Australia’s oldest registered sport, woodchopping, started in Tasmania over 150 years ago, and our axemen now have an international reputation as strong as ironbark.

Story John Dunn  Photo Great Australians

An unusual stone sculpture, largely unobtrusive and mostly unnoticed, stands in front of the telephone exchange in Victoria Street, Ulverstone, a Tasmanian town of 11,400 people on the shore of Bass Strait. The sculpture represents a chopped hardwood log and it is, somewhat surprisingly, one of Australia’s most significant sporting monuments. It marks the progress of woodchopping which is, according to the Australian Axemen’s Association, the nation’s oldest registered sport and one which is currently thriving as national competitions flourish and locals dominate world events.

The plaque attached to the sculpture says it commemorates the country’s first woodchopping contest in Ulverstone in 1870. That claim is contested, but the sculpture was placed there in 1970 by axemen and local federal MP Ron Davies as part of the sport’s centenary. In the half century since, the town’s people and certainly the rest of the nation, have largely forgotten about it. Even Dr Jaydeyn Thomas, curator of the Museum and Art Gallery at Hive, the town’s cultural complex, admits: “Although I’ve driven past countless times it has not been brought to my attention before. Now that it has we plan to create an exhibit based on it.”

Precise details of events in the 1870s are vague, but the weight of evidence indicates that the first recorded competitive ‘chop’ was actually in 1872 in southern Tasmania, between Edward Murray of Surges Bay and Edward Owens of Port Esperance. Murray won by cutting through a 105cm swamp gum in 44 minutes. The Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies at the University of Tasmania, The Mercury in Hobart and The Examiner in Launceston support this. An event wasn’t held in Ulverstone until 4 years later. The first open event, with more than 2 competitors and trees instead of logs, was at the Penguin Show in 1877.

This story excerpt is from Issue #154

Outback Magazine: April/May 2024