Finding the Toolangi Football Club
by Bernie Miller
From the time I became involved in the history project in 2020, the Toolangi Football Club was mentioned by a number of locals. There were conflicting ideas of where and when the team played, almost 70 years ago. Some thought the home ground might have been the Toolangi Recreation Reserve. Unlike the Toolangi Cricket Club and the Tennis Club, the club had not lasted over a long period and apparently emerged and then disappeared in the early 1950s. Football commentator Paul Daffy contends that 1945-1965 was the golden era of country football in Victoria. ‘Then people began driving to Melbourne to see VFL games, the size of families began to decline and the number of families in rural areas declined’ (Daffy, 2017).
In an interview that C.J. Dennis (‘Den’) had with a journalist for the Sydney Sunday Times (1913), he mentioned a local football team in his account of coming to live in Toolangi.
Was almost a physical wreck when I came to Toolangi. Have since become expert axeman and inured to many forms of physical toil. Also, captain of local football club, and something of a tennis player and cricketer. In short, youth has been resurrected by the mountain air and the simple life.
This suggests that there was probably at least one earlier local football team over Toolangi’s history, although Dennis’ team may have played social matches only.
In his memories of Toolangi, Alec Sewell (1992) recalls that:
Toolangi had sporadic stabs at Australian football. The deterrent to steady participation stems from the early days, when if a man was injured, that was his bad luck and he and his family were in danger of going hungry. At the age of nine (1918-1919) I witnessed our first and last match for many years. The team came from the sawmills and was massacred by a team of Glenburn farmers.
This may have been the team that ‘Den’ captained, as he came to Toolangi in 1908.
During my wider history research, I was advised to ring several different people who might have historical photos relevant to the Toolangi-Castella district. One person mentioned was Don Walker, now in his 80s, who lived in Lilydale. Don had married Jessie, from the Toolangi Priestley family and, in a subsequent phone call, he told me he had a number of Jessie’s old Toolangi photos and would sort through them. He gave these to his next-door neighbour, Wayne Waters, to scan and Wayne sent them to me. Within this small collection, to my delight, was a photo of the Toolangi Football Club.
Local legend had it that the team had only survived a year or so and nobody was sure where they played, so I began sending the photo to some of the older residents. People sent the photo on to others and David Pockett posted it on the ‘Growing up in Healesville’ Facebook page. Through these efforts we have now accumulated a little of the history of the club. Sincere thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, especially Bill McNulty, Cliff McLaine, Dennis (Herb) Cherry and David Pockett for their work in identifying these players 70 years on, and to Ali Down (Pauline Crerar) for further information on the formation of the team.
The club colours were maroon and grey and Herb Cherry can remember his mother washing the team jumpers in her copper, at their Castella home, near the Cherry mill. While Herb’s father didn’t play, clearly the local community supported the team. The Toolangi football ground was actually in Castella, not Toolangi, at the north end of Toscano’s property in Castella Road, bordering Campbells Creek Road and the Yea River. In 1952 and 1953, when the club operated, this was Stan Pearce’s dairy farm and Stan is in the photo, third from the left in the front row. We now have names for all of the players and staff in the photo.
Further information on the formation of the Toolangi football team came to hand in an interview in September 2021, with eighty-one-year-old Ali Down, formerly Pauline Crerar, long-time resident of Toolangi. While supporting Ethel Carroll of Castella in a home support role many years ago, Ethel told her stories of the formation of the Toolangi football team, initiated by her late husband Horrie (Horace Carroll). Ethel told Ali of Horrie Carroll’s role in starting the team and his expectation of support and involvement by his wife. He had Ethel making pies for the game each week and a number of other responsibilities, including washing the football jumpers after the match. Fortunately, the Cherrys were close neighbours, so sometimes Mrs Cherry helped Ethel with the washing. Ethel told Ali ‘The only thing he didn’t ask me to do was join the team’. She related that Horrie found difficulty recruiting players, because of the spread of the district, the remoteness of the area and the competing local sports of tennis and cricket, so he went around the mills recruiting. Ethel told her that half of the original side were indigenous players who worked at the mills, because, as Horrie opinioned, the indigenous players loved Australian Rules football. (Down, 2021)
Back row from left: Jim Milner (father of two players), Geoff Pollard, Bobby Mills, Geoff Bootham, Harold Banks (with coat), Jim Milner, Peter Milner, Alan (Curly) Anderson, Col Armond (coach), Keith McLaine.
Middle row from left: Brian Dempsey, Jim Kennedy, Fred Lee, Frank McNulty, Johnny Terrick, Roy Harrison, Billy Hughes.
Bottom row from left: Gregory McVeigh, Tommy Matherson, Stan Pearce (owner of the football ground), Tommy Mullins, Teddy Mullins, Eric Harrison, Dick Watson.
Photographer may be Horrie Carroll.
To find more on the team I began researching the football websites of the Yarra Valley and nearby football organisations. I assumed that the Toolangi Football Club would have most likely competed in the Yarra Valley, as did the Toolangi Cricket Club. I turned up this entry on the AFL Outer Eastern senior football website:
The Toolangi Football club was unique, in that it never played a senior match. Toolangi was admitted to the second XVIII competition for the YVFL for the 1952 season and won 5 of their 17 games that year. The club played its matches on a cow paddock at Castella.
A report on the Toolangi-Seville match of 7 June 1952, played at Toolangi, told of a ‘running stream, running the length of the ground’ (Yea River), ‘the goal posts out of line and evidence of the usual use of the area’. This ‘usual use’ appears to be a reference to cow pats from Stan Pearce’s dairy cows. Apparently, Toolangi Football Club fronted up again in 1953, lost their first five matches, forfeited the next two, and then withdrew from the competition, never to be heard of again.
The Toolangi-Castella area has long had a significant transient population. In the 1950s this included workers at the Forestry Commission, the Potato Research Station, Rimington’s Nursery and the various timber mills of the district. They would have provided some of the players, but, as David Pockett (2021) maintains:
You need a full eighteen people to mount a minimum football team, and only eleven in cricket. In a small settlement those numbers are significant, especially if there’s also some opposition from other sports and a limited population to draw from to begin with.
Hence the problem of finding and retaining sufficient players to field the team is likely to have led to its eventual demise. Football teams in remote rural areas also often drew players from adjoining districts and some of the players in the photo are from Healesville families, including indigenous players Johnny Terrick, the Harrison brothers and the Mullins brothers. Some of these young indigenous players from Healesville families worked in Toolangi-Castella in the mills, where work fluctuated from year to year. Travelling back up to the football ground in Castella on the weekend, or travelling further afield in the Yarra Valley to compete in matches, also presented greater challenges in the early 1950s, especially in a wet winter.
Australian Football League Outer East (2021) AFL Seniors Football website: History retrieved from https://websites.sportstg.com/assoc_page.cgi?c=1-6211-0-0-0&sID=218731&news_task=DETAIL&articleID=16366053
Daffy, P. (2017) Behind the Goals: The History of the Victorian Country Football League, retrieved from https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/book-review-behind-the-goals-the-history-of-the-victorian-country-football-league-by-paul-daffey/
Down, A. (2021) Personal communication, interview for the Toolangi-Castella History Project, 23/9/2021
Pockett, D. (2021) Personal communication, Toolangi-Castella History Project, May 2021
Sewell, A.P. (1992) Memories of Toolangi, written for the Healesville & District Historical Society and shared on this website courtesy of the Society
Sunday Times (article 3 August 1913), cited in The Book of Den: C.J. Dennis’ Back Block Ballads, Sydney