Coulthard wearing a Carlton Football Club guernsey and cap
1 August 1856
Boroondara, Victoria, Australia
|Died||22 October 1883
Carlton, Victoria, Australia
George Coulthard (1 August 1856 – 22 October 1883) was an Australian cricketer and Australian rules footballer. Born and raised on a farm outside Melbourne, Victoria, Coulthard led the Carlton Football Club to premiership success in the fledgling Victorian Football Association (VFA), and was, in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, the most skilled player yet seen in the Australian game. However, in a VFA first, Coulthard was suspended for fighting during a match in 1882, effectively ending his senior football career.
As a cricketer, he played for the Melbourne Cricket Club, represented Victoria in five first-class intercolonial matches, and made one Test appearance for Australia, against England in 1882. He is best known in cricket as the umpire who instigated the Sydney Riot of 1879 when he controversially ruled Billy Murdoch of New South Wales run out during a match against Lord Harris' English team. Coulthard was co-officiating the match with Edmund Barton, later the first Prime Minister of Australia.
In a relatively short but eventful life, Coulthard survived a shark attack in Sydney Harbour, fought bare-knuckle boxing champion Jem "The Gypsy" Mace, and, based on a dream he reported having, convinced thousands of punters to back a horse with long odds in the Melbourne Cup (the horse finished close to last). He is also credited with being Australian rules football's first "man in white", for, during an intercolonial match in 1880, he chose to umpire in the now-traditional all-white uniform to stand out from the players.
A working class professional sportsman, Coulthard ran a tobacco and sporting goods store in Lygon Street, Carlton. He died of tuberculosis in 1883, aged 27, after suffering from the illness for over a year. He was survived by his wife and baby daughter.
- 1 Football
- 2 Cricket
- 3 Other sports
- 4 Personal life
- 5 Illness and death
- 6 Legacy
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
Carlton's star recruit
Coulthard running with the ball, 1880
|Height / weight||178 cm / 76 kg|
Coulthard first started playing club-level football in 1874 for Carlton Imperial, a junior side sometimes referred to as the "training establishment" of the senior Carlton Football Club. He proved to be a match-winner for the Imperials with his goal-kicking, and in 1876, was recruited by Carlton, then a powerhouse of Victorian football. Starting off as one of the club's followers, he was described by The Footballer as a "rising and most promising player". Carlton topped the ladder that year and looked to win its fourth premiership in a row, but in the decider against archrivals Melbourne, a controversial umpiring call secured the premiership for the latter club. The Victorian Football Association (VFA) was established the following year with Carlton as one of its twelve foundation member clubs. Despite switching between attacking and defensive positions during the 1877 VFA season, Coulthard still managed to rank equal-first on Carlton's goal-kicking tally with eight goals, and his elusive dashes with the ball in hand—fully 100 metres up the field at times—became a celebrated aspect of his game:
His speciality is, undoubtedly, running with the ball; many are the runs he has made, warding off his opponents with his long, muscular arms. This peculiar style of passing is really a treat to witness, and we may well say that Coulthard is unequalled at it, being a custom almost his own.
Mid-season, Carlton pioneered intercolonial football in Australia when it travelled north to Sydney in New South Wales to take on local rugby club the Waratahs in two matches: one under rugby rules, the other under Victorian rules. As was expected, each club won the match played by its own rules, and Coulthard was appraised as one of two Carlton footballers who adapted best to rugby. The clubs met again in Melbourne, repeating the code switch. Carlton won playing Victorian rules and claimed a 1–1 draw in the rugby match in defiance of the opposing team's umpire, who disputed their goal; the Waratahs eventually allowed it under protest in order for the game to go on. Coulthard stood out in both fixtures and joined the Waratahs on several occasions to broaden his skill set. He quickly dominated at rugby, scoring all five goals and four tries in one of his first games for the club.
