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Giant mystery behind Hoskin-Elliott's family history

Giant's Anzac flag link Will Hoskin-Elliott has discovered a premiership link to the year the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli
Will Hoskin-Elliott of the Giants celebrates a goal during the 2014 AFL Round 23 match between the Western Bulldogs and the GWS Giants at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne on August 31, 2014. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)
GWS Giant Will Hoskin-Elliott could have easily played his AFL career under a different name

THE GIANTS surge into attack, and up goes HOSKIN-NORRIS!

Greater Western Sydney youngster Will Hoskin-Elliott is making a name for himself, but he could easily have had a different one. One that probably wouldn’t roll off the tongue as easily as his current name.

The reasons behind a name change in Hoskin-Elliott’s family three generations ago have long been shrouded in mystery, and the AFL Record has attempted to uncover the truth.

This story started out as a novelty, but soon developed a life of its own.

Patrick Keane, the AFL’s media relations manager, had League statistician and historian Col Hutchinson chasing various tidbits from the 1915 season to enhance the AFL’s coverage for Anzac Day.

One of Keane’s queries was: are there any current players who have a direct family link to a player from 1915?

Hutchinson found just one: Hoskin-Elliott – whose great-great-grandfather Charlie Norris played in a premiership with Collingwood and two with Fitzroy.

Things quickly became far more intriguing than we’d bargained for.

It turns out that Norris’ eldest son, Leslie Albert Norris (Hoskin-Elliott’s late great-grandfather), changed his name to John William Elliott. The reason for the name change is the subject of conjecture in the family.

There are two theories: one sad yet not uncommon, the other quite explosive.

The more likely explanation is that Les fell out with his parents over some unknown dispute.

However, the more tantalising theory relates to a story that Les witnessed the final moments of notorious gangster Joseph Leslie Theodore ‘Squizzy’ Taylor. And that he knew too much.

If this dubious story is true, it would have gone something like this.

Les was a cab driver and on the night of October 27, 1927, was rumoured to have picked up Taylor and two cronies in the city and followed the underworld boss’ barked orders to drive to a series of watering holes, before being directed to a bluestone cottage at 50 Barkly St, Carlton.

Les was told to wait in his car while the men entered the house. A short gunfight resulted in the swift death of Taylor’s rival John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore.

A wounded Taylor and an accomplice scurried back to the cab with the little crook exclaiming: “I’ve been shot. Take me to St Vinnies (St Vincent’s Hospital) – quick!”

After Taylor slumped unconscious towards the steering wheel, his henchman soon jumped out of the car, leaving 22-year-old Les to take his infamous passenger to hospital alone.

Taylor, 39, died soon after, sparking newspaper headlines and, apparently, grave fears for Les Norris.

With two Taylor heavies on the loose who knew his identity, Les supposedly went into hiding.

According to the rumour, police might have sent him into a form of witness protection, relocating him from inner Melbourne to a dairy farm at Sunbury (40km north-west of Melbourne).

The problem with this theory is that the cab driver in question was quickly identified as Carlton resident John William Hall, and he later testified at a packed coronial inquest.

Perhaps by sheer coincidence, Hall shared the same given names – John William – that Les chose as part of his new identity. This raises an even stranger question: were they the same person?

What is not in dispute is that Les isolated himself from the rest of his family, for the rest of his life.

His descendants are only just learning about their ancestry, and it has come as quite a shock.

“It’s a pretty amazing story,” Hoskin-Elliott told the AFL Record. “But what do you believe? All I know is that Dad (Rodney) didn’t know anything about the Norris side of the family – his cousins and uncles.”

This perhaps lends more credence to the falling-out theory.

Les Norris died young, so there was no deathbed confession or late-life revelation, and his descendants never got the chance to ask him to clear it up once and for all.

Les was killed in shocking circumstances in World War II.

He enlisted in the Army on June 11, 1940, and within four months signed a statutory declaration stating his real name (one of the first clues to his real identity for the Hoskin-Elliotts). That was the least of Les’ troubles.

After serving in New Guinea for 10 months, he was killed by the Japanese in the horrific Tol Plantation Massacre at Milne Bay on February 3, 1942. He was just 36.

Both his parents – Charlie and Beatrice – were also dead by then and neither revealed anything about why their eldest son changed his name.

In any case, the Hoskin-Elliotts are also amazed by what they have learned about Charlie Norris.

They are largely being educated in their family history by Norris’ grand-daughter Pauline Allan and her husband Graeme.

Mrs Allan says she and Hoskin-Elliott are about fifth cousins. Her father Hubert was a younger brother of Hoskin-Elliott’s great-grandfather (Les Norris).

The Giants recently arranged for the Allans to meet Hoskin-Elliott for the first time at the club. The Allans, Victorian natives, made the two-hour drive down from the Hunter Valley region. Mad Essendon fans, they have always closely followed the progress of the rising star they privately refer to as ‘The Hyphen’.

