Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, 1846?–1889: A Man between Two Worlds
In 2017, as we struggle as a society to find ways of understanding and accepting people who do not apparently conform to a particularly narrow view of citizenship in Australia, the story of one man has some lessons for us. Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin is just a footnote in history. He was an Indigenous man, born around 1846, and he was possibly the only Aborigine to play senior football in Victoria in the nineteenth century when he turned out for Geelong in 1872. But he was far more than that. In his brief life, he died in 1889, he was a footballer, cricketer, athlete, racehorse owner, artist, explorer, entertainer and musician, and a thorn in the side of those who wished to confine him and his generation to remote ghettos on the fringe of the colony.
Retelling his story is not easy, for the only surviving contributions from the man himself are brief responses attributed to him by journalists covering court cases in which he was involved, none of them more than a single sentence. In one of these reports he is referred to as ‘a well-educated black’; in another his good character is attested to by William Goodall, who was in charge of the Framlingham station where Pompey lived. These snippets and the rest of the extant evidence come entirely from ‘the colonial record’, which is much despised by some modern writers and researchers as so inherently biased that it can never capture the perspectives of the Indigenous people involved. It is most likely that no one will ever recapture Pompey Austin’s perspective on life, but that is no excuse for not looking in the colonial archive to see what can be found there and asking how it can be understood. There is a significant amount of information therein that extends what we know about this remarkable man and that alone makes this exercise worthwhile.
Pompey, the man and his family
As with many of his generation and later, Austin’s birth does not seem to have been recorded and it is estimated from the information he was around 21 at the time of his marriage to Rosanna Francis in 1867. His parents are given as Charlie and Alice, both Aboriginal. Alice was apparently married more than once At one time she was married to an Aboriginal who had been given the name Gellibrand.
Later newspaper reports and letters had Gellibrand as Pompey’s father. Subsequently, Alice was known locally in Colac as Alice Gellibrand, even though she was married to Billy Murray. Alice died in Colac hospital on 6 January 1891. Her name on the death certificate is given as Murray and her father and mother are unknown. Billy and Alice are buried in Colac Cemetery.
In January 1873 Pompey was accused of deserting his wife Rosanna, though he may well have been trying to earn some money to help support her by competing in the races at Smythesdale earlier in the month. He was discharged of the offence.
Pompey and Rosanna (also known as Rose or Rosie) had five children, Walter, an unnamed son, both deceased at the time of Rosie’s death, Chris, (also later known as Pompey) and twins Ada and Leah. Pompey died on 7 June 1889 in hospital in Melbourne, his age being given as 40 years. Rosie, Ada and Leah were still living at Framlingham when the station was closed in 1890.
Pompey’s given and family names are European and Jan Critchett gives his Indigenous name as Poorne Yarriworri. He grew up only a few years after the Europeans arrived in the Western District of Victoria and the struggle to retain their country by the Indigenous inhabitants is soberly described by Critchett in A Distant Field of Murder. There are family stories that he took part in the resistance, but this is unlikely since he was probably not born or would have been very young at the time. His father’s generation did so. Gellibrand was said to have been killed in a tribal conflict.
His sobriquet ‘Pompey’ is also a mystery. Some want to attribute it to the Roman general, others think a corruption of Purrumbete, the location from which he came, underlies the name. Could it be a corruption of Poorne? Geoffrey Blainey points out: ‘In English slang Pompey was the Lancashire name for a black kettle— that sounds a possible source for his nickname. Pompey also signified a house of correction in England. To “dodge Pompey” was to avoid detection, and was a common piece of Australian slang, according to the Australian National Dictionary. It is the kind of name that could be given, in the era of nicknames, to a weaving, dodging, elusive young Aboriginal sportsman’.
Pompey was one of a very small number of Aboriginal people living in the area west of the Hopkins River by the middle of the nineteenth century following the European incursion into the area. In 1869 John Green, the Board’s travelling manager, could only find 62 Aboriginal men, women and children in the Western District around Framlingham, Warrnambool, Belfast (now Port Fairy) and Mortlake.
Pompey, the footballer
At least two Aboriginal stations were established in the Western District of Victoria in the 1860s—one at Framlingham in 1865, the other at Lake Condah in 1867. Lake Condah was a mission station, associated with the Church of England. Framlingham began as a mission station but was closed in 1867 and reopened as a government station in 1869. This had implications for the Indigenous people in Framlingham since funding was tightly controlled by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines.
