Almanac Footy History: Round 1, 1919

Round 1 1919


The 2019 AFL (Australian Football league) season is almost upon us, with the first round just days away. Eighteen teams drawn from across Australia will take part in the upcoming season. But what was the first round like a century ago? There was no AFL then, instead it was the VFL, (Victorian Football League).What was the VFL is now the AFL, one of the biggest players in the local entertainment industry. It is now a public company, the Australian Football League Incorporated ACN 004 155 211. In 2017 the AFL club revenue was $998.13 Million. But let’s go back, back to a time when none of us was born and the world, with of course footy, being almost unrecognisable to what it is now.


When the guns fell silent across the Western Front on 11/11/18, Australia, nay the world, sought a respite from the horrors. The Great Trade War, AKA World War One, saw a global casualty toll of 37.5 Million. Of the Australians who saw action 62,000 were killed, with a further 156,000 wounded. 65% of the Australians who saw action were casualties, the highest casualty rate of any nation.


The VFL community wasn’t exempt from the carnage , with 96 players killed during the conflict. All VFL teams lost players ranging from Richmond with 3 killed, up to Melbourne who had 16 fatalities, with University suffering the worst loss of life with 19 deaths.  On the day of the disastrous landing in the Dardanelles, 25/4/15, no fewer than six VFL players died. The VFL played its role supporting the patriot fund. By the time the 1919 season started it had contributed 9,436-0-0 pounds.


The impact of the war was long lasting. We saw the birth of the world’s first Socialist State with the emergence of the Soviet Union, as Czarist Russia collapsed. Other monarchies toppled, empires fell, with the world redrawn by the victors. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles saw Germany severely punished for its role in the war , setting the path for another, even more brutal, World War.


But even as the First World War ended, the horror was not over as mass death on a global scale still wreaked havoc. A particularly virulent strain of influenza, a H1N1 virus, struck suddenly.  This pandemic, often called the Spanish Flu, swept the planet .  Around the world an estimated 500 Million were infected, with over 50 Million dying. In Australia, 1 Million people were infected, with 12,500 deaths.  30% of the victims were Victorians.


Against this back ground the start of the 1919 VFL season was a blessing, a chance for some healthy participation, and social engagement (To use the modern parlance). Australia then had a population of 5,193,104, with Melbourne hovering around the 700,000 mark. Melbourne now has passed the 5 million mark. It would be remiss of me not to mention Melbourne was then the capital of Australia, a title it held until 1927.


When the war commenced in 1914 the VFL consisted of ten clubs, though University folded at the end of that season.  Prior to the following season, 1915, there was talk of curtailing VFL  matches during the war, but the game went ahead albeit with nine competing clubs, a figure that fell to four in 1916; Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy & Richmond.  However, it went back up to six in 1917, then eight in in the final year of the war. Melbourne returned for the 1919 season bringing the league up to nine clubs.


Round one of 1919 was on Saturday May 3. There were four matches, involving eight teams,   Geelong having a bye. There was no pre-season AFLX or JLT to whet the appetites. However there were the seconds’ matches before the senior games, 1919 being their inaugural season. No seconds’ competition in 2019.


In the grand final replay South Melbourne took on Collingwood at the Lake Side Oval. In the 1918 Grand Final Collingwood led by 12 points at ¾ time, before going down: 9-8-62 to 7-15-57. Sorry Phil, there’s a long history of Collingwood losing Grand Finals from winning positions.  How would the replay in 1919 pan out? Would legendary coach Jock McHale get his team up ?


In the home side for the opening match was Vic Belcher, who’d previously been South Melbourne’s  captain coach. He later coached Fitzroy to a premiership, this following a season umpiring, and is an AFL Hall of Famer. Alongside him was Stan Hiskins, born in Wahgunyah, recruited from Rutherglen. Hiskins made his South Melbourne debut in 1913, then after 1914 found himself serving in the armed forces not playing VFL football again until this match.


Amongst the Collingwood ranks was Charlie Pannam, of the famous Collingwood footballing  family. The family had changed their surname from the Greek Pannamopolous across to an Anglicised Pannam. The interestingly named Pen Reynolds was also in the team. Pen was an abbreviation of Pendarves. Can we create a side of Pendarves’s ?


Anyhow back to the footy.


Collingwood obtained revenge for their Grand Final defeat . Leading by 15 points at ¾ time Collingwood wouldn’t be over run again. Collingwood 9.8.62 were too steady in the final term, being 13-point victors over the home side, South Melbourne finishing with 6.13.49.


After three seasons out of league ranks Melbourne travelled down St Kilda Rd to the Junction Oval for their returning match. However, it wasn’t a warm welcome back as St Kilda had a comfortable 28-point victory, leading at every change. St Kilda finishing with 12.14.86, Melbourne kicking 9.4.58. Harry Moyes proved damaging for the Saints with a game high 4 goals. Moyes later finished his career at Melbourne.


