Contemporary Collingwood is desolate. It cowers in the shadows of grotesque, overpowering Housing Commission monoliths, and it bleeds at the heart from the wound of freeway ‘development’. Desolation, malevolent and often violently destructive, flows from the modern desecration of the traditional Collingwood heritage which, in its most vital aspect, was expressed in the nature of community support for the Collingwood Football Club. As the City of Collingwood recognised, in celebrating its centenary year, ‘the people’ and ‘the Club’ were ‘synonomous’1: an historic relationship of identity had been established.
In an analysis of particular relevance to the Collingwood context, R. A. Nisbet has related the idea of community to the emergence and growth of modern, mass industrial society and has observed that, ‘In many spheres of contemporary thought the imperatives of community are irresistible. Along with the pervasive vocabulary of alienation…there is an equally influential vocabulary of community.’2 The malaise of present day Collingwood is a perfect illustration of the growing conflict between the competing historical ‘imperatives’ of alienation and community.
To complicate matters, it is also an essentially shifting setting. A community ethos is an amorphous and at times a fragile phenomenon, subtly entwining nostalgia with history, idealisation with reality. In Collingwood, the local football club may be said to have originated in the enterprise and aspirations of the local bourgeoisie, who utilised the then current unifying rhetoric of the imperial connection; the rhetoric remained, diluted, while the club, in the course of time, became the focal point for an essentially working-class community consciousness.
The C.F.C., born in 1892, was very much the creation of a local business and political elite. Of the most eminent foundation Club members, a distinct and cohesive majority led the local trade and the local council.3 Included in their number were shopkeepers and publicans, estate agents and landlords. Five of these men were at some time or other Collingwood councillors, four of them becoming Mayor of Collingwood, while three of the five represented the Collingwood district in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Epitomising this group was W. D. Beazley, councillor, parliamentarian, Johnston Street estate agent, and president of the C.F.C. from 1892 to 1911: at the first public meeting held to engender popular support for the then envisaged Club, Beazley argued that a senior Collingwood team ‘…would confer a great boon on Collingwood, as the matches would be sure to draw immense crowds, and be the cause of much money being spent in the district.’4
In addition to financial gain, Collingwood’s elite also hoped to extract from their support of Australian Rules football the plaudits of ‘respectable’ society. The decisive factor in the equation was the ‘manly’, ‘sporting’ nature of the game: as the Mercury explains,
Collingwood in years gone by has earned an unenviable reputation for larrikinism and it might have been thought that [football in Collingwood] would mean ample room for display of that tendency amongst the rougher element of the community. We are glad to be able to chronicle that…the best of order was observed…’5
Larrikinism, the antithesis of Respectability, was to be avoided at all costs. As late as 1955 the City of Collingwood was expressing gratitude to the C.F.C. for providing ‘…a splendid vehicle to illustrate that the city possesses sportsmen of the highest integrity and character’.6 In 1892 the rather pathetic bourgeois hope was ‘…that the Club might attract His Excellency, the Governor, to [Collingwood] yet’.7
Yet the C.F.C. was not fundamentally a class institution, either bourgeois or working-class. The first complete Club membership list available confirms the community commitment: of just over one thousand members in 1901, at the very least seventy per cent were local residents.8 Moreover, as a breakdown along occupational lines reveals, the Club membership fairly faithfully reproduced the pattern of the Collingwood population as a whole: predominantly working-class, but not exclusively so. Thus, while some eighty per cent of the Club’s membership in the early part of this century was drawn from the local industrial wage-earning class, a significantly influential proportion came from the indigenous bourgeoisie.
Nevertheless, if from an internal Collingwood perspective the common support of the C.F.C. largely reconciled potential class antagonisms, to the world at large Collingwood turned a resolutely working-class face. It was a face whose features were shaped in an underprivileged beginning and sharpened by the severities of two economic depressions. Jack Dyer, the legendary ‘Captain Blood’ of Australian Rules, in recalling his own career, also illuminated the Collingwood position: ‘They were desperate years and desperate men’, he wrote; ‘It was depression football at its grimmest.’9 In this grimness, football was a source of both relief and deliverance for that ‘community of low-paid workers’ which Collingwood overwhelmingly was.10 Relief came from escapism: as a local verse lightheartedly fancied,
While we’ve football boys, we’re happy
And for nothing need we care11
Deliverance was the result of sincere and defiant affirmation. As a man who had lived in Collingwood for over eighty years, and who for almost thirty years had coached the C.F.C.’s reserve eighteen, explained: ‘We lived together; we worked together. We loved each other.’
