Almanac Footy History: Fitzroy wins the 1898 flag

 

 

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

 

I was assigned 1898, 1899, 1931 and 1937.

 

This is the story of Fitzroy’s 1898 premiership.

 

Art: Paul Crompton

 

It may seem an historical curiosity now, but Fitzroy was the first real powerhouse of VFL football. In the first decade the Maroons won four premierships and were runners-up three times. Their home ground was the Brunswick Street Oval, where today the original grandstand still stands in all its Victorian glory and elegance. It takes a leap of historical faith to imagine the screaming voices of the thousands of fans who walked to the ground from the streets and lanes of Fitzroy in those days.

 

Fitzroy was alive with footy then. And so was much of Melbourne. Although sections of the community abhorred the barbaric nature of football and the wild barrackers who were attracted to it, and spoke out against it in letters to newspapers and church bulletins, many people embraced the game with ever-increasing passion. As soccer was in England, football was becoming the game of the industrialised, urbanised metropolis.

 

Among the respectable class of the genteel, the educated and the comfortable, football fitted in neatly with the nineteenthth-century understandings of sport: that it was a manly pastime which called young men to action, to show their pluck and commitment. Importantly, it prepared them for more important things to come. Football was character-building.

 

Among workers and battlers, the granting of the 44-hour week (which freed up Saturday afternoons) had given opportunity for football to grow as a sport to be played and, more significantly, as a sport to be watched and followed so enthusiastically that the fortunes of the local footy team became important in the lives of many people.

 

Such enthusiasm was fuelled by two elements: simple geography, and the ideology of “them” and “us” that prevailed at the time. Football clubs were seen as representative. It was an honour to be selected to play for the club and hence represent the local suburb. Particularly those clubs that ringed the city’s centre. Each borough was administered separately—each had its own town hall where the mayor and his aldermen oversaw the development of their proud community. Each had its own identity. The football club was a perfectly formed symbol of that, and contributed to that sense of separateness.

 

This was an age when people expressed their loyalty to various entities and causes: to the British Empire, the emerging idea of the Australian nation, the school, the parish, and of course—most immediately—the local community, which was usually represented as their suburb.

 

Fitzroy was regarded as Melbourne’s first suburb. It was a microcosm of the broader metropolis in the sense that at the city end it was suburb of the well-heeled who lived in gracious double-storey terraces, yet as it spread out towards the Merri Creek at the northern end, the two-bedroom workers’ terraces were crammed together and filled with hungry mouths.

 

It was something of an embarrassment to the locals that by the early 1880s the suburb still didn’t have a football team. Finally, according to The Mercury and Weekly Courier, “Fitzroy awoke from its lethargy”.

 

At a meeting at the Brunswick Family Hotel a club was formed, with members and a committee, to field a team that would represent the good people of Fitzroy. After being admitted to the VFA in 1884, the club developed a strong side. The Maroons, as they were called because of their colours, won their first premiership in 1895. The people celebrated with what The Mercury described as “howling, yelling and singing of Sweet Marie”. Initially, it was a popular win. Under the presidency of R.W. Best—solicitor, former Fitzroy alderman, and then MLA for the seat of Fitzroy—Fitzroy played fairly, and for the love of the game. Best, who was also a lay preacher at St Mark’s Anglican church in Fitzroy, insisted the club embrace the most noble elements of sport.

 

‘Markwell’ in The Australasian noted that:

 

“After twelve years of zealous and honourable effort, Fitzroy have succeeded in acquiring the top place amongst Victorian football teams… [they are] capable, manly and straightforward exponents of the game.”

 

That popularity did not last. In the seasons that followed, the powerful Fitzroy club became the bane of those with their eyes on the same prize, and the Roys were criticised for being a club that was starting to value winning over all else. The purists were not impressed. There were claims and counter claims of bribes, and payments and inducements to players. The debate raged as to whether football should be played for the love of the game, or for thirty  pieces of silver.

