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Indigenous world class athletes and boxers, 1860s–1960s

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Lionel Rose, World Bantamweight Champion 1968. Courtesy of The Age and National Film and Sound Archive, publicity photo.

Since the 1860s in Australia, Indigenous people have excelled in sports across nearly all codes. The level has been world class. At the same time, this was an era when Indigenous people were not citizens, until after the 1967 Referendum.

… not one single Aboriginal champion was born - to use an appropriate pun - on the right side of the track, sporting or social.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p.134

From the 1860s until the 1960s, Indigenous athletes lived on missions and reserves, established as a form of 'protection' for Aborigines. There were 180 mission stations in NSW by 1939. At the same time, Indigenous sprinters from mission stations in south-eastern Australia entered professional athletic races called 'gifts' to have an opportunity to win substantial prize money.

From Cummeragunga mission on the Murray River, the early athletes included world champion sprinter Charlie Samuels, sprinter Bobby McDonald who developed the crouch start, and Lynch Cooper, an outstanding Stawell Gift winner. Later in the 1920s and 30s, Doug Nicholls, like other footballers, combined athletics with football, boxing and labouring work to earn an income sufficient to support his family.

Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe drumming up customers in front of large crowd at the Ballarat Show, 1934. Image by Jack Walton courtesy of Museum Victoria, MM 045571.

Athletics, boxing and football were easier for Aborigines to access as there was little requirement for equipment or club fees (unlike cricket or tennis). It was relatively easy to turn up to an athletics meet or have a stint in Jimmy Sharman's boxing tents, and the winnings were immediate and attractive.

However, sporting success did not necessarily lead to social freedoms or economic independence from the system of 'Protection'. It is fair to say that the achievements of most Indigenous sporting greats have been against significant odds.

The odds have been monumental: a different legal status, geographic isolation, severe administrative control, poverty, extreme prejudice, ill-health, low life expectancy, and almost absence of facilities ... and training.
Colin Tatz, The Dark Side of Sport, in Michelle Grattan (ed), Reconciliation: Essays on Australian Reconciliation, 2000

Whilst boxing was one of the most successful sports for Indigenous men; the reality for many Aboriginal boxers was a loss of earnings until George Bracken and Lionel Rose.

Athletic champions from the missions, 1880s to 1900s

During the 'Protection' era, exemptions were given to Indigenous athletes living at mission stations, at the discretion of the mission manager, to leave the missions to play sports.

Cummeragunga and Maloga Missions on the Murray River produced many excellent sprinters. Combined with trading artefacts, selling kangaroo skins and seasonal station work, the winnings from athletics races gave Aborigines a degree of independence from mission life, mission station work and rations.

1883 Stawell Easter Gift winner Robert 'Bobby' Kinnear from Dimboola, no source

Bobby Kinnear and J Dancey – Stawell Gift winners

Bobby Kinnear, a Yarra Yarra man, born and raised on the Antwerp Mission near Dimboola in Victoria, won the prestigious Stawell Gift in 1883. A memorial has been erected to him in the Antwerp cemetery. Another Aboriginal runner, J Dancey, won the Stawell in 1910.

Bobby McDonald and the crouch start

In 1887 at the Carrington Ground in Sydney, the Aboriginal sprinter Bobby McDonald from Cummeragunga Mission surprised everybody by starting from the crouch position, also known as the kangaroo or the Australian start. McDonald later described this in a letter to the Referee sporting journal in July 1913 as a position he had developed in at least 1884, because it was more efficient and also to ward off the cold when he was waiting on the track.

This position was first seen in America at Long Island New York when it was demonstrated by C H Sherrill of Yale in 1888.

Jack Marsh and Albert Henry – world best times for 100 yards

Two Test qualifying cricketers, Jack Marsh and Albert Henry, were also excellent runners. In Melbourne in 1894, when he was probably in his late teens or early 20s, Marsh started from scratch in a handicap race and ran 9.8s for 100 yards, equalling the world record set by an American, John Owen, in 1890. It was no fluke: Marsh had run 9.9s in Sydney the year before.

In 1896 the Referee journal said of Jack Marsh that 'no man in Australia can beat him at the present time in a 75 yard run'. Marsh won at least five major handicap events.

