Ultimate Wool Team – Joe Darling: Norwood footballer, Australian cricket captain, wool-grower, paliamentarian, family man (and nude wrestler).

Ultimate Wool Team: Joe Darling


Joe Darling is one of the most famous sportsmen in the mix for the national wool team of great footballers. Typical of his day, he was a classic all-rounder, having developed his sporting sensibility at one of Australia’s finest private schools – Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. He went on to become the tenth cricket captain of Australia and a well known sheep farmer in Tasmania.


These were the days – which lasted for a century – when sportsmen were all-rounders who played cricket in the summer and footy in the winter. They could also handle a tennis racquet and some of them spent time in the row boat as well.


Born in Glen Osmond, South Australia in 1870. Joe Darling took to sport at a young age playing both cricket and Australian Rules football. It was in cricket, though, that his ability really shone through at school; while at Prince Alfred College, he broke the record for the highest score in an inter-collegiate match, at just 15. At 16 he was selected for a combined South Australia/ Victoria team.


It was clear he had a love for sport. Unfortunately for Joe, though, this love was not shared by his father. As historian Jack Pollard writes in Australian Cricket: The Game and its Players, “His father was not keen on [Joe’s] fondness for sport, sent him away to spend twelve months at Roseworthy Agricultural School.” Then, after Joe finished his years of formal education, his father appointed him as manager on one of his wheat farms to keep him away from sport.


Yet Joe continued to play cricket and was even selected for the South Australian team at the age of 19. His father, however, would not allow him the time off to play and he spent two year on the farm.


Darling found his way back to cricket by returning to live in Adelaide, starting at club level before being selected to play for South Australia in first class cricket in 1893. In that same year he married Alice Francis, a woman from the wheat-sheep country around Mundoora South Australia. She had grown up on a farm but was happy to move to Adelaide where Joe opened a sports store – much to the disdain of his father.


He also played top-level footy. Short, but nuggetty and very strong – he was about 170cm and over 80kg which was solid for that time – he made his debut with Norwood, one of the most successful clubs in Adelaide, in the SANFL in 1894 (he made his Test debut later that year). He only played the two seasons at Norwood (1894-1895); this included being a part of the Norwood 1894 premiership side. He played the following year but stopped at the end as it became clear his sporting destiny lay with cricket. He was more than a handy forward for Norwood, his name appearing regularly on Norwood’s list of goal-kickers in The Adelaide Advertiser.


He made his debut for South Australia in the 1893-94 season but he didn’t have the best start to his first class career. His form on field did improve, however, culminating in his maiden first class hundred the following season against a touring English side. This was the sign of things to come as Darling made his debut for Australia against England the following season (1894-95) at the SCG. Like his First Class career, he didn’t get off to a great start in his test career, but his form improved, however, and this leading to selection on his first tour of England in 1896.


He was able to gain the respect of his teammates another way. According to Roland Perry in Captain Australia: A History of the Celebrated Captains of Australian Test Cricket, “[Darling] was challenged to a naked wrestle by the fast bowler and ex-miner Ernie Jones, an informal initiation into the team. To his team mates’ surprise, Darling managed to defeat the much larger Jones.” He was said to cure Jones of his wrestling habit and created peace in the dressing room. Ernie Jones, was a big fast bowler who also played football, for Port Adelaide. Working class Port and bourgeois Norwood were sworn enemies – so it may have been a case of football rivalries surfacing in the cricket arena.


After giving away football and focusing on cricket he was able to achieve great heights. This started only the following season in Australia (1896-97) where he set records and achieved new batting milestones; for example, he was the first man to score 500 runs in a series (including three centuries) and the first man to hit a six out of the ground in Australia. This good form, combined with the standing he held in the team, saw him be selected as captain for the next tour of England (1899). The Australians lost only three out of the 35 games they played under the captaincy of Darling. He went on to captain Australia 21 times in tests, winning seven and losing four. This run as captain included the 1899, 1902 and 1905 tours of England.


As historian Jack Pollard writes, “While captain he had gained a reputation for his stoutness of character and become known as a man who scorned any underhanded act.” As captain he led a team that included the likes of Trumper, Hill, Armstrong, Trumble and Noble (all in the Australian cricket Hall of Fame). He also played a role in helping to bring about changes in the conduct of matches. These were later written into the laws of cricket. Specific changes he suggested happen included making six runs the reward for clearing the boundary rather than the entire ground, and using sawdust to fill holes in bowlers run-ups.


His cricket career was a stop-start one as he took time away from the game three times during his career largely because of a 4000 hectare sheep station (nicknamed Stonehenge) in central Tasmania which his father had bought for him in 1900. He was ordered to run the property. As historian Ray Robinson writes in On Top Down Under: Australia’s Cricket Captains, “He was faced with exclusion from his father’s will.” He complied with his father’s wishes and moved to Tasmania to run the sheep station. While there he found the sheep station needed a lot of work as the advice his father had been given had been totally misrepresented. This work was the main reason he only returned to the game for short periods; he cited family reasons also due to the fact that he and his wife had 14 children, six by the time he was 29.


