Pompey Austin: an Australian sporting hero deserving of recognition

first_img Read more Topics Share on Pinterest Share on WhatsApp An image believed to portray Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin. Photograph: J Harvey/State Library of Victoria Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Courage comes in all shapes and forms. Last month, Tony Birch called for the recognition of Aboriginal heroes and mentioned Ada and Lena Austin’s attempts to rescue Lena’s daughter from the “protective” system set up by colonial governments in the early years of the last century.Equally worthy of recognition, though a very different kind of hero, is their father, Albert “Pompey” Austin, who in his brief life was a footballer, cricketer, athlete, racehorse owner, horse thief, artist, explorer, savant, entertainer and musician, and a thorn in the side of those who wished to confine him and the few survivors of his generation to remote ghettos on the fringe of the colony.Austin was born in the mid-1840s, when western Victoria was being overrun by the Europeans. His Indigenous name was Poorne Yarriworri and he may have been from the Djab Wurrung nation. He probably attended a mission school near Birregurra, later being described as “a well-educated black”. “May be”, “probably” – these words of introduction to Austin’s story are not used unnecessarily. Even within the Austin family today the memory of Pompey is faint. Aunty Janice Austin of the Gournditchmara Kirrae Wurrung clan, Pompey’s step great grand-daughter, who has a strong interest in the history of her predecessors, says: “I have got much of my knowledge of Pompey from books and researchers, rather than through family stories.” In 1884 he turned up at the Warrnambool Standard with a drawing that the newspapermen damned with faint praise, but from the description it appears this might have been the sort of work with which his successors intrigued the art world a century later. He also travelled further afield. He was part of a group of men who left Camperdown for the Kimberley goldfields in 1886. In her book Kings in Grass Castles, Mary Durack records that her father welcomed “Billy O’Donnell and the prodigious native Pompey who sang popular songs hot from the London music halls”. Austin did not think much of the gold prospects, and was proved right.Austin became a well-known public figure in Ararat, Ballarat, Geelong and Melbourne. He entertained people as a musician but also talked knowledgeably about the political situation and the prospects for war at the corner in Ballarat, the local equivalent of Hyde Park corner in London. Finding that was not bringing in the money, Austin spotted some Scots in his audience and broke into a celebration of the beauties of the Scottish countryside and sang Scots songs.The football pioneer Tommy Wills was a loveable rascal, and has been lionised in the 21st century. He was a decade older than Albert Austin and died 10 years before him, but their lives and careers overlapped. But Austin was treated as a criminal and hounded for trying to make a living by his wits and his talent. He was no lesser man; he just had the misfortune to be born black in a society that did not appreciate him. In that he was not alone. Perhaps in 2017 we can recover his story and grant him some recognition at last. Share on Facebook Support The Guardian … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. 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Thank you. featurescenter_img Australia sport Indigenous Australians John McGuire: the Indigenous cricketer who lost out on playing for Australia In research for this article, just one sentence of recorded speech attributed to the man himself was found. Details about Austin are sparse, as all the information about him comes from the “colonial record”, much-despised by some because it is inherently biased against Aboriginal subjects. Despite its racism, bias and prejudice, however, it is possible to use it to piece together some elements of the story of this extraordinary man. Colin Tatz’s massive work on Aboriginal sportsmen, Obstacle Race, has no mention of Austin. Part of the explanation is the sheer difficulty of finding information before newspapers and other sources were digitised. We know so little about many top-class sports people from the 19th century once the memories of those who saw them in action have gone. People today may know of Tom Wills and possibly his cousin Henry Colden Harrison from their published biographies, but important contemporaries such as George Reynolds Rippon and Alex Bruce have disappeared. If that is true of white Australians, then the chances of an Indigenous person being recognised are minuscule.But here’s what we can glean: Pompey Austin straddled two very different worlds as they collided in mid-nineteenth century western Victoria, where the impact on Indigenous people was devastating. His response was to take on the white men, quite literally, at their own games and their own cultural activities, and demonstrate by his prowess that he could match them in both. Yet apart from a few who have studied the history of football and athletics, Austin’s name does not resonate today. Share via Email It was a different story in the first half of the 20th century, when the memory of his feats on and off the field remained with those who had known him or known about him, after he died in 1889. A soldier writing from Belgium during the first world war, told of jumping barbed wire fences “like Pompey used to take his hurdles”. Leading English and Australian athletes who ran against him reminisced about his talents in 1916. Horses and greyhounds were named after him in the 1930s. Both his son, Chris, and one of his grandsons, Cyril, carried the Pompey name into subsequent generations. When those who knew Austin died, our collective memory of him ceased to exist. This is a common phenomenon, even in parts of England where, as Harry Pearson wrote, “football was so embedded in the lives of the people that it could not have been removed without a general anaesthetic”, but because the stories of its local heroes were not written down, they have not survived. Austin exploded into the world of Australian running – then known as “pedestrianism” – in 1872, winning the Geelong Friendly Societies’ Gift, a series of handicap races on the flat and over hurdles. Later that year he turned out for Geelong in their opening match of the season against Carlton – almost certainly the only Indigenous player to play in a top-level football match in the 19th century. Later he was to play for Ballarat Imperial, Cobden and Framlingham. In December 1873 he won all the major races at the Belfast (Port Fairy) Athletic sports and probably used some of his winnings to buy a racehorse, Stranger, with which he won a hurdle race at Charlton the following year. He played cricket with at least three of the men from Framlingham who went to England in the first Australian tour in 1868. Read more Since you’re here… Indigenous rugby league festivals becoming the ‘saviour’ of the NRL Reuse this content Share on Messengerlast_img

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