On another April day a few years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time with a remarkably vibrant 90 year-old former Carlton footballer – Harcourt “Harc” Dowsley, who had kicked four goals on debut for the Blues against St Kilda way back in 1941. Later, he captained Melbourne Cricket Club to a VCA Premiership and played at first class level for Victoria, but only after flying combat missions against the Japanese during World War II.
“Call me Harc,” he said when we met at his front door on that cloudy Melbourne afternoon. His handshake was firm and his blue eyes bright. “Only my mother called me Harcourt – and that was always when I had done something wrong.” Over morning coffee, we were soon chatting about our shared interests, and I was astounded by the breadth and clarity of his memory.
Harc was born in Essendon in 1919, at a time when the Dowsley family was associated with the Carlton Football Club through Harc’s grandfather, William Dowsley. A successful newsagency proprietor and real estate agent in West Brunswick, he had been a club supporter, committee member and benefactor for many years. Harc, however, was destined for Melbourne Grammar School, where he emerged as a punishing right-hand opening batsman in summer, and a dashing, long-kicking key defender on the football field in winter. At the tender age of nine he was regularly driving his right-foot drop-kicks more than 40 metres, and during his teens he loved to run off his opponent deep in defence, to set up play with accurate kicks to position. “I loved playing in defence and running into the forward line,” he said, “and I knew where the goals were. In a school match at Melbourne Grammar one day, I kicked seven goals from full-back!”
At the age of six or seven, Harc had decided that what he wanted most in life was to play both first class cricket and league football. To that end, he remained an amateur throughout his football career, so that his ambition of reaching the elite level of Australia’s two most popular sports could not be compromised. When he starred for Old Melbournians in their successive B and A section Premiership victories in 1938-39, Melbourne recruited him, although his immediate future was clouded by the outbreak of World War II.
By August 1940, Harc and his older brother William had both volunteered for service with the RAAF, and were waiting to called up. Meanwhile, Harc continued playing solid football at full-back for the Demons’ seconds and dreaming of promotion. The problem was that Melbourne was the dominant VFL team of the era, and well on the way to a hat-trick of flags. Demon coach “Checker” Hughes liked stability in his team, so Harc’s prospects of forcing his way into the seniors were slim. Then a chance meeting with Carlton’s Jim Francis changed everything.
Dowsley and Francis had built a healthy rivalry and mutual respect after numerous contests on the cricket field, so Harc listened when Francis said, “why don’t you come up to Carlton, Harc? We’d like to play Ken Baxter at centre half-back, and we’re looking for a forward. You can take a good mark, and you can kick the ball a country mile.”
Knowing his call-up to the Air Force would come sometime in the near future, Francis’ offer was a powerful temptation. Harc pondered briefly, then told Francis that yes, he would take a punt on his future with Carlton. To his relief, Melbourne understood his situation, and didn’t stand in his way. At the last minute Essendon made a late approach through another of Dowsley’s cricketing associates; Dick Reynolds, but Harc had given his word and was on his way to the Blues. A pleasant surprise awaited him at Princes Park, too, where many people remembered his grandfather. “One of my fondest memories is of hearing people around the club saying, ‘he’s come home to Carlton,’ said Harc, and that was rather nice.”
What was not quite so nice was the embarrassment of his first night at training. “I was a bit of a dag, and maybe a bit swollen-headed when I turned up at my first training session without my football boots,” he said. “Thankfully, Horrie Clover took a liking to me, and said, ‘come with me, son.’ He dug out a couple of old pairs he’d left somewhere around the place, so I can say that in my first run at Carlton, I wore a champion’s boots. But I paid for it later, because they were a bit too small for me.”
Clover also passed on some tips about forward play that would soon bear fruit. “He told me to always kick the ball high over the posts, not between them,” Harc remembered. “Because if the ball drifts over the post, he said, it can’t hit it – and the goal umpire will usually give you the benefit of the doubt.” Within weeks, Dowsley would be putting that advice to good use.
Harc wore his new colours onto the football field for the first time in early May 1941, when all twelve VFL clubs took part in a lightning premiership at the MCG to raise funds for the war effort. He remembered Horrie Clover pulling him aside before he ran out onto the ground in front of 70,000 people, and passing on some more good advice. “Move around son, and make yourself available,” said Horrie. “They will see you, and they will hit you.” Harc did as he was told, and after taking some strong marks, he kicked goals in each short game and Carlton went on to win the trophy.
His first real test came a week later when he was named at full-forward for Carlton seconds against North Melbourne at Arden Street. Never short of confidence, Harc was out to make a statement. “I soon realised that I had my man done for pace that day,” he remembered with a smile. “He couldn’t stay with me on the lead, and I took a lot of marks. I finished up kicking either 7.7 or 8.7 – I’m not quite sure.”
