Seeing Ken Farmer

There are few people who can remember the first day they met their father. One of them is Milton Farmer who was five years old when his dad Ken came home from the war in 1946.

 

They met at Parafield Aerodrome. On the drive home Milton sat in the back seat staring silently at the back of his father’s head. He was an only child and the talk of his father had been incessant since news came that he would be returning. Ken turned and spoke to him to no response.

 

‘I think I was scared of him.’

 

The silent treatment continued when they arrived home and it was time for Milton’s bath. The boy sat in the warm water as his father tried striking up a conversation from outside the bathroom. After a time he grew concerned asking his wife Floris if the boy was hard of hearing.

 

She replied she only had to call out that his tea was ready at the back door to have him come scampering in from the backyard.

 

They gave it a try and Milton responded to his mother’s call but continued shunning his father.

 

Were the years of absence so difficult to overcome? Was the sporting prowess everyone spoke of so great that it even intimidated his own son?

 

 

Milton Farmer and his grandson with the statue of Ken Farmer

 

On Friday evening before the Crows-Swans match a statue of Ken Farmer was unveiled at the northern end of the Adelaide Oval.

 

He is cast in perfect form – roosting the ball through for another goal. It was a dominant pose familiar to football lovers during the Depression.

 

‘Take a look at him,’ said Milton ‘because you may never seen the like of him again.’

 

Football careers are measured by statistics – games, goals, premierships, medals, state guernseys and now hard ball gets, inside fifties et al.

 

So florid are Farmer’s statistics that a description of them must come from another sport. He was Bradman-esque.

 

Many of the Don’s records have been eclipsed but it is the average that remains – 99.94.

 

Farmer’s eternal number is 6.33 – his average goal return per match.

 

1417 was the career tally from 224 games. No one has ever kicked more goals in league football anywhere.

 

In 1930 he was the first player to kick one hundred goals in a South Australian season. He repeated the feat every year for the next decade. On only one occasion was he held scoreless and that was when he was carried off on a stretcher ten minutes into the contest. Floris told Milton after games his father’s legs and back would be a mess of welts from the sprigs of opposition players.

 

He never fought back. His response was the next goal. He crushed the opposition by weight of numbers.

 

He booted 81 goals during 18 appearances for South Australia. 35 times he kicked more than ten goals in a match. Against West Torrens in 1940 he finished with 23.6 out of North Adelaide’s 26.11. West Torrens managed 8.14.

 

In the crowd was a teenage Bob Hank.

 

‘I was at Adelaide High School and remember going to Prospect Oval that day. I used to see a few of their games and Ken Farmer was a colossus in the football world. He got that record 23 goals that day against ‘Pinky’ Dennison who was our goalkeeper. He wanted to go off the field at lemon time and I recall them dragging him back on because he reckoned he’d had enough.’

 

Hank would later be coached at state level by Farmer and remembered his demanding tone.

 

‘He was tough. He had a good voice by jove. He used to rave on a bit and it probably did us some good.’

 

Farmer coached North Adelaide for four seasons after the war – reaching three grand finals for two premierships.

 

Milton came to learn all this of his father slowly.

 

In the days after their reunion in 1946, Ken tried various ways of engaging his son without success. He eventually set up an appointment with a specialist.

 

The examination showed Milton to be 90% deaf as a result of Floris contracting rubella during the pregnancy. He had keyed what existed of his hearing on his mother’s voice frequency but his father’s deeper registry was virtually inaudible to him. When he stood behind the bathroom door asking questions there was no chance.

 

So began lessons in lip reading. Milton would sit opposite a mirror watching his own mouth form shapes that his brain learned to translate into words. Later hearing aids broadened his spectrum of sounds.

 

His football memories are of his father cutting out newspaper reports and pasting them into enormous ledgers. He would lay things out on the floor first and then put them together. Round by round, season by season as if cataloging the game into order. He drew up an enormous chart with all the players’ names and a system of how he selected teams.

 

‘Dad was very serious. He took things very seriously. He wasn’t a show pony and he kept things close to his chest.’

 

Milton became a fan of the game and followed the Roosters where his name was royalty. It gave him a perspective unlike any of his friends. Whatever excitement players brought there was an unspoken gold standard at home.

 

As seasons passed Ken Farmer became a newspaper and radio pundit. The father and son spoke about the game and its players. What Milton found as time went on was that he wanted what he couldn’t have in football.

 

He wished he had seen his father play.

 

All he had to go on was the yellowing photos and match reports in the scrapbooks. In them Ken is usually in a staged pose having a set shot at goal or in a team group. His role was to kick goals and as a result most reports judged his success on scores. Reading them the impression formed is of a robotic player.

 

Lead – mark – goal.

