Era, era on the wall: 1949-1959

PART 3 – Safe at home, and away

Just when the spectacle needed a lift, along came the high flying John Coleman, aided and abetted by the Bombers’ game changing mosquito fleet.  Awe-struck spectators would follow the prolific spearhead to whichever end Essendon was kicking.  Even my father, a devout ‘Pie, religiously marked in his school diary how many goals Coleman kicked each week.




Charlie Sutton leads out the Dogs in ’54

Supported by the likes of Dick Reynolds and Percy Bentley, the Sporting Globe‘s Hec De Lacy wrote in 1951 that football was ‘in its cleverest, its greatest era’.  He added ‘this is the day of the mobile opportunist’.  It was said the League had the VFA to thank for pioneering rules adopted to encourage a free-flowing, quicker tempo.  Allowing throws masquerading as handpasses was one of them.

After a long and direct kicking Geelong overtook Essendon for pace and began initiating their attacks from half back, Melbourne perfected the bold new style by adding more vigour to the mix (according to 1953 premiership captain Lou Richards).

The ‘Fifties was largely a one-horse race though. After Essendon, Geelong and Footscray’s one-and-only, Melbourne’s domination was only ever threatened by Collingwood.

“A car in every garage, a Victa mower for every lawn, and the house and garden on the quarter acre block – the great Australian dream began to be the statistical reality.”
– Sandercock & Turner, 1980

Whilst European migrants began flowing through Essendon Airport in great numbers, it was some time before they were made to feel as welcome at or on the suburban battlefields.  And battlefields is an apt summation; the press regularly reported scenes of crowds mobbing umpires and spectators invading the field to have a crack at players.

Not all fans came to see a donnybrook.  Footballers the calibre of Hutchison, Barassi, Bob Davis, Merrett, and Bob Rose emerged out of the suburban quagmires as stars of the day, coming into their own when the grounds dried and their teams needed their skill and dash most in September.  They kept their wits about them though, lest their wings be clipped by ‘knucklemen’ deployed to curtail them.  Roy Wright, Whitten, Weideman and ‘Mopsy’ Fraser were feared footballers of their generation.

Interestingly, there was hand wringing over the game’s failure to make headway in Sydney and Brisbane as far back as the mid 1950’s.  In a time cherished by political conservatives, football’s similar reluctance to embrace any change was lamented by pre-eminent writers such as Hec De Lacy who said the game was ‘run like a penny dip’ without the slightest regard for the comfort of patrons.  He also lamented the League’s non-efforts to sell the game and their lack of flair for promotion.

‘The desires of the public are not being studied.”
– Hec de Lacy, Sporting Globe, 1951 

As sure as the sun sets over the Members Stand…

According to John Ross (100 Years of Australian Football) ‘it was in the shoulder to shoulder crush of the terraces that trouble could occur, on those slippery mud and blue metal slopes. Here the beer was consumed in unfettered quantities and the language was lewd, profane and scatological.’

And ‘down the back were the ‘amenities’, dark and evil structures which were positive sink holes of humanity on match days, when the distended bladders of the masses sought relief.’

“The bars were a nightmare of congestion; glasses were dipped in a bucket of dirty water and retained the froth on the sides from the previous drinker.”

In fact a Sporting Globe investigation called for action before the squalid and unhygienic conditions caused an outbreak of illness.

Yet the punters were undeterred. Average crowds in the low 20,000’s stand up well considering Melbourne’s population at the time of the 1956 Olympic Games was just 1.5 million (a third of today).  A Queen’s Birthday crowd of 99,348 for Collingwood and Melbourne in 1958 was nothing short of extraordinary.  Come finals time the MCG would threaten to burst.  Huge numbers regularly sat on the field between the boundary line and the old picket fence that otherwise threatened to impale players and over exuberant spectators (OH&S ceased to exist in the ‘Fifties).

The competition really needed its own ground for only a small percentage of the revenue generated come finals time made it into the League’s coffers.  Similarly, most clubs were on a sticky wicket in their dealings with their cricketing co-tenants and local councils.

For all its quaint familiarities and popularity, football had issues to resolve.  But VFL 2IC Kenneth Luke was an energetic mover and shaker who began espousing a grand plan as early as 1954 (more on that later).

Video links
1949 Essendon v Carlton Grand Final
1950 Essendon v North Melbourne Grand Final
1951 Geelong v Essendon Grand Final
1953 Collingwood v Geelong Grand Final
1954 Footscray v Melbourne Grand Final
1956 VAFA v VFL/VFA Olympic exhibition match
1958 Collingwood v Melbourne Grand Final

3 balls

Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)

The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)



About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Brilliant JD. Watching footage from the ’58 GF gave me goosebumps. Protecting our record and the jubilation of Phonse Kyne and co at the siren. Stirring stuff.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    Thank you so much for the 1954 GF film. The footage is like hen’s-teeth for us premiership-starved fans in an era when one team can pick up three in a row and every second of the game and celebrations can be captured on multiple recording devices.
    In 2010 the then Bulldog’s players met with some of the 1954 team at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville to watch film of the 1954 premiership. Their meeting was put on the Western Bulldog’s web-site for the fans.
    So apart from from those sort of snippets we haven’t seen much at all.
    The commentary by Ted and Lou Richards was excellent pointing out the various players and reminding us that Jack Collins kicked seven on that day for example.
    Seeing those 1954 Bulldog players and hearing their names again threw me right back in time when I was one of those little kids watching the game as part of that huge crowd.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Another excellent chapter Jeff. Like Phil, really enjoyed the ’58 clip. Wonderful effort to stop Melbourne equalling our four flags in a row, a similar effort might be required from the Pies next year.

  4. The 1950’s saw the Demons enjoy their greatest decade with 7 consecutive Grand Finals including five flags, with of course the Bulldogs getting their sole flag, as well the decade saw the last premiership success for the Pies for over there decades.

    North Melbourne reached their first Grand Final, though it took another quarter of a century for their first flag, with Hawthorn appearing in a finals series for the first time. Geelong saw themselves in three consecutive grand finals including a quinella of flags, though they bottomed out in the latter part of the decade, which saw them collect their most recent wooden spoon.

    Two power houses of the following two decades, Richmond and Carlton had a very low key decade, though they made up for it in the following years.


  5. Cowshedend says

    Brilliant again Jeff.
    The Coleman and the 54 GF footage have the wonderful Footscray full back Herbie Henderson featuring prominently (no 25), in the 53 semi the Bombres only kicked 5 goals, with Coleman kicking just the 1.

  6. Happy to oblige Neil & Cowshed – the old Doggies footage is brilliant, even more so being in colour. It’s remarkable how the crowd were allowed to line the boundary 10 deep like they did.

    Thanks to the Youtube heroes that post all the rare old footy filums, they deserve an AFL life membership.

  7. DBalassone says

    This old footage certainly is illuminating. I used to think the olden days was just mongrel punts and EJ pushing opponents head in the mud, but these videos show there was great skill and a thrilling spectacle. Yep, it was the greatest game of all, way back then as well….

    Great stuff JD. Imminently readable – unlike ‘The Lost List’ from what I’ve heard – did you make it past the first page?

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