THE ORPHANAGE.

Len was born in 1908 in Elsternwick (Victoria) and was one of eight children. Life could not have been easy for the Len and the other children but any such difficulties were severely exacerbated when their mother ( Margaret ) died in 1918.
Following the death of Margaret, Len’s father (Albert) was forced to make a painful decision and , due to the existing family circumstances, placed Len and two of his brothers (Eric and Dan) in care at the St Vincent de Paul Orphanage in South Melbourne.

The orphanage was established some 160 years ago and played a significant role in providing shelter and succour to hundreds of underprivileged and destitute children in the city and the suburbs….

…established in a house in Prahran in 1854, the existing institution was founded in South Melbourne in 1855 by Fr. Gerald Ward (St Vincent de Paul Society), and began admitting Catholic orphan children in 1857. Children were provided with care, education and, upon reaching working age, an apprenticeship. The Sisters of Mercy took charge in 1861 and also managed the St Vincent de Paul Girls' Orphanage, built on an adjoining site in 1863-67. The boys' orphanage was transferred to the Christian Brothers in 1874. eMelbourne website. (2014).


St Vincent de Paul Girls' Orphanage - South Melbourne - MRiley 2014
St Vincent de Paul Girls' Orphanage - South Melbourne - MRiley 2014


It is recorded in Jim Main’s & David Allen book entitled ‘Fallen’ that Len lived at the orphanage until he was 18 years of age. ..

…with Len leaving in 1926 and Eric and Dan remaining until 1930, possibly the longest stays of any boys who went through the orphanage.



LEN MAKES THE LIST AT WINDY HILL.

Len was a natural athlete and his ability extended to running, cricket and football. He made his mark as a footballer at the Ascot Vale CYMS (Catholic Young Mens Society) and, in time, caught the eye of Essendon FC officials and he crossed to Windy Hill in 1929.

Len Johnson - 1932 Hoadleys Victorian League Footballers - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Len Johnson - 1932 Hoadleys Victorian League Footballers - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Len Johnson- 1929 Griffiths Black Crow Footballers- Source:Australian Rules Football Cards
Len Johnson- 1929 Griffiths Black Crow Footballers- Source:Australian Rules Football Cards


‘The Argus’ on the 22th April 1929 published the final playing list of Essendon FC for the coming season. Among the new recruits was ‘Johnson from Moonee Ponds’….

….Altogether, Essendon to a man is sanguine that the team will at least reach the finals. The committee reduced the training list to 36 on Saturday, and may still further reduce it by four or five during the week. The names of the players on the list are:-

OLD PLAYERS- Beckton, Campbell, Carman, Clarke, Dolan, Forbes, Gregory, Hammond, Hunter, Kidd, Martin, Nash, Okey, Parris, Quinn, Rennie, Simpson, Speakman, Vosti, Walsh, Watt, and Webster.

NEW PLAYERS-Cunningham, Irwin, Jenkin, Sarsfield, Watson, Williamson (all Essendon Juniors), Cross (Merbein), Gomez (Port Melbourne Juniors), McKenzie (Geelong), Johnson (Moonee Ponds), Payne (Hamilton), Ogden (Northcote C.Y.M.S.) and Taylor (Keilor).


In 1929 the coach of Essendon was Charlie Hardy and some of the better known players of the Essendon team included Norm Beckton, Harry Hunter, Keith Forbes, Howard Okey, Jack Vosti and Garnet Campbell.

Len (Back Row far left) - The Australiasian 29-Jun-1929 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection
Len (Back Row far left) - The Australiasian 29-Jun-1929 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection


Len made his debut against Carlton at Princes Park and played at full forward. Carlton won by eleven goals but Len did well on debut and kicked three of Essendon’s eight goals.

Source: vfl on film 09:45
Source: vfl on film 09:45


NINE GOALS AGAINST FOOTSCRAY.


In his second VFL outing against Footscray at Windy Hill, Len took the game by the ‘scruff of the neck’ and kicked nine goals to lead the Dons to a narrow victory by eight points.

It must have been an exciting and entertaining match to witness. Footscray’s Alby Morrison starred at the other end of the ground with five goals. The final scores were: Essendon 17.10 (112) defeated Footscray 16.8 (104).

