Footy in the 20s: East folds, three country clubs arrive


FOOTBALL was eagerly awaited as 1920 rolled around with central Victorians trying to put the horrors of the First World War behind them and re-introduce a bit of normality to their lives.

It was a vibrant decade for footy in Bendigo.

The league admitted country clubs, super coach Bob McCaskill arrived and people flocked to big matches at the Upper Reserve with most of their troubles behind them.

The 1919 grand final hadn’t been a high-scoring affair. Indeed, it was a real slug-fest as South Bendigo scraped home by a single point.

The Bloods had finished third at the end of the regular season, but in front of an enormous crowd kicked straighter to edge the re-formed and reborn Sandhurst: South 3.7 (25) to Hurst 2.12 (24).

Nonetheless the Hurst (in recess from 1900-1918) dominated the 1920 season, losing just two games, and made amends for the 1919 loss by winning the first flag of the new decade: 6.6 (42) to South’s 4.5 (29).

The grand final was played on a slushy oval as the Upper Reserve was a bog following non-stop downpours in the week leading up to the big day.

Could the Maroons make it a double in 1921? Well, no they couldn’t as South downed Eaglehawk in the grand final.

The 1922 season was notable for the use of the old finals rule. This stated that if the minor premier was beaten in an early final they had the chance to challenge.

Eaglehawk, as the minor premiers in ’22, went down by five points to Sandhurst in the semis.

So another game was required: the grand final, as we know the term today.

The re-match went ahead with the Two Blues successful to take out their first premiership since 1908.


LEAGUE administrators of the period were mindful that if their code was to grow, country clubs were sorely needed.

Expansion was required to ensure the league’s survival.

Rochester re-entered the league in 1923, wearing their famed black and red strip which was to become a feared uniform later in their history.

Rochy had actually first played in the then embryonic BFL in 1915, replacing California Gully. But after a handful of games the war’s drain on young men was too great and the league went into recess.

With the re-emergence of Rochester, league heavyweights continued correspondence with officials from neighbouring large towns and in 1924 Echuca joined the BFL.

For the first time in a long while the league now had six clubs. Gone was the assurance each April that by September or October there would be a finals spot for your club — with only four involved.


AND the 1924 season was a cracker. Eaglehawk lost just two matches to finish as minor premiers.

Rochester sneaked into fourth spot and drew their first finals game against South. Eaglehawk won the second semi-final by five points and then Rochester won their re-match by three points over the Bloods.

They’d only just taken the lead in the final minutes of the game. Rochy went on to cause one of the upsets of the Twenties by downing Eaglehawk in the final, meaning a re-match had to be played the following weekend.

The Two Blues didn’t falter this time defeating the league’s newbies comfortably by 44 points: 14.17 (101) to Rochester’s 8.9 (57).

The final piece of the club structure came in 1925 when Castlemaine joined the league at the expense of Bendigo East.

East first entered the Bendigo Football League –— the new name had been adopted only in 1913 — for the 1919 season, straight after World War 1 when footy resumed.

East wore black and white colors and lasted in the league for just six seasons: until the end of 1924. Their first game had been played on season opening day in 1919, May 3rd.


CASTLEMAINE, outfitted in black and white with a huge capital letter “C” on their guernseys, took just two seasons to snare their first Bendigo premiership.

They couldn’t quite do it in 1925 when South beat the Magpies by four points in a gripping grand final: 7.2 (44) to the Maine’s 8.4 (40).

But 1926 was Castlemaine’s year under the coaching of Bill Walton, a former Collingwood ruckman.

The Magpies won over Sandhurst by more than five goals: 13.18 (96) to 8.16 (64).

The next season was a memorable one for Bendigo footy.

The combined BFL team had beaten a VFL side on the Upper Reserve with Bob McCaskill — who’d arrived in Bendigo from Richmond in 1926 — starring and Castlemaine’s full-forward Ern Smedley booting seven goals.

Castlemaine contested their third consecutive grand final in 1927 but Sandhurst, under McCaskill, just got over the line: 9.11 (65) to 8.14 (62).


