‘ONE OF NATURE’S GENTLEMEN….’

Old Bill Findlay never got around to laying down his pen.

Even as emphysema was ravaging his lungs, and making life near-unbearable, he was putting the finishing touches to a book on Wangaratta Turf Club’s history.

They launched it in the presence of a room full of dignitaries, and local racing personalities. But Bill wasn’t there…..It would have irked him to miss out on regaling a captive audience with some yarns of the past. After all, he was as fluent in public-speaking as he was with the written word.

Unfortunately, a couple of months earlier – in December 1985 – this local legend had passed on…….

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Bill saw an incredible amount of change in his 84 years.

He often recalled the excitement of early 20th-century Chiltern, the town of his birth, when gold was the magnet which drew hordes of people to seek their fortune in the mines dotted around the area.

He remembered sitting beside the cobblestone highway, watching the first Motor Car tootling through Chiltern, en route to Sydney ; and the happy times of his childhood days at the Presentation Convent.

His working life began in 1917, with the Postal Department in Culcairn and a couple of surrounding Riverina towns. It was interrupted during the Great Depression when he was employed by the Forests Commission.

He threw himself into this work, organising the ‘Sustenance Gangs’ of unemployed people who were desperately trying to eke out a living and support a family.

He recalled the miserable sight of proud men walking aimlessly back and forth along country roads……Roads to nowhere……

That impacted him heavily , and undoubtedly fanned his interest in fighting inequality.

He had a stint with the RAAF during the War and, soon after hostilities finished, obtained a permanent position with the Postal Department in Wangaratta…….And that’s where he stayed.

He dabbled in politics – with a strong leaning towards the ALP. Dad, who was a great mate of Bill’s, privately reckoned he was too nice a bloke to become embroiled in this dog-eat-dog environment. When the ‘Split’ occurred in 1955, Bill put his principles before ambition and swung his support behind the Democratic Labour Party.

He thus sacrificed any lofty political aspirations he may have held, but it typified his honesty and integrity. It was also characteristic of him that he remained on good terms with those who had now become his political foes.

He stood on six occasions for State and Federal elections. As an impressionable lad, the sight of Bill’s photo in political hand-outs and newspaper articles in the fifties made me think he was a larger-than-life personality.

Was this the same ‘Old Bill’ who would negotiate his trusty (rusty) bike, his only mode of transport, to and from his Vincent Road residence to the Post Office, proffering a hearty greeting to all and sundry….. Or absorbedly suck on his pipe as he watched his beloved Rovers in combat ?

One of his Rovers acquaintances, Mannie Cochineas, provided his flash black Pontiac to transport Bill throughout the electorate when he was campaigning. Hopefully voters didn’t get the impression he was a toff, as he swanned around in style. Nothing could have been further from the truth………

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Bill was passionate about footy. His enthusiasm for the game was fostered as a whippersnapper, when his father used to take him to watch Chiltern, who were then part of the O & M, in action. He had his Red and White heroes and played well into his thirties.

When he and Mary and their two daughters settled in Wang he drifted towards the Rovers, and became an integral figure in the early history of the Club.

He spoke of those dark days of the late 40’s-early 50’s. “I often look back and wonder how those big-hearted men carried on,“ he would say.

“Beset with financial difficulties and, in fact, existing from Saturday to Saturday, they never whimpered. Their love of the game ( and often a hand in their own pocket ) was all that kept the Rovers afloat.”

“The future for the Club, at one stage, looked as bleak as London on its foggiest morning, But thankfully a loyal supporter, Greg Spurr, gave a personal guarantee of 400 pounds, interest-free, to be repaid at their convenience.”

As the Club Secretary, he appeared, with fellow delegate Ollie Batey, at the crucial Ovens and Murray meeting which was to decide whether the Hawks – and Myrtleford – would be admitted to the League in 1950.

“When delegates began quizzing us, I nervously fingered the club Bank Book. We were accepted into the O & M with no money, but a till full of confidence.”

He reflected on the state of the Oval which the Hawks took over in 1953: “ The Clubrooms were in such a dilapidated state that any self-respecting swaggie would turn up his nose at the thought of camping there.”

Bill’s habit was to write copious notes and keep statistics about anything pertaining to the Rovers: Games played…….. Goalkickers,……..Thumb-nail sketches of club identities…..and relevant fortune-changing events…..He also wrote match-reports of the Hawks’ games for the Chronicle.

The arrival of Bob Rose in 1956 flushed out a legion of new followers. Bill suggested capitalizing on this new-found support by producing ‘Hawk News’, which kept fans abreast of club gossip, provided Team Lists and displayed the day’s Racing Guide.

He was the editor of this publication which sold, at its peak, 800 copies per home game. Unfortunately the life of ‘Hawk News’ was nipped in the bud after one season when the O & M complained that it had badly affected sales of their official organ, ‘The Critic’.

