Main content

The Tale of Pompey Austin

Albert "Pompey" Austin was the Cats and Australian rules football's first indigenous player

Albert "Pompey" Austin is acknowledged as being the first indigenous Australian to play in an organised Australian Rules football game.  The earliest photograph of him was taken at Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in 1867, when he was about 21 years of age.  

How he became known as "Pompey" Austin is not known.  "Pompey the Great" was a Roman general and statesman in the time of Julius Caesar.  It is believed that men in at least three generations of the Austin family carried that name, possibly in recognition of their fierce resistance to European settlement.  

The first Europeans to arrive – and stay – in Pompey's country were the Manifold brothers who settled on the edge of Lake Purrumbeteinthe late 1830s, near what is now Camperdown.  This land had previously belonged to Pompey's clan, and they resisted the intrusion and takeover of their traditional lands.  

On at least two occasions they burnt down Purrumbete homestead – this history is actually recorded in one of the six murals painted by Walter Withers in the main hall at Purrumbete.  

By the 1860s Pompey's community, the Djargurd wurrung, had been decimated by conflict and European diseases, and he and his family lived at Framlingham mission near Warrnambool.  

In 1869, Pompey competed at the Warrnambool Cricket Club's annual sports day and won three events including the high jump with a leap of 5ft 6 in. (167.64cm) and only lost the steeplechase when he fell at the final hurdle.  He continued to win events at sports meetings around the district.

A brilliant hurdler, his leaps were described as deer-like and he could unleash sudden bursts of speed.

He won many athletic events in the Western District during the 1870s and was so successful that at least one competitor unsuccessfully sought to have him barred from competing on the grounds of his race.  He was also a noted cricketer and boxer.

At the Geelong Easter Sports competition in 1872 he defeated all comers in his events to win the £10 Grand Easter Gift. He returned to Geelong and competed again on May 24, 1872 and although his performances weren't up to his usual high standard he was selected to play for the Geelong Football Club against the reigning premier, Carlton, the very next day.

It was a gamble on the part of the Geelong selectors, as Austin was a talented athlete but not known as a football player.  Although football has been played at Warrnambool since 1861 there is no indication that Pompey Austin had participated in any of these game.  There was a "football drop kick" competition during an Easter sports meeting at Port Fairy in 1871, but he is not recorded has having taken part, although he did win a number of athletic events at that meet.  

The Geelong-Carlton match, played at the Argyle ground, was hard fought and resulted in a nil-all draw.  On the ground playing that day, along with Pompey Austin, were brothers Tom, Horace and Egbert Wills. However Pompey, who played barefoot in the match, did not have a major role and the media coverage of the game suggested that his role was regarded with "amusement" by spectators.  Sadly, he never played at that level again.  

Adam Goodes has written that, given Pompey Austin's reputation as a supremely talented athlete, "one might have thought that this earned him some sense of respect. Not so."  

He was treated as a figure of amusement. The same fate befell Colac Sammy when he played for Colac against Geelong in 1877. The Geelong Advertiser of 10 September, 1877 reported that: "The game caused great amusement at times, 'Colac Sammy' in particular creating roars of laughter."

Football research academics Robert Pascoe of Victoria University and Mark Pennings from the Queensland University of Technology, say their research indicates that Pompey Austin was well known in the area as a skilled general athlete and a good runner.  At the time he was brought into the Geelong side most of the football clubs were beginning to widen their recruitment base to include individuals with good general athletic skills.  They believe this contributed to Geelong's later success. (The Club won Premierships in 1878, 1879, 1880, 1882, 1883, 1884 and 1886.)

They believe Pompey Austin would have been selected to play based on his talent and skill. But, they note, while all evidence suggests he was accepted by the other players, it would have been difficult for him.  Their research indicates Geelong officials tried to recruit Aboriginal players to the Club but they didn’t want to come to Geelong because it wasn’t their territory or their clan.  They didn't enjoy being away from home, not playing with friends or their community.  

Albert "Pompey" Austin had a deep and abiding love for his land which he passed on to his son, Chris, also to be known as Pompey. Chris "Pompey" Austin was a great keeper of traditions and stories and shared some of them with a young John Manifold at Purrumbete. When John was nine years old he was sent off to boarding school at Geelong Grammar.  Manifold was desperately lonely and missed being home on the land he had grown to love. Many years later he wrote about how, while at Geelong Grammar, he had envied the Austins and their oneness with their country.   In part he wrote…..The hurt I hated most at nine years old was separation, not from kith and kin but from the land…tawny-gold acres…fragrant in summer…yet cruel to withold itself from me and not to let me in.  I used to dream of it at boarding-school and envy Pompey Austin whom the land seemed to enfold and bless...

Albert "Pompey" Austin helped to pave the way for Geelong's indigenous players, including current Cats Nakia Cockatoo, Tim Kelly, Quinton Narkle, Jamaine Jones and Brandan Parfitt.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs