Almanac (Footy) History: Little Jim Johnson – a turbulent year at the famous Melbourne High School

Melbourne High School is a mystical place for Australian football.


Since its inception in 1905, the single-sex institution has produced many star VFL/ AFL players. Both their school team and their Melbourne High School Old Boys side are revered. For many country larrikins who arrived in the big smoke of the Melbourne CBD ready to ply their trade in the main league, MHS accepted them with open arms. The school is an academic one, with an important secondary aim of producing great sportsmen.


Like many new students, young Jim Johnson took his time to adjust to MHS life. Jim went from being a big fish in the little pond at Lilydale High Elementary School to a tadpole in the inner-city bowl of Melbourne High.


“In 1950 I arrived at Melbourne High all alone as a fifth-former,” Jim said. “There were cliques of students that were in little groups – I tried to squeeze in on a small group with a cricket bat and ball and was frozen out.”


Jim heard nothing about school cricket in the first term, and was beginning to worry when no news came through regarding school football in the early months of winter. Just as he began to settle into MHS life, he found out about training for the school’s football team.


Like many other country students who uprooted their lives to play at MHS, Jim knew no one.


He had to prove his worth in the early stages. With his newly developed stab punt kick, which he created as an effective and accurate pass, he shone in two interhouse trial games. Jim’s skill was enough to gain selection as the second rover for the school’s First Eighteen.


The schoolyard life at MHS took its time to warm up for Jim, but excelling in the football program lifted his spirits. Jim’s voice rises a little as he recounts Melbourne High’s opening round performance.


“We smacked Swinburne Tech early,” Jim said. “We absolutely thrashed them, and I was mentioned in the school Sentinel as one of the best players on the ground.”


It was a strong start for the fifth-former, who was looking to make a name for himself in the sporting sector of the school. Jim was in elite company – every team they played feature a handful of players who would go on to star in the VFL.


After MHS accounted for Swinburne Tech in their first match, Jim quickly learnt that the season wasn’t going to be as cruisy going forward. The First Eighteen’s second game was against the rival Melbourne Grammar. Jim was advised that they were an exceptional side who would make life tough for MHS. The previous year, Melbourne Grammar had trounced Melbourne High to the tune of 147 points.


Maybe it was because he continued to play for Ringwood’s First Eighteen on the weekends while being an MHS student, but Jim wasn’t overawed by the occasion. In a tight 11-point loss, the Melbourne High Sentinel named Jim as MHS’ best player in the see-sawing contest. His impact was so profound that the Sports Master gave him a special mention at the Monday Morning School Assembly.


“He told everyone how well I had played and called me a tiger for the school,” Jim said.


MHS Sentinels from Jim Johnson’s game against Melbourne Grammar. On the second page you can see highlighted the mentions of Jim and his fantastic performance.



In just two matches, the young rover was labelled as ‘the brilliant Johnson’ in the school’s official publication. He had gone from a shy new student to one of the school’s better players who “roved tirelessly”.


As Jim’s football life began to settle at Melbourne High, his social life also improved. It was hard for Jim to mingle with the older sixth formers he was playing footy with, but he was able to strike a lasting friendship with his classmate Mick.


“Mick was a country boy from near Bright,” Jim said. “He was my best friend from early on in the year and remained that way.”


Jim’s football year continued to get better. On the following Friday, Jim was once again named in his school’s best in their win over Scotch College. The Sentinel didn’t hold back in its praise.


“Harms picked up and sent to the ever-dangerous Johnson, who added six points to the score,” the Sentinel reads. “Johnson, the diminutive rover, picked up and after eluding two players in a 40-yard dash, kicked through an open goal.”


Just a month later, Jim and his MHS teammates would lose in their second fixture against Scotch College. But Jim’s season was still in the midst of blossoming; he was named his side’s best player in the losing cause. Alongside Jim in the best players was Peter Kanis, who later went on to play 41 games and kick 11 goals in a five-year stint at Hawthorn. Little Jim Johnson was holding his own in a high-quality environment.


By the season’s end, Jim was a regular in the MHS First Eighteen. Melbourne High sides have been consistently associated with success. But Jim believes his other football clubs in Mount Evelyn and Ringwood would have beaten his MHS side. It doesn’t help that his other clubs were composed of footballers more experienced than the young talent that filled Melbourne High’s First Eighteen.


Sporting success didn’t mean Jim was completely at home at Melbourne High. At the end of 1950 he was asked by the Sports Master to return the next year to be made a sixth form prefect. Yet Jim left at the end of the school year with no telephone numbers of friends. On presentation night, Jim didn’t receive the best and fairest trophy, and was told this was unfair.


“A sixth former from the row of seats behind me touched me on the shoulder and passed a comment that I should have been getting the trophy,” Jim said. “The person who won it was two years older than me and was the captain and coach of the team – he fully deserved the trophy.”


It was a tough decision, considering Jim’s sporting success in 1950, but the little rover decided to leave MHS after a year.


Jim’s one-year journey at the illustrious football school still holds fond memories. He got to play with three figures who would go on to have strong careers at Hawthorn; ex-captain-coach Alec Albiston, defender Brian Kann and Peter Kanis.


Jim’s time at Melbourne High School was an intriguing study on the inner workings of this school. He went from no one caring about his previous cricket or football exploits to featuring prominently in both sports’ first teams. Jim’s 1950 at MHS may not have gone perfectly, but the little rover was glad to hide his most important football skill from his school mates.


“My teammates certainly did not recognise my methods of foot disposal,” Jim said. “And I certainly wasn’t going to tell them how clever I actually was with it. I was taught never to be a show-off.”


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  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Interesting story Sean, thanks for sharing it. I was slightly aware of JJ but you have put me more in the picture about him.

  2. A great yarn, thanks Sean

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