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. 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’.
For most writers, apart from Trevor Ruddell and Jan Critchett, Austin’s story stops there.
But his contemporaries played football intermittently and Austin returned to play with Framlingham 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 (Braham?) as one of the best players. The Framlingham Aboriginal football team played against Tower Hill on 15 August 1878. Pompey played in this match and was named as second best in the team after F. Clarke. Tower Hill won by three goals to nil. Later that year Warrnambool Football Club played Framlingham on Jetty Flat. Warrnambool won, but Pompey was named among the best players for his side.
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’.
Thirty years after Pompey’s death, correspondents to the Camperdown Chronicle remembered ‘the mighty footballers’ of their youth including Pompey Austin of Cobden, who took a lot of beating. There are numerous references to an Austin playing for Cobden in the 1880s, though none that give the player his full name. This Austin is regularly among the best players listed.
Pompey and a golden age of Australian pedestrianism
Austin was much more than a footballer and deserves a proper biography. He was a superb all-round athlete on the flat, over hurdles and in long and high jumps. He took part in the Warrnambool Cricket Club’s Annual Sports on the Prince of Wales’ birthday in November 1869, winning the high jump, the pole vault and the 220 yards hurdles, but fell at the last hurdle in the steeplechase.
The next year he won the running high leap and a handicap hurdle race at the Caledonian Society’s Gathering in Warrnambool.
There were attempts to exclude Indigenous runners at some meetings, so the running track was not always level for them. At the Queen’s Birthday sports at Mortlake in May 1871, ‘there was some little demur at Pompey and Brown, the well-known aboriginal athletes, being allowed to compete, but this arose with a few of the more interested ones’. Pompey won the 300 yards handicap hurdle for £1 15s. He gained several yards over the hurdles with his leaps. He won the running high leap for £1. Pompey was second to J.W. Armstrong in the 440 yards flat race. Pompey won the 440 yards hurdles despite giving away up to 40 yards from scratch. In November 1871 Pompey won the running high jump and came third in the 440 yards handicap, and came second in the 100 yards at the Warrnambool Annual Athletic Sports.
The year 1872 saw Pompey’s breakthrough football and athletic season. At the Geelong Friendly Societies Easter Gift races on Easter Monday in 1872 Pompey Austin had one of his greatest triumphs winning flat races at 100, 300 and 400 yards and the hurdles over 300 yards against some of the best local runners. The Geelong Advertiser reporter was wise to the chances of race fixing and a betting plunge and thought the handicappers might have been naïve about Pompey but could not fault his performance on the day.
Pompey returned to Geelong in May for the Corio Cricket Club Sports but this time he made a much less favourable impression after losing the first race in which he took part. However, he did run third in the 300 yards handicap hurdle race late in the meeting when he was probably the freshest of the competitors.
Was he handicapped out of the races on the basis of his performance earlier in the year? Did he run dead as part of a fix by the bookmakers or gamblers, or simply because someone offered him a drink? Did he decide not to exert himself because he knew that he would have to play football for Geelong the next day? It is impossible to tell from the evidence so far. What is certain is that this meeting did not reflect Austin’s capability. Like Tom Wills, Pompey developed a fondness for alcohol and a much later report claimed that he had been known to run dead when drink was offered.
In January 1873 Pompey took part in the Smythesdale Athletic Club’s Annual Sports, one of the biggest meetings in Victoria in its day. Against some fierce competition, Pompey ran second in the 120 and 440 yards hurdles, then third in the final behind Davidson and Madden. He also ran in the 880 yards won by Mahoney. He was listed as a Ballarat runner in the report, but when the Geelong Advertiser published the handicaps it had him as a Geelong man. Each place wanted a piece of him.
Pompey Austin collected £43 in one day by winning the handicap hurdle, the steeplechase and the Christmas handicap over 880 yards at the Belfast Athletic Sports in December 1873. That was an extraordinary sum for someone who, as far as we know, had no regular income. He may have 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. It was rare for an athlete to make more than one large scale killing in the professional game and so Pompey’s career is not all that different in that respect. In May he won the steeplechase, the high jump and the 880 yards handicap at the Koroit sports meeting.
