The Remarkable Plunketts: Norwood's First Royal Family

By Phil Robins
NFC History Group

Historians spend countless hours raking through mountains of dross in the hope of finding a nugget of gold. Our club History Group recently came across a nugget of a different kind - a photograph of the 1893 Norwood and South Australian captain, 'Nug' Plunkett.

Henry Archibald Plunkett had a brief, disjointed football career before his untimely death at 27 and no picture of him could be found in years of searching. He was the only one of the 56 Norwood captains since 1878 for whom we had no image.

Then, early this year, our group visited the SANFL History Centre, where manager Chris Halbert casually showed us a recently rediscovered photograph of the 1893 South Australian team. The players were not named, but sitting in the middle holding the football was the captain. That was the custom of the day. It had to be our 'Nug'.

'Nug' was named Norwood captain in only his third season with the club. His selection as South Australian captain that same year was not without its critics. His form at centre had been less brilliant than in the previous season and it was suggested that except for his leadership skills he did not deserve to be in the team.

On the day, however, he rose to the occasion and played as well as anyone against a superior Victorian team which won 4.7 to 2.9 before an unhappy Adelaide Oval gathering. There was special reason for the crowd's discontent. Port Adelaide had decided to go on a playing trip to Melbourne and had only one representative in the South Australian team, which was heavily dependent on the Norwood and South Adelaide clubs.

At half-time there were rumblings, too, over the long delay before the players came back on. They were having their photo taken. Without that South Australian team photo we would have no picture of 'Nug' today.

The Plunketts were Norwood's royal family from 1890 to 1913 and beyond. There were five football-playing brothers and all were tradesmen - Jack a carpenter, Henry a printer, Oliver a tailor, Mick a plumber and Bill a farrier.

Family lore says Jack captained North Adelaide, though sketchy records can confirm only that he played with North Adelaide and Medindie. His brothers were all Norwood men and three of them acquired a swag of higher honours.

According to The Mail newspaper in 1946, four Plunketts played in one match at Kensington Oval - Jack for North Adelaide, and Henry, Olly and Mick for Norwood. The records are thin but that most likely would have been in 1893.

It all began in 1863 when the future family patriarch, John Plunkett, from Tipperary, married Nairne girl Emma Gillett twice on the same day in different churches - St James Church, Blaviston, and the Catholic Church, Mount Barker. After that experience, the fathering of seven children and the loss of a son, John Plunkett was eminently qualified when he became Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in 1906.

'Nug' Plunkett was the champion athlete of the family. Born at Byethorne, near Nairne, on 29 February 1868, he attended Christian Brothers' College and excelled at football, running, boxing, swimming, cricket and baseball. As a first base player and catcher, he represented South Australia in intercolonial baseball in Melbourne in 1890.

He made a promising football debut with lowly Adelaide in 1889 and moved to Norwood as a forward in 1890.

In 1891 a knee injury forced him to switch to umpiring. Chronic trouble with his right kneecap interrupted his umpiring and he recovered just in time to be chosen to control the vital final match in which Norwood defeated Port Adelaide by two goals to clinch the 1891 premiership.

Critics of his umpiring in that match said that he let the scrimmages go on too long - and when he did intervene, Norwood more often than not was the beneficiary. Umpires were fair game then, as now, but as a rule 'Nug' was highly respected.

Back at Norwood as a player in 1892, he was soon rated one of the best centremen in the colony. In 1893, he had seemed back to his best after the match against Victoria when he suddenly handed the Norwood captaincy over to 'Bunny' Daly. If his knee was troublesome, it did not stop him from playing out the season.

'Nug' resumed as a leading umpire in 1894, but resigned in June because he was "dotty on his pins". His request to be allowed to play for "any club" that same season was denied. His career was over. A year later he was dead, survived by a grieving widow and two young daughters.

'Nug' was employed as a lithographic printer with Scrymgour & Sons before he died at his Norwood home on 7 May 1895. Recent scrutiny of his death certificate reveals that he had battled tuberculosis and bronchial catarrh for five months.

Some 40 vehicles formed a funeral procession from Elizabeth Street, Norwood, to the Roman Catholic Cemetery at West Terrace. Norwood players and officials were among the many mourners, including the legendary 'Bunny' Daly, 'Topsy' Waldron and Alby Green.

'Nug' and Bridget's daughters went on to successful careers in the United States. Maude made her name as Thespian - she was a friend of Charlie Chaplin - before marrying munitions magnate Earl Hunter Collester in Chicago in 1920. Kathleen also married and as Kaye Sarsfield became a prolific writer of magazine love stories and Westerns.

Bill Plunkett was the youngest brother and the most remarkable footballer. He was always on the move. In 1901 he made red-and-blue history by leading West Perth to the Western Australian premiership and then jumping on a boat to Adelaide - there was no road, rail or air link those days - to help Norwood defeat Port Adelaide by four points in the South Australian grand final.

