VAFA – Fitzroy v Ajax: ANZAC Day at Brunswick Street Oval, then, and now.



[If you just want the footy report it’s about two thirds in. If you want the history, make yourself a cuppa and put your feet up – Ed]



Fitzroy v Ajax


Fitzroy 8.9.57 lost to Ajax 8.12.60


It was another ordinary day in the life of Fitzroy, thankfully. Albeit a special one. It was ANZAC Day.


It was cold, the skies were grey and sometimes black, and low, and it rained more than it didn’t. It was wet and dark like July, not April.


The weather was crook, but the kids didn’t miss a beat at Auskick. Every Saturday morning Brunswick Street comes to life with keen youngsters. Theo was over with the Grade 2s, while I was with Anna and the preps – Anna managed to overcome her first-time nerves.


When the family re-assembled over a sausage at session’s end, the water was dripping off Theo’s nose, his skin was blotchy-red and he was freezing, but it had been worth it and the snag tasted even better.


This was the community at play.


The men of the community, the Fitzroy Twos  – the second-finest body of men from the area – ran out to take on Ajax. The Roys established a lead, which they never looked like giving away.


I was, as always, happy to be lunching.


There is a cosy community room at Brunswick Street, ideal for lunching. It is brilliantly designed to look across the ground towards the plane trees (turning red-brown), and the terrace houses of Freeman Street, with the cityscape in the background.


There is a beaut historical feel at Brunswick Street. I imagined a game of footy here in 1914.


The new season hadn’t started when the Australian troops landed at Gallipoli 100 years ago. That First AIF included a number of Fitzroy players, products of their time, some the victims of a deeply-entrenched ideology, some who would have joined in whatever the moment.


To understand Australia, you have to afford the call of war, the experience of war, and the aftermath of war, its appropriate place. The enormity of its impact should not be understated.


I tried to establish this view in the speech I offered at the lunch. It was a solemn day; not one for customary pre-match frivolity and fun. Even among the independent thinkers gathered at Brunswick Street Oval.


Peter Hille led proceedings on behalf of the Reds Foundation and the club. He has the knack of mentioning pretty well everyone in the room which included a dozen or so people from the Almanac crew – two of whom had served in Vietnam, one as a helicopter pilot, the other (Monash professor of Economics, Larry Cook) for the United States army.


It seemed to be getting darker outside, so the roast and the red, and the warmth of the room, were even more comforting.


Peter ‘Percy’ Jones, who has the North Fitzroy Arms these days, which sponsors the Roys, joined us and brought with him Syd Jackson – who’s in very good nick for a 70 year old. It was a good chance to quickly chat with them and, in that situation, Perc’s eyes widen with the brightness of the natural story-teller and the cheeky entertainer. Syd told us about his work re-establishing his Aboriginal community near Bunbury in Western Australia.


The Seconds maintained their handy lead.


When it came time to speak I was a little apprehensive, even anxious. If you spare a thought for the blokes at The Nek or at The Somme, concern for the prospects of a speech is somewhat mis-placed.


I have thought about the profound impact of World War I (and war generally) on Australian life.


Here is some of what I said:


Sport and war have been central elements of Australian life.


The film director Peter Weir understood this, which is why he was able to depict the topic in his movie Gallipoli. David Williamson, wrote the screen play. The unheralded influence came from historian Bill Gammage. Bill is from the bush – near Wagga in the Riverina. He has had a fine career and these days, in his 70s, and still likely to be found in King Gee workers and thongs in Canberra, working on another project.


Bill was perhaps the first to really look into the diaries and letters of Australians who fought in World War I. The Broken Years was first published in 1974 to much acclaim, and was re-published a few years ago, still a powerful account of ordinary young men caught in an atrocious situation.


He was historical advisor to the screenplay. While there is some license taken, the themes honour the moment.


One of the themes is the confusion of sport and war.


The early part of Gallipoli is set in WA.


Archie Hamilton is being trained as a runner by his uncle. There is an image of him breasting the tape.


Frank Dunne is knockabout Irish Catholic bloke, trying to get by.


They find themselves competing against each other at a Gift. Archie wins.


They both sign up: Archie for reasons of deep loyalty to King and Empire, Frank because he hasn’t got any other prospects.


As they train in Egypt for the Dardenelles campaign, there is a game of Australian football at the base of one of the pyramids. WA v The Vics. David Williamson makes a cameo appearance. An exceptionally tall man, he is wreaking havoc and it’s turning into a debacle. “We better do something about that tall piece of pelican shit,” says a Sandgroper with typical Australian resourcefulness.


