Football goes on hold as World War 1 erupts

By Richard Jones

The Bendigo Football League came into existence in 1913, superceeding the old Bendigo Football Association which had been the controlling body since the 1880s.

The first president was Dr. H.H. Hunter with the league secretary Mr. Edward Hull.

There were just four competing clubs --- Bendigo had folded --- and they were South Bendigo, Eaglehawk, Bendigo City and California Gully.

City players were able to wear a maroon-coloured guernsey as the original maroon and blues --- Sandhurst --- had gone into recess in the very early 20th century.

And didn’t come back until 1919.

My old mate, the late Johnny Forbes, brought along some early 1900s footy cards to one of our Kangaroo Flat Friday night dinners and there was ace full-forward Dave Mahoney in his full maroon colours of Bendigo City.

Along with other cards of Dave’s teammates.

Pretty good, I’d say. Not that Bendigo City had a maroon-coloured jumper, but the fact that there were footy cards in colour just before World War 1 erupted.

So did the world conflict impact on Bendigo footy?

Well, of course it did, just as happened in every other sports competition around the globe. Although the VFL struggled on with only four clubs.

Mahoney’s Bendigo City won the flag in 1913 but he’d signed with South for the 1915 season and he ended up playing 16 games in his Bloods’ career.

South had saluted in 1914, just before signing Mahoney, and the season even got underway in 1915 with the war raging across fronts in Europe.

Rochester had been admitted to the BFL for 1915 and led the competition until the league decided to abandon all play as WW1 heated up.

So there was no local footy until play resumed in 1919.

Bendigo City was gone and there was no Rochester either. Rochy re-joined in 1923 to swell the number of competing clubs to five.

So when the BFL resumed in 1919 there were just four clubs: Eaglehawk, South Bendigo and a re-energised Sandhurst along with brand-new outfit, Bendigo East.

South won the flag by one point in a tense 1919 play-off.

Cyril Michelsen’s father, Cr. J. A. (Jack) Michelsen, was the league president, and he led the push to expand the BFL into nearby country clubs.

Echuca was admitted at the end of 1924 with Bendigo East biting the dust, Castlemaine was admitted in 1925 and Kyneton also joined a few seasons later.

When the Tigers slotted in the BFL was up to a healthy eight-club competition, making the league one of the strongest and best controlled footy bodies outside of Melbourne.

Before his elevation to BFL president Jack Michelsen had been secretary at Sandhurst and later, before the name change to BFL, had been secretary of the Bendigo Football Association.

He revitalised the BFL in those early 1920s years. Before Jack’s rise to the top, Association meetings in the 1890s had been held in a rented room at the old View Point Hotel (no longer in existence).

BFA finances were so low the delegates had a “tarpaulin muster” at the end of each meeting to pay for the room rent and for lighting.

Just imagine it. Three or four blokes holding the corners of a tarpaulin as the others reached into their pockets for a few loose coins --- and maybe a ten shilling note (10/- = today’s $1) ---to toss into the middle.

But under Jack Michelsen’s stewardship the BFL grew into perhaps the best administered and certainly one of the two or three strongest leagues in regional and country Victoria.

And although the BFL had always had an annual award for the league’s fairest and best player it was re-named the Michelsen medal in 1952 to honor Councillor Jack’s legacy.

Cyril had interviewed his father to expand his knowledge of the amazingly rich history of local footy, particularly from the 1890s and early 20th century.

Jack remembered the Wednesday half-day holiday afternoon BFA fixtures. “Play often started with teams not at full strength.

“There were occasions when an undermanned team would face a big deficit of many goals before their stars arrived.

“The stars were the goldminers who didn’t finish their shifts until three o’clock. They arrived in (horse-drawn) cabs sent especially by clubs to the many mines dotted around the city to collect their players for the first bounce at 3.15 pm.

“Players dashed out of the cabs to quickly change into their uniforms on the edge of the playing area. Others, more smart, changed in the cab as it approached the ground where they were playing.”

Interestingly back in those years with the BFA round completed by Wednesday evenings a number of top Bendigo players caught the early and mid-morning Saturday trains down to Melbourne where they played for (then) VFL clubs in the afternoons.

A few decades back from this period and it’s amazing to think how footy got off the ground and progressed so well.

As I’ve pointed out in other articles the playing areas were in shocking nick.

Plus there were no umpires with the captains ruling on who should receive penalty free kicks.

And of course there were no tribunals. Disputes were negotiated and settled out on the field with the outcomes frequently resulting in outbursts of temper and resulting rough incidents once decisions had been handed down.


Footnote: World War 1 impacted severely on the running of the VFL. By 1916 just four clubs were competing: Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond.

Geelong and South Melbourne returned for 1917, while a year later in 1918 Essendon and St Kilda resumed.

Melbourne, which had missed out on four, complete seasons re-joined in 1919.

An interesting sidelight refers to St Kilda’s guernseys. They ditched their old red, white and black colors as they were identical to the German Empire’s colours and flags which were displayed by the enemy.

And so what did the Saints wear? They adopted black, red and yellow, identical colours to the national flag of Belgium where a number of St.Kilda footballers, turned servicemen, were based.

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