Gravel & Mud: Geoffrey Blainey




Geoffrey Blainey was the guest of the Almanac at lunch a few years back. He told us about his days on the West Coast of Tasmania playing for Smelters and how he missed travelling back to Melbourne his beloved Geelong in the 1952 Grand Final because he was playing in a grand final of his own. He told many stories that day some of which are also in this memoir published as one of the pieces in a the fine anthlogy Gravel & Mud.






Geoffrey Blainey is an eminent Australian historian who has published more than 35 books mostly on Australian mining and social history. His first book The Peaks of Lyell, a detailed history of the Mount Lyell Mining Company, was first published in 1954 and has been updated many times since. Professor Blainey spent a large part of the period 1951- 1953 living in Queenstown where he researched the Peaks of Lyell and pulled on the footy boots for Smelters.


Blainey also wrote A Game of Our Own – The Origins of Australian Football, first published in 1990. The following is Geoffrey Blainey’s reminiscences of his time playing football on the gravel.



I first played football for the Smelters club in 1951, but not for the whole season. In 1952 and 1953 I played every game. At least I think I did.


The white-gravel ground had not an inch of topsoil and not a blade of grass. It was just about the most dangerous football ground in the whole world of Australian Rules. The surface was as hard on a rainy as on a sunny day, but it did have the big advantage that it was not boggy or slippery even during the wettest of winters. Even in Melbourne at that time some of the major grounds –  Fitzroy’s was one – were a mud patch in the heart of winter.


If you were pushed in the back and fell suddenly, the likely result was gravel rash or blood. Many of the experienced players learned to hunch their body an instant before their upper arm or shoulder hit the hard ground. Wisely nearly all the footballers wore long sleeves and long socks throughout the year. Of course, football boots had to be altered to fit the gravel surface. As some pieces of gravel were rather large and pointed, especially after the oval had just received fresh loads of gravel, a drop kick or stab kick could be risky.  The punt kick was generally favoured.


Once in a while, a very skilled Tasmanian team would come to play a combined QFA team, and on the gravel ground the visitors sometimes had trouble in winning. I remember when Bob Chitty – Carlton’s premiership captain in 1945 – came with a northern Tasmanian team. At first, he looked ‘all at sea’ on the gravel.


In my first games – the season was 1951 – I played in Smelters firsts but increasingly I played in the seconds, a sure sign that my football skills did not improve.  In the last year, to my surprise, I did become a goal kicker, and I scored 24 goals for the season, more than any other Smelters player. Where did I usually play? It can’t have been at full forward because I was not strong enough to be in a key position.


I thought the West Coast football was fair in spirit. From memory, players were rarely reported by the field umpire. Many players had migrated to the west coast in order to earn the maximum weekly wage, and they had no wish to be injured at football and therefore to be unfit for their job. The rule was live and let live.


No player in Smelters was paid, except the captain coach. He was Jack Flassman, and he came from the Huon. At half time he would make a pithy speech. One day, when we must have been playing poorly, he said: “You’s are all standing out like country dunnies.” He himself was a courageous footballer.


At one time – and certainly in the years before World War I – all the Smelters players worked in the smelters at Mt Lyell. There was a natural team spirit. In my era most of my teammates had no connection with the smelters. I think I was persuaded to join the Smelters club by a friend, Garry Bell. He actually worked for the railway department. At that time, the big company was called Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company.


Today, in many parts of the nation, local teams tend to adopt the colours of the big-time teams such as Collingwood, Hawthorn, Adelaide and so forth.  Traditionally local teams designed their own guernseys. Smelters FC had the most distinctive of colours. I never once heard a discussion about their origin, but a fiery, vivid and unusual shade of red was dominant. I assume it was the molten red of the blast furnace or copper converter. The other colour, notable on the cuff of the sleeves, was a jet black which reminded me of the black slag dump near the company’s smelters buildings. Queenstown was still a great smelting town in the 1950s.


I was proud to wear such a guernsey. Curiously the nickname of the team at that time was ‘The Robins’, which I assume was a latter-day reference to the red guernsey. As I sat on the club committee for one year, I should have taken the opportunity to find out about the team’s colours.


In my opinion our most dashing player was Des Burton, a wingman. A winner of the Burnie Gift, he was one of Tasmania’s fastest sprinters and a very strong kicker. Sometimes he would grab the football and run onto the bitumen cycling track that circled the gravel ground, and then bounce the ball as he ran. With its smooth surface this was the one place where you could bounce the ball securely. Des and I corresponded until recent years.


Another ingenious but opposing footballer – I think his name was Johnson – occasionally used to mark the ball on the top of his shoulder. He did it with such skill. As sharp pieces of gravel sometimes clung to the football, the chest or shoulder mark had merit.


When rain was pouring, the crowd at a football match was tiny; but on a sunny Sunday the crowd seemed to be huge, and the little grandstand and the area near the creek bridge were crowded. In the 1950s the surrounding hills and the high mountains were bare and moon-like, and when they were lit up by the late-afternoon sun they were spectacular. So the gravel oval had its hours of glory.


This story is published in Gravel & Mud.


Read more Gravel & Mud stories HERE.


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Tony Newport and the Carswell brothers will be at the Almanac/Uni of Tassie FC lunch in Hobart on July 30. All welcome. Details of the lunch HERE.



The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE


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  1. Kevin Densley says

    Lovely piece by Blainey, as one would expect.

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