Indicative of this intimacy and totality of community support, Australian Rules in Collingwood was followed at the family level. Although the game itself remained an all-male exhibition, women were welcomed both as spectators and for social reasons. In fact the enthusiasm with which the ladies of Collingwood participated in the strivings of the C.F.C. was such as to cause a tinge of unease among those gentlemen apparently unused to displays of unrestrained ‘femininity’ among their women. One aching, and perhaps erstwhile, male chauvinist, for example, related his experience as follows:
Your hopeful sought a quiet seat in the grandstand. He may as well have located himself on a hornet’s nest. He had dropped amidst a bevy of lady barrackers, who were peaceable and pleasant until the rival teams entered the arena. Then the fun began…The lady barrackers became frenzied, and therefore unaccountable for their actions. (One lady screamed) ‘Go it, Monaghan dig into them!’ And, suiting the action to the word, she dug into your correspondent’s ribs with her sharp elbow joints.12
Collingwood children joined with their parents in the support of the C.F.C. In 1895 there were only two Junior Ticket holders in the Club, but by 1902 there were seventy-five; invariably local junior teams had an abundance of players, many of whom graduated to play as seniors with the C.F.C.13 As spectators, the children were no less enthusiastic than their mothers and elder sisters. It was reported from one of Collingwood’s games, for instance, that,
One imp of eight years old, sitting alongside his father…laid down the law of football, for the delectation of all in the vicinity, with a tone of authority on one occasion calling out, ‘He’s a —— mongrel that Shaw; I’d umpire better myself; he ought to have given Wood a free kick that time.’14
Sanctioned by the family, the status of Australian Rules in the Collingwood community was consolidated and perpetuated. Tradition, focused on the C.F.C., was indelibly etched in experience. As the notorious Lou Richards recalls, with an underlying sense and acceptance of the symbolism involved, ‘I was born into a Magpie family and reared in the Magpie nest…’15 The identification between Club and community was consummated in 1896, when the infant C.F.C. won its first premiership. ‘Captain Strickland and his team were the heroes of the hour and nothing else than the “glorious victory” was spoken of in the streets and the hotel bars—yea, even at the very church doors on Sunday morning!’16
The exaltation of the local response was striking both for its community spirit and for its Jingoistic echoes: ‘Deeds That Won The Premiership!’ ran one rejoicing headline in the local press. ‘We are happy. That is the people of Collingwood are happy. Have we not distinguished ourselves if not in the battle-field, in the football field? What more do we want?’17 In much the same way as Australia and the battle-field have often been connected (the idea of the nation as born at Gallipoli) so Collingwood and the football field seem to emerge together from the premiership year of 1896. And in all this, it is the rhetoric of Jingoism that contributes the language.
From somewhere within the notion of Collingwood as ‘Melbourne’s classic case of a suburb crippled from birth’,18 from an historical conditioning in inferiority, comes the life-line to the relationship that bound the people and the Club of Collingwood in a loving, and eventually dying, embrace. Local support of the Club was the medium by which a mainly vicarious yet none the less affecting satisfaction could be attained in the face of depressing objective reality. Truly, ‘…a win for the Club (meant) a win for Collingwood’.19 J.A. Hobson’s contemporary observations of Jingoism as ‘the passion of the spectator, the inciter, the backer…a collective…passion…’ with its ‘primitive lust which exults in the downfall and the suffering of an enemy…’20 are perfectly applicable: for the spirit of community in Collingwood was driven by a desperate quest for social recompense. As a local football poem expressed it:
May we trample and pound all (our) foes to the ground
And make merry at their despair.21
From one game of football to another; from the throes of birth to the throes of death. From a spirited performance in it first official senior game in May 1892, to a devastation of spirit in the 1970 grand final, the C.F.C. had traversed an increasingly oppressive historical landscape. A beginning of achievement, with eleven premierships in four decades, had given way to a steady decline, yielding only two premierships since 1936.
