Wally McArthur: A Tribute

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Wally McArthur was the first Aboriginal Australian rugby league player to play for an English club.

But he should not have been.

That he was the first tells us a lot about the society into which he was born and raised. Although rumours about Oldham's Viv and Billy Farnsworths' Aboriginal background have never been confirmed, the first acknowledged Aboriginal player to come to England should have been Frank Fisher in 1936.

The grandfather of Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, Frank, or 'King Fisher' as he was nicknamed in Queensland, played at standoff for Wide Bay against the touring British Lions. Gus Risman was so impressed by his performance, and by other reports he heard about the player, he told Frank that when he returned to Salford he would recommend that the club offer him a contract.

When the contract duly arrived a few weeks later, Frank approached the Queensland state authorities for permission to move to Salford. But they refused to allow him to go to Britain, saying that there was already one Queensland Aboriginal sports star, the cricketer Eddie Gilbert, and that they didn't want any more.

Why should an accomplished adult man have to ask permission of his government to work in another country? Because until the late 1960s, Aboriginal Australians were what were known as 'wards' of their states 'Protector of Aborigines'. In other words they had no civil rights. This meant that they were not allowed to vote or marry whites and were not even included in the national census until 1967. Their lives were controlled in totalitarian fashion from the cradle to the grave by the white government authorities.

One could almost say that they were treated like children, if it wasn’t for the fact that many of the children of Aboriginal parents were treated by the government in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Since the early 1900s, and in some cases before that, most Australian states had pursued a policy of removing from their mothers the children of inter-racial relationships, disparagingly known as 'half-castes', and placing them in care. Taken at the age of five or six, most never saw their mothers again for decades, if at all. Those boys and girls became known later as the 'children of the stolen generation'.

Wally McArthur, like tens of thousands of others, was one of those children. Born on 1 December 1933 on the banks of the McArthur River across from the tiny township of Borroloola in the Northern Territory of Australia, his mother was an Aboriginal woman and his father was a local white policeman called Langdon. When he was taken from his mother, he was given the name McArthur rather than Langdon because the authorities did not want to acknowledge that his father was white.

In 1998 Wally told John Pilger how he had been kidnapped:

It was a government car, because only the government had cars at that time. The driver put me in the front seat with him and he drove around while I waved at my family. I never seen them since, you know. They were sitting around the camp fire; they didn't understand what was happening.

His younger cousin John Moriarty was simply taken from school by a government official who did not even inform John's parents. Many years later his mother told him what had happened: ‘I went to pick you up [from school] on this day and you were gone'. It was to be fifty-five years before Wally saw another member of his family again.

Wally was taken to a Church of England mission in Alice Springs called the Bungalow, where he was supposed to be educated, although in 1937 there were just two teachers for nearly a hundred children. As the Second World War grew in intensity, fear of a Japanese invasion in northern Australia meant that the area became a heavily militarised zone and the Aboriginal children at the Bungalow were evacuated to more southerly regions. The boys at the mission were moved temporarily to Adelaide before being settled in a mission at Mulgoa, near the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney.

It was here that Wally became noted not only for his incredible athletic talent but also for his leadership qualities and willingness to stand up against injustice. 'People were frightened to call my cousin Wally nicknames,' recalled John Moriarty in his autobiography Saltwater Fella, 'because they'd get belted. If anyone picked on me at the home, Wally would stand up for me.'

In 1949 the authorities decided to move the boys to Adelaide. Wally protested because he and some of the other boys had passed their second year exams at Penrith High School and the move would prevent them from taking their school certificate exams in New South Wales. His complaint was covered by the Women's Weekly which ran a feature story on him, and questions were asked in the NSW State Parliament. It was all to no avail and the boys were moved from Mulgoa to the St Francis House at Semaphore, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia.

In Adelaide Wally s sporting career started to develop rapidly. In 1948 while still at Penrith High School he had won twelve of the school's thirteen athletic events and was NSW High School champion in the 100 yards, long jump and 440 yards, in which he recorded a time of 52.2 seconds. At the age of fourteen he ran the world's fastest 440 yards for his age group. After he had moved to Adelaide and left school, he became athletics champion of the Le Fevre Boys Technical High School. In 1951 he became the South Australian Under-19 100 and 220 yards champion.

