Ralph Robertson – Sydney’s first footy and war hero

Australian Football celebrates its 140th anniversary in NSW this year after the founding of the NSW Football Association in Sydney in 1880. One hundred and forty coaches, players, umpires, administrators and media personalities from both the Elite (VFL/AFL) and Community level will be inducted into the inaugural AFL NSW Hall of Fame.

Rod Gillett profiles the nomination of Ralph Robertson for the Hall of Fame:

 

Ralph Robertson
the English Officer

Ralph Robertson was Sydney’s first footy hero. He was also a war hero.

Tragically he was accidentally killed in the First World War.

Robertson is NSW’s most capped footballer having played for the state and/or Sydney on no less than 40 occasions in the period 1903-1914. He was much lauded by the press at the time for his playing skills and leadership ability.

He led NSW at the first national carnival played in Melbourne in 1908 which included all the states and a team from New Zealand. He subsequently led the State at the 1911 AND 1914 carnivals. He also captained NSW against Victoria in 1905 at the MCG, which the VFL won, 12-18 (90) to 10-10 (70).

“’Robby” as he was popularly known was in the best players for NSW at all three carnivals, even against the dominant state teams Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia. He was awarded the gold medal by independent judges as NSW’s best player at the 1914 carnival in Sydney despite missing the last game against WA through his enlistment.

After the 1911 carnival, the Referee, the pre-eminent sporting newspaper in Sydney at the time, reported:

“Ralph Robertson captained the New South Wales team at the first carnival in 1908 and showed good form. But he improves with age, as his previous efforts were put into the shade by his magnificent game against Victoria this time…” (Victoria beat NSW by 24 points).

Alas, no All-Australian teams were selected at national carnivals until after WWII. If so, conceivably, this would have resulted in three All-Australian jumpers for Ralph Robertson.

Robertson was born in Leicestershire, England in 1882 and came to Australia with his family in 1885 to settle in Melbourne.

“Robby” started his football career with South Beach, a junior club in the St Kilda district. He made his VFL debut in 1899 with the Saints at age 17 in round seven against Geelong. The following season he played twelve senior games including St Kilda’s first-ever win in the VFL over Melbourne, albeit due to a successful protest.

In early 1901 the family moved to Sydney and took up residence in Woollahra. As there was no football competition in Sydney at this time, he played rugby for the Fitzroy club alongside legendary sporting all-rounder R.L. “Snowy” Baker.

Upon the re-formation of an Australian football competition in Sydney in 1903, Robertson turned out for East Sydney and was vice-captain of their premiership team in that year. Standing 171 cms, “Robby” was a rover-half-forward; he booted eighteen goals for that season.

Ralph Robertson marching in College Street
Sydney en route for embarkation

According to a quote in A Game to be Played (2015),

“The East Sydney champion usually acts as rover for two quarters, the remainder of the time being spent half-forward. A splendid high-mark and an accurate and long place-kick, Ralph rarely plays in a match without causing the goal umpire to hoist the two flags”.

The following season he became captain of East Sydney, as well as State captain leading NSW against Queensland and was named best player.

Robertson led NSW to a famous victory over leading SANFL club Port Adelaide in 1907 at the Agricultural Ground (the old Sydney Showgrounds) before a crowd of 5000 spectators. NSW 8-8 (56) beat Port 5-14 (44). Robertson kicked two goals and was named in the best players.

The Referee’s report of the match commented on Robertson’s outstanding leadership,

“His sterling performance against Port Adelaide proves this. When the ‘Wheatfielders’ speak of the match they played here, it is certain that the name of Ralph Robertson will be frequently mentioned as one who was greatly instrumental in bringing about their downfall”.

A move across to live on the north side in 1909 saw Robertson transfer to the North Shore club. He was captain and a key member of Norths winning grand final team in that year and also played in the Combined Sydney team that beat VFL club South Melbourne.