Collingwood, traditionally the League’s most successful Club, has emerged as a spent force in the post-World War Two year. Humiliation has replaced pride. Denied a basis in a successful on-field reality, the ‘Collingwood spirit’ has grown parasitic, living on the past in an increasingly transparent manner. Parody and ridicule fill the resultant vacuum: ‘How about that legendary Collingwood tradition and fighting spirit?’ now mocks, perhaps fittingly, an ex-Collingwood captain.22
Through the whole of Collingwood’s past a definite correlation existed between the on-field success of the C.F.C. and the potency of its community connection. The intimacy which was felt between Collingwood players and their supporting community resulted in the transposition of an everyday social familiarity onto the football ground, creating, in terms of the game, a winning team effort. As Taylor wrote in his chronicle of the Club, ‘Team spirit and discipline have been the real features of Collingwood’s success over the years. They have given clearances to good players, not because they were not good enough, but because they were not content to become part of the machine, preferring to plough a lone furrow…’23 Team and success, as the Club itself put it, were correlated to the pervasive awareness and understanding of, ‘…that one pregnant word, “Collingwood”’.24
For over fifty years C.F.C. teams were manned almost entirely by local Collingwood residents. By 1952, only a quarter of Collingwood’s senior players were locals, while a decade later, of the Club’s 34 new recruits, 22 came from Victorian country districts and one from Tasmania; of the Melbourne recruits, only four were from Collingwood. In 1974, not one player on the senior Collingwood list came from a traditional Collingwood background. It has been reliably estimated that of the total turnover of players in the C.F.C. over the last eight year, probably less than five per cent have been Collingwood residents.25 The tangible and immediately conspicuous link of ‘the local boy making the grade’ has dwindled to the point of disappearance in the Collingwood of the post-war era.
The players have changed, the people have changed. Over the whole of the pre-Second World War period, Collingwood’s population was overwhelmingly Anglo-Australian in derivation. In 1881 the population of Melbourne and its suburbs was 282,947, of whom 271,844 were British or Australian-born. In 1891, of the total Victorian population of 1,140,405, some 1,092,185 were British or Australian-born. The Victorian, and Collingwood, populations were rooted in a British cultural heritage, and, although the British-born element declined from 82 per cent of the Victorian population in 1854 to approximately 35 per cent in 1881, and then to as little as 6 per cent by 1947, its qualitative influence has been long lasting and far reaching.26
With regard to Australian Rules football in particular, a British cultural tradition of sports reverence ensured a rich reservoir of support.27 And it is interesting to note that the following, in the late colonial era, was self-consciously British:
‘A goal’, the frantic thousands yell
With healthy lungs and loud:
The sounds far o’er the suburbs swell —
A cheering British crowd!…
The Manly game shall ever hold
O’er Britons powerful sway.28
Furthermore, while the British-born component of the population declined, racial homogeneity was nevertheless maintained by a corresponding increase in the Australian-born percentage of the population: in 1947, 91.3 per cent of Victoria’s population was Australian-born, an unsurpassed level.29 Nationality and cultural homogeneity of this order, in Collingwood, provided both a foundation for the game and a stimulus towards community.
The contemporary Collingwood population, however, provides a stark contrast when compared with the old demographic contours: by 1971 40 per cent of the total Collingwood population was born outside the nationality perimeters familiar in the past. Collingwood’s Australian-born population of 11,543 in 1971 were closely followed by her overseas-born, who numbered 9,479 in that year. Yet even the simple numerical majority of Collingwood’s Australian-born needs to be qualified: almost half of her young Australian-born had one or both parents who were born elsewhere than in Australia or Britain.30
One consequence of this recent departure is evident among contemporary Collingwood’s primary school children, who graphically illustrate the wrench of demographic change. Within yards of the Victoria Park arena, the ‘hallowed’ ground of the ‘Collingwood spirit’, 85 per cent of the Victoria Park State School’s pupils are children from migrant backgrounds. In only one primary school in the Collingwood district do children from a migrant background constitute less than 70 per cent of the total enrolment.31 Collingwood’s past holds little for these children.
