A Forgotten Footballer

   Matthew Blair

As time passes the memory of those who played football in New South Wales fade until they are forgotten.

Such is the case of a former school-teacher, Matthew Blair.

He was born at Marulan, near Goulburn in 1880.  The son of English migrants, he was one of five children.

The family moved around a bit but finally settled in Wallsend, west of Newcastle.  Matthew attended the Wallsend Superior School where he was an outstanding student.  Like his elder sister, Ann, Matthew took on teaching and passed the public teachers examination in 1896.  His first appointment as a student teacher was to Jesmond Public School in 1897.

This was a pretty good effort given that his mother died when he was aged 14 and his father, five months later.  There is that question as to who looked after the family upon the father’s death?  At the time the youngest son, William was five years of age.

It was at Wallsend that Matthew and his brothers learned Australian Football.

Matthew was eventually transferred to Sydney where he taught at the Petersham Superior School.  In 1904 he encouraged his students to play Australian Football.  Other schools in their competition included Double Bay, Balmain, Erskineville and Waverley (public) schools.  There was also a separate Catholic schools competition in operation.

Petersham School Team Part of the Play Part of the Play

As the season progressed more schools participated with a total of seven in the ‘A’ division and over forty schools playing in the ‘B’ division covering a number of zones.  Petersham won the outright schools competition and as a reward (unbelievably) played the curtain raiser match to the VFL Grand Final on the MCG on 17 September, against the Victorian champion school, Albert Park, winning 7-6 (42) to 1-0 (6).  There was mention of the size of the NSW boys but no-one had bothered to check the school age differences between the two state education systems.  The Petersham boys were older and of course more mature, physically.  On the right of the Petersham team photo in the top hat is Henry Harrison, one of the founders of Australian Football.

Matthew signed on with the Sydney club where he played a number of seasons, captaining the side in 1907 to a premiership over Newtown, the grand final being played at, of all places, at Kensington Racecourse (where the University is now located);  after the win he was chaired off the ground.  In the same year he had his brother, George also played with the club.  Amazingly enough, that year Matt travelled down from Wallsend where he was teaching at the local school, each weekend .

Blair’s early
Education Record

The Department of Education moved Matthew around after his stint at Wallsend.  He taught at Mungindi in 1911, Wardell in 1912 and Woodburn on the north coast in 1917 – although it appears he did not get to that final posting because on 22 June 1916 he enlisted in the AIF.  This was after his young brother, William or Bill, fell at Gallipoli on 26 April 1915.

On 11 May 1917 he was on the Shropshire en route to England and on 2 April the following year had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant and transferred to the 20th Battalion.  On the 11th April, Blair, along with some colleagues was killed at Hagan Wood, which part of the Somme Offensive.  His body was not found for some time.

We have been able to gather some witness statements regarding his death which are attached below:

The sad thing about deaths like these in our wars is the way they are then treated as just a number.

Jinny Blair, Matthew’s wife of fourteen years was living at 351 Miller Street, North Sydney at the time of his death along with their two sons aged thirteen and seven along together with daughter, Mary aged just twelve months.

Another sad part of this story is, like other deceased servicemen, how and what of Matthew’s belongings were wrapped up and returned to his widow.  Then there was the matter of a pension.

It would appear that Jinny, also a teacher did not receive a pension however the children, Kevin received eighteen and six pence per fortnight, Jack (John), one pound per fortnight and young Mary, ten shillings per fortnight – why the difference in pay?

Jinny or to give her correct name, Jane, passed away in 1949 at 66.  So at least we can give notice of a former footballer from this state who in all reality, has now not been forgotten.


The Old Argument of Who Invented the Australian Game of Football

H C A HarrisonGoing through various newspapers of past years we came across the following article in a September 1908 issue of the Referee (Sporting) Newspaper.

It refers to Harrison as often being referred to as the father of the game (of Australian Football) and decries that title.  It goes on to say the initial rules were drawn up by an ad-hoc committee, over a few drinks following what would be described as a rough game.

One of our members, Greg de Moore wrote a especially interesting book, a Game of Our Own, on the one he labels as the game’s founder, T W Wills.

Nevertheless the article from 1908 makes interesting reading and it was written after there was much celebration in Melbourne at the time over the 50 year anniversary of the game:

“I previously touched on the origin of the Australian Game of Football, and quoted evidence to show that the title, ‘The Father of the Game”, has been incorrectly conferred, by the Press of Melbourne upon Mr. H. C. A. Harrison. The evidence was from the writings of Mr T W Wills and J. B. Thompson, two of the committee of four which drafted the first set of rules just 50 years ago. I received two letters on the subject from Melbourne footballers, but while agreeing with the statements I put forward they throw no fresh light on the matter.

As Mr. Harrison is still quoted on all sides in the Press and at official functions as the father of the game, further reference to the first code of rules to what is to-day known as the Australian Game having been drawn up by a committee consisting of Messrs. T. W. Wills, J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and T Smith, is timely. The evidence of Messrs. Wills and Thompson is thoroughly born out by the late Mr. Hammersley, who for 18 years was sporting editor of The Australasian.

In 1883, after he had withdrawn from regular journalistic harness, Mr. Hammersley, in an, article referring to football in Victoria, made the following statement:” When the game was first started in Victoria on anything like a sound footing (and that was in 1857) , it was a very rough game and no mistake. My shins now show honourable scars, and I often had blood trickling down my legs. No wonder, for hacking [kicking at another’s leg] was permitted and no objection was taken to spiked shoes. One day however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond Paddock, where blood had been drawn freely and some smart raps exchanged and a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better. Tom Wills suggested the rugby rules but no one understood them except himself and the result was, adjourn to the Parade Hotel, close by. This we did, with the following result: several drinks and the formation of a committee consisting of: Tom Wills, myself, J B Thompson and Football Smith, as he was termed, a master at the Scotch College, rattling fine player and a splendid kick, but of a very peppery temper. We decided to draw up a simple code of rules and as simple as possible so that anyone could quickly understand. We did so and the result was the rules then drawn up form the basis of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and in most other parts of Australia. I feel sure that neither Rugby nor the Association code will ever supplant them.

This article has gained some merit over the years and is recognized as good foundation at which to consider the actual starting of the game of Australian Football.  The above quote is not entirely accurate, there were others whose signatures appear at the bottom of the original rules of football which are still in existence and are on display at the MCG Museum.

It is true though, that in 1866, H C A Harrison was asked to revise the rules of the game, which he did.  His amended rules were accepted without change and they remained the code’s principle rules until they were further revised a number of years later.

Harrison was prominent in very early football He was captain of both Melbourne and Geelong football clubs at various times.  When the VFA was formed he was made a vice president and when the VFL was instigated they made him their first life member.  He was also made a life member of the Australian Football Council when it was first formed.

He was also deeply involved in cricket, in particular with the Melbourne Cricket Club which he had an association, first as a player, then an official from 1861.  Harrison died in 1929 and while the title Father of the Game may be up for argument, he was certainly there and active in the very early days of the game.