Following its encounters with Carlton, the Waratahs adopted Victorian rules, and for a time, the colonial game threatened to supersede rugby in Sydney. Coulthard accepted an invitation from Phil Sheridan, a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground, to travel to Sydney with the aim of fostering Victorian rules in the city. On 15 September 1877, soon after his arrival, Coulthard joined several local footballers on a fishing trip in Sydney Harbour. The group was anchored near Shark Island when Coulthard, sitting on the boat's gunwale with the back of his tailcoat hanging over the side, was pulled overboard by "a monster shark, 13 feet long". The shark had seized his coattails trailing on the water and dragged him beneath the surface "some ten or twelve feet" until it tore the coat from his body. After kicking at the shark, Coulthard swam to the surface alongside the boat, "into which he threw, with the aid of his friends, a kind of somersault, just about as quickly as he had been taken overboard." Shaken by the event, Coulthard abandoned his plans in Sydney and returned to Melbourne within a week, where he resumed playing for Carlton. The club denied widely believed rumours that it had lured its star player back with financial incentives, stating that he left Sydney due to a falling out with his associates in the city.
Over the ensuing years, the Victorian code struggled to prosper in Sydney, largely due to the efforts of rugby officials who favoured their game as "a symbol and reminder of their Englishness". Nonetheless, the shark entered sporting folklore as the reason why rugby remained Sydney's most popular football code.
Champion of Victoria
Back in Victoria, in the lead-up to the final match of 1877, against Melbourne, Carlton was already acknowledged as having won the premiership—its fifth such honour in seven years—based on the results of previous encounters between the two clubs that season. Coulthard was instrumental in maintaining Carlton's supremacy and was voted by The Australasian in its end-of-season review as one of the VFA's best backline players.  Carlton was considered the best side early on in the 1878 VFA season with Coulthard putting in best-on-ground efforts for the club. However, 1878 saw provincial Geelong develop a dynasty that would dominate the competition well into the 1880s. Coulthard capped off the season with 18 goals, the most of any player that year, and was singled out for his prowess in the ruck.
Coulthard was Carlton's best in its first match of the 1879 VFA season, a four-nil win over Albert Park in which he scored a goal after using an innovative dodging tactic that, according to one observer, left his opponents "standing looking on at the cool operation like a lot of demented geese". In July, in Melbourne, Victoria defeated South Australia in the first football contest between two colonies. Coulthard contributed two goals for Victoria in a best-on-ground display, and again led the way when his colony trounced South Australia in the return match a few days later. He kicked a record 21 goals in 1879, seven more than the runner-up. At the conclusion of the season, The Australasian declared:
There can be no two opinions as to who is entitled first mention—George Coulthard, of Carlton. Back, forward, or following, and nowhere out of place, the grandest player of the day, it is doubtful if for general excellence his equal has ever been seen in Victoria.
Coulthard kicked all five goals in the first game of the 1880 VFA season. Carlton was still undefeated in June when it recorded another victory, against Melbourne, in a testimonial match for Coulthard, who complimented the occasion with a best-on-ground effort. In July, he officiated a match between Melbourne and South Australia's touring Norwood Football Club in the now-traditional all-white umpiring uniform, and is thus recognised as football's first "man in white". Later that month, in a major match against reigning premiers Geelong, Coulthard fainted after opponent George "Hercules" Watson felled and injured him behind play. He tried squaring up to Watson but was pulled back by a police constable and taken from the field to recover. The incident failed to stop Carlton from recording an upset victory, ending Geelong's 44 match winning streak. Coulthard finished on top of the goal-kicking ladder for the third consecutive season with 21 goals, and was again recognised as a champion of the colony.
In July of the 1881 VFA season, Coulthard, attempting a mark in front of Carlton's goal, was tackled by a Melbourne opponent and accidentally kicked behind the right ear. It left a wound that required immediate surgical treatment, forcing him to sit out the match. Coulthard was still suffering the effects of the injury one week later when he returned to the field to face Geelong. He struggled during Carlton's 1881 tour of Adelaide, the local press stating that he was manned so persistently due to his footballing reputation that "he does not get the same chance of showing his sterling qualities". Although not up to his usual standard that year, Coulthard was still acknowledged as one of Victoria's best forwards, and secured 18 majors to finish second in the goal-kicking stakes.
