Almanac Footy History: ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin: A man between two worlds’

Almanac favourite, scholar, and historian Roy Hay has published a follow up to his magnificent Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere which incidentally, had recently been short-listed for the Lord Aberdare Prize of the British Society for Sports History, a sort of Brownlow for sports historians. [Congratulations and well deserved Roy! – Ed.]


Roy’s new book  Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds  follows in detail the life and times of  ‘Pompey’ Austin who endeavoured to exist in both a white European culture  and his own indigenous culture. An overview of  the book is provided by Roy in his  introduction to the new book which follows.


Purchase details:  First edition is now available. Special price from SESA via [email protected] $29.95 inc. postage and GST.








It is May in Geelong, not April in Paris. Autumn, not springtime. The start of the football season. The year is 1872. The previous year’s leading team, the mighty Blues of Carlton, have come to the Pivot to put Geelong Football Club in its place. Geelong is always competitive, but Carlton reckons that only two players stand in their way—the legendary Tom Wills, cricketer and footballer extraordinaire, and a new and black speedster, a dark horse, Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, an Indigenous man who has taken the athletic world by storm by winning hurdle and flat races at a series of meetings in the Western District of Victoria.


The ‘new’ Melbourne football in 1872 is a tough game, a collision sport, in which weight and strength count for more than the ability to leap for the ball or clear hurdles. Someone who can run with the ball is valuable, if it can be extracted from one of the interminable ground-level scrummages that characterise the game. So Pompey, the unknown, could be a game changer, but Carlton are ready for him.


When the game is due to start, Tom Wills is nowhere to be seen. His younger brothers, Horace and Edgar, are stripped and ready. The oldest Wills was down to captain Geelong, but he is notoriously unreliable. He has sent the match ball, a smaller one than Carlton are used to, but of Tom there is no sign when the game has to kick off. Carlton have a train to catch back to the metropolis and daylight is scarce is southern Victoria in May. Ninety-nine years are to pass before daylight saving is adopted in Victoria.


John Thomas Arthur assumes the captain’s role and wins the toss for Geelong. The teams line up behind their leaders. Otherwise they would be offside at the kick-off, the only time apart from when goals are scored or the teams change ends that an offside rule applies. Jack Donovan of Carlton starts with a long low kick and the play is fast and furious, according to the Geelong Advertiser.[1]


The opening exchanges are brutal. James Ellis of Carlton suffers a dislocated knee in the first few minutes. Scrummages and collisions abound. A new rule, only drawn up the previous week, allows the umpire to throw the ball up to break up the scrummages, but the ball spends a lot of the time buried in a heap of bodies. Players are tripped or ‘cross-buttocked’ and the ball is often ‘hugged’ by players until they are checked by a severe tackle.



Football in Richmond Paddock. Wood engraving by Robert Bruce, 27 July 1866. Town & Country Journal in 1871 and Australasian Sketcher in 1875. Source: National Library of Australia.



Where is Pompey? He stands watching the mayhem and wondering whether he should join the wrestling matches that are going on. Suddenly the ball is extracted from the ‘stacks on the mill’ and fired out in his direction. As he bends to pick it up he is poleaxed by his Carlton opponent, who has been detailed to make sure that the Aborigine has no influence on the game. Winded and wounded, Victoria’s leading hurdler and pedestrian has to decide his future in that instant. Getting involved in scrummages risks serious injury and the end of his running career, the main if not the only source of income for Pompey and his family. As the local paper’s match report puts it, ‘He did not appear to see any fun in the game’.


He was playing without boots. A new rule prevented players running with the ball unless they bounced it, and Wills’s rugby-type ball had to be bounced in a specific way every few steps before being kicked. Even someone with remarkable athletic skills, honed in youth by years of game-playing and hunting with his mates, would have to learn how to do so successfully. Marngrook or gorri or any of the other games he played would not have taught that specific skill. Stocky and solid as he was, Pompey would not have been prepared for the sheer violence of football as it was played in Victoria in the 1870s and for many years thereafter.