 

Where is the humanity in that?

 

Paul DePasquale found it by spending hours poring over the giant ledgers. As a publisher, he was investigating if a book could be produced from the raw material. Instead, he used it as a basis of a biography called The Farmer Files.

 

He sketches a picture of a complex man. A person who was not comfortable in public but in private was a wit, who played the piano and sang duets with Floris. He didn’t like the attention football brought him but did everything he could to excel at the sport.

 

His plan was to harness the free nature of the game by controlling everything he could.

 

He was obsessive from how his boots were laced to how his hair was parted. A non-drinker who trained alone long after the other players had gone in and the sun fallen behind the grandstand. In an era when football literature was almost nonexistent, he hoarded every scrap he could to understand more of it.

 

There is a reference to Floris learning to manage Ken’s “nerves”. Among his pre-match rituals was vomiting in the backyard.

 

‘So far as his football was concerned, his obsessiveness may have been a great strength,’ writes DePasquale.

 

‘It is unthinkable that a man less than obsessively dedicated could have kicked 100 goals or more year after year. Every time he kicked the century it made the next one less likely, for nobody had ever kicked so many in succession before, and opposition teams intensified their defensive measures against him.’

 

The comparison with Bradman comes into play again. Often the cricketer stands accused of not having the warmth to go with his ability as if somehow being the greatest batsman isn’t enough. Introversion seems a less acceptable personality trait that extroversion. It draws admiration in a way that only half the legend is forged.

 

For Farmer there was never the celebration of conquering Everest – just the relief. After he finished he concluded he was too serious.

 

‘I didn’t get a bit of fun in my playing career,’ he said.

 

*

 

As the years went by Ken Farmer withdrew slowly from football. Other forwards captured attention. Fred Phillis beat his single season total but acknowledged he did so in more games than Farmer. Television replays of high marks and spectacular goals rendered the static photos and statistics redundant.

 

The recognition took a long time to come.

 

In his final months, he stood in front of the Ken Farmer Gates at Prospect Oval. He smiled for the camera and wore his state blazer from the 1933 carnival. That was 1981 the same year the SANFL named its award for the leading goal kicker after him.

 

Astonishingly when the Australian Football Hall of Fame was created in 1996 he was not among the 136 inductees. The man who kicked more goals than anyone else was overlooked.

 

Was his excellence not enough? Did he take things too seriously? Was he not likeable?

 

Gordon Coventry the great Collingwood full forward was elevated to legend status yet trails Farmer in every statistic except games played.

 

Two years later he was included and Milton enjoyed the evening. He talked for a long time to the son of Gordon Coventry and later to Kevin Murray whom his father had admired. The room was noisy. Milton read their lips and didn’t miss a word.

 

 

Russell Ebert, Malcolm Blight, Barrie Robran

 

Now a statue stands outside the Adelaide Oval.

 

At the unveiling, Milton said he was a wonderful father and a mentor. His great regret is that he never saw him play.

 

The only film he has ever seen was from a Perth carnival in 1937, ‘There is a long shot of the South Australian team in a line and Ken breaks away and walks off. I remember watching it with the son of Harold “Dribbler” Hawke and he had never seen his father in his football gear and he cried like a baby.’

 

That comment came while talking to Milton about clearing his father’s archives. Milton arranged for the trophies and jumpers to be held at the club. The ledgers rest in the state library. There was a stack of printed cards featuring his father kicking for goal with his statistics listed. They had been signed by Ken to be handed to people asking for a souvenir.

 

Milton believed somewhere there would be some film of his father playing. It remained the thing he wanted to see before he died.

 

The possibility was explored by Simon Smith, an archivist at the National Film and Sound Archive with a particular interest in their sports film collection.

His search returned with little news. Few news items from South Australia were included in Cinesound Review or Movietone News. Film was used sparingly in the Depression, so only a few minutes for test cricket, rugby internationals or VFL grand finals.

 

Weeks later he rang back to say he had found some film of an interstate football carnival played in Sydney in 1933. It featured 90 seconds of Victoria against South Australia.

 

The film has the jerky quality of the time. The play is surprisingly open as the ball flies from end to end.

 

A player wearing number nine for South Australia gathers the ball and kicks for goal. I am not sure it is Farmer or not because he isn’t a towering, leading forward. Not the colossus who bestrode the game in newspaper reports. He is lithe and moderate in size. He gathers the ball and eludes a defender, shooting on the run.

 

A film editor John Gilbert slowed the vision down and smoothed it before burning it onto a disc. I ring Milton and tell him I have something he might like to see. I lower expectations because no one is sure it is him.

 

At his home he puts the disc into the player and sits back. The opening board shows the match details. As the first seconds of the black and white film flicker he shouts ‘That’s Dad. That is Dad’.