It was at this point that his athletics career came up directly against the racism that had shaped his life. Despite his success, he was left out of the South Australian athletics team to visit Tasmania for the national championships. Wally protested and was told that he could go, but only if he paid his own fare. Fortunately an unknown well-wisher paid for his ticket and Wally was able to compete. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his prodigious talent, he promptly carried off the national Under-19 100 yards championship. This victory against the odds confirmed a growing feeling in South Australian athletics circles that Wally was a good prospect for the 1952 Olympic Games, which were to be held in Helsinki.

Although it was later claimed that he had been excluded from the Australian Olympic team because of his race, it appears that his times left him just short of having an unarguable case for inclusion in the side that went to Helsinki. Even so, the fact that at that time no Aboriginal athlete had been chosen for an Australian Olympic squad (it wasn't until the 1960s that Aboriginal athletes appeared at the Games) and the way in which he had been treated over the previous two years probably led Wally to conclude that he could go no further in the racist world of amateur athletics. 

So, in 1953, he became a professional sprinter. He won his first ten races, defeating along the way Frank Banner, the current Australian professional sprint champion. But by the spring of that year, Wally had abandoned athletics to concentrate on his other great sporting love, rugby league.

Wally had learned rugby league at Penrith High School and continued to play when the boys were moved to Adelaide. As it remains today, South Australia was one of the heartlands of Australian Rules football but Wally and some of the other boys retained their love of league. Luckily Semaphore at that time had its own rugby league side, one of five clubs in the small South Australian Rugby League (SARL). He was one of three Aboriginal players in the team, a small testimony to the fact that rugby league, in the words of the leading historian of Aboriginal sport Colin Tatz, 'has always been the most generous of the major sports [that Aboriginal men] play’.

Wally quickly became recognised as one of the state's leading league players, despite his youth. Semaphore went through the 1950 and 1951 seasons unbeaten and in 1952 Wally was voted SARL's fairest and best player. In 1953 he decided to concentrate on professional sprinting but returned to the club part-way through the season and was selected to play for South Australia against Western Australia, where he won the Man of the Match award. In his time at Semaphore he was said to have scored over 900 points.

Given such a record, not to mention his prominence as a sprinter, it was no surprise that rugby league scouts began to take an interest. As early as 1950 Wally had been spotted playing league by Paul Quinn, a former Rochdale Hornets player who was living and working as a moulder in Adelaide. It was Quinn who acted as Rochdale's representative in the negotiations over the contract. Wally's disillusionment with racism in athletics meant that he was now far more amenable to signing for the club because it was clear that in rugby league he would be judged on his football ability, not the colour of his skin.

Rochdale were particularly careful about how to proceed with their potential new recruit. International transfers had been banned in 1947 due to fears that the best Australian players would all move to the richer English clubs and Rochdale had been severely criticised in 1950 for trying to get round the ban by persuading league players in Sydney to switch to union for a few matches before moving to England.

Consequently, the press was given the story that Quinn had suggested to Wally that he should finish his engineering apprenticeship in England. It was only when Wally had decided to move to Rochdale for work reasons, so the club claimed, that Quinn had informed Hornets that Wally might be interested in playing for them. As it turned out, the Australian Board of Control (the forerunner of the ARL) didn't pay any attention and the signing went through without incident.

On Thursday 19 November 1953 Wally flew out to Britain from Sydney airport. The news of his imminent arrival was revealed by the Daily Express's Jack Bentley the following day. 'A new Black Flash is on his way to England' declared the headline. Underneath Bentley outlined Wally's athletic achievements and speculated that he could make his debut for Hornets in their match against Leigh the following week.

Leigh's new signing from athletics, MacDonald Bailey, the 1952 Olympic 100 metres bronze medallist and joint 100 metres world record holder, was due to make his first appearance in that match and Bentley suggested that spectators 'may see two black flashes in action - one on each side!' In the end Bailey made just one appearance in a friendly match for Leigh, but Wally was to prove to be made of sterner stuff.