 

Tremendous rivalries developed. Just as the powers of Europe were locked in a battle for national superiority—economic, imperial, military, and even cultural—the suburbs of Melbourne were in conflict with each other. And just as some theorists of history were suggesting in Europe that your neighbour was likely to be your fiercest rival, the same antipathies existed across Melbourne.

 

Fitzroy certainly had developed a keen rivalry with Carlton to its west, and even more so with the new, bold club to the east, Collingwood, which was formed in 1892. Such was the depth of their hatred it was said that the residents of Smith Street (which divides the two suburbs) would abuse each other from across the street on the Friday evening before they met at Brunswick Street or Collingwood’s Victoria Park.

 

At one level, football—noble football—satisfied the romantics and the private school types who played for the glory of the game and the honour of the club and the school. At another level it satisfied the toughs and the larrikins. Both types proved to be fanatical supporters.

 

Players and supporters were encouraged to be totally committed to their clubs. It was an age of commitment to a higher cause—the age of nationalism and new imperialism, when young men could do no more than offer their service and their lives to king and country. The world had not experienced the horrors of the Somme. Dulce et decorum est pro patria more.

 

Football held a symbolic role, and a very real role. The nation needed brave young men who would not shirk the issue when called on. The expectation was high.  Even unconditional. The Collingwood doctor, Thomas Heffernan, inspired players to be in tune with their duty. “[They were to] regard themselves as Roman warriors on the [battle] field,” wrote historian Richard Stremski in Kill For Collingwood “[who] were expected to display the same unflinching loyalty to their captain and club as Roman warriors to Caesar.”

 

Footballers were encouraged to believe, as were those reading The Mercury’s story, that “the deeds that [win] the premiership are as heroic as the deeds which won the Empire.”

 

Fitzroy had similarly noble men in its ranks: archetypes of the day. Stanley Reid was the son of a doctor from Swan Hill. He was a fine scholar-athlete at Scotch College and then at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne where he studied arts and theology. He played with Fitzroy from 1894, often in the backline, where he was a skilful and reliable defender, and a natural leader. His final season was 1898, after which he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and sent off to tend to the parish in Kalgoorlie, a task that would prepare anyone for anything. A patriot and British Empire man, he felt compelled to join the West Australian Mounted Infantry. He was killed in action in the Boer War.

 

 

Photo: Wikipedia

 

 

But Fitzroy also had its knockabouts. The ‘Fitzroy Forties’ was a collection of local toughs who were an ever-threatening presence on the terraces and in the streets afterwards. They would often get in fights with gangs and members of other clubs. According to Richard Stremski in Kill for Collingwood, the Collingwood gangs were more than happy to accommodate the Fitzroy toughs, one saying they loved heading up the road to the Brunswick Street Oval where “if you don’t get good football [at least] you’re bound to have bloodshed.”

 

It was often rather willing on the field as well.

 

Fitzroy’s opponents had little to fear throughout the first season of the VFL, 1897, when the Maroons struggled. They were nowhere near the standard of Geelong, Melbourne or the eventual premier Essendon.

 

In 1898 they were determined to win back local pride. As the teams prepared for the season Fitzroy boasted a strong squad of players, enough to field two teams, even though they had only one. Because it was difficult to win selection, the match committee could stipulate strict conditions. Players would only be considered for if they attended both training sessions, and spent time in the gymnasium.

 

Fitzroy wanted its players to have good wind, that they might stay the match, like a Melbourne Cup thoroughbred. There were many gyms around Melbourne where the sports fraternity would gather to spend time in olde worlde fitness programs involving skipping ropes and medicine balls, boxing bouts, gymnastics and calisthenics.

 

Through the VFA years, Fitzroy, with an array of nuggetty players, had been noted for its physical strength. It added a belief in athleticism, fitness, and stamina; elements that were to prove a key in many games through the season.

 

Not that it helped much in the opening round when the Maroons were trounced by Essendon 10.10 (70) to 2.5 (17). On the same afternoon Collingwood beat the strong Geelong side 7.6 (48) to 3.9 (27).

