Jack Sexton, Doug Nicholls and an understated sense of social purpose

Have a look at this photo taken in 1933 and see if you recognise anyone.


Mike Sexton - aJoseph Lyons Jack Sexton Haydn Bunton (2)

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, Jack Sexton and Haydn Bunton


The fellow in the three-piece suit on the right is Haydn Bunton. Silent film star looks. Idol of Brunswick Street. Three Brownlows. Three Sandovers. Statue outside the MCG.

Shaking his hand is Joseph Lyons, Prime Minister of Australia. Seven years in the top job during the Great Depression. Wife Enid is the first female MP in Canberra and a Minister in Menzies’ cabinet. Twelve kids. Statue in Ballarat Botanical Gardens.

But this story involves the man observing the handshake. He is a travelling salesman for a paper company. Like Bunton he is a gifted footballer. Like Lyons he is a leader of men. His name is Jack Sexton and his short life is also worth remembering.

The first link between Bunton and Sexton occurred in June 1931 on the Adelaide Oval in a state game.

Bunton was the revelation of the season. Having been heavily recruited by virtually every VFL club he had lived up to his reputation at Fitzroy playing across centre or half back. After eight matches he was picked for the state.

As expected Victoria controlled the match early and led by four goals at the half. Fortunes changed in a whirlwind third quarter when the home state threw everything at the visitors pouring on 6.3 to 2.3 to lead by a point at the final change.

Newspaper reports describe Jack Sexton’s play in the centre as the catalyst for South Australia’s surge, especially setting up his former Glenelg team-mates Jack Owens and Len Sallis.

The Victorians steadied in the final quarter and the home team seemed to run out of steam. Eventually Victoria won by 16 points and then easily accounted for South Australia by 44 points in the return match in August on the MCG.

Sexton’s brilliance in 1931 wasn’t restricted to state games. After the season ended the West Adelaide centre man was awarded the Magarey Medal. He was regarded as fulfilling all its criteria as the fairest and most brilliant player in the competition.

Across the border Haydn Bunton was being honoured with the Brownlow Medal. Bunton had stood out in 1930 after being found guilty of illegally receiving more than £200 from the Maroons for his signature.

The payment is an indication of how desperate the Fitzroy committee, known as “the reformers”, was to attract talent. In addition to Bunton they recruited a slight wingman called Wilfred Smallhorn who was called “Chicken”.

Buoyed by the instant success of Bunton the committee felt 1932 was when the club could move out of the doldrums and so threw out the welcome mat. By season’s end 42 players had been given a senior game.

While a broad net was thrown out to catch talent, club Secretary Tom Coles targeted two specific players. One was nippy aboriginal wingman Doug Nicholls who had been an electric player for VFA club Northcote while the second was Jack Sexton.

Despite the Depression biting hard, Coles offered Sexton a job as a salesman plus better match payments while negotiating with Nicholls to be released from his contract as a boxer with Jimmy Sharman’s troupe.

It wasn’t Nicholls’s first taste of VFL football. He had trained with Carlton in 1926 but was dropped from the list amid allegations he wasn’t welcomed by the team and its trainers.

As a result, Nicholls was tentative when preparing for his first training session with Fitzroy.

According to his biography Nicholls was changing away from the other players until Bunton (now captain) came over and asked why he wasn’t with the group. After an explanation, Bunton made a point of always changing next to Nicholls.

His inclusion was warmed when he was invited to dinner by Jack Sexton and his wife Lillian at their home in Barkly Street, North Fitzroy.

Nicholls was employed by the council as a groundsman at the Brunswick Oval, a position that included cleaning the ground and washing the team’s jumpers. After work he would regularly have a meal and stay at the Sextons’ house.

The year was a time of great change in Nicholls’ life. Early in the season he aggravated an old knee injury which sidelined him for much of the season. During this time he became a Christian and because of his profile as a league footballer became a popular speaker at youth groups and church meetings. It was the beginning of a role leading indigenous communities that would eventually see him ordained in the Church of Christ where his work lead toward social justice and the creation of the Aborigines Advancement League.

