The Queen’s Club Match

Smith Journal, 2016

SPORADICALLY since the late 1980s, the AFL has staged a post-season exhibition match at the Oval in London. These have rarely been much of an advertisement for our national game – or, frankly, our national character, which may be why the last such fixture occurred in 2012. The players involved have generally given the impression of having enjoyed quite an evening out the night before, and the crowds tend to behave like they wouldn’t, were they at home.

Only one of these matches has staked any claim on posterity, and for lamentable reasons – the sensationally vicious 1987 encounter between Carlton and North Melbourne, which has entered folklore as “The Battle of Britain”. At the 2003 game between Collingwood and Fremantle, attended by this correspondent, the last quarter was rendered nonsensical by brawls among the players, pitch invasions by the fans – and, at the end of it all, the uprooting and removal from the premises of one of the goalposts, doubtless to be carved into pieces revered unto this day in shared London terraces as splinters of the True Cross are in Tuscan churches.

IT would be pleasant to think that all concerned might have comported themselves with greater decorum had they known of the precedent upon which they were trampling. A hundred years ago this October, the first serious attempt to interest the outside world in Australian Rules took place: also in London, in rather more sombre times. On October 28th, 1916, the Queen’s Club in Kensington, then as now a proverbially genteel habitat of tennis to a soundtrack of stiff upper lips munching cucumber sandwiches, hosted what was grandly billed as the “Pioneer Exhibition Game of Australian Football”. The admission charges, varying from one shilling to two-and-sixpence to ten shillings, were to be donated to the British and French Red Cross.

The competing teams were the 3rd Australian Division and Australian Training Units, two constituent components of the Australian Imperial Force, thousands of whose troops were stationed in Britain, awaiting or recovering from deployments to the Western Front. However, this was no mere friendly fixture between two military outfits: it was a primordial all-star game. Of the 3rd Division’s team, one contemporary observer –

Gerald Brosnan of The Winner newspaper, himself a former Fitzroy champion – declared “I am doubtful if a team could be chosen, either in or out of Australia, at the present time that could beat this side. I for one would not like to have the task of selecting 18 players capable of defeating them – it would, I fancy, be next door to impossible.”

Footballers volunteered for the Great War with no less alacrity than other young men of the time, and died in wretchedly comparable numbers: by the time guns fell silent, the honour roll of the Victorian Football League alone would run to 94 names. This had a predictably deleterious effect on the game at home: the recently concluded 1916 VFL season had been contested by just four teams (one of whom, Fitzroy, would earn pub quiz immortality by collecting the premiership and wooden spoon in the same season: though they won just two home and away matches, their last yet fourth place got them into the finals, from where they somehow fluked their way to a Grand Final victory over Carlton.)

It would not have taken a gifted sportsman and instinctive entrepreneur to conclude that this meant that an immense footballing talent pool was now exiled in Europe – but a gifted sportsman and instinctive entrepreneur did. Frank Beaurepaire, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, was already famous: he’d won silver and bronze in the pool at the 1908 London Olympics, and had toured Europe setting world swimming records for fun. He’d been kept out of the trenches by appendicitis (though his day would come, as would gas injuries, as would further medals at the 1920 and 1924 Games, and his eponymous tyre empire, career in politics and knighthood.) He’d been shunted into the YMCA Services, charged with buoying morale.

Beaurepaire and his organising committee clearly experienced little difficulty recruiting – hardly surprising, given Beaurepaire’s renown, the promise of such a prestigious venue, and the chronic boredom of military life away from the front. Several of the players who signed up had appeared on cigarette cards back home. 3rd Division’s captain for the day would be Bruce Sloss, whose last game before embarkation had been a heroic contribution to a losing cause as South Melbourne fell six points short of Carlton in the 1914 Grand Final (“He marked, kicked and ran like a champion,” approved The Australasian, “and almost pulled the match out of the fire by his brilliant efforts.”)

Among those lining up alongside Sloss in the 3rd Division’s uniform – a blue guernsey embroidered with a white map of Australia – were: Dan Minogue, who’d had a stellar career at Collingwood and would go home to another one at Richmond, before becoming (still) the only man to coach five top-flight clubs; the Essendon titan Bill Sewart, who’d also played cricket for Victoria; St Kilda ruckman Percy Jory, a lumbering Tasmanian whose 1915 season had been curtailed by a three-week suspension for elbowing an opponent, and who had been deaf in one ear (or so he’d told the tribunal, at the time) after being on the receiving end of similar treatment in 1913.

