‘The Kneebones of Brookfield…..’ – KB Hill

“He had a reputation as a boaster…… He claimed that he could jump higher and further than nearly anyone else, achieve the highest score in rifle-shooting…. and referred to his run-making ability in cricket…”

 

“He was ready to throw anyone into the river if he was out clean-bowled when, he said, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that it was a no-ball…..”

 

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That was one rival’s assessment of Eugene Kneebone, who made a lasting impact on the sporting life of Wangaratta and District.

 

Born in 1864, he was to become renowned as an athlete, strongman, wrestler, cricketer, administrator and co-founder of a formidable sporting dynasty.

 

Raised in the rich tobacco-growing area of Bowman’s Forest, he had scant interest in school, but developed a passion for cricket from one of his teachers – Mr. Walters – who preached that one of the fundamentals of success was hard work.

 

Young Eugene was certainly used to plenty of that. His labours on the family farm conditioned his body for the athletic achievements that lay ahead.

 

He was skilled at many sports, and was convinced of his obvious potential when he travelled to Melbourne to take on a Scottish policeman called McHardy, in a weight-lifting match.

 

After winning the first two trials, Kneebone took the 50 pounds prize-money and went home.

 

Fired by this success, he broke two world hammer-throw records in 1891, which were additional to the record he held for shot-putting in 1899.

 

The next year he competed in the Caledonian Games on the MCG, where he came up against Scotsman Donald Dinnie, who was to become his chief protagonist for many years. Kneebone won the match, and also regained the world record for the 56 pound hammer.

 

In his late twenties, Eugene began a wandering life, competing in a myriad of strange places and, at one stage travelling with Wirth’s Circus.

 

His contests with other strong-men from Europe and beyond attracted huge exposure and, at the height of his powers he was labelled the ‘Strongest Man in the World.’

 

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‘The World’s Strongest Man’

 

Kneebone and his old foe, Dinnie, once met at the Wangaratta Showgrounds, in front of a large, parochial crowd:

 

“The contest began at 2.30 pm on a glorious autumn afternoon……..” said the Chronicle scribe.   “Dinnie looked a powerful specimen. Kneebone was smaller in height, but remarkably well-built and poised, large-limbed and muscular. Dinnie held his own, but went on to lose the match…..”

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Eugene Kneebone married, and settled in Gippsland, after a spell on the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, where he had made his fortune.

 

His unique competitive streak was emphasised in a report of a cricket match between Mirboo – of whom he was captain (and their outstanding player) – and Dumbalk, led by a gentleman named Billy Hughes:

 

“There was a time-limit set on the game, to enable players to get home for milking. Dumbalk batted first, but Mirboo were creeping up on their total, when Billy Hughes signified that time was up. Eugene claimed that, as the sun was still shining, there was time for 7 or 8 more overs.”

 

“A great dispute followed and Eugene – with bat in hand – chased Billy around a big blue-gum stump….”

 

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After 20 years in Gippsland, Eugene returned to his roots with his growing brood, and settled on the property, ‘Brookfield’ (between Wangaratta and Myrtleford). He began to stamp the Kneebone legend in local cricket.

 

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The Tobacco-Grower

 

He and the boys carved out a quaint cricket ground in the paddock in front of the family home and the lads began to reveal their talent under the watchful eye of a demanding ‘old man’.

 

There were 16 kids in the family. The boys, five of whom represented Wangaratta at Country Week, helped form a tough, unyielding team.

 

Bill, Hughie, Harry, Sam, Jim, Ken, Dennis and Eugene Jnr all had their qualities and played their particular roles, as did sons-in-law Jim and Bernie Morris, Phil South and Bill Swan.

 

The girls, Nell, Ida, Estelle, Mary, Anne, Belle, Fay and Irene, joined their mother as the chief supporters of the Kneebone tribe.

 

Among their duties was the preparation of afternoon-tea. “We’d have lamingtons, pavlovas, scones and cream cakes…..we would fill the opposition up so they wouldn’t do any good,” Nell joked many years later.

