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Wilfred 'Chicken' Smallhorn: the spirit of the ANZAC Fitzroy legend, Changi legend


Continuing our look back at 140 years of the Fitzroy Football Club

By David Leydon

As we honour the spirit of the ANZAC legend this week, it’s a great opportunity to look back at the life of one of Fitzroy Football Club’s greatest players – Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn.

Born in North Fitzroy on 25 February 1911, Wilfred played his early football at both Collingwood Technical School and East Brunswick Methodists.

Legend has it that he was nicknamed “Chicken” by his mother as she could never catch him when he was a youngster.

Smallhorn was recruited to Fitzroy and played his first game in round four of that season against St.Kilda at the Junction Oval. Many people watching that game believed Chicken was the best player on the ground that day and he won immediate plaudits from fans and media alike for his performance.

Chicken played 150 games for the club between 1930 and 1940. He won the 1933 Brownlow Medal which we celebrate the 90th anniversary of this year. He also represented Victoria seven times.

Following the commencement of World War II in 1939, Chicken enlisted in the Australian Armed Forces in 1940. He was taken prisoner by Japanese forces and was sent to Changi Prison where he stayed for over three years where he was forced to work on the Burma Railway construction.

In true ANZAC spirit and to try improve the lives and welfare of the Australian soldiers imprisoned at Changi, Chicken started a regular Australian Rules football competition for inmates. The 'season' ran for some 9 months with six teams named after VFL sides competing.

To add to the incredibly well organised competition, there were the earliest signs of player drafts, player clearances between sides, tribunals and a properly constituted 'Changi Brownlow Medal. At the season’s end there was big game between 'Victoria' and a team made up of the 'Rest of Australia'.

These games and the wonderful good will and Australian larrikinism that prevailed did much to help buck up the spirits of the Australian prisoners of war in their time of need.

After the war, Chicken returned home to his wife Violet. His son Robert was born after Wilfred had joined the army and so father and son met for the first time when Robert was nearly four years old. Unfortunately Robert died of cancer in 1957 at the age of just 14.

Chicken went on to become a media personality on both TV and radio.

He died in 1988.

He was named on the wing in Fitzroy’s Team of the Century in 2000 and was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

Chicken Smallhorn – much loved, much respected and never forgotten part of the 140 years of the Fitzroy Football Club.

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