Sundry other interests competed for the attention of Bill Findlay. He was Secretary of the Trotting Club ( for 21 years ) and the Cycle Club, a member of the Athletic Carnival committee, the King River Trust, Old People’s Welfare committee, the Wangaratta Debating Association and the Postal Worker’s Union.

He was a highly sought-after Adjudicator, Debating coach and Guest Speaker.

Soon after he retired from the Post Office in 1962, Bill offered himself up as a candidate for Council. A desire to give something back to the community to which he had become so attached prompted him to serve for thirteen years

Considering the respect he commanded, it was no surprise that he became a highly-popular figure in local government, and wore the Mayoral chains for two terms.

When he stepped away from Council Bill quipped that: “It’s time to give the armchair critics a go.”

That now gave him ample time to devote to his hobby – writing. Besides the afore-mentioned History of the Racing Club he also put together the History of the Wangaratta Trotting Club (1976) and co-wrote, with fellow-councillor and friend Bill O’Callaghan: ‘Wangaratta 1959-1984 A Silver City’.

He retained his involvement with the Rovers as Treasurer of their Past Players Association, and initially floated the idea of publishing a book to commemorate the Club’s 35-year O & K/ O & M history.

The culmination was ‘The Hawk Story’, which saw the light of day in 1980. Without being too immodest, he would probably have claimed its launch as one of his finest hours.

Flushed with success, this prompted a follow-up: ‘The Hawk Hall of Fame’, which surfaced two years later……

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Bill ( at this stage in his eighties) and Mary were by now domiciled in ‘up-market’ Chomley Avenue, just around the corner from the Hill’s. My regular visits would follow a similar pattern: “Ah, Kevin,” was the greeting. “Mary, would you mind whacking the kettle on……( rubbing his hands together) Now, what have you got for me ?”

Then we’d hurtle down memory lane…….

I made an off-hand remark one day, about a premiership that Chiltern had just won against Milawa. The match had garnered some bad press and the O & K footy public was in outrage at the alleged heavy-handed tactics that had been used.

This brought an immediate retort from the old fellah, who couldn’t suppress the fierce pride he still held for the town of his birth.

We’d discuss our mutual fascination with writing. I’d mention a particular subject and he’d start hunting around: “Now I think I’ve scribbled down something here that could help you……”

The result is that I still have reams and reams of notes that Bill handed over.

He was an uncomplicated man, with great faith, completely imbued with the philosophy of ‘doing the right thing.’

So, if you happen to be driving down Evans Street and cast a glance at the sign at the entrance to the ‘W.J.Findlay Oval’ spare a thought for one of nature’s gentlemen…………

(With help from Phil Nolan)

‘TWO OF YESTERYEAR’S HEROES……’

The banner headlines of the metropolitan newspapers told the tale: ‘IRENE PYLE’S AMAZING RIDE FROM SYDNEY….’

It’s early-November 1938, and endurance cycling, which had captivated the sporting public during this post-Depression era, is toasting a new champion. A diminutive Wangaratta girl tackles the gruelling journey from Sydney to Melbourne, and shatters a long-standing record.

Fans clamour for more information on this unlikely hero……………

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Irene Pyle’s inspiration for cycling came some years earlier, when she attended a ‘Welcome’ for ‘Billie’ Samuel, who was passing through Wangaratta on a successful Sydney- Melbourne record attempt.

It became her ambition to replicate the feat. In the meantime, though, she had to learn the rudiments of riding a bike.IMG_4259

Irene operated a frock shop, and reckoned that cycling would help her lose weight and enable her to keep fit.

So began an intensive training regime, which she would undertake without fail every day. Closing her shop each night, she would set off on an 80km ride.

On Friday evenings it would extend to 230km, as she’d begin a 10-hour trip to Melbourne.

The week-end would be spent roaming the city, purchasing dress material. She’d then jump on her fixed-wheel bike ( nicknamed ‘Ironside’), loaded with as much fabric as she could strap onto the frame, and return to Wangaratta on Sunday.

Her devotion to her new sport attracted the attention of Harry Arnall, a local bike dealer, who suggested she had the necessary talent and determination to fulfil her dream of one day becoming a successful endurance rider.

Firstly, Irene set an 80km record of 2 hours 44.3 minutes, despite incurring a rear tyre puncture on her Malvern Star.

Eighteen months after she commenced her rigorous training, Arnall decided that she was ready to make an assault on the Sydney-Melbourne record.

Standing a little more than 5 foot and weighing just 8st 3lb, she was an unlikely sporting figure; clad in shorts she’d sewn, and a Masters Sport cycling top.

The 1700 foot climb over the Razorback mountain was the first obstacle, and even a nasty fall in loose road metal near Goulburn failed to deter the ‘Mighty Midget’.