Mrs Allan sees a physical resemblance between Hoskin-Elliott and her grandfather, and her research tells her they were also similar types of players.

“Will’s versatile, much like Charlie was, but Will’s just (8cm) taller,” she says.

The difference was that 178cm Norris was a premiership ruckman – one of the shortest of all time – while 186cm Hoskin-Elliott is a flanker.

“That is unreal,” says the 21-year-old, who is on the comeback trail after recovering from a shoulder injury.

Speed is another similarity between the pair, with Norris regularly running in sprint races around Victoria, including at Stawell.

A contrast, though, is that Norris was a rugged campaigner, whereas Hoskin-Elliott is a scrupulous ball player.

As a boy, Hoskin-Elliott dreamed of playing for Collingwood – before he even knew he had a great-great-grandfather who’d played for the club.

“It was pretty cool to find that out around the time I got drafted (at No. 4 in 2011),” he says. “But that’s all we really knew about him. We didn’t know he played for Fitzroy too. The information we’ve found out has been incredible.”

On their journey to Sydney, the Allans took along some memorabilia from Charlie Norris’ decorated playing career – including three premiership caps (1910, 1913 and 1916) and two premiership medals (1910 and 1913).

The first cap Hoskin-Elliott tried on was a snug fit.

“Pauline said I’m the only person she knows who fits the cap,” he says.

He also cherished the opportunity to hold the small premiership medals.

“I want one of my own now,” he says.

Charlie Norris is a remarkable story himself.

On July 23, 1881, he became the seventh-born of 11 children to a Scottish father and a local girl at Heathcote.

It’s likely that Norris started playing senior footy around his hometown, where he married his wife Beatrice (several years his senior) in 1903.

The couple moved to Bendigo, where Norris played for California Gully.

They produced their first four children in the space of just five years (1904-09), before relocating their young family to Melbourne in 1910.

Norris took up work as a tram driver and played for VFA club Northcote.

Midway through the season, he joined Collingwood. It was a fortuitous move. Within 11 games he was a premiership player.

Norris, who could play in any area of the field, showed his value in that 1910 Grand Final against Carlton when he moved from the back pocket to the ruck to cover the loss of injured Pies big man Dave Ryan.

Norris started his League career at the ripe old age of 28 and played at the highest level until he was 37.

He remains the oldest player in League history to debut at such an age and still reach 100 games. In fact, he played 124 games, including 15 finals.

And he did it while battling personal tragedy. During Norris’ time with Fitzroy, two of his children died from illness in as many years: fifth child Ronald at just 10 months in June 1913 (just four months before his father won his first premiership with Fitzroy) and eight-year-old daughter Alma on April 13, 1915 (12 days before the Gallipoli landings).

Norris’ move to Fitzroy was intriguing in itself. After winning a flag with the Pies in 1910, he crossed to Fitzroy midway through the next season. There is some talk in the family that he was nabbed by the Maroons because he was playing outside his zone. He lived in Taylor St, Fitzroy North – closer to Brunswick St Oval than Victoria Park.

Norris’ first game for Fitzroy was at Collingwood, and he played well in a hard-fought win.

In 1913, he and teammate Jim Martin became just the fourth and fifth players to win premierships with two clubs.

It’s not known why Norris didn’t volunteer for World War I when many others his age did, but perhaps a factor was the welfare of his young family, beset as it was by tragedy.

Eight of Norris’ former teammates were killed in battle: two from Collingwood and six from Fitzroy.

Norris remained and was Fitzroy’s standout player in the 1915 preliminary final loss to Carlton, and was also named in the club’s best in both the 1916 triumph and 1917 Grand Final loss to Collingwood.

He was perhaps fortunate to be part of the 1916 premiership after copping an eight-game suspension for striking Carlton rover Percy Daykin, returning just in time for the finals.

“I think he would have been a tough, no-nonsense type – my father was like that and I think he would have learned that from his father,” Pauline Allan says.

Norris retired from League football at the age of 37 years and 19 days, remaining the oldest Fitzroy player ever (by almost a year from club legend Kevin Murray).

However, Norris’ football career wasn’t yet over. He joined then-VFA club North Melbourne and that very year, 1919, played in a Grand Final loss to Footscray.

The following year he returned to Northcote and retired at season’s end at 39.

Norris then had a brief stint as an umpire, officiating in 10 games across nine competitions throughout Victoria before giving it away, perhaps exhausted by the travel.

Mrs Allan believes the Norris family was reasonably well off because they lived in a stately double-storey house and owned a car when not many people did.

She says her grandfather looks like “a real dandy” in family photos.

For a man who had long been so fit and nimble, it must have been a shock to many when Charlie Norris died from pleurisy and pneumonia on February 16, 1940, at just 58.

No doubt his great-great grandson will be hoping for similar longevity on the field, but more longevity off it.

* If anyone can assist with the Norris/Hoskin-Elliott mystery, please email ben.collins@afl.com.au

This story appears in the round four edition of the AFL Record, available at all grounds.