When he arrived in Rochdale a few days later, his signing was described as 'almost unbelievable' by the local press. His athletic records, were described with reflected pride by the club and his footballing prowess was recounted by the former Leeds player Jack Lendill who had emigrated to Adelaide. Describing Wally as 'probably the fastest winger in football boots', he went on to predict that:

He will be a sensation in English football. In a league final in Adelaide, the club I played with (Railways) were defeated by Wally's team (Semaphore) thanks to Wally. It was simply impossible to catch him and he turned the heat on that day with a bag of tries. I played centre to Wally for the state team - he certainly doesn't need much room - and as regards tackling, on those granite grounds in Australia he can bowl a man over with terrific strength and power.

His four-year contract stipulated that he was to receive £200 per year, plus match fees and a return ticket to Australia. The club also arranged for him to continue his engineering apprenticeship at the local Adas Works of Thomas Holt Ltd.

In general the press paid little attention to the colour of Wally’s skin, although it is notable that it was only those players with dark skin whose colour was mentioned; no-one ever called Brian Bevan the white flash'. And after a few weeks even the references to the 'Black Flash' disappeared as he became a regular member of the team. Wally was carefully described as 'part-aboriginal' by the few journalists who mentioned it.

The only discussion of his origins appeared in a feature article in the Rochdale Observer a few days after his arrival. 'From boyhood, Wally McArthur has been in the midst of one of the greatest Christian and social experiments ever attempted in Australia... Wally appears to be one of many proofs of the success of the experiment,' it claimed, although it pointedly didn't say that this 'experiment' involved him being kidnapped and taken from his mother, never to see her again.

He made his debut for Hornets on 12 December against Salford, playing on the right wing, scoring three goals and creating a very favourable impression among the team's supporters. In thick January fog he scored an outstanding hat-trick against Whitehaven. He played another seventeen times that season, mainly on the wing but also starting one game at stand-off in an attempt to get the ball more frequently.

In August 1954 he started the new season with a bang by equalling the club record for most points in a match against Blackpool. He appeared to be on a different planet to the rest of the players, scoring three tries and kicking eight goals for a total of 25 points. For the first three months of the season, home crowds averaged more than 10,000 per match for the only time in the club's history, no doubt spurred by the hope that Wally's performances brought to the team.

Like many others, supporters' club official Bob Fletcher was stunned by his talent: 'who will ever forget the sight of Wally in full cry? He was probably the fastest runner with the ball ever seen in rugby league football, although he once told me that in his native Australia, where the sun warmed his muscles faster than in Britain, he ran faster.'

The early months of the 1954-55 season proved to be the high point of his Hornets career as he struggled for consistency in a poorly performing side. 'He was given a raw deal on the field of play,' recalled Hornets' supporter John Lang. 'He came to the Hornets direct from junior football in Australia and was immediately put into the first team without a chance of getting used to the conditions over here and adapting himself to the type of play. The crowd expected too much of him. He was given the ball with no room to work in. That again was the fault of those in charge of the team.'

Lang’s opinions were obviously shared by a number of other Hornets' supporters. Club officials complained to the local newspaper that some supporters had been telling Wally that he 'would be better off somewhere else' and should move to a club that could make more use of his talent.

It wasn't just on the field where Wally was experiencing problems. A few months after he arrived in Rochdale his fiancee Marlene had joined him and they had been married. Wally had been led to believe that the club would find him and his new wife suitable accommodation but the club backed out of the agreement, claiming that as he had been single when he arrived they had provided appropriate housing for him. This was disingenuous to say the least as all the newspaper reports at the time of his signing mentioned that Marlene would join him as soon as he was settled in the town.

Such sharp practices by club officials were commonplace, especially when it came to offering accommodation and employment to overseas players. Promises of jobs and homes sent by telegram to unsuspecting players often turned out to be quite different when players arrived at their new club.

Wally's protests about his treatment led to unnamed club officials complaining that he had 'attitude problems', usually a codeword for someone who refuses to accept their place in the class or racial hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, he became increasingly irritated at the behaviour of the club and in January he decided that enough was enough and asked for a transfer.

On 17 January 1955 the Hornets board of directors agreed to his transfer request and put Wally up for sale for £2,500. 'The idol of thousands of rugby fans in the town, 21-year-old Wally McArthur' reported the Rochdale Observer, was set to leave the town and possibly even Britain because he was 'fed up to the teeth' with the way the club had treated him. He even talked about going back to professional sprinting in Australia.

