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 confirmed record of a chopping match appeared in the Mercury, 10 January 1872. On 6 January at a site between Port Esperance and Surges Bay, Edward Murray of Surges Bay and Edward Owens of Port Esperance operated on a swamp gum tree 3 feet 6 inches in diameter, with the winner Murray cutting through the tree in 44 minutes and winning £3. An indication of the event’s prominence was that reports of the match featured in several mainland newspapers. There were further events in the Port Esperance and Southport areas and chopping soon spread to other parts of Tasmania and Australia.
There is some confusion over what is thought to be the first chopping match, not just a bet between the competitors. This match was between J. Biggs, a Victorian, and J. Smith, a Tasmanian, on the Castra Road for £15 in prize money. Smith won. A plaque at Ulverstone says this match happened in 1870, but it took place on 6 September 1876 as reported in the Weekly Examiner newspaper on 16 September 1876.
The first open chopping match, which means involving more than two people, with not trees but logs dug into the ground, was held in May 1877 at Penguin’s inaugural Agricultural Show. It featured four competitors from around the area and proved to be a significant event for the district with an attendance of more than 600 people. The Penguin Show was also the first to see a paling match. The tremendous success of the open chopping venture at the Penguin Show saw neighbouring towns Latrobe and Ulverstone follow suit very soon after. From 1880 onwards, if a Tasmanian town had a show, wood chopping became a major attraction.
The increasing popularity of the various chopping associations saw the creation of a more representative exhibition, not just from various parts of Tasmania, but even from further afield. 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,
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.