Trying to compete in a contest of this type is never a simple switching of skills from other games or activities; the appropriate methods have to be learned. Self-preservation is a critical one. How to ride the bumps is essential. Pacing too. Aboriginal players are often fast and Pompey was one of the fastest, but speed across the ground needed to be sustained for long periods under incessant physical challenges. He was certainly capable of doing that, as he showed in several subsequent games in country Victoria, being named as one of the best players in several of them. But he never got the chance to play at the top Victorian level again.


The earliest photograph of the Geelong Football Club team in 1877. Bob Gartland collection.


Tom Wills eventually appeared and played a serviceable game at full forward, or ‘goal sneak’ as it was called in those days. But Wills did not score a goal. No one did. After the best part of three hours of relentless play the match ended in a scoreless draw. Later generations were to pillory Association football (soccer) for its low scoring, but early Australian football matches could go for hours, even days, with no goals scored. Pompey Austin survived this one, but only just. He never met Tom Wills again.


Tommy Wills was a lovable rascal and a decade older than Albert Pompey Austin and died ten years before him, but their lives and careers overlapped. Wills was lionised in his day, and canonised in the twenty-first century as the key founder of Australian football, but in the nineteenth Pompey was treated as a criminal and hounded for trying to make a living by his wits and his talent. He was no lesser man; he just had the misfortune to be born black in a society that did not appreciate him. In that he was not alone. Perhaps in 2020 we can recover his story and gain some recognition for him at last.[2]




1  Finding Pompey Austin


As we struggle as a society to find ways of understanding and accepting people who do not apparently conform to a particularly narrow view of citizenship in Australia, the story of one man has some lessons for us. Albert or James Pompey Austin is just a footnote in history. All four names have been given to him by Non-Aboriginal others. His Indigenous name is given in one source as Poorne Yarriworri.[3] He was an Indigenous man, born around 1842–46, and was almost certainly the only Aborigine to play senior football in Victoria in the nineteenth century.[4] But he was far more than that. He died in 1889, but in his brief life he was a footballer, cricketer, athlete (pedestrian, as they were called at the time), possibly a boxer, racehorse owner and jockey, horse thief, artist, explorer, savant, entertainer and musician, and a thorn in the side of those who wished to confine him and the survivors of his generation to remote ghettos on the fringe of the colony.[5] He is one of the greatest sporting all-rounders of the century. This is only the part of his life story that can be told from the traces to be found in the contemporary colonial record and the few memories captured in the stories told by his descendants.


Having recently read Andrew Roberts’s massive biography of Winston Churchill and contemplated that the author had a million and a half words from the man himself, plus sound recordings and film of his speeches and social life and more than a thousand published biographies to draw on, plus a huge archive—catalogued and sorted—I reflected that abundance was not the issue when trying to tell the life story of Pompey Austin, who was in his prime when Churchill was born in 1874. I have nothing directly from the man himself apart from a couple of sentences of reported speech. I do not speak his Aboriginal language and cannot be certain which he knew. I know little more than the barest details of his parentage, family and clan relationships.[6] Everything I could find was about the man, not from the man, and virtually none of the sources had anything to say about his thoughts, feelings and motivation. Yet he was one of the most significant figures of his generation in the Western District of Victoria.[7] Today Pompey’s parents, Charlie and Alice, are two of the identified ancestors of the Eastern Maar, recognised as the traditional owners of much of south-western Victoria.


Pompey Austin was an all-round sportsman but he was far more than that. He died in 1889 but was remembered in the Western District of Victoria into the mid-twentieth century and then rediscovered by Mark Pennings when he found thatPompey played that one game for Geelong Football Club in 1872 along with Tom Wills.[8] Jan Critchett briefly covered three generations of the Austin family in Untold Stories: Memories and Lives of Victorian Kooris, while Trevor Ruddell outlined his football and athletic career in a chapter in Behind the Play: Football in Australia.[9] Ian D. Clark collected numerous references to Pompey Austin in newspapers and other sources.[10]


Readers want to know about a subject and his family connections, his heritage and his lineage. This is quite difficult for the period from 1834, when the Hentys arrived in the Western District of Victoria, and 1850, by which time the destruction of the bulk of the Indigenous population of the area was virtually completed. Survivors were caught in a maelstrom in which they had been deprived of their land/country and hence their livelihood, while those who had taken their land had little sense that they had any responsibility for what had occurred or how the survivors could be assisted to exist. Many of the newcomers expected, perhaps even hoped, that the remaining Indigenous people would simply die out.