But a fortnight later it looked as if he was about to get the opportunity to play for a leading club when it was announced that he was on the verge of signing for Warrington, the current league leaders and the previous seasons Championship and Challenge Cup winners. The prospect of seeing a three-quarter line of Brian Bevan, Stan McCormick, Jim Challinor and Wally McArthur was enough to make even non-Warrington fans salivate. However, negotiations were held up because Wally insisted that Warrington guarantee to pay his passage home when he eventually decided to end his career. No doubt his experience with the Rochdale board made him anxious to ensure that nothing was left to chance.

There then occurred an event which, in hindsight, proved to be crucial to Wally's future but at the time appeared to make sound financial sense. Warrington's former manager, Chris Brockbank, was now the manager of Blackpool Borough and heard of the impasse in the negotiations with Warrington. Seeing an opportunity to capture a star for his new club, he approached Wally with an offer from the Seasiders. Blackpool had only joined the league at the beginning of the season and were looking for a headline name to boost their crowds.

Brockbank agreed to Wally's terms and he signed for the club on 1 February, just a few hours before the deadline to be eligible to play for them in the Challenge Cup. Although Blackpool's contract was undoubtedly attractive, there was just one problem. While Warrington sat imperiously at the top of the league table, Blackpool were rock bottom last, having won just two of their previous twenty-four matches. If Wally had found it difficult to get the service he needed from the Rochdale players, he would find it almost impossible at Blackpool.

Joining the side turned out to be a mistake not just from a playing point of view. Despite Brockbank's assurances, Blackpool were struggling to attract spectators and simply couldn't afford to pay Wally what they had promised. Within twelve months he had again requested a move and the club transfer-listed him at £1,500. Realising that Blackpool's poor form meant that few clubs would be interested in signing him at that price, Wally appealed to the rugby league authorities to reduce the fee.

In December the fee was reduced to £1,000 but there were still no takers. Despite being dogged by niggling injuries and disgruntled at the poor form of the club, which remained locked at the foot of the table, Wally continued to play, scoring twenty tries and thirty-seven goals over his two and a half seasons at the resort. Eventually money matters came to a head again and in May of 1957 Wally complained again to the RFL that Blackpool owed him £750 in unpaid wages for that season.

It is not clear whether Wally ever received his wages because during the summer Salford approached him and he signed for them in June. Although a better side than Blackpool, the Red Devils were at that time a decidedly mid-table team. But at last it seemed that Wally had finally got the chance to prove himself. He made his Salford debut at Swinton on 10 August 1957 in the annual Red Rose Cup clash, scoring his sides only points with three goals in a 25-6 defeat.

In his first season he scored twenty-two tries and seventy-three goals, despite the club finishing fifteenth in the thirty-team league. He also played a key role in one of Salford's most memorable victories of the decade, scoring a blistering try and kicking two mighty goals in a heroic 12-7 victory over the all-conquering St Helens side in December 1957.

The rugby league historian and lifelong Salford fan Graham Morris remembers as a young boy the excitement that was created at the Willows by Wally s arrival:

Tall and slim, Wally had the look, grace and speed of an outstanding athlete (which he certainly was) which, combined with a classic side-step, made him a great crowd pleaser at the Willows. Although the Reds were a mid-table team during this period, McArthur still managed 29 tries in 46 matches, a feat aided by the fact that he played outside either John Cheshire or Bob Preece, both robust centres prepared to take punishment and protect the gifted flyer. Wally was undoubtedly, until the arrival of David Watkins in 1967, the most exciting player seen in a Salford jersey in the post-Second World War years.

In hindsight, his season at Salford was to be the best Wally ever had. But in September 1958 it looked as though he was about to get his chance with a top side when Workington Town, runners-up in both the Championship and Challenge Cup finals the previous season bought him from Salford for £3,000.