So they do.


Having survived the landing, Archie Hamilton’s platoon is a scheduled to go over the top.


The night before Major Barton is sitting writing to his wife. He is drinking champagne and listening to opera – the brothers’ duet from The Pearl Fishers – on a gramophone.


I can see something of John Monash in the character of Barton.


John Monash is one of the most remarkable figures in Australian history.



Father: Louis Monasc. Mothe: Bertha

Immigrated from Krotoschin in Prussia in the 1850s.

John born in 1865

Grew up in Jerilderie and then Melbourne

Scotch College.

Brilliant student. Degrees in Arts, Law and Engineering

WWI – officer – not everyone approved of him

CEW Bean (a classic product of conservative Australia) – war historian – was not a fan

Keith Murdoch felt the same way

But his record at Gallipoli and in France was phenomenal

And subsequently after the war in Australia as well – SEC, Uni of Melbourne

The respect and affection for him was demonstrated in the state funeral and procession which attracted over 300,000 people.


In Weir’s film – Major Barton is warm-hearted and understands his men. He is of his men.


The next day they go over the top at The Nek. The movie finishes with Hamilton being struck by machine gun fire. His body is in the precise position it was when he breasted the tape in the sprint.


Sport and war.


Sport can be pure: it can be sport for sport’s sake. But like anything else, the powerful can manipulate it – whether in a considered way, or unwittingly, because they don’t really understand what they have. It might be the barons of commerce who have a hold of football now, but in those days it was patriots. Perhaps that is a similar thing.


This was the period of rampant competitive nationalism, My Country Right or Wrong. Dulce et decorum est pro patria more. It is sweet and noble to die for your country. The old lie, as poet Wilfred Owen called it.


Sport supported this ideology in the British world – in Australia, especially in the private schools.


Team sport – and especially football was about preparing young men for battle.


St Peters College Magazine of 1885 declared of sport:


The discipline, mental, moral, ethical, whichever we like to term it, is as great as the physical, and the voluntary submission to one master, the self-surrender to one aim, the conversion of self into part of a machine, devoid of free agency, the working and training for weeks and weeks, to uphold the honour of the school, college or university, is the severest test of strength wind and pluck which the whole range of athletics offers, is just one of those things which only English blood can appreciate, and which passes the comprehension of foreigners to understand.


Such patriotism – love of country, love of Empire – was seen to be greater than self. The most noble, many believed, were those who would die for the cause. The sense of duty ran deeply in many Australians.


In the early 1980s, some 35 years after the end of WWII, I had a uni job delivering fridges in the backblocks of Queensland’s Darling Downs – the Maclagan, Quinalow area.


One particularly out of the way job took me to a little box Queenslander with two palm trees out the front like sentinels, chooks in the yard and the dunny out the back held together by bougainvillea.


There was a slouch hat on a nail at the front door, and a rifle on the divan on the front verandah. Inside there were photos of the boys of the house in their military garb.


I could imagine them walking into town, off to Toowoomba to enlist – for a barney that was happening 15,000 miles away in Turkey and Europe.


What drives a young man to do that?


What power there is in ideology.


ANZAC Day 1915


By the end of that day already many soldiers are dead.


Joe Pearce – Melbourne

Fen McDonald – Carlton, Melbourne

Rupert Balfe  – University

Alan Cordner – Geel, Coll

Claude Crowl – Geelong

Charlie Fincher – Sth Melb


Eight Fitzroy players were killed in active service during World War I.



Sid O’Neill

Grew up in Maldon

Xavier College

Killed at Gallipoli at Walkers Ridge – no known grave


Harry Collins – lieutenant in 6th Battalion First AIF

Killed at Villers-Bretonneux 10.8.1918

Born in Fitzroy,

Played at Fitzroy Juniors

Brothers Goldie Collins and Norman Collins both played for Fitzroy after the war


Tom McCluskey

Fitzroy and Footscray

Passhendaele 4.10.1917

Ran 1000 yards

No trenches

Hid in a shell – hole

Shard of shell pierced his heart


Arthur Montague Septimus Jones

Lefroy in Tassie

Trooper in the eighth Australian Light Horse

Killed at Gallipoli 4.9.1915

No known resting place


Arthur Harrison

Born in Collingwood

Preston juniors

Richmond and then Fitzroy

Established himself in the back pocket

Played in Fitzroy’s 1913 premiership

Enlisted –Football Record of July 3 1915 said that Arthur Harrison had been spotted in the Fitzroy crowd last week. “He leaves for the front shortly”