ECHUCA became just the second country club to snare a BFL flag when in 1928 they accounted for the luckless Castlemaine by five points: 11.9 (75) to 10.10 (70).

The grand final crowd of 14,000 is amazing when you consider that the figure wouldn’t be topped until the 1950s.

The Maine had contested four play-offs in a row for just the 1926 flag. Still, the Twenties remains one of Castlemaine’s boom decades with the four Nicholls brothers playing together in their 1926 premiership team: Charlie, Alex, Percy and Roy.

Alex was the father of Carlton legend, Big John Nicholls although Roy was the longest serving and most injury-free of the brothers with 71 games played for Castlemaine: 1925-1928.

Ern Smedley set a new BFL goal-kicking record with 79 majors in 1927. By 1928 he was in the VFL, wearing St Kilda colours.


McCASKILL’S era started in earnest in 1929. It was to mark the start of six, successive premierships for the Hurst, a streak which remains a BFL record.

He recruited Morrie DeAraugo (St Kilda) and Alan “Snodger” Arthur (Essendon) in ’29 with Rochester feeling the full effects of the powerful Maroons. Rochy lost a home and away match 4.16 (40) to 17.23 (125) and reigning premiers Echuca were also dispatched at the QEO.

Mid-season Sandhurst suffered three successive losses to Castlemaine (by three points), South and Echuca before McCaskill re-energised his team for the away match at Rochester. The Maroons won by 40 points.

After another mini-slump McCaskill steadied Sandhurst and in the third match for the season between the clubs, Frank Ford booted nine goals in the win over Rochester.

Minor premiers Hurst lost the second semi-final to South but under the Argus system were still alive. The Bloods downed Echuca in the final to set up the grand final — a re-match —  which Sandhurst won comfortably 18.11 to South’s 11.10 to send off popular retiring big man Percy Forbes in fashion.


IN MELBOURNE Collingwood snaffled their third (of four) consecutive VFL premierships, finishing the 1929 season undefeated on 18, straight wins.

The Pies lost the second semi-final to Richmond but under the Argus system could challenge and so a grand final between the Tigers and the Magpies was assured. Richmond had first to beat Carlton in the final which they did, by one straight kick: 15.7 to 14.7.

Collingwood won by 29 points in front of 63,338 people: 11.13 to 7.8. As Albert Collier had won the Brownlow Medal and Gordon Coventry the goal-kicking with 124 majors the Pies snared all three major trophies on offer.

[Geelong is the only other club in VFL/AFL history able to repeat the rare treble and did so in 1951.]

Coventry had set a new VFL goal kicking record in 1929’s Round 13 by booting 16 majors against Hawthorn. This pipped the previous record of 14 set in 1919 by South Melbourne’s Harold Robertson.


Bendigo Football League premiers from the 1920s

1920: Sandhurst. 1921: South Bendigo. 1922: Eaglehawk.

1923: Sandhurst. 1924: Eaglehawk. 1925: South Bendigo. 1926: Castlemaine. 1927: Sandhurst. 1928: Echuca.

1929: Sandhurst 18.11 (119) def. South Bendigo 11.10 (76).




  1. Rocket Nguyen says

    As always thanks Richard for these gems.

    Always good to read about Rochester triumphs! I love your expression about Rochy playing in their famed red and black strip. And how it became feared later on

    The country clubs – Castlemaine, Echuca and Rochester clearly added the strength and ability to enable the Bendigo League to beat the VFL.

    But then again so did NSW in this period so it was a much more level playing field.

  2. Well written Richard, always good to read about sporting history, with the added value of hearing about life outisde of the big sticks.

    I’m curious about two points. Uno: we were in Echuca last week, so Echuca being topical i wondered when they laft the Bendigo Football Leauge? It was certainly prior to me being born!

    Duo: Can you provide more details on this victory of the BFL, over the VFL, back in 1926. I’m unaware of this encounter, but would like to know more about .