Retelling Pompey’s story is not easy, for the only surviving contributions from the man himself are brief responses attributed to him by journalists covering court cases in which he was involved, none of them more than a single sentence. These court cases are discussed later in this book. Pompey does not speak to us. Others, virtually all white, speak for or about him and it is from these fragments, discontinuous, scattered and often prejudiced, that this biography was constructed. In one of these reports he is referred to as ‘a well-educated black’; in another his good character is attested to by William Goodall, who was in charge of the Framlingham station where Pompey lived.[11] These snippets and the rest of the extant evidence come entirely from ‘the colonial record’, which is much despised by some modern writers and researchers as so inherently biased that it can never capture the perspectives of the Indigenous people involved.[12] It is highly unlikely that anyone will ever recapture Pompey Austin’s perspective on life, but that is no excuse for not looking in the colonial archive to see what can be found there and asking how it can be understood.[13] There is a significant amount of information therein that extends what we know about this remarkable man and that alone makes this story worthwhile.[14]



The killing field


The Western District of Victoria stretching from Geelong to the South Australian border was the setting for arguably the most intense and destructive invasion by the newcomers in the fifteen years after Thomas Henty and his sons arrived from Van Diemen’s Land, modern Tasmania, at the site of modern-day Portland in 1834. They were followed by a series of explorers from south and north and, quickly on their heels, or sometimes in advance of them, came settlers who, as the euphemism of the time put it, ‘took up’ the land for the pasturing of sheep and cattle. Wool from the sheep became the staple export of Australia to feed the ravenous mills of industrialising Great Britain. The newcomers may have assumed that the area, about the size of England, was largely uninhabited, but they were soon disabused of that notion as the Indigenous clans fought to retain some semblance of control of the land their ancestors had tended for around 60 000 years, according to the most recent estimates.


Though there were some areas of relatively dense woodland, the bulk of the Western District of Victoria was open grassland. The very landscape that attracted the newcomers had actually been created by the Indigenous people by judicious use of fire. Even today large tracts of western Victoria look very similar to what John Batman described as English parkland with mature trees yards (metres) apart as if they had been planted by the hand of man. Indeed, they had been preserved by careful and planned use of fire that kept the landscape open, allowed grass and other plants to thrive, and made the pursuit of native fauna, kangaroos, wombats and emus, for food much easier.[15]



Landscape near Highton. Photo: Fred Kruger, c. 1879. National Gallery of Victoria. Source: Crombie, Fred Kruger: Intimate Landscapes, p. 37.



‘Batman’ parkland near Shelford, Western District of Victoria, 2020. Photo: Roy Hay.



The loss of the custodians was evident by 1851, the year that the Port Phillip District separated from New South Wales and became the colony of Victoria. Earlier that year the prospective new entity was on fire from end to end, with over five million hectares burned, a quarter of the total land area, and people forced into the sea in places to avoid the destruction. The Western District escaped the worst of the conflagration, according to a report by William Howitt, though a ship off the coast near Portland had its top sail carried off by the fierce winds amid flakes of fire.[16]



Bushfire between Mount Elephant and Timboon. Eugene von Guerard, 1857.



We have no birth certificate for Pompey. If he was born in the mid-1840s he must have just missed the peak of the invasion of the Western District of Victoria and the killing that occurred in the previous decade—but only just.



Victorian massacre sites. Source: Ryan et al., Colonial Frontier Massacres.[17]



The Hentys, the first European family to settle in the Port Phillip District, had been in Portland since November 1834, but the overland colonisation of the area really began in the next few years. The disruption of Aboriginal life continued for decades, but the initial destructive impact was over by 1850. The combination of European men, guns, disease, sheep and cattle proved irresistible despite the best efforts of the native people. Their response took several forms. Some grouped together and fought back against the newcomers sporadically, nearly always in tiny numbers and with only short-term success if any. Others used a strategy of avoidance, only making an appearance to carry off or maim animals, or obtain supplies, but otherwise remaining out of contact. Some tried accommodation, recognising that the potency of European firearms rendered military victory impossible, and sought to negotiate an existence on the fringes of settlement.



