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.

 

– 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

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.