When Nicholls organised football church parades at Northcote, Sexton happily joined him along with Smallhorn, Bunton and other Fitzroy players.

Despite the growing camaraderie off the field the Maroons didn’t start the 1932 season well.

After a first up win over Carlton at home they lost to Footscray and then came the humiliation of becoming the first side to lose to North Melbourne in 33 matches when the blue and whites defeated them by 19 points at the Brunswick Street Oval.

In the aftermath Bunton went to the committee asking to be relieved of the captaincy because he believed it was affecting his play.

After training on Thursday Tom Coles announced that from a field of nominees, the new captain was Jack Sexton who had played just two games for the club.

It is possible part of the reason the club turned to the new recruit was his leadership skills and ability to get on with people. Newspaper reports said Sexton had been selected by colleagues because of “their confidence in him”.

The change at captain didn’t reverse Fitzroy’s form and the Maroons were soundly beaten by Collingwood at Victoria Park.

The club managed only two more wins and finished the season 10th only percentage ahead of St Kilda and Hawthorn. The decision to relinquish the captaincy worked for Bunton who collected another Brownlow Medal. Smallhorn would take the award the following year as the club surged and just missed the finals.

Fitzroy Football Club 1933

Doug Nicholls returned to fitness and form the next year and in 1934 was third in the club best and fairest award behind Bunton and Smallhorn. In 1935 he was selected for Victoria.

While his team mates gathered success and honours, Sexton’s fortunes dimmed. As captain in 1932 he led with enthusiasm through 17 games but a string of injuries allowed him to play only one game in 1933.

Despite his brilliance as an individual player, Sexton enjoyed leading the group. After his experience as captain he pursued coaching at a time when the roles were commonly joined.

Sexton regularly visited other clubs particularly juniors. In papers held by his son John are notes referring to talks at Williamstown, Sunbury, Clifton Hill, Kilsyth, the Seaside Garden Home for Boys and various country and church clubs.

In his first year at Fitzroy Sexton coached the Faulkner Street State Primary School team to a premiership while also acting as Chairman of the Church Association Tribunal. The Secretary of Glenhuntly wrote to thank him for the lecture he gave players that allowed them to beat the leading and previously unbeaten side the following Saturday.



There is a draft of an application to coach Essendon in 1933. In 1934 he applied for the coaching job at Fitzroy but the committee instead appointed former ruckman Jack Cashman.

Eventually a chance came from his home state. Sexton’s employer offered him a position in either South or Western Australia. Norwood quickly got in touch, offering him the job as captain-coach in 1935 which made the decision easy.

Bunton agonised over what he called a “great loss to the club” believing much of his own success on the field had been as the result of playing with Sexton whom he considered the ideal team player.

In South Australia he inherited a side that had finished second bottom the previous season but were quickly rejuvenated.

Players of the era remember a man who avoided shouting preferring instead to speak to them individually as men. He had a sympathetic ear for their personal situations and sought to help.

Harold Page was considered a tough character who sometimes rubbed others the wrong way but had everlasting admiration for Sexton’s respect for him. Lloyd Tugwell enjoyed the talks he had with his coach while walking home from training. He would greet his opponents by their first name asking after their health. Harold Allington believed when Sexton readied himself to speak before a game a pin could have been heard being dropped in the rooms.

The players responded with dramatic results, thumping South, West and North Adelaide to set up a clash with arch-rival Port Adelaide.

The capacity crowd filled Norwood Oval to see the two undefeated sides do battle. The Magpies jumped the home side and held the lead deep into the final quarter before Norwood rallied to pinch the game by 11 points. The Mail described it as “one of the most thrilling last quarters ever seen in Adelaide”

Norwood lost the following week to West Torrens before beating Sturt to lead the competition.

Sexton had been playing in his customary role in the centre but his health was failing as he battled a chest infection.

As Norwood prepared to play South Adelaide in round seven, Sexton was in such distress he was hospitalised with pneumonia and pleurisy. Without antibiotics, Doctors tried draining his chest and ordered rest while nurses wrapped him with bandages soaked in plaster to try to constrict or “dry” his lungs.

