Football has always been more than what happened on the field. Ken's story about memories from 1950's Camberwell shows just how much life has changed. Today with TV, magazines and the Internet, we are bombarded with images and choices, but the 1950's were a different time, and the value of Footy cards was much more than the dollars. They were a direct connection into another world.
My parents moved into Number 40 Bellett Street in 1945, three years after their marriage. The street ran south from Riversdale Road and linked up with Camberwell Road near Bowen Street and the Camberwell Oval. Bellett Street was not a prestigious address.
Most of the houses were rundown, single-fronted, Edwardian places. It was a lower-middle-class enclave in a middle-class suburb. Bellett Street marked some sort of architectural boundary on the eastern fringes of Camberwell. Beyond was the more recently developed area of Californian bungalows called ‘The Golf Links Estate’. Many years later I learned Barry Humphries had grown up there.
Dad and Mum were respectable lower middle-class. Dad was a self-employed draftsman/engineer (heating and ventilating ) and worked long hours at home on his drawing board in the dining room. My parents struggled to make ends meet. In 1951 we acquired an Austin A40 and no longer had to walk through our neighbour's garden to Stodart Street and Willison station.
I had lots of friends in the neighborhood. They would join my brother and I after school to re-occupy our territory at the corner of Bellett Street and Nelson Road. There were few cars then. You were more likely to get bowled over by a horse.
In the days before supermarkets, everything seemed to get delivered to us by horse and cart. Men from Wales Brothers came right into our kitchen with the blocks for our ice chest. Bellett and Cook delivered the milk to our door. Our bread came the same way. No wonder we were always dodging manure.
My brother and I spent hours on the corner. If we were not climbing the trees we were using the telegraph pole with the War Loans sign as a batsman's wicket. I was a normal healthy little seven-year-old. But from an early age I had shown a disturbing proclivity for disobedience. I could accept being forbidden to play in the street on the sabbath but there were some instructions I could not accept.
I definitely had a problem when it came to food. My mother went to so much trouble to feed us. But whenever we had stew or casserole for dinner I would simply refuse to eat it. Terrible scenes ensued. If I had not managed to swallow any of the ghastly stuff by midnight my father rubbed my face in it and I was sent to bed in disgrace. And I would invariably turn up my nose at the sandwiches in my school lunch.
I was also starting to question my mother's wisdom generally. As I was to discover, a mother's wisdom is not to be sneezed at
One morning in the winter of 1953, my mother was preparing me for school. The wireless was on. Jo Stafford singing
Look round the corner ooh ee
Look round the berry tree
Look round the corner look round the bush
Looking for Henry Lee.
The wireless was always on. My parents listened to serious programs like 'Voice of the Voyager' and funny programs like The Bunkhouse Show ( brought to you by Bonnington's Irish Moss ) and 'Dad and Dave'. After school I listened religiously to The Argonauts on the ABC and a host of serials on 3AW: Hop Harrigan, Captain Silver, Tarzan, Biggles, Superman, and Dick Tracey.
My mother kept the wireless on all day as she did the housework. Moving round the house with the Hoover and listening to the pop songs of the era. I got to know all the tunes: “There's a Pawn Shop on a Corner in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania”, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”, “She Wears Red Feathers and a Hula Hula Skirt”, “Walking my Baby back Home”, “Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen”, “I Love Paris”.
Kenny, my mother said, sounding even more stern and authoritative than usual. I don’t want you to take your footy cards to school.
But Mummy. I have to swap with Ron Peck. Ron Peck's got twenty cards he wants to swap. Yesterday I told him I'd bring mine to school.
You are very silly if you do, Kenny. I bet you lose them.
I betcha I don’t lose them, I said.
This was a morning after yet another fight over food. I had been up to midnight with my face in the stew. More emotional anguish lay in store. Whenever I threw my squashy tomato and vegemite sandwiches in the school rubbish bin, I would feel so horribly guilty afterwards.
Not nearly so guilty as I was to feel about my footy cards. I should have listened to my mother but all I could think about was Ron Peck's swaps.
Are you going to eat your sandwiches today?
Are you going to bring home your footy cards?
Put them in this paper bag, she said.
Footy cards were a new obsession. I had moved on from my train set, my Meccano set, and my Dinky cars. Even my toy koala, beloved 'Wo Wo', lay discarded. Comics did not last long either. We were bombarded by comics. My first heroes were all American fantasies: Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Pluto, Superman, Plastic Man, and The Phantom. The Argus newspaper had Brick Bradford, Ginger Meggs, Raddish, Rip Kirby, Chesty Bond, Garth, Joe Palooka, and Julia Jones. All of these were superceded by the real heroes I discovered with my breakfast cereal.
In the very early fifties, my father would occasionally take the tram to Hawthorn, and then walk to the Glenferrie Oval, to see the hapless local VFL team - Hawthorn - receive another thumping. Hawthorn lost every match in 1950. Sometime in 1951 or 1952 my father began taking me to some of the Hawthorn home games. He remarked that the Glenferrie ground was like a sardine tin.
There were several ways of getting into the ground. The most exciting way was to come through the turnstiles in the tunnel under the railway line on the southern side of the ground. You then had to sit in the elevated but narrow little outer along the rail line and put up with the trains clacketty-clacking past you every half an hour. Or you could come in from Glenferrie Road and stand in the outer section behind the goals at the eastern end. This was great. You saw a lot of the play when Hawthorn were defending the outer goal.
