HASTINGS Football Club recently established their Hall of Fame with the induction of ten men who have been star players and administrators over the past 100 years. Some of these inductees have passed on, and their awards were received on their behalf by family members.
Richard Francis was one such recipient who stood out from the rest because he accepted TWO awards – one for his father and one for his grandfather. Richard was a Hastings team-mate of mine in the 60’s and, although I knew his father from those days, it was his grandfather, Bert Francis, who held the greater fascination.
Bert was a record-holding gun shearer, who played his first senior game for Hastings at the age of 22 – and was an instant star. Four years later, the 26 year-old “rookie” played a handful of games at Melbourne but then threw in League football for the simple “bush” life.
He played on at Hastings for another decade, frequently serving as their best player, administrator and delegate. Shortly before his death in 1958 Bert Francis was manning the gate at Hastings home games with the same ferocity and determination that characterised his playing days.
This is his story.
By Lance Hodgins
Herbert J Francis was born a city boy on 26 June 1885. His father, Charles, was a plasterer in Melbourne’s booming building trade and he had married Mary Smith, the daughter of a Flinders fisherman.
Soon after, the family unit was disrupted by the West Australian gold rushes. Recognizing that the boy needed a mother, Charles sent young Bert to live with the family of his brother-in-law Fred Floyd, a fisherman at Hastings. By 14 years of age Bert had his own boat called the Chance, and fished under the guidance of his uncle.
Bert showed a natural talent for sports soon after he arrived in Hastings. In 1898 he competed in the Tyabb annual picnic footrace for 10-12 year boys and ran third. About 300 people had gathered on a fine January day to witness a good afternoon of log chopping, a married vs single men tug of war and children’s races.
A record crowd attended the Hastings Boxing Day Sports and Regatta in 1902. The 16 year-old Bert came second in the handicap swimming race and, in the following year, he won it. At the 1904 sports meeting 500 spectators saw Bert, now 18, earn some real money – 10/- first prize for riding the greasy barrel and 5/- for a second to footballer Will Perriam in the 100 yards swim.
Bert was living under the same roof in the Floyd household as his cousins – Fred jr. and Albert – and when the three boys hit land together they played football and cricket for hours on end. By the time they were men, Bert “Pompey” Francis and Fred “Nipper” Floyd began an era that was to place them on the playing field throughout the glory years of the Hastings Football Club. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, “Pompey” and “Nipper” were household names and the giants of the game.
Bert Francis was 22 years old before he played his first senior game of football, pulling on the blue and white colours of the Hastings Football Club in 1908 in a practice match against Somerville. He immediately showed good form.
The team had been struggling to regain the brilliance which had won it the flag three years earlier. Now, appearing alongside such fine players as Floyd, Incigneri, Carmichael, Amendola, Perriam and Hobden, Bert was frequently amongst the best players throughout the 1908 season.
Hastings swept all before it and finished on top of the ladder – until it reached the finals where it was trundled out by Somerville who, in turn, were beaten by Frankston. When Hastings tried to assert its “right of challenge” as the minor premiers, Frankston refused to take the field and Hastings, including Bert Francis, were officially declared the Premiers by the Peninsula Football Association.
Bert was surprisingly missing from the Hastings premiership season of 1909 and it was reported that he and George Hobden would be back for the Hastings attempt on the flag the following year. Family folklore has it that this was the year in which Bert made a name for himself in New Zealand as a top cricketer, record-breaking shearer and wild game hunter.
1910 saw a healthy competition with teams from Somerville, Mornington, Frankston, Balnarring, Sorrento, Dromana and Tyabb. Hastings finished on top, due in no small part to the fine play of the “burly Hastings follower” Francis, who made his presence felt with several goals and a tendency to “air his grievances in a loud manner”. Hastings defeated Frankston in a very wet Grand Final and Pompey Francis was adjudged “easily the best, playing a wonderfully good game – handling the ball, marking, and kicking in a way that was surprising under the wet and slippery conditions”.