The following Thursday night, Harc reaped his reward when he was selected at full-forward for his senior debut against St Kilda in round 5 of the season at the Junction Oval. Under their new coach Percy Bentley, the Blues had started the season by winning three of their first four matches and Dowsley felt he knew why. “Perce was totally different to my previous coach at Melbourne, Checker Hughes,” Harc said. “He was very encouraging, and told me first and foremost to rely on my ability.”
Well, he certainly did that. In the first few minutes of the game, Carlton’s Jack Wrout took the ball off a pack in the middle of the ground, and Dowsley sprinted toward him on a hard lead. Wrout steadied, and hit the youngster on the chest with a skimming stab pass. “Fair dinkum,” he laughed, “it nearly knocked me over. But I went back, and kicked it. A few minutes later, ‘Socks’ Cooper came around the city-side wing on a long run. I led toward him, but instead of kicking, he kept coming, and hand-balled over the top to me. I turned around and went ‘bang’ – hard and high over the goals. I wasn’t sure that I had got it, but the goal umpire put two fingers up. I was away, and I was loving it.” Carlton eventually won by 18 points, with rover Paul Schmidt kicking five majors, and Dowsley finishing with four. “Even now, I can remember it like yesterday,” Harc said with a smile. “It was an unforgettable experience, one of the most enjoyable days of my life.”
Carlton’s opponent in round 6 was Collingwood, in a fateful match at Princes Park that saw Harc matched against the Magpies’ champion full-back and captain, Jack Regan. In the first quarter, Dowsley sent the home crowd into rapture when he out-marked Regan twice in one-on-one duels and goaled with both kicks. But late in the term, while scrambling for the ball near the boundary line, Collingwood’s ‘Leeter’ Collier crashed him head-first into the boundary fence and knocked him unconscious. “I was useless after that,” Harc remembered. “I couldn’t get up for a while, and when I eventually did, I didn’t want to go off, because in those days there was only a 19th man. Once you were off, you couldn’t come back on. I know the doctor had a good look at me at half-time, but the rest of that game is a blur. I must have had concussion. Even so, I knew it when we won.”
On the Monday after the Collingwood game, Harc’s life reached another turning point when he was finally called up by the RAAF. “I had one more week more before I had to report for duty,” he recalled. “I wanted to do the right thing, so I rang the club to pass on the news. That night, Percy Bentley phoned me and said, “Harc, I don’t know whether to congratulate you or not.” I replied that he should congratulate me, because I wanted to fly, but I also wanted to play football. “Well son,” he said, “you’ve got one more game on us before you go.”
Fittingly, Dowsley’s last VFL game was played on the MCG against Melbourne, in round 7 of 1941, in front of a good crowd of 29,000. The Demons skipped out to a good lead at quarter time, before the Blues pegged them back and eventually won comfortably. By his own admission, Harc had little impact on the match and kicked just a solitary goal. While quite likely still suffering the after-effects of concussion, it’s also understandable that he was pre-occupied with anxiety about his future. “I was headed into the unknown” he said, “leaving my home and family with the real prospect of never seeing them again.”
Happily, that wasn’t the case, although he did endure mortal danger on many occasions throughout the ensuing five years. Assessed as suitable for pilot training, Harc “went solo” after just 7.5 hours of instruction and within a year was flying operational patrols in Anson light bombers and Walrus amphibians from airfields in northern Australia and New Guinea. In February 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and later that year joined the newly-formed RAAF No. 43 squadron at Darwin. Equipped with American–built Catalina flying boats, the squadron’s main duty was mine-laying, as well as reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols and search and rescue missions. Harc and his crew flew day and night, braving tropical storms, enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, often at altitudes of less than 30 metres.
Although the war eventually ended when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Catalinas were one of the workhorses of the Allied forces, and they were kept busy for months afterward. Harc had married his sweetheart Peggy while on leave in 1943, and was already a father by the time he was discharged in May, 1946. Home at last, he found a letter waiting for him from the Carlton Football Club, inviting him to resume his career with the Old Dark Navy Blues. “I thought deeply about it for some time,” Harc said, “but my circumstances had changed, and I was a different person. For all sorts of reasons, I decided that cricket would be my sporting priority from then on, although the Carlton would always be important to me.”
The MCC welcomed him back, and Harc soon recaptured his best form. In his second year he was appointed captain of the club, and led the Demons to the 1948-49 VCA Premiership. Meanwhile, he played five matches for Victoria, scoring 336 runs in seven innings at the excellent average of 56.00, before retiring at the age of 29 to concentrate on his expanding business interests. After that, golf became a passion, and he was threatening par around Kingston Heath until well into his seventies.
As we parted, I asked Harc one last question – where did his heart truly lay? His answer was unequivocal. Despite his success as a cricketer at Melbourne, he still treasured the opportunity given to him by the Navy Blues. “They took me in, they cared for me, and they gave me an opportunity that I dreamed about,” he said. “They were a great mob.”
Harc passed away at the age of 95 in October 2014, four years after his beloved Peggy. On Anzac Day this year, I will again raise a glass in his memory.