Later in that season, Len kicked five against Collingwood and in Round: 16 he notched six goals against South Melbourne. Len played 13 senior games for Essendon in 1929 and kicked 40 goals in what could be described as an ‘imposing start’ to his VFL career. Len tied in the club’s goal kicking award with the elusive and shrewd rover Keith Forbes.

Len’s tally of 40 goals was scored from only 13 games as he missed matches due to a serious arm injury. Essendon finished in 6th position on the VFL Ladder.

Note: In 1929 Gordon Coventry created VFL history when he became the first player to kick 100 goals in a season. It was an extraordinary year for the Magpies as Albert Collier won the Brownlow Medal and the club won the flag.

In 1930-31 Len consolidated his position as a rover-half forward for Essendon.

Essendon Senior Team c1932 - Source: ScoreboardPressure - Photographer Unknown
Essendon Senior Team c1932 - Source: ScoreboardPressure - Photographer Unknown


SELECTED FOR THE VFL AGAINST THE VFA.


In June 1931 Len was selected as the 19th man for the VFL team in a charity match against the VFA on the King’s Birthday weekend. Len’s team mate from Essendon Howard Okey was named in the centre and other VFL identities included Reg Hickey ( Geelong), Gordon & Syd Coventry ( Collingwood), Jack Titus ( Richmond) , Basil McCormack ( Richmond) and Alan Hopkins ( Footscray). The VFL ran out comfortable winners by 62 points. Jack Titus kicked five goals for the VFL while Basil McCormack and Harold Rumney ( Collingwood) were named as the ‘ best players afield.’

Although Len Johnson failed to be mentioned in the press report of the game he is shown in the team photograph next to Howard Okey in the front row.

Len was in most distinguished company that day and his selection in that strong VFL team was a sign that he was recognised, by the football judges of that era, as a player of some calibre.

VFL Team in Dark Blue - Australasian 1931 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection - Photographer Unknown
VFL Team in Dark Blue - Australasian 1931 - Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection - Photographer Unknown

Back Row: Joe Kelly, Harold Matthews, Bert Foster, Charlie Davey, Reg Hickey, Gordon Coventry, ((Len Metherell, Alan Hopkins, Bill Spurling, Harold Rumney, Basil McCormack
Front Row: Charles Cameron, Jack Titus, Syd Coventry , Arthur Batchelor, Ted Poole, Len Johnson, Howard Okey, Bill Tymms

Note: A comprehensive article about the game written by Michael Riley can be found on this website. The match report, scores and numerous photographs of that historic game give an excellent insight into the importance of football in the lives of people in those dark days of the Great Depression.

LEN LEAVES WINDY HILL AS THE ‘KING’ ARRIVES.


In 1932-33 Len picked up Brownlow votes in matches and won praise for his goal kicking….

“…eventually gravitated to a half forward flank and shared roving duties with Forbes….In Forbes and Johnson, Essendon not only had two brilliant rovers , but both were devastating close to goal.”


In 1933 Len played only three games with Essendon before seeking a clearance to North Melbourne. His last game, his 64th for the Dons, was against South Melbourne at Windy Hill. In the Essendon team that day was a 17 year old boy named Richard Sylvannus Reynolds. Time would reveal that ‘Dick’ would become one of the greatest footballers in the long history of Australian football and he was to be later crowned, by his adoring fans, as ‘King Richard.’

The Age 5-Jul-1933 p7
The Age 5-Jul-1933 p7


Len played just five games with the ‘Shinboners’ before stepping down from VFL football. He was only 25 years of age when he departed the NMFC. In all, he had played 69 VFL games and booted 88 goals. However, his days as a league footballer were only part of a bigger and more intriguing journey that would see him travel him to NSW, country Victoria, Tasmania and New Guinea.

Len (Third from left) - Table Talk 20-Jul-1933 p32 - Caroon by Dick Ovenden
Len (Third from left) - Table Talk 20-Jul-1933 p32 - Caroon by Dick Ovenden


MID WEEK & SATURDAY MORNING FOOTBALL.