This was followed in 1911 by a year that Pompey Francis would never forget – for a number of reasons.
He continued to be a star player for Hastings, even standing in as captain for the injured Jim Wilson. Despite his prominence on the field each week, Bert held down the position of Club Secretary in a competitive and volatile league, and he was often called upon to fight for his Club’s rights. This included an appearance in Frankston Police Court as a character witness for one his players who was accused of offensive behaviour after a match.
In another case when his team mate C Sposito was accused of lacking the residential requirements, Bert sprang to his defence in the local press – explaining that as Sposito ran the mail service to French Island, there were times when the weather meant that he could not return safely to Hastings, and he frequently slept on his anchored boat. Both Sposito and Francis continued to be prominent players for the Blue and Whites.
Towards the end of 1911, Francis was selected in a combined Peninsula to play the Fitzroy League team at Mornington. The other Hastings players chosen were Jim Wilson, Andy Amendola and Harry Kerr.
Although the Hastings team had a depth of talent, their success seemed heavily influenced by Bert’s form. When Bert played well, the team did well. A bad day against Mornington led to Hastings being uncharacteristically drubbed at home by almost 70 points.
In 1911, Hastings finished second on the ladder and were the underdogs behind Frankston, who had beaten them both times during the season. Hastings stormed through their semi-final against Balnarring, and in the grand final against Frankston were three goals up at half time. Frankston clawed back and during the final quarter it was anybody’s game. Hastings regained the lead late in the last quarter, but Francis – who was not playing his usual game – gave away a free kick to Pettit, who scored a beautiful 50 yard goal from the wing to give Frankston the game and the premiership.
For years afterwards, Bert’s mates would rib him about how he had cost Hastings the flag in 1911 which broke a string of premierships that started in 1908 and ended in 1914.
1912 was equally memorable for Bert. He began the year as Hastings secretary and treasurer in a strong Club headed by president J D Hodgins. Almost immediately, however, it seemed that Hastings were to lose one of their key players – “Pompey” Francis was headed to the big time.
On 29th April 1912, Bert ran onto the MCG in the number 13 jersey for Melbourne in front of 10,500 people. The 26 year old six-footer did not look out of place in a team noted by the press of the day for its overwhelming size and maturity, and the Demons ran out winners by almost 5 goals.
Bert not only kept his place in the team but he contributed to another win the following week with a goal against University. He missed the next two rounds in which Melbourne were beaten by Geelong and South Melbourne, but returned to the team for a win against Carlton in Round 5.
The June holiday weekend saw League teams play on the Saturday and then back up for another game on the Monday. Bert played in both of these which were losses to Fitzroy and Essendon. This did little to daunt Bert’s enthusiasm for high class football, as he had now played four games on the MCG for three wins.
Soon after, however, Bert dropped a bombshell when he announced that he wanted to quit and return “home”. Although connections at Melbourne FC had found him a good job at an Abbotsford abattoir, life in the city was not for Bert and he yearned for the prospect of clearing his 40 acres of bush and establishing an orchard at Hastings.
In 1912, without Bert Francis, Hastings remained undefeated on top of the ladder, having had convincing wins against the other three teams in the competition: Frankston, Somerville and Mornington. The Peninsula Football Association rejected an application from Hastings for Bert to play in the finals that year, re-asserting the rule that you needed to play at least three home and away matches to qualify for the finals.
Bert had to sit and watch as Hastings blacksmith Len Incigneri, the former Richmond captain, led the Blues into the finals. Spearheaded by Bert’s cousin Nipper Floyd and Hughie Carmichael, the Blues took out a torrid grand final against Frankston and started another string of three premierships.
1913 began without Incigneri but finally included Francis, who was playing with great vigour, scoring goals and even getting reported for “rough play”. In a competition expanded by the inclusion of Dromana and the Naval Depot, Hastings presented one of its best sides of all time and were unbeaten for the 1913 flag. Even then, delegate Bert and the Club President Jim Hodgins had to weather a storm of protest at the final Association meeting against the inclusion of Incigneri who had missed some matches throughout the season to go on holidays to Tasmania.
