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 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.
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.
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.
We have written many times that Australian football was first played in Sydney in 1880.
Following some ups and downs it again got on its feet in 1903 and during the following number of years there was a particular player of some significance who was in the army and based at Victoria Barracks, Paddington who played for many years on and off in the Sydney competition.
He was killed in WWI when, as a Lt Colonel, a shell hit the foxhole he and some of his staff were sheltering in.
His name is Bert Watts and was the most highly decorated Sydney footballer we know in WWI. His life and time as a footballer and soldier are highlighted in our soon to be released book on Sydney Football and the First World War. As you will read, he also served in the Boer War.
The image below shows him on the left with an unknown soldier serving in the Boer War, South Africa.
We have been very fortunate to have found a newspaper article about Bert; his thoughts and experiences, where he mentions some of his ideas on the game and what rules should be introduced to make it a faster and a more attractive sport. Ironically, many of these have since been introduced to our game over recent years.
The fact that he was an outstanding Sydney footballer and man has been lost on us all. We knew nothing of Bert Watts and his colleagues, such is the fragility of the history of the game in the nation’s largest city.
Here is the article, taken verbatim, so any mistakes are from the article itself. We hope you enjoy the read:
One of the most striking personalities in the Australian ‘game in Sydney is Captain Bert Watts. A tall, dashing fellow, with shoulders which might well excite the envy of a champion wrestler; straight, well-shaped legs, he is the beau ideal of an athlete. Was it ever your lot, reader, to see him kick a football? No! Well, when at his best he would open your eyes to their fullest extent.
In the final at the Australian Football Ground last season Watts obtained a mark a tremendous distance from the posts. He placed the ball, and many of the spectators jeered. Even those possessed of the knowledge of his exceptional kicking abilities considered he put the ball on the ground with the idea of sending it in front of goal to give his forwards a chance to do the heedful. Now, that was evidently not Watts’ idea. He walked back a few yards, and then came at the ball like a speedy Rugby three-quarter back, who, when near the line, has visions of a try. ‘Boof!’ went his right foot, into the ball. Through the air at rocket-like pace it went, keeping low. All eyes were on that ball. Will it go between the uprights after all must, have been in the minds of not a few. When the ball neared the posts it took a rise, and the players jumped high in their endeavours to reach it. The sphere went gaily on and six points were hoisted for Paddington. Bert Watts was a hero! Everybody cheered him. Well they might, for rarely has such a kick been seen anywhere. In the course of a conversation he said:
“I learnt to play football in South Australia, and was captain of my State School team at Allendale. I also, played with school teams at Broken Hill. In 1902 I regularly took part in the practice matches for South Melbourne, and in 1898 I played with the Royal Australian Artillery team. QueenscIiffe, Victoria. I was in South Africa in 1900-1, and we ran a competition between the squadron of the regiment (the Victorian Imperial Bushmen), and played Australian football in Rhodesia, Cape Colony, and the Transvaal. We had some fine players, too, notably Charlie Moore, one of Essendon’s best, who was killed in action; ˜Joker” Cameron, who figured in South Melbourne’s colours for ten years; and George Angus, who was a similar period with Collingwood, and was captain when they won the Victorian premiership.
In 1902 I was stationed at Newcastle, in Natal, and captained an Army Soccer team. But the two succeeding seasons I played for the R.A.A. (Royal Aust Artillery) team at Queenscliff (Victoria), though I was offered a place in several of the Victorian League clubs. I donned the Paddington colours in 1905, and represented New South Wales in the first inter State match against Victoria after the resuscitation of the game in Sydney. The season after found me in Brisbane, and I played for Brisbane and Ipswich clubs, and also represented Queensland against New South Wales.
In 1907-8 I was stationed at Thursday Island, and had a go at Rugby Union, but in 1908 I was once again in Brisbane. I represented Queensland at the first Australasian Carnival at Melbourne. I have played for Paddington since the beginning of 1909, and I play the Northern Union rules with regimental teams at present. Of the 1905 New South Wales representative team only Ralph Robertson and I now remain on the active list.
