Almanac Footy History: Fitzroy premiers again in 1899

 

A few years ago Geoff Slattery (Publishing) put together the first volume of their VFL Grand Finals series which covers 1897-1938.

 

I was assigned 1898, 1899, 1931 and 1937.

 

This is the story of Fitzroy’s 1899 premiership.

 

 

 

 

 

During the winter of 1899, footy fans in the growing city of Melbourne—and there were plenty of them—had a number of things on their minds. They were being hounded by politicians and community leaders who wanted their constituents to be interested in the proposal to bring the six colonies together to form the nation of Australia. They took an interest in the federal cause.

 

Outside politics, Melburnians took great interest in the plight of their footy side, and the prospects of the Australian Test side that was about to embark on the tour of England. Like football, cricket was enormously popular. During previous tours, crowds of up to 10,000 would brave the freezing night to stand outside The Age’s office where the Test scores would be posted when each cable arrived—once every 15 minutes!

 

Cricket had done much to place the idea of the Australian nation in the minds of people. From 1877, the Australian cricket team was just that: the team of the entity that was Australia. Even though the Australian nation didn’t exist! And victories over the might of England, the mother country, showed that Australians were as good as their imperial masters.

 

Football, regarded as the local game, the Australian game (made in the image of Australians), embodied a second type of nationalism; the nationalism of the native-born, and of the Flynns, the Flanagans, and the O’Mearas, and of the radicals and ratbags, who would never genuflect at the imperial altar.

 

To be at the football in Melbourne was, at one level, to assert that sense of national identity. Just as it was a way of asserting local identity and the feeling of belonging to the suburb which your boys represented.

 

Politicians understood only too well that the gaze of Australians was more likely to be on Joe Darling and Victor Trumper, Hughie Trumble and the brilliant all-round sportsman Jack Worrall, as they tackled the Englishmen at Lord’s. And on the football.

 

In The Bulletin a cartoonist drew a boy (symbolising Australians) watching cricket and not politics, with the caption “They can only watch one game at a time.”

 

So some politicians started using sporting metaphors and terms to make their point.

 

James Service, briefly premier of Victoria, and for many years a member of the Victorian upper house, in raising a toast to a united Australia, said: “Our very Australian boys drink in federation with mothers’ milk, and as soon as their little legs can run and their hands can catch they are ardently devoted to federal football and cricket.”

 

Public figures used sport to their advantage, in any way they could, knowing how meaningful it was to people.

 

In 1899, the president of the Fitzroy Football Club was also the reigning premier, R.W. Best. He had been an alderman in the Fitzroy council, was the MLA for Fitzroy, and was very much pro-federation. He had aspirations to federal office (he was eventually elected a senator). His popularity had been built on his involvement in the local community particularly through sport. He had been president of the VFA, president of the Victorian Cricket Association, and the Victorian League of Wheelmen.

 

He knew what the people wanted.

 

In Fitzroy they wanted another premiership.

 

But it was going to be a tough year.

 

In his summation of the 1899 season, published in The Argus in the week following the Grand Final, ‘Old Boy’ lauded the quality of the football throughout the year. It was a happy coincidence, he argued, that a competition of just eight clubs should have six such evenly matched and capable sides.

 

Fitzroy, despite a terrible run with injuries and illness which saw Alec Sloan, Bill McSpeerin, Bill Potter, Pat Descrimes, Kelly Robinson, Chris Kiernan, the Dalton brothers (Jack and Bill) and Paddy Noonan all miss matches—at one stage, six of them were out—looked like they were every chance of satisfying their fans again. Mick Grace did not have as good a year as 1898 when he was named Champion of the Colony. That honour went to his teammate Pat Hickey (uncle of Reg Hickey, who was to become one of the great characters of the Geelong Football Club). A known hard man, Pat Hickey ruled the roost at centre half-back, and was occasionally sent forward to inflict some pain up there. “Where fighting was the hottest,” wrote ‘Old Boy’ in The Argus, “there was the Fitzroy half-back in the thick of it.”