G Blunton, state best runner and high jumper, Western Australia, 1913, The Wanderers team photo detail. Courtesy of The Western Mail

The Blurton brothers – the best runners and high jumpers in the state, 1913

From New Norcia Mission near Moora, Western Australia, the Blurton brothers 'were two of the best runners and high jumpers in the state in their heyday' as well as being members of the winning football team The Wanderers in 1913.

Queensland amateur athletics – Aborigines excluded, deemed professional

Exclusions on the basis of race affected some Indigenous athletes. In 1897, the Queensland Home Secretary wrote that 'the whites complained of the superior capabilities of the blacks at Fraser Island, and asked me to stop them competing with the whites...' The Referee, 6 May 1903 reported that

The Queensland Amateur Athletic Association's sought to disbar all Aborigines from athletics, first, because they lacked moral character, then because they had insufficient intelligence, then because they couldn't resist white vice. Unable to sustain these 'reasons', in 1903 the Association simply deemed them all permanent professionals.

The secretary of the Australian Amateur Athletics Union, however, felt it was contrary to the ideas of the amateur athletics world to disbar a man 'merely because he was an aboriginal'.

Charlie Samuels – 'champion sprinter of the world', 1897

Charlie Samuels (1863–1912) was born at Jimbour station, Dalby southern Queensland, to Kamilaroi parents when Jimbour station homestead was a wooden hut. He worked as a stock rider and was also a successful professional runner on the local circuit in Toowoomba before competing in Sydney. In 1888 Samuels was recognised as the world record holder at Botany, Sydney with his best time in running one hundred yards in 9.1 seconds, and 12.5 seconds for 130 yards.

Samuels was a serious sprinter and the first Aborigine to emerge as an international class athlete. The Referee journal described him as built for speed, light in the upper body but with 'tremendous hips and thighs, and a long tapering calf'; his 'beautiful action was . . . the secret of his pace, as he was a lovely balanced runner'. (Australian Dictionary of Biography, Charles Samuels)

In 1887 Samuels won over Tom Malone, the Irish champion. However, Samuels ended up with little of the prize money in his wins, out of the £90,000 won for his backers against Ted Lazarus.

In 1888, Samuels set a world record in the 124 yards, run in 12.5 seconds, at the Sir Joseph Banks Grounds in December. That record still stood at the time of death, 24 years later. The Sir Joseph Banks Hotel at Botany was a focal point for professional running in the 1880s and it developed the first professional track in Australia – cinders separated by grass lanes and ringed by gaslights. The prize money was sometimes as much as £500.

When not in training, Samuels fought occasionally at Larry Foley's White Horse Hotel where Foley played Queensberry's rules with rounds and boxers wore gloves.

Aboriginal arch Brisbane 1901, featuring Charlie Samuels and massed warriors, cropped, courtesy of NLA.pic-an13115397-2

By 1892, pedestrianism was suffering from a collapse as runners began to run slow to reduce their handicaps, which made it difficult for successful runners (Referee, 20 July 1892). Samuels' success as a runner led to handicaps that restricted both his winnings and the financial rewards for his managers, who increasingly left him on his own.

In 1897, after recording equal times to that of English champion Harold Hutchens with a 300 yard (274m) race in 30 seconds, Samuels began a successful mastery series to challenge Hutchens. After the event, with Samuels having won the series, Hutchens called the series 'an exhibition' race, thus denying Samuels the 'official' title. However, the Australian Town and Country claimed that no-one could 'dispute Samuels' claim to the title of champion sprinter of the world'.

In 1901, Samuels made his last public appearance when the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, visited Brisbane as part of Federation celebrations. His 'tall athletic … appearance attracted the attention of their Highnesses'. Samuels was part of amassed display of Queensland Aborigines carrying weapons, shields, spears and all types of clubs, in ceremonial body decorations and head-dresses.