Coulthard was serving as Carlton's vice-captain in 1882 when events conspired to end his VFA career. During a club training session in April, he clashed with teammate Joey Tankard, a new recruit who subsequently returned to his original club of Hotham. They reignited their feud in August when Carlton and Hotham met on the East Melbourne Cricket Ground. With Carlton leading into the second half, Coulthard fell on Tankard in a scrimmage, either accidentally or on purpose "with both fists shut", depending on the eyewitness account. Upon rising, Tankard struck Coulthard in the face, who returned punches in kind and used "foul language" before other players broke up the fight. The crowd then invaded the pitch and an eruption of mob violence seemed imminent until the police intervened. The Sportsman called it "one of the most disgraceful affairs witnessed on a football field". Later in the match, Coulthard challenged Tankard to a fight in the pavilion, but the Hotham adversary refused.
Six days later, the VFA held a special meeting at Young and Jacksons regarding the incident. After assessing the evidence, the bulk of which showed Tankard to be the aggressor, the VFA determined that Coulthard was "more to blame" for the fracas, with chairman H. C. A. Harrison expressing the opinion that "bad language is far worse than blows." Both players received a season-long suspension—the first punishment of its kind carried out by the association. After the verdict was handed down, Hotham secretary E. J. Lawrence accused Coulthard of insulting and threatening Tankard outside the meeting, and considered going to the police.
The Coulthard-Tankard affair was seen as the culmination of a recent trend in the sport harking back to the violence and brutality of 1860s football. The Argus supported the VFA, saying "it ought to be thanked and applauded by footballers, as it assuredly is by the public." Other publications considered the sentence too severe on the grounds that no similar charge had previously been brought against Coulthard, and that the VFA had shown leniency in similar, if not worse cases. The incident also served as a fulcrum for debate on the role of the media; one journalist in particular was criticised for sensationalising the fight, and in turn, influencing the VFA's decision to investigate it.
While Hotham abided by the ruling, Carlton was heavily censured for refusing to enter the field in its next arranged match, against Melbourne, unless Coulthard was allowed to play. Melbourne would only accept their demand if Carlton "assumed the responsibility of defying the association". Carlton rejected the offer, and the match was abandoned. By this stage, Carlton was in talks to secede from the VFA, but later decided to play out the season. It still sought to exonerate Coulthard, and at the VFA's next meeting, the case was reconsidered. In a move that quickly turned public opinion against the VFA, Tankard's suspension was uplifted while Coulthard's remained in place. The Australasian accused the VFA of basing its decision on "various jealousies and petty personal interests", and called for the governing body to be completely restructured. It was said that Coulthard's status as a lower class professional sportsman made him a convenient scapegoat.
Coulthard, despite his suspension, ranked first for Carlton and fourth overall in the 1882 goal-kicking ladder, tallying 14 majors. He would never play senior football again.
England v. Australia on the MCG, 1879, in the third-ever Test match, umpired by Coulthard
|Bowling style||Right arm medium|
|Domestic team information|
|Tests umpired||2 (1879–1882)|
Coulthard began his cricket career at the Carlton Cricket Club. For the 1877–78 season, he transferred to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC), which took him on as a professional ground bowler (a job that involved bowling to members in the nets). In 1878–79, he went in as a substitute for a Victorian XV during a match against the first representative Australian team, and batted in the lower order for the MCC when it hosted New Zealand's visiting Canterbury XI.
Coulthard was only twenty-two when Lord Harris, captain of the touring England XI, put him on trial as the team's umpire on the advice of the MCC. Coulthard officiated the team's first match in Melbourne, against a Victorian XV, on Boxing Day 1878, and fulfilled the same duty in the lone Test match of the tour, against Australia, held at the MCG on 2–4 January 1879. Harris was so satisfied with Coulthard that he invited him to accompany the team and stand in as umpire for the remainder of the tour.