 

For the second time in his life, Milton Farmer has seen his father for the first time.

 

Update:

The footage is now available here

About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a journo working for the ABC in SA. His scribblings include "1964", "Fos Wiliams on Football" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. Thank you Michael for , in my view, the most poignant factual and deeply intimate post of the year

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Another beaut story, beautifully told Michael. I only remember Ken Farmer as a gruff bloke on Channel 7 in the 60s, if only there was more footage to support the tales of his dominance.

  3. Charlie Brown says:

    Thank you Michael. I really enjoyed your account of Farmer through his son. Your story humanised what had been for me until this point just a lot of remarkable football stats.

  4. Dave Brown says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for writing and sharing this Michael

  5. Peter Crossing says:

    Michael
    Thank you for this sensitive human perspective of a champion sportsman.
    The giant ledgers of his newspaper cuttings were a feature of the recent SANFL exhibition at the State Library.
    Farmer’s statistics are phenomenal but his life and his sporting career were so much more than that.

  6. Rod Gillett says:

    So good to a genuine champion appropriately recognised.

    Too much recognition of recently-retired players because of “longevity”.
    No such issue for Ken Farmer.
    He meets all the criteria.

    Must not allow VFL imperialism to dominate the game.

    Still no NSW champion (who didn’t play in the VFL/AFL) admitted into the AFL HoF……….

  7. Michael – I know you have been sitting on this story for some time for an appropriate moment to have this published, and what better way to do it than at the unveiling of the Farmer statue. Congratulations on some superlative football writing – I’m so pleased we did find something to show Milton Farmer. If only there was more. I’ll be in touch should I find anything else. Now we just need to find some footage of Haydn Bunton (Snr) from an actual game!

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Michael/Simon – Is the footage mentioned generally available?

  9. Rabid Dog says:

    Paid homage on entering Adelaide Oval for the Crows/Swans game. You need to tell your stories Simon Ball.

  10. This is a great story. The goal kicking record is too true to believe

  11. James Lang says:

    Great article Mike, it’s amazing that Ken Farmer (or Russell Ebert for that matter) hasn’t been elevated to legend status in the Australian Football Hall of Fame, his record is truly amazing.

    It’s only appropriate to see him honoured at the Northern entrance of Adelaide Oval, next to the gates named after another great footballer and returned soldier, Port’s Bob Quinn.

    I noticed on a recent visit to the MCG that on Haydn Bunton Snr’s statue there was only his VFL career information, it would be nice to see his WAFL and SANFL stats there as well.

  12. Your story gave me goosebumps Mike. Brilliant at an emotional father/son level as much as a footy story. Like Swish I only remember Ken Farmer as the severe bloke in the dark suit on Ch7’s World of Sport in the 1960’s hosted by Gordon Schwartz (or was that Gordon Agars?)
    Still he was respected like a god by my dad and all the other TV panellists for his footy deeds and knowledge. He seemed a closed book. Your story tells the story behind the persona. Wonderful for Milton to have found his father again, or for many of us to put a human face to the footy legend.
    Thanks Mike.

  13. Wonderful writing Michael.

  14. Maurie Martin says:

    My father, Owen Martin, played at full-back for North Adelaide with Ken Farmer at the other end as the unstoppable ace full-forward and I remember dad telling me that Farmer had hands like buckets and always took one grab marks. Dad also told me how Farmer practiced endlessly at running across the goals and converting always with his right foot, never using his left. I vividly remember Farmer coming to our house in Prospect when I was 15 years old…as a budding football tragic, I was completely over-awed and will never forget meeting the great man. My father told me about the Pinky Dennison encounter and also how Farmer’s fans would follow him quarterly end to end to marvel at his scoring skills. Folklore personified.

  15. Hi Swish,
    No the footage is not currently online but I’m looking into it. I’ll post an update when I have further news.
    Thanks for your interest.
    Cheers
    Simon

  16. My dad grew up in the North catchemtn area. Played juniors at broadview, and later at Roosters with Ken’s son. He’s just beginning to tell me some of his Ken Farmer stories. I’ll keep nagging him to post them here.

  17. Hi Everyone – you can now view the surviving footage from this 1933 game on our website here:
    https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/afl-1933-wave-two-flags
    Thanks for everyone’s interest.
    cheers
    Simon/NFSA

  18. charlie brown says:

    How good is that footage! Thank you so much to all concerned for digging this up. Brilliant.

  19. Now that’s a football story. Great work Michael. It’s my introduction to this incredible sportsman. I am in awe.

    Cheers

  20. Not sure I’ve read a better last line in a football story ever. Made me cry.

  21. Wow Michael that is an amazing story. Thankyou.

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