A passing reference is made in one text that Len played for the Fire Brigade in the Mid-week FL and that he also played in the Saturday Morning Industrial League.

Argus 10-May-1932 p10
Argus 10-May-1932 p10


It is difficult to discover more about Len’s involvement in those leagues but it was not uncommon for VFL players to ‘double-up’ with other ‘minor league’ teams that existed in and around Melbourne during those years.

This website provides plenty of valuable background information about the teams and the personalities in what was called the ‘Wednesday League.’

The Fire Brigade and the Railways were consistently strong teams in that competition. Other teams included the Waterside Workers, Police, Argus/Press, Post & Telegraph, Yellow Cabs, Postal Employees and a team known as the Victoria Market.

Len Johnson’s teammate and, later coach of Essendon FC, Garnet Campbell was one of the well-known personalities who played midweek football. Two other VFL celebrities’ that took part in the league were the legendary Jack Dyer and South Melbourne’s strong man Peter Reville.

The Wednesday League had a supporter base of about 11,000 fans. Mid-week football was a powerful distraction to the destitution created by the scarcity of jobs in those harrowing times.

In 1932 ‘The Argus’ reported the Fire Brigade’s 20 point victory over the Post & Telegraph team.
The scores were: Fire Brigade 12.15. (87) defeated Telegraph 9.13.(67).

Although there is no mention of Len Johnson in the match report, his teammates from Essendon, Garnet Campbell and Keith Forbes were listed among the goal kickers and best players for the ‘brigade.

It is known that the league disbanded in 1934. ‘The Boyles Football Photos’ website states….

The Wednesday League was a Melbourne based inter-workplace league. The league contained a number of teams with unionised workplaces. This factor caused major disruption to the league with the entry of a police team in 1926 due to the use of police in strikebreaking activities. The top teams during the life of the competition were the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Railways teams.

The competition ended in 1934 for a variety of reasons including the loss of the fire brigade team, a competition mainstay and disputes over player eligibility, as clubs struggled to find players.


The Saturday Morning Industrial League was founded in 1927 and records are sketchy. Little is known about Len’s time in this league and wider research is required to establish how many games he actually played.

In the period 1927-1937, the ‘Victoria Brewery’ won five premierships, the ‘Dunlop’ factory team won three and ‘Laygols’ won three SMIL flags.

Note: ‘Laygols’ was a team representing a local shoemaker by the same name.

PROFESSIONAL RUNNING.

Like numerous other footballers, Len turned his attention to professional running during the summer months. Len had limited success in middle distance and quarter-mile running. The Essendon District FL website highlights Len’s victory in a half-mile handicap at the Showgrounds in 1930.Mention is also made that Len travelled to Stawell for some years to compete in the 440 yards running events. In 1931 he was placed third in that event but . ..

His biggest athletics purse was 13 pounds for finishing second in a 440 yards event -the Pleasant Creek Handicap in 1932.- EDFL website.


Clarrie Hearn - 1933 Hoadleys Victorian Footballers - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Clarrie Hearn - 1933 Hoadleys Victorian Footballers - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Other VFL footballers who took to the running track with great success at Stawell and other ‘gift’ meetings in those times included Clarrie Hearn ( Essendon), Bill Twomey b1899 (Collingwood), Jack Grant (Geelong/Fitzroy) and Ron McCann (Collingwood).

Examination of the Stawell Gift runners in that era reveals that one of Len’s team mates at Essendon was Clarrie Hearn. Clarrie played at Essendon from 1929-1935 and, like Len Johnson, was a dashing player with great pace. The day that Clarrie made his debut for Essendon against Richmond in Round: 3 1929, Len was playing his third VFL match. When Len played his last game at EFC in 1933, Clarrie was in that team.

During their careers Len and Clarrie played some 60 games together. Clarrie went on to play 92 games with Essendon FC. There may be a direct connection between the two footballers and perhaps professional running was a ‘tie that bound’ Len and Clarrie. Clarrie won the Stawell gift in 1929.

Perhaps Clarrie had been a training partner of Len’s… who really knows but football friendships do cross many boundaries?

Note: In ‘Fallen’ there is a striking photo-study of Len and his brother (Eric) posing in their running gear.