I loved hearing the crisp cracking sound made when Len Crane, the Hawthorn full back, kicked off. A big booming drop-kick every time, to a far-off pack on the wing. My father would point out some of the players to me. At a match between Hawthorn and Carlton, he pointed to one and said That's Chooka Howell. On another occasion, Hawthorn were playing Fitzroy at Glenferrie. This time we were sitting on the railway wing. Pointing to 1950 Brownlow Medallist Ruthven, my father exclaimed That's the Baron!.
But I never really got very close to those VFL footballers. The Camberwell footballers were different. They played just down the end of our street. In 1946, as I was crawling around on the floor at 40 Bellett Street, Camberwell came within a whisker of winning its first VFA ( Association ) premiership – pipped in the electric last moments of one of the VFA’s all-time classic grand-finals by a fast-finishing, super-fit Sandringham outfit.
During the 1930’s, Camberwell had paid out a fortune to procure some of the biggest-ever names in Australian Rules Football to play at the club: Harry and Albert Collier; Roy Cazaly and Laurie Nash.
The club entered the fifties still with a string of champions – Frank Stubbs, Cec Ruddell, Ted Jarrard and Jimmy Bohan – but its fortunes – on and off the field - had begun to decline. From down the bottom of Nelson Road you could clearly see the top of the Camberwell Grandstand in Camberwell Road. On Saturday afternoons, at least before VFA crowds began to dwindle somewhat in the mid-fifties, you could hear the roar coming over the tops of the houses from Bowen Street, and, if Camberwell had won, you would very likely encounter a rowdy, exultant group striding along Bellett Street singing the praises of the long-kicking Bohan.
These were the days when the VFA was still sufficiently important to warrant its own breakfast-cereal cards and newspaper badges. The Argus had produced little tin badges of Camberwell players Cec Ruddell and Frank Stubbs. Kornies had produced swap cards of Camberwell stalwarts Sharples, McIvor, Bohan, Stubbs and Rochford. I made no distinction at all between the VFL and the VFA. For a while I even picked out Oakleigh as my favourite team because they had the most striking colours.
The school day began just like any other school day. As usual, like the proper little WASP I was, I kept well away from Our Lady of Victories in Reserve Road. (You assiduously avoided the catholic kids with the strange dark skin). Everyone stood to attention and saluted the flag. We all marched into class with the big bass drum booming in our ears. We warmed our hands on the bar heaters at the back of the room and put our schoolbags on the floor. We drank our little bottle of milk and put 2/6d in our bank books.
At morning playtime Hobson and I, for maybe the one-hundredth time, pushed and wrestled with one another and finished up forming a disheveled heap on the asphalt. Further in the playground, a group of bloodthirsty little monsters, not for the first time, harried and bullied poor Michael Herman. ''Herman the German’’ they chanted mindlessly.
In those days, fear played a big part in school discipline. Headmaster Mr Taylor had a very thick strap but his terror paled beside Miss Mulhall. Miss Mulhall was our Grade Two teacher. The most obvious thing about her was that she had no arms. More accurately, her arms finished at the elbow. She wrote on the blackboard with her stumps and she threw chalk with her stumps. Whenever a piece of chalk went whizzing past your ear, you knew that Miss Mulhall had spotted you talking to someone. With thirty-nine children in the class, it was important to instill fear. Most of the boys drew Spitfires and Messerschmitts behind the teachers back. Or Cowboys and Indians. Ray Sutton, Ron Peck and I drew footballers.
We had just finished listening to an ABC 'School of the Air' broadcast beamed out of the loudspeaker in the corner of the classroom. Miss Mulhall had turned to the blackboard. Ray Sutton, Ron Peck and I had our footy cards out straight away. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Bruce Brain had somehow knocked over his ink well. We all jumped out of our seats. Nib pens and blotting paper flew. Footy cards went everywhere.
I expected Miss Mulhall to race to the spot and confiscate them. (Later, I wished she had). Instead she screamed at me:
Kenneth Mansell! Put those little pieces of paper in your schoolbag!.
I scurried about under the desks, under all the legs, picking up the cards under the great big heavy legs of Bruce Peake and Darrell Shakes, under the skinny legs of Robert Wilson, under the middle-sized legs of Roger Lee, ‘Bombhead’ Watkins, Terry Sargent, Bruce Taylor, Terence Manson and Douglas Mudie…and under the dresses of Helen Vaughan, Gail Thornton, Sandra Baguley and Susan Wakefield.
I put the cards very carefully back in my school bag - into the paper bag my mother had provided.
The lunchtime bell rang. I contemplated another hungry and guilty afternoon. ‘Squashy bananas again' I muttered. Reaching into the schoolbag for my Mother's carefully-prepared brown paper bag, I tossed - what I was certain were bananas - into the rubbish tin.
And then the long, guilty walk home.
My mother was waiting at the front door:
Did you eat your lunch today Kenny?
Yes, of course I did Mummy
What about your footy cards? Still got 'em?
Of course I have Mummy! In my school-bag here.
Oh dear! Only a few seconds passed before the awful truth was revealed.
You didn't eat your lunch! Your sandwiches are still here!
Today I live far from Camberwell, but over the years my love of football, first sparked in that suburb, has never faded. When I look at the old Camberwell cards and the team photos from the 1950’s, the memories of school lunches and the roar of the crowd are never far away.