IMPACT OF THE GREAT WAR (WW1)
With the advent of war in 1914 the world was about to change dramatically, and that change also pervaded sport and indeed lacrosse. The first noticeable impact on lacrosse following the outbreak of the Great War came in 1915 with the significant reduction in senior numbers due to players enlisting in the armed services. The total number of lacrosseurs who had volunteered by mid 1915 was upwards of 260, representing between 50 and 60% of those eligible for service. Interstate matches were cancelled along with in 1914 the cancellation of a proposed tour of New Zealand by an Australian team, which would have been the first to travel overseas.
In 1916 the view with regard to being qualified to enlist became explicit and the following motion was proposed and adopted by the VALA “During the season 1916, and for the currency of the present European War, or any extension thereof, no person shall be allowed to take part in any matches arranged by the association if over the age of 21 years, unless such person has volunteered for active service with the Australian Expeditionary Forces, and has been rejected by the Defence Authorities, or unless, in the opinion of the sub-committee of the association to be appointed for the purpose, the circumstances of the person are sufficient for his failure to volunteer for active service, when such sub-committee shall give to such a person a certificate of permission to play for any period to be stated”.
The president of the VALA at the time was totally opposed to lacrosse being played while the war lasted and resigned his position, such was the strength of feeling towards support for the empire versus playing lacrosse. Thus formal lacrosse matches, certainly at senior level, were not played in Victoria from 1916-1918. Williamstown was not immune from this directive or national feeling, with significant numbers enlisting in the war.
The club records from 1919 record “Despite a disagreeable afternoon a large gathering of relatives and friends of lacrosse players who had “gone to the front” and “did their bit,” took place last Sunday week at the Punt’ Club Hall, Strand, in connection with the unveiling of an honour roll by Mr. J. G.Latham, K.C.M.G. This ornate memento to deserving players of the local club had been presented by Mr. A. W. Hick, himself, in years agone, a prominent exponent of the pastime. The Mayor presided. Captain J. Fearon (President of the club) :and Mr. Harold Balmer (General secretary of the V.L.A.) were among those present.” Mr. M. D. Nathan (Secretary) had made complete arrangements.
Of the names on the roll, three had made the “supreme sacrifice” – Privates E. Baker, D. McLean and A B. Taylor. The other 38 soldiers from the Club who returned from the conflict were Privates B. Baker, S. Barnes, L Beagley, L Benness, N Bolger; R Bishop, P. Cocks H.B. Causer, P.Davis, J.Davis, J. Drew, L. David, A. C. Forsyth, L.Hewitt, T. Hutchinson, H. Joel, A. Joel, N. Keig, R. Keig, C. Kellett, P. Knowles; C. Lonsdale, S. Mitchell, F. McLaughlin, M. D. Nathan, C. Palmer, A. Roberts, F. Strickland, H. Stubbs, K. Thompson, C. Vallins, F. Webster, J. Westlake, J. V. Woods, C. Woods, J. Woods, F.Woods and J. Williams. The Salvation Army Band service ably filled up the intervals between speeches. The chairman opened the proceedings by inviting Mr. A. Hick to hand over to Captain Fearon, the president of the W.L.C, his presentation honour roll. The latter, on behalf of the members, expressed, the pleasure all would feel at the donor’s gift. The Mayor next introduced Mr. J. G Latham. Mr. Latham replied that it gave him a good deal of pleasure to revisit Williamstown, particularly on so important occasion as the present. The last time he had done so it was to play lacrosse. They were doing honour to 41 members of the Williamstown Lacrosse Club who had proven that they had been of some service to the community and some service to the state. (Applause). During the period of a great emergency they had shown themselves ” willing to serve’ their country and the Commonwealth at great personal risk.” Mr. Howard Balmer, Hon. Secretary to the Lacrosse Association moved a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Latham and the Mayor. It was recognised that during the war lacrosse players had assisted- to “do their bit’. Of 600 playing members of the Association as a whole 500 enlisted, and of these 95 will never return. Captain Fearon seconded, and the motion heartily carried.
Following the war lacrosse, like most sports, was slow to restart given there was high unemployment, customs and fiscal restrictions in place, which limited the import of lacrosse sticks and equipment, rationing was in place and these were very difficult times. But lacrosse was a popular sport and after a few years it did return to its former popularity with Victorians, and Williamstown was no different.
The Club was very successful in its ﬁrst 40 years of competition, with 23 premierships and runners-up 27 times, but did not win an A grade or state league premiership until 1963, and from there the “Fearons” took off and dominated. Since and including 1963, up until 2019, Williamstown has won 34 A grade or state league premierships, runner-up in 15, and missed the grand final on only 8 occasions, out of a total of 57 years.
The Club established a record for lacrosse when, in 1936, it ﬁelded 8 teams and had 139 registered players, making it the largest amateur sporting club in the southern hemisphere.
Reflections by the late Ken Speakman
“1936 was the first time that the Fearon was graded and planted as it is today. Prior to that it was like a cow paddock.
“My first (playing field) was the Pound Reserve; they used to call it. It was bordered by Champion Road, Kororoit Creek Road and Park Crescent. Right smack bang next to the cemetery.”
“I started playing in 1929 aged 11 and again in 1946 after the war.”
“Junior lacrosse started in 1929. Captain Fearon started the ball rolling and the numbers of juniors that turned up amazed the club officials. So much so that they had to make two teams.”
“I took it [my stick] to bed with me.”
“One defeat by a Coburg team, 63 to nothing, is still fresh in my memory!”