A 21-year-old widow, from Rutherglen in Victoria’s high country, wept. She held her six-month-old baby in her arms, her tears rolling down her cheeks and onto his soft smooth forehead. Her husband was dead and she was now alone in the city, or so she thought. A new football club, destined to become the biggest in Australia, was about to anoint her late beloved with its first charitable collection. And there would be many others in its subsequent 125 years.
Ern Copeland stared down the discontent. He’d taken over as secretary in 1895 with the club in financial crisis. In just his second year he returned it to prosperity, including the 1896 premiership which was its first in the Victorian Football Association. (Years later the club’s best-and-fairest would be named in his honour.) And yet the football world was in turmoil. Many among those at the annual general meeting of Collingwood Football Club murmured as Copeland’s salary of £50 was announced. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Collingwood and the other big city clubs conspired to break away to form their own league. But despite the air being thick with intrigue, £6 – the equivalent of a month’s wages – was taken up for the benefit of the widow and child of a former player, the late Percival “Jasper” Barclay.
Percy was born in the Victorian western district in 1871, and first made headlines in Portland in 1881 when as a nine-year-old he was in a nasty accident. During the rolling of the cricket pitch, the youngster’s head was pressed into the ground. Regardless, he became a talented cricketer and athlete.
Percy’s family moved to Carlton in Melbourne, and at 17-years-old in 1889 he debuted with Fitzroy in the VFA, kicking a goal against Ballarat Imperial in his first match. He played three seasons before Collingwood was founded, and 20-year-old Percy was recruited. He missed the side’s inaugural match on the 7th of May 1892, but was a prominent player the following week, and played again in Collingwood’s first ever win on the 28th May against Williamstown. He featured in 28 games in two seasons at the club. Aged 23, he met the lovely 19-year-old Rosina. They married and went to live in her home town of Rutherglen.
Percy joined the Rutherglen Football Club. He delivered their inaugural premiership in the Ovens and Murray league in 1895, but not before causing a sensation. Just 15 years after Ned Kelly himself appeared in the Beechworth Courthouse, Percy was there charged with insulting behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. In other words, his rough play against a Beechworth player caused the football ground to be invaded by the supporters of both clubs, and but for the intervention of the police an all-in-brawl would have resulted. Percy pleaded guilty, and was fined 10 shillings with 10 shillings costs, in default imprisonment. The fine was immediately paid. He returned to Melbourne and joined Williamstown for the 1896 VFA season.
It was at Williamstown mid-way through that year that baby Charles was welcomed into the world. However, tragedy struck in December when Percy, back in the western district at Heywood, sliced his hand with an axe. Infection set in, and four weeks later in a Melbourne hospital, he passed away at just 25-years-old.
Williamstown and Collingwood football clubs sent floral tributes and letters of condolence to the family. The newly crowned VFA premiers Collingwood followed that up with the £6 for Rosina and her baby.
I discovered the site of Percy’s childhood home in the western districts a couple of years ago. It had been lost for almost a century after being destroyed by fire.
I’ve never been able to find a photograph of Percy though. However, his son Charles grew up to look every inch a Barclay, so Percy must be the image of his son seen here in his First World War photo. Percy’s line ended when Charles died of wounds following the Battle of Fromelles in 1916.
This season as the Australian Football League’s Collingwood marks its 125th anniversary, and this weekend commemorates its first match, spare a moment for one of its founding players. “Jasper” Barclay whose life and family was fraught with tragedy. He’s the first of the Collingwood family to be supported by a charitable donation. He’s also my great-granduncle.