Gravel & Mud: Martin Flanagan’s introduction








by Martin Flanagan


In 1964, when I was eight, my headmaster father was transferred from Longford in Tasmania’s rural north to Rosebery, a mining town on the West Coast.  It was a big change.


Longford was part of the old “settled districts” of convict times. It had a silent hierarchy of place that had lain undisturbed since the Georgian era. Longford looked like England with oak trees and hawthorn hedges and a sandstone Anglican church. It was spacious and serenely quiet, twenty miles of flat green paddocks separating it from the nearest mountains.


Rosebery was ringed with mountains. Mount Black, into whose side the mineshaft was bored, stared down into the town.  The earth belched and you knew they were blasting at the mine. In the post office, I was shocked to see a man whose face, burnt in a car accident, was like melted plastic. The trees were different. No oaks or golden poplars or hawthorn hedges. Instead, there were myrtle and blackwood and impenetrable thickets of ti-tree. There were no green paddocks, just spongey khaki plains of button grass that sat on beds of white quartz. Nor did Rosebery have Longford’s sense of decorum. I saw a drunk man lying unconscious in the gutter outside the school and was told matter-of-factly by a kid that it was so-and-so’s father. The kids were like characters out of Huckleberry Finn. Two of them took me into the bush. Plunging through button grass, I beheld a shiny black snake coiled beneath my foot and screamed with fear. The two other kids laughed.


I went to a game of local footy. The ground looked like it was covered in brown gravy. It was mud and, within minutes of the start, the players were indistinguishable from one another. I remember Darby Munro coming to town to play with Toorak, then the dominant Rosebery club. People were soon telling Darby Munro stories. When I recently asked my 90-year-old father-in-law, long-time Rosebery resident George East, about Darby Munro, he replied, “He was in everything but Alcatraz”. In 1967, after Toorak became the first Rosebery club to win an WTFA premiership, Mum said “half the mine” hadn’t turned up for work on the Monday after the grand final. While Toorak were the Tigers, Rosebery played in red and black Melbourne styled guernsey . Their best player was a small bald-headed feller with the balance of an old-time dancer named Murray Soden. Doing this book, I met Murray’s son Paul. Between them, Murray and Paul Soden won five Bartram medals for the best and fairest player in the association. Paul and his Scottish wife Jane kept the Rosebery club going for years. One year he was both coach and president.


My wife was born in Rosebery. Her father, known in his Rosebery youth as Chicago, says, “We had to make our own fun”. Chicago made plenty. He has a couple of sayings which capture the spirit of his younger self. One, as he poked a glass of his best port under my arm at a Christmas dinner, was, “If you don’t fight on this, you’re a squib”. Another, whose application is by no means limited to football, is, “You stay in the forward pocket, son. I’ll play the grandstand wing”. Some nights George and I would sit up drinking – I’d get him to tell me stories of the West Coast in the 1940s and `50s when it would have been among the more isolated English-speaking communities in the world. When he tells his West Coast stories, it’s like I’m in a cinema. I know the geography, the culture, the characters.


George played with Rosebery, winning “five or six” premierships in the old Rosebery Football Association. One of the teams they played was Tullah. There being no road to the north, they caught a lift with the Wee Georgie Wood, the mini-sized steam train that lapped Mount Black, giving a toot of the siren as they approached Tullah, two if the Rosebery cop was aboard. The miners played on Sunday when pubs were meant to be closed. Two toots as Wee Georgie arrived told the Tullah publican the Rosebery cop was aboard.


The Tullah ground was a slab of bare ground where the bush had been scalped into the shape of an oval. One day, as a game was about to begin, the players stopped a kid on his way to Scouts and said they’d give him two bob if he ran the boundary. The ball duly went past the kid into the ti-tree scrub. The players continued to make the ball their object. The umpire said to the kid, “Do you think she’s out?” “Buggered if I know,” said the kid. The umpire looks at the ti-tree thrashings around behind the kid and said, “Think I’ll ball her up”. That’s the story, told with a minimum of words, and I can see it all – the kid who knows nothing about the game but is happy to accept two shillings, the umpire, a pot-bellied pragmatist, and the miners who continue to make the ball their object because this is a game of footy between Rosebery and Tullah. This is a matter of pride!