 

Fitzroy’s Alec Sloan Art: DJ Williams – visit DJ’s website: https://www.djwilliamsart.com.au/

 

 

Fitzroy had brawn. The “Fitzroy heavyweights”, as they were called, were very physical and intimidating, and sparks would fly when they came across opponents who refused to take a backward step—especially from Collingwood.

 

But the Roys had their share of quick, talented ball-players as well. Their centre-line of Eddie Drohan, Harry Clarke and Robinson was all class.

 

McSpeerin was a crowd favourite. A rover, he also spent time in the forward pocket. Fans called him ‘The Shark’. He was very skilled, described in some reports as an “artistic” player who handled wet conditions very well.

 

The idea of “artistry” was alive and well in football. Football “artists” were those whose aesthetic appearance delighted the eye, especially of those middle class reporters whose words filled the dailies. The chaps of the press could not find enough superlatives for the grace and beauty of these types, most of whom were able to set other players up gallantly in what was called “team play”.

 

These same scribes chose a different tone when describing the robust and bullocky play of individuals charging towards goal like rugby players in an effort to win territory. But that did not sway the popularity of the tough men among those who frequented the pubs and gambled in the local laneways. The improvement-of-society men didn’t understand these earthy types, or their women.

 

Essendon and Collingwood had excellent sides. Geelong, said ‘Old Boy’, was the most brilliant yet most inconsistent side. Melbourne could match it with the best of them on their day. And South Melbourne emerged late in the season as a possible contender. Led by their skilful ruckman, Mick Pleass, with Charlie Colgan, a dangerous goal-scorer, South had also recruited Harry Lampe from Wagga who hit his straps by season’s end and was having an impact on games from centre half-forward. They also had in their ranks a tewenty-year-old beanpole who played in the forward pocket or back pocket and occasionally had a run on the ball. He was Warwick Armstrong who filled out over the years (he was eventually nicknamed ‘The Big Ship’), and went on to captain the Australian cricket side.

 

In the opening round, the Grand Final sides of the previous year met at Brunswick Street. Fitzroy sent a message to the competition by holding the Same Olds goalless and winning by 38 points, while at Geelong the Pivotonians won 8.6 (54) to 3.11 (29).

 

The Maroons beat South by four points, in the second round, and the following week trounced Geelong at Corio Oval. Melbourne had a couple of impressive wins at home at the Cricket Ground: against Geelong, and also over Fitzroy. They surprised the premiers, holding them to just 3.6 (24).

 

The Roys and the Magpies met in Round 6. It was another willing scrap. Collingwood’s wingman Charlie ‘Buffer’ Sime, who was often at the centre of hostilities (or the cause of them), reacted to the bath he was being given at the hands of the classy Eddie Drohan. The game became more spiteful than usual. Hickey belted champion Collingwood rover Dick Condon in a “disgraceful” incident, which was not reported. ‘Old Boy’ was not impressed, suggesting the umpire handed out too many warnings and not enough bookings, and that the match was spoiled by both teams who paid “too much attention to the man and too little to the ball”. Fitzroy won 5.5 (35) to 1.7 (13) but the local crowd didn’t like it. The Collingwood mob smashed the window of one of the cabs which was taking some Fitzroy players away.

 

The fall-out of the incident reached local government level. In Collingwood, Councillor Cody said: “The Roys had provoked the attack by their gross misconduct on the field.”

 

It was a season where all the sides except Carlton and lowly St Kilda could play good enough football to win on the day and the evenness of the competition and the quality of the football was certainly capturing the attention of the public.

 

More so than the looming referendum, which was to be held in the week of Round 8, on Tuesday, June 20. At the same time the English rugby side, led by the Reverend Mullineaux, played its first-ever Test against Australia in Sydney, The Australians won 13-3, which may have swayed the New South Welsh voters, who weren’t so sympathetic to the federal cause, to change their minds.

 

Also, on that weekend the Australians had beaten England by ten wickets, at Lord’s. Again this could only have helped the vote. As, no doubt, did the reports of the threat of war in South Africa.

 

The topsy-turvy nature of the VFL season continued into the final month of the home and away season. Fitzroy was thrashed by Geelong at Brunswick Street, beat Melbourne, and then lost at home to Collingwood. The Maroons still finished on top of the ladder, losing just three times for the year. Geelong was second, Collingwood third, Essendon fourth, Melbourne fifth and South sixth.