Due to this and the sheep station, he had a reluctance to tour, because as Roland Perry writes in Captain Australia: A History of the Celebrated Captains of Australian Test Cricket, “He was reluctant to leave his wife and kids and his farm which he had made the best in the state, through getting rid of the rabbit problem and an award winning sheep herd.”


This stop start career continued until the 1905 tour of England which Darling decided would be his last. According to historian Jack Pollard Darling believed touring was “unfair to his wife”. He continyed playing First Class cricket for South Australia until the 1907-08 season where he performed well with the bat. He also played a role off field as he was always seen to be disputing how the newly formed Australian Board of Control for international cricket matches (now Cricket Australia) was running the game.


After finishing playing cricket altogether in 1908, he sold his Adelaide sports store and settled in Tasmania to work exclusively on the sheep station. While he was there he was involved in numerous agricultural activities; he pioneered the eradication of the rabbits that had overrun his own and other properties, and he was also an active member of organisations such as the Tasmanian Stock Holders and Orchardists’ Association and the Royal Agricultural Society of Tasmania. He was especially recognised for his flock of sheep, as he topped the Hobart wool sales on several occasions. He had improved his flock by the early introduction of South Australian merino rams. He had a significant influence on the Tasmanian wool industry.


He lived and worked on the farm his father had given him in 1900 until 1919, when he moved to Claremont house. Two years later, he was elected to the seat of Cambridge on the Legislative Council. While in politics, he won small farmers an exemption from land tax and due to him filing charges for maladministration, a royal commission was set up which found a minister and two others guilty of accepting bribes. He remained in politics until his death in 1946.


Joe Darling was influenced by his father’s objection to him playing cricket, which caused him a lot of angst, but he did not allow this to prevent him from attaining great success in this sport. It could also be said that, because of his father’s objection and demanding that he move to Tasmania that he found success in the agricultural field, becoming one of the best wool-growers of his time. With his sporting, agricultural and political pursuits, Joe Darling was indeed an “all rounder” who led an extraordinary life.


Nick Weidmann is a freelance journalist and occasional assistant editor at www.footyalmanac.com.au







About Nick Weidmann

Former Honours student in Journalism at the University of Tasmania and passionate Essendon supporter


  1. Thanks Nick. I wonder if he started the SA tradition of high profile sportsmen owning a sports store. His was called “Joe Darling’s Cricket & Sports Depot” in Gawler Place.

  2. Good story Nick. Two quick Q’s? I imagine his period in parliament he was a Country Party MP: correct ? Secondly the Australian test player of the late 1970’s Rick Darling ; was he a descendant ?


  3. Glad you like it Glenn, to answer your questions, he was a independent when in parliament and he is the great uncle of Rick Darling.

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic and informative read,Nick ! What was the initial interest in Joe Darling ?

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Great job Nick

    Rulebook, glad you left out that comma after ‘Joe’ (for once)

  6. Great story Weed, reminds me of my youth in Melbourne when we had no shortage of Shield cricketers fronting up in interstate football over the years. Those blokes were, as you put it, true all-rounders, in cricket, other sports and in business, I am still inspired by them
    Gee Mate, with your name, shouldn’t you be a ‘Pies fan?

  7. Wonderful piece Nick. I knew that Joe Darling was a fine cricketer from the turn of last century, but none of the history. He really was a renaissance man, and an extraordinarlity talented one.
    When I read stories like this one and other polymaths like Franklin (Benjamin not Buddy) and Jefferson – I wonder how much more people could achieve without all the modern distractions and entertainments. Amusing ourselves to death?

  8. It was a suggestion from JTH to find some info about him and I find historical pieces interesting so that is why I did it.

    Tadge, I never could see myself being a Pies fan, even with my last name being like former footballer Murray Weideman.

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Nick from helping,Fred Bloch with the history of SAAFL ( South Austalian Amateur Football League ) I have an idea how much research goes in to writing a article like this my heartiest congratulations

  10. Love it, Nick.
    Must have taken a strong self-belief to buck the old man’s wishes.
    And a strong inner compass to sort it all out.

    That’s one heck of a life lived.

    PB – what holds a person back from achieving (anything) is a good question.
    Is it self-belief? Support? Inspiration? Resources?
    Why do some beat on against the current for longer than others?

  11. At least on Urbanspoon, they can see a star rating, or an evaluation.

  12. Thanks for this piece Nick. Really Interesting. Did you come across any references to him in the match reports you looked at in the old newspapers?

  13. Was interesting to do. All I really found was him being mentioned in the goal scorers.

  14. What a great story, and well told Nick. Australian sport seemed so quaint back then. But delightfully genuine. These stories give us a great insight into our sporting culture, especially cricket, which is sadly being degraded. Blokes like Joe Darling and Les Darcy give a real richness to it all.

  15. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful Nick. Great writing. What an interesting topic J.Darling is.

    If I had 14 kids I’d be touring England and leaving the missus at home on the farm too!

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