His memory lingered on long after he died in 1889. Private W. Dolan in a letter from Belgium during the First World War in 1916 wrote about ‘taking the remnants of German wire entanglements in our stride (like Pompey Austin used to take his hurdles)’. Two of the superstars of mid-nineteenth century pedestrianism in Australia, Frank Hewitt and Arthur Lynch, reminisced about him in international correspondence published in 1916: ‘Pompey Austin, … 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.’
Did Indigenous people find it easier to break into athletics than the team games of football and cricket? Given their small numbers this is very likely. In addition, they could be exploited for gain by the Europeans. There is a story of a young man from the Camperdown area who was smuggled to Geelong to run, but who ran back home overnight.
Pompey and cricket
By comparison with his football career, Pompey had less impact on cricket in Victoria, though he did play the game. If he was a mate of Dick-a-Dick who went to England with the Aboriginal team then it is likely that Pompey picked up cricket from him or from Bullocky who coached and played with the Framlingham and Lake Condah Aborigines. Johnny Cuzens also played at Framlingham and died there in 1871.
Warrnambool Cricket Club played against an eleven from Framlingham on 31 January 1873, winning by 37 runs, according to the Hamilton Spectator. Pompey batted at ten in the first innings and made two, at eight in the second and made six, the second top score. In March that year the Framlingham team played a return match against Koroit at Framlingham. The home team won by 50 to 21 on first innings and Pompey was bowled for five.
The other direct evidence of Pompey’s cricket career comes when he joined Terang in a match against Camperdown in January 1877. Camperdown was beaten, thanks to Terang having the benefit of the Messrs Crake who were visiting Glenmoriston at the time, plus Pompey and Blair from Framlingham. The match was decided on the first innings, Pompey opened and made 2 before being caught, but the Crakes made 28 out of 69 between them and only Grace, with 31, showed up for Camperdown which mustered only 62. In Terang’s second innings, Pompey top-scored with 21 out of 67.
Pompey the artist
Seven years later Pompey Austin 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’.
I wonder if the picture was his own work or something he had found/stolen? This suspicion is based on what follows only, not prejudice. Or is it an early example of indigenous art, whose artifice, style and points of reference were not appreciated by the newspaper journalists?
The travelling Aborigine and his problems
To take part in his various sporting and other activities, Pompey Austin had to travel. Getting permission to do so was one thing, getting around regional Victoria was another. For most of the time he would have found difficulty in raising the money to pay for transport, even if he could find someone prepared to take an Aborigine on a coach or wagon. So he had to find his own way on foot or on horseback. He could not just jump on a horse belonging to the mission station. In 1874 the station at Framlingham had only three horses belonging to the Board, though, according to William Goodall, ‘the blacks possess some animals of their own, and that those are allowed to graze there’. It is not clear if Pompey was one of those who had his own animal quartered at Framlingham. If he did not, he had to beg, borrow or steal one, and this put him at constant risk of being accused of the last of these three options.
Austin fell foul of the local law on several occasions. Nearly all of these episodes involved the alleged theft of a horse or a saddle. In 1873 he was accused of ‘detaining a horse’ and though summonsed twice failed to appear at Warrnambool Police Court. ‘Mr Pompey was very fond of using other people’s horses without leave—in fact it was an old trick of his—it would be as well to make him appear’. Austin was fined for alleged fraud and for stealing a saddle in 1877 and jailed for 3 months for stealing a saddle in 1882. 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 it to a publican to square a debt.
In 1882 he was accused to taking the saddle off a horse belonging to a Mr M’Kellar of Ballangeich, when the latter was in a shoemaker’s in Ellerslie. Pompey Austin was charged with horse stealing in Elmhurst, near Avoca in northern Victorian in 1880.
This litany of petty crime can be held against him, but the person who suffered most from it was Pompey himself.
Pompey the explorer
Aborigines on the reserves and missions were not allowed to travel without permission, though William Goodall at Framlingham is believed to have been more willing to allow people in his charge to do so. At least he did not enforce a harsh discipline on his charges for failing to seek permission. But he did lose patience with Pompey’s behaviour by the time Goodall left Framlingham for Coranderrk in 1882. Goodall believed he had done everything he could to reform Pompey’s approach to life but found that he had not succeeded.