George Heinz, appointed Melbourne Captain, led his team by example kicking three goals. It was the start of a bad year for the Demons finishing bottom of the ladder, winless.  After missing three seasons, compounded by the war time death of 16 players, Melbourne were up against it. A debutant for Melbourne was Herbie Mathews.  He played once for South Melbourne in 1914, a few games for Richmond in 1919, then went to Melbourne after the war prior to returning to South Melbourne where he partnered Roy Cazaly in the ruck. His son Herbie Matthews Jnr. won the 1940 Brownlow Medal playing for South Melbourne.


The clash at the Punt Road Oval saw Richmond take on Essendon. The home side finished the previous year sixth, in the eight-team competition.  Essendon the 1918 wooden spooners.  Essendon, who were called the Dons in that period, played as amateurs in 1918 donating the club profits of 194-18-8 pounds to patriotic, and charitable causes. Essendon lead for the first three terms before the strong finishing home side ran over top of them winning by 20 points, 12.19.91 to 10.11.71


Donald Don, with five goals led the way for Richmond. With that name, was he Welsh ? Whilst we’re on names, for lovers of old names, in the Richmond line up was; two Arties, a Barney, Clarrie, a Percy and a Reg. Essendon had two Bert’s, a Bertie as well, also a Leo, with two Percy’s to cap it off.


Alan Belcher, brother of South Melbourne’s Vic Belcher, played for Essendon. He had a sad demise, dying two years later in the Kew Hospital for the Insane, suffering a general paralysis. Belcher had previously captained Essendon including leading them to the 1912 premiership against South Melbourne. His brother Vic captained South Melbourne in that match .


Princes Park hosted the other match for the round with Carlton taking on Fitzroy. Fitzroy were then known as the Gorillas.  The two teams had met on the same ground in round 14 of the previous season. Round 14 being the final round of the 1918 season . Carlton won that clash by 13 points, 10.14.74 to 9.7.61. How would the 1919 match pan out ?


Carlton jumped away to a flier, leading by 29 points at the first break. They were 4.6.30 to Fitzroy’s 0.1.1. Charlie ‘Spot’ Fisher in his first match as captain, with four goals was on his way to be Carlton’s’ leading goal kicker for the season finishing the year with 36 goals. Also kicking four goals was Ern Cowley who’d been the clubs leading kicker in 1918 with 35 goals.  Cowley was an intriguing character, being a Victorian baseball state representative, also a sporting journalist in both Australia and America.


For the vanquished, Stan Molan kept them in the hunt with four goals. In their ranks that day were players such as Wally Johnson, Clarrie Featherston, also duel best and fairest winner Gordon Kitchener Rattray, the father of the ‘Torpedo Punt’. Wally Johnson captained Fitzroy in 1916. That season they finished the home and away season last, but with only four teams in the league all played in the semi-finals, Fitzroy subsequently winning the flag.


Geelong fans had another week to wait before their heroes such as Alwyn John, Reg Sutterby, and Percy Martini graced the Corio Oval. Could Geelong improve from their seventh spot finish in 1918? VFL season 1919 was on its way.


After the opening round Carlton headed the ladder with a percentage of 178.2, Fitzroy were on the bottom with a percentage of 56.1. Joining Carlton in the top four after the first week were St Kilda, Richmond, and Collingwood. Carlton subsequently finished the year third on the ladder with 10 wins, Fitzroy finishing fifth on the ladder with nine and half wins, missing out on a finals berth by 2 points. The premiership Cup was held aloft that year by Collingwood who defeated Richmond by 25 points, a reversal of the previous weeks’ preliminary final. This was their fifth VFL flag. It was on October 11. There you go Phil, the Pies Grand final record in October is dashed good.


A century later the game, Melbourne, Australia, the world, is unrecognisable from what it was at the start of the 1919 VFL season. The game has moved well beyond Melbourne and Geelong, now being Australia wide, with 18 teams playing at the highest level. Television, well beyond the imagination of most of the world in 1919, Is now the life blood of the game beaming into households across our continent as well as many other parts of the world. This has provided a lucrative inducement for companies to advertise their wares to a huge audience. Football is a key player in the Australian entertainment industry. No, it’s a very different world now.


In closing, what more can I say then; Lest we forget, let the game begin.


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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Huge research effort here Glen. Many thanks.

    Amen! Bring on Round 1, 2019.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to get back to normality after such a horrendous event let alone play or think about footy! Great read Glen!

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Brilliant work, Glen !
    I bet many were relieved to be able to just go to the footy without the spectre of war hanging over them. So many great old names, Percy, Clarrie, Horrie etal give us a glimpse into a different time in our history. A time when the Pies were preparing to be the greatest footy team in VFL history. 1917 to 1939 = 8 Premierships and 8 times runners up.
    May the premiers of 1919 do it again 100 years later !

  4. I love this, Glen! Wonderful stuff.
    I really enjoy reading footy and social history (and the two of them combined).
    I would love to see more.
    This reminds me of John Butler’s excellent review of the 1911 season on this site some years ago.

  5. Ta Smokie.

    JB i must have missed the review of the 1911 season. I’ll have to find the link.


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