Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, by Paul Kennedy
Random House (2016), Paperback, 320 pages
On May 21, 1892, the pleasant seaside town of Mornington, about 60 km from Melbourne, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, suffered a truly devastating tragedy. At a stroke, fifteen of the town’s young men, its best and brightest, were lost in an appalling tragedy. The young men were members of the Mornington Australian Rules Football team, and they had travelled to play a game at Mordialloc, a suburb of Melbourne up the coast from Mornington. They were returning in the early evening in a small yacht owned by one of the players, when a sudden squall capsized the vessel, leaving them struggling for survival in the icy waters. None survived, and only 4 bodies were recovered. The loss for one family in particular was truly devastating. The Presbyterian Minister, James Caldwell, lost three of his sons in the disaster. Paul Kennedy relates this awful tragedy, one of the worst in Australia’s sporting history, but which has been almost forgotten, with verve, empathy and a real feel for the times. In part it is a story of a tragedy, but it is also a story of the growth of Australia’s obsession with sport. Kennedy carefully documents how the sport of Australian Rules began to have the extraordinary hold it has over southern Australia at least, and especially in Victoria, by showing it evolved from simple scratch matches between nearby towns, into organised leagues with fierce rivalries developing. The feel of the times, the hazards and difficulties of life and travel in 19th century Australia are well-captured, as are the close bonds between family members and neighbours. This is a great read for those who love sport, those who love history, or those who just appreciate a good story of warmth and tragedy well-told. Highly recommended.