Roy Hay on Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin

HAY, R PROFILE PICContemporary Histories Research Group Sports Historian Roy Hay considers the emerging traces of an Indigenous athletic life in the Western District of Victoria, that of ‘Pompey’ Austin:

Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, 1846?–1889

At least two mission stations were established in the Western District of Victoria in the 1860s—one at Framlingham in 1865, the other at Lake Condah in 1867. Both stations had some excellent cricketers, footballers and athletes. It was from Framlingham that Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin erupted into the athletic and football world in Geelong, winning the Easter Gift foot race in 1872 and playing a single game for the Geelong Football Club that year. It appears that he was the first and only Aboriginal player to take part in a senior Victorian football game in the nineteenth century.[1] The brief reference to his contribution to a match between Geelong and Carlton is very demeaning.

Pompey, the aboriginal, played for Geelong; but after the first fall he did not appear to see any fun in the game, and was of no use whatever except to afford amusement to the spectators.[2]

For most writers, apart from Trevor Ruddell and Jan Critchett, Austin’s story stops there.[3]


One of the very few photographs of Austin. Is he a boxer or an athlete in this one? The first Indigenous player to officially play Australian Rules Football. Photograph: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

But his contemporaries played football frequently and Austin returned to play with Framlingham on several occasions, where his prowess was recognised. He took part in a match between 26 Aboriginal players and 19 members of the Warrnambool club in July 1877, being noted along with Braim as one of the best players. Two white players assisted the Framlingham Aboriginals, many of whom were too keen to follow the football rather than hold their positions.[4]

In 1879 he turned out at least once for Albion Imperial in Ballarat in a victory over the Ballarat Imperial club and was named as an emergency for a game in 1880. The match report for the 1879 game recorded, ‘They have a great acquisition in Pompey Austin, the celebrated aboriginal athlete, who, though he seemed out of practice, played well, and was occasionally greeted with a burst of applause’.[5]

His memory lingered on long after he died in 1889:

Pompey Austin, father of Chris Austin, who died about three years ago as the result of an accident, was a full-blooded black and was a great all-round athlete. His prowess at sports gatherings were at one time a household word. In the hurdle race he had few equals, and won many events throughout the district.[6]


Talking of aboriginal runners, I am told that Samuels could never be trained. I remember at Smythesdale an aboriginal runner and hurdle-racer, Pompey Austin, and also an aboriginal named Cooper, who was a very fine runner.[7]

In 1920 R. B. Prouse wrote to the Camperdown Chronicle about ‘the mighty footballers’ of his youth in reply to another correspondent:

In the days of which he writes there were certainly some mighty footballers, such as Harry Craven of Terang, the brothers Ted and Harry Absalom of Mortlake; Jake Parish, of Camperdown, Pompey Austin and big Larry Phelan, of Cobden—to say nothing of Garvoc’s wonderful high marker, Coolahan.[8]

‘An Old Player’, the original correspondent, agreed, ‘Pompey Austin of Cobden took a lot of beating’.[9]

There are references to several games played by aboriginal players from the Framlingham station in the 1880s, as part of combined sides from Coranderrk, Warrnambool, Hexham and Ballangeich, though none of the players are named individually. It is possible that Austin took part in some of the earlier ones.[10]

Austin was much more than a footballer and deserves a proper biography.[11] He was a superb athlete particularly over hurdles. He collected £43 in one day by winning the Handicap Hurdle, the Steeplechase and the Christmas Handicap over 880 yards at the Belfast (now Port Fairy) Athletic Sports in December 1873. He probably spent some of his winnings at this and other events buying a racehorse Stranger with which he won the hurdle race at Charlton in November 1874.[12]


Handicaps for the Belfast (Port Fairy) Races in December 1873. Weekly Times, Melbourne, Saturday 6 December 1873, p. 12.

A decade later he brought one of his drawings to the Warrnambool Standard office, though it was damned with faint praise:

Pompey Austin, the aboriginal hero of hundreds of pedestrian matches and jumping events in the Warrnambool district, has been exhibiting (says the Warrnambool Standard) his talent in quite another direction. Pompey has brought a picture to our contemporary’s office, which he has drawn with crayons. It is evidently copied from a design for a chair ornament, such as accompanies the needlework journals. It is not exactly a work of art, but interest attaches to it from the fact that it is the drawing of an aboriginal.[13]

Austin fell foul of the local law on several occasions, fined for alleged fraud and for stealing a saddle in 1877 and jailed for 3 months for stealing a saddle in 1882.[14] In the 1877 saddle-stealing case it was reported by the owner that Pompey had told him the saddle had been stolen off the horse’s back in Belfast, but it turned out that he had sold to a publican to square a debt:

Patrick King (the publican) ‘said he was new to the business, and did not know it was unlawful to supply aboriginals with drink, besides ‘the prisoner was as good as any other man, and knew as much as anyone in the court’. Pompey was found guilty, but recommended to mercy, and as Mr Goodall, of the Framlingham aboriginal station, gave him a good character, he was let off with a week’s imprisonment.[15]

In 1882 he was accused of taking the saddle off a horse belonging to a Mr M’Kellar of Ballangeich, when the latter was in a shoemaker’s in Ellerslie. Another farmer gave Pompey a ride from Ellerslie to Mortlake, noting that he had a saddle with him at the time, but it was not in the trap by the time they got to Mortlake. Another witness picked up the saddle and it was eventually returned to its owner. Austin was convicted and this time he was dealt with summarily by the magistrate.[16]

It is hard to know, but he probably needed to get to Mortlake and took the saddle that became redundant when the second farmer, William White drove him all the way.