This painting of Aboriginal people whom Eugene von Guerard met on the way to the Ballarat diggings in 1854 has been called a hunting party, though one modern viewer thinks that the appearance of a shield on the arm of the leading man might indicate the group was going to war. Source: Rex Nan Kivell collection, National Library of Australia.[18]



Weapons and equipment. Spears and boomerangs were no match for European firepower. Photo: Fred Kruger. c. 1877, National Gallery of Victoria. Source: Crombie, Fred Kruger: Intimate Landscapes, p. 89.



Others whose ancestors had shown an infinite adaptability over many generations were flexible and inventive in establishing relations with the newcomers. Some initially regarded the Europeans as ancestors who had returned from the dead but soon became fully aware that this was a different species of human being, but one with whom some sort of relationship could be established. This was seldom, if ever, on the basis of anything approaching equality, though the Indigenous parties often had much to offer. Some, a few, observed the strangers very closely and determined to find a way of accommodating to the new situations and proving they could find a way of co-existing, even sometimes beating the white men at their own activities. Pompey Austin was one of those.






Indigenous Australians may have found it slightly easier to break into individual sports like pedestrianism or boxing than team sports like cricket. Pompey and some of his mates managed both.



First edition is now available. Special price from SESA via [email protected] $29.95 inc. postage and GST.


Roy Hay, Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds, Sports and Editorial Services Australia, Bannockburn, Victoria 3331, Australia, 2020. ISBN 9780994601940 Paperback, A5, 265 + x pages, illustrated. RRP $29.95.



[1]        ‘Football. Geelong v. Carlton’, Geelong Advertiser, 27 May 1872, p. 3.


[2]        For accounts of several of his contemporaries, see Roy Hay, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, England, 2019.


[3]        Jan Critchett, Untold Stories: Memories and Lives of Victorian Kooris, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1998, p. 91.


[4]        Trevor Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin: The First Aborigine to Play Senior Football’, in Peter Burke & June Senyar (eds), Behind the Play: Football in Australia, Maribyrnong Press, Hawthorn, Victoria, 2008, pp. 89–105


[5]        A short unreferenced version of this story can be found on the Sports and Editorial Services Australia website at on the Deakin University Contemporary History blog at worlds/?doing_wp_cron=1486089070.9047789573669433593750.


[6]        Two European-style family trees appear in the appendices. They are the product of information in the on-line register of births, deaths and marriages at, research by James Annand, which he shared with me, and material gathered from conversations with descendants of Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, especially Aunty Janice Austin.


[7]        See Hay, Aboriginal People, pp. 53–7, 142–64, 276–8; Roy Hay, ‘Another Local Hero: Albert “Pompey” Austin, A Man of Many Talents’, Investigator, vol. 53, no. 2, June 2018, pp. 63–9; Roy Hay, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin and a Golden Age of Australian Pedestrianism’, Sporting Traditions, vol 34, no. 2, November 2017, pp. 39–58.


[8]        Mark Pennings, Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 1, Amateur Heroes and the Rise of Clubs, 1858–1876, Connor Court, Ballan, Victoria, 2012, p. 84.


[9]        Critchett, Untold Stories, pp. 48–73; Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin’ , pp. 89–105.


[10]       Ian D. Clark, We Are All of One Blood: A History of the Djabwurrung People of Western Victoria, 1836–1901, Volume 2, Biographies, Genealogies, Pastoral Station Profiles, and Place Names, Createspace Publishing, np, 2016, pp. 156–7 & 161.


[11]       Eventually Goodall lost patience with Pompey and regarded his influence as anything but benign. ‘The conduct of the Aborigines, for the most part, has been very exemplary, although I have had some trouble with three or four, among whom was released convict, Pompey Austin. I do not think this man should be allowed to remain on any of the stations. I have given him many opportunities of amendment, but without any good results. In fact his influence is always bad, and he is never satisfied unless he is using his endeavors to corrupt some of the more pliable ones’ (William Goodall, Report on the Framlingham Aboriginal Station, 4 September 1882. Eighteenth Report of the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1882, p. 5). Pompey had been jailed earlier in the year on a charge of stealing a saddle.


