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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Matson, Phillip Henry (1884–1928)

by Lyall Hunt

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

Phillip Henry Matson (1884-1928), sportsman, was born on 22 October 1884 at Port Adelaide, son of George Matson, bootmaker, poet and later a Commonwealth literary pensioner, and his wife Emma, née Duffield. Educated at state school, Matson moved to Western Australia as a youth and worked as a navvies' water-boy. He swam competitively in Perth from 1902 and played Australian Rules football. Matson dominated Perth swimming and held State free-style titles from 100 yards (91 m) to a mile (1.6 km) using the trudgen stroke. At the 1905 Australasian championships in Melbourne he won the 220 yards breast-stroke event. Over the next three years he lowered his time to 3 minutes, 14 seconds, a world record time, and retained his title in 1907 and 1908. He turned professional for a £20 stake in 1909. On 16 March 1907 at Boulder he had married his cousin Gertrude Ethel Jean Pope; they later separated.

Financial rewards came from football, despite its rules for amateurs. Matson chased transfer fees and job offers: to South Bunbury 1904-05; Boulder City 1906-08; Sturt (Adelaide) 1909-10; North Fremantle 1911; Subiaco 1912-17; and East Perth 1918-23. He played his best football in Adelaide, being fast, vigorous, an outstanding high mark, despite his height of 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm), and versatile at half-back, half-forward and following. He represented South Australia in 1909-10 and Western Australia in 1908, 1911 and 1914 (as captain) in interstate matches.

Matson worked intermittently as a miner, tramways motorman, farmer (at Nippering), trans-Australian railway navvy, lumper, storeman and 'Spot-Lager' retailer. Formerly abstemious, he later drank socially and 'scorned few delights'. Heavy gambling made him alternately flush and broke. This life-style caused tension in his family who lived in tents at Crawley or moved house frequently. When rejected for war service on medical grounds, Matson favoured the casual life of a licensed Swan River fisherman and running two-up schools at Subiaco and Pelican Point and starting-price books at city hotels. In 1918-24 he held a trotting bookmaker's licence and ran an illegal gaming-house in Central Perth.

He became coach of East Perth Football Club in 1918. A dominant personality, Matson inspired confidence and respect with his systematic approach and ability to outwit opponents and to exploit their weaknesses. Strengthened by his recruitment of champion players, East Perth won seven premierships between 1919 and 1927. Matson commanded high fees for his success: he had played in twelve premiership teams and, in the last ten years of his career, coached teams into nine finals. A selector for the successful 1921 Western Australian interstate carnival team, he coached the 1924 and 1927 teams that lost narrowly to Victoria. He bluntly attacked Victorian officials in 1924 for initiating bashing tactics. Officialdom won, for, after coaching Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1925, he was refused permission by the Victorian Football League to coach Richmond. Matson's answer was to inspire Western Australia to two 'spiteful, vicious, brutal' victories over Victoria in 1926.

A witty, eloquent, unconventional, uninhibited yet popular individual, Matson lived hedonistically, without pretension, and accumulated few possessions. He was important in the professionalization of working-class sport, insisting upon fees to become the highest-paid Westralian footballer-coach of his era, and forcing the abandonment of amateur transfer rules. Injured in a truck smash, he died in Perth on 13 June 1928 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. He was survived by his wife, their two sons and his de facto wife Kate Thompson, née Owens.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Glossop (ed), East Perth 1906-1976 (Perth, 1976)
  • C. T. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • Western Mail (Perth), 14, 21 June 1928
  • Football 150 (Perth, 1979)
  • Westralian Worker, 28 May 1915
  • Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), 31 Aug 1922
  • Mirror (Perth), 28 Apr 1923, 16 June 1928
  • West Australian, 12, 13, 14 June 1928
  • Subiaco Football Club, Western Australia Football League, football records
  • P. H. Matson correspondence, papers and newsclippings (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lyall Hunt, 'Matson, Phillip Henry (1884–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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