Samuels' speed and lightness of foot did not translate to a life of lightness and comfort. It was observed in the Referee journal that despite his winnings he was 'dependent on the protection of charity of the Queensland Government of which he is a native'. He died in 1912 in a government settlement, Barambah, Queensland to which he had been 'removed on the Minister's order'. At Barambah, Samuels' first wife and children died of consumption and he and his second wife died of tuberculosis. Samuels Crescent in Ngunnawal, Canberra is named after him.

At his death Charlie Samuels was described as 'certainly one of the fastest men over a short distance who ever lived'.

Lynch Cooper, 1929 World Professional Sprint Champion. Courtesy of Colin Tatz.

The Stawell Gift and Lynch Cooper 'World Sprint Champion', 1929

Champion athletes from Cummeragunga in the 1920s included Alf Morgen and Billy Russell as well as the sprinters: Eddy Briggs, Doug Nicholls, his brother Dowie, and Lynch Cooper.

In April 1929, Lynch Cooper won the World Sprint Championship … over 75 yards, 100, 130, and 220 yards (68m, 91m, 118m, and 201m). In 1928 he won the Stawell Gift, at his third attempt… With only twenty pounds left, his fishing boat sold and then unemployed, he risked all on himself at 60 to 1. He had a long and rewarding career, sustaining himself and his family through the Depression years.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p. 28

Doug Nicholls – the 'Black Streak' 1929–1939

In 1929, Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunga Mission, won the Nyah Gift and then the Warracknabeal Gift, second only to Stawell in importance.

Doug Nicholls (second from right) at the Warracknabeal Gift 1929, which he won. Courtesy of Percy Mason and Colin Tatz.

In order for Nicholls to play with the Fitzroy Football Club in 1932, the Secretary had to secure his release from Sharman's boxing troupe. Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe was a travelling sideshow in which Sharman offered up Aboriginal boxers to challenge against all comers. The tent visited 45 to 50 shows each year.

Nicholls' advocated for political rights, including lobbying for federal control of Aboriginal Affairs in 1935. On 26 January 1938, Nicholls attended the Day of Mourning protest for Aborigines held in Sydney, organised by his cousin William Cooper. Nicholls stated,

'after 150 years our people are still influenced and bossed by white people. I know we can proudly hold our own with others if given the chance'.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Sir Douglas Nicholls

Boxing – the glory sport

Boxing has been the sport in which Aborigines have had most success – 15 per cent of Australian boxing champions have been Aboriginal.

Many Aboriginal males hoped that this sport would provide a way out of the race barrier and poverty. Yet it has been argued through interviews and research that overall, boxing was not a help, and most Aboriginal fighters ended their days in poverty.
Richard Broome, Professional Aboriginal Boxers in Eastern Australia 1930-1979', in Aboriginal History, Vol 4, June 1980)

Jerry Jerome, the first Aboriginal title holder, Middleweight Champion 1913. Courtesy of Aussie Sports and Colin Tatz Collection, AIATSIS.

Jerry Jerome – Australian middleweight champion from Dalby

One of the earliest title holders was Jerry Jerome (1874–1950). Like Charlie Samuels, Jerry Jerome was born also on Jimbour Station, Dalby, and was reported as being Samuels' nephew (Death of Charlie Samuels, 1912). Jerome was given an exemption certificate by his employer, to run, rifle shoot, and to box. In 1913 Jerome won the Australian middleweight title. Popular with the crowds, he was also seen as an 'unmanageable, unpredictable' man who won big purses and lost them quickly, often fighting without any training.

Chief Protector J W Bleakley claimed that this 'moneyed gentleman' took a 'mean advantage' to 'obstruct discipline and defy authority'. While Jerome never drank alcohol, he died in poverty at Cherbourg in 1950. According to Australian Ring Digest, his earnings were 'poached' by the Queensland Native Affairs Department and the 'hangers-on'.

By 1913 the government controlled 3849 savings accounts totalling £34,078 (almost $2.5 million), including that of professional boxer Jerry Jerome whose earnings of over £1000 in fewer than nine months would otherwise have provided him financial independence.
Rosalind Kidd, Trustees on Trial: Recovering the Stolen Wages, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006

Ron Richards, Australian Heavyweight, Light Heavywight and Middleweight, and Empire Middleweight Champion, 1940s. Courtesy of News Limited and Colin Tatz.