Sydney Riot of 1879
The England team's next first-class match was against New South Wales on the Association Ground in Sydney. As a hired professional, Coulthard was viewed with suspicion by many Sydneysiders (the local custom was to use amateur umpires), and, in an era of intense rivalry between the colonies, the fact that he was a Victorian only deepened their distrust. He was also considered "a mere tyro", out of depth with his new responsibilities. Even so, New South Wales was tipped to win based on England's losses in Victoria, and illegal gamblers had placed heavy bets in favour of the home side.
The first game passed off without incident, New South Wales winning by five wickets. England fought back in the return match, which began on 7 February. In reply to the visitors' first innings total of 267, Billy Murdoch, the star of New South Wales, carried his bat for 82 out of 177 and reached 10 in the follow-on when Coulthard gave him run out. The dismissal caused an uproar in the crowd of 10,000, incited, it was alleged, by bookmakers and their cohorts in the pavilion, who told Murdoch to stay on the field. It was not Coulthard's first controversial call; on the first day, he gave the caught Harris a second life, a "blatant error".
Ignoring New South Wales umpire Edmund Barton, who deemed the run out fair, the team's captain, Dave Gregory, spurred on by the crowd, demanded of Harris that he replace Coulthard or the match would be abandoned. While the captains conferred, one of the Englishmen inflamed the situation by addressing the irate crowd as "nothing but 'sons of convicts'". At this point, up to 2,000 "roughs and larrikins" surged onto the pitch. Some of the England players armed themselves with stumps as defensive weapons. Harris, in defending Coulthard, was struck with a heavy stick, and Monkey Hornby collared and dragged the assailant to the pavilion, taking punches and nearly losing his shirt in the process. Powerless to restore order, the mounted police were able to rescue Coulthard only after a lengthy struggle and with the help of volunteers. Two attempts were made to resume the match, but when the rioters learned of Harris' refusal to withdraw Coulthard, they again rushed the ground and stayed there until the scheduled end of play. Outside the ground, Coulthard was cornered by a 200-strong mob but escaped without further trouble when a group of sailors came upon the scene and "polished off" his would-be attackers.
Following a joint apology from New South Wales cricket officials, Harris agreed to continue the match after Sunday break on the condition that Coulthard umpired. England won by an innings and 41 runs, and then cancelled its remaining fixtures in Sydney. The riot was reported on widely as a national disgrace and a blow to Anglo-Australian relations. The Sydney press maintained that Coulthard was either incompetent or "wilfully corrupt" as umpire. He wrote an open letter to The Sydney Evening News denying accusations that he had bets on the match, and Harris stated publicly that had he suspected his umpire of taking any interest in the result, he would not have employed him.
Speaking at a banquet given to the England team in Melbourne at the tour's end, Lord Harris reaffirmed his belief that Murdoch was correctly given out, and stated that he and his men "had met with no better or fairer umpire than Mr. Coulthard".
Coulthard was brought into a Victoria XV in March 1880 to take on that season's Australian representative team. He was the leading wicket-taker for his side with 5/52 and 4/28. In his first-class debut for Victoria later that year, against South Australia on the East Melbourne Cricket Ground, he took 3/29 and contributed 31 runs to a first innings total of 329, but his performance with the leather slumped in the second innings, conceding 49 runs for a single wicket. The following month, after top scoring (51) for a Victorian XV in a match against the Australian XI, Coulthard played in his first of three first-class contests against New South Wales. He failed to make much of a statistical impact for Victoria in any of these intercolonials.
Given the inconsistency of his first-class outings, it is considered an oddity that, during the 1881–82 season, Coulthard, then Victoria's twelfth man, was selected to play for Australia against Alfred Shaw's touring England team following the withdrawal through injury of Alick Bannerman and Fred Spofforth. It was the second Test of the tour, held at the Association Ground in Sydney on 17–21 February. Batting at number eleven, he scored 6 not out in a useful last wicket stand of 29 with fellow Test debutant Sammy Jones. It would be Coulthard's solitary Test appearance, earning him the rare distinction shared only with fellow Australian Paddy McShane of playing in a Test after umpiring in one. Also, by a "twist of fate", his captain in the match was Billy Murdoch. Coulthard umpired the fourth and final Test of the tour at the MCG on 10–14 March.
