Eulogy: University don inspired footy history study

By Rod Gillett

The ability to inspire performance is a quality that is most often attributed to sports coaches. It is also attributed to teachers of art, music and literature, even mathematics.  Many of us have had a teacher profoundly influence our scholastic life and engender in us an enduring enthusiasm for a particular subject.

In my case I was very fortunate to have a supervisor for my Masters thesis who provided me with the encouragement and support to keep going – and as most post-grad students know, it’s much more than an academic journey; it’s a long, hard slog.

The supervisor of my Masters of Letters thesis on the early history of Australian football in the Riverina, Dr Bruce Mitchell, has passed away in Armidale at the age of 74.

Although born in Newcastle and raised in Sydney, Bruce had some interest in Australian football.  He would establish his footy credentials by proclaiming that he was the product of a mixed marriage – his mother’s father barracked for Richmond and his mother’s mother barracked for South Melbourne. Bruce had a soft spot for the Swans so it made it easier for him when they moved to Sydney to declare allegiance to the red and whites.

Baseball was his game. And he played it pretty well. He was good enough to be awarded a Blue by the University of Sydney. The only sports paper he wrote, “A National Game Goes International: Baseball in Australia”, was published in the prestigious International Journal of the History of Sport.

Bruce’s original work was on Labor history, especially the history of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, which was the topic for his doctoral dissertation at ANU. He was a history teacher before taking up a position at Sydney Teachers’ College.  He then went to Canberra to do his Ph D at ANU. After moving to Armidale to take up an appointment as a lecturer in Australian history at the University of New England in 1970, Bruce fell in love with local and regional history. This love subsumed his original interests.

It was on the basis of his extensive knowledge of regional history that he was assigned to me as supervisor for my “ground-breaking work” on the early history of football in the Riverina. I had developed a strong personal association with Bruce in my undergrad studies as a student of Australian history, as well as through doing a stint as a research assistant over a summer vacation when was Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

We were also fellow Board members of the UNE Union; Bruce was appointed by the University Council on the basis of a request from the Board.  He was highly interested in student life, particularly political forums and classical music. But he enjoyed a chance to mix socially and he was very keen to encourage university staff to use the Union facilities.

It was during a choral concert in the Great Hall one night that Bruce’s diplomatic skills were put to the test. Across the quadrangle, Dave Warner From The Suburbs was in full flight in the Union Bar. And as any Warner fan would know, Dave is a prolific and proficient user of the Australian vernacular.

As I was responsible for Dave’s gig, Bruce came to me to find a solution to the noisy interference to the choral concert. We agreed for the band to take a long break to enable the choral concert to finish; I managed to placate Dave, Johnny Leopard and the rest of the band by topping up the contract rider with some jugs of beer!

When it came time to present a progress report on my thesis to colleagues and supervisor during a May residential school for distance education students in Armidale, I was scheduled for Saturday afternoon after lunch. This would, of course, be at the same time as the ball was bounced for the VFL round of home-and-away matches in Melbourne that day, and it meant missing the direct telecast on TV.

I decided to introduce some theatre into my presentation. This was driven more by a need to compensate for my lack of research at that point and the need to insert some fun into proceedings, which that were focused mainly on family histories, biographies of railway engineers, and stories of social and political movements in rural backwaters.

I decided to start my seminar presentation like a church service to evoke the similarities between football and religion. I enlisted the services of a few mates from the local footy scene: Coach (aka Brendan Vaughan) was the Altar Boy who led the procession dressed in his uni footy jumper holding a wooden plate with a football on it; he was followed by The Archbishop”, JPM (aka Jack Makeham), a senior lecturer in agricultural economics, who was patron of the uni footy club and a real character on campus (think rural version of Dinny O’Hearn); then there was me, masquerading as the High Priest of Football, with a Swans scarf around my neck holding “the bible” – an old VFL Football Record.

It created responses ranging from outrageous laughter and amusement to disgust, but it got them all going – they all had a footy connection be it personal or distant, or no interest at all – and they said so, and why! This wide-ranging discussion unfortunately limited the time available to focus on my proposed thesis… Bruce was in on the arrangements and, of course, chimed in with his being a product of a mixed marriage. All good fun, even if not purely academic.

The central thesis of my dissertation was that the settlement of the land in the Riverina in the latter part of the 19th century by people who moved to the region from the colony of Victoria resulted in the adoption of the Australian game of football, even as far as the northern part of the Riverina where the Daniher, Carroll and Quade descendants settled. The concerted campaign of railway development by the NSW colonial government to capture the produce of the region from Victoria helped spread and consolidate the game. As a result the football competitions that were formed were based on the railway lines, e.g. the South West line included teams from Junee to Leeton.