[12]       Chris Hallinan & Barry Judd, ‘Duelling Paradigms: Australian Aborigines, Marn-grook and Football Histories’, Sport in Society, vol. 13, no. 7, 2012, pp. 975–86.


[13]       This is a highly contentious issue, but there is a sensible and thoughtful discussion in Jan Critchett, ‘ “Come on in, the Water’s Fine!” The Ethics of Writing Nineteenth Century Aboriginal Biographies’, Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 1997, pp. 17–22.


[14]       For some background and context for Pompey’s remarkable life, see Roy Hay & Athas Zafiris, ‘Australian Football’s Indigenous History: Towards a New Understanding’, Meanjin, vol. 76, no. 3, Spring, September 2017, pp. 196–202; Roy Hay, ‘Provocation Three: Revisiting Contested Histories of the Australian Football League’, studies/2016/10/15/provocation-three-revisiting-contested- histories-of-the-australian-football-league/.


[15]       The contemporary paintings of John Glover and Eugene von Guerard depict this open landscape with almost photographic clarity. Their art is a much-underused source for the economic history of the first decades of European invasion. In the next generation the photographic work of Fred Kruger and the early examples in the collection put together by Vern McCallum in the twenty-first century would serve the same purpose.


[16]       William Howitt, ‘Black Thursday: The Great Bushfire of Victoria’, Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, vol. 1 no. 6, London, Saturday 4 February 1854.


[17]       Lyndall Ryan, William Pascoe, Jennifer Debenham, Mark Brown, Robyn Smith, Jonathan Richards, Robert J. Anders, Daniel Price & Jack Newley, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930: Sources, 2018,


[18]       Patricia Rose, ‘Eugene von Guerard in Australian Art History, 23 June 2014,


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  1. Kevin Densley says

    Fine history, Roy.

    I look forward very much to reading the book.

  2. Thanks Kevin. Since we don’t have a distributor at present, send me an email at [email protected] with a snail mail address and I’ll arrange to post it to you.

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Will do, Roy.

  4. Hamish Townsend says

    As usual Roy you light the way with truth, daring, skill and a commitment to never look away from the shameful aspects of our past and the small gleaming gems that can be found in it.

  5. Hamish Townsend says

    Can you please send me five copies? Mum knows my address and we’ll sort the coin out.

  6. Outstanding scholarship once again Roy!
    Much more come I hope..

  7. Thanks for the kind comments, folks. This, as you will appreciate, is a very personal take on a man who should be much better known. Goodness knows how he was able to do what he did. The family reaction has been positive and I hope some of Pompey’s descendants will tell the story from their perspective sooner rather than later. I know this is just another step in getting recognition for Pompey and his generation.


  8. Colin Ritchie says

    Magnificent as always Roy!

  9. Simply amazing, Roy.

    I am keen on a copy also.

  10. Jane Duckworth says

    Wondering if there is any connection between the names Albert Pompey Austin and very early, successful Carlton player, Frederick “Pompey” Clifford Elliott (1879-1960)? Note: Fred Elliott was my great-grandfather.
    Why were they both given the nickname Pompey?

  11. We don’t know where Poorne Yarriworri got Pompey from. I canvass some of the possibilities in the book, but in the end it is all guesswork. George Augustus Robinson, the Protector of Aborigines, dished out European names to many of the Indigenous people he met in the 1840s. Daniel Clarke at Framingham named some of his charges according to Geoff Clarke. There were others with the Pompey name in the mid to late 19th century—not necessarily Indigenous people. Classical scholars would be well aware of the Roman general Pompey (the Great) who fought with and later against Julius Caesar and so the name was bandied about in the press and dished out to people who showed warlike characteristics. But there was a Signor Pompeii who arrived in 1871 promising Italian Opera at the princess Theatre. In the book I discuss several of the other Pompeys very briefly. Perhaps Lionel Frost, the historian of Carlton or Tony de Bolfo who runs the Carlton website might be able to help or comment.

  12. Georgina Day says

    Fascinating insight into realistic happenings and the struggles our indigenous friends had in understanding the “invaders” and likewise the “Invaders” Struggle to understand the original inhabitants.

  13. Thanks Georgina. Claudia Craig gave me a chance to talk about the book on 3CR on Monday Breakfast this week. You can listen to it at:

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