There is a case of horse stealing in Elmhurst, near Avoca in northern Victorian in 1880 in which a Pompey Austin was charged with horse stealing, but whether it is our man is yet to be determined.[17]

But he also was part of a group of men who left Camperdown for the Kimberley gold fields in 1886:

Pompey Austin, well known to all Camperdonians, is here, and has made a couple of trips to the supposed fields (so he says) with O’Donnell’s party. He also says there is no gold, and it is not worth going up, but he would willingly conduct a party should sufficient grog be forthcoming.[18]

Like Tom Wills, he developed a fondness for drink and a much later report claimed that he had been known to run dead when drink was offered.[19]

Pompey Austin was much more than the figure of fun as he was portrayed during his single senior football match for Geelong.[20] Indeed his varied accomplishments put some of his contemporaries to shame or at least to a different career. Richard Kane, a Camperdown man, was 85 when interviewed by the Chronicle in 1932. He had been a walker and runner in his youth and ‘was advised to go in for training for running, but when he found he was up against faster men in W. Henry, C. Henry and Pompey Austin (black-fellow), he threw up pedestrianism, feeling he could earn more with pick and shovel’.[21]

Adam Goodes is aware of Pompey Austin’s story and reputation as a supremely talented athlete, “one might have thought that this earned him some sense of respect. Not so.” [22]  This brief sketch is just the start of an attempt to flesh out the life story of someone who for all round ability ought to be one of the most important figures in Australia’s sporting and cultural history.

[1]             Trevor Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin: the first Aborigine to play senior football’ in Peter Burke and June Senyard, eds, Behind the Play: Football in Australia, Maribyrnong Press, Hawthorn, Victoria, 2008, pp. 89–105.

[2]             ‘Football: Geelong v Carlton’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 27 May 1872, p. 3.

[3]             ‘The story goes that Pompey refused to play the role of an exhibit and flushed with anger, ran home after the game to ‘Fram’ mission near Warrnambool in far southwest Victoria. He then played only for his mission team until he retired’. Patrick Skene, Guardian Sportblog, 13 November 2014. 

[4]             Weekly Times, Melbourne quoting from the Warrnambool Examiner, 4 August 1877, p. 5.

[5]             Ballarat Star, 16 June 1879, p. 3; 30 June 1879, p. 3; 20 August 1880, p. 2; Ballarat Courier, 16 June 1879, p. 3; 27 June 1879, p. 4.

[6]             ‘In the Early Days: Aboriginal Reserves’, Portland Guardian, Monday 2 November 1942, p. 3.

[7]             ‘Great Runners: Other days. The Contemporaries of Frank Hewitt’, Referee, Sydney, 2 February 1916, p. 10. Hewitt was one of the star pedestrians of the late 19th century and the British Member of Parliament, Arthur Lynch, wrote a reply after Hewitt had an article on his contemporaries in the Referee. Referee, Sydney, 2 February 1916, p. 10.

[8]             ‘Football: Past and Present’, Camperdown Chronicle, 26 June 1920, p. 3.

[9]             Terang Express, quoted in Camperdown Chronicle, 24 June 1920, p. 4.

[10]           Camperdown Chronicle, 2 September 1882, p. 2; 1 August 1883, p. 2; Argus, 2 April 1885, p. 10; Hamilton Spectator, 6 June 1889, p. 4.

[11]           Apart from Trevor Ruddell’s article there is a brief biographical sketch of the Austins who were given the name ‘Pompey’ in Jan Critchett, Untold Stories: Memories and Lives of Victorian Kooris, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1998, pp. 48–73; Sharron Dickman,’The remarkable tale of “Pompey” Austin’, 24 May 2016, adds very little.

[12]           ‘Races at Charlton’, Hamilton Spectator, 21 November 1874, p. 3.

[13]           Colac Herald, 25 March 1884, p. 2

[14]           ‘Caramut Petty Sessions’, Hamilton Spectator, 4 September 1877, p. 3; Argus, 10 February 1877, p. 7; Colac Herald, 28 April 1882, p. 2.

[15]           ‘Items of News’, Hamilton Spectator, 13 February 1877, p. 3.

[16]           ‘Larceny of a saddle’, Camperdown Chronicle, 26 April 1882, p. 3.

[17]           Avoca Mail, 10 February 1880, p. 2.

[18]           ‘The Kimberley Goldfield’, Camperdown Chronicle, 18 September 1886, p. 2

[19]           ‘The Aborigines of Camperdown in 1857’, Camperdown Chronicle, 25 September 1930, p. 5

[20]           The guying of indigenous players, particularly on the first occasion they played in a locality, seems to have been very common. Examples include the opening football game in Adelaide in 1862, when aboriginal players took part. ‘Several aborigines who were present were permitted to play on both sides, and we must confess that for activity and good play they bore favorable comparison with the white-fellows. They seemed to bear their “spills” very good humouredly, and their grotesque actions afforded rather too much amusement to the “pinks ” and the “blues,” inasmuch as they “couldn’t do it for laughing.”’ ‘Topics of the Day’, South Australian Advertiser, Monday 19 May 1862, p. 2 and ‘Colac Sammy’s appearance in a combined Camperdown and Colac team that played Geelong in 1977. ‘The game caused great amusement at times, “Colac Sammy” in particular creating roars of laughter’.  Dickman, Remarkable Tale’, citing Geelong Advertiser, 10 September 1877, p. 3. Mark Pennings will only allow that ‘Colac Sammy was ‘likely an indigenous footballer’. Mark Pennings, Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 2, A Golden Era Begins: Football in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, 1877 to 1885, Grumpy Monks, n.p. 2013, p. 228.

[21]           ‘Early Camperdown History. Interview with Mr. Richard Kane. Busy and Strenuous Life’, Camperdown Chronicle, 8 September 1932, p. 4.

[22]           Dickman, ‘Remarkable tale’.



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