There’s a new player in Richmond’s league football history . . .
Walter Johnston – 1908 – one game.
Born: January 17, 1884 in Kingston, Victoria. Died: July 18, 1946 in Ringwood, Victoria, aged 62.
For 110 years, club and league records documented Carlton and North Melbourne backman Alex Johnston as coming across to Richmond and playing two games for the Tigers in their inaugural season of VFL football in 1908 – Round 2 v University and then Round 8 v Carlton.
But a chance discovery I made on page 9 of The Argus newspaper, June 8, 1908, for a permit granted to Alex Johnston to return to North Melbourne, raised a question. If he left Richmond in early June to go back to North Melbourne, how could he have been the same ‘Johnston’ that played for Richmond five days later in Round 8 on June 13 against Carlton?
Furthermore, a look at North Melbourne's side for its June 13, 1908 match against Preston, shows the appearance of ‘Johnston’ in the backline. That match was played on the same day as Richmond's Round 8 clash, when Alex Johnston apparently was playing with the Tigers.
The Herald lists a ‘Johnstone’ (sic) in the forward line for Richmond's Round 8 match.
So with Alex Johnston back at North Melbourne, when this encounter took place, who is the forward ‘Johnston’ playing for Richmond?
The answer was in front of my eyes on page three of Richmond's Annual Report for 1908.
Under ‘Players’, it seemed to show every senior player from that season, including a ‘W Johnson’ beside our ‘A Johnson’. (Note the spelling of both their surnames is wrong).
With a first initial discovered, a search of the Trove Newspaper website brought up Johnson, the forward, playing in Richmond’s 1908 pre-season matches. He is a player and resident from Cheltenham, ‘The Sport’ newspaper tells us.
Thankfully, the W. Johnson, who we were trying to discover, was a pretty handy player for Cheltenham, and there are numerous references to awards he received across the 1906 and 1907 seasons. Most importantly, it revealed his full name.
With the assistance of ‘Big Footy’ researchers, a search of the Australian electoral rolls for 1906 and 1909 revealed something rather amazing. There was only one Walter Johnston living in the suburb at that time.
Using the personal details from the electoral roll, a picture could now be formed of our new Richmond player.
Walter Johnston played as a forward with Cheltenham from 1906-1907, receiving the best all-round award for both of those seasons.
Catching the eye of Richmond recruiters, he was invited to Punt Road in 1908 and tried out in the pre-season matches, but couldn't make the side.
Then, in Round 8, with the Tigers’ team decimated by injuries, five changes were made. And Walter Johnston got his one and only chance as a Richmond player.
After that game, he played one match with Mentone Football Club, and the following year, he went back to Cheltenham Football Club, where he won the best-all round award again.
Fast forward to August 1940, and Walter enlists for World War 2 service, lying about his age by taking 12 years off it! Serving as a staff sergeant, he was discharged on June 29, 1943. He subsequently died on July 18, 1946. Walter has a roll of honour card at the State Library of Victoria, meaning although he died a year or so after the end of WW2, his death was attributed to his war service.
Walter Johnston is a new name to be added to the Club's list of players who gave the ultimate sacrifice to our country.
But before this story is over, one last surprise . . .
I asked the Cheltenham Football Club if they have any old team photos that may have showed Walter before he went to Richmond.
The answer was yes.
Meet Walter Johnston, Richmond's missing player no more.
The man in the centre of the middle row of the photo . . . hooped guernsey, arms crossed, staring right back at us, as if to say, ‘Took you long enough, Rhett’.
Rhett Bartlett’s updated oral history publication ‘Richmond F.C’ will be released in early 2019.