Dally Messenger III
A personal reminiscence
I was 21 when my grandfather, Herbert Henry Dally Messenger, died. It was November 1959. My father, Dally II, my brother, Ken, and I were in the chief mourning coach. Other family members and all the Rugby League officials were in a long convoy - following.
The funeral left St Marks' Anglican Church, Darling Point and I remember first being surprised by the TV crews at the church (TV was very new then and, from memory, it was all black and white).
These too were the days when, by law, a Funeral procession took precedence over all other traffic. Thousands of people lined the route to the cemetery at La Perouse and police were at every corner holding back the traffic. As we came to the various groups of people, the men, respectfully, took off their hats and held them to their chest as a kind of salute. It was the custom of those days. I was only 21 and at times I wore a hat too.
As a child I would spend holidays with Dally and his second wife Nancy at 26 Glendon Rd, Double Bay. She was a very strict woman whose main concern was that the men in her life wore clean underwear "in case they were in an accident"!
"Pop", as I called him, was always good company, my chief memory being his teaching me the wonders of nature. I recall him asking me to wonder at the even patterning of the pine cone which he had in his hand.
From the ages of ten to 14 I lost track of him when I went to live with my other maternal grandparents in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
I linked up with Dally again. In my mid-teens I would regularly visit him at the Leagues' Club in Phillip St Sydney. He had a room on the second floor. He had very few belongings and the one valuable possession he had was the famous RAS Shield which had been presented to him in 1914 and which sat in a corner of his room.
I remember my grandfather as an unassuming and very modest man. He was also very obliging and a great ambassador for the League. At Phillip St our conversations would be regularly interrupted by visitors asking to see him. I would stand on the perimeter as groups of men from the country would come in and pump his hand, sometimes with tears in their eyes, as they recalled to him their memory of this or that try or goal. He would allow them to shout him a beer while I waited in the foyer. I was not allowed in the section where liquor was sold and served.
I recall once a group of Rugby Union fans were at the League's Club. There was a sometimes bitter rivalry in those days between the codes, and the superiority of amateur status, as was communicated so powerfully in the film "Chariots of Fire", was value arrogantly defended. Dally's reply was gracious. "I played more Union than I did League" he would say often. He enjoyed people and he enjoyed company. Furthermore, Rugby was just a game, and he knew it.
Frequently we would go down to Circular Quay and catch a ferry which followed the yacht races of the "eighteen footers". Dally would introduce me around to all his mates with great pride. Once away from the Quay, and free from the gaze of the police, the bookies would emerge and all the "passengers" would bet unceasingly on the yacht races and the horse races and anything else that moved. These were happy times when he would spend time with his relatives and lifelong friends from his boyhood days. I recall he also had a girlfriend who was lovely person and who made sure I was well looked after by way of ice cream and other much desired delicacies. There was much laughter, back slapping and repartee focused on the results of the various races.
Dally was basically a boatman, a boatbuilder, and Sydney Harbour was the context of his life. Many do not know that he was for seven years catamaran champion of Sydney Harbour and a title I have found difficult to document - long oarsman champion of Australia. (His father had been champion sculler of Victoria and runner-up to for championship of the world. His grandfather had been champion sculler of England - the famous Doggett Coat and Badge.)
He was particularly honoured at the League's Club by two people - as I recall. Jack Sprowster, a doorman of personality and feeling, and Dan Frawley, Dally's Kangaroo team mate and then head waiter at the Club.
The other officials, especially the group led by Jersey Flegg, treated Dally rather off handedly and sometimes badly, the common opinion being that they were jealous of his fame, and his unfailing popularity with Rugby League fans.
There were two incidents which made my father furious. They both made media headlines and were played right out in the newspaper "Truth". Every year all the players in the First Kangaroos were presented with a "Pioneer" blazer. When the Flegg faction tried to stop this, the media portrayed (correctly) the citizens of Sydney as ablaze with indignation. The same reaction occurred when they attempted to charge Dally Messenger rent for his room (he was then a pensioner. He was also a completely non-mercenary person.). As for Dally, he took about as much notice of these goings on, as he did of the "hit" men who tried to injure him on the field of play. It seemed to me that without rancour he simply laughed them off.
His last years were sad. He came to live with my father and my stepmother in Woy Woy north of Sydney. My stepmother was a difficult person in ways and would abuse Dally shrilly when the norms of her house were not strictly adhered too. He could not stand it. He always had had unceasing invitations from country clubs n NSW and Queensland to kick off at matches, present trophies and the like. To get away from my stepmother he accepted every invitation he could. But I know he felt that he did not have a home.
My father experienced the usual dilemma - torn between family members who could not get along together. Anyway, Dally went to Gunnedah on one trip and Con Barbato, licensee of the Royal Hotel, offered him a permanent room and a gentlemen's agreement that he would frequent the Dally M Bar which honoured Dally but also brought the hotel a great deal of extra business. A good quid pro quo. Dally told me that his favourite time was walking up to the local primary school at "playtime" where the kids would talk to him excitedly about fpootball and his past exploits. The teachers had briefed them well on his place in Australia's history - and he loved children.