George’s Rosebery stories are vulgar and vital like the stories of the Canterbury Tales, but there’s a serious edge to them. It wasn’t that Rosebery had no rules – it had its own rules. He told me about the two lairs from Melbourne who got jobs in Rosebery and threatened a young man walking home one night with his girl, scaring the young woman too. The next day underground, the young men from Melbourne found themselves surrounded by miners and the union secretary told them to be on the train out of town the following morning. They were.


Rosebery was not Queenstown. Nor was it Zeehan, the faded Silver City of the West Coast that boomed before World War I. And it wasn’t Strahan. The convict era, in the sense of transportation, ended thirty years before Rosebery started. Longford had a convict memory Rosebery didn’t possess. Strahan, on the edge of Macquarie Harbour with its proximity to Sarah Island, the penal colony’s most fearful outpost, had some of the island’s strangest and most cruel convict memories.


All the West Coast towns were different which is why the title of this book contains two distinct ideas – gravel and mud.  Queenstown football was played on gravel. Rosebery football was habitually played in mud. Rosebery teams could win all year in the mud and lose the grand final because it was played at Queenstown on the gravel. In 2007, I was inducted into the Tasmanian AFL Hall of Fame for my football writings. To my delight, I was inducted along with one of Tasmanian football’s icons – Queenstown’s gravel oval. It was special to be given a tour of the Queenstown Oval by John Carswell and Tony Newport, both of whom played grand finals there.


I stood with them in what John calls Paulsen’s pocket, so-named after tent boxing impresario Harry Paulsen who toured Tasmanian shows in the 1960s, the clear implication being that this pocket was where the fights happened. This is where the Lyell Gormanston supporters stood. Not far away is where John Carswell got knocked out during the 1983 grand final when he was king-hit from behind. History records he woke from unconsciousness with his head in a blood-stained puddle to be named as one of the winning Queenstown team’s best player. He was 30 then, working as a geologist, married with children.


I met John at university in the 1970s. I knew him as Hughie and liked him instantly. He’s humble, constantly backtracking in his speech to let others through at intersections on the conversational highway. I also saw the fearless uncompromising way he played footy. John Carswell is that intriguing paradox – a gentle man who’s a tough footballer, big-chested with wild frizzy hair and beard and a nose that’s been at an angle to his face for as long as I’ve known him. In 1977, he played in a team I coached that made a memorable grand final. How would I describe Hughie Carswell as a footballer? A boulder of a centre-half back.


His father Trevor was a warrant officer during World War II and, when John was an 11-year-old schoolboy, his father told him to play like Scott Wing, the captain-coach of the Gormanston Football Club. John, being a bright capable lad, applied himself to doing so. He ran straight. He was uncomplicated in his play, he had strength and a measure of agility. No-one intimidated him. That was greatly appreciated by his team-mates at the Tasmanian University Football Club during the 1970s as we played some very intimidating teams who didn’t like the fact that we were students, this also being the era of student protests. I didn’t know at the time that John had already played several seasons of senior football on the West Coast with the City club. But I did know that he had a connection to Gormanston. Gormanston Football Club, otherwise known as Gormy, were a club of renown throughout Tasmania. They were “the Mountain Men”.


John and I kept contact over the years. We met up in faraway places like London and Edinburgh. Twice I received friendly respectful letters from him advising me of errors in my books. I said in one that Mount Murchison was to the west of Rosebery. John said Mount Murchison is east of Rosebery and I knew he’d be right. A combination of his profession (geology) and his passions (bushwalking and mountaineering) mean his knowledge of the West Coast is first-hand and immense.


