Cummeragunja, the Aboriginal football team that was too good

Sir Doug Nicholls learnt to play football on the oval at the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission. The Cummeragunja footy team was so successful in the local competition in the 1920s they were handicapped.

Dr Rod Gillett recounts the story of the Cummeragunja footy team that was too good.

 

The Cummeragunja footy team, where Sir Doug Nicholls first played football before he commenced an illustrious career in the VFL, was so successful in the 1920s that it was handicapped by the local league.

After winning the Western and Moira Riding district league premierships five times out of six between 1926 and 1931, the club was not allowed to field players over the age of 25.

Sir Doug, was born and raised on the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW bank of the Murray River in the Barmah Forest near Echuca. This mission was established in 1888 by the NSW Government for the Yorta Yorta people.

Sir Doug played football for Cummeragunja before embarking on a football odyssey that would take him to play at the highest level in Melbourne and to various roles in aboriginal advancement, culminating in the Governorship of South Australia.

It is not known if he played in the Cummeragunja team that won the 1921 pennant. We do know though that Sir Doug went to play for Tongala in the Goulburn Valley League in 1925.

He moved to Melbourne in 1927 to try out with Carlton but was rejected because of his colour, went to VFA club Northcote where he played in the 1929 premiership and winning best and fairest awards, and then to Fitzroy from 1932-36, and then back to Northcote. He represented both the VFA and the VFL.

After their premiership win in 1921 Cummeragunja were excluded from the league, but were subsequently reinstated, and then went onto even more success.

Some the players in those Cummeragunja premiership teams were Aaron, Selwyn Les and Eddie Briggs; Lindsay Whyman; Maurie Charles; Sid Williams; Gringo Morgan; Bob Nelson; Eddie and Frank Atkinson; Andy Cooper; Ossie Jackson, Tommy Dunnolly Jnr; Wally Nicholls and Herbie, Joe, Fred and Eddie Walker.

Many of these family names are still prominent in football in southern NSW and northern Victoria. Former Carlton star Andrew Walker has recently returned home to coach Echuca.

Roy Hay, in his acclaimed work:- Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, has unearthed recollections from the children of teachers at the Cummeragunja school in 1922 who recalled barracking for “Cummera”:

“The dark men were very good players. They were marvellous. They could run like hares. They used to play marking the ball – that sort of thing – and used to rise up you know. And they used to pass the ball right down the ground and they would shoot goals from any angles. They were marvellous and they were nearly always premiers” (p.91).

The earliest records of Cummeragunja playing football in the district are in 1888 when a mission team played Echuca. In 1890 a competition known as the Northern District Football Association based on Echuca was formed made up of teams from Echuca, Echuca East, Rochester, and Cummeragunja.

By 1898 Cummeragunja were competing in the Nathalia and District Association and they went through that season and the following year without losing a game.

However, though they regularly played matches against teams in the local area, the Cummeragunja team had problems getting off the mission as permission was required by the station manager.

Cummeragunja continued to field a team up until World War II when they were in the Echuca district league. In 1939 they lost narrowly to Deniliquin in the first semi-final.

Sir Doug returned to home to Cummeragunja for his last game in 1940 for a fund-raising game against Echuca at the Victoria Park Oval in Echuca.

And why do we highlight this team’s feats?  Because they were in New South Wales.

References:
Athas Zafiris (2016), “Cummeragunja aboriginal football team that opened the eyes of white Australia”, shootfarken.com.au

Roy Hay (2019), Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne UK. Paperback version is available from the author roy@sesasport.com.au

Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls KCVO MBE OBE by Rod Gillett

Doug Nicholls
as a young man

The search for the Greatest NSW Team unearthed a most distinguished Australian, Sir Doug Nicholls.

Sir Doug was born on 9 December 1906 and raised on the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW side of the Murray River, near Echuca.

He began working life as a tar boy on the sheep stations in southern NSW. After moving to Melbourne to play football he became a council worker, boxer in Jimmy Sharman’s travelling boxing show, professional foot-runner, pastor, advocate for aboriginal advancement, and finally, Governor of South Australia (1976-77).