Robertson continued to play for North Shore and was captain until his enlistment in the armed forces to serve in WW I on 17 August 1914 just three days after the conclusion of the national carnival in Sydney.

He initially served in the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force to attack the German colonies in the Pacific. He was discharged from ANMEF on health grounds in March 1915. Despite a subsequent enlistment in the 1st AIF, from which he resigned, in May of that year he went to England to enlist in the British Army where he undertook officer training and graduated as a second lieutenant in October.

He then joined the Royal Flying Corp and was attached to the Middle East brigade in Egypt. He was killed in a training flying accident on 11 May 1917.

Ralph Robertson was inducted into the inaugural AFL Sydney hall of Fame in 2003 but was rejected when nominated to the AFL Hall of Fame.

Career summary:

St Kilda FC 1899-1900: 13 games
East Sydney FC 1903-1908: Captain 1904-09 & Premiership 1903
North Shore FC 1909-1914: Captain 1909-1914 & Premiership 1909
NSW/Sydney 1903-1914: 40 games

 

Source: P. McPherson & I. Granland (2015), A Game to be Played: The Great War and Australian Football in Sydney, NSW AFL History Society Inc., Sydney.

– 1903 Collingwood v Fitzroy in Sydney – it nearly didn’t happen!

Mostly through bad management and petty squabbles, the game failed and ceased to exist in Sydney in 1895.

This had been after a long and arduous period of getting the game established and accepted in Sydney.  The first clubs, Sydney and East Sydney were formed in 1881 which played under the NSW Football Association formed the year before.

Despite its demise, many of the proponents of the game were still keen about in the early 1900s and one, Harry Hedger, who had put his heart and sole into the game as a player and official in the aforementioned period, was very keen to see it rekindled.

After the NSW Football League had been formed in January 1903, he visited Melbourne late in the next month especially to attend a meeting of the VFL and club delegates where he outlined the need for support to have the game re-established in the NSW capital.

After Hedger harangued delegates until 2.30am, “Mr. C. M. Hickey (Fitzroy) said that his club was willing to go to Sydney at its own expense, and to forego any share of the gate receipts. Eventually Mr. Copeland, on behalf of the Collingwood club, agreed to make the trip. The cost to each of these clubs will probably be about £300, and they will each lose the proceeds of the match, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been played in Melbourne. Thus either the Fitzroy or the Collingwood ground will lose one of its most productive games. In order to compensate the two clubs for the sacrifice it was decided that the proceeds of the games played in Victoria on that day shall be pooled and divided equally between all the clubs in the league; and, further, that the ground which suffers by the arrangement shall be awarded one of the semi-final matches. ” [1]

But the Collingwood membership were not all that too happy with the decision.  At the annual meeting of the Collingwood Football Club on March 9, some members of the club resented the action of their committee in making the interstate arrangement.  One member, a Mr. Mansergh, said “that he thought the committee had exceeded its powers in committing the club to such a course. The members had a right to be consulted, and they should have decided. The match with Fitzroy was the most popular game of the season, and he did not think it fair that members should be deprived of the game.”

Mansergh then move that  “This meeting disagrees with the action of the committee of the club in deciding to play a premiership match in Sydney.  The motion was declared carried on a show of hands.” [2]

The decision of the members of the Collingwood club did not affect the Sydney visit, but had the potential to rob the match of its interest as far as the premiership was concerned”

In the meantime football euphoria had gripped Sydney with the two biggest clubs in Australia to visit in May.  Sydney was a Rugby town (Rugby League had not yet been introduced) and as well, soccer was played but not as popular as it is today.  Despite all this, eleven new first grade clubs were formed – and there were others.

However Collingwood had more problems when it comes to impediments to their proposed match. In May 1903 Victoria was gripped with a rail strike which subjected the match to a good deal of uncertainty.  The May 9 game of Geelong v Carlton game had to be postponed because of the strike.  The sudden impact of the strike had stifled any arrangements for travel to Geelong by boat because any such arrangements had not been considered early enough. [3]

There is more to this story …. stay tuned.

