Australian football and disputes over the Anzac legend

By Robert Pascoe (with Mark Pennings)


A talk to the Almnackery at the All Nations Hotel, Richmond, 24 April 2009

On the last Saturday of the February just gone, the former treasurer, Hon Peter Costello, now a backbencher serving the people of Higgins, was addressing Camberwell RSL at their ninetieth anniversary lunch. In his speech he said that, “The Gallipoli landing was held on ANZAC Day—the actual day”![1]

This slip of the tongue shows us that the Anzac legend has taken on a life of its own, quite separate from the grim realities of the Gallipoli landing. As one old digger at the same lunch quipped, ‘Pity they did not hold it [the Gallipoli landing] on Armistice Day!’

This talk is about two senior football clubs, University Football Club and Richmond Football Club, and their diametrically opposed attitudes to the Great War. University players and supporters went off in their dozens to be slaughtered at Gallipoli and the Western Front, while Richmond men were hostile to the war and to conscription. (Last Sunday they were handing out the white feathers once again for Richmond Football Club, following their disastrous loss to Melbourne, making them 0-4 for the 2009 season!)

I spent my adolescence a few streets south of here, within earshot of the roar of the MCG crowd. One of my domestic jobs was to carry the slops of an elderly man, a retired waterside worker of West Indian descent, down to the backyard privy behind the mulberry tree. I can still remember the press of his chocolate-skinned flesh as he gave me a two-shilling coin as a thank-you. When he died I was bequeathed his upstairs bedroom. His name was Billy Albress. He played eight senior games for Richmond in the last two years of the war, 1917 and 1918. Only Richmond and three other VFL clubs, Carlton, Collingwood and Fitzroy, played on during the war.

Billy Albress was a typical Richmond player. He was born locally, but of distinctly non-white background, and sport was his only means of earning some social mobility. He remained a waterside worker his entire life, and died in his late sixties. He was “a Richmond six-footer” (to borrow a phrase form Victoria Park), standing just five foot eleven inches, wiry and athletic. His brother and sister lived locally also, and he was part of a tight kinship group, children of Nellie and Pantelon, described in the genealogical records as a “labourer”. No Albress served in the Australian military in the Great War.

Indeed, not many of the Richmond players from that period served in this war. This was a suburb that refused to be conscripted for an imperial war on the other side of the world. At first there was a rush to enlist, just as elsewhere, but quickly the enthusiasm waned, despite the best efforts of pro-war community leaders, such as the vicar of St Stephen’s, Reverend George Lamble, and the local newspaper, the Richmond Guardian. A lavish Red Cross fund-raiser in March 1915 attracted only four people. In all, 63 Richmond men died at Gallipoli, 16 were missing, and 232 wounded. Anti-war sentiment grew quickly and the local member, Frank Tudor, resigned from the Cabinet and led the anti-conscription campaign.[2]

Today there are no public war memorials in Richmond. The RSL Hall in Church Street is not decorated with the names of the fallen. There are no stained-glass Anzacs in Lamble’s church, of the kind that can be found in Melbourne’s middle-class eastern suburbs. Occasionally you will see hints of the Anzac experience, such as the rising-sun motif on a front-door fanlight at the front of someone’s cottage, or honour boards in a school, but these are few and far between.[3]

Football clubs provide a wonderful insight into the social history of the communities they represent. Richmond Football Club has always been a club that is owned by its people, and reflects their outlook. As Ian Stewart was quoted in a newspaper interview a week ago, if Ben Cousins puts in at Richmond, the club will embrace him as another “troubled soul”.[4] When Neil Balme came from Subiaco to Richmond in 1969, he and his new teammates were taken by the two administrators who ran the club, Graeme Richmond and Alan Schwab, to social clubs and other gatherings to meet the community that was adopting them. None of Balme’s generation came from Richmond, but even now, decades later, welcome each with a ritual tiger-paw greeting.[5]

This, broadly speaking, is the culture of Richmond, with a working-class Catholic tradition going back at least to the Great War. How can we analyse the culture of football clubs in more detail? To do this we have to understand each club as social capital, as a set of relationships and personal histories built around the players, the key sponsors and the supporters.

These insights are based on a book I am co-writing with Dr Mark Pennings on Australian football in the period from 1859 to 1926, the era of Marvellous Melbourne, the bust of the 1890s, and the seasons leading up to the Great War and immediately afterwards. Mark Pennings and I conducted our first research meeting at that institute of advanced football studies known as Don Camillo’s (the restaurant in West Melbourne). I discovered that he had collected the names of 7,000 men who played senior football before the creation of the VFL in 1897. He had spent ten years combing through the colonial newspapers and sporting magazines to compile this wonderful list.

