Pompey Austin - Aboriginal football pioneer
In his 2011 book Legends: The AFL Indigenous Team of the Century, author Sean Gorman noted that singling out a person as the indigenous pioneer of the game is misleading. He argues (rightly) that all Aborigines who made it to football’s highest levels before the 1980s, such as Doug Nicholls, Ted Jackson, Norm McDonald, Polly Farmer and Syd Jackson, may genuinely be regarded as indigenous football pioneers because they largely had to blaze their own paths. But who were the game’s early indigenous pioneers?
Before the turn of the 20th century an indigenous presence in elite football was almost non-existent in Victoria. However, Mark Pennings has found a few references to indigenous footballers of the era such as Albert “Pompey” Austin, who played for Geelong in 1872, and Dick Rowan, a Healesville player living at the Coranderrk Aboriginal station. Rowan played one non-premiership game for South Melbourne against Williamstown in 1892. The earliest recognised indigenous footballer to play in the Victorian Football League (VFL, now the AFL) was Joe Johnson, who played with Fitzroy from 1904-06. However, it seems Johnson apparently kept his background to himself and his family.
All three faced a number of social and institutional barriers to top flight footy. Throughout this period Victoria’s Board for the Protection of Aborigines had dictatorial control of the movement of mission residents, and could deny talented athletes an opportunity to play with the club of their choice. On May 4, 1893 the Argus reported: “An aboriginal from Coranderrk applied for permission to play football at South Melbourne during the coming season, but the board feared that the granting of the application might lead to numerous other similar requests, and refused it.”
The environment seems somewhat more relaxed in colonial Adelaide. A team of Aborigines from the Point McLeay and Poonindie missions played leading Adelaide clubs in 1885. Nick Haines and Bernard Whimpress have identified at least four indigenous men who played senior football for Medindie in the South Australian Football Association (SAFA, now the SANFL) in the late 1880s and early 1890s. They were Harry Hewitt (1889-92), W. Rankin (1892), J. Wilson (1891-92), and Alfred "Darkie" Spender (1889). Hewitt captained the Point McLeay team and also played for Port Adelaide. The first Western Australian Aboriginal senior footballer arrived relatively late on the scene in 1900. Jimmy Melbourne is celebrated as the first indigenous player for the West Perth (1900-01), South Fremantle (1902) and Subiaco (1903-04) clubs.
But Albert “Pompey” Austin’s debut for Geelong in 1872 predates all other pioneers. When Pompey was born in the mid-1840s near Camperdown (Victoria), his community, the Djargurd wurrung, had been decimated by warfare and European diseases. From the mid-1860s he lived at the Framlingham mission near Warrnambool. In 1869 he first competed at the Warrnambool Cricket Club’s annual sports and won three events including the high jump with a leap of 5ft. 6in., and only lost the steeplechase when he fell at the final hurdle. This success would be repeated at sports meetings in nearby towns.
He was a brilliant hurdler. His leaps were described as deer-like and he could unleash sudden bursts of pace. Pompey won many athletic events in the Western District during the 1870s and often won sprints from scratch. He was so successful that at least one competitor unsuccessfully sought to have him barred from competing on the grounds of his race. Another white athlete even assaulted him as they were running, and although Pompey retaliated and crossed the finish-line first, both were disqualified.
He possibly won his greatest prize at the Geelong Easter Sports in 1872 when he defeated all-comers in his events and carried off the £10 Grand Easter Gift. Pompey’s victory was so well received that he returned to Geelong to compete in the next big athletics event on May 24, 1872 and though his performances were below his usual high standard he would be selected to play for the Geelong Football Club against the reigning premier, Carlton the next day.
The experiment was a brave gamble for Geelong for although Austin was a talented athlete he was an unknown quantity on the football field. Football had been played at Warrnambool since 1861 but no evidence has been uncovered to suggest Aborigines participated in games before 1877. Pompey was exposed to football of a sort when a “Foot Ball Drop Kick” competition was held during an Easter sports meeting at Port Fairy in 1871. He won a number of athletics events at the games (including the sack race) but he did not participate in the drop kicking competition. Evidently it was on the basis of his athletic skills that he was selected.