  3. OKAY, Glen — Uno: Echuca won the BFL flag in 1928, beating Castlemaine in front of a crowd of 14,000 people. Seeing we reckon 7000 is a big crowd at the Upper Reserve or Queen Elizabeth Oval these days, goodness knows how they all fitted in.
    And with men clad in suits and hats, and women in their Sunday best.
    The Murray Bombers departed the Bendigo F.L. for the Goulburn Valley F.L. in 1974.
    Duo: haven’t got many more details about the BFL’s victory over the VFL in 1927. Apart from the fact the local lads won by less than a kick and Ern Smedley of Castlemaine kicked 7 snag rolls for Bendigo. He was down in the VFL playing for St Kilda the next season, so his efforts were recognised.
    There were occasional one-off games either against combined VFL teams or individual clubs such as Carlton or Melbourne in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties.
    Inter-league footy didn’t take off until the Fifties, really. Although in 1925 South Bendigo as BFL premiers took on Ballarat F.L. premiers Maryborough the week after both clubs had won their premierships.
    As South players were celebrating their premiership victory in their clubrooms up hopped the Bloods’ president — a Mr. N. Oliver — and reminded his charges the next Saturday they’d be playing Maryborough in aid of the Bendigo Base Hospital appeal.
    Mr Oliver reminded his players training would be held on “Tuesday and Thursday evenings next and to put forward their best efforts.”
    South Bendjgo 11.12 (78) def. Maryborough 8.26 (74) to win the Provincial Premiership Cup.
    Incidentally the Advertiser match report doesn’t say so but Maryboro’s kicking that day was absolutely atrocious!

  4. Ta Riichard, this sort of information captivates me. Those representative matches will never occur again, but gee whiz, they must have been something specia to watch/play in.
    . In recent times it’s good to have two AFL sides playing in Wang, and i’m aware there’s been pre-season matches up in Wagga, amd similar places, as country sport has always had a special place in my heart, and i’m always happy to attend country sporting events, as well as learning about notable occasions in the past. The BFL Vs VFL clash certainly rankks in the latter category. Keep up the good work..

  5. Rocket Nguyen says


    It is worth noting that Rochester left the Bendigo league at the end of 1971.

    Rochy and Echuca have been bitter rivals since 1874…
    so the Murray Bombers followed Rochy into the GVL.
    And both have stayed there ever since.
    Both clubs enjoying success.

    Although Echuca expressed interest in re-joining the BFL last year.
    Apparently so many of the footballers and netballers work or study in Bendigo and go home on the weekend to play sport.
    PLUS most of the young locals go to Bendigo for social activities.

    A mate walked into the Rochy rooms after training last season and found the rooms bare. ”Where are they all?”, he asked. He was told they’d gone to Bendigo (40 minutes) by car to the pubs where the uni students and nurses go on a Thursday night.
    No such social opportunities in Shepparton.

  6. For those of us brought up in the bush there is nothing like a day at the footy. I am always fascinated by the animosity generated between towns over footy (it’s a sad fact in South Oz that with declining population in the bush some bitter
    Rivals have now had to combine)

  7. G’day Rocket, it’s been a while since our last dialogue. Suprised there’s no great social oportunities in Shapparton, as though it’s smaller tha Bendio it’s the fifth biggest town in Victoria. However i do hear there’s a prblem with Ice there, a drug which is becoming a bit of a scourge in quite a few rural towns.

    Not sure of my next countrty footy match, though i’d like to see Donald play a match; i didn’t ese them in 2013. Some country race trips, Corowa and Ardlethan being on the radar.

    Still would like more knowledge on the BFL, VFL clash of 1926. Sounds marvellous.


  8. Richard Jones says

    GLEN — in the tight last quarter super playing coach Bob McCaskill helped to get Bendigo over the line.
    He passed to Aspinall and Aspinall’s goal got the combined team over the line.
    “The final bell rang just as Victoria was moving forward for another attempt at scoring so the Bendigo boys had won,” the local newspaper read.
    BTW Glen after coaching Sandhurst to six, straight flags 1929-1934 McCaskill coached North Melb. from 1944-47 (no wartime recess for the VFL). Then he was Hawthorn coach from 1950 to his early death @ the age of 56 in 1952.

  9. What a read, very interesting! Just wondering if anyone would have a full team list from Eaglehawk’s 1922 premiership team? TIA, Kelly

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