‘The Golden Era of the Redlegs……’ by KB Hill

I’m at Barkly Park, just a street away from Rutherglen’s main ‘drag’.

 

Chances are that many present-day O & M fans have never spotted this old relic which, to be honest, has barely changed since I first laid eyes on it about 65 years ago.

 

It was once the cradle of Ovens and Murray football, the home of the Mighty Redlegs…….winners of 15 flags…… 13 of which came before World War I.

 

                                                                         O & M Premiers- Early 1900s

 

Like the town, the Oval just drips with history………. If I shut my eyes for a moment I’m swept back in time, to the mid-1890’s:

 

…….Be-suited gentlemen sporting bowler hats; the ladies adorned in their finery, alight from horse-drawn carriages. They take up their vantage spots near the fence, fraternise with companions, and await the opening bell with heightened expectation……..

 

 

 

The participants jog – or rather – stroll onto the ground……..The lads of Rutherglen, wearing their Blue and Red chamois lace-up jerseys, long white knickerbockers and familiar Red ‘hose’, are greeted with polite applause.

 

Their opponents are the much-vaunted Beechworth Wanderers, who only need to prevail in this game to take out the Premiership Cup.

 

Never before has a match excited so much interest……. A special train has been chartered to run from Beechworth, and about 200 people have taken advantage of this concession.

 

Visitors have also come from Wangaratta, Chiltern, Lilliput, Corowa and Albury; some 4,000 spectators in total.

 

The Wanderers, the Redlegs’ staunchest opponents, hold on. Rutherglen, who had failed to trouble the scorers at quarter-time, are unable to bridge the gap, and are defeated, 4.7 to 2.9…….

 

***

 

Following the discovery of Gold in the latter part of the 19th century, there was an influx of more than 20,000 people to Rutherglen and its surrounds……A second rush attracted a further 10,000…….By the time a properly-organised football competition was introduced in the 1890’s the town was ultra-busy.

 

It’s no surprise that Rutherglen and Beechworth ( another town which was to become a ‘metropolis’ of the Gold-Rush era ) were the giants of the Ovens and Murray League……..and ignited a rivalry which bordered on open warfare.

 

The conflict came to a head in the Final game of the 1895 season, when the teams clashed at Beechworth’s Baarmutha Park, in front of a large crowd:

 

“The first few minutes of the game were fairly friendly….” reported Beechworth’s O & M Advertiser. “…….until Harry Thompson, the Wanderers’ ace goal-kicker, was attacked in a spiteful manner by a Rutherglen player.”

 

“The ground was immediately rushed by supporters of both clubs and, but for the intervention of Police, a free fight seemed imminent.”

 

“ After several minutes had been spent in excited wrangling, order was restored and the game proceeded. Play, however, continued to be rough throughout. When the final bell rang to end the game, Rutherglen were just ahead – 2.7 to 2.4.”

 

“The Premiers were hailed with boisterous cheers by the supporters of the Red, White and Blue….”

 

***

 

Legend has it that an Irish emigrant, Dan King, and his friend Jack Hiskins were the two who got football up and running in Rutherglen.

 

They’d been informed by visiting bullock-wagon teamsters that a new game, a cross between the Gaelic code and its British antecedent, Rugby, had become very popular with young fellows in Melbourne.

 

“Let’s give it a try,” King said to his mate.

 

Dan, who had taken on Bootmaking to supplement a meagre farm income, roughly fashioned a football. The cover was made of leather and kept in shape by a pig’s bladder.

 

Before long, the naturally-talented King and Hiskins boys had mastered the arts of kicking and marking. The respective families were to provide the core of the great Rutherglen sides of the next two decades.

 

Pat King organised volunteers to clear the playing field that was to become Barkly Park. His brother Bernard was seconded to coach the side and Jim, Dan, Chris, Francis and Jack were all stars.

 

Of the 14-sibling Hiskins clan, the nine boys all played in the Ovens and Murray League, although a few were enticed over to the other ‘Glen team, Lake Rovers. Clashes between the arch rivals incited plenty of feeling, particularly in the Hiskins household, where brother would, at times, be pitted against brother.

 

Fred, Arthur, Stan and Rupert Hiskins all went on to make their name in League football, whilst Neil, Vic, Bert, Clem and my grandad, Jimmy, represented either of the Rutherglen-based sides with distinction for years.

 

But there were a number of others, like Lou Jackson, Arthur Francis, Bill Collins, Hally Chandler and Jim Hallahan, who established phenomenal records whilst chalking up flag after flag with the Redlegs.

 

Hallahan stood 6 foot, and weighed in at 13 and a half stone. He was a top player, whose career lasted 28 years, most of them being spent with Rutherglen. Enticed to St.Kilda for a season, he returned to Rutherglen after his parents sent an SOS: ‘Leave that nonsense alone – come home and do some proper work.’

 

He played with the Redlegs until 1924. His sons Jack, Tom and Bill started not long after, and their younger sibling, Jim Jnr, began in 1929.

 

Rutherglen champ Jim Hallahan Snr, with trainer Clarrie Morley.

 

Young Jimmy proved to be a star, finished third in the first-ever Morris Medal in 1933 and later played with Footscray and Fitzroy. He once told me that his dad Jim and team-mates had a host of tricks up their sleeves when it came to outsmarting the opposition and cleaning up the odd wager on the side.

 

Word went around on the eve of a game with Exelsior (a Miner’s team, whose home ground was 3 miles out on the Albury-Rutherglen Road) that Jack and Jim King were going to Melbourne to play with St.Kilda, and would be missing from the Redlegs’ side.

