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!