Almanac Footy History – Wilfred Smallhorn: The Remarkable Chicken

 

 

 

One of the worst things to be called in the schoolyard when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s was ‘chicken’.  Chicken-hearted; afraid of getting in there; too scared to do the daring – or reckless – stuff.  Just the thought of being dubbed ‘chicken’ was enough to get you to do things.  That’s peer pressure for you.

 

But there was nothing ‘chicken’ about Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn, in fact his approach to football and life made a mockery of any humiliating associations with the word.

 

Born and raised in Fitzroy (Miller Street, North Fitzroy), Chicken told Jack Dyer he was given the moniker by his mother as a little boy because he was so small and light, ‘just like a little chicken’.  The name stuck from that moment on, and for the rest of his life almost everyone referred to him as Chicken, or just Chick.

 

Chick didn’t do much in the physical sense to challenge the nickname; he stayed small and light, eventually reaching the not-so-dizzying height of 170cms, while playing at around 60-65 kilograms.  Not that it mattered much – Chick used his lithe frame, speed, agility and ability and could read the play to great effect.

 

Debuting for the Maroons as a nineteen years old in 1930, Chick came to the club as a rover but was moved in no time to the wing, a shift designed to take advantage of his pace and protect his light frame from the intense physical stuff that playing on the ball would have exposed him to.

 

By the end of the 1932 season Chick had already debuted for Victoria and started racking up serious numbers of votes in the Brownlow count, including a top ten finish the year his Fitzroy teammate, champion Haydn Bunton, took out his second consecutive Brownlow.  In 1933 Chick made it a hat-trick of Fitzroy Brownlows.

 

Dan Murray, teammate of Chick in 1933, described him thus: ‘For a small man, he could mark over the big ruckmen…he could get up very high for a mark and was tremendously fast.  He could baulk and turn and do all the things necessary for a star winger.’  Another teammate, John Cashman said of him: ‘Chick was a sensational little player.  He was very fast and you could knock the ball in from the ruck five yards in front of him and he’d be there first, nine out of ten times.’

 

The reigning Brownlow Medallist finished only three votes behind Essendon’s Dick Reynolds in 1934, and when Reynold’s won his third medal in 1938, Chick finished third.  He also finished in the top ten in 1939, his last full season at Fitzroy.  There’s little doubt that if Bunton hadn’t been in the Fitzroy team pulling in so many Brownlow votes, Chick would have grabbed at least one, and possibly two more, Brownlow Medals for himself.

 

But Chick was under no illusions about the Brownlow, as he observed in the early 1980s: ‘I don’t think it’s a fair award, I never have.  It took forty years for a wingman to win one after me – Keith Greig in 1973.  We’ve had one back-pocket player and one full-back…only a certain type of player wins – and that’s not fair in my book!’

 

Fitzroy failed to make the finals in any of the years Chick played, a seemingly odd situation considering the team had three Brownlow winners in it, Bunton, Chick and Dinny Ryan, winner in 1936, as well as several genuinely top-level players including Doug Nicholls, Frank Curcio, Clen Denning, Maurie Hearn and Jack Moriarty.  In fact the team barely made it out of the bottom four in this period, even managing to ‘win’ the club’s first wooden spoon in 1936.  ‘We just weren’t good enough, we had too many fellows coming through our ranks who weren’t good enough,’ Chick recalled.

 

Chick had several run-ins with the club administration, largely for what he saw as the poor treatment dished out to local players by the club.  It was the Depression, and one of the most valuable things a club could do for its players was find them a decent, well-paying job.  In Chick’s view the club always gave the best jobs to interstate and country recruits at the expense of local boys.  In his case he had to put up with a range of poor, unsatisfying jobs including working in a factory, on a bread-cart and at a motor-wreckers.

 

The oddest job the club found for him was doing a tea-round in Fitzroy, selling tea to supporters and whoever else wanted it.  At first he did it on a bicycle but he soon moved on to a motorcycle (with a sidecar) before getting hold of a small, horse-drawn, wagon.  He emblazoning his name on it, added extra products to the range and had the tea wrapped in Fitzroy colours:

 

‘I used to take a basket into a person’s place and if they didn’t buy a half pound of tea, I’d often sell them a jelly and I would make a penny.  By the end, the round paid eight pound a week, which, added to the three pound I got from football, was good money in those days.  I was in clover.’

 

But running a tea-cart through the streets of Fitzroy had its problems, particularly if you were a well-known and much-loved Fitzroy footballer: “After a number of years on the round, I really thought I was going mental.  Because Fitzroy almost always lost each Saturday, you’d go to customers on a Monday and they would ask, ‘What happened to you last Saturday?’  And you would go through the game with them and you’d have to explain why you were going to win the next Saturday.  But I knew I was going to have to answer the same questions the next Monday.  In the end you start to go around the bend.”