LEN LEAVES CITY LIFE BEHIND.


After stepping down from NMFC it is known that Len left the city and coached Griffith FC in NSW and then later transferred to Nhill FC.

Perhaps the hard times, caused by the worsening economic conditions throughout Australia, were a catalyst for Len to ‘go bush.’ The Wall Street crash of 1929 had taken a massive toll on the Australian workforce and it is stated that the unemployment rate in Australia in 1933 was nudging 27%.

In addition, severe financial problems had beset some VFL football clubs in that period, including North Melbourne, where Len had played in 1933…

North Melbourne, one of the three newcomers to the League in 1925 had real financial problems during the 1930’s …In 1931 it could manage to pay its players only £1.5 shillings per match…” Sandercock & Turner ‘Up Where Cazaly?’


It is known that many footballers went to country football clubs for financial reasons in that era. The legendary Roy Cazaly is said to have been paid £12.0.0 per week to coach Minyip around that time and as ‘Ern’ in Wendy Lowenstein’s book ‘Weevils in the Flour’ said…

During the depression time you could earn a bob out of sport if you were good enough and there were a lot of people trying to do it because they couldn’t earn a bob anywhere else.


Len was certainly ‘good enough’ and perhaps Griffith was a ‘smart choice’ in those harsh and desperate years of the depression


COACHING IN NEW SOUTH WALES.


Murrumbidgee Irrigator 24-May-1935 p2
Murrumbidgee Irrigator 24-May-1935 p2


In 1935 Len was appointed coach at Griffith FC. The Griffith Swans archives offer a substantial amount of information about Len and his time at GFC…

In an effort to improve the standard of football, Griffith link up with Leeton and Narrandera. Former Essendon forward Len Johnson appointed Griffith coach, recruited from Nhill. Narrandera East beat Griffith in semi-final…


According to the records of the Griffith FC, the club was affiliated with the Leeton District Football Association in that season. Len’s tenure as coach was only for nine matches (May 26th 1935- July 28th 1935) and in that time the club won five games. It is believed that the club finished third in a competition consisting of six teams with a percentage of 112.25%.

In the Semi-Final which was played at Narrandera Sportsground on the 28th July, Narrandera East 6.5.41 defeated Griffith 5.8.38. Len Johnson was named the best player for Griffith in that close encounter.

Alf Anstee won the Griffith FC’s Best & Fairest trophy in 1935. In the review of the season in 1935 Len received praise for the team’s improved performances that season…

In an endeavour to build up its team the Griffith club this season engaged a coach, Len Johnson, a former Essendon player, and as a result of his coaching there has been a marked improvement in the team's play.


In 1936 former VFL footballer Norm Le Brun was appointed coach of Griffith FC. ( See footnotes). Norm had previously played with four VFL clubs between the years 1929-35… South Melbourne (3 games),Essendon (23 games),Collingwood (19 games) and Carlton (5 games). It is interesting that Norm had been a team mate of Len Johnson at Essendon in 1931 and 1932.

The Griffith FC archives show that Len Johnson did not play with the club again after the final game of the 1935 season.

1936~COACHING AT NHILL.


In February 1936, ‘The Nhill Free Press’ reported that …

The President E.J. Pope favoured the appointment of an outside playing coach and if one were appointed he was prepared to give him free board at the Union Hotel. The motion (outside playing coach be appointed) was carried unanimously.


In the same newspaper on the 19th March 1936, it is recorded that Len was chosen above two other applicants for the coaching position at Nhill FC. That season Nhill won only three games and lost nine but still finished fourth on the ladder with a percentage of only 79%.

Note: There were only five teams in the Mid Wimmera FL that year… Jeparit, Dimboola, Murtoa, Minyip and Nhill
In the First Semi Final that season, Murtoa 17.17.119 defeated Nhill 13.12.90.

According to Nhill historian Jeff Muller, Len played in nine or ten games and featured prominently in the best players and goal kickers. Len polled a vote in the M-WFL Best & Fairest award that season.

‘Main & Allen,’ states that Len was reported in a match against Dimboola and, although found ‘guilty of the striking charge,’ he was offered a suspended sentence.

