1. Death of a Footballer

The title of this first post is taken from the headline to a story that appeared in the local paper – The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on Friday 22 May 1914. It covers the death of a local footballer from injuries he sustained in a match played at Port Albert.

The short version of what happened is that in the game played between the Port-Goodwood and Ramblers teams at Port Albert on Saturday 16 May 1914 there was a heavy collision over a contested ball, and Wilfred (‘Friday’) Lawson, from the Ramblers, was so badly injured he had to be taken back to Yarram in a jinker. That night his father did not return home until around 6.00pm and when he saw his son’s condition he sent for the local doctor – Dr Pern – who saw Lawson a little later that same night. He believed that Lawson’s bowel had been ruptured.

The next morning, having involved another two doctors (Dr Rothwell Adams, visiting from Melbourne, and the other local doctor, Dr Rutter) Dr Pern operated. As feared, peritonitis was evident. Unfortunately they could not locate the tear and so they were only able to drain the abdomen. The patient did well until Tuesday (19 May) but that night he haemorrhaged and died from internal bleeding at 11.00pm. Lawson’s mother, brother and sister had been sent for and had arrived from Melbourne the day before he died.

The funeral took place on Thursday 21 May with over 100 local footballers in attendance, all wearing their clubs’ colours. The local paper noted, There could have been no more striking demonstration of the heartfelt sympathy of all in the love of such a popular footballer.

Importantly, before he died Lawson had told people that his injury was an accident. In the coronial inquiry, the father (John William Lawson, builder of Yarram) stated that he asked his son before the operation if the injury ‘was wilfully done’. His son’s response was that it was a ‘pure accident’.

Not surprisingly, as reported in the local paper on 29 May, the verdict returned by the Deputy Coroner (Michael Sweeney JP) was that …Wilfred Lawson met his death in accordance with the medical evidence, and that the occurrence was purely accidental.

However there was considerably more to this episode, and it is likely that Wilfred Lawson was too quick to cry fair because there were suggestions of poor and even foul play. It could be that he died believing in a sporting ethos that simply was not there in the game that claimed his life.

Detailed reading of the local paper reveals some serious concerns. First, both players involved in the incident were key to the final outcome of the game. Lawson was described as his team’s most prominent and popular player. He had featured in the best players for the previous match. The other player – Edward Torpey of the Port-Goodwood team – was listed in the best players regularly over 1914. He was even listed in the best players for the very match in which Lawson was fatally injured. Back in April 1914, when the Port-Goodwood team was being formed, Torpey was described as an ‘interstate player’, with much to offer, including his coaching ability. If either of these key payers was ‘taken out’ it could have affected the outcome of the game.

Second, and more importantly, despite what Lawson himself stated before his death, there were reports from others present at the game that Torpey had gone up for the ball after Lawson and did so with his knees raised. It was of course the knees that did the damage. The practice of raising the knees in marking contests was highly topical at the time. In fact, it was on the agenda of the local Football Association meeting held not long after the incident. Interestingly, it was treated within the broader concern over what to do about players coming into the district with questionable playing records. However, to be fair to Torpey, in addition to Lawson’s own statements about the injury being an accident, there were several witness statements to the effect that his (Torpey’s) playing on the day had fair and not  unreasonable or out of the ordinary.

The game played on that day was rough. There was a formal complaint lodged by the Ramblers Club, and this was heard on May 27. Claims were made along the lines that it was the roughest game players had ever played in; it was not safe for the players; and that … young players say that they will not risk their lives if this rough play goes on.  However, the real focus of the arguments was not the behaviour of the teams but rather the lack of control displayed by the umpire. It was the quality of umpiring that became the focus for attaching blame and responsibility for what happened.

The umpire was E R V Foote and at the time he was 27 years old. He stated that he did not see the clash between Lawson and Torpey. In his defence, Foote agreed that it was a rough game and he did make some mistakes with his umpiring. At the same time, he claimed he had umpired impartially and indeed there was no claim that he had favoured one team. The key problem was most likely identified in the comments of an older player who claimed that Foote could not keep control of the match and that he threw the ball up too many times when he should have awarded free kicks and so opened the play up. The implication was that because Foote could not determine whose free it should be – perhaps he was trying too hard to be impartial –  he kept throwing the ball up, thereby restricting and congesting play and making things more dangerous for everyone.