He was knighted in 1972 for “distinguished service to the advancement of aboriginal people. He had earlier been awarded an MBE (1957) and an OBE (1968). He was awarded the high honour of KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) by the Queen in Adelaide in 1977.

However, it was on the Cummeragunja mission oval that he learnt to play football according to Roy Hay, the author of the recently released ground-breaking book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century (2019).

Nicholls played his early football with the Cummeragunja mission team in the Western and Moira Riding district league based around Nathalia that was the forerunner to the Picola Football League. We are still trying to establish if he was member of the team that won the 1921 premiership.

In 1925 he joined nearby Tongala then playing in the Goulburn Valley Football League where he linked up with his brother Herbert, better known as “Dowie” (Great Goals: Goulburn Valley Football league 1894-1994).

Nicholls went to Melbourne in 1927 to try out for VFL club Carlton and played some reserve grade games. He famously left Carlton after a trainer refused to rub him down after training because of his skin colour according to his biographer Mavis Thorpe Clark, author of Pastor Doug: An Aboriginal Leader (1965).

He subsequently joined Northcote in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) where he became a regular member of the team. According to the AFL Record (27-29 May 2016), he starred in the 1929 win as well as the losing grand finals in 1930-31. He won the club’s best and fairest award in 1929-1930 and finished third in the Recorder Cup for the best and fairest in the VFA.

The Sporting Globe reported in 1929 that ‘he flashes through packs of big men, whisks around small men . . . and attempts marks at the back of any six-footer’. Nicholls was 5 ft 2 inches (158 cm) tall, but muscular and lightning fast. He was also a professional runner and won the Nyah and Warracknabeal Gifts in 1929

A further highlight of his VFA career was representing the Association in interstate matches in 1931 against NSW at the SCG and against the VFL at the MCG.

Doug Nicholls
Fitzroy Footballer

In a preview of the NSW v VFA match, The Sydney Morning Herald (15 August 1931) rated Nicholls as one of the main attractions, “He is a beautiful pass and high mark. Is very plucky, and revels in crushes, out of which he bounces like a rubber ball”. The VFA won 16.11.107 to NSW 13.17.95.

In 1932, Nicholls joined Fitzroy in the VFL and played alongside the great Hadyn Bunton, originally from Albury who was selected as first rover in the NSW Greatest Team. Bunton befriended Nicholls at Fitzroy and made him feel welcome, according to Mavis Thorpe Clark.

After Bunton was killed in a road accident in 1955, Pastor Doug officiated at his memorial service in Adelaide.

Nicholls played 54 games and kicked two goals for Fitzroy in the period 1932-36. He finished third in the club best and fairest in 1934 behind Hadyn Bunton (Brownlow medallist 1931-32 & 1935 ) and Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn (who won the Brownlow medal in 1933).

In 1934 he became the first aboriginal player to represent the VFL when they played the VFA. The following season he was selected for the tour to play against Western Australia and South Australia. He played in both Victoria’s wins over WA but missed the match against the SANFL due to injury.

Nicholls returned to Northcote in 1937 but ongoing knee injuries forced him to retire in 1939.

However, he did return to home to Cummeragunja for one last game in 1940 for a fund-raising game against Echuca at the Victoria Park Oval in Echuca.

Nicholls also returned to Northcote as non-playing coach in 1947. He is believed to be the first aboriginal person to coach a senior football club. Another example of him pushing the boundaries for his people.

Sir Doug expressed his passion for the game of football in an article in the Sporting Globe (1 June 1935):

“I get a tremendous kick out of football, because I know my people in New South Wales follow my doings and play closely by wireless and in the newspapers. This always spurs me on, and gives me added confidence”.

Shepparton Street Art
a fitting tribute

The ultimate football tribute for Sir Doug Nicholls has been the naming of the AFL’s Indigenous Round in his honour.