[1] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser – 4 March 1903, p.570
[2} The Argus 10 March 1903 p.7
[3] 1903 VFL results

The Signing of Davies was Unethical

1926 Fred Davies smallYou have probably never heard of Freddie Davies  …  not many football followers these days have.

But Fred was one of those rare players from NSW (Sydney), who went on to captain a VFL Club, but that was in 1934.  Ironically Davies was not the first Sydneyite to captain his VFL Club, Fitzroy.  Chris Lethbridge from the now defunct, YMCA Club was captain in 1922 and later non-playing coach.

However Fred had an ignominious start to his VFL career.

Born in Sydney he attended Double Bay Public School where the headmaster, Tom Stafford, was a keen (Australian) football supporter and one of few teachers in Sydney who actively promoted the game in and out of school.

Following his schooling the snowy headed Fred was elevated to the ranks of  local senior club, Paddington and by 1925 was a permanent fixture in their first grade.  When the team combined with East Sydney in 1926 he went on to become one of the stars of the new Eastern Suburbs Club and the league.

He represented NSW against the VFL, Richmond and Footscray Clubs in 1925 and twice against the VFL in 1926 so he was no slouch.

Then in the All-States carnival held in Melbourne in 1927 where he again was representing the state, the manager of the NSW team, Leo Percy, made an astounding announcement at a public function.

He told those gathered at a dinner held during the carnival where officials from all of the VFL clubs were present “I want to refer to the despicable action of the officials of one of your League clubs in persuading Davies, one of our best men, to sign an agreement to play with their team next season. I can assure you that I will do my utmost to prevent it”

It was an unfortunate introduction to league football for Davies.  It was also reported that he knocked back a big offer £4/10/, a week ($340 in today’s money and well in excess of the weekly wage) to play football and a job in the bargain in 1928, however it wasn’t until 1930 that he made his entry to Melbourne football in a season where he played the whole 18 games.

Fred ended up playing 63 games for Fitzroy from 1930-34 during a period when they didn’t enjoy the best of success.  He gained the captaincy in his last year by default when the original captain (and coach), Jack Cashman was of the opinion that he did not have the committee’s complete confidence and went off to play with Carlton after only two games.  It was then that the captaincy of the side was thrown in Fred’s lap and he went on to lead the side for the rest of the season, winning his first (against Carlton) and a further five games for the year.

After that the 28 year old pulled up stumps and returned to Sydney where he was appointed captain of the new St George Club and later leading them to a premiership in 1937.

South Adelaide Football Club Tour

In 1884, only a few years after the, NSW Football Association (a forerunner to the NSW Aust Football League), South Australian Club, South Adelaide, which were formed in 1876, toured the Eastern States and played a series of matches in Sydney.

They stayed for two weeks and played in five games and team included most of the players who would go on to be premiers in South Australia the following season.

Their first, in Newcastle had to be abandoned because of the state of the ground following tumultuous rain so in an impromptu match on Thursday 26 at the SCG, they played local club, Waratah.  This was the only club to change its allegiance from rugby to the Victorian game during those very early years of the formation of the game in Sydney.

A crowd described as meagre attended the match where the South Australian club ran over the top of Waratah, 10.8 to 1.1.  In those days behinds, although displayed, were not counted in a teams score and as well,  matches were not played in four quarters, but two halves.  South Adelaide kicked 9 goals in the second term.

The following Saturday also on the SCG, they drew their game with NSW 3.15 to 3.9.  The tramway department arranged for additional trams to run at frequent intervals to the ground during the afternoon in an expectation of a large crowd.  Only 1500 turned up to watch the match.

During the afternoon the City Temperance band kindly volunteered their services and “performed some choice selections of music which were greatly appreciated by the occupants of the grand stand.”