I consider Ralph Robertson the headiest player I have ever been associated with. Any scientific footballer would have no difficulty in teaming with him. I recommend young players to study his methods. You see, he never misses an opportunity of passing to a comrade in a better position than himself. And his play is always for the side, irrespective of self.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYERS
“As an old player, I would like to give a word of advice to young footballers. One of the first things I would impress upon them is to avoid cliqueism (sic). Don’t have particular pals to play to; always put your team before everything else on the field. Select a comrade in a good position to pass to as soon as you get the ball, and send it on to him at once. Never mind a tricky, pretty run. Get rid of the ball quickly before opponents have time to form up to meet your attack.
If a forward, try and escape from your opponent; if a back, follow your man wherever I he goes. Centres should not wander from their place. On a large ground they get more opportunities by keeping their proper position than by wandering towards the backs or forwards. Obey your captain without argument; you put him in that position, and should stand by him. When the hall is being kicked from a mark, arrange who is to fly and who is to stay down. One should be in front and the other behind the high-markers. The ball comes to the ‘floor’ offener (sic) than it is marked. Don’t bounce the ball when, beginning your run; travel a full ten yards first. But run as little as possible; kick the sphere hard and often, but always to a mate. Only handball to a man in a better position; handball is easily overdone. Don’t be selfish; you play a better game for yourself when you consider your side first.”
SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS IN THE GAME
Yes, although our game is now grand, I think it could be still further improved. I favour the erection of a bar, with 6 points for an untouched kick over the bar, 2 points if under, and 1 point touched over or under the bar and 1 point for a behind. This would improve the game by making a goal harder to get, and therefore of more value. It would give the full-back a better chance to participate in the play than he now enjoys. Then, again, dribbled goals are not worth six points.
â€œI suggested similar alterations in the ‘Referee’ some years ago. Many correspondents wrote, some in favour, some against. But, like you, I am of opinion they would immensely improve the game. But proceed.
Well, when the regulation size of the ground cannot be obtained, I favour the reduction of the teams to 15. We boast of the openness of our game, but 36 men on small areas make play congested. Instead of the ‘throw-in,’ when the ball goes out of bounds, I think a free kick should be given to opponents when the ball goes out on the full; at other times the ‘throw-in’ to be adhered to.
“I also suggested a similar rule, with the exception that a certain portion of the ground at each end should be exempt. It would certainly make the game much faster.
It would,â€ replied Bert. There is still another rule I would like to see introduced, and that is, the umpire should have the power to order an offending player off the field. The argument that it places too much power in his hands will not hold water. We must trust our umpires. Occasions are rare when an umpire spoils a game, and a man who strikes an opponent should not be allowed to play. Clubs would soon drop ‘fightable’ (sic) players, who are a disgrace to any game.
Well, there are many young players who are showing excellent football, namely, McLean (North Shore), McConville and Stewart (East Sydney), Chapman, McCann, Mahoney (Paddington), Ratcliffe and the McLarens (Balmain), Hortin (Newtown), and Mack and O’Grady (Sydney).
The best players’ I have been associated with? I am afraid the task is far too difficult; A flood of names of good, in fact, great footballers fly to my mind; but to name some means leaving out dozens of others.
Yes, I – have found Australian football as played in New South Wales a beautiful game. It is nearly always fought out in the best possible spirit. Both, contesting teams leave the ground pals, ‘and the spirit at’ strenuous rivalry is only maintained as it should be on the field. The game is clean. I have played – all codes, and, and whilst I enjoy any game of football, I consider the Australian invented pastime’s greatest charm is that .it seems to possess all the good and leaves out the bad points of the other codes. ‘It is strenuous, requiring well-trained men; it is fast, and – therefore attractive to spectators; it is clean, though not by any means ladylike, as its opponent’s endeavour to paint it. Then it is open, onlookers seeing all the game, and the scoring is fast, and therefore exciting. Drawn games ”always unsatisfactory ” are rare, and a match between two good teams always furnishes a clever exhibition. In short, it is full of incident; dull moments being very rare.
FUTURE OF THE GAME IN NEW SOUTH WALES
‘I consider the game should be developed principally by local talent. Second Graders should be taught that selection in the First Grade should be their ambition. There seems to be too much difficulty in getting the Association (second grade) players to come into the League. This is radically wrong. The club that builds up a complete team of local lads will have the biggest following. Besides, players living in the same district will have a chance working up combination, so necessary to success it is hard on a captain each year to have a new set of players. They are strange to each other, and the season, is well advanced before a thorough understanding exists between them.”
