The Poet Laureate of Old Fitzroy

Norm Byron (centre)

Old Fitzroy, club and suburb, are long gone, except in the memories of those who played there or grew up amongst its pokey houses and grimy streets.  One person who pops up in reminisces about those days and times is Norm Byron, who played a couple of games for the Maroons back in 1918.  But it wasn’t his footy skills – or lack therefore – that he’s remembered by, rather it’s for his warmth and singing and song writing talents.  The official club history from 1983, The First One Hundred Seasons, dubbed him the Roys ‘unofficial poet laureate.’

Norm, a mail-sorter with the post office, was a local from Newry Street.  Roys legend, Bill Stephens, described him as a “marvellous entertainer” with a “booming voice like Al Jolson, a bit different but similar.”  Norm would be at every club function including the wonderfully dubbed, ‘Pleasant Sunday Mornings’, when players, trainers, officials and supporters would unwind back at the Fitzroy Cricket Ground with a beer or three the morning – and often enough, the afternoon – after a game.  Bill Stephens recalled he was always there on a Sunday morning, singing lots of songs.  “He would make up rhymes using people’s names, he’d go through the room and he’d name everyone in a song.  Everyone would be thrilled, like you’d come down from the country and then find yourself in one of Norm’s songs.”

Norm had a dark complexion and everyone knew him affectionately as Darkie. Not a nickname we stomach these days but that’s just how it was back then. Norm didn’t appear to care, mockingly describing himself as a ‘Smoked Irishman’.  Fitzroy had a readily identifiable Aboriginal community in those days – Pastor Doug Nicholls had his church in Gore Street – and many presumed Norm was an Aboriginal.  Norma Beever, his grand daughter, told me she initially thought her pa’s family were Black American.  Later research by the family revealed a mixed West Indian, Irish and English heritage.

Norm wrote and sung songs and parodies and the Roys for nearly four decades.  Most have been lost with time though a few still hover in the pages of Fitzroy history books and the memories of those he sung for and with.  One of them, Up in Riley Harbour, goes by the rollicking tune of If you’re Irish, come into the parlour. If you’re ever fortunate to hear Kevin Murray speak, you may just find he starts singing it.

Where’s Riley Harbour?  It’s a reference to Riley Street, a major thoroughfare running the length of Fitzroy with a drain through it that commonly flooded when it rained.  Yes, the poor often live on flooding flats.  Melbournians will be familiar with Riley Street: these days it goes by the far snazzier name of Alexandra Parade.

Up In Riley Harbour (circa 30s / 40s)

If you’re Fitzroy, come in and join us,

There’s a welcome waits for you.

We are the Maroons

And Premiers we will be,

This year, next year,

Or in nineteen fifty-three.

If you’re born near the Riley Harbour,

Or the Merri Creek will do,

Join in and make a noise,

As long as you’re one of the Fitzroy boys,

Fitzroy, the Old Maroon and Blue.


Tunes of popular songs have been borrowed and reworked for as long as they’ve been around – Norm was a master craftsman at it, giving new intent to many favourite tunes.  One was based on Barney Google, a hit of the early twenties, reworked into a celebration of Fitzroy goal kicking great, Jack Moriarty.  I met one lifelong Roys supporter, Frank Dear, about ten years ago.  Born in 1913 near the Merri Creek, Frank could still recite Norm’s version of Barney Google.

Moriarty with the goog, goog, googly eyes (1924)

Moriarty with the goog, goog, googly eyes,

Moriarty who Fitzroy idolize,

Who’s the chap who kicks the goals,

Sends them right through the poles,

Moriarty with the goog, goog, googly eyes.

Another of Norm’s tunes was the 1944 Fitzroy Premiership Song, sold for threepence as a club fundraiser.  Sung to the tune of Great Day for the Irish, Norm managed to get in the names of every player (including the nineteenth man!), several club officials and even some prominent supporters who’d chipped in with donations for the players after they won the flag.  Here’s a couple of verses:

It’s a great day for old Fitzroy,

It’s a great day, I’ll swear;

Why, everybody up there is excited,

All the barrackers – Gee! – they are delighted;

It’s a great day for old Fitzroy

When the Flag, it came our way.