 

The sectional system was used again to decide the finalists. In Section B South surprised many by winning all three of its matches: beating Geelong at Geelong in a thriller, thrashing St Kilda, and then dominating Essendon.

 

In Section A Fitzroy was expected to account for the weak Blues in the first round, but Carlton got away to a good start and it took Fitzroy (which was still nursing a number of injured players, especially Sloan and Descrimes) until late in the third quarter to hit the front. The crowd expected the Roys to storm clear, but Carlton rallied and with just minutes left scores were level, until a scramble in the Fitzroy forward line resulted in a behind. That was the final margin.

 

The talk around Melbourne was that Fitzroy was faltering, and that its late-season form was patchy. Yet the following week at Brunswick Street they held Melbourne to just 0.2 (2). All was set up for a classic encounter against Collingwood, at Collingwood.

 

A huge crowd gathered at Victoria Park to see the contest between the undefeated teams. Despite the rain, it was quite an occasion. The Collingwood Imperial Military Brass Band played in the reserve. Fitzroy, being the minor premier, enjoyed the insurance that a loss would not be the end of proceedings: the Maroons would still have the right challenge the winner of the final. Early in the game Collingwood’s Matthew Fell turned, wrenching his back, and had to be taken off. So the Magpies played with 17 men, which became the key factor in a match which was described as a “battle of giants” involving “grand high-marking, splendid turning and dodging, superb passing with hand and foot, [and] tremendous pace all through”.

 

Not everyone had such a romantic view of the contest. The Magpies went down by 14 points and their fans were seething with the unfortunate loss, at the hands of the Fitzroy thugs, which put an end to the Magpies’ season. Pat Hickey was the target of most abuse. A woman clouted him with her umbrella (Collingwood officials promised to discipline her), and about 150 local larrikins jostled the Fitzroy players who had to be escorted by police to the tram-line. Hickey eventually emerged from the dressing room surrounded by his brother and a few friends. He smiled at the waiting mob, who screamed their anger at him. The body of mythology that helped sustain the Collingwood-Fitzroy rivalry was growing steadily.

 

On the other side of the Yarra, at South Melbourne, the Bloods had a somewhat surprising victory over Essendon, setting up a clash with Fitzroy in the Grand Final. Much criticism of the sectional system followed. People asked why the team which finished sixth with just five wins from 14 home and away games should have a chance to win the flag. The system was seen as a way of extending the season, keeping all the fans involved, and therefore a money-raiser for the League.

 

Opinion was divided as people anticipated the outcome of the match. Most tipped Fitzroy, but South was the big improver, and in the eyes of some, a legitimate contender with a real chance to pinch the flag from the Fitzroy powerhouse.

 

On the morning of the Grand Final heavy rain fell across the city. Only about 5000 spectators braved the elements at the St Kilda Ground, most of them (according to The South Melbourne Record) came “armed against the pluvial visitation with overcoats and umbrellas”. Conditions were so bad that South wanted the match postponed and called on the League’s weather committee. Fitzroy was more keen to play.

 

Rumours circulating—that the Bloods had a number of injured players—were well-founded. Hence their push to postpone the match. Artie Henley and Harry Purdy were away from town. (Perhaps the presence of their team in the Grand Final had been a surprise to them as well, and they had already made plans!) Mick Pleass had injured his leg, but was still in the side. Bill ‘Buns’ Fraser’s neck was stiff, and Henri Jeanneret’s neck was covered in boils.

 

The Fitzroy camp was in a sombre mood. Bert Sharpe’s father had died the day before. Sharpe withdrew from the side, and the Roys players wore black armbands. But they did not want the match postponed. They’d heard the rumours, too, and knew that if they lost, they had the right to challenge South Melbourne again. Given their record over two seasons they had every right to be confident.

 

A further setback occurred when the maverick Chris Kiernan, one of the more gifted players of the era, failed to show up—one report says because of injury—and the veteran Bill Cleary stripped for the game.

 

Those persuaded to have a bet on the game were keen to back Fitzroy, but the weather proved something of a leveller. The match was a desperate slog, in the rain and the mud.