Dally died there in 1959 aged 76.
My father sent me up to collect his scrap book and the shield and the honour caps and other memorabilia but Con Barbato hung on to them doggedly. I argued for two or three days and eventually came away with the tow most important items the Shield and the Scrap book. The scrapbook was the basis form my book, "The Master" , the story of the beginnings of Rugby League which was published in 1978 by Angus and Robertson.
A special thanks to Richard Walsh who gave me an advance on royalties to finish the book.
The League refused me any support. Kevin Humphries, the then secretary of Rugby League, offensively quoted the famous lines of Henry Ford to me, to wit, "History is Bunk". I must say I wasn't very sad, when he came to grief.
It could have been a lot better book with the League's support.
Dally Messenger III
The Master - The Beginnings of Australian Rugby League by Dally R. Messenger was published by Angus and Robertson, Sydney Australia in 1982. ISBN 0 207 14731 0
The following is an article from the
Encyclopedia of Australian Sport,
by Jim Shepherd, Rigby, Sydney 1980.
Messenger, Herbert 'Dally'
In pride of place in the NSW Leagues' Club in Sydney hangs a full-length portrait of a footballer. Underneath in a simple title 'The Master'. No name. Nothing more. The portrait hangs surrounded by blow-up pictures, all captioned, of Clive Churchill, Gus Risman, Ernest Ward, Puig-Aubert, Dave Brown, all greats of Rugby League.
Probably nowhere in the world has any sportsman received a greater tribute. The Master is Dally Messenger. To Rugby League he is a magnified Joe Louis of boxing, Sir Donald Bradman of cricket, Stanley Matthews of soccer, and magically blended into one super sportsman.
Messenger was born in the Sydney suburb of Balmain on 12 April 1883, son of Charles A. Messenger, a former sculling champion of Victoria, and grandson of James A. Messenger who had won the sculling championship of England.
Sculling never appealed to Dally, even after his father established Messenger's boat sheds at Double Bay. Football was his first and only sporting love and as a schoolboy he played regularly in Double Bay Park. The game was Rugby Union Rugby League had not been invented - and after a brilliant career as a schoolboy five-eighth Messenger trialled for the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club. The year was 1905 and Messenger was 22, old even in those days to begin a senior Rugby career. Though Messenger starred in the club's reserve-grade team in his first season club officials were hesitant about grading him in the firsts side the following season.
Messenger was only 171.5 cm tall and weighed barely 70kg. When he made the firsts team in 1906 Messenger was an instant sensation and gained selection in the NSW team in against Queensland. In 3 representative matches he scored 5 tries and kicked 11 goals. The Rugby league hierarchy decided to groom Messenger as Australia's captain.
But 1907 saw the start of Rugby League and professional football, and when a New Zealand League team contacted cricket great Victor Trumper to arrange some matches in Sydney on their way to play the new code in England, Trumper decided to lure Messenger away from the amateur code in the hope other top players would follow.
Messenger finally accepted terms to turn professional and was made captain of the 'Australian Professional Team' to play a 15-a-side game against New Zealand on 17 August at the Sydney Showground. The New Zealanders won 12-8 and, much to the dismay of the Rugby Union body, a huge crowd turned up - most of them to watch Messenger. Such was the response that 2 more matches were hurriedly arranged on 21 August and 24 August 3 matches in a single week!
The New Zealanders were so impressed with Messenger he was invited to join them on the trip to England, where Rugby League was restricted to the north of England and called the Northern Union code. Messenger was a sensation on tour for New Zealand and when he returned to Australia in 1908 was immediately made vice captain of The Pioneers, the first Australian Rugby team to tour England.
With 5 goals he almost single-handedly helped Australia snatch a 22-all draw in the first Test against England, played at St James Park, London. Made captain in the second Test he scored a 75-yard try and converted it for Australia sole 5 points in a 5-15 defeat. Injured, he missed the third Test.
Back in Australia for the 1909 season Messenger dominated the game. His goal kicking rose to new heights. In one club match he kicked 9 goals from 10 attempts. The one he missed was kicked from 15 yards inside his own half and bounced off the crossbar. In another match for the Eastern Suburbs club Messenger scored 3 tries from moves which led to the rules of the games being altered. The most important change being introduced after Messenger deliberately punched the ball ahead past his opponents, raced through and gathered on the full, to score a try.
When England toured Australia in 1910 Messenger caused another rule to be introduced when he placed the ball for an easy kick at goal, casually strolled up as it to inspect the positioning and suddenly kicked it gently ahead, caught it, and raced over for a try. That season the Queensland Rugby League suggested to the NSW body that in interstate games Messenger be restricted to his own half of the field!