After a fortnight he was discharged and resumed coaching but collapsed at the Unley Oval and returned to hospital. As his condition deteriorated he told his two young children he would return home soon but wasn’t able. He died in October.

His funeral at the Clayton Wesley Methodist Church was packed and supporters and players gathered afterward on the Parade to mourn him. In a sad social convention Lillian Sexton and her children Patty and John didn’t go to the service but Patty remembers catching two trams to the West Terrace Cemetery and watching her mother place carnations in pink tissue paper on his grave.

Norwood finished the season in third position but lost heavily to Sturt in the first semi final.

The club repaid the generosity of spirit Sexton had generated. Without a working income, Lillian Sexton and her children were facing eviction from the house they were living in. Norwood’s Secretary Thomas Hill organised for a home in Maylands to be bought for the family with a plan to have its ownership transferred to the children when they came of age.

Lillian Sexton married Eric Dew who had been a ‘rat of Tobruk’. Dew understood the significance of Jack Sexton’s life, allowing the children to keep their father’s surname. A large photograph of the footballer was prominent in the house and conversation about him was never stifled. Theirs was a happy home.

In 1936 a match was played in Adelaide to raise funds for a memorial for Sexton in the West Terrace Cemetery.

Doug Nicholls didn’t forget his team mate from Fitzroy and always enthusiastically greeted Lillian when their paths crossed and accompanying John to a Fitzroy-Collingwood match.

After years of social and political activism, Doug Nicholls was knighted in 1972 and in December 1976 took up an appointment as the Governor of South Australia.

Upon arriving in the new state several SANFL clubs approached the new Governor asking if he would become club patron. He agreed to only one – Norwood – because of Jack Sexton.

He committed to the Redlegs after learning  Lillian Dew was ill in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. To her surprise (and apparently that of the Vice-Regal staff) Sir Douglas came straight to her bedside upon hearing the news.

After spending time talking about the old days she encouraged him to stay with Norwood “for Jack’s sake”.



About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Rod Oaten says

    What a fantastic story, thanks for bringing it to us. Rod Oaten

  2. Brilliant…

  3. Great stuff, lovely story. we should know more about pioners like Nicholls but loved the Sexton story

    As an aside, I was staggered with the speed at which Bunton was tossed out of a Herald-Sun revisiting of the AFL’s team of the century. In about ten years of senior footy, voted B&F 6 times, three Brownlows and three Sandovers. Probably means he could play a bit

    Thanks Michael

  4. I got goose bumps reading this. Great men in hard times.
    Thanks Mike. A lot of amazing research has gone into assembling a story like that.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Brilliant Mike fantastic article and as a Norwood supporter I appreciated learning more about our history as well and will send on to our history committee

  6. Patrick_Skene says

    Thanks Michael,

    Sexton and Bunton’s active inclusion of Sir Doug Nicholls makes a mockery of “they were all racists back then”.

    Great work!

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Thanks Mike for this wonderful piece of research. The name Jack Sexton was completely unknown to me. The collateral elements, the football genius of Bunton and his generosity towards Nicholls, the remarkable Chicken Smallhorn, and your sensitivity in glossing over the shabby treatment which Nicholls suffered at Carlton (my team), as well as the sadness of Sexton’s early demise and the heart-warming behaviour of Norwood and Fitzroy to Sexton’s bereaved family make this contribution particularly memorable.
    I was aware of Chicken Smallhorn’s, a monumental story on its own. I seem to recall his saying that his nickname was given by his mother who described the undersized child, Wilfrid, as a poor little chick (wiki give his playing vitals as 170cms, 62kgs). He was later a prisoner in Changi during WWII, where he was instrumental in establishing a football competition.
    My direct memory of him was from my childhood years, as a panellist on a radio program (3AW ?) which provided a Saturday night review of matches the “London Stores Football House of Representatives”. London Stores was a (long-disappeared) menswear retailer.
    Superb stuff, Mike, greatly appreciated.

  8. Dave Brown says

    Terrific read, Mike – thanks! It is stories like this that make a club.

  9. Rob Heath says

    Mike – a brilliant piece; thanks

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Loved it, thanks Mike.

  11. A wonderful read, Michael. Great stuff!

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