisingly, there was no hole in the base of the basket which gives an indication of the leisurely pace of the game and the considerable downtime required between each goal being scored. The sideline extras must have ‘woman-ed’ the basket pulleys – the forerunners of our modern ball-girls.

Prototype goal basket #1
Prototype goal basket #1

As part of our Centenary year celebrations, Margaret Henley and Todd Miller, self-defined obsessive netball ‘history sleuths,’ decided to recreate the 1906 goal basket using traditional basket weaving craft skills and the 1906 photo as the only guideline available.

How hard could that be thought Margaret and Todd who knew zero about basketweaving?

Luckily, highly experienced traditional willow basket weaver, Nicola Basham from Golden Bay, was willing to take on the challenge as she really likes doing commission work and she saw this project as an opportunity to try something slightly different.

Since 2009, Basham has specialised in using willow to weave a wide range of baskets, sculptural pieces and eco-friendly customised coffins commissioned nationwide through her home based ‘Go Willow’ enterprise. From the outset her experienced willow weavers eye noted the difficulty of reproducing the 1906 basket. Step one was to decide on a workable set of dimensions so that the finished item looked like the original in the photo but was also strong enough for the purpose. She distributed the photo amongst her connections in the New Zealand weaving community to draw on their collective wisdom.

The reinforcing fitching line added to increase basket stability (design Bruce Collings)
The reinforcing fitching line added to increase basket stability (design Bruce Collings)

Many discussions followed between Basham and Henley, based on laying out the dimensions with measuring tape, pieces of string, drawing paper templates, intense scrutiny of the blown-up image of the basket, and asking key questions such as:

  • How big was the basket in relation to the women in the photograph?
  • Would this give us an accurate size?
  • Did it have an oval or a round base?
  • Does it look oval but is it actually round?
  • How much bigger is it at the back from the front or is that just the angle of the original photograph?

As Basham sagely noted, by the end of this process - "Everybody in the project came out with a different view of what the reality should be." After hours of deliberating, both parties cemented a design that Basham said allowed "at least two of us to be happy."

Basham’s husband, Bruce Collings created a draft drawing, and she was ready to start weaving. The first version turned out to be a circle-shaped, lattice weave basket but it didn’t look close enough to the 1906 original, so it was back to the drawing board.

The oval shaped needed to be accentuated, the height differential between the front and back made more obvious and the open-weave lattice design had to be more robust. In consultation with a weaving colleague, Basham deviated from the original design and added a reinforcing ‘fitching line’ a few centimetres below the basket rim to make the modern recreation more structurally sound.

Once the new refinements were confirmed, Basham got underway with the amended design sketch and the 1906 photo next to her on her work bench. As it is obvious from the photos below, basket weaving is a full body workout.

The process (1)
The process (2)
The process (3)
The process (4)
The process (5)
The process (6)

After all the months of back-and-forth planning discussions, wider expert basketweaving input, and Nicola’s high level of craft knowledge and skill, the final version of the 1906 goal basket was finally revealed.

The final basket revealed
The final basket revealed

Reflecting back on the design and weaving process and looking at images of other early basketball goal designs, Basham believes that the 1906 version must have soon proved to be inadequate. It was highly unlikely that this early basket could have withstood the pressure of a heavy leather ball repeatedly slamming against the rim and the lattice weave sides.

Scrutiny of the 1906 basket also raises the question of why didn’t they just cut the bottom out of the basket to make ball retrieval less arduous? But this would have been disastrous as the sides were attached to the woven base of the basket and it would have fallen apart if the base were removed. It was also likely that the basket was still required for domestic use, such as carrying washing out to the clothesline, and therefore needed to stay intact. They couldn’t just duck off to Bunnings to grab another cheap, mass-produced basket each time one fell apart.

The 1906 support poles were also a challenge to easily replicate at other game locations. A photograph of the same St Luke’s team, playing in the Auckland Domain two years later, indicates how they altered the poles holding the basket to make them more portable and stable although there is still the arduous ball retrieval process required.

St Luke's Ladies Bible Class team playing basketball in the Auckland Domain 1908
St Luke's Ladies Bible Class team playing basketball in the Auckland Domain 1908
(Photo: Canterbury Times, 2 September 1908)

By 1910, the basket had evolved into a more sturdy, closed-weave, oval design – more like a wood or coal basket. The basket is fixed to a more stable pole which increasingly had a simple rope operated tipping device to empty and reset the basket after each goal was scored.

By 1910 there was a stronger basket design
By 1910 there was a stronger basket design and a slightly more user-friendly ball retrieval system
(Photo: Price Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library)

For Nicola Basham, her experiences with harakeke and basket weaving in Aotearoa, has introduced her up to a community centred weaving process which she loves. It is very different from traditional willow basketmaking in England which is a very solitary craft. This netball centenary project gave her to the opportunity to draw on these aspects of her craft skills, to work with others, and to recreate an artifact which represents a tiny but fascinating snippet of New Zealand women’s social history.

The first outing for the 1906 basket was at the media launch of the 2024 ANZ Premiership season where the franchise team captains and coaches put Nicola Basham’s basket to the test.

For Stars captain Maia Wilson “that old basket was so dodgy” as a shooting target.

Tactix middie, Kimiora Poi lobbed an air-ball right over the top before she got her eye in for her next shots.

Shooting goals at the old basket set up in the Auckland Domain gave Mystics captain Michaela Sokolich-Beatson pause to think about “all the amazing people that paved the way for us to be standing here today celebrating 100 years – it’s actually really special.”

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