 

Chick seriously injured his knee during the 1936 season and sold the tea-round on the understanding that the club would find him a better job.  But this never happened – he then found himself without work for ten months.

 

With virtually no income from any source, Chick had had enough of Fitzroy so at the end of 1936 he sought a release to play with Collingwood, in part because they were offering him better employment.  However, as he was contractually tied to the club, Fitzroy refused to let him go.  He then tried crossing to Melbourne and VFA club, Camberwell, both clubs also promising better paying work than what was on offer from Fitzroy.  When Fitzroy again refused to release him, Chick had to accept his fate: “I had no alternative, I would have been disqualified for life (if I’d transferred without a clearance).”

 

Chick called it quits during the 1940 season after breaking his leg in Round 4, his 150th game for the Maroons.  He was 29 years of age.  He soon enrolled in the army and was unfortunately captured by the Japanese Army in early 1942.

 

Chick spent the next three years as a prisoner-of-war at Changi, including a ten-month stint on the notorious Burma railway, where thousands of Allied prisoners died during its enforced construction.  “I was as close as anyone to Chick during those days at Changi and he was one of a small group from his unit who stuck together on the long march and later on the railway working parties…it was his mateship which helped in our survival,” recalled Jim Boyle, a fellow POW.  Chick’s hard war years seriously affected his health for the rest of his life, not surprising when you consider he caught malaria and developed tuberculosis. By the end of the war his weight had dropped to just 19 kilograms.

 

There were plenty of terrible experiences in Changi and on the Burma railway though a rare, pleasurable episode took place during late 1942, early 1943: Chick and a couple of other prisoners convinced the Japanese to let the POWs play a ‘season’ of Aussie Rules.  With plenty of South Australian, West Australian and Victorian country and suburban players among the prisoners, a competition was quickly set up and several games were played between five teams bearing Melbourne club names. Chick’s health wasn’t too good so he didn’t play; instead he took on one of the two umpiring roles.

 

Following the close of the ‘season’ (the Changi ‘premiership’ was won by ‘Geelong’), a match was organised between a combined Victorian team against the Rest of Australia. Chick umpired and an enormous cheer went up for him when he ran on to the ground in his all-white uniform. He had been in terrible pain for the previous two days but still managed to officiate throughout the game – the next day he had to have his appendix removed.

 

After the war Chick moved into football commentating on radio and later television but eventually had to give it away due to ill health.  He remained a staunch Roys supporter throughout and often made appearances at team and club functions.  In his latter years he made the cheeky observation that although football had changed enormously since his playing days, he didn’t ‘see any reason why I couldn’t get a kick today.’

 

Despite the regular fights he’d had with the Fitzroy administration during his playing days, Chick made it clear he loved playing for the Roys, his boyhood dream come true.  ‘To wear a maroon and blue guernsey, you would give your right arm…’

 

Chick died in November 1988 aged 77 and his family donated his Brownlow to the MCG Gallery of Sports the following year.

 

In 2001, Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn was named on the wing in the Fitzroy Team of the Century.  Where else would a bloke with that nickname play?

 

Chick with Harold Ball, Melbourne premiership ruckman, Changi

Chick with Harold Ball, Melbourne premiership ruckman, Changi.

 

 

This is a modified version of a piece that originally appeared in 2007 at a short-lived Fitzroy FC history website.

 

Material for this story is sourced from:

 

The First 100 Seasons by Sutherland et al, a history of the Fitzroy FC produced for the club’s centenary in 1983

 

Fitzroy – Brisbane Lions Historical Society Newsletter, Vol.1, 2006.

 

For details on the Changi ‘premiership’ and Chick’s role, see the articles, Football Behind Bamboo, from Football Life, September 1969, and Changi’s Football Hero, from the Sun News Pictorial, 24 April 1984.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE

 

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 in Australia.

Comments

  1. Terrific story, thanks Adam.

    He would have gone to Miller Street Primary. Which is now Merri Creek Primary. Which is where our kids go.

    I recall Chicken looking ancient already when on the footy round-up show – was he on the ABC one?

    If you have those Herald Sun links handy, please shoot them to me, or put them in the comments as I am sure people would love to read more about the Changi Premiership. There was also a Bougainville Cup which is pretty unknown but famous in (Old) Queensland because the Qldboys won it!

    Thanks again, terrific read.

  2. Bernard Whimpress says

    Lovely piece, Adam. It would’ve warmed the heart of a friend’s father who died many years ago. A life-long Roys fan he rated ‘Chicken’ his favourite player, loved Doug Nicholls in his seasons at the club but considered Bunton too selfish.