3rd Division were almost exclusively Victorians. The Australian Training Units side were a marginally more cosmopolitan bunch. Their captain was Charlie Perry, a red-haired methodist chaplain who, playing for Norwood in the SANFL, had polled equal top of 1915’s Magarey Medal count. Among those arrayed behind him, in red guernseys with a white kangaroo motif, were: Percy Trotter, an agile rover who’d starred for Fitzroy before lighting out west, and starring again for East Fremantle; George Bower, who’d anchored the centre for South Melbourne’s 1909 premiership team; the diminutive but legendarily combative former Fitzroy captain Jack Cooper, turning out despite having been badly gassed during at the Somme a few months previously.

In a letter he sent to Fitzroy in June 1916, Cooper wrote “I don’t think I will ever smile again until I see that maroon and blue flag flying in front of those two old grandstands.”

AS an event in itself, the Pioneer Exhibition Game was a success – estimates of the crowd ran as high as 8,000. As a charitable enterprise, ditto – sales of tickets and programmes raised about £300 for the Red Cross.

As an exercise in missionary outreach on behalf of Australian football, the results were more mixed. No sale, regrettably, to the man from The Yorkshire Post. Australian football, he harrumphed, was “not likely to draw away many followers either of the Rugby or Association codes. To the ordinary man who favours either of these forms of the game, it seems a blend of both, with the least attractive features of each accentuated.”

Sporting Life’s correspondent enjoyed it, though: “Those who had the good fortune to witness the match will be in agreement that it is a most exhilarating and exciting pastime, and it is played at such a pace throughout that it is unquestionably the fastest outdoor game, with the exception of lacrosse”. So did The Sportsman: “The game is very fast, very open, very spectacular, and needs plenty of stamina and pace. . . a robust sport, which can easily be very rough and boisterous”.

The Times seemed more interested in the crowd: “The spectators were also treated to their first exhibition of Australian ‘barracking’. This barracking is a cheerful running comment, absolutely without prejudice, on the players, the spectators, the referee, the line umpires, and lastly the game itself.”

Newsreel footage of the Pioneer Exhibition Match survives. You can watch the squads assembling for their team photographs, and leaving the dressing rooms – Australian Training Units carry the match ball, made by a Corporal Claude McMullen, who (according to a subsequent report in The Winner) had to this point of the war stitched 216 balls for the amusement of AIF troops. We can see Sloss and Perry meeting for the toss, some of the hurly-burly of the match – it looks cold and foggy out there – and slouch-hatted diggers cheering from open-topped double-decker buses pressed into service as grandstands. Not pictured are the day’s celebrity guests: one former king (Manuel II of Portugal, overthrown six years previously) and one king-to-be (the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII).

The programme can be read on the National Library website. It’s a minor masterpiece, featuring an exposition of the rules, the names of the players, and cartoons and illustrations commissioned from Australian artists who’d gone to war, a lineup scarcely less impressive than that of the footballers – Will Dyson, Ruby Lindsay (billed here as Ruby Lind, also wife of Dyson and sister of Norman Lindsay), Fred Leist, Fred Lindsay, Laurie Taylor and Cecil Hartt (mis-spelled “Hart”).

Training Units made a match of it almost all the way, but in the end the greater depth and experience of 3rd Division carried the day, 6.16.52 to 4.12.36. Carl Willis scored two goals for the 3rd: he’d played for the short-lived VFL club University before the war, and would captain South Melbourne after it, despite being gassed at Messines in June 1917. Harry Moyes scored two as well: he’d return to St Kilda after the war and be their leading goal-scorer throughout the early 1920s, before crossing to Melbourne, for whom he’d score three in the 1926 Grand Final.

For others, the Pioneer Exhibition Game would be their last serious match. The 3rd’s captain, Bruce Sloss, was killed near Armentieres in January 1917. Les Lee, who’d played a couple of times for Richmond, scored a goal for the 3rd, and was hailed by some as best afield, was killed at Messines. University’s Stan Martin, East Perth’s James Foy and Launceston’s James Pugh also fell in France. Jack Cooper never saw Fitzroy’s maroon and blue flag flying again. He was killed at Passchendaele in September 1917. His remains were never found.

THERE is some talk about a centennial commemoration of the Pioneer Exhibition, which would see the AFL returning to The Oval in London later this year. A book about the match, “The Game Of Their Lives”, by Nick Richardson, has just been published. Dan Minogue’s grandson – also called Dan – is campaigning for a memorial plaque to be installed at the Queen’s Club, though no unveiling has yet been announced.

Hundredth anniversary observances of events of World War One tend, by definition, to be remembrances of futile slaughter. One of the few redeeming fables of the conflict is the story of the impromptu soccer matches between British and German troops in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Eve truce of 1914. It’s maybe not much that the men of the 3rd and the ATU got, on this one day, a small ration of their doomed youth back. But it’s something.