Randall 'Ron' Richards – a national champion across three divisions

The fate of Ron Richards was similar to that of Jerome and boxers to follow. Richards was a national champion across three divisions, he won the Australian Heavyweight, Light Heavywight and Middleweight, and Empire Middleweight titles as well as winning 103 out of 146 fights. Amongst his greatest fights was his victory over Gus Lesnevitch, who went on to become world light heavyweight champion in 1941.

However, Richards was plagued by managers and hangers on as well suffering police harassment and beatings from thugs in his later life. In 1939 a former manager filed damages against Richards for £5000 for breaching an agreement despite Richards repudiating the agreement.

Arrested for vagrancy, he was taken to remote Woorabinda Settlement, near Rockhampton, for three years. Richards died penniless in 1967. Singer and writer Ted Egan has captured the reality of the Aboriginal experience in boxing in his ballad, 'The Hungry Fighter'.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, p. 56

Champions of the 1940s and 1950s: The Sands Brothers, Elley Bennett, and George Bracken

The story of Aboriginal boxers in the tents and the fights is a troubled story of the Protection era. In the 1940s and 50s there were the Sands brothers who all wore green satin shorts with a white star.

The Sands brothers – 605 fights and every record

Clem, Ritchie, George, Dave, Alf and Russell Sands. Courtesy of NLA vn3050585

The Ritchie brothers – renamed Sands for boxing purposes - came from Burnt Ridge, near Kempsey, NSW. Statistically they were every kind of a record: between them, 605 fights, 249 knockout wins, one Commonwealth (Empire) title, one Australasian, four Australian, and three state titles.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, p. 58

In mid-1941 Ritchie Sands (b. 1918) was regarded as possibly 'another Les Darcy'. Clem (b. 1919) and George (b. 1924) were both competent welterweights and Alfie (born 1929) had an incredible 148 fights.

The best boxer of them all was Dave (b. 1926). In 1946 Dave won the Australian Middleweight and Light Heavyweight titles, the Empire Middleweight championship in 1949, the Heavyweight crown in 1950, and the Australasian Light Heavyweight title in 1952.

Elley Bennett – 'dynamic Bennett' Bantam and Featherweight titles

Elley Bennett, Australian Bantamweight and Featherweight Champion, 1948 and 1951. Courtesy of News Limited and Colin Tatz

Elley Bennett, born at Barambah in 1924, won the Australian bantam title in 1948 and the featherweight crown in 1951. Bennett was rated 'the hardest hitting man of his weight in the world'. When he retired in 1954,

Bennett approached the Queensland government's Aboriginal Welfare Fund in an effort to retrieve the money he believed was held in trust for him only to be advised that no such trust fund existed. He was effectively broke even though he had earned upwards of £25,000 in prize money.
Max Stanton, The legend (and tragedy) of Elley Bennett: Australia's first great boxer, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 2010

George Bracken – Australian lightweight titles

George Bracken, Australian Lightweight Champion, 1955 and 1959. Courtesy of Ray Mitchell and Colin Tatz.

In the 1950s, George Bracken, born at Palm Island in 1935, was a dynamic puncher and a classy boxer. He won the Australian lightweight title in 1955, lost it in 1958 and reclaimed the vacant title in 1959.

In December 1957 he was arrested on a fake charge by the Innisfail (Q) police: there he was pummelled for an hour. As one detective said: 'I've seen you fight in Brisbane and you couldn't fight for nuts!' This 'interrogation' cost him two scheduled fights and 2,000 pounds in earnings.
Richard Broome, Professional Aboriginal Boxers in Eastern Australia 1930–1979, in Aboriginal History, Vol 4, June 1980, p. 67

Bracken spoke out against the indignity of mission life and paternalism, racial prejudice and the lack of education and welfare for Aborigines. He was a keen advocate of an insurance scheme for black athletes, especially for boxers.  Bracken stated

Aboriginal boxers were exploited and mismanaged [and finished up] with impaired health and no money.

Luckily, Bracken was able to avoid those pitfalls. Bracken was to become a role model for Lionel Rose, who later won the world bantamweight title in Tokyo in 1968.

