VFL umpiring lost is last connection with the early years of the Second World War following the passing of Ron Woolley on 15 February 2007. In his ten seasons as a member of the VFLUA Ron was Honorary Secretary for three years in addition to umpiring during the height of the war when country appointments were suspended and then returning to country football in the immediate post-war era.
Ronald William Woolley was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne, on 12 August 1914. Ron’s family lived in Ascot Vale until 1917 when his father, William, was appointed signalman for Puffing Billy and they relocated to Ferntree Gully.
Seven years later they returned to Ascot Vale, Ron completed his education at Footscray Technical School and took his first job as a mail boy at Shell. He would eventually be promoted to Manager, Import Licensing.
A keen sportsman from a young age, Ron played pennant tennis, District cricket with Essendon and Footscray and football with Brunswick Amateurs. Things may have turned out much differently if his invitation to train with Essendon Football Club in 1933 had resulted in a place in the team. Instead the mate he talked into coming with him for a bit of support did make the team. Dick Reynolds went on to three Brownlow Medals and become a Legend of Australian Football – Ron became an umpire.
Beginning in 1938 in the Junior Football League in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Ron joined the VFL List of umpires in 1940. It was the first VFL season to be affected by the war and over the next several years, as the conflict and its attendant shortages reduced football competitions, opportunities to umpire became fewer and fewer. By 1942 the VFL was supplying umpires for only their own Senior and Reserve Grade competitions, the Sub-District Football League and a War Services Competition. Ron was good enough to maintain his spot on the reduced list but was still building the experience for a senior appointment.
He umpired his first Reserve Grade match in July 1943 at Toorak Park followed by matches at The Ryder Ground, Old Scotch Oval and the Richmond City Oval, all grounds used by the VFL as its regular grounds were requisitioned by the military forces. The story behind this first Reserves match is remarkable and resulted from an ‘assault’ the previous Sunday.
The War Services Competition provided a challenge to all umpires. Played between various military units there was regular changing of players making up the teams and little discipline. Ron was appointed to Workshops versus Land Signals HQ at Brunswick Street. He recalled, “The game at Fitzroy had cruised along normally. It was similar to an earlier Army game at Carlton until, unexpectedly, this Workshops player went berserk as I walked in for a centre bounce after a goal. He rushed at me swinging his fists.”
“I dropped the ball to fend him off by pushing him on the chest. I mistimed one push and got a glancing blow on the face. Some of his team mates dragged him away. A HQ Signals player, who I assumed to be the Captain, said ‘We want nothing to do with this type of football’ and took his team of the arena. The Workshops team followed.