 

The Kings were, indeed, spotted by Exelsior supporters boarding the train, so the money was set. But they disembarked at Springhurst, were picked up by a waiting horse and gig, headed to Exelsior, and helped win the game.

 

Old Jim had been away gold mining in  WA at one stage, and returned half-way through a season. As the permit arrangements between the O & M and surrounding leagues were, to say the least, flimsy, Wahgunyah asked him to play a game with them in the Coreen League.

 

His old Rutherglen team-mate Arthur Francis was their coach, and they were sailing along nicely. Surprisingly, a swag of money was put up to back Balldale, their opponents that week-end.

 

“Dad told the story that Jackie Power, an old jockey and fervent punter, was beside himself and asked him to see if he could find out what was going on,” Jimmy told me.

 

“He said, ‘There’s no way Balldale could beat us, Jim. They must be up to something’. There were a few rumours around that they had ‘rung-in’ some players. Dad and his mates decided they’d stay one step ahead.”

 

“Rutherglen were well on top of the O & M ladder, so they went around to see their friend – and the side’s best player – Jack King.”

 

“ Dad said: ‘Whaddya reckon, Jack, will you help us out ?’ Jack agreed and also enlisted his brother Chris; then they roped in Lou Jackson. On the way home, the horse and gig passed the Chandler house……. ‘What about Hally Chandler then, we might as well have him too’.”

 

 

Three of the greats: Jim Hallahan, Jack King and Lou Jackson, after the 1914 Premiership.

 

So Wahgunyah, with their ranks inflated by some of the Ovens and Murray’s outstanding talent, won easily against the imports from Balldale, and cleaned up a sizeable amount………

 

***

 

Jack King is probably the best-known of all Rutherglen players.

 

He made his debut in 1895, and figured in 11 premiership sides, finally hanging up the boots in 1926, aged 47. A brilliant sportsman, he was a Stawell Gift Finalist in 1907 and later gained a reputation as a hard-bitten, astute, tight-lipped trainer of four Gift winners, the first of them being his brother Chris in 1908.

 

Jack, like so many of his contemporaries, was tempted with offers from League clubs but played just eight games with St.Kilda in 1904 before the call of home beckoned.

 

Fifteen of his team-mates from the Golden Era played in the VFL for varying lengths of time.

 

Jack always regarded Fred Hiskins as the best of them. Fred joined Essendon in 1900 and topped the League goal-kicking the following year, with 34. He represented Victoria in 1902, but headed over to the gold-mines of Kalgoorlie at season’s end, where he played with Mines Rovers for three seasons.

 

 

 

 

1906 was his swansong season with Essendon. After 50 games with the Bombers – and much to their disappointment – he headed home.

 

He lined up on a forward flank for Rutherglen against a powerful South Melbourne VFL side at Barkly Park the following year. The Redlegs put up a magnificent performance to go down by just five points, 9.17 to 10.6.

 

During the course of the game Mounted Police were forced to enter the playing arena on several occasions, to disperse the overflowing crowd.

 

To further illustrate the strength of footy in Rutherglen, Geelong, Collingwood and St.Kilda were all involved in enthralling contests in clashes at Barkly Park in 1903, whilst two years earlier, South Melbourne, with 11 stars in its line-up were unable to keep pace with the home team, who triumphed by 12 points………

 

***

 

Rutherglen won the last of its 13 pre-War premierships in 1915, then had to wait another 20 years to clinch another, under the coaching of Fred Hiskins’ son, Jack, in 1935.

 

They surged again in the early fifties and, with a well-balanced side at his disposal, former Essendon champ Greg Tate guided them to a memorable flag win over Benalla in 1954, in front of 13,000 fans.

 

 

 

 

Leaner times, though, lay ahead.

 

The demographic of the Ovens and Murray competition had changed considerably, and a dwindling population-base forced Rutherglen to constantly fight above their weight.

 

The Grand Old Club had been a standard-bearer of O & M football since 1893, yet made just two further finals appearances in 25 years. In a bid to to preserve their identity, they joined forces with cross-river rivals Corowa in 1979.

 

The ‘Roos’ – Corowa-Rutherglen Football Club’ became the merged identity……….

 

 

O & M Premiers – 1907

 

 

KB Hill is Wangaratta’s leading sports historian. This article appeared first on his website On Reflection, and appears here with permission. You can read more of KB’s great yarns by clicking here.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. A great yarn about bygone days, KB. Wangaratta is so fortunate that there is an ‘old sports buff’ like you (to use your own words) around to ensure that this local history survives and thrives. Love the photos/illustrations.

  2. Matt Zurbo says

    Golden! Blokes like you are a heaven send to footy and the broader community!

  3. Thanks for this, KB.
    A wonderful history lesson.
    I had a mate who lived in Rutherglen fo a while. I went and watched a game (vs Greta).
    I recall Rutherglen wearing Geelong jerseys?

  4. Roseville Rocket says

    Yes Rutherglen are now the Cats…
    no reason why they couldn’t wear red sox!

    And no reason why Corowa couldn’t be the Spiders again!

  5. Liliput: i’ve only ever seen the name on old maps.

    Speaking of maps, maps of Victoria during the gold rush era emphasised the five major/largest towns: Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat Bendigo and Beechworth. Post the golden era Beechworth never came on as the others did, but it remains a lovely town, full of history and heritage.

    I only went to Barkly Park once. It was the first week of the 1973 finals, and my grandparents drove us over from Corowa, parked along the fence, watching the match from there.

    Indeed Dr Rocket, why can’t we be the Spiders again?

    Glen!

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