We’re the Premiers, now, you see –

Oh, Boy! you’re telling me!

It’s a great, great day.

Every butcher, baker, barber,

Is singing, ‘Up in Riley Harbour!’

Those who did hitch hike,

When the trammies went on strike,

Said it’s great.

The Fitzroy Publicans, Gee!

Are giving out bottles free!

It’s a great day for old Fitzroy….

Norm was involved in the club’s Social Committee and Past Players Association until he died unexpectedly aged just 60, in February 1959.  Norma recalled the police closing intersections as people lined Fitzroy streets to say their farewells while his hearse passed through on its way to Melbourne Cemetery.

His death was mourned across Melbourne.  The Sporting Globe carried a prominent tribute to him in its March 4, 1959 edition, written by long time friend, Merv Williams.  Here’s an edited extract: (minus the multiple references to Norm’s appalling nickname!)

The sudden death of Norman Byron at his home in North Fitzroy last Friday rocked the sporting world of Melbourne.  His topical parodies sung to the tune of The Guy who put the I in Ireland were known and appreciated in pretty well every branch of sport.  I doubt if there’s a sportsman in Melbourne who doesn’t know or has not heard about the lovable big hearted ‘Smoked Irishman’, as (he) joyfully tabbed himself.

The crowds which lined the streets of Fitzroy on Monday to pay their last respects to (Norm) as his funeral passed was testament of his popularity.  And it was fitting that from the big crowd at the Melbourne Cemetery, representatives of every field of sport came forward to form a guard of honour.

(Norm) just didn’t know how to say ‘NO’ to any club or organisation who asked for his services to help raise funds.  It was extraordinary how he could walk into a room, ask names of people present and, immediately, reel them off in ‘The Guy that put the I in Ireland’.

(Norm) was tops as a singer of popular songs and topical parodies for the past 40 years and he worked far more for charity in this line than he did for himself.  In the early 20’s (Norm) and a partner named Moore were a riot at the mid-week vaudeville and boxing program at the West Melbourne Stadium.

…(Norm) was a master of rhyming slang…I’ve heard many fellows use slang phrases but (he) had an endless vocabulary and could have a conversion in the jargon…this is the kind of parody that made (Norm) such a favourite with sports fans.

Norma commented that while her pa loved his family with a passion, they all believed that maybe he loved the Fitzroy Football Club a little more.  She often heard her nana say that “if it hadn’t been for Norm’s fierce support for Fitzroy, the family would’ve been millionaires!”  So here’s to the memory of Norm Byron, a generous soul in more ways than one, a great Fitzroy character from a time when suburb and team were one and the same.

About Adam Muyt

Born into rugby league, found aussie rules, fell for soccer, flirts a little with union.

Author of ‘Maroon & Blue – recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club’ (Vulgar Press, 2006). Presently working on a history of postwar Dutch migrants and soccer.

Comments

  1. Interesting that Norm’s nickname was Darkie. A lot of Irish people or people of Irish descent are swarthy skinned. Its a throw back to when the Spanish visited Ireland a few hundred years back. Indeed the influence went both ways – there’s an “O’Donnell Street” in Madrid.

  2. johnharms says:

    Thanks Adam. There’s a book in these old footy characters – I mean on top of the Fitroy book you’ve already written. Anyone interested in Adam Muyt’s book Maroon and Blue, a fine social history of the Fitzroy Footy Club and its fans, can contact me at j.t.h@bigpond.net.au

  3. Ian Syson says:

    More about the book here http://www.vulgar.com.au/muyt.html

  4. johnharms says:

    Thanks Ian.

  5. Adam Muyt says:

    John, agree there’s a book or perhaps even a doco ready to be told about these old footy characters. But it had better be done before they or their contemporaries drop off their perches. Bill Jacobs would have to be in there – he’s got some great stories to tell about footy and Australian sport, particularly cricket.