Foote admitted that he had not been able to stop the crowding on the ball and this had been the greatest problem. But he also pointed out that he faced some real problems with the spectators. There were about 100 of them on the day and they kept moving on to the ground. Foote said he had had to ask for the help of a policeman, who was there as a spectator, to keep people off the oval. He said he was not sure if the police officer had done this.  There was also a problem with the boundary umpires, some of whom were younger brothers of players in the two teams. One of them was said to have even been coaching from the side.

Overall, Foote agreed that it had been a rough game and he had made a few wrong calls but he insisted that he had been impartial and that, in the circumstances, he had done his best. However he believed that because one side (The Ramblers) had formally protested about his umpiring he should resign; and the members of the Football Association accepted his resignation immediately. So the focus for the tragedy was shifted to the quality of umpiring.

There was still one other very significant driver sitting behind all the rough play that Saturday because people, including players themselves, had placed bets on the match. The reports on the evidence presented at the coronial inquest make it clear that bets were placed; but it is equally clear that uncovering exactly who made the bets and how much was waged was going to prove difficult, if not impossible. In terms of the gambling,  it might have been significant that Torpey worked as a barman at Port Albert.

As indicated, the formal finding by the Deputy Coroner was accidental death, but the paper’s report on 29 May also reveals how keen he was his to put on the public record his concern that gambling on football games could have fatal consequences:

The deputy coroner said he wished to say a few words on the evil of betting. It was well known there was money on games of football. To his mind it was a reprehensible principle that some people could not enter into the game without having money on it. In this way football could not be kept a clean sport. The worst of it was there were some men who, having money on the result, could not be trusted with life or limb. They were out to win at all hazards.

He also had a few words on the behaviour of spectators, particularly those betting on the outcome:

Another evil was the expressions of the one-eyed barrackers who assembled on football grounds, and having money on see only their own side. Men, and women too, were heard calling out “Lay him out,” “Tear him down,” and other reprehensible remarks, which tended to incite the players.

I want to finish by highlighting the relationship between class and football at the time. Obviously the game was pretty rough and the barracking of the spectators just as rough. Add gambling to this mix and there was a volatile mix of anti-social behaviour. For a description of how the better folk in society saw the evils of football read the following and note the obvious class-based interpretation of the low behaviour. It was published first in the Weekly Times, a Melbourne paper, on June 6 1914 and then reprinted in the Gippsland Times and Alberton Shire Representative on July 31. The article was written specifically in response to the match at Port Albert in which Lawson was fatally injured.

Few sights in civilisation are more humiliating than that of a ground of “barrackers” gesticulating and vociferating around the boundaries of a football ground, lost to all sense of the spirit of the game and abandoned to the one brutal sentiment of the wish to win and to add a flavor to the win by inflicting injury upon their honorable opponents. Whether it is possible or not to educate them up to the level of that decent breeding which should exist in all the relations of life, steps should be taken to suppress the open display of their vulgarity.

At the same time, football was obviously very popular in the local community – there were 100 at the local match in question – and sport generally was one of the threads that held together the broader society. Moreover, over the next four years it was to be the players and spectators, and their attitudes and behaviours, that came to define the AIF. In short, as ugly as football appeared to the better folk of the community its essential culture – aggression, mateship, courage etc – would definitely suit the AIF.

By way of a footnote, the hapless umpire on the day,  Ernest Rolleston Vicars Foote,  enlisted in the AIF (February 1915) and survived several months on the Gallipoli Peninsula and two more years on the Western Front before he was killed in action. He had reached the rank of sergeant and was in the 23rd Battalion. The Battalion Diary records that he was shot by a sniper at 7.00am on 9 April 1918. At the time, he was on patrol in a forward position near Baizieux. This was a couple of weeks after the Germans had launched Operation Michael. His name is on the war memorial in Yarram.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘Footballer Injured: At Death’s Door’, 20 May 1914, p.2
‘Football’, 20 May 1914, p.4
‘Death Of A Footballer’, 22 May 1914, p.2
‘Paying their last Respects: An Impressive Funeral’, 22 May 1914, p.2
‘Football Association’, 27 May 1914, pp. 2-3
‘Death of a Footballer’, 29 May 1914, p. 3
‘Inciting to Violence’, 31 July 1914, p.2

The Weekly Times

‘Inciting to Violence’, 6 June 1914, p.31



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