In terms of its historical and cultural significance, it is perhaps the Carlton Football Club’s most valued photograph.
The small black and white image features players and officials of both Carlton and Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station football teams, together with local elders and children, posing for posterity on the old dark Navy Blues tour to the Gippsland Lakes region more than 100 years ago.
The gathering of the two groups coincided with the staging of what Melbourne writer and researcher Athas Zafiris believes is the first ever Australian Rules match involving a League team and an Indigenous side (Carlton and Lake Tyers) on Tuesday, September 16, 1913.
According to Zafiris, the match is the earliest known of its type.
“So many games involving Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teams in other competitions have been played, but this is the earliest game I can find involving an Aboriginal team and an elite League team,” Zafiris said.
Players and officials of both Carlton and Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station football teams, together with local elders and children, 1913. (Photo: Carlton Media)
That landmark game was played in the township of Cunninghame (later renamed Lakes Entrance), some 330 kilometres east of Melbourne.
Regrettably, the photograph is not captioned, and the identities of all those who took to the field – including the two players wielding boomerangs and the Aboriginal boy nursing a football - are not known. It can only be assumed that Jack Wells, the Carlton Captain Coach of 1913, led the tourists, amongst whose ranks were the likes of Alf Baud, George Bruce, George Challis (later killed by a German artillery shell in The Great War), Harry Haughton and Jim Marchbank – a brother to the great grandfather of current player Caleb Marchbank.
In truth, Carlton’s Gippsland Lakes regional tour shouldn’t have eventuated. The players had originally factored in Sydney, but abandoned the trip “owing to small-pox still flourishing in the sister capital” as reported in The Australasian of September 1913.
Two weeks ago, whilst scouring the online search engine Trove, Zafiris stumbled onto the Carlton-Lake Tyers match report, penned by “Mercury” for the September 25, 1913 edition of the Maffra Spectator.
The report is as follows;
FOOTBALL. WHITE VERSUS BLACK.
A match was played on Tuesday of last week at Cuninghame by Carlton against an 18 of Lake Tyers aborigines. In order to play, the latter had to travel by foot from the station, nearly 10 miles distant, and return the same day – also per foot. This probably constitutes a record in enthusiasm for a match, and the gins, with piccaninnies in their arms, came in large numbers to witness the contest. The blacks wore light-blue guernseys with gold sashes, and a few had white knickers this being a further indication of their love for the Australian national game, since those uniforms were purchased by themselves out of very meagre allowance. This being the first time the natives had been honored by a game against a League team, great excitement prevailed, the gins being most enthusiastic, frequent cries from them of “Well done Norman,” “Played Gordon,” “Buck in Harold,” “Well played Lawrence,” showing their appreciation, as well and the blacks’ fancy for high class Christian names. The natives started off wearing boots, which, being without studs, were soon discarded; and proved that they had a good knowledge of the finer points of the game, their pace, marking, hand-passing and kicking being at times fine; whilst they played with combination. Their imitative faculties will cause this game to be of educative value to them, but lack of weight as a team will always be their drawback. Whilst the gins exhibited a thorough knowledge of the game, which they followed with keen interest and complimentary references to good play, less elegant expressions of contempt showed that the blacks have assimilated all the worst points of the white barracker also. After the match the Carlton manager presented the team with the ball to carry back with them to the station, also supplying the company with provisions to speed them on their long, and at this stage, weary journey. Just prior to the game one of the blacks was arrested, charged with a technical offence, but the good offices of the Carlton team subsequently secured his release on bail.
The 1913 Carlton touring party. (Photo: Carlton Media)
Crucially, Carlton also recorded general details of the game and the trip, with President David Bell and Secretary George Bruce co-signatories to the following, which appeared on page 8 of the club’s 1913 Annual Report;
At the termination of the season your team had a very enjoyable holiday trip around the Gippsland Lakes, visiting Sale, Cunninghame and Bairnsdale. From Cunninghame a visit was paid to Lake Tyers, a beautiful spot, where a motor launch trip around the lake, the team visited the Aboriginal Mission Station. Here, after indulging in boomerang-throwing, the players entertained the aboriginals at a concert at which a couple of natives assisted. This was greatly enjoyed by all.
The team had many enjoyable trips from Cunninghame, probably the most pleasant was the one up the Tambo River. Two matches were played at Cunninghame, one of which was against the aboriginals, who had walked eight miles to the playing arena, and several of them proved themselves first-class players. It is pleasing to record that the form shown by several of our young recruits was most promising.
In return for the hospital meted out by the townsfolk, your players gave a concert in aid of the Bulmer memorial fund. The late Rev. Bulmer was superintendent of the mission station for 40 years. At the concert, a sum of £5 17s. 6d. was raised. Your team possesses artists with splendid vocal talents, Messrs. F. Hanna and J. Bacquie being highly favoured in that respect.
The next visit was to Bairnsdale, where we played another match, and spent a couple of days sight-seeing and visiting the beauty spots. From Bairnsdale the team returned home after a most enjoyable trip. Many beautiful photographs were obtained by J. E. Clinton, who very kindly presented your Club with a handsome framed group of views. This is to be hung in the committee-room as a memento of the tour, and your Committee tendered to the donor a hearty vote of thanks.
The management of the trip was entrusted to Mr. T. F. Cooke, who carried out his duties with much tact and forethought. He arranged an itinerary which only previous experience could have made possible. The Committee had much pleasure in passing him a hearty vote of thanks for the bale manner in which he carried out the duties of Manager. The players presented him with a service plate as a slight token of the regard in which they hold him.
In 1917, just four years after this historic match was staged, Victoria’s Aboriginal protection board voted for a policy of concentrating all ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people on the Lake Tyers Station.
By the early 1960s the Victorian Government attempted to close the settlement and assimilate the population into the non-Indigenous community. In the decades since, many of the original shareholders have left Lake Tyers, during which time other Indigenous people from across Victoria and parts of New South Wales have moved in.
Most of the community is reliant on social security, but some residents either work for the trust or commute to jobs in nearby towns.
One hundred and four years after the event, could Dreamtime again beckon the Lake Tyers locals and the touring Blueboys?