Sadly fate let Wally down again. The near misses of 1958 turned out to be the last gasps of the great Town side of the 1950s and in Wally's first season the club crashed to twentieth in the league, just two places above Salford. Even so, he still managed to score fifteen tries and eighteen goals in his twenty-six appearances for the club. Yet again, however, Wally found himself at the wrong end of the sharp practices of club officials. He protested that the club failed to pay him £800 it had promised when he signed on and that it had also reneged on a deal to provide him with a return flight to Australia.

Frustrated, Wally decided that it was time to go back home to Australia and in August 1959 he applied to the RFL for a clearance certificate to allow him to play professionally in Australia. Workington objected, claiming that they had kept their side of the bargain but that he had failed to fulfil his obligations to the club, although what these were was not specified. By October Wally was back in Adelaide; he never received a clearance certificate and he never played professional top-class rugby league again.

But if Wally's career was over, he had helped blaze a trail for dozens of other Aboriginal Australians to come and show their skills in Britain. Indeed, the next player to come was Wally's cousin, Jim Foster, who had grown up with him in the mission homes. Encouraged by Wally, he came over in 1955 and played one senior game for Wigan.

More were to follow in the 1960s. In 1967 future international George Ambrum spent a season at Bradford, where he scored fifteen tries before moving back to North Sydney where he won two Australian caps in 1972. In 1968 Artie Beetson, one of the game's greatest ever players and a future captain and coach of Australia, played twelve games for Hull KR before breaking a leg in the last-ever Christmas Day derby game with Hull, leaving behind a legacy which is still remembered by Rovers' fans today.

The lifting of the international transfer ban in 1983 allowed British fans to see some of the greatest Aboriginal footballers of all time. The impact of John Ferguson's single year at Wigan still reverberates and the winger's two tries in the 1985 Challenge Cup final are among the finest to be scored there, while Steve Ella's season at Central Park meant that he probably left Britain with a reputation even higher than the one he had acquired at home.

It is also interesting to note how many of these players captured the imagination of supporters and became cult heroes. What Halifax supporter doesn't remember the full-back of their 1986 championship-winning side 'Smokin' Joe Kilroy, possibly the coolest full-back since Puig Aubert? Ronnie 'Rambo' Gibbs made an even bigger impact at Castleford and became the embodiment of physical intimidation untrammelled by personal fear. And at Leeds, Cliff Lyons, a magician in football boots, demonstrated that the delicate arts of the stand-off had not been crushed under the weight of game-plans and structured sets of six tackles.

But perhaps the man with the biggest impact was Mal Meninga, whose time at St Helens was treated by the club’s supporters as a secular second coming. By all accounts the players reciprocated the warmth shown to them by supporters. Certainly Wally and Jim Foster, together with their boyhood friends Charlie Perkins and John Moriarty, who had come to England as soccer players in the late 1950s, found their time in the north of England to be largely free of the overt racism they had experienced at home.

And it is also worth noting that none of these players was treated according to racial stereotypes. They were not simply seen as being fast runners or strong athletes as black players have tended to be in all sports. Tony Currie, whose grandfather had been one of the star Aboriginal league players in the 1930s, playing in a rare victory for NSW Country over Sydney in 1937, and who himself had starred for Leeds in the 1980s, blazed another new trail by coaching the London Broncos from 1996 to 1998, guiding them to their highest ever league position. All of these players, with the possible exception of Smokin' Joe, the ultimate 'laid-back back', were viewed as leaders and examples for other players, whatever the colour of their skin, to follow and emulate.

These masters of the game trod the path that was first walked by Wally McArthur. Today Wally is an old and sick man, suffering from chronic emphysema. Although he never quite achieved the honours his football talents deserved, his memory was imprinted on the minds of British rugby league supporters. When I started writing this article, I wondered whether there would be enough material to make it interesting. I quickly discovered that, despite barely playing seven seasons in Britain, the name Wally McArthur survives strongly in the folk memory of supporters who had seen him play. I rarely had to explain who he was; most of those I spoke to knew the name instantly.

The biggest public acknowledgement of Wally's talent was to be awarded a place in the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. But perhaps an even greater tribute is the place he earned in the hearts and minds of those rugby league supporters lucky enough to see him play, 14,000 miles from home in the cold and grey winters of northern England in the 1950s.

— Originally published in The Glory of Their Times: Crossing the Colour Line in Rugby League (Skipton: Vertical Editions, 2004)