There should be only one club in each district, which should select its players for each grade. The selectors would have to watch the schools. The Third Grade team could be picked principally from schoolboys, who could work their way up to the seniors. Young players’ ambition should be to represent their districts in inter-State- matches.
‘Bert Watts, who is a Captain in the State Artillery, has had vast experience in his long football career. This interview is particularly instructive from the players’ and managerial sides. It is to be hoped his remarks will bear fruit. His own football has been of a most exemplary character. “The ball all the time” is always his motto, and his influence on the Paddington team, which he captains, is most marked. Players would do well to select skippers of the calibre of Watts. The matches would always improve enjoyable under such leadership. Captain Watts left Sydney for England yesterday, where he will pursue his studies in the British Army.”
Bert Watts married in the UK. They had a son but unfortunately his wife died soon after the birth of the child. What happened to the son is unknown.
Prior to the first world war, the NSW Football League, as it was known then, undertook two Riverina tours with a Sydney representative team playing at different centres.
Several football associations in the Riverina had affiliated with the (almost) new NSWAFL, following its re-birth in 1903. In response it was almost expected that the Sydney league would send teams into the area to play. Besides representative teams, Sydney club sides also made the journey deep into the Riverina.
These representative tours took place in 1907 and 1908, and had a duration of seven days plus. This was during a time when a separate and top line NSW team played elsewhere in an interstate fixture, so the Riverina touring side, for the most part, was Sydney’s second team“ comprised of those available.
The financial arrangements of these tours are not spelt out but we would assume that:
“Those who ‘volunteered’ to play in these representative teams had the time to
do so. These were the days, certainly for manual workers, shop assistants,
carters and the like to be working 60 hours a week, some, even every day. So
we are at a loss to say how they were able to absent themselves from their
work unless they: were self-employed, the bosses son, took leave (and not all
employees had the benefit of holidays) or were out of work. Because of thee
restrictions it is reasonable to assume that those ˜selected’ (or who volunteered
to play), were not always the best players in the competition.
Also, in many cases in those early days of representative football, one of their
number, would second as the team manager, so a bare eighteen might travel “
there was no interchange or reserves in those days.
The host league would pay the travel and accommodation costs.
All that the NSW Football League would do was to supply the jumpers, and
possibly the shorts and socks, all of which would have to be returned.
The number of representative games in the first decade or so of the last century was incredible and it is little wonder that the league almost persistently recorded an annual deficit. Although it is fair to say that in the few years immediately following 1903, prominent interstate teams did not make a claim on the gate and in fact left any and all proceeds from their matches in Sydney with the local league.
NSWAFL ANNUAL PROFIT
OR DEFICIT (-)
RBA 2013 INFLATION CALCULATION
Does this show a pattern? The 1911 profit is almost certainly due to the subsidy of £225.00 (with inflation in today’s money: $27,946.00) received from the Australian National Football Council as NSW’s share of gate receipts from the all states carnival in Adelaide.
In 1907 and 1908, Sydney teams toured and played at Hay, Narrandera, Coolamon and Wagga. The first of these tours was disastrous with some virtual unknowns making the trip in the Sydney team, probably due to their availability. In their final game against the Wagga Association, the Sydney side had to call upon five players from Narrandera and Hay to make up their number. Whether this was because of injury or withdrawal has not been established.
The next year they had a stronger team which included the NSW captain, Ralph Robertson, but nevertheless could not match it with some of their Riverina opponents.
Hay F C 5-11 (47)
Narrandera F C 10-19 (79)
Coolamon F C 3-9 (27)
Wagga F A 10-27 (87)
Hay F C 7-22 (64)
Narrandera F C 8-14 (62)
Wagga F A 10-19 (79)
Unlike today, the trip to all centres was by train. The first stop (passing through most of the others) was at Hay which is 755 rail kilometres from Sydney. Incidentally and interesting piece came to light when researching this article, it was talking about Narrandera and Lockhart “Teams travel tremendous distances to take part in these matches – from ten to forty miles. Greater difficulty will be experienced this season (1908) in bringing off these matches, owing to the scarcity of horses, brought about by the drought. They must be very enthusiastic ……”
It was some years before more Sydney representative teams toured the area again, although a number of requests were received, even during the first world war.
