Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Messenger, Herbert Henry (Dally) (1883–1959)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Herbert Henry (Dally) Messenger (1883-1959), footballer, was born on 12 April 1883 at Balmain, Sydney, third son of Charles Amos Messenger, boatbuilder, from Middlesex, England, and his Melbourne-born wife Anne Frances, née Atkinson. Nicknamed 'Dally' after W. B. Dalley, he was educated at Double Bay Public School, where he played football. He then worked in the family boatshed, in the down-at-heel fishing and ferrying enclave within the otherwise upper-class harbour-side eastern suburbs.

Messenger's father and grandfather had been champion scullers and Dally was a good cricketer and sailor of 18-footers and a champion canoeist in 1899-1905. From about 1900 he played Rugby Union football with the Warrigal club in the city and suburban competition. In 1905 he joined the Eastern Suburbs district team and captained its winning second-grade side. At this time his tactical theory was rudimentary: 'Just bung the ball out to me, boys, as quickly as you can'. Next year he made first grade and played for New South Wales against Queensland and New Zealand's All Blacks. He quickly won a large following, drawn by his great ball-skills, cheeky tricks (such as diving over defenders or carrying the ball behind his back) and his accurate, long-range kicking with either foot. A centre three-quarter, whose 'feints, dodges and swerves completely baffle a tackler', he weighed 12 stone (76 kg) and was 5 ft 7½ ins (172 cm) tall. He was sturdy and good looking, with brown hair and a determined mouth and chin.

In 1907 Messenger was a key member of the State and Australian sides against the touring New Zealanders. In August he played three games against a New Zealand professional team, receiving £180. Expelled from the Rugby Union code, he joined the New Zealand team for their visit to Britain, playing Northern Union football. The outstanding player of the tour, he returned to Sydney in April 1908 with £200 in his pocket and well fitted out with new clothes. He captained Eastern Suburbs, runners-up in the inaugural Sydney Rugby League competition. In August he left to tour Britain with the first Kangaroos, whom he led in two Tests.

In 1908-13, as Rugby League became the dominant winter sport in Sydney, Messenger was its star player. He captained all three Tests against the 1910 English tourists, and the New South Wales tour of Queensland. He played five Rugby League matches for Australia, fifteen for his State against Queensland and New Zealand, and other famous encounters such as the three 1909 Kangaroos versus Wallabies matches. Within the Rugby League code his unorthodox exploits became legendary. In a 1910 club game, tackled by C. McKivatt and held by one foot, he reputedly kicked a field-goal. Against South Sydney he once scored three tries which led to rule changes: kicking ahead, he ran off the field around the defence, then back on to gather and score; later he punched the ball ahead, caught it and scored; the third try resulted from a collapsed scrum, when he stepped on and over the grounded forwards. He brought place-kicking to a new level of skill. An unpredictable individualist on the field, off it he was a gentle man of few words. His 1911 season tally of 270 points was a record until passed by Dave Brown in 1935.

On 14 October 1911 in Sydney, with Congregational forms, Messenger married a divorcee, Annie Maud Macaulay, née Carroll, owner of the Albion Hotel which they managed together in 1911-17. Because of family and business commitments, he declined to tour Britain with the second Kangaroos in 1911-12. Having led Eastern Suburbs to premiership victories in 1911-13, he retired. His brother Wally played Rugby League for Australia in 1914.

About February 1917 Messenger took up a banana plantation at Mount Buderim, Queensland, then in July became proprietor of the Royal Hotel, Manilla, New South Wales. After his wife's death from influenza in 1919 he returned to Sydney, where he worked as a carpenter with the Department of Public Works. He married Annie Elizabeth Thurecht on 1 September 1922. A non-smoker, he did not drink alcohol until well after his football days. In his last years he lived at the Leagues' Club, Phillip Street. Survived by his only son, he died on 24 November 1959 on a visit to Gunnedah, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Botany, Sydney. A typical working-class Australian, who became famous through sporting prowess and saw the world, but kept little of the money which he made, Dally Messenger was Rugby League's first and greatest hero.

Select Bibliography

  • Dally R. Messenger, The Master (Syd, 1982).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Messenger, Herbert Henry (Dally) (1883–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/messenger-herbert-henry-dally-7562/text13197, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014