 

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“Because there were eight boys and eight girls, Mum decided each brother would have a sister for a ‘slave’, to wash their clothes and clean their shoes.”

 

‘Kneebone’s’ originally competed in the Ovens and King competition and entertained VCA team Prahran in challenge matches for many years. Enlisting the help of a couple of Nicolls and Fishers, they defeated Prahran 132 to 113 during the Christmas break of 1924. Old Eugene, aged 60, captured 3/11 with his flighted slowies.

 

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Eugene Kneebone and his sons, who formed the nucleus of the Brookfield Cricket Club.

 

They transferred to the Wangaratta & District Cricket Association in 1922/23, but changed their name to Brookfield the following year.

 

They were a most formidable – and certainly one of the ultra-competitive – teams in the competition until the onset of World War II.

 

Taking on Brookfield on their own ‘dung-hill’ was no easy task. Nor was facing old Eugene, who was still sending down his spinners with guile, well into his sixties.

 

But the boys knew his fading eyesight was beginning to affect his batting when he issued an edict to one of sons: “Bill, trim the branches off that tree will you. I can’t pick up the ball too well.”

 

Visiting teams recalled the family patriarch, long after his retirement from the field of play, sitting on the verandah overlooking the ground, shouting encouragement and advice to his team.

 

Eugene took over as President of the Association in 1929, and held the reins throughout the thirties. It was a period which saw the competition become more structured and the standard improve markedly.

 

But it was also an era of strong personalities and Eugene, with his volatile temperament, attracted more than his fair share of critics.

 

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Brookfield won their first WDCA premiership in 1927/28. Their second followed in 1932/33.

 

The latter was a triumph, as their opponents, Footballers, had a handy lead after the first innings and needed only 73 to wrap up the game. But they crumbled in the face of some fearsome bowling from Harry Kneebone, who took 6/19.

 

They could have won a third flag in 1936/37, when they met East Wangaratta in the Final. East’s side contained Clem and Clyde Fisher, cousins of the Kneebones , and tough old nuts in their own right.

 

It was a low-scoring affair, with Brookfield gaining the ascendancy, thanks to Ken Kneebone’s 8/35.

 

East Wang fought back, and needed just nine runs to win, with one wicket in hand.
Brookfield then walked off the ground. East Wangaratta protested and the resultant Tribunal declared the game ‘No-Result’.

 

Debate often raged over who was the quickest of the Kneebone clan. Harry and Hughie had their supporters, but some opted for Ken, whose rhythmic run-up was ‘poetry in motion’. Ken played against the Englishmen at Benalla in 1937.

 

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Ken Kneebone – The Quickest of the Clan.

 

His 4/63 included the wickets of Maurice Leyland, Hedley Verity, Bob Wyatt and Laurie Fishlock. . He was on a hat-trick at one stage, which prompted his proud dad to testify that the lad: “…could bowl for a week……”

 

With his boys playing a central role at Country Week, Eugene took on the role of Team Manager during the thirties, and was generally sought out by the media for a quote on all things cricket.

 

On more than one occasion, when discussion turned to his own family, he said, with confidence, that: “he’d back the Kneebones against any other family in Australia. And, if he had to, he said: “I’d get out there and help them myself……..”

 

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Thirty-two years after Ken Kneebone bowled against the M.C.C, his son Robin was selected to play for a Victorian Country XI against the West Indies at Wangaratta, in 1968/69.

 

An accurate left-arm swing bowler, who played a handful of games with District club Fitzroy, Robin was one of a number of old Eugene’s grandchildren and great-grandkids who filtered through the WDCA ranks.

 

The ‘Grand Old Man’ of cricket died in 1953, aged 89. The WDCA’s Under-16 teams now compete for the ‘Eugene Kneebone Shield’………

 

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. Eugene Kneebone (Left ,Back Row) Manager of Wangaratta’s 1934 Country Week team, which contained several of his sons.
You can read more of KB Hill’s excellent profiles of local sporting identities HERE.

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