When Messenger first arrived into Rugby fame with the NSW Waratahs in 1906 they called him ‘Dally’, but this wasn’t his real name – it was a nick-name, taken from a now long-forgotten figure in Sydney’s colonial past, who many today simply know as ‘the green man of Hyde Park’.

Messenger / DalleyBorn in Balmain in 1883, Herbert Henry Messenger would find football immortality in both Rugby codes as ‘Dally M’.

Australians have always rejoiced in bestowing nicknames on each other. Maybe it was originally some sort of ritual to mimic, in a light-hearted way, the giving of titles amongst the upper classes.

Whatever its origins, the most incongruous (yet somehow right) names are always the most memorable, and invariably the ones that stick.

While many of Messenger’s mates were given obvious nicknames derived from the colour of their hair – the ubiquitous ‘Ginger’, ‘Snowy’ or ‘Bluey’ – others were more creative, like ‘Spider’ or ‘Catty’.

One of Messenger’s footballing colleagues at the Easts RU club in Sydney, and later NSWRL/ARL leader, Henry ‘Jersey’ Flegg, picked up his lifelong nickname during a school excursion to the city in 1891.

Eleven-year-old Henry Flegg journeyed with his teacher and school-mates into Sydney to witness the official welcome of the colony’s new Governor General from England, George Villiers, the Earl of Jersey.

When the boys all saw the Earl’s carrot-top hair, they looked straight at Henry,who sported the same blood-red crown, and immediately anointed him ‘Jersey’. When he made his NSW Waratahs debut in 1902 he was listed as ‘H. Flegg’, but to everyone he was ‘Jers’ or ‘Jersey’. 

Those who were not ‘fortunate’ enough to earn a nickname by their physical characteristics or childhood incidents, could at the very least expect their christian or surname to be disfigured: Griffiths became ‘Griffo’, Albert became ‘Alby’, and so on. It seems nobody went without some sort of affectionate appellation.

Dally Messenger sculpture - click for more info...
Dally Messenger sculpture – now stands in front of Sydney Football Stadium (click photo for more details)

As with Flegg, Messenger gained his nickname from a physical likeness to a public figure.

The story, as told by Messenger himself in The Master, centred around the family’s Double Bay boatshed, which was a frequent haunt for many of Sydney’s rowing and sailing enthusiasts.

“My mother used to dress me in a short shirt and pants and often left me to play among the shavings,” recalled Messenger of his first years of life. “I was only knee-high to a grasshopper, but as podgy as a watermelon.”

His mother caught the four-horse bus to town and he was left in the care of his father.

“William Bede Dalley lived at Darling Point, and one of his favourite jaunts was down to my dad’s place, where he would discuss boats by the hour.”

Messenger’s father and Dalley were both involved with the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, racing sailing boats on Sydney Harbour.

Dalley was a NSW parliamentarian, and for a brief period acting Premier (which in colonial times carried the title of ‘Prime Minister of NSW’).

The son of convict parents, Dalley was lauded as a great patriot, and led the growing political activism of native-born Australians (as opposed to who migrated from Britain). An inspiring character, it was said of Dalley that in his ‘company no man could feel dull’.

The Bulletin lauded Dalley as “a man of many splendours, both of intellect and heart,” and “in many respects the most notable man Sydney has given birth to.”

An accomplished and successful criminal defense lawyer, Dalley was involved in two of the most high-profile cases in NSW’s early history.

The first came in 1864, when he acted for the Scottish-born bushranger Frank Gardiner, a one-time cohort of Ben Hall. Gardiner had been charged with shooting and wounding a police sergeant at Oberon, on the western side of The Blue Mountains.

With his client facing a hanging, Dalley successfully persuaded the jury that Gardiner was not guilty, and he was acquitted. The Crown then prosecuted Gardiner on lesser charges, for which he spent ten years in gaol, and was ultimately deported from Australia.

In 1868 Dalley defended Henry James O’Farrell, who, in front of dozens of witnesses, carried out Australia’s first attempt at a political assassination.

At a picnic ground at Clontarf, in Sydney’s Middle Harbour, the Irish-born O’Farrell aimed and fired his revolver, wounding Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s second eldest son). The Prince recovered, however, it came as no surprise that even Dalley could not prevent O’Farrell’s demise courtesy of the hangman’s noose.

While Dalley could deliver a persuasive argument in the courtroom, he also exhibited a showiness in his attire, wearing colourful clothing that demonstrated his unique flair and style. It is apt perhaps that his namesake would also be remembered for his uniqueness, though his was on the football field.

William Dalley was far from ever being considered as athletic.

“He had a big corporation supported by a robust belt,” recalled Messenger, “and to onlookers, it was a wonder how he held things together. ‘Here comes Dalley’ they would say.”

“The sight of my tummy was so like Dalley’s, and struck people so humorously, that I was dubbed ‘Dalley’ on the spot. It was always a case of ‘Here comes Dalley’ as one or both of us was always about.”

“The Green Man” – William Dalley statue in Hyde Park, Sydney

Numerous accounts exist as to who actually gave Messenger the “Dalley” name, however, they conflict as to whether it was Dalley himself or Messenger’s father.

Somehow, by the time Messenger was playing top-flight Rugby, the spelling of ‘Dalley’ had changed to become ‘Dally’, and that way it has forever remained.

William Dalley passed away in 1888, and a public committee was formed, raising enough money from the citizens of Sydney to build a statue in his honour in Hyde Park.

Crafted by renown sculptor James White, a crowd of more than 10,000 were present at the statue’s unveiling.

Standing adjacent to the northern end of the Park, near Victoria Square, Dalley can be seen today gazing down Macquarie Street, towards the Law Courts and Parliament House – to many Sydneysiders he is simply known as ‘the green man’.

In a city that worships its sporting stars more than any politician can ever dream of, and despite his prominent statue, few Australians have any notion of who Dalley was, or that he even existed.

How ironic that his name lives on, through the footballing deeds of that tubby little boy in the Messenger family’s Double Bay boat shed, who himself is honoured by a statue (outside the Sydney Football Stadium).

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan was consultant historian on the Dally Messenger sculpture for the SCG Trust and artist Cathy Weiszmann. [link]

‘Dally M’ rugby football (1932)