Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Whitten, Edward James (Ted) (1933–1995)

by John Lack

This article was published online in 2019

Edward James Whitten (1933–1995), Australian Rules footballer, was born on 27 July 1933 at Footscray, Melbourne, second of three children of Edward James Whitten, powder monkey (quarry worker), and his wife Edna May, née Maddigan. Educated at St Augustine’s College, Yarraville, where the Christian Brothers encouraged his passion for football, Ted haunted the Western Oval to watch his Footscray Football Club idols train. While working as a factory hand, he was spotted in 1949 having a kick during his lunch break and was recruited by Braybrook juniors in the Footscray District Football League. He proved prodigiously talented: high-spirited, fast, and a fine mark and kick. In 1950 he also played on Sundays for Collingwood in the tough, open-age Amateur Football League. The next year he was recruited by the Footscray Football Club (the Bulldogs) and assigned his hero Arthur Olliver’s number three guernsey.

Playing at centre half-forward, the lightly built Whitten was injury prone and targeted by opposition players, so the captain-coach Charlie Sutton moved him to centre half-back where, building strength and stamina, he starred. He won the first of five club best and fairest awards in 1954, when Footscray won its first Victorian Football League (VFL) premiership. The Bulldogs became the district’s pin-up boys, and at just twenty-one Whitten had to deny a girlfriend’s announcement of their engagement. On 17 March 1956 (St Patrick’s Day) he married Valda Rae Scoble at the Independent Church, Collins Street, Melbourne. The marriage weathered persistent rumours of his infidelity.

Adulation of the premiers bred team hubris and player jealousies that caused a decline in Footscray’s performance, but Whitten continued to shine. In 1957 the club’s committee sacked Sutton as non-playing coach and, anxious to counter interstate attempts to poach Whitten, offered him an appointment as captain-coach. When he accepted, player relations deteriorated further, and by 1959 the exodus of players through disaffection or attraction to country coaching left Whitten one of only three remaining members of the premiership team. Adopting the flick pass (subsequently outlawed) and a fast, open style of play, he led the Bulldogs into their second grand final in 1961, which they lost, decisively, to Hawthorn. During the next decade the club had little success. Whitten’s enthusiastic coaching could not offset indifferent recruiting.

An all-year fitness fanatic, who smoked only in the off-season and was virtually a teetotaller, Whitten found it difficult to secure employment that suited his punishing training regimen. After several failed business ventures, he was out of work in 1959 when his loyalty to Footscray was tested by a lucrative Tasmanian offer. In 1962 he rejected several offers from Western Australian teams and accepted a five-year contract as Footscray’s captain-coach. His financial position eased after 1963 when he found work in promotions for Adidas sporting goods.

Whitten relished interstate matches, playing twenty-nine games for Victoria, twice as captain-coach (1962). His keenest battles were fought against South Australia: ‘E.J. … was a bastard to play against,’ Neil ‘Knuckles’ Kerley averred, ‘but I loved him’ (Eva 2012, 355). Acclaimed by journalists as ‘Mr Football,’ a name coined by Lou Richards and embraced by Whitten, he came to be regarded as the most accomplished player of his era. He was renowned for his ferocious handshake and his strongly competitive style (as a master of the ‘hip and shoulder,’ the ‘shirt-front,’ and the ‘squirrel grip’). His habitual ‘ear bashing’ of umpires perhaps cost him a Brownlow medal.

Although Whitten was devastated when Footscray replaced him with Sutton as coach for the 1967 season, he refused offers from four VFL clubs. That year he broke Olliver’s club record of 271 senior games. Resuming as captain-coach in 1969, he retired as a player after he established a new VFL record of 321 games in May 1970. He continued as a non-playing coach, but Footscray’s committee did not renew his contract in 1972.

Preparing for life after football, Whitten had extended his advertising and media commitments, cultivating good relations with journalists who ghost-wrote his many press articles. He was an entertaining sports commentator and football panellist on commercial television and called matches on radio stations 3AK and 3GL (later K Rock), including some involving his son, Ted junior, who played 144 games for Footscray before injury forced his retirement. A Victorian (1983–94) and All Australian (1991–94) selector, Whitten by force of personality sustained interstate football against gathering league and player indifference. From 1985 the E. J. Whitten medal was awarded to the best Victorian player in State of Origin football. That year he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, and he was awarded the OAM in 1992.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, Whitten publicly warned men not to ignore the symptoms, but his own cancer progressed and he retired from public life in December 1994. He sought consolation in his renewed Catholic faith. In May 1995 he was elevated to legend status in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, and in June he was named as an inaugural inductee and legend of the Australian Football Hall of Fame. On 17 June he was given an emotional farewell at a State of Origin game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Although blind and ravaged by bone cancer, he still urged the Victorian players to ‘stick it up’ their opponents.

Whitten died at his Altona North home on 17 August. Survived by his wife and their son, he was also mourned by the inamorata of a discretely maintained relationship. At a state funeral held at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 22 August, the eulogist, his friend Bob Skilton, remarked that Whitten ‘grabbed [life] by the throat and shook hell out of it’ (1995, 38). He had always proclaimed his pride in his Footscray working-class origins, and many thousands lined the route of the cortège as it passed through Footscray to Altona Memorial Park for a private service and cremation.

If Whitten was not the greatest player ever, as was commonly claimed at his death, he was certainly among the game’s elite. Ever the larrikin and prankster, he epitomised the best of postwar Australian Rules football: skilled, tough, tribal, loyal, and entertaining. Following his death, the E. J. Whitten Bridge on Melbourne’s Western Ring Road was named in his honour and the Western Oval was renamed Whitten Oval. In 1996 the Australian Football League declared Whitten captain of its team of the century, while the annual E. J. Whitten Legends Game and the E. J. Whitten Foundation were established to raise funds for prostate cancer research. Two statues were unveiled in 1997, one by Peter Corlett outside Whitten Oval and another by Mitch Mitchell at the Braybrook Hotel.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Eva, Bruce, Peter Ryan, and Nick Bowen. Legends of the Australian Football Hall of Fame. Richmond, Vic.: Slattery Media Group, 2012
  • Lack, John. A History of Footscray. North Melbourne: Hargreen, 1991
  • Lack, John, Chris McConville, Michael Small, and Damien Wright. A History of the Footscray Football Club: Unleashed. Footscray, Vic.: Aus-Sport Enterprises, 1996
  • Nankervis, Brian. Boys and Balls. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • Ross, John, and Paul Harvey. The Ted Whitten Album. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2003
  • Skilton, Bob. ‘Words not Enough for a Hero to Us All.’ Age (Melbourne), 23 August 1995, 38
  • Whitten, E. J. Interviewed by John Lack, 10 April 1991
  • Whitten, Ted, with Jim Main and friends. E. J. Melbourne: Wilkinson Books, 1995

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Whitten, Edward James (Ted) (1933–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitten-edward-james-ted-27937/text35686, published online 2019, accessed online 24 September 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019