John’s Launceston home contains no fewer than twenty art works to do with the West Coast. There are three Geoff Dyers, painted at different times of the year, of Horsetail Waterfall on the Gormanston road. They look like a stream of water running down a rugged old face. There’s a magnificent, intricately detailed Haughton Forrest painting of Lake Marion in the crimson afterglow of the sun’s departure for the day. Each painting launches John on a softly spoken monologue – where the place is, how you get there, how artists like William Piguenit got there in the 19th century.


There are 158 “Abels” in Tasmania – mountains over 3600 feet (1100 metres). On the list of the first 10 people to climb all of them, he comes seventh. He has climbed mountains all over the world, including the Antarctic. The highest peak he has climbed, Aconcagua (22837 feet) is in the Andes. When I ask him the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of the West Coast of Tasmania, he says mountains. He climbed his first, with his father, when he was 9.  John Carswell loves the West Coast of Tasmania in the way that people I’ve met from the Scottish Highlands love their part of Scotland. John has been the quietly persistent driving force behind this book.


His brother Chris I knew at school in Burnie (where I also met Tony Newport). Chris was musical, carried the school band, playing his cornet with style. I knew him at university where he had a reputation as a political activist committed to reforming (some said overthrowing) the Tasmanian Labor Party. He was also during those years playing the odd game for Gormanston when home on holidays as a student or a teacher. In later life, working as a statistician for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, he became interested in what he calls “the detail of things”. The result is someone who can describe in detail, for example, the history of the first game of football on the West Coast at Strahan in 1888. He can tell you the method of scoring, exactly where in Strahan it was played and the weather on the day. What he brought to the book was knowledgeable perspectives, lots of them.


Tony Newport grew up in Rosebery and sings about it, strumming an Autoharp as he does. Tony writes songs about the Green Line bus that left Rosebery from outside Winskill’s newsagency, about the small miners’ houses made of tin. He has a song about how, as a 16-year-old bank teller in Rosebery, he was handed a loaded pistol and told to walk down to the post office with another teller not much older and collect the payroll for the mine, then employing over 1000 men. My favourite of his tunes, “Mt Lyell Waltz”, reminds me of the music from the epic Ken Burns documentary, “The Civil War”.


Tony’s word for the West Coast he grew up in is community. He tells me about his grandmother who lived with her two adult sons, both of whom had intellectual handicaps. I knew one of his uncles – he was treated with respect around the town. Anyone from outside the town who mocked him could have found himself in serious trouble. Tony played in Burnie’s 1970 State premiership Under 19s team. – no mean achievement in those days when Tasmanian Under 19 football was awash with talent. He then played in three premierships with Rosebery Football Club (1971, ‘72 and ’75), either as a defender or in the ruck.


He felt like he belonged at the Rosebery Football Club. He felt a relationship with the older players the same way he felt a relationship with the older miners underground. “The old miners were hard,” he says. “They told you straight, but they had your back”. He’s written a song about that, too. Working underground, he became a union rep. Finding himself constantly in disputes which escalated into predictable and unnecessary dramas, he thought, being a well-balanced sort of fellow, that he could “do this better” and became a mediator. He thinks before he speaks and uses only as many words as are required to convey his meaning. These virtues are also evident in his writing.


I see Tony Newport, John Carswell and his brother Chris as being like a band coming together to recreate the West Coast sound that once accompanied footy in this unique part of Australia. The back story to this book is that the West Coast has changed greatly over the past 40 years. Time is rarely kind to mining communities and Queenstown, I am told, was never the same after the big cutbacks of 1976. It is now making a new name as an outpost of art around a serene painter called Raymond Arnold who played under-age football with Lethal Leigh Matthews.


My father-in-law says Rosebery was never the same after the road went through to the north in 1963. In the old days, Rosebery men worked five days a week and drank and gambled on horses and played football at the weekends. Then the road went through, and the rosters moved to six weeks-on and six weeks-off and more and more of the town population shifted to the north-west coast and only came to Rosebery to labour. Rosebery and Toorak merged long ago and now the composite club is struggling to survive. Queenstown has only one team. Neither Zeehan nor Strahan have football clubs anymore.