In 1914 Hastings finished on top of the ladder but were unexpectedly beaten by Mornington in their semi-final. Asserting their right to challenge, the Blues went on to win their third consecutive flag with brilliant play from Pompey Francis, Nipper Floyd, Dobbin Reid and Hughie Carmichael. At the end of the year a combined Peninsula team, including Francis and five of his Hastings team mates, played the Essendon League team in an exhibition match at the Frankston oval.
Eight teams lined up on the Peninsula despite the gathering war clouds of 1915. Bert was still a star for Hastings but many of their players had enlisted in the war and they made a slow start to the season. The Blues were just starting to get it together when the Association decided to cut short the season in mid-July and begin playing finals.
Hastings defeated the Naval Base by 2 points but were then nipped by the soldier team, the Langwarrin Guards, who were given the winning point after a dispute between the boundary and goal umpires.
Hastings’ run of premierships had been halted, and Bert Francis was only one of many footballers who had to sit out the next three years whilst more important contests were taking place on foreign shores.
May 10th 1919 marked the resumption of football to the Mornington Peninsula after the Great War. Pompey Francis returned as a delegate and a player for the Blues, but he and his cousin Nipper Floyd were now surrounded by a new entourage of team mates. After a slow start, they led their team to second on the ladder, and then succumbed in their semi-final to the eventual premiers, Frankston.
When the 1920 season rolled around, Bert was a spectator for the first few rounds – and someone suggested this was due to the “cricket season which had stiffened his joints”. Many of the footballers played cricket in the summer and Bert was no exception, proving to be handy with both bat and ball.
It was not long, however, before he was featuring among the best players under his new captain, the equally venerable Nipper Floyd. Both were prominent in the preliminary final against Frankston, but the team was well beaten.
Hastings reached the finals of the 1921 footy season and everyone marvelled at the longevity of the “Big Three”: Francis, Carmichael and Floyd. They continued their prominence throughout the final series where the Blues beat Frankston but finally fell to Carrum in the grand final.
Bert had stepped up as President of the Hastings Football Club and he surprised everybody by putting in another sterling season as a player throughout 1922. It was a fairly ordinary season for the Blues, however, and they had even more trouble raising a team in 1923. Bert had finally decided to hang up his boots, but he stayed on as the Club President.
Bert was now nearly 40 years of age, and he enjoyed his cricket over the next few years alongside his cousin Nipper Floyd, Donnie Knox and Digger Langholz. He was President of the Hastings Cricket Club and he also served on the committee of the Peninsula Cricket Association.
Throughout the 1930s Bert maintained a close connection with the Hastings Football Club as a vice president and also as a Club delegate to the Peninsula Football Association.
When Hastings came from behind to win the premiership in 1934, the health of the old players was toasted by JD Hodgins, who recalled 45 years of Hastings football. At three quarter time in the grand final, when all appeared lost, he looked at the team and saw the progeny of many of the club’s old players and felt that there was still hope.
His toast was responded to by none other than Bert Francis who said that he was pleased that the old spirit had prevailed this season, particularly in the last quarter of the grand final when the team was “up against it”. He recalled how travelling to matches was quite different today to what it was in the old days when the team had to leave at 8 o’clock in the morning to go to Sorrento and had to walk up the hills to rest the horses.
In his later years, Bert Francis remained an ardent supporter of the Hastings Football Club and was proud to hand over the reins to his son Norm, who continued the Francis tradition of lengthy service both on and off the field for the Blues.
His grandson Richard was selected in Hastings’ Team of the Decade for the 1960s. He was a young teenager in the 1950s and he smiles when he remembers “the crusty old man on the gate at the Hastings Park who never let anyone get past him without paying!”
Bert “Pompey” Francis died just after his 73rd birthday in 1958 and left a legacy of brilliance, and a tradition of family service to the Hastings Football Club that will be probably never be seen again.