Gallipoli, France

Killed 3.5.1917 Bullecourt

No known grave


George Elliot

Brother of General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot  – nickname came from the Carlton player

Captain in the medical corps – killed in France 25.9.1917


Ormond College

Gerald Brosnan got him across to Fitzroy – then went and played for uni

[Gerald Brosnan was skipper of Fitzroy’s premiership side in 1904-05. Matt O’Connor, former pres of Fitzroy Juniors is his great grandson]]


Jack Cooper

Fitzroy Juniors

Alfred Cres Primary School

136 games   – star of the times

Lance corporal  – 8th Battalion – France

Wrote letters back home which Gerald Brosnan had published in a magazine called The Winner

‘pleased when the little blue book comes along’ The Football Record

Gassed – went to London – dose of Kaiser’s Breath

Played in the famous Australian football game at The Oval

Back at the front he was killed at Polygon Wood



After World War I Australia wept.


The people were grieving. The nation was grief-stricken.


Lives had been shattered, many were irretrievable.


Anzac Day, while remembered, did not have the same significance in the years immediately following World War I.


But the people were struggling to deal with such grief privately. More needed to happen. Grief had to be dealt with communally.


Private individual and family grief became shared public grief.


Hence Anzac Day emerged as a communal ritual addressing the depth of sadness across the nation.


Monuments were built. You can read the stories of how communities commemorated their fallen in Keith Inglis’s Sacred Places.


A similar thing happened in Britain. As well as the monuments and other memorials, when the English Football Association decided a musical number should be sung before the FA Cup, the community asked for Abide With Me. That hymn is still sung before the FA Cup today. It remembers those who died in World War I.


It is a reminder of a catastrophic sadness.


And so now, we are 100 years on.


I wish to conclude with some lines from one of my favourite poems by a Queensland poet, Ross Clark. It’s about World War I: ‘Letter Home from the Trenches’ which starts:


This war, I am afraid, has made writers of us all


…and concludes


We have begun to speak to others, and to listen,

We have begun to think,

And we have begun to write,

And we have begun too late.


At that point the sombre tone of the day was entrenched. You cannot make light of what people will do to each other.


Play is at least an attempt to be civilised.


And so the Roys ran out as I finished a glass of red with a couple of Almanac comrades, E. Regnans and Keiran Croker, while also chatting with Perc and Syd and a few others at the table, including Steve Earl (a terrific supporter of the Roys) and Max Reynolds. Ivor Smith came over, still gathering Roys yarns, and still ensuring the fraternity of all Roys players remains. He played a handful of games in the `50s.


Outside the whistle tweeted again and again. The Roys and Ajax players tried to acclimatise. It was colder and more miserable with scarves tightened and brollies fully extended as the rain persisted. The surface remained intact though. It was going to be a game of territory. Definitely no finessin’. And making the most of any opportunities.


The home side won the early contests and looked to force the footy forward by whatever means and, in a dour scrap, led by a couple of goals at the main break.


A simple remembrance ceremony was conducted at the monument behind the bowls club. Roys president Joan Eddy read Jack Cooper’s letter, as is the tradition.


The game went on. After the break, the Roys dropped their bundle, allowing Ajax to dominate the third quarter four goals to nowt.


The local crowd strode to the huddle. Pickers, whose goat is rarely got on, became a little animated. He explained the approach: trust yourself, take the game on, good body language, voices; they’ll tire, but don’t wait for that to happen.


Ajax didn’t tire, initially, kicking a couple more before desperation kicked in and the Roys went for it. Ajax looked to soak up time with some cocky chipping but, with a couple of turnovers, there was a lot less cock in it all.


The Roys needed four goals in 10 minutes when Corbin Stevic shoved an opponent clear, picked up the Sherrin and snapped one over his shoulder. In the next forward thrust the footy fell for him again and with a few yards in the pocket he pulled the shot for a point.


Clearly the gods were offering Corbin the afternoon as the footy was chipped to him, he straightened up, and goaled. The crowd went nuts as the score moved to 7.9 just nine points short and plenty of time.


You couldn’t fault the boys endeavour. Grimacing faces told a tale of intense effort, and some frustration, as the footy wouldn’t quite fall, nor could they make it fall. The supporters groaned.