    Norm Byron fascinates me – I hope to dig out some more of his history, including his connections with other sports in Melbourne.

  6. Graeme Rule says:

    Thems were the days. For any interested the next Fitzroy/Lions Historical Society do is on Friday April 29 at the Bowls Club in Brunswick Street. They are memory lane funny evenings. More details from President Doug Coldham AH 9876 4527

  7. Norma Beever says:

    It bought a tear to my eye reading about our Pa. He truly was a great Fitzroy personality.
    If Pa had lived to an old age I think he would have disowned me for barracking for the blues.
    How life has changed Doug Nicholls who was a great friend of Pa always called him by his nickname and I am sure a lot of people around Fitzroy did not even know his real name. What a shame.

  8. johnharms says:

    Nice to hear from you Norma. I also love Adam’s story, although I have no personal connection to your Pa. I do however relate to such interesting, original, creative, fun-loving, ebullient, energetic characters. God knows, the world needs them. I am interested in Doug Nicholl’s using your Pa’s nickname. I have the same nickname, and it has been the name by which most people have called me since I was in Grade 5 in 1972. Even my family members, althouogh my wife rarely uses it. In fact I’d say there are a lot of people from my uni days who wouldn’t knwo my real name. And I don’t have the same concern abut it as Adam does – each to their wn understandings. I have been called Darky by people like Steve Renouf and (in a very funny moment) Joel Garner. It is an interesting situation and one I have never really thought too much about, even though I have spent a lot of time reading in the area of colonial politics, so-called race relations and indigenous affairs. Thanksyou for your very personal comment.

  9. johnharms says:

    Graeme, thanks for that info about the HIstorical Society. please feel free to let the Fitzroy people to know about Adam’s lovely piece. Also, I am wriig two chapters on the Fitzroy seasons of 1898 and 1899 and would appreciate any direction in finding out about individual players and anecdotes from that time. If you can drop me an email at j.t.h@bigpond.net.au I’d love to set up a time to talk with you and some of those Fitzroy people who have a strong knowledge of the Maroons history.

  10. Fat Pizza says:

    Great story. Would love to hear more about Norm & his life.

  11. Hi,
    I am also the Grand daughter of Norm ‘Darkie’ Byron. Norma is my older sister. Our mother Thelma Byron was the daughter of Norm Byron. I have a history of him and his background if you would be interested in reading it. My Pa (Norm) was the most generous man I’ve ever met in my life. He used to dress up as Father Xmas on Christmas Day with a big Sack of toys for all the poor kids in Fitzroy.
    you can contact me at http://www.cassdaniels.com.au I have my own Theatrical Agency in Sydney.
    Regards, Cass
    E: cass@cassdaniels.com.au

  12. There must be plenty of old photo’s that relatives have of their grand fathers in their
    playing days. I’d love to see more of them scanned in and uploaded to keep
    the history alive.

  13. Angie Adams says:

    Hi Adam. Norman ‘Darkie’ Byron was my uncle. My mum, Peg Adams was his younger sister, and used to play piano for him when he was in vaudeville, and his youngest sister Mollie, was also in entertainment, (radio, band leader, vocalist) etc.. Uncle Norman was responsible for Sir Doug Nicholls playing for the Roys. As told to me by mum, he was coming home from work one morning and used to take a short cut through the gardens. He spotted a man asleep on the park bench, and went over to see if he was okay. That man was Doug Nicholls. My uncle still had some of his lunch in his bag, and gave it to him. He asked him if he had somewhere to live, which he didn’t, and Uncle Norman took him home to my grandmothers house, until he got settled. I think they were living in Freeman Street directly across from the centre circle at the time. Norman took him over to Fitzroy, and the rest is history. He did have a run with Carlton prior to this meeting, but he was not made very welcome. Sir Doug remained very close friends with both Norman and Mollie their whole lives. I have a few photos which I can se nd to you if you wish. One is of my father with Norm and his wife, and another is of him with his siblings… Angie Adams Willow Grove Vic. 56352107

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