World War I started one hundred years ago this week and we should not let the opportunity pass without paying homage to those Sydney footballers who served.
I am guessing here that most football and other sporting competitions around the nation will permit the day to roll by without so much of a murmur or thought about any of their number who enlisted for WWI, those perhaps who were killed or returned maimed, resulting in their inability to continue to play.
In 1914 Sydney had six clubs: Newtown, Sydney, South Sydney North Sydney (Shore), East Sydney and Paddington. Only one is left today.
When the war was announced, with the time difference, the ball was being bounced on the Sydney Cricket Ground for the first game, in the third All-States National Carnival.
Ralph Robertson, the very well respected 32 year old Sydney footballer in the first decade of the last century, captained NSW. It was his 35th appearance for the NSW and/or Sydney since 1903. He had captained the state in the two previous national carnivals, 1908 in Melbourne and 1911 in Adelaide and was a product of St Kilda FC in 1899-1900.
He played in four of the five games for NSW in August 1914 then enlisted, citing his previous experience in the Militia as a criteria for early enrolment. He was joined by fellow state team member Teddy McFadden and later Tom Watson from the North Sydney Club. They all sailed to New Guinea with the little known or recognized, Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force. This was not a big contingent but their involvement with the then German New Guinea, helped in the capture of the province. The trio were back in Australia by February 1915.
All three eventually went to Europe. Robertson resigned from the Australian force to take up a commission in the British Army. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was killed in a training accident in 1917 when the plane he was flying collided with another over Egypt.
Tom Watson went on to Gallipoli where he was killed in August 1915.
Teddy McFadden (pictured), a former South Sydney player, signed on with the 1st AIF in April 1915 and his involvement proved to be a whole different kettle of fish than the former two.
He was posted overseas in June 1915. Right from the start he found himself in strife, receiving unit punishment for menial indiscretions.
He changed Corps and was promoted and demoted finally finishing up in the VD Hospital at Bulford, England where he was placed on the Syphilis Register in May, 1917. He remained there for over 3 months until eventually deserting from the army only to pop up again and living in Darlinghurst, a suburbs of Sydney, in 1922. He wasn’t the only WWI serviceman to suffer from this virtually incurable disease. Many Australians suffered the same fate.
Because of his desertion, he was cut-off from any Government assistance and tagged an Illegal Absentee and officially discharged from the army in 1920.
They were not keen to have anything to do with Teddy. He was not awarded any medals, apart from a service medal for his involvement in the New Guinea campaign, not Europe.
He married in 1926 then slipped into obscurity.
There were others too, most returned but some never stepped a foot back into Australia again. A minority, like Jacky Furlong, a Newtown player, who returned with a missing thumb and Les Mitchell, an East Sydney player who was wounded by shrapnel. Both played again in Sydney, Furlong at 29 and Mitchell, 26.
And yet there were others: Jim McInnes, a Sydney FC player who died of measles or Edward Dennis Hickey, former Newtown captain coach, then Sydney player, who was invalided back to Australia with arthritis. Several others who played again, like many of their era, just slipped into anonymity.
To honour the time and those who served, the History Society is producing a book on the effect World War I had on Sydney football. It has an anticipated release date immediately prior to Anzac Day, 1915.
This publication is not a book of empty, pathetic rhetoric. It is about real people and real events. Young men who played football in Sydney and in other parts of Australia who served in what was called the Great War. Also though, it is about footballing events in Sydney before, during and after the conflict. This book will comprise part of the country’s official Centenary of ANZAC as a lasting legacy to the period and those who served.
If you are interested in football history, this limited production book is a MUST for your collection. There is a progress link on the front page of this website.
Sydney has produced some great footballers, quite a number of whom went on to play in the VFL and or AFL.
We have uncovered one who went to South Australia where he won the Magarey Medal, the SANFL’s best player.
His name is Jack Ashley or if we are correct, William John (Jack) Ashley.
He was probably born in South Australia in about 1890 and apparently moved to Sydney with his family early in the next decade. They settled around Balmain and the young Ashley attended a local school and began playing with the club’s one junior team.
It wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the selectors and by 1907, still under age, began playing senior football along with his older brother, Henry.