It’s easy to call for composure from the grandstands when time has a different dimension on the ground, foreshortened by a sense of need. In the rush, runners missed targets as they attacked.


But composure returned as the forwards put together a chain of handballs cutting the defence open for that man Stevic to put the Roys within a kick.


“There’s time!” we yelled as they returned to the centre, full of energy.


Again the footy was won out of the centre and Green broke clear. His pass, just inches too high for Dom Hyphen, couldn’t get there and the Ajax spares (about six of them) mopped up chaperoning the ball to the boundary line.


So the skirmish was on. Players everywhere. Chance was now a factor, at least until someone imposed his will. Tom Cheshire won the footy but his snap went nowhere; Rory, who played like a leader, had his shot smothered; the crowd provided a symphony of wails and screeches; and again the Jackers found the boundary line.


More desperation until an Ajax jumper broke from the scrimmage and belted a torp 60 yards west-north-west and the race was on.


One last chance. The retriever squared the play and the switch to the ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn wing was on, but as the pill was transferred along Freeman Street not even the spirit of Wilfred himself could lift the footy into the arms of the leading forward and again the attack was thwarted.


The siren sounded and anyone with a hint of maroon in them slumped where they were.


It was so much better than war.


John Harms acknowledges the work of Jim Main and David Allen whose fine book Fallen – the ultimate heroes he consulted in researching this article. He also looked at Chris Donald’s book Fitzroy: for the love of the jumper. Other information came from the The Australian War Memorial whose enormous archive has been digitised and is available through its website (worth a look).









About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Fabulous speech, fabulous game by the sound of it. Wish I was there.

  2. Thanks John it would seem that you gave a fine speech indeed. I have been looking for good WW1 books to read and this article provides me with plenty so thanks for that too.

  3. The Broken Years by Bill Gammage is a must-read. The Les Carlyon books are worth reading. But there are many others.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    “There’s (still) time”, always uttered in the last quarter at the T-junction of hope and despair

    Loved it John

  5. Keiran Croker says

    Great talk John and a terrific enjoyable day.
    Sadly I pulled the pin at 3/4 time and clearly missed an enthraling last quarter comeback.
    See you and Perc at the North Fitzroy Arms soon!

  6. E.regnans says

    Now there’s a story.

    ‘Twas a pleasure to be in the audience for this occasion. Under the Brunswick St Oval grandstand, warm, as you say, and then to see the silhouettes of P Jones and S Jackson sidling through the doors; I felt a part of history.

    The stories of war are something else.

    Departing early, seeing the Fitzroy seniors, in the jumper, on the oval; I felt a part of the present.

    Hats off to all concerned.

  7. Matt Quartermaine says

    Thoughtful piece JTH. You are the master of the 15 comma sentence. Cheers

  8. Damian Callinan says

    Great piece JTH. No ground evokes the history of our game like the Brunny Oval

  9. Grand stuff JTH. Greatest Australian – Bradman, Florey, Curtin, MacKillop, Murdoch (Rupert or Keith – $ or lives saved)? John Monash would top my list. Science, service and humanity, combined with triumphing over personal disadvantage and prejudice.
    DJLitsa – the books recommended are great on Australia’s involvement in WW1. I loved all Barbara Tuchman’s history books, because they read like page turners. ‘Guns of August’ is great on the origins and first year of WW1.

  10. Rick Kane says

    Great piece JTH, so full of warmth, love, respect and memory. It brought to mind, in a way I haven’t considered, that the Fitzroy event was just one of possibly hundreds of sports games and lunches going on all over the country; all trying to find a way to respect the past without locking into the nationalistic construction of the Australian identity that seems to be the intent of the government and media.

    And yes, sport is so much better than war.

  11. Joan Eddy says

    Bloody Hell ! it’s ten minutes before i have to run out of the office and get to Perc’s NFA to do the Friday Night Fitzroy Meat Tray raffle – and I’m sniffling – unlike Theo where the water was dripping off his nose, not from it! Just beautiful John; I was priveleged to be in the room when you spoke it, and you’ve done more than justice to it writ. Lucky are We – Lest we Forget.

  12. Rod Oaten says

    Harmsy, What a great read. I took my soaked body home at 3/4 time, sorry I didn’t catch up with you.

  13. Daryl Schramm says

    Great read JTH. One of these days I’m going to get to a lunch at Perc’s pub and to a lunch at the community home of football. You get around don’t you!

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