An old black Humber Super Snipe was one of the familiar sights around town in our growing-up days of the fifties.
Its driver, with his hat tilted at a strategic angle and a pipe usually drooping from his mouth, shuttled the trusty vehicle at little more than a steady pace, his gaze never wavering from the road ahead.
It wasn’t his antiquated car or his stern demeanour that gave the old codger ‘Legend’ status. It was Dad’s proclamation that ‘Gentleman’ Bill Hickey was ‘possibly the best all-round sportsman that Wangaratta has seen’.
His achievements certainly lend credence to this argument. Bill excelled in football, cricket, cycling, bowls, billiards and golf. He was adept at a few others and his active involvement lasted for more than 60 years.
The Hickey family moved to Wangaratta from Everton in 1890, when Bill was 10 years old. The closing years of the 19th century saw district sport at last becoming organised on a formal basis.
The Ovens and Murray Football League kicked off in 1893, numbering among its ranks two local teams – West End and Wangaratta. The Wangaratta Cricket Association saw the light of day in late 1895, the Bowling Club was formed in 1899 and well-conducted sporting Carnivals began to mushroom.
Hickey was one of a number of talented boys who were to lay the foundations for some spectacular success on the town’s behalf in the years to come.
He made his footy debut with Wangaratta at the age of 16. The Blue and Whites were unable to quell the dominance of the all-powerful Albury and Rutherglen at the time but slowly improved. They scored their best win since joining the O & M when they defeated the famous Redlegs in 1901.
Wangaratta won 8.8 to 3.7 and finished the season in third position.
Hickey was by now a star at either centre half forward or back and, after Wangaratta’s win in an important game one supporter penned a lyrical ditty which finished something like this:
“………….and Billy Hickey up forward, the trick can always do.
For though the odds are great, he never fails to put the oval through,
When we’re playing to be premiers…………..”
Bill was invited to the ‘big smoke’ by South Melbourne in 1902 and played 46 games for the Bloods, mainly in defence. He was back with Wangaratta in 1906 as captain and spent the rest of his footballing days in his home town, apart from appearing in one match with Carlton in 1907.
His main summer sport was cricket and he was a batsman of some note, besides being recognised as the outstanding wicket-keeper in the area. He was generally among the first picked for rep games and captained Wangaratta’s team for years.
He juggled his efforts on the cricket field by contesting foot running events with considerable success. And his speed and skill as a hydrant -man in Fire-Brigade competitions throughout the state brought many trophies back to Wangaratta’s Brigade headquarters.
Cycling was a popular sport among the young bucks at the turn of the century and Hickey was the leading rider in town. At the peak of his form he contested the 1899 Austral Wheel Race, rated then as the premier event in the nation.
The Austral was conducted on the MCG. Although competing against big names such as ‘Plugger’ Martin, Percy Beauchamp and Newhaven Jackson, Bill rode his way into the final and finished fourth, narrowly missing out on the 50 pound third prize.
Hickey announced his retirement from football in 1913,aged 32. He and his father had started the town’s first taxi-hire business, situated where Frank’s Footwear now stands. There was little time left to maintain his fitness for active sports.
He was, however, coaxed to pull on the boots during the war, when Wangaratta’s stocks were severely depleted.
Whilst one episode of his sporting journey was closing, another was just getting underway. Bill indulged his passion for billiards, joined the Bowls Club and became a low-handicap golfer.
He represented the North-East for years in the Leader Shield, a regional golf competition.
He was the district’s outstanding billiards and snooker exponent and was the natural choice to oppose Walter Lindrum when the great man’s touring exhibitions came to Wangaratta.
Devotees of all ages would pack the Billiards Parlour (above Flynn’s Menswear) in an eagerly- awaited night out to see the local champ pitted against the world’s greatest.
It was in the world of bowls that Bill Hickey was to make an indelible mark. Even now, 50 years after the last time he rolled one down on the Docker Street rinks, his name lingers on.
He was an automatic selection for Victoria in interstate Carnivals – the last in Brisbane in 1956 – and attended 45 consecutive Country Weeks. At the age of 76 his form was still good enough to earn a ‘Big V’ blazer. He went to his last Country Week as a sprightly 81 year-old.
He captured his first Club Championship in 1919/20 and the last of a record 15 in 1954/55. He was crowned O &M Champion of Champions twice.
Bill became a popular figure on concert platforms as an entertainer with the renowned Tin Kan Band, a long-standing group he formed with Bert Webster, Sim Emery, ‘Kicker’ Sloan and Albert Wohlers. They raised hundreds of pounds for charity – in particular the Wangaratta Base Hospital.
Bill Hickey died in 1969, leaving behind a legacy of a sporting career amazing for its variety and the generations it spanned.
There are still people who can regale you with tales that have been passed on about the old fellow. One person remembers nicking pomegranates from a tree at the back of the Hickey residence, which backed on to the Merriwa Park Donkey track.
And then being chased – and caught – by the ageing Bill, who still showed a sufficient turn of pace to effect a decent ‘foot up the arse’.