The match was a hard fought nil-all draw but it seems that Austin had little influence on it. Pompey was an outstanding athlete and it is likely that he was selected on merit but unfortunately he was viewed more as a sideshow. The Geelong Advertiser’s football column on May 27, 1872 reported: “Pompey, the aboriginal, played for Geelong; but after the first fall he did not appear to see any fun in the game, and was of no use whatever except to afford amusement to the spectators.” He never played at that level again.
Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, 1868.
Photographer: J. Harvey. La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
When Pompey was given the opportunity to play football for Geelong he possibly had little idea about the game but there was a football tradition of sorts among Aborigines in the Western District during the early colonial period.
There are a few brief accounts of Western District Aborigines playing a team game which involved kicking and catching an orange-sized ball made from a possum skin. Although it has some coincidental similarities to the modern game of football, and some journalists take great pleasure comparing the modern high mark with descriptions of Aborigines leaping high into the air to catch a ball (though it was not a practice recorded in the traditional Western District game), it has no causal link with, nor any documented influence upon, the early development of Australian football.
On July 28, 1877 the Aborigines played their first football game against Warrnambool. The Framlingham team was assisted by two white players, and although one of them captained the side it was essentially a team from an Aboriginal community. Traditional Aboriginal games did not have goals or fixed field positions and may have influenced how the first games of Australian football were played at Framlingham. The Aborigines’ play in the Warrnambool match seems similar to descriptions of their traditional game. Framlingham players were “prone to cluster” around the ball and they tended to disregard their allotted field positions and direct opponents. The Warrnambool Standard reported: “Whenever there was a scrimmage the darkies would rally up and join in the fun. They were all active in the field, and those who were induced to keep the goal would get greatly excited, following the ball and edging towards the point of play.” Framlingham lost the game one goal to nil. The Aborigines were new to the sport and with the exception of Pompey and Braham, who showed “capital play”, the bulk of the team did not understand football’s finer points.
The team had improved dramatically by their next game against Tower Hill (Koroit) in 1878. The Footballer described the Aborigines as formidable and “...not foes to be despised but, could play true football and not a burlesque on the game as some anticipated.” It was not just their tactics, kicking and marking that had improved, for their new-found technical skills were complemented by new blue and white uniforms.
Pompey starred in this match and again against Warrnambool later in the year. Framlingham lost both matches but the Footballer was excited by the individual skills of its players, noting: “Nothing could be finer than the running of Johnny Brown on the wings - he discarded his boots as superfluous encumbrances in the early part of the game - or of Pompey Austin, or Frank Clark [sic], always giving good sport and a long run before being brought to grass…”
When Pompey died in 1889 his age was estimated at 40 years. But Pompey’s significance to football had been forgotten very quickly. His passing was ignored by the football press and his football career was not a part of historical discourse for well over a century. But since my July 2005 Australian Society for Sports History conference paper “Pompey: The First Aboriginal to Play Senior Football”, his seminal place in the development of indigenous football has been widely recognized. Not only for his cameo appearance for Geelong but as a prominent member of Framlingham’s first football team in 1877. He was celebrated with a one-off Pompey Austin Cup for the 2009 “Dream Time at the ’G” all-indigenous curtain raiser between the Brambuk Eels from Victoria’s Western District and the Tiwi Islands’ Imalu Tigers.
Although Aborigines are widely accepted at all levels of Australian Football today, Pompey’s football story was an exception to a colonial color bar. No other Aborigine is known to have played senior football in Victoria until the early 1890s, which makes Pompey’s appearance for Geelong in 1872 all the more remarkable. He was an active member of Framlingham’s first teams to compete at cricket (1873) and football, and though Pompey’s athletic achievements were largely confined to rural Victoria they were impressive. It was due to the likes of Pompey Austin, Braham, John Brown, Frank Clarke and company, as well as Framlingham’s manager William Goodall who introduced the sport to the station, that Australian football gained its first toehold in an Aboriginal community. Through mission teams like Framlingham, much of the proud tradition of Aboriginal football in Victoria developed.
Further Reading: Trevor Ruddell, “Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: the first Aborigine to play senior football” in Peter Burke and June Senyard (ed.), Behind the Play: Football in Australia. Maribyrnong Press, Hawthorn (Vic.), 2008, pp. 89-105.