The next year Ashley began to show great form. He was selected to represent Combined Sydney against visiting S.A. club, Norwood. Then the next year he represented against South Melbourne, Geelong, Collingwood and Queensland.
When Balmain fell over in 1910 together with his brother, he transferred to the East Sydney Club where he again starred.
A classic piece of 1910 journalism exemplifies his ability “Last week I stated that Jack Ashley would win matches for East Sydney by his fine kicking. He did the trick against Newtown with a magnificent drop kick a few minutes before the final bell rang”
And another said “Up till three-quarter time he was not quite so prominent as he had been against Sydney, but brought all his guns into action in the concluding quarter. Of course, he was carefully watched all through “particularly in the early stages,” and was opposed by a stronger team. It was his resourcefulness that charmed the critical onlooker. Frequently an opponent grabbed him, he dropped tho ball at once, skilfully knocked it so that when he got loose he was able to gather it in and dart off like the wind.”
He was part of East Sydney’s grand final team of 1910 and their premiership side the following season. That was the same year Ashley represented NSW in the National Carnival at Adelaide where he came under the eye of the astute Port Adelaide FC Officials who eventually recruited him.
Outstanding Sydney footballer of the period and captain of NSW in three National Carnivals, 1908, 1911 and 1914, Ralph Robertson said of Ashley: ” ‘We have had some fine players in Sydney during the past few years. Some of them have gained places in teams in the other States and acquitted themselves well. Jack Ashley, of course, comes readily to my mind. A natural footballer, and one of the fairest I have met.”
Before we leave Sydney, it is fair to again eulogize his talents as described in several Sydney newspapers:
“Against Y.M.C.A. Jack Ashley was again East Sydney’s best player. While roving he was hardly so effective as usual, but when placed on the half-back line his dash and marking were excellent, while his telling kicks always placed the ball out of danger to his side” and,
“It is customary to voice an opinion as to the season’s champion player. There might have been differences in that respect in past seasons, but for the season 1911 Jack Ashley stands the Undisputed League Champion.”
He turned out with Port Adelaide FC in the 1912 season and despite an early injury was selected in the South Australian team which played Victoria in Melbourne in July. The team was beaten but Ashley performed creditably. The following year he was a member of Port Adelaide’s premiership team.
In 1914 he won the Magarey Medal playing for premiers, Port Adelaide(pictured) and was a member of their team which won the post season Championship of Australia title over VFL premiers, Carlton.
He continued with Port for 1915 but with the advent of WWI when the SANFL went into recess he decided to return to Sydney and play.
Initially he shocked the locals when he signed with the Balmain Rugby League Club where he played one or two early season first grade games but this was only while waiting for his clearance to come through. Upon gaining permission to play he was appointed captain-coach of the Balmain Australian Football Club and led them to what appeared to be an effortless undefeated run through the home and away season.
Unfortunately their form in the finals didn’t stand the pressure and they went out in straight sets.
1917 saw him back in Adelaide playing for Port in a competition akin to the major league.
By 1919 the SANFL was back in full swing where he again represented South Australia against Victoria. He played a few games in 1920 but a nagging knee injury which forced him out of the state side also stopped his selection in the club’s grand final team of that year and eventually, it led to his retirement.
South Australian’s hold their champions in very high esteem and in 1946 a contemporary wrote of him “Jack Ashley did something one day which I’ve never seen done before or since. He and I were racing to the ball, and Jack over shot it a little. I was just about to pick it up when he back-kicked it — for 30 yards. After the match he told me he had played rugby in New South Wales, and had learnt the back kick there. It was a new and surprising move to me.”
By 1933 Jack had moved to Melbourne where he operated his own business.
We believe he died without fanfare or recognition in Sydney in 1968.
Ashley is certainly one player Balmain should have in their Team of the Century.
The team image is of the 1914 Port Adelaide FC. Ashley is one of those shown.
In August 1909 three VFL teams, Collingwood, Geelong and South Melbourne visited Sydney to play a series of matches which included games against NSW.
They each brought their best teams with each of the games played at (the old) Erskineville Oval over a period of about two weeks.
That year, South Melbourne would go on to win the premiership, and remarkably enough, their game against NSW was very competitive.