 

Fitzroy rallied in the second round with a two-goal home win against the rival Magpies, and then showed they would be contenders by surprising Geelong at the Corio Oval when the Pivotonians kicked inaccurately. Geelong came back strongly in the final quarter but the Roys held on 6.3 (39) to 4.10 (34).

 

The Fitzroy mob were expectant. But the season soured quickly with bad losses to South, 7.9 (51) to 2.10 (22), and Essendon, 8.11 (59) to 2.4 (16). The Same Olds again looked like they were the team to beat.

 

The burghers of Collingwood, embarrassed by the loss to their arch rivals earlier in the season, offered a prize of £10 to the club if their boys could beat Fitzroy at home. They inflicted the third successive loss to the Maroons. It didn’t make a lot of sense. Fitzroy was not short of talent or leadership, but they weren’t winning.

 

Their skipper was Alec Sloan, another classic nineteenth-century character. He was earnest and determined in nature, supremely fit, fast and strong. He was happy to earn his living unobtrusively as a postal clerk, preferring to direct his energies at his sporting career. While the captaincy of such a fine club as Fitzroy gave him prominence, he won greater fame as an oarsman. He was for many years the stroke of the Victorian eight. He had won numerous inter-colonial titles and in 1896 he was presented with the Helms Trophy, an international award which celebrated the finest amateur sportsman of the day. In 1898 he was appointed rowing coach at Scotch College, a position he filled (except for a few years) for more than a quarter of a century, taking Scotch to seven Head of the River titles. He was also a prominent cyclist. Sloan led Fitzroy by example, both on the ball, and in his role across half-back. He was famous for his stubborn defence and dashing runs.

 

Alongside him at centre half-back was Pat Hickey (uncle of Reg), a tough man, who knew how to handle himself. He was often the target of abuse from rival fans, but he got on with what he was best at: throwing his weight around and taking strong marks. He was involved in a memorable incident with Melbourne’s Vic Cumberland. It was recalled in a reminiscence by ‘Spectator’ of The Argus in 1935. Every time Cumberland got the ball during one match in the late 1890s Hickey lined him up and barrelled him with fair tackles. This happened four times in succession—fair, but robust, and the last one was brutal. Both players continued on.

 

Fitzroy also had the much-loved Grace brothers. Fans would sing:

 

Other clubs may have their stars,

But Fitzroy have their aces,

Other clubs put on airs,

But, Fitzroy have the Graces.

 

The older brother, Jack, had been the best forward in the VFA in the early 1890s, his bags of goals leading to many a Roys’ victory. He once kicked 11 (out of 15) against Richmond. By 1898 (he turned 30 three days before the Grand Final) he spent most of his time in the ruck, but, still a fine mark, he posed plenty of problems up forward.

 

Mick Grace was four years younger. He was fast and strong and was a fine exponent of the high mark. One of the most revered players of the day, Grace thrived on the big occasions. After a fine season, he dominated the finals, after which he was named Champion of the Colony for 1898.

 

The Fitzroy season, which had been teetering, gained momentum with two come-from-behind wins in the final month of the home and away season. They kicked four goals in the final quarter at Melbourne, and then, having registered just one goal by three-quarter time against Geelong, stormed home to again kick four in the last for a stirring win.

 

At the conclusion of the home and away season Essendon were on top, with Fitzroy a game behind having lost just four of its fourteen matches.

 

Unhappy with the finals system of 1897, the League implemented an expanded finals competition where the eight teams broke into two sections. Section A was for those who had finished first, third, fifth and seventh on the ladder, and the rest went into Section B. The venue of each final was decided by lot.

 

In the first week Fitzroy went to South. The Roys didn’t kick a goal in the first half but again finished powerfully to win by fourteen points. The next week they slaughtered Carlton who didn’t score after quarter-time. In the final sectional match, at home against Essendon, they nearly kicked themselves out of the game again, registering 0.10 in the second quarter. But they were clearly the better side—and the more aggressive side—and thrashed the reigning premier.

