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Wilfred Smallhorn – Brownlow Medal Winner

Haydn Bunton won the Brownlow Medal in 1931 and 1932 whilst playing for Fitzroy.

The Medal did not have far to travel, in fact, it did not have to travel at all, because another Fitzroy player, Wilfred Smallhorn, was the 1933 recipient.

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He received 17 votes, the voting system having been changed in the aftermath of the 1930 controversy that saw three men receiving the same number of votes, but the Medal going to the one who had played the fewest games. That was Stan Jukdins and the reason he played in fewer games was that his inconsistent level of play found him on the seconds for much of the season.

Smallhorn Wins 1933 Brownlow

Harry Collier of Collingwood would have won outright with five votes, but in a head scratching display of ineptitude, the decisive vote was discarded because no one was sure if the vote was intended for Harry Collier or his brother Albert, the 1929 Brownlow Medal winner. It was as though Cain, in reply to God’s query over the whereabouts of Abel had enquired, “To which Abel are you referring?”

Wilfred Smallhorn presented no such drama in taking the Brownlow Medal in 1933. He, along with Denis Ryan in 1936, merely served as a break from six years of Brownlow Medal winners named either Bunton or Reynolds. Bunton, obviously one of the best to have ever played, was a virtual ‘vote magnet, so Smallhorn’s accomplishment in 1933 actually assumes even greater magnitude.

From today’s perspective, it might seem odd that Smallhorn never received recognition as Fitzroy’s best and fairest, but during his entire career, the club only twice bestowed best and fairest honours.

His story, however, is quite compelling, so we will have a closer look at the man known to his mates and his fans as Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn.

Born Wilfred Arthur Smallhorn on 25 February 1911, his nickname came about because his mother could never catch him when he was a boy. Why he needed catching is not clear, but it could be assumed that he did not wish to be caught. The fact that he played as a deceptively quick winger for the Fitzroy Football Club seems more than appropriate. His quickness was undoubtedly an asset on the oval, because he stood only 173 cm and weighed only 65 kg, not all that far beyond thoroughbred jockey territory.

He made his debut when just over 19 years of age in 1930 and played in 150 games, the last coming in 1940 when he had recently observed his 29th birthday. He never scored more than six goals in one season, and 11 seasons produced a total of 31, or roughly the same as the number of shots Lebron James takes in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game. Smallhorn, however, was a consistent Brownlow vote getter.

Top Ten Vote Getters

He received none in his debut season, none in 1936 when he played in only four matches, and only three in his final season of 1940, when he was again limited to four games, yet he accumulated an even 100 votes in the nine seasons in which he was recognised. He actually occupied a spot amongst the top 10 vote getters for four other seasons. He currently has only three Fitzroy players, Kevin Murray, Gary Wilson and Haydn Bunton who have received more Brownlow votes. Murray accumulated 178, but that was over the course of 331 games. Wilson’s 161 votes required 261 games. Bunton’s 122 votes were another matter entirely, coming from only 117 games.

Unfortunately, the Fitzroy Football Club was in a rough patch for Smallhorn’s entire tenure, posting a record of 54 wins and 3 draws against 93 losses. The club’s best season, the same year Smallhorn won the Brownlow, was 10 – 1 – 6 in 1933. He received his Brownlow Medal at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the Grand Final match betwixt Richmond and South Melbourne. In each of the previous nine seasons since the Brownlow was initiated, the winners would simply be notified by telegram to, “Come round and get your medal.”

He began playing footy as a rover, but a best-on-ground performance as a wing in his debut saw him shifted to wing permanently.

He spent the bulk of his career doing what he could to help his hapless side. Certainly one highlight would have been when his club beat Collingwood in a round 5 contest in 1930. Collingwood had won the Grand Final the previous three seasons. Fitzroy never trailed throughout the game, even though Collingwood would again raise the premiership flag at the conclusion of the 1930 season and Fitzroy would win on only three more occasions that season. Smallhorn was destined to never experience the sensation of getting into the finals, grand, semi, or preliminary. He also appeared seven times as a representative of Victoria in interstate play.

It was his intention to retire at the end of the 1939 season, but the club persuaded him to return in 1940. He was injured in the knee near the conclusion of a fourth round game against Essendon, ending his VFL career.

The damage to Smallhorn’s leg did not prevent him from joining the Australian International Force the following month. In February of 1942, following the fall of Singapore and Malaysia, he would experience the misfortune of being made a Japanese POW and forced to work on the infamous Burma Railway that resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths of Asian labourers and Allied personnel, including over 2,800 Australians.

He managed to survive that only to find himself in Changi Prison, the POW camp where fellow POW James Clavell, the Sydney born writer, took his inspiration for the novel King Rat. If being in a Japanese POW camp in WW II could be said to be an improvement in one’s fate, this was perhaps the case for Smallhorn. Out of almost 90,000 prisoners, there were only 850 deaths during the three years Smallhorn spent there.

Smallhorn organized a footy league whilst incarcerated. Six teams named after VFL teams played for nine months. Peter Chitty, a former St. Kilda player, was the inaugural winner of the “Changi Brownlow.”

Smallhorn had gotten married in 1940 and had a son on the way when he embarked. That son was almost four years of age when Smallhorn returned in the spring of 1945, not long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced the Japanese that their’s was a losing cause. That son, Robert Leonard, would succumb to cancer at the age of 14 in 1957.

Wilfred Smallhorn Media Personality

Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn became a media personality eventually. He died in late 1988 at the age of 77. He was posthumously honoured on the wing of Fitzroy’s Team of the Century and he was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

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