Unlike the other two games (against Geelong & Collingwood), the South Melbourne encounter was played on a Saturday. This very much impacted on the crowd and with one shilling entry (10c) plus an extra six pence (5c) to the stand, the game raised a gate of one hundred and twenty pounds ($240), certainly was not a bad take for the day.
NSW fielded about the best team available. All players chosen were from Sydney. One was Jack Incoll, a 30 year old Newtown player who had turned out for both South Melbourne and Collingwood during the seasons prior to coming to Sydney. Another, was team mate Con McCormack, a former Collingwood player who, at 31 had not lost his touch.
Balmain player Jack Ashley was selected in the forward pocket for NSW. He was a big man who would go on to win the Magarey Medal playing for Port Adelaide a few years later. So the NSW team was peppered with quite a number of talented players.
Of course Ralph Robertson, the mercurial East Sydney then North Shore player was almost a permanent fixture in the state team from 1903-14. He had played for St Kilda as a youngster and was another who was in constant form. Already there is a contemporary push to have him included in the AFL’s Hall of Fame.
NSW were two points down at quarter time, one point at the long break but let their opponents draw five goals ahead at three quarter time. The Blues however rallied and were a chance to take the game but the bounce of the ball favoured South during the final term who went on to win 10-19 to 7-10.
The following Wednesday, NSW with six changes from their team of the previous weekend, put up a great performance. Geelong had taken out the wooden spoon in 1908 and in 1909 finished second last.
The Blues led the Pivitonians at all of the breaks except the one that counted and were eventually defeated 15-12 (102) to 12-17 (89) before a mid week crowd which was described as ‘fair’.
The game against Collingwood was played on the following Wednesday, 18 September. On this occasion NSW really had to squeeze to get their numbers. Eight of their regular representatives were not in the eighteen. In those days, people worked six days a week and even then, more hours than eight a day and yet it was this game that drew the biggest crowd. The exact number is not enumerated but reports tell us that the attendance “was larger than that against South Melbourne, but the gate was about the same”.
All of the VFL teams made no claim on the gate which left the NSW League in the black at the end of the season. They started the year with a debt of well over one hundred pounds ($200) which provided the opportunity for the League to further investigate, with now some justification, the purchase of a ground which would be their own. But that is another, and a very, very interesting story.
The weakened NSW team had no chance against Collingwood where they could only manage three goals. They were beaten 12-12 (84) to 3-10 (28).
It is interesting to read what the South Melbourne team got up to during their 1909 stay in Sydney:
The South Melbourne team are having a splendid time, having enjoyed a *drag drive to Coogee on Wednesday, a launch trip to Middle Head on Thursday, launch trip to Parramatta, lunch a Correy’s Gardens on the return trip and an afternoon on board the **N.S.S. Sobraon yesterday, with a theatre party each evening since their arrival here. At 10 o’clock this morning they leave the Hotel Grand Central for a drive round the Domain and Centennial Park. There will be a theatre party after the match.”
*A drag was vehicular carriage normally pulled by four or six horses. It had seats along the centre of its length facing outwards on each side. **Sobraon was a ‘training ship’ for wayward boys.
In 1908 NSW competed in an All-States Football Carnival in Melbourne which celebrated 50 years since the birth of the game.
Each state was permitted to include a maximum of 25 players which was quite a number in those days considering teams were only permitted 18 on-field players with no reserves or interchange.
The NSW contingent comprised players from Sydney, two from the Wagga district, one from Hay and eight from Broken Hill.
These eight were: A T Conlin, Ethelbert (Bert) Renfrey (picutured, and you can read about him by clicking here – a very interesting character), G Colley, R Scott, Jack Hunter, Bennet Eric Gluyas, Robert Rahilly, and A Millhouse – [details of their given names would be appreciated if known].
Football was a very serious business in Broken Hill in 1908, so a comprehensive agreement was drawn up between the Barrier Ranges Football Association and each player which they were required to sign.
Some of the articles in the agreement included:
That each player must return to Broken Hill within a month of departure, all expenses over 19 days would be borne by the players;
They would be under the control of a manager appointed by the football association (J M Ford) and were to be of good conduct.
Whilst in Adelaide (they travelled by train to Adelaide, then train to Melbourne) they were to remain with the group.
Whilst in Melbourne they were under the charge of the NSW team manager.