It is known that Round:12 was postponed because of floods and in the last home and away match against Jeparit Len did not take the field.

Horsham Times 2-Oct-1936 p8
Horsham Times 2-Oct-1936 p8


PORT MELBOURNE

Len played three games for Port Melbourne in 1937 in a brief stay between May and june and he was cleared back to Nhill. Len scored two goals in his first match but otherwise failed to make an impact.

Argus 26-May-1937 p14
Argus 26-May-1937 p14


OFF TO THE APPLE ISLE.

In 1938 Len took charge of Longford FC in the North Tasmanian Football Association. It can be assumed that he was successful during that season as he was reappointed as coach for the following year.

Examiner Launceston 20-Apr-1938 p2
Examiner Launceston 20-Apr-1938 p2


In the ‘Examiner’s’ report under the banner ‘WILL RETURN AS COACH’, Len is given kudos for the team’s on-field progress …

Johnson's Success at Longford…The N.T.F.A. was informed last night that Len Johnson, coach of Longford, was prepared to coach the side again next year. The committee congratulated Longford on the manner in which it had adhered to its agreement during the season and on the improvement shown by the team. Mr. D. G. Burke (Longford) said the Longford club committee was well satisfied with the progress made during the season, and would be prepared to join the association next year. He attributed the team's improved playing ability to the fine coaching of Johnson. - ‘Launceston Examiner’...13th September 1938.


Len coached LFC again in 1939 (as shown above) and was also re-appointed to lead the club in 1940. An article in the ‘Examiner’ in March (1940) points to the fact that the team’s poor performances were largely a result of a serious outbreak of influenza during that season. A sizeable photograph of Len accompanied the story…

Coach L. A.Johnson has been appointed coach of the Longford Football Club for the 1940 season. Johnson is now in Melbourne, but will return to Tasmania soon to prepare for his third season with Longford …. The annual report of the Longford Club is to be presented at the annual meeting to-morrow night in the Druids' Hall…..Recording that the club was lowest on the premiership list last season, the report states that but for a severe epidemic of influenza among the players of L. A. Johnson era at a critical period, Longford would have been in a better position…..The report records the fine services rendered to the club by the coach, Len Johnson…


Note: Longford FC did not win a premiership in the period 1924-55. However according to ‘Main & Allen’ ….

Johnson spent three years at Longford and took the Tigers from the depths of Northern Tasmanian Association to runners-up in his final season in charge 1940.


There is evidence that Len represented NTA in several representative matches.

1940 was the last season the 32 year old Len would play or coach football. As history shows, the horrible conflagration of WW:II throughout Europe, Africa and the Pacific would take Len and thousands of other Australians, further afield.

Examiner Launceston 12-Mar-1940 p5
Examiner Launceston 12-Mar-1940 p5


PRIVATE LEN JOHNSON DIES IN MALAYA.

JohnsonPhoto-ahfc.org.au
JohnsonPhoto-ahfc.org.au
It wasn’t long after the end of the 1940 football season that Len joined the Australian Army. The World War 2 Nominal Roll shows that Len (Service No: VX50877) enlisted at Carlton on the 10th March 1941.

Len’s brother Eric ‘joined-up’ around the same time and after basic military training the two brothers were stationed in Malaya.

In less than one year after signing on for duty, Len was killed in a freakish accident when a brick wall, that was being demolished, crashed on top of him. His death, which occurred on January 24th 1942, was reported in several newspapers including the ‘Launceston Examiner’…

FORMER LONGFORD COACH KILLED…Private Len A. Johnson, 32, formerly of St. Kilda and well known in football and athletics in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales has been killed in Malaya. The late Private Johnson played League football for many years with Essendon and subsequently coached the Longford team in Tasmania and the Nhill team in Victoria. In addition, he took an active Interest in running. On several occasions he was successful in events at Stawell. He enlisted early last year with the 4th Motor Transport Reserve A.I.F. and left for Malaya almost immediately. A brother, Eric, was with him when he was killed and a second brother, Harry, is at present in the Middle East.