In 1911 Messenger rewrote the goal-kicking record books and actually agreed to play one match against Queensland and stayed within his own half. That season he kicked 108 goals in 21 matches and in all matches scored 270 points. In the games against Queensland where he was not restricted to his own half he scored 8 tries and kicked 24 goals. Against New Zealand he scored 2 tries and kicked 16 goals. He also led Eastern Suburbs to a premiership win and in only 6 of the club matches played that season did he fail to reach a double-figure points tally.
The same season Messenger also agreed to a frantic plea from Queensland to represent that State against New Zealand. That game placed Messenger in a unique situation: although born in Sydney, and always a NSW resident, he had represented Australia, New Zealand, NSW and Queensland.
Messenger made only one Australian team trip to England, declining the 1911 tour because of illness in the family. In 1913, the height of his career, he announced he was tired of football and went to work for the City Council. When he retired from work he lived rent-free in a flat at the NSW Rugby League headquarters in Philip Street, Sydney.
In 1940 Dally Messenger was still alive. He was 58 years of age and all his contemporaries were still alive. A large percentage of the population had seen him play Rugby. Truth Newspaper ran a series of 14 articles which presented Dally as what he was - indisputably the greatest player of all time.
Those interested can obtain the full text from firstname.lastname@example.org
"Truth" Newspaper, Sunday, April 14, 1940
Dally Messenger's Life Story No. 1 in the series.
Freakish World Champion of Rugby
The world knows him as "Dally M." At the height of his career they called him "The Master." He was. There has been none like him since. There never had been before. Messenger is the name - christened Herbert Henry - genius of Rugby football of either code. Perhaps it is superfluous that the "Noblest Roman of them all," the "human freak," "Dally" Messenger should be introduced to the sporting public of Australia by "Truth" to-day in this, the first instalment of his life story.
Wherever Rugby football is played, be it Rugby League or Union, the name Messenger is certain to be mentioned. He is the basis of comparison - to one by whom the standards are set. Most footballers have their critics. "Dally M" had none. He was the footballer par excellence.
Because of him they altered a rule of Rugby. To him orthodoxy was prosaic. He was always three moves ahead of the other fellows. HE WAS DIFFERENT. And that was why he became "The Master"
Many are the incidents in which he figured - starred and shone. It should be. And as you read, you will be told of them, enjoying those great colourful days of the long ago when the thousands around the field stood as one man, gasping or cheering as the Wizard of the Leather took the ball.
"Truth" has presented many great feature stories to its legion of readers, but it is doubtful if there is any so thrilling and entertaining as that of the life of "Dally" Messenger.
Around him as the keystone in the arch, the code of Rugby League in Australia was built. Probably without him, the game would never have been nurtured into the great and thriving organisation it became in later years.
And here is told first of all how his greatest friend, his mother, Mrs. C. A. Messenger, now 86 years of age decided his football destiny and that of Rugby League. It was on her say-so - yes or no - whether he was to remain with the old code or join the new. It was on her answer that the destiny of Rugby League was set. "Yes" she said.
And the rest is now Rugby League history. In 1907, the die was cast. "Dally M" formed the Revolutionaries of Rugby. It was a big step for him to take, because at that time, the Rugby Union could draw gates of 52,000 against New Zealand..
True, "Dally" was paid a sum in changeover - but a mere fleabite compared with those that are paid today to men to play football. However, it is doubtful whether that ever worried him. The man changed his code and became the centre of a storm beats imagination - vilification, threats and the rest. But he went on just as unconcerned as he always was with the ball in his hands or at his feet.
The whole story is told here - you will note it as you go along. But he shows no rancour - tells the whole the whole impartially and showing no greater interest in the attacks than he did at the time.
The boy and the man became the King of the Football Roost from 1906 to 1914. But he goes further than that - he recounts the Golden Age of Australian Rugby over 40 years touching intimately on famous players from England., New Zealand and Queensland - of the rise and fall of codes and people.
From the Oxford Companion to Australian Sport, this summary from Chris Cuneen
MESSENGER, HERBERT HENRY ('Dally') (1883-1959), born Balmain, Sydney, is acknowledged as Rugby League's greatest player, and is known simply as 'The Master'.
He worked in his family's boatshed and played football at Double Bay Public School. A good cricketer and sailor, from about 1900 he played Rugby Union football with Warrigals and in 1905 joined Easts.
The next year he played first grade and won a following for his great ball skills, cheeky tricks, and accurate, long-range kicking with either foot.
A centre-three-quarter, his running with the ball was spectacular and inventive. In August 1907 his decision to play against the visiting professional NZ rugby union team was a key element in the founding of the Rugby League code, and Messenger. went on to tour England with the New Zealanders.
Returning to the first Sydney Rugby League season in 1908 he played for Easts and then again toured England, this time with the first Kangaroos in 1908-9. Again he was the star player. He did not tour with the second Kangaroos and his 1911 season tally of 270 points was a record until it was passed by Dave Brown in 1935. Dally Messenger retired from football in 1913.
A typical. working-class Australian who became famous through sporting prowess and saw the world, but kept little of the money he made, he was Rugby League's first and greatest hero.