No other player celebrated premierships in two states in one season until Stan 'Pops' Heal did it with Melbourne and West Perth in 1941 - also a red-and-blue double.

Bill was 19 when he made his senior debut in 1896. By 1900 he was Norwood captain and a key part of a crack half-back line with brother Mick and Garsham 'Squasher' Barnes.

Short but powerful, Bill was described as "a block of ice on the field". He seldom made a mistake.

Bill and Mick were members of the South Australian team which lost 8.10 to 3.6 to Victoria at the MCG in 1899. They were team-mates again, and Bill was South Australia's best player, in the 9.19 to 5.12 loss to Victoria at Adelaide Oval in 1900.

In 1901, Bill felt the lure of the "golden west" and became an integral part of the West Perth premiership team. Western Australia did not have a grand final at the time and when West Perth was assured of top spot by 24 August, Bill sailed to Adelaide and played in Norwood's last four matches - culminating in a 4.9 to 4.5 grand final win over Port on 5 October.

Bill missed the first half of the 1902 season when, with team-mate Horace MacFarlane, he joined the 4th Battalion Commonwealth Horse to ply his trade as a farrier in the Boer War.

In 1903 he was back as Norwood captain, played back pocket in the South Australian team that lost 13.14 to 4.11 to Victoria at the MCG, and was named club best and fairest. He missed one important match against Port Adelaide because he was blacksmithing at the races.

In 1904 he captained West Perth and also led Western Australia's first interstate team to an upset 10.7 to 8.10 victory over South Australia at the Jubilee Oval in Adelaide.

He piloted West Perth to the 1905 flag while recovering from a broken leg. He hobbled through the drawn grand final but had to miss the replay against South Fremantle. He was East Perth's inaugural coach in 1906 - and married Agnes May Colligan in Perth.

After one more season with West Perth, he was back at Norwood as a forward. He then umpired for two years but quit in 1910 after a violent but unwarranted demonstration against him by West Adelaide supporters at Unley Oval. He coached an unresponsive Norwood in 1913.

Bill gave his son William the second name Nug as a tribute to his deceased brother.

Mick Plunkett was a big, rebounding defender who took high marks and loved a bumping contest. He began his 10-year career with Norwood in 1891 at the age of 17.

He was on a half-back flank against South Adelaide in the last match of 1893 - the swansong of 'Nug' - but did not become a regular senior player until 1898. He played two games for South Australia with his brother Bill, in 1899 and 1900, and retired after the 1901 grand final triumph.

Mick was a champion hurdler in the days when the obstacles were made from floorboards and saplings. It's no surprise to find that his grandson, Leon Gregory, was Australian quarter-mile champion in 1951 and 1955, and a silver medallist at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games as a member of the 4 x 400 metre relay team with Graham Gipson, David Lean and Kevan Gosper.

Mick was a master plumber at Dulwich. He did not own a car and in his work drove a horse and cart. One of his last jobs was on the Adelaide Oval scoreboard.

Oliver Plunkett was the least prominent footballer of the brothers, but he did sire two future Redlegs, Reg and John, known as Jock.

Olly was noted chiefly as a hurdle racer and Sheffield runner. He promoted midweek sport and was a successful senior football umpire. He established his tailoring business on The Parade and his younger sister Alice Kenihan was nearby as licensee of the Norwood Hotel.

Olly's sons grew up almost at the back door of Norwood Oval at 9 Osmond Terrace.

Reg could not match the deeds of his uncles, but he did celebrate a premiership in only his fourth senior game for the club, with Norwood a 26-point winner over North Adelaide before a crowd of 37,000 in 1923. Reg was named in the back pocket that day. He played 10 league games from 1922-25.

Jock was a left-footed rover-forward who won Norwood's most unselfish player award in 1937 and 1938. He kicked 45 goals in 60 league games from 1931-39.

In 1937, when 70 football veterans gathered at Norwood Oval for a reunion, Oliver Plunkett and Port Adelaide's 1904 captain Jack Quinn were there to see their sons Jock and Bob do battle.

Jock was a sergeant in the AIF in World War II. In 1940 he and Norwood champions Alec Lill and Tom Warhurst were members of the AIF team which Port legend Bob Quinn led to victory over the RAAF at Adelaide Oval. A year later they were all comrades in Palestine.

That was not quite the end of the Plunkett football story. Leon Gregory, still in post-Olympic meltdown, played four games as a ruckman for Glenelg in 1957 before returning to St Peter's Old Collegians in A1 Amateur League where he had won the Hone Medal two years before.

An active octogenarian, as his grandfather was before him, Leon lives just a few long drop-punts from the Brighton Bowling Club where, in 1942, Mick Plunkett built an impressive masonry archway in memory of his beloved wife Florence Maud. It used to have a hedge on either side but now stands alone, a monument to glorious days now largely forgotten.

May 2017

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