 

Fitzroy led its section and played the winner of Section B, fierce rival Collingwood, in the final, to determine who had the right to play the minor premier Essendon in the Grand Final. The Roys won the draw and a huge crowd of 16,000 gathered at Brunswick Street on a day that the cycling reporter in The Argus described as “execrable”. A “hurricane” blew from the north and by late afternoon the sky was “dark with debris”. Consequently, play was scrappy with the ball caught in the dead pocket. Much of the time it was out of bounds. Collingwood looked the better side in the ungodly scrap, until Pat Hickey slammed the Magpie winger Sime into the ground which “knocked all the go” out of him; this seemed to be a turning point. Mick Grace took control of the match, and in a very low-scoring affair, Bill Potter marked for Fitzroy and sent his place kick through for a goal. The Magpies were too tired to mount a final charge.

 

So Fitzroy was favourite to beat Essendon in the first true Grand Final. The Maroons nearly won on default, as a dispute over the venue prompted the Same Olds to consider boycotting the game. The match was set down for the St Kilda ground but, following a wet winter, it was in poor condition and had already been top-dressed in the hope it would recover for the cricket season. The sand was removed and it came up quite well. On the eve of the match, Essendon agreed to play.

 

In the lead-up to the match Alec Sloan had been in doubt. While rowing his single scull on the Yarra he had bumped in to a corpse, and being a fine, upstanding citizen, had notified the authorities. An inquest was called—to be heard on Grand Final day! It appeared there was no way out. However, the magistrate conducting the inquiry was a passionate Fitzroy fan who found it imperative to adjourn the inquest to a later date.

 

A crowd of more than 16,000 gathered for the Grand Final. ‘Follower’ in The Age was surprised given that neither team was “local” and the weather was not ideal. Sloan won the toss and kicked with the wind, which turned out to be very handy, as it dropped off later in the game. Fitzroy started at a frenetic pace, putting considerable physical pressure on its opponent, and the gentler souls in the crowd were concerned for the safety of the players, particularly as some were being barrelled on to the turf, and even on to the asphalt cycling track around the ground. The play for most of the day, reported ‘Observer’ in The Argus, was “vigorous rather than scientific”. It was a pretty wild affair.

 

Billy McSpeerin scored the first major by getting his boot to the leather sphere during a scrimmage in the Fitzroy goal. Soon after Bert Sharpe sent a pass to Mick Grace whose kick was marked by his brother Jim. Jim kicked truly. On one of Essendon’s few attacks Tod Collins, who would later captain the club (and play cricket for Victoria), managed to score “a major”.

 

The second quarter was even rougher with Essendon rallying amid “desperate fighting”. With the exception of the ball-playing of Mick Grace and Paddy Noonan, Fitzroy countered physically “relying too much on muscle and rush”. It came as no surprise that Hickey was in the thick of things. ‘Follower’ in The Age was not amused. “Hickey again disfigured his play by one contemptible attack on Stuckey which was unprovoked and unjustifiable,” he wrote. Nor was ‘Observer’ of The Argus, who was critical of a number of the Fitzroy players claiming: “[They] are simply carrying the plan of demoralising and damaging the other sides altogether too far.”

 

George Stuckey, the Same Olds captain, was a target. Another nineteenth-century all-rounder (he also played cricket for Victoria), he was regarded as an inspirational leader. He was as quick as any player in the League, having won the Stawell Gift the previous year. When he placed a fair bump on Fitzroy’s own speedster Kelly Robinson, Stuckey was forced to defend himself as the Fitzroy wingman stood before him with fists raised in the classical boxer’s pose.

 

Essendon countered by trying to open up the play. The Same Olds, according to The Argus, “spread out their formation”, which brought the quicker players into the game. Fitzroy’s Eddie Drohan was influential, setting up a number of forward thrusts, including one that resulted in Jim Grace’s second goal. Drohan was being assisted by on-ballers Noonan and Billy McSpeerin, and by Sloan who was “making some grand runs” from the backline.

 

The game was not characterised by flow. The Roys backs were determined to intimidate the Essendon forwards. It was a problem for Essendon, wrote ‘Observer’, as not one player had the strength “to stand against the charges of the Fitzroy backs”.