They must attend all functions with the team.
They must meet with the managers of the touring party when instructed.
The Barrier Rangers had full power to report any of the players for a breach of conduct.
The Manager was empowered to suspend or disqualify any of the players.
Particular offences were considered as:
* Being absent without leave.
* Irregularity of hours, insobriety, any action which would prejudice fitness.
* Any action which would bring discredit on the team.
* Refusal to carry out any reasonable instruction.
* That they must appear in the uniform hats supplied for the tour (each player was issued with a straw hat). These hats had a light blue ribbon with an embroided waratah.
We have no evidence that others, particularly those from Sydney, had to sign such an agreement. We can only speculate that the boys from Broken Hill must have been a wild bunch!
The team stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, St Kilda. They trained at the St Kilda Cricket Ground under the direction of former St Kilda player, E L (Curly) Jones. The captain was Ralph Robertson and manager, E W Butler, both from the East Sydney club.
NSW 8-14 (62)
New Zealand 9-9 (63)
NSW 4-11 (35)
Tasmania 8-14 (62)
NSW 12-3 (75)
Western Aust 17-12 (124)
NSW 13-15 (93)
Queensland 8-11 (59)
The coaching of Jones, although appreciated, was not considered beneficial, particularly in the loss to New Zealand. This was in the days when, apart from the very major clubs, captains ran the teams and did the coaching. Such was the case in Sydney. (image shows NSW captain, Ralph Robertson)
The carnival was quite a significant milestone in the recognition and evolution of Australian Football in the newly federated country, despite recording a significant loss on the series. H C A Harrison, acknowledged as the Father of the Game and author of the first rules, was in attendance where he made many speeches and gave several interviews, a number of which reflected on the very beginnings of the game.
Ironically enough, our research has revealed that Bert Watts, a former captain of the Paddington Club who also performed that role when he returned to Sydney from a military posting on Thursday Island, was a member of the Queensland team.
Watts will figure prominently in the book the Society is publishing on the Impact WWI had on Australian Football in Sydney.
Details of NSW’s participation in the 1908 carnival are currently being loaded into the website’s database. Click here to view the games. (use the date option, 1908, for best results).
Victoria won the championship and each of their players was presented with a silk pennant and gold medal. We wonder where any of these items are now?
Early in the twentieth century football was different in Sydney.
By different we mean ‘isolated’. There were a number of locals playing but many came from interstate and this position was reasonably consistent right up until about the mid seventies where interstaters on many occasions out numbered local players. That is not to say that local juniors didn’t fill the ranks of most senior clubs, but for the most part, it was the imports, a lot of whom were in the military, who played senior football.
We have the research capacity to go back a long way and even in 1912, the North Shore club was unable to field a team in the first semi final because a number of its players went to Tasmania. The following year however, their captain Ralph Robertson, president Albert Kitt and others officials like Arthur Beedon and Harry Lowe got the side together.
The introduction of the ‘District’ scheme though had a big impact on the North Shore club.
Sydney’s ‘District’ scheme was based on that used in Adelaide. The metropolitan area was divided in such a manner, based on electoral boundaries and named after the particular district. This provided for ten clubs although in 1913 there was momentum for only seven: Paddington, Sydney, South Sydney, Newtown, East Sydney, Balmain and North Shore. Players who resided in a particular district had to play for that district club although there were some dispensations.
Because North Shore was not a recognized electoral district, the club had to change their name to North Sydney. The only concession was that the northern part of Sydney was not divided and the North Sydney club had claim to all players who resided in that area, not that there were many in those days.
The YMCA club which only a few years before had won the premiership, were out. Also not admitted was the Railway club. YMCA were offered a spot in reserve grade but declined.
Balmain struggled throughout the season finishing second last. They were one of two clubs without a reserve grade. The next year Balmain combined with Northern Districts, the reserve grade premiers, to form a club called Central Western. Northern Districts were a team based in the Ryde area.
World War 1 created havoc with all sport throughout the country, particularly Australian football in Sydney. With the departure of thousands of young men the ranks of football teams were depleted so much so that that the North Sydney Club had to retire from the competition.
Then it was the military that saved football. Many of these were based at and around Victoria Barracks so the near clubs, like Paddington and Sydney in particular benefited from their presence.