• Jimmy Melbourne. Source: West Perth Football Club (West Perth Football Club)Source: West Perth Football Club
His grave had long been unmarked and his achievements unhonoured but Jimmy Melbourne has always been a hero.
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By Rachel Hocking

22 Sep 2015 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2015 - 10:50 AM

Jimmy Melbourne’s life was remarkable.

He was the first Aboriginal Australian to play senior football for the West Australian Football League. He gained his jockey’s license in 1896, rumored to be the earliest granted to an Aboriginal person. And, he was among the few Indigenous soldiers to have served at Gallipoli. 

But until mid-September in 2015, his grave had gone unmarked, and many of his achievements unhonoured.

On Friday 18 September a headstone was placed on his grave at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery in the southeast of Melbourne.

John Schnaars is a Vietnam veteran, and, like Jimmy, experienced discrimination on his return from war. Moved by stories such as Jimmy’s, John began searching for unmarked war graves 15 years ago.

"When you see what it does for so many families and how it affects them - and other people who come along - that's what I say you can't buy that with money. It's just something special."

Under his not-for-profit business, Honouring Indigenous War Graves Incorporated, he sources funding to hold ceremonies for the graves he finds, and restores them with custom-designed headstones.

Mr Schnaars works hard for very little, but he says he could not be richer: “people say to me, ‘If you get paid for everything you do, you’d be a millionaire’".

“I just say to them, ‘As far as I’m concerned, I am a millionaire,’ says Mr Schnaars.

“Because what I’ve got you can’t buy with money. And when you see what you do for so many families and how it affects them, and other people who come along, that’s what I say, you can’t buy that with money.

“It’s just something special,” he said.

RELATED STORY:
Tribute to WA football forefather: Jimmy Melbourne
Western Australia's football pioneer, Jimmy Melbourne, is being honoured almost 80 years after his death with a headstone on his unmarked grave at a ceremony on Friday.

Tragically, Jimmy was murdered by his landlord in his South Melbourne home in 1937.

Since then, putting the pieces of Jimmy’s life together has not been easy.

Jimmy was orphaned when he was four years old, and placed in the Native and Half Caste Mission in Perth in the early 1880s. Later in life Jimmy married twice, but he never had children.

At the time, his murder made front page news across the nation. But despite being in the spotlight much of his life, little is known about his exact Aboriginal heritage or family lineage.

Jimmy’s new headstone describes him as a Nyoongar man, based on his birthplace of York.

David Collard is also a Nyoongar man from Perth, and travelled to Melbourne for Jimmy’s ceremony.

"Jimmy is part of, what we call, one of the 14 clans of Nyoongar. And when you go to York you'll understand that it is Ballardong country, and I am also a proud Ballardong person. Jimmy's one of them, too,” said Mr Collard.

While Melbourne is his final resting place, Jimmy's headstone holds a significant connection to his home country.

Chris Thomas, the WA stonemason behind the headstone, says Jimmy's birthplace was his chief inspiration.

"York had a quarry for some time, but it has been closed for probably 60-70 years. So it's very hard for us to get any York stone," said Mr Thomas.

“But in this instance, we were lucky enough to be able to get some York stone, specifically for Jimmy. And it's now actually an Aboriginal sacred site, the quarry, so the stone is blessed well and truly for him."

"We see him as a pioneer."

Despite the absence of any living family members at Jimmy’s ceremony in September, there was much to be said about the football legend.

Former Essendon Football Club Coach, Kevin Sheedy, said it was an honour to be able to pay his respects.

"I'm very proud,” Mr Sheedy said. “I mean, this young man showed a lot of courage, really, to put his hand up to play in the West Australian footy league very early.”

Carlton Football Club great, Syd Jackson, also praised his memory.

“He was revered in his day," commended Mr Jackson. "And one of our first ever football players…We see him as a pioneer in that regard."

The WA Football Commission with the WA Football League worked with the Honouring Indigenous War Graves Association to place a headstone on the unmarked grave of Jimmy Melbourne.