‘Mr Ovens and Murray…’ by KB Hill

 

It is most likely that I will die next to a pile of books I was meaning to read………” (Lemony Snickett)

 

I’m in the back room at home with an hour or two to spare during this Covid Lockdown, re-acquainting myself with an overflowing Library of books.

 

They’re from all walks of life, but predominantly sport. The collection has mushroomed since the day I snapped up Don Bradman’s Farewell to Cricket and The History of the Marylebone Cricket Club at a Clearing Sale in my first week of work in the late-sixties.

 

Some have barely been opened; many long-forgotten. You realise you’re a chronic collector when you purchase an old Biography, or Cricket Tour Book at St Vinnies or the Salvos, then discover you’ve had a copy buried in a shelf at home for years.

 

In between some of the gargantuan publications that crowd the space, you can easily overlook some tiny gems wedged in between……

 

Like this ‘ripper’ that I pull out – A Memorable Life – the historical ramblings of Cleaver Bunton…………

 

***

 

The first memory I have of ‘Old Cleaver’ was tuning in to his deep, monotone voice delivering the District footy scores on radio station 2AY every winter Saturday, around 6pm during the fifties.

 

Some labelled him the ‘Voice of Local Football ’. No, others insisted, he was ‘Mr Ovens and Murray.’

 

Many years later, I had just retired from footy and been talked into becoming the Rovers’ Secretary in the late seventies…….Included among the many duties was attending O & M Delegates meetings.

 

One of the blokes sitting on the Head Table was tall, emotionless, ancient, and appeared to doze off occasionally………Until some contentious matter cropped up……..He would command the floor, and state his opinion forcefully……..

 

It was ‘Old Cleaver’.

 

He was League Treasurer at the time and would travel to Finals with one of his ‘cronies’, Did Simpson, to ensure that all of the gate-takings were being correctly funnelled into the O & M’s coffers. They were aware of the tricks that hosting Clubs could pull to extract a sly ‘quid on the side’.

 

The pair kept an iron-like grip on the League’s finances and you needed to be aware of exactly where Cleaver and Did were, if you were trying to ‘put one over them’.

 

Of course, by this stage, the old fellah had been one of the League’s mainstays for more than half a century………….

 

***

 

Cleaver Bunton could hardly have been accused of lacking enterprise. At the age of six he’d been making money by selling horse manure from a small billy-cart which his father had constructed .

 

Inscribed on the side of the cart were the words: ‘C.Bunton – Manure Carter’. He’d visit Albury’s hotels, collect the manure from their stables and on-sell it at three-pence a load, also collecting bottles, rags and bones, which he distributed to a lucrative market.

 

By the age of 11 he was organising a Saturday morning boys’ competition involving six teams around South Albury.

 

“We played in paddocks, using mobile goal posts….I played in a team called the Rosebuds, and another team was called the ‘Mud-Punchers’.”

 

He told of his first inter-action with O & M football at around the same time. He and several mates watched the 1913 Grand Final between Albury and Rutherglen from a vantage spot – a mulberry tree at the Gardens end of the Albury Sportsground.

 

“With three seconds to go Rutherglen was in front by three points and Adamson, Albury’s captain, marked just before the siren sounded. A renowned place-kick, he put the ball on the ground and kicked the winning goal….”

 

“I marked it and the branches waved, as excited boys shared my luck……The umpire asked me to give it back….I handed it to him when he said he would request the officials to give it to me….There was great joy in the Bunton household when I took it home………”

 

***

 

Cleaver was 17 when he became vice-captain and Secretary of the Albury Football Club, which then competed in the A & B.F.A. Upon the Tigers’ re-entry to the Ovens and Murray League in 1924, he was their Secretary and Delegate:

 

“The town of Albury now had two teams in the O & M – Albury and St. Patrick’s. There was keen rivalry between the players of both clubs, but it was civil war between the so-called supporters.”

 

“When the Clubs were opposed, the gate-takings were the answer to a Treasurer’s dream. The boycotting of certain businesses was rampant, citizens being physically and verbally assaulted; in short a society being torn apart by bigotry in its worst form.”

 

“In a way it was too bad that I fell in love with a Catholic – in that era. This earned for me a whack over the head whilst I was keeping company with my future wife – a nursing sister at the Albury Nursing Hospital – Eileen Bridget O’Malley.”

 

“Despite the fact that I was the only footballer she knew, her support was for St. Patrick’s and her abuse for me. There were two camps among the staff at the Base Hospital, depending on the church you belonged to.”

 

“ Whilst I was passing by the Albion Hotel on an evening following a match between Albury and St. Patrick’s, a lady supporter ran from the entrance, gave me an almighty hit over the head and said: ‘Take that you mongrel, for what you did this afternoon’.”

 

“What I did was play the game of my life – much to the disappointment of that person.”

 

“Given the heat of the situation and the insane hatred between some Catholics and some Protestants at the time, Eileen and I had to devise secret plans to get married.”

 

“We tossed a coin to decide which Church we would marry in. I won the toss, but in deference to Eileen, decided we would marry quietly in a Catholic Presbytery…..I contacted the priest at Balldale, Father Percy, who was a friend of mine and a champion footballer, and arranged the wedding. In the presence of two witnesses and no one else, we were married……”

 

***

 

The menace of bigotry had become such a blot on the town and the League that Cleaver decided the scourge must be abated:

 

“Soon after the 1928 Grand Final, when Albury defeated St. Patrick’s, I met Father Pat Slattery, the President of St. Patrick’s, and he also expressed his concern……We agreed that the remedy was to disband both Clubs.”

 

“Both committees concurred, and a perfect solution was evolved by forming East Albury and West Albury Football Clubs. Those living east of Olive Street were bound to East Albury, and those living to the west would play with West Albury……..”