 

“From the first bounce till the very last tinkle of the bell,” wrote ‘Old Boy’ in his Argus report, “it was a battle between two earnest, strong teams, and the crowd entered into the excitement, and what it lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm.”

 

The southerly blew towards the city goals of the St Kilda Ground (‘Follower’ in The Age praised the curator McShane for turning out the ground in such good condition given the circumstances). South’s skipper, Dave Adamson, won the toss and kicked with the wind. The lightweight Herbie Howson (also described as an “artistic” player) began brilliantly on the wing beating Eddie Drohan for pace, and to the surprise of the most, in the air. The Bloods moved the ball forward where Harold Lampe was awarded a free kick by respected umpire Ivo Crapp (who had a good game, as usual). Lampe’s well-timed punt sailed through on the breeze and South led. Two men braving the elements behind the goal waved their umbrellas—one red, one white—for “a long time”.

 

They had opportunity again when South attacked and Lampe kicked a fine running goal to give the Bloods the jump. Fitzroy was uncharacteristically tentative and unsteady, and, wrote ‘Old Boy’, were “fumbling a lot”. The Roys could make little progress into the bluster and were visibly disappointed when Jim Grace’s snap from the pocket hit the post. It was one of only four behinds that were kicked for the entire match at that end.

 

South led 2.3 to 0.1 at quarter-time. Some thought, with rain still falling, that the Bloods had posted a winning score already. Adamson thought so. He moved Charlie James, a fine kick of the football, from half-forward to the backline in the hope to hold back the tide. Other players drifted back as well, and the ensuing scrum pushed the ball around in the mud.

 

At one point a kick off the ground during a goalmouth scrimmage went through and was initially awarded a goal, but the full-back Adamson pointed to the muddy mark on the arm of his jersey, and Crapp, who had noticed the touch, changed the score to a behind.

 

South, trying so hard to contain the forceful charges of the Roys, played a tactical game. It drew on the influence of rugby, wrote ‘Old Boy’, forever kicking the football in to touch. When it wasn’t out of bounds, the leather was caught in a rolling pack, which produced “signs of temper” and some rather unsavoury moments. Fitzroy’s Robinson, Cleary and Dalton all had their names put in to the book for “roughness”.

 

Hickey was playing an “irresistible” game and was instrumental in driving the Roys forward. Like the skipper Sloan, Hickey was not always drawn to the ball often “skirmishing behind the ruck like a rugby half-back”. At the moments the ball came clear both Hickey and Sloan made strong runs. But the game lacked any rhythm and Crapp was forced to pay many free kicks.

 

Play was concentrated in the Fitzroy forward line, where Mick Grace registered Fitzroy’s first goal with an opportune punt from the ruck. He was involved again soon after when his foot-pass found Fontaine who marked and had the chance to put the Maroons on level terms. His shot was accurate.

 

South failed to score for the quarter and at half-time the Roys led by a point. It was the fightback of a champion side, but in the wind and the mud, it remained anyone’s game.

 

For much of the third quarter the ball was in South’s forward line, where Hickey defended determinedly. South scored a couple of behinds and then, from a free kick, Colgan scored a major. South led by seven points at the final change.

 

If anything the wind freshened for the last quarter and the crowd wondered whether South would have the will and the energy to hang on against the reigning premier’s inevitable onslaught. Famous for their strength and stamina, the Roys were relentless. Hickey led the way, rushing the football out of defence, with explosive runs. At one point, in returning the football he found himself within range of goal, but his flying shot hit the post.

 

South hung on and hung on. The crowd screamed its support. Lampe led an attack for South but Hickey intercepted and kicked in the direction of McSpeerin who marked near the behind post. It was a difficult shot but the Roys rover ran around and kicked truly. Fitzroy led by a point.

 

South would not concede, pushing forward into the wind, and Lampe missed a terrific opportunity when he kicked poorly for a behind. Fontaine’s behind kept Fitzroy ahead, and in the desperate last moments of the match the Southerners forced the ball to within range and were attacking as the bell rang.

 

Hickey was the star. Often the subject of debate for his overly zealous approach, his match was celebrated for days after. ‘Follower’ said Hickey had a “magnificent” match and played “without suspicion of undue roughness”.