To this list we need to bring the personal life stories available through genealogical sources. So Mark and I are now triangulating those names with all the historical databanks of the period to find out what these men had in common with each other. So far we have analysed in some detail only two clubs – University and Richmond. We are looking at four main variables: What can we discover about the social origins of each player? (For example, the three Ballarat clubs (Ballarat, South Ballarat, Ballarat Imperials were divided very sharply on sectarian lines – is that true of any of the metropolitan clubs as well?) What occupation or trade did the player pursue? (Essendon players were given employment in the fire brigade.) Did the players serve in the war? (The rate of enlistment varied quite considerably among clubs.) And, finally, what became of the children of these players – did the family achieve social mobility? (Again, families from the various clubs ended up in markedly different positions in the social hierarchy.)

Before Richmond was invited to join the VFL for the 1908 season, it fielded a senior team from 1885 to 1896. In the 1880s and 1890s Richmond was a prosperous suburb. Only during the Great War did Richmond become industrialised and dominated by its working-class values.

Our research has shown that many of the club’s players were drafted locally, and that players remained resident within the suburb after their playing days were over, just like Billy Albress. It was a club that welcomed talented athletes from all backgrounds. Vic Thorp’s father Thomas was a “letter-carrier” and a “billposter”, probably euphemisms in one of Richmond’s many illicit businesses. More significantly, there is oral testimony and the photographic suggestion that Thorp was in fact of indigenous heritage. This would explain why he was originally rejected by St Kilda, why he was not chosen to represent Victoria in Carnivals until late in his career (despite being the state’s leading full-back), and why he was never enrolled to vote.

To judge from their addresses, particularly on and around the Richmond Hill, the Richmond players represented the “respectable” rather than the “rough” population of Richmond, to use Janet McCalman’s distinction.[6] Football was an acceptable conduit toward social mobility in this kind of working-class community. Where they went after their playing career was finished may be summarised as the Jack Dyer Milk Bar Trajectory.

There was an expectation that the heroes of the football field would be rewarded for their services to the club and hence the suburb. Many of the retired players were bequeathed a small business of their own, ranging from a tobacconist to a hairdresser. Some were induced from other clubs with the promise of a small business, particularly in the difficult 1890s. Vic Thorp became a tea merchant, with a shop at 37 Bridge Road. Ed Bourke (32 games, 1924–26) became a Brunswick bottle merchant. Others became grocers, confectioners, service station proprietors, and tobacconists, even farmers out in Clayton.

In one of life’s ironies, Richmond Football Club gained from the Great War. Several players who did serve in the military came back with renewed passion and discipline; Richmond went on to take its first VFL flags in 1920 and 1921. The leader of this group was Danny Minogue (no relation), a six-foot ruckman and centre half-back who grew up in Bendigo as a miner (before falling 25 metres down a mineshaft) and was recruited by Collingwood. There he was a popular captain for three seasons before going off to the War. While he was away Collingwood appointed Jock McHale its coach and when Mingoue returned he quit Collingwood for reasons that remained obscure. His daughter Noreen told me during an interview several years ago that he was angry not to be made Collingwood’s captain-coach, but he could never say so publicly. He stood out of football in 1919, crossed to Richmond in 1920, and had his portrait at Collingwood turned to the wall.

Minogue chose Richmond because of the Anzac friendship he had struck up with its ruckman, Hugh James. With two other diggers, Frank “Checker” Hughes and Bill “Son” Thomas, Richmond was a major success story in the early 1920s. Minogue rooted out some players from the war years he thought were taking bribes.[7]

When we turn to University we enter a wholly different social space. This is a club based at the University of Melbourne, admitted to senior ranks in the 1880s and again in 1908, in this case the VFL, along with Richmond. In the 1880s there were only 400 students at the university, and half of them were medical students. They decided to enter a team in Melbourne’s senior competition and to use their medical knowledge to sporting effect. The club also accepted matriculants who had not yet become undergraduates, and this cemented the club’s links with Wesley College, Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College.

The medical school in that period was in the north-east corner of the campus, quite cut off from the rest of the university, so in some ways the club was a statement of its identity as the future doctors of the colony. One of our best sources on these players has been their magazine, Speculum, so named because of course it is the instrument used to look inside women and a symbol of the male-dominated medical profession of that time. From the pages of Speculum we discover not only who these men were, what other activities they pursued, such as theatre, cricket, rowing, and an active social life, but also a great deal about their barrackers. “Catch it, Mr. Cordner!” was one rallying cry. “Kick a goal, Mr. Crawford!” was another female call. One female fan sent a poem into The Argus, but it was not published. It went as follows:

Who’s the best footballer?