The very essence of the past in Collingwood was a hybrid ‘British-Australianness’; and it sanctified that ethos of community embodied in the C.F.C. Today, both those elements are alien to perhaps a majority of Collingwood people: not merely cultural tension, but almost a kind of cultural void, has resulted. The impression is confirmed by the ambivalence and indecisiveness encountered in a questionnaire circulated among 47 primary school children in Collingwood, 34 of whom were from migrant backgrounds. Most significantly, the questionnaire revealed a largely negative and subdued response to the whole sub-culture of Australian Rules football: 40 of the 47 children never, or only irregularly, discussed the game with their parents. One migrant boy spoke with his father about soccer, but not one of the migrant children reported Australian Rules to be a topic of family conversation. Clearly, Australian Rules presented itself to many of these children as an area of cultural contention and was, therefore, avoided wherever possible as an issue. Only 1 of the 47 children seemed to have been at all aware of the possibility that he was an heir to a Collingwood tradition; and he was a third generation Collingwood-Australian.
A further factor has also appeared in the demographic development of the area to militate against the continuity of a ‘Collingwood Spirit’. It is simply that Collingwood’s population has declined. In 1891, Collingwood’s total population was around 34,000; in 1971 it was only slightly more than 21,000. Since 1947, when it was 29,758, Collingwood’s population has decreased at an annual average rate of about -1.5 per cent.32 Thus, Collingwood’s post-War population has declined both qualitatively, with a loss of traditional homogeneity, and quantitatively, with a loss of numbers.
The C.F.C. is no longer representative of the Collingwood people. The Club to-day can no longer claim, as it once did, that it is founded on ‘…the policy of Collingwood for Collingwood residents’.33 Collingwood locals to-day, in general, neither play for the Club nor do they provide the backbone of the Club’s membership. The idealisation of ‘the local boy’ making the grade, and the apotheosis of ‘Collingwood-ness’, respected an amateur ideal; people in the past played for the Club and supported the Club because of their affection for Collingwood. The C.F.C. to-day has its existence in a professional milieu: ‘It must be remembered that our Club, besides being a prominent sporting body, is a huge business concern…’34 The old Collingwood community has been rent by the forces of an on-going industrial capitalism: the C.F.C. of modern times has succumbed to the demands of a sport inextricably entwined in modern capitalistic society. Either way, the ‘Collingwood spirit’ has lost out: it remains uncertain what will take its place.
Author Ross Topham lives, writes, and works on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
- Collingwood Centenary, 1855-1955 (Melbourne 1955), p. 56.
- Robert A. Nisbet, Community and Power (New York 1962), p. 23.
- C.F.C. Annual Report 1892; 1908 Electoral Rolls; Observer and Mercury, 1892 ff.
- Observer, 15 July 1897.
- Mercury, 12 May 1892.
- Collingwood Centenary, p. 56.
- Mercury, 12 May 1892.
- C.F.C. Annual Report, 1901, 1908 Electoral Roll.
- Jack Dyer, Captain Blood (London 1965), p. 22, pp. 98-99.
- Bernard Barrett, The Inner Suburbs: the Evolution of an Industrial Area. (Melbourne, 1971), p. 12.
- Mercury, 23 April 1897.
- Observer, 12 August 1897.
- C.F.C. Annual Report, 1892 et seq.
- Observer, 29 August 1895.
- Lou Richards, Boots And All, (London 1963 ), p. 12.
- Observer, 8 October 1896.
- B. Barrett, The Inner Suburbs, p. 8.
- Observer, 16 October 1896.
- See J. A. Hobson, The Psychology of Jingoism (London 1901 ), p. 9.
- Observer, 15 October 1896.
- Lou Richards in The Sun, 30 September 1970.
- Percy Taylor, The C.F.C., 1892 to 1948 (Melbourne 1948), p. 13.
- C.F.C. Annual Report, 1941.
- C.F.C. Annual Reports, passim. Estimate made by Mr Peter Lucas, General Secretary of the C.F.C.
- Following details from the Census of Victoria, 1881-1971.
- See N. Elias and E. Dunning (eds.), The Sociology of Sport (London 1971), chapters six and eight.
- Observer, 19 June 1902.
- Victorian Year Book, 1973.
- Census of Victoria, 1971.
- Collingwood Courier, 13 February 1974.
- Following details from the Census of Victoria, 1881-1971.
- C.F.C. Circular, 1933.
- C.F.C. Annual Report, 1952.