 

Stan Reid was solid in defence, and for a time may well have had as his direct opponent Essendon forward Charles Moore. By staggering coincidence, Moore was the only other VFL player to be killed in the Boer War.

 

At the long break Fitzroy led by ten points but, said ‘Follower’, Essendon “always gave one the impression they were struggling against a superior force”.

 

The Same Olds rallied after half-time, but their effort was short-lived as, unable to put a score on the board, they watched Mick Grace take a towering mark (the best of the afternoon) and then drop kick his side’s fifth goal. It capped off a brilliant performance. “It would be impossible to overestimate the value of his play to the winning side,” wrote ‘Follower’ who suggested the younger Grace had put on an exhibition of rucking, marking and kicking.

 

By the final quarter the “tremendous pace had cleaned every man on the ground out” and it became a desperate affair with the Roys defending their sixteen-point lead. Two-thirds of the men created an awful scrum. Exhausted players threw themselves on the football, and it seemed no one would score. A couple of times when Essendon was presented with an opportunity Sloan cleared the football, breaking free of the congestion and racing down the wing.

 

Again it was the stamina of Fitzroy that served the team so well. They did it relatively easily once the Essendon spirit was broken. The final margin was fifteen points.

 

It was a tough match. ‘Observer’ concluded: “It could have been a better game, but not a harder one.”

 

Fitzroy had won its first VFL flag.

 

The players were the pride of Fitzroy. They were as fine a body of young men as could be gathered in one place. And the locals walked tall, knowing they lived in the best suburb in Melbourne.

 

 

 

Grand Final

 

Fitzroy v Essendon

Sep 24, 1898
Junction Oval

 

Fitzroy             2.5       4.5       5.6       5.8 (38)
Essendon         1.0       3.1       3.2       3.5 (23)

 

Goals:

Fitzroy – J. Grace 2, M. Grace, McDougall, McSpeerin.
Essendon – Collins 2, Moore.

 

Best:

Fitzroy – Drohan, M. Grace, Hickey, Potter, Reid, Sloan.
Essendon – Cleghorn, Forbes, Gavin, Hastings, Jackson, Stuckey.

 

Umpire: I. Crapp

Crowd: 16,538

 

Specific sources for this history include:

 

The Age
The Argus
The Australasian

 

Chris Donald    Fitzroy: For the love of the jumper
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

 

 

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. matt watson says

    Loved it John!!
    I like all things related to Fitzroy, and I’m still upset that they’re gone.

  2. A wonderful description of the first VFL Grand Final, John.
    Given his “Boys Own” status, it’s incredible to think that Alec Sloan was a postal clerk, something I was unaware of until now.
    By all accounts, Pat Hickey was the type of enforcer that virtually every team had, but one who’d be drummed out of today’s sanitised game.
    The trilogy of VFL/AFL Grand Finals books is a “must have” for footy fans; a virtual equivalent to the “Wisden Book of Test Cricket” series.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Thoroughly enjoyed this JTH. Fitzroy history magnificently told.

    Interested in the reference to the “Burghers of Collingwood”. I have only heard of “Burghers” from my Sri Lankan cricket teammates at Pomborneit. To them they are Sri Lankans with European blood. A minority in their country.

  4. That is a ripping yarn.
    I enjoy historical Melbourne stories.
    RIP Fitzroy

  5. Adam Muyt says

    Terrific tale John. Oh for a time machine and a Roys Empire.
    Go Maroons!

  6. Superb JTH and thanks for the reminder not to go rowing in the,Yarra

  7. LAURIE LAFFAN says

    Good one JTH.
    I was born in 1944 and saw the next Lions premiership at the MCG in 2001.They beat Essendon again!!!My second team, having spent my first seven years in Moonee Ponds and barracking for the Dons..I remember my Fitzroy “Gorilla” face cut out from the Weeties packet.Regards. Laurie Laffan

  8. DJ Williams says

    That was great John, I loved it. You especially place things in their time well.

Leave a Comment

*