History Week 2018: Melbourne Footballers and the Great Depression


Remember the three old blokes who sat on the bar stools in the Prince of Prussia in the Jack Irish books and television series? They’d sit there, mentally replaying and commentating football matches concluded decades ago, yarning about footballers long gone with names like “Chicken Smallhorn” and “Captain Blood”.  I must confess that I felt a little bit as if I were sitting on the middle stool in this presentation by Timothy Lambert at Ivanhoe Library today.  But there were plenty in the audience who were  obviously just as familiar with statistics and personalities from Melbourne footy history.

Lambert took his time frame from 1929 to 1939, at a time when Richmond, Collingwood and South Melbourne dominated the VFL competition, while Hawthorn and North Melbourne almost folded. At a time of high unemployment, VFL Firsts players received £2 per match, although the seconds  didn’t receive any payment at all. As a result, there was huge competition within a team to be selected to play.  Under the Coulter Law, passed in 1930, no player could receive more than three pounds per match, but the wealthier clubs found ways to get around this e.g. John Wren’s famous ‘five pound’ handshake for the Collingwood boys after a match, or enticing players with the prospect of secure employment as South Melbourne president Archie Croft was able to do through his chain of grocery stores. He also lured so many interstate players that South Melbourne would be dubbed “The Foreign Legion”, with so many from Western Australia that it was suggested that they should be known as “The Swans”. The name stuck.

Lambert also emphasized that the VFL and the VFA were still direct competitors at this time, with both League and Association games played on a Saturday afternoon, and with the VFA untrammeled in how much they could offer a player.  Although this might suggest that the VFA would have been stronger, it was common for a player to play in the league for several years until they were picked up by a country club as a player/coach where he could earn £10 a game.

Football was tremendously popular during the Depression. Entry was 6d. It has been estimated that during the Depression years, 1:10 Melburnians attended a football match on any given Saturday.  In spite of 2018’s turnouts of more than 300,000 to a round, the ratio to population today would not be anything like that.

So all in all, a real session for footy tragics!

4 responses to “History Week 2018: Melbourne Footballers and the Great Depression

  1. I remember those old footballers with their white brylcreemed hair from when we first got television in 1965. The following year we lived in Melbourne and I was able to go – by train of course – to nearly every Hawthorn game (I think we came last) at all those old, damp suburban grounds. I’m glad I got the chance. In 1967 before we moved away I saw Peter Hudson’s first game, Wes Lofts all over him at Princes Park.

    Speaking of Jack Irish’s friends, I used to be friends with Doug Nicholls’ daughter and knew from her the wrench of no longer having a club to support.

    • My nephew-in-law from my first marriage (what a complicated explanation) played for Fitzroy in its death throes, then went on to play for St Kilda. He grieved that he never got to sing the Fitzroy song after a victory.

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    Not only did the footballers not make money; neither did the fans. My mother lived opposite the Carlton Football Ground and they got in for free only if they entered the stadium at half time. My father was an avid Carlton fan too, and courted my mother at Carlton home games in the late 1930s, early 1940s.

  3. I doubt many Swan supporters would know the origin of name.

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