By the time she reached the official half-way mark – Tarcutta – Irene was seven minutes ahead of the men’s record time, set by the legendary Hubert Opperman.

However, at Albury, she lost more than 45 minutes, owing to complications with the Time-keeper’s car, which put her well behind ‘Oppy’s’ time.

But once she reached the familiar sights of Wangaratta she began to pick up speed, and was spurred on by a large crowd which applauded generously, as she passed through her home town.IMG_4251

As Irene rode into Melbourne, she was greeted by more than 40,000 people, who had gathered for the Globe Sporting Carnival. Her time broke the previous record, set by Joyce Barry, by 10 hours 23 minutes, and was just 41 minutes short of Opperman’s record.

She clocked 40 hours 23 minutes – which was achieved with just two hours sleep, and on a diet of honey sandwiches, raw eggs ( which she cracked on her handlebars ) and washed down with gallons of milk.

The record time remained intact until 1966, when Margaret McLaughlin sliced off a further four hours……

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A week after reaching the heights of Endurance Cycling, Irene gave her bike to her niece- and announced her retirement. She married Charles Plowman, went on to raise a family of six kids and opened a Bridal Shop in Melbourne.

When she passed away in 1999, her memory was perpetuated by the ‘Irene Plowman Award’, which honours Australian Cycling Club members who are able to complete five 200km rides in a season…………….

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Just as Irene Plowman faded from the sporting landscape after achieving the pinnacle of her career, so did Des Shelley, who flashed across the athletics scene like a kaleidoscope in the early fifties.

Shelley was born at Indigo, and did his early schooling at Cornishtown before moving on to Chiltern.

A smart footballer, the pacy Shelley played more than 100 games in the Red and White, but it was his ability as a sprinter that brought him under the wing of legendary Rutherglen trainer Jack King.

Shrewd old King, who had guided his brother Chris to the 1908 Stawell Gift  almost half a century earlier, had a quality stable. He and his sidekick, Lewis Jackson, had a reputation for turning out beautifully-prepared runners.

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Des Shelley with his trainer, the legendary Jack King.

They were also former footy team-mates in those near-unbeatable Redleg sides of the early 20th century and were both firm believers in the philosophy that ‘a shut-mouth catches no flies’.

Rarely did anyone in athletic circles get an inkling from the tight-lipped King, as to how any of his ‘boys’ would perform. But he did privately divulge that the 22 year-old Shelley was ‘ a bit of a chance’ to win the Wangaratta Gift of 1954.

And why not ? He had a good mark, was in peak form and would have the backing of the crowd, being ‘almost’ a local.

The weather had been miserable in the week leading up to the Carnival, and the rain continued to tumble down on the Saturday.

For the first time in history, the Gift heats were postponed from Saturday to Monday. With the track still damp and spongy, the out-markers held quite an advantage. It certainly lessened the prospects of the Athletic Club’s main draw-card, ‘The Jamaican Express’, Herb McKenley.

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The ‘Jamaican Express’, Herb McKenley.

A glance at McKenley’s record indicates why he was all the rage at Wangaratta. He was a Gold Medallist at the Helsinki Olympics, and a triple Olympic Silver Medallist, and was still in hot form, at the age of 31.

He had cut a swathe through the field in his heat and semi-final, but he was off scratch in the Final, and was conceding big margins to the limit-markers.

He ran brilliantly, but he and Shelley hit the tape together. The pair simply could not be separated by the judges.IMG_4263

Shelley, interviewed by the Sporting Globe representative said: “I just had the feeling that I broke the tape first.”

The accompanying ‘Globe’ photograph appeared to indicate this, but the judges declared it a ‘Dead-Heat’.

“It would have been murder had McKenley been Award the race,” said the ‘Globe’.

McKenley was all for splitting the prize-money, but Shelley opted for a re-run.

No-one had left the Showgrounds in the 40 minutes that elapsed before the re-run. This time Shelley was a clear winner; not by a big margin, mind you, but enough to send the crowd into raptures.

Shelley was dragged a yard for the Wodonga Gift the following week, and was worried by an injured thigh. But again, he was to take out the prize-money. The second place-getter ? Herb McKenley.

The Benalla Gift Meeting was held the next week, and Shelley broke down in his heat. He never fully recovered from the injury and his career drew to a close.

But he had a role to play back at Rutherglen, as the training partner for John Hayes, who was being ‘set’ for the Stawell Gift that year.

Hayes duly took out Stawell, making it a big couple of months for the King stable.

Des Shelley moved his family to Cobram in the seventies and kept busy in his post-athletics days milking 400 cows, with the help of his five sons.

But he never forgot that fabulous fortnight in 1954, when he had the ‘wood’ on the Jamaican Express’……..