It seems clear that Pompey travelled all over south and central Victoria playing football, running, entertaining and ‘borrowing’ horses and saddles as he needed them to assist his journeyings. But he also travelled further afield. He was part of a group of men who left Camperdown for the Kimberley gold fields in 1886.
Pompey Austin was much more than the figure of fun as he was portrayed during his single senior football match for Geelong. 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’.
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.’
Pompey, the savant and entertainer
There is yet another element to Pompey Austin’s story that has never been appreciated. He became a well-known public figure in Ballarat, Geelong and Melbourne. A fellow reportedly known locally as Jimmy ‘Pompey’ Austin demonstrated boomerang throwing in Lydiard Street, Ballarat, on 6 June 1888 and was challenged by a Scot to hit a mark at distance with his boomerang while the Scot used a bow and arrow. A policeman arrived and insisted they go to the Town Common, but neither could afford the cab fare to do so.
Earlier that year James ‘Pompey’ Austin had been entertaining people at ‘the Corner’, Ballarat’s equivalent of Hyde Park Corner in London, where speakers gathered to entertain and inform the crowds. On this occasion, he engaged his audience
‘…with disquisitions on the present European situation and the probabilities of war. Finding this did not ‘fetch’ the audience, and that coins were coming in slowly, ‘Pompey’ commenced a monologue concert. Amongst his hearers were several hard-headed Scotchmen, who at first showed no inclination to contribute to the entertainer’s funds. A verse in praise of Scottish valor and the beauties of the scenery in Scotland, however, caused them to unbend, and ‘Pompey’ reaped a good harvest as the result of his cunning. In the evening he had round him a crowd of admirers listening to his manipulation of a concertina. It is to be hoped the unfortunate fellow will not, as the result of his good fortune, fall into the hands of the police through over-indulgence in intoxicants.
But even his ability to entertain a crowd did not save him from pursuit by the authorities.
‘Enquiry is requested for two aboriginals named ‘Pompey’ and ‘Timothy Arden,’ who were singing and dancing in the streets of Melbourne about a month ago. If found they should be brought to Captain Page, general inspector and secretary of the Board of Aborigines, City Bank Chambers, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, who will have them returned to their stations at Framlingham and Lake Condah respectively. The former of the two referred to as ‘Pompey’ is well known in Ballarat, which place he very often visits for the purpose of earning a little money by singing, reciting, dancing, &c’.
Where do we go from here?
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. There is no doubt that he divided opinion in both the European and indigenous communities but any assessment of his contribution to both must take account of far more than a single footy match for Geelong in 1872 and performance at two athletic meetings that year.
Where did Pompey learn about Scotland and its scenery? From the Manifolds? Or from drinking with Scottish mates in hostelries around the colony? Where did he pick up information on the international situation? Where did he learn to play the squeezebox? This is a man of multiple talents.
Where was he educated? Both he and his wife ‘signed’ their marriage certificate with an ‘x’ in 1867. Pompey must have picked up a huge amount of knowledge through his travelling and involvement with Europeans at race meetings, football matches and the like. Even his drinking in pubs was probably educational.
After he died, horses and greyhounds were named after him. They celebrated his speed and reflected the esteem in which he was held by people who knew of him. So the folk memory was still alive and flourishing in the middle of the twentieth century in the Western District. A horse named Pompey Austin ran in the open St Leger at Camperdown in 1940. The greyhounds with the best prospects in a coursing meeting also in Camperdown included a Pompey Austin in 1939.
Throughout his life Pompey Austin must have alternated between absolute poverty and what for the time would have been substantial riches, if he was able to gain and hold his winnings from his athletic activities in particular. But he would have been expected to share anything he retained with his family and the wider Aboriginal community, so the idea of accumulating a reserve to tide him and those closest to him over the bad times must have been difficult, if not impossible. Stories of his family sharing their miniscule gains from hard, occasional work, fishing and hunting in the next two generations make that quite clear.
Tommy Wills was a lovable rascal, and has been lionised in the twenty-first century. He was a decade older than Albert Austin and died ten years before him, but their lives and careers overlapped. There is, so far, no evidence that they ever met. Poor Pompey was treated as a criminal and hounded for trying to make a living by his wits and his talent in the nineteenth. 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 pay him some recognition at last. As we demonise groups in Australia today, the notion of us having made progress in understanding those who do not fit a particularly privileged mould is very dubious.