A woodchopping match held as entertainment for the Duke of York, Hobart, 1901 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

Throughout Australian history, woodchopping and sawing competitions have been common occurrences in the bushman's workplace and camps. The first formal competitions developed around the mountain ash forests of Tasmania, where the Tasmanian axe had been developed for cutting hardwood, which included the toughness of the stringy bark and peppermint trees. It is these hardwoods that have contributed to Tasmanians being at the forefront of world champions, even until the present day. Man's desire to be competitive and beat his mates was the driving force behind the emergence of the sport of woodchopping. It is one of the few sports that evolved from daily work or an occupation.

The first recorded competition was in the municipality of Ulverstone in 1870, at the back of the Sprent Hotel. The stake was for £25 between Joseph Smith, a local veterinarian, and Jack Briggs of Warragul, Victoria. The logs chopped were three-foot standing blocks. Smith won, but there was a difference of opinion and an argument developed into a 'free-for-all' brawl. Soon chopping competitions were held all over Australia. In 1890 on the outskirts of Latrobe, 67 axemen participated in an event, all starting from scratch. The need of a formal structure to be put in place was now obvious. Hubert Nichols of Latrobe (formerly of Ulverstone) suggested that an association be formed and rules drawn up. At a meeting at Whitaker's Coffee Palace in Latrobe on 13 June 1891, the United Australasian Axeman's Association was established and the sport of woodchopping was formalised. On 2 December that year the inaugural world woodchopping championships were held in Atkinson's saleyards in Latrobe. The winner was Tom Reeves of Barrington who cut through a 2-foot standing block in 6 mins 22.5 seconds. The first true World Championship Series was staged in Ulverstone, Tasmania in 1970 with representative teams from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and United States of America. Overall champion was George Foster from Tasmania.

Woodchopping at the Cygnet Apple Festival, 1956 (AOT, PH30/1/1326/2)

Competitive woodchopping has always been a family-orientated sport, with sons following their fathers and grandfathers and more recently daughters and granddaughters participating. Some predominant Tasmanian family names are Youd, Foster, Lovell, Sherriff, Rattray and Eaves (sawing). Over the past 102 years Tasmanian axemen have won thousands of world championship events. Doug Youd and his brother Bill Youd (still competing) have a long list of world championships, to class them as the best in the world in tree-felling. Matthew Gurr, mentored by Bill Youd, is the undefeated world champion in this event. Unquestionably, the most notable axeman, with a long list of achievements and still competing, is David Foster, who has 182 world titles, 175 Australian titles and 1300 championship titles overall.

Marie McCulloch