 

‘Old Boy’ was just as complimentary. “I have never seen a man do more for his side,” he wrote. “Nominally he was half-back; as a matter of fact he was everywhere.”

 

In The Australasian ‘Markwell’ also sang Hickey’s praises. “In this final match, as in many a previous game for the year, Hickey proved himself Fitzroy’s mainstay. In defence or in attack his value to the team was incalculable and, notwithstanding the unsuitable conditions of ground and ball, I do not think he has ever shown a finer game.’

 

He was named Champion of the Colony—by commentators and fans—in what was a unanimous decision, if not a popular one.

 

The people of Fitzroy celebrated again. They had the best footy side in the land. Soon, they could say, the best side in the nation. The June 20 referendum had been successful.

 

The Australian cricketers won the five-match series in England 1-0.

 

But things were deteriorating in South Africa. In the same papers as the Grand Final reports the headlines read ‘A Very Grave Situation’ and ‘War Likely To Be Precipitated’.

 

Within weeks, on October 10, war was declared.

 

Not that it mattered much, for a while, to the people of Fitzroy.

 

 

1899 Grand Final – Sep 16, 1899

Junction Oval

 

Fitzroy                         0.1       2.4       2.6       3.9.27
South Melbourne        2.3       2.3       3.7       3.8.26

 

 

Goals
Fitzroy – Fontaine, M. Grace, McSpeerin.
South Melbourne – Lampe 2, Coglan.

 

Best
Fitzroy – Clarke, Deas, Drohan, Hickey, Jenkins, McEwan.
South Melbourne – Davidson, Garbutt, Howson, Lampe, Pleass, Trimm.

 

Umpire:  I. Crapp
Crowd:  4823

 

A note on sources:

 

This essay draws on my M.A. thesis which looked at the 1899 Australian cricket tour of England at the time of the Federal referenda.

 

Specific sources for this history include:

 

The Age
The Argus
The Australasian
The Bulletin

 

Chris Donald    Fitzroy: For the love of the jumper
Mark Fiddian   The other side of Smith Street: Fitzroy and Collingwood down the years
Rob Hess and Bob Stewart (eds)    More Than a Game
Jim Main      Fitzroy
Robert Pascoe     The Winter Game
Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner   Up Where Cazaly?
Sutherland, Nicholson, Murrihy   The First Hundred Seasons
Richard Stremski     Kill For Collingwood
Ian Turner    ‘Work and play in Victorian Victoria’

 

 

You can purchase an e-book version Grand Finals Volume 1 1897-1938 HERE

 

 

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Roseville Rocket says

    Classic piece.

    Bill Lampe kicked 2 goals for South and named in best players came from Wagga.
    The first good ún of a long production line….

  2. Liz Lawrie says

    My grand father George “Yorkey” Shaw played in two at least of those premierships for Fitzroy. We lived in Melbourne then when I married I fortunately married an AFL lover (I wouldn’t marry anyone else) who lived in Rugby League mad Brisbane. You can imagine my delight when my team came up here – although many Melbourne rellies hated it. I have some of those books mentioned. I remember my grand pop telling me many stories of those days like going to work as usual and training two nights a week in leather footy boots etc.Imagine that now!

  3. Thanks, John, a very enjoyable recollection of a game that crowned Fitzroy as the VFL’s champion team of the 19th-century.
    Liz, your grandfather was quite the player according to historical reports.
    He probably told you that after the 1913 Grand Final win over St Kilda, a jubilant Maroons supporter promised him a brand new bicycle worth 16 guineas (about $2000 at current prices).
    Hopefully, George ended up collecting the bike.

  4. John Milton says

    A fabulous piece. Lots for me to learn when I put fingers to keyboard.
    Thanks
    John

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic, well researched and told piece JTH, love reading stories from the time of federation.

    Ironic the similarities in the Fitzroy guernsey worn by Alec Sloan in the picture to the Brisbane Bears 1992?-1996 guernsey (by far their best one).

  6. Rulebook says

    Superb JTH a lot of work went in to that unfortunate name for a umpire,Ivo Crapp

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