 

The four Bunton brothers, Cleaver, George, Wally, and the youngest – Haydn – were key players in a West Albury side which swept to a 17.16 to 15.14 win over East Albury in the 1929 O & M Grand Final.

West Albury’s 1929 Premiership Team. Cleaver Bunton is far left, back row.
His brother Haydn is third from left, middle row.

 

Of the 36 players on the field that day, 34 of them were ex-Albury and St. Patrick’s players. The transition had worked seamlessly.

 

Cleaver was secretary of West Albury until his appointment as O & M Secretary the following year – a stint that was to last for forty years. He was also O & M Treasurer from 1953 to 1993.

 

His playing days with Albury – who reverted back to their original name in 1933 – continued until the age of 36.

 

“I’d had a twenty-year career in Australian Rules football and represented the Ovens and Murray League in representative matches on several occasions. The promise of bright lights and football fame were not sufficient to lure me away from Albury, and my chosen vocation.”

 

On a footy trip that he’d organised to Tasmania many years earlier, he’d been impressed by the local League’s match booklet. Thus, in 1924, The Criticwas born , and he began editing – and producing – the official organ of the Ovens and Murray League, which he continued to do until the late-eighties.

 

He also told of founding the Albury Umpire’s League, and of the strenuous efforts that he and O & M President Clem Hill undertook to have Aussie Rules established in Albury schools in the early days.

 

“There was a time when the Public Schools didn’t play football. It was because the majority of the teachers hailed from the Sydney area. They were all rugby-oriented.”

 

One of his assignments at 2AY, besides reading the news and delivering the footy results, was to produce concerts restricted to sportsmen, on Saturday nights during the football season.

 

“A star player, ‘Bing’ Connole arrived at the studio one night, having had one or two too many, and demanded that he be allowed to sing ‘Mother Machree’. It was Mother’s Day the next day. I appealed to him to leave it until the next week, but to no avail.”

 

“He assured me that all he wanted to do was sing ‘Mother Machree’ to his mother and he would do nothing wrong.”

 

“ ‘Bing’ didn’t sing, but he cried ‘Mother Machree’, with tears streaming down his face. The phone rang continuously: ‘Put Bing back on’…..’. I had a long and satisfactory association with the ABC for thirty years…….”

 

***

 

Cleaver was also an early-starter in his professional career:

 

“I went to school one day at the age of 13, not knowing that the next day I would be a junior clerk in a Solicitor’s office. An appeal to my parents to leave school appeared to be abortive, but eventually they agreed after I promised to attend night school………..”

 

“So off I went to start work the next morning at a wage of seven shillings and sixpence per week. Four and a half years later Albury was experiencing a property boom, and I set up in business as a property agent.”

 

“By 1924 I had built up a sizeable clientele, and my practice made considerable headway. I held the Secretaryship of 40 organisations and I was grateful to the many people who provided the nucleus of the Accountancy section of my business………”

 

“My entry to Local Government began in 1925, when I was elected as an alderman on the Albury City Council (at the age of 22)…….

 

***

 

Cleaver retired from the Council in 1931, then returned as an alderman in 1937. He served as Mayor of Albury from 1946–1976 (with brief breaks in 1961 and ‘72/73).

 

He advocated regionalism and is credited with helping transform Albury from a country town to a modern metropolis.

 

His civic duty had earned him recognition throughout the Riverina and North-East Victoria, but it was his move to Canberra to fill a vacancy in the Senate in 1975, which came to the attention of the nation.

 

 

 

Whilst still an Alderman and Mayor of Albury, the New South Wales Liberal Party nominated him for the Senate. He defied expectations by acting as an Independent, resisting the urging of the Liberals to side with them during the tumultuous 1975 Constitutional Crisis.

 

“I entered the Senate amid controversy, and left (nine months later) on 11th November 1975 amid a far bigger controversy, (when the Whitlam Labor Government was dismissed). Police abounded on the crowded steps leading from King’s Hall to the front door of Parliament House. The atmosphere was electric…..I was surrounded by reporters anxious to hear my views.”

 

“I remember the remarks of one reporter, who said: ‘We are aware of your wonderful contribution in an effort to save the day. What do you think of the future ?’…..I said: ‘Your guess is as good as mine…..’ Then it was back to Albury and a much happier environment……”

 

***

 

He was awarded an OBE in 1954 and an Order of Australia in 1975. It is said that a Knighthood was in the wings, except that he’d refused to side with the Liberals, to block supply to the Government.

 

He continued to serve his beloved Ovens and Murray League as Treasurer until 1990 and is arguably the longest-serving administrator in Australian Rules history.

 

‘Old Cleaver’ passed away in 1999, aged 96. He was inducted as an O & M Legend in 2005…………

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission. All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.

 

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Ross Treverton says

    Great story KB. My father-in-law, Len McInerney was full of St. Patrick’s F.C stories. The McInerney name has a rich history with the club. Len himself was a very good O&M footballer, Capt/Coach of Wodonga in the 50’s and also with a couple of clubs in the local leagues. Sadly passed away in January this year aged 87. Loved his sport and the O&M.

  2. george smith says

    Cleaver’s appointment to the Senate by the childish Premier of NSW Tom Lewis paved the way for the Tyrant of the North Joh Bjelke Peterson to appoint one of Santa’s little helpers to the Senate to replace a Labor senator who died, an act of political illegitimacy that had far reaching repercussions into the future, not just for the Dismissal…

    When we finally man up and get rid of Quoonie and her scandal ridden brood, then maybe we can appoint citizens like Cleaver, acceptable to both sides, to fill the post.

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