Beyond cricket and football, Coulthard excelled at other sports, and was remembered as "one of the best all-round sportsmen of all time".
Coulthard lived in Lygon Street, Carlton, where he ran a sporting goods store that doubled as a clubroom and smoking divan. He married a woman named Letitia in July 1880 with whom he had two daughters, one dying in infancy.
In March 1879, Coulthard spied on and captured William Grieves, a notorious criminal who had eluded detection for five years, and delivered him into police custody. Coulthard was later reportedly admitted as a member of the Victoria detective force. Coulthard also donated a koala to the precursor of the Melbourne Zoo in 1880.
Illness and death
In November 1882, Coulthard was appointed umpire for Ivo Bligh's touring England XI on its famous quest to recover The Ashes. Coulthard fell ill during a sea voyage early on in the tour, and on the second day of a match in Newcastle, suffered "severe indisposition" and retired from his post. Coulthard had contracted tuberculosis, and was feared to be on the verge of death by the start of the 1883 VFA season. It was arranged that all proceeds from a June match between Carlton and Melbourne on the MCG be donated to Coulthard. The Melbourne press, noting Coulthard's popularity, anticipated a record attendance for football in Australia. However, stormy weather kept the turnout to no more than 5,000. Hotham, the club with which Coulthard feuded the previous year, was among the contributors to his fund.
On 20 October 1883, Coulthard was reportedly "confined to his bed in a dangerous state". Delirious as he succumbed to the disease, Coulthard made apparent references to his suspension from the VFA, saying "It is not true they're going to disqualify me. Surely they won't disqualify me." News of his death on 22 October was met with an outpouring of public grief, and a large procession followed Coulthard's remains from his Lygon Street home to his funeral. He was buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery next to Princes Park, home of the Carlton Football Club.
One sportswriter closed his obituary to Coulthard with the following words:
In all my experience I never met with one who better deserved to have written for epitaph "He was a man."
A concert was staged later that year in Carlton for the benefit of his surviving wife and family. On the night, Melbourne identity Edmund Finn recited to the packed venue an original poem about Coulthard, which read in part:
The foremost he, for football's manly game,
Was ever linked with poor George Coulthard's name.
He never changed—to Carlton always true,
He donned thro' good and ill the same dark blue.
Coulthard earned a place in the annals of Australian horse racing for a dream he reported having in the weeks before his death. Lying on his deathbed, he dreamt that Martini-Henri would win the Victoria Derby, Dirk Hatteraick the Melbourne Cup, and that he himself would die before the first-named race was run. Coulthard's dream was "the great topic of the day" and received significant media coverage. When he died before Martini-Henri won the Derby, a "rush of superstitious punters" placed bets on Dirk Hatteraick to win the Cup, causing a sharp drop in odds, despite the fact that, in the words of one turf writer, the horse was "as fat as a bacon hog". Dirk Hatteraick finished in the tail end of the field. A former member of Victorian Parliament was among those who believed in Coulthard's dream, but admitted backing Dirk Hatteraick "was an idiotic thing to do".
Coulthard is often ranked alongside Jack Worrall, Fred McGinis and Albert Thurgood as one of the greatest Australian rules footballers to emerge in the first fifty years of the game. In 1908, the year of Australian rules football's jubilee celebrations, sports journalist Donald Macdonald wrote of Coulthard:
He could not be misplaced. His clever handling, his pace, his expertness in dodging, his sureness in the air, and his masterful kicking were items that proved invaluable to his team. He was the brightest star in the galaxy, such as does not, even to-day, shed its effulgent beams on Carlton.
Early football historian C. C. Mullen retrospectively named Coulthard the "Champion of the Colony" for the years 1876, 1877 and 1879. Coulthard was inducted into the Carlton Football Club Hall of fame in 1990, and is one of the few players of his generation to be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
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