Another Tasmanian newspaper ‘The Hobart Mercury’ reported Len’s death slightly differently and it is also worthwhile to place on record…

…The death is reported on active service of Leslie Albert (Len) Johnson, who some years ago was member of the Essendon Football Club and coached the Longford (Tasmania) team from 1938 to 1940. He has two brothers in the A.I.F. Johnson was formerly a good runner, over sprint distances. While In Tasmania he played in representative football for Northern Tasmania against Tasmanian League, North-Western Union and visiting teams. He enlisted in Melbourne, and took a leading part in army sport in Malaya as captain of his unit's football, cricket and athletic teams.


At the time of his death, Len was a private in the 4th Reserve Motor Transport Company.

Len’s death was in the chaos of the final weeks of the two month Malayan campaign. The Australians were in the middle of a hasty retreat. Just a week after Len’s death, the British led forces, including his brother Eric, retreated to the island of Singapore, which quickly fell in one of the greatest Allied defeats in the Second World War. This defeat sent thousands of surrendering soldiers into POW camps.

Eric was understandably devastated by the death of his brother. It is known that Eric became a POW and was later incarcerated by the Japanese in the infamous Changi Prison Camp. Len’s other brother (Harry) returned home after the end of the war from the Middle East. Needless to say the Johnson family was never the same in many ways…how could they be?

A final note about the sad loss of Len is left to ‘Main & Allan’ explain….

Private Leslie Albert Johnson has no known grave although his name is engraved at the Singapore Memorial at the Kranji War Cemetery, 22 kilometres north of the s city of Singapore.


THE LEN JOHNSON-HAROLD PARKER ANZAC DAY MEDAL.

Len was one of about fifty VFL footballers who died on active service during World War II. However due to the actions of the Avondale Football Club, Len Johnson’s name continues to live on in suburban football.

In 2012 the Avondale Heights FC, in conjunction with the Aberfeldie FC, decided to present an Anzac Day medal to the best player in the annual Anzac Day fixture between the two local clubs ….

The AHFC website clearly explains the rationale of the behind the striking of the medal…

''Our club wanted to name a best afield medal after a war veteran who may have had some things in common with current EDFL players. A player with a link to the local area, who played in the local football competition and who strived to play football at the highest level (VFL at the time). Following an exhaustive process which included research and consultation with RSL Victoria, we settled on naming the medal after two veterans. At the completion of this process, the name of the medal to be awarded to the best player afield for the Anzac Day match each year was announced as the Johnson-Parker Anzac Day medal, named after Len Johnson and Harold Parker……The inaugural Anzac Day match between the Avondale Heights Football Club and the Aberfeldie Football Club also included the presentation of the Anzac Day Cup for the winning team. The winning team would hold the cup until the following season.

The Johnson-Parker Anzac Day Medal is awarded to the player in the match who best exemplifies the Anzac Spirit… Skill-Courage-Self-Sacrifice-Teamwork-Fair Play…”


As the above extract from Avondale Heights FC records shows, Len was a ‘true local hero.’
Len Johnson’s name is also to be found on the Honour Board at the St Vincent de Paul’s Orphanage …and deservedly so.



FOOTNOTES:
1. Harold Parker was a Second Lieutenant in the 37th Infantry Battalion. Harold died of his wounds in a Bavarian Field Hospital as a POW on 30th January 1917. Harold played three games with St Kilda in 1911.

2. Norm Le Brun, who had played with Len at Essendon and succeeded Len as the coach of Griffith FC, also died on active duty during World War :II. Trooper Le Brun died on November 15th 1944 in New Guinea.

3. Longford FC has produced a ‘quality batch’ of VFL footballers over the years
including Terry Cashion ( South Melbourne) Paul Vinar ( Geelong), Barry Lawrence ( St Kilda) and Michael Roach ( Richmond).

4. The Longford FC club is currently affiliated with the Tasmanian Amateur Football League.

5. It is difficult to find whether any other boys from the St Vincent De Paul played VFL football. It may be that Len was the only boy from the orphanage, in that era, to play VFL. More research is needed to establish this fact definitely.

6. According to staff ( July 2014) at the MacKillop Family Services Heritage and Information Service, there is a display of stories and sporting memorabilia available to view if people are interested in the history of the orphanage.


THE END