Fifteen Young Men

As we Melburnians  move through Grand Final week, there’s lots of talk about the tragedies of the Grand Final, of players not being selected because of injury or poor form. Or fans not getting tickets because of corporate greed. These things are sad, and heartbreaking when that’s what you have been working towards in your career. But they are not tragedies, in the way that 15 members of the Mornington Football Club, returning from a match against Mordialloc by sailing boat, were drowned. That is a tragedy.

I’ve just finished reading Paul Kennedy’s engaging book, Fifteen Young Men, about the Mornington tragedy. In 1892, Mornington was a then a thriving seaside township on Port Phillip Bay, with two football teams. Australian Rules football had very much taken root as the winter sport of choice, and was well supported by townspeople.

As fate would have it, the match against Mordialloc was supposed to be played in Mornington, but a late decision was made to switch it to Mordialloc, about 30 km to the north. Being the Queens Birthday long weekend, one of the team members, a fisherman, offered to sail members of the team up and back to the match. The team set off, and were heard singing songs all the way up the coast.  A hard fought draw was played out, and the team set off in the dark, in worsening weather, for home. They never made it, the boat capsizing not far from Mornington, and all were lost, clearly exhausted after 2 hours of football, being pitched into the winter waters of Port Phillip Bay, which I can attest to from personal experience, in mid winter the water temperature gets down to between 10 and 12C, at night, they didn’t stand a chance.

Three members of the same family, sons of the local minister died. Fathers of small children. Accountants, carpenters, medical students. Not all the young men were found, many lay at rest, like my own father, at the bottom of Port Phillip Bay. Being a small country town, the loss was keenly felt, and reverberated throughout the colony of Victoria.

The book is a terrific read, inspired by Kennedy being a local, seeing the memorial erected to the tragedy, wondering why it had disappeared into history, and determined to bring it to life. HE sets the story up well, so you understand the context of the local history, the importance of football in an emerging colony, and then the tragedy. The writing is clear and straight up, there is no sensationalism about the story. He tells it how it is, but with a warmth, that by the end, we feel as though we too, have also lost someone. We want to shout at “Jim, no stay with Alice, you haven’t played for years. Or “Charlie, take the train home, like you were going to”

I’ve seen these impacts on a number of occasions, a plane crash near Gisborne claiming the lives of 4 young people, the death of six teenagers in a hit and run in Mildura, a car accident claiming the lives of four members of a football team. These are not what we call disasters, but they have the same impacts, acute and traumatic grief, that ripple through a community. And they do challenge, and overwhelm people as they work to make sense of the circumstances. They tear at the hearts of communities, as many of these people have roles to play in communities. And it’s in this instance, that they might need some help to make sense, and draw upon their own strengths to come together and sensemake together. Not counselling, support.

This highlights the importance of memorials. Were it not for the stone obelisk, erected on the Mornington Foreshore, Kennedy’s interest may not have been piqued, and the tragedy consigned to history. People often tell us that they want others to know, and understand, and learn from what has happened. This is why we memorialise.It also highlights the importance of telling the story, and creating accounts of these events, to form part of a narrative about disasters that is not simple and straightforward, and forgotten.

So tomorrow, the ball will be bounced, and the Dogs and Swans will go their hardest, one will be premier, the other will be vanquished. But they will all go home to their families. Thanks to Paul Kennedy, maybe we might just pause and reflect on another time, when it wasn’t just a game, it was life and death.


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