On Tuesday before a crowd estimated at only 100, South Adelaide defeated East Sydney by one goal, but because of their inaccurate kicking, they kicked twenty one (uncounted) behinds while East could failed to score however were noted as registering three behinds.

Two days later their scheduled game against the Sydney club was postponed, again because of the weather, and on Saturday 5 July at the SCG they easily defeated a defiant NSW team 9.8 to 5.7.

The Sydney Club wanted their share of glory and challenged South Adelaide to a game on the following Monday – the day of their departure from the city.

     Billy Goer

Sydney fared better than East however the captain of the Sydney team, George Crisp, complained that several members of his team failed to follow his direction in the game and the committee of the Association indicated that if it re-occurred they would name the delinquents.

A strange comment coming from Crisp who along with Billy Goer, former Carlton Vice Captain, did not play.  The fact that the game had to be played early because of the scheduled departure of the South Australian team by rail in the afternoon could well have accounted for their late non-appearance.

Following the game, some members of the Sydney club drove the opposition team to the (then) Redfern rail head by a four horse drawn bus where, after “after the usual shaking of hands,three lusty cheers were given as the train moved away.”

COLLINGWOOD FANS DIDN’T WANT TO LOSE GAME

In 1903, Harry Hedger, who worked for the NSW Blind Society, visited Melbourne where he addressed a meeting of the VFL asking for two clubs to play a competition match in Sydney as a promotion for the re-establishment of Australian Football.

The game had been played competitively between 1881-95 in Sydney but, mainly due to bad management, it folded.

Born inTasmania, Hedger, was very much a dedicated employee of the NSW Blind Society, eventually receiving an OBE in 1935; his other passion was Australian football, and all this took place in Sydney.

During the 1880s & 90s he played for East Sydney, Sydney, Waratah, City, West Sydney and Our Boys clubs, for the most part, to keep them viable and in existence.  As well he turned out for the Sydney University team which visited Melbourne in 1888.  He represented both Sydney and NSW on numerous occasions and at various times umpired several games.

Hedger was captain of several of these clubs where he also took on official positions as he did with the Association.

He was passionate about his football and at his own cost took the train to Melbourne where on 27 February he met with VFL officials.  He implored them to send two teams to Sydney for a match which he believed would help kick-start the game in the NSW capital.

The Fitzroy Club secretary, Con Hickey said his club was willing to travel to Sydney at its own expense and forego any share of the gate receipts.  Eventually, Ern Copeland, secretary of the Collingwood club said that his club would also make the trip under similar conditions.  To engender interest, the game would be part of the home and away competition matches.

The VFL then resolved that the proceeds of all games played in Melbourne on the day of the Sydney match would be pooled and divided equally between all clubs in the league and the ground on which their scheduled encounter was to be played would be awarded one of the semi final matches.

It was estimated that the game would cost each club at least three hundred pounds ($600) each.

Hedger left the meeting quite happy but when Copeland confronted his members at the 9 March Annual General Meeting, a motion was passed that the game not be considered a competition match and that it be merely an exhibition.

This was greeted with dismay and resentment in Sydney resulting in an immediate letter to the VFL outlining how the decision would detrimentally effect the standing of the re-emerging code.

Eventually the VFL upheld their earlier decision and the game went on to be played before a crowd of 20,000 at the SCG on May 23.  The six hundred pound gate ($1,200) was left to the new football league in Sydney to promote their activities.

The reigning premiers, Collingwood took a party of 43 with them and a budget of four hundred pounds ($800) while Fitzroy, who were to that date undefeated, had 50 in their group.  These two clubs went on to play off in the 1903 grand final which Collingwood won by two points.

Also in 1903 Hedger chaired the formation meetings of several clubs, including North Shore, and for some time in that decade was the president of the YMCA Club.  He died in 1937 aged 78 years never really receiving the recognition due for his long standing commitment to the game in Sydney.

Our photograph shows Harry (or Henry) Hedger in 1923 when he accompanied the NSW team to Melbourne where they played Victoria.