However, it was Bruce who encouraged me to explore the social ramifications of this phenomenon. As a result I developed the view that the growth of football as a community game in the Riverina was a form of “social control”, not in the Connell and Irving sense (see Class Structure in Australian History Longman Cheshire 1980), but rather as means of social identity such that in a period of sectarianism in colonial society people could come together to meet and support the local football team. My research showed that the players were drawn from across the social classes, but that the officials were mainly local businessmen, publicans and farmers.

It is worth noting that, just like in Melbourne, the game was first played by the gentlemen in Wagga Wagga (in teams called Commercials and Bank & Law Officers), but that it soon became a game that was embraced by all the social classes.

I only ever got the chance to go to go to one VFL/AFL match with Bruce, way back in 1982, when we were both attending a sports history conference in Melbourne. I took him to the Junction Oval to see Fitzroy play St Kilda, in the days when the Roy Boys were going well and the Sainters were struggling. Bruce was intrigued by the Saints’ Greek god, Con Gorozidis, at full forward (alas the appearance of a real god named Plugger was a few years away).

We stood and watched with a few die-hard Saints’ fans in front of the Ironmonger Stand (colleagues Richard Cashman and Braham Dabscheck sat in the stand) and drank the obligatory can per quarter then went  over to the George Hotel for a few drinks afterwards. As with everything he did, Bruce enjoyed the experience but he was always working at building his knowledge of social history.

In order to undertake research for my thesis I needed to become a member of the State Library of NSW in order to gain access to the Mitchell Library. Bruce managed to have the Head of the UNE History department Professor Russell Ward, the author of The Australian Legend, nominate me with Bruce as seconder.  I still have the hand-written cover note in fountain pen on a UNE letterhead that simply states, “This will get you into heaven”.

The last time I saw Bruce was at the State Library in Sydney last year when I ran into him quite by chance while having a chat in the café with long-time footy friend Ian Granland (who is researching the history of the game in Sydney). Bruce was also in Sydney to do some research on his beloved New England. As it turned out, another old UNE man, Senator Barnaby Joyce, came by. Barnaby was on his way to State Parliament next door. We ended up having a great old chat about UNE, sport, the world, and contemporary politics.

Sadly, that’s the last time I saw Bruce, but I have a vivid image of him in my mind: thick glasses perched precariously on his nose, wispy ginger hair upright, and face glowing with a warm, engaging smile as he challenged you to substantiate your point of view.

POSTSCRIPT:  A copy of the thesis “Where The Big Men Fly: An Early History of Australian Football in the Riverina Region of NSW, 1881-1913” is available in the Riverina Archives of Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. The work has proven to be a useful resource for football clubs in the Riverina tracing the history of their club. A journal article based on the thesis was published in the Australian Society for Sports History’s Sporting Traditions, Vol. 4, Issue 2, May 1988.


  1. Rocket Bin

    Great to see the name of R W Connell being mentioned in the Almanac pages: Ruling Class Ruling Culture remains a very good book, even though it was first p[ublished in 1978.


  2. Richard E. Jones says

    ROCKET: like you, I had a mentor who I cherish but he came much earlier in my academic life: from the age of 16 through to my 18th year.
    His name is Michael Collins Persse and he was a history/classics chalkie at a big Victorian private school.
    He inspired in me a love of history which I retain to the present day hence my weekly Look Back in History articles penned for the Saturday BFL footy/netball guides. Those yarns are also used by Glenn McMahon on
    Unlike your goodself, Sir Rocket, I have only a humble B.A. degree, no Masters and certainly no honours to append to it. Our youngest daughter went down that path, however, and possesses a Science Masters with honours from Sydney Uni.
    Fancy seeing the name of R.W. Connell mentioned. I’m sure he is the same Professor Connell who carried out a sweeping investigation at the aforesaid big Vic. private school when Dr J.R. Darling (later Sir James Darling) was the Headmaster.
    Connell’s younger bro., fondly known as “Cactus” Connell, was a chalkie at the school and the First XVIII footy coach.

  3. James Hothersall says

    great Eulogy:

    interesting you mentioned Ian Granland. Although I’m in Adelaide, I’m probably in touch with him on a daily basis to discuss NSW football history. He certainly knows Sydney footy.

  4. Dr Rocket says

    Thanks James.

    Its been an interesting week in New England.

    Looks like Barnaby Joyce is going to get the nomination for the Federal seat of New England for the National Party…

    The man who resigned from the Nationals as their nominee and as the independent member for the State seat of Northern Tablelands – and also Chancellor of the University of New England, Richard Torbay was a central character in the story above. He was the bar manager of the Union at the time of the Dave Warner gig at the uni. He somehow found the Emu Export Bitter for The Suburbs to drink while we waited for the choral concert to finish.

    He started as a kitchen hand and rose through the ranks to be bar manager, then catering manager, and then the Warden. After that he went into politics. He’d been well-trained.

    It was great to see him at the UNE footy club reunion in Armidale last August. He has always been a great supporter of the game at the university.

    He will be greatly missed. As a friend of his – I hope all will turn out ok.

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