The highlight of being involved in this book for me was going back to the Gormanston footy ground with John Carswell and Tony Newport together with a Gormanston premiership player from the 1960s, Ralph Burns. Queenstown is ringed by mountains that are pink and bare and rocky, clad in places in new green clothing as the bush comes back, the smelter with its noxious fumes having closed. Gormanston was built on top of one of the mountains that edges Queenstown. It’s a bare bony place with further mountains around it and bush that only grows to shoulder height because of the wind. John and Chris Carswell’s mother Elsie was born in Gormanston and lived there until the age of 23. In those days, Gormanston had a population of more than 2000. Now it’s half a dozen houses with deserted streets and the bush poking through.


Chris Carswell explained the historical difference between Gormanston and Queenstown to me. Gormanston was a mining town – Queenstown was a smelting and railway town. They had separate councils, separate police. Gormanston had its own football association until the 1930s.  West Coast footy was tough and Gormanston had a reputation for being the toughest and their supporters, male and female, had a reputation for being the fiercest. I learnt long ago that stories are strongest in the places they’re from and, so here I was, standing on the home ground of the Mountain Men. A lot happened here, events that had scorched themselves into people’s memories. Jan Frimley played for Gormanston – he was the mythical West Coast footy figure for me, the gifted player who died young when he fell from a pack and hit his head on the Queenstown oval. My first coach, Pete Hay, a relative, used to talk about him.


The architecture of mining towns is always of interest being less regulated, more individual. Chris and John Carswell’s Uncle Ack lived alone in a small shanty hut beside the Gormy ground. Uncle Ack’s hut has gone as have the row of houses that faced the ground in its playing days. The goal square at the lower end now is a pond but the shape of the ground is still discernible, its curved flanks, its white gravel surface. I asked Ralph Burns if he remembered the Gormy club song. He said it started “We Are, We Are, We Are!”, and, as if the mountains were his witness, gave the line a strong rendition. He repeated it a second time, “We Are, We Are, We Are!”, then said, “I don’t remember the rest”.  He didn’t need to. We Are, We Are, We Are…..I’ll sing along to that.





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  1. Daryl Schramm says

    Thank you for this. As a footy follower and having recently travelled through parts of the western area of Tasmania on a quick sojourn just last month there was so much here for me. Unfortunately my travel companions didn’t have any enthusiasm for the subjects at hand so I was on my own,imagining what things were like.

  2. Love this generous personal reflection on a time, a place and people. The West Coast an intense microcosm of Australia before it was internationalised, commercialised and neutered by TV and trade. Love the stories that set people and events in their time and the context of their upbringing. I hate the judging of what came before by the standards of today (enlightened or enforced) as has become the intellectual fashion.

  3. Leonard Rodwell says

    An excellent article. My leder brother worked in Rosebery for a while in the 1970s. He captained their country week cricket team that travelled to Hobart for trhe tournament. Different sport but the team had the same approach as desctibed by Martin.

  4. Thank you Flanners.

  5. E.regnans says

    What Harmsy said.

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    Fantastic Martin! There must be so many stories from the magnificent bush communities and their footy clubs of yore waiting to be told, and thankfully ‘Gravel and Mud’ is one such story. I just love the history of the places, the clubs, and especially, the characters who in many instances create the memories for those who were there. This book has certainly received a wonderful introduction to its life. Thank you.

  7. Robert Henderson says

    Yes thanks very much, Martin for these wonderful insights. I previously lived in Tassie for nearly thirty years ( in Devonport and Hobart but now in NSW ) and for a number of years my step daughter was a teacher in Queenstown so I have spent quite a bit of time there and I love the feel of the West Coast and it’s history. The Queenstown oval has always been a place of wonder for me and I have showcased it to many mainland visitors. I have always loved reading your gems about our great Aussie game.

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