Lionel Rose – the 'black kangaroo' and the moment of glory

Lionel Rose in training. Courtesy of Australian Sports

Lionel Rose (1948–2011), a bantamweight, stepped into the ring for title fights in the mid-1960s. He won the Australian bantamweight title in 1966, and at 20 years old, the world title from Fighting Harada in Tokyo in 1968, defending it twice.

Lionel Rose was one of nine children from Drouin, Gippsland. He grew up in an Aboriginal settlement called Jackson's Track and nearby Warrugul, and watched his father box and heard his stories around the campfire as a 'gee' man travelling with Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe.

Rose was seen as an 'uncommonly sensible young man' acutely aware of the fates of earlier boxers, especially the Sands brothers and Elly Bennett, and the history of Sharman's boxing tents. Rose was introduced to George Bracken when he was 10 years old on a visit to Melbourne when Bracken was the lightweight champion of Australia.

Soon after he left school at 14, Lionel earned a go at the Australian amateur flyweight title in Tasmania. The Orient Hotel in Warrugul took up a collection to pay his fare and clothes for the trip. Lionel won the title and then the Australian bantamweight title, when he was 18 years old.

Rose was carefully managed by Jack and Shirley Rennie and trained in the backyard of their home in Melbourne. Rose's earnings went into investments, insurance and a sandwich shop before he headed off with the Rennies to Tokyo. The Japanese press nicknamed him the 'black kangaroo'. The American Sports Illustrated wrote of the 1968 fight in Tokyo,

all across Australia that night people clung to radios as if the ringside announcer were Winston Churchill … women wept over Lionel Rose and men shouted ….Lionel Rose was Hercules, Charles Lindbergh and the Messiah all rolled into one.

Lionel Rose fighting Rocky Gattellari in a thirteenth round knockout win to the Australian title, 1967, no source

Melbourne gave him an unprecedented homecoming. From the airport to the Town Hall some 250,000 people massed, shouting 'Good on ya, Lionel! You beaut little Aussie!' Rose won more money than any other Australian fighter. He also spent, in his words, '$100,000 in one year on wine, women, and song'. Yet, Rose gave Aborigines a moment of glory, perhaps the greatest boost they have ever had.

After Rose had retired from boxing he tried his hand at singing in Australia, and had a couple of hit songs in 1970. Rose also became a successful businessman and was able to manage his money and make good financial decisions.

In 1987, at a conference at the MCG, Lionel Rose said that despite sporting achievements, 'the racism won't diminish: we are what we are'. (Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p. 137)

Sport in the Protection era – a ticket out temporarily

Doug Nicholls, Chairman, Aboriginal Sports Foundation 1969-, and Governor of South Australia, 1976-77, publicity photo.

During the Protection era, talented men used sport to empower themselves; sport was seen as an avenue to something better. Ultimately, sport was only a temporary ticket out of the reserve systems as their world-class skills threatened the social order of the day.

A few, however, were able to go beyond the initial economic imperative of sport and its chance of social mobility, out of the missions and reserve system. These few were able to politically advance the position of Indigenous civil rights. These champions used their experiences and standing in sport to help advance and gain citizenship rights, and greater opportunities for Aboriginal sports people to participate across all codes.

Sports people like Doug Nicholls and Lynch Cooper used this experience to go beyond sport and create opportunities for younger Indigenous sports people – to become citizens of not only Australia, but also the world.

Their legacy of the Aboriginal Sports Foundation, created in 1969, is an organisation that encourages Aborigines in sport, to gain for Aborigines more open access to sport, to arrange tours and competition, and to reward distinguished performances. The original Foundation members included: Doug Nicholls (chairman), Elley Bennett, George Bracken, Bill Dempsey, Darby McCarthy and - in association - Lionel Rose.

Related Links

Look, listen and play

Champions - biographical material

Films

  • Rose Against the Odds, 1991 - a period drama of Rose's life story starring Paul Williams and Telly Savalas. It was released as a feature film in 1995.
  • Tent Boxers, 2000, ABC TV, 30 mins Directed by Michael Riley, documentary, it combines first person accounts of tent boxing life with rich archival material of the time.

References

Last updated: 23 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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