  3. Jarrod_L says

    I always love to read more in-depth stories about Roys legends past. ‘Chicken’ was a name that stood out early on (with good reason of course) as I discovered more about Fitzroy through books and records, but my knowledge of the man behind the nickname is certainly far from extensive. Thanks for putting it together and helping to expand that knowledge a little.

  4. John Milton says

    Adam that was a great read.
    My father-in-law told me a story of the night Chicken won the Brownlow. No red carpets and hoopla at Crown. Apparently he was at the old North Fitzroy picture theatre with his wife; at the film’s end as they left the theatre Chicken was met by a journo from the Sporting Globe who asked him what it felt like to be the Brownlow medallist (or something like that). The Picture Theatre was situated on St George’s Rd between Miller and Clauscen Streets – now an apartment complex, only the facade remains.

  5. maurie farrell says

    My dad, a Collingwood supporter, always said that Chicken Smallhorn was a better player than Bunton. Sadly, I only remember him from hearing his voice commenting well after he retired. Odd, but I always imagined him as a big guy. A terrific article , by the way

  6. bruce baker says

    Was walking down Dundas St Thornbury with Mum and Brother on the way to watch the Roys at Princess Park. A car stopped and Chicken Smallhorn gave us a lift to the ground. He knew my Mum and Dad and after reading this story my Dad may have been in New Guinea with him during the war. Dad was also a decent cricketer opening for Thornbury Baptists I think and opened with Bill aLawry as well. Not sure if Chicken was a cricketer but he seemed a lovely humorous gentleman.

  7. Shane Reid says

    Thanks Adam, what a great read. It is incredible to think, three Brownlow medallist’s in the same team and they didn’t play finals.

  8. A great story about an unlikely Fitzroy legend, Adam.
    I enjoyed the Chicken wing reference to his position in Fitzroy’s Team of the Century.
    Evidently, Chicken’s coach at East Brunswick Methodists was Arnold Beitzel, father of “the Big H”.
    Given the well-documented horrors of Changi and the Burmese railway, it’s amazing that the Japanese allowed the allied prisoners to play a season of footy.
    Had the Japanese entered their own team it may have had shades of the 1981 soccer/war film “Escape to Victory”, starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Pele.

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Brilliant read Adam. Love the photo at the top, looks a perfectly balanced player.
    Incredible he survived the war after dropping down to 19kgs.

  10. grapevine says

    Chicken married into my family tree (married one of the great aunts). I don’t remember a lot about him except that he was the archetypal gentleman. He never boasted about his football or media career and from memory, frowned somewhat on drinking alcohol

  11. grapevine says

    Woops, got that a bit wrong (memory is an odd thing). Chicken was the son of the man who married my great aunt!

  12. Adam Muyt says

    Thanks all for your kind comments, much appreciated.
    Chick definitely touched people – seems everyone who knew him found him warm and generous. This comment was posted by Janice W, a Roygirl, at a Fitzroy FC Facebook group after I posted a link to this article. Her family were friends with the Smallhorns.
    ‘I spent a great deal of time at the Smallhorn house growing up; very close family friends. We spent many evenings having sing songs around the piano and Chick playing his banjo-mandolin. (I think that’s what it was called.) Lots of people who play football seem to be also musical.
    It was such a special time to go there with all the family for dinner during the year and always at Christmas. Vi and Chick were so hospitable and generous to me in many ways even as an adult. I remember once after a great Fitzroy win they came to dinner and we sang the Fitzroy song over and over and over. Another time we were watching Fitzroy playing interstate and Vi was barracking all the time for Darren Kappler. I said, “How come Darren Kappler is the favourite ?” She said, “He’s Number 21.” Of course ! I loved them both.’

  13. Peter Georgiades says

    Great Article Adam his war time experience must have been harrowing. I don’t know how they did it in Changi and the Burma Railway considering he was already a small man and dropped down to 19kg. A great Fitzroy man there is something special about the players whom played for our great club even the story of him older singing our great song over and over after a great win I never hear stories like that from the other clubs.
    Go Lions

  14. John, Chicken was on an ABC football review show on Saturday evenings hosted by Harry Beitzel and was called Who Won and Why, if i remember correctly

  15. Matt Keays says

    Thanks for a great story on a Fab Roy Boy. My grandfather Fred Keays would have known Chick as Fred was a trainer and I also heard “runner” at the club in the 30s. Fred’s 2nd eldest son Desmond “Jack” Keays played in Harold Balls team that Chick umpired – “Champions of Malaya” They were undefeated in the pre Singapore battle time period through 1941. I also wondered if Jack got to play with Chick in Changi. There’s also a book on Kindle Called “The Changi Brownlow”covering that period of time our POWs could play footy over there. They are all legends.

Leave a Comment

*