Why, Harry Cordner.

Who gives the foes a stir?

Why, Harry Cordner.

Who makes the others sit

Down on the ground a bit?

Who is the cause of it?

Why, Harry Cordner.

And there were 12 other verses. [8]

We have traced the careers of these University players. Many went on indeed to become doctors, but since the best jobs in medicine in that period were given to British immigrant doctors, many of these University men ended up in country towns across the length and breadth of Victoria. Fortunately, their journal Speculum kept them in touch with each other, and we can follow their lives into the twentieth century. Besides doctors, others became lawyers and judges, teachers and ministers of religion, and politicians, including Sir Littleton Groom, who led the Australian delegation to the League of Nations.

The next generation of University players was not so successful. The Great War was greeted with chilling enthusiasm by University men and women: a total of 1723 served in the military, and 271 were killed.[9] The shortage of medical support caused the British War Office to call in early 1915 for volunteers, seeking 100 young doctors for the Royal Army Medical Corps. By the end of 1915 about 800, or a third of Australia’s doctors, were on active service.[10]

The Fogarty brothers were popular players at University. On 29 November 1915, at Barber’s Gully, Gallipoli, Captain Joseph Fogarty recognised his brother’s left foot, which was all that remained of him following a shell explosion, because of a prominent bunion. Chris Fogarty, a ruckman who played 26 games for University, was a lieutenant with 24 battalion. Richard Gibbs, tall and handsome, who played 35 games for University, was killed at Fleurbaix on the Western Front on 19 July 1916, in his very first action as a Lieutenant with 59 Battalion. His father was a Colac doctor who lost both of his sons in the war and then was himself accidentally killed while working at the Macleod Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne in 1919.

There are many of these stories, all equally heart-breaking. Through our football clubs we can better understand war and its horrors. University FC and Richmond FC are two sides of the same coin. Through the clubs we can understand the place of war in our national fabric. Those who suggest that Anzac is too important to be trivialised in the football match to be played tomorrow, I think, are missing the point.

© Robert Pascoe and Mark Pennings 27 April 2009 2454 words

Comments welcome below. Or email us at Robert.Pascoe@vu.edu.au and m.pennings@qut.edu.au


[1] Suzanne Carbone, Diary, The Age, 3 March 2009, p. 18.

[2] Janet McCalman, Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900–1965, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1984, pp. 89–105.

[3] Inside St Ignatius Church are 15 memorial tablets for individual parishioners and one priest who died in the Great War.

[4] Jake Niall, ‘Distant cousins’, The Age, 16 April 2009, Sport, pp. 6–7.

[5] Robert Pascoe, The Winter Game, Text, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 184–185.

[6] Janet McCalman, Struggletown, pp. 20–29.

[7] Pascoe, The Winter Game, pp. 93–94.

[8] Speculum, 74 (July 1909) p. 21; 75 (October 1909) pp. 92–93.

[9] Stuart Macintyre and R.J.W. Selleck, A Short History of the University of Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2003, p. 60.

[10] Ian Maddocks, ‘The Doctors’, in Stuart Macintyre, ed. Ormond College: Centenary Essays, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 1984, pp. 122–135: 125–126.

Comments

  1. This was a great presentation and I eagerly await the publication of the book. Rob made brief mention of Dan Minogue rooting out players who he thought may have been taking bribes. It would be interesting to hear Rob’s thoughts on (a) how prevalent bribery may have been in this era, (b) whether the war or its aftermath had any effect on this prevalence and (c) if there is any evidence to suggest that the results of premierships may have been affected by such corruption.

  2. Sean Gorman says:

    The next time i see you Rob I will greet you with a hearty Grrr Grrr like the Tiers of old.

  3. Bill Albress was the youngest son of Rye pioneers, Antonio and Maria Albress. The Rye Roll of Honour as seen in Patricia Appleford’s “Rye Primary School 1667” shows that one of Bill’s brothers did indeed fight in W.W.1. Antonio was buried in Rye after dying at Fitzroy in 1909 and his farm was sold in 1910. Bill was dark- skinned because Antonio was from Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands off the westernmost part of the African mainland.Bill’s brothers,Thomas and Louis played for Richmond Districts. (See Trove.)

    Thanks for the great detail about Bill!

  4. As Tom and Louis were playing in the late 1930’s, they would have more likely been grandsons of Antonio and Maria Albress.

  5. Relative of Vic Thorp says:

    Just a correction re Vic Thorp. His parents were Charles Frederick Thorp and Emma “Amy” Florence Brandon. His darker features come from the Brandon side, who were descended from Sephardic Jewish and African Jamaican ancestors. There is no evidence of Australian Indigenous heritage.

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