Sir James Gobbo, the former Supreme Court judge and later Governor of Victoria, was a staunch follower of the Carlton Football Club prior to and beyond his public life – perhaps a throwback to a time when the game was territorial and the club and its vibrant Italian community were inextricably linked.
Sir James – “Giacomo” as he was christened – was born in Carlton’s Royal Women’s Hospital in 1931 to Italian parents Antonio and Regina Gobbo (nee Tosetto). Antonio, who hailed from Cittadella in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, traversed the globe to Australia in 1927; his wife following with their oldest son Flavio aboard the steamship Regina d’Italia not long after.
In a series of articles for the newsletter of the Italian Historical Society of which he was chairman, Sir James recalled with affection the early family years in Carlton.
“My links are personal as I was born in Carlton and lived in Newry Street and later, after a childhood in Italy, returned and eventually settled in Carlton,” he wrote.
“Our first home was in University Street, near Tibaldi’s salami factory. Later we moved to 501 Drummond Street, a house with a great deal of character and a long garden covered with grape vines. At the rear was a sleep-out, where for years we had as a friend and lodger Chenno Baggio – who still bakes some of the best bread in Melbourne at San Remo Bakery.”
Sir James’ parents later found permanent lodgings at 501 Drummond Street within walking distance of the Carlton ground. It was here in 1951 that Sir James learned that he had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship for Oxford University.
Clearly, Sir James inherited his great empathy for migrants through his father and mother. The historians Michelle Stevenson and Laura Mecca noted that Antonio, a terrazzo worker, sponsored many people from his hometown to Australia and supported them in the assimilation process. On Sundays, these new Australians would all gather at the Gobbos house for a meal, and during the Great Depression Regina took in Italian boarders, enclosing the veranda of their terrace house with calico to create sleeping quarters.
In 1935, Antonio returned to Italy with Flavio, James and the youngest child Natalina. Three years later the children followed him back to Australia. To quote Sir James: “We came back here in 1938, so at this point I was truly a migrant. I did not speak any English and I went to school initially at St George’s in Carlton (later St Joseph’s North Melbourne and Xavier College)”.
In 1939 Antonio and Regina purchased the St Kilda Grill Rooms cafe at 274 Victoria Street, North Melbourne (opposite the Victoria Market) and Regina’s sister Savina, who later married an Italian POW Bruno Bianchi, supported them in managing the café.
Regina, it has been said, was the driving force behind her son James’ academic success, from his schooldays at St Joseph’s North Melbourne and later Xavier College, through to the University of Melbourne and Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar in 1952, James was also a member of the crew that took line honours in the 100th Oxford-Cambridge boat race and he also served as President of the Oxford University Boat Club.
Sir James returned to Melbourne to pursue a life in the legal professional, and in 1957 married Shirley Lewis, a former librarian. Together they raised five children.
In 1978, following a successful career as a barrister, Sir James was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria. In 1997, he was appointed Governor of Victoria, the state’s 25th Governor and the first Australian of non-English speaking background to be elevated to that office.
Sir James was honoured with a knighthood in the Carlton back-to-back Premiership year of 1982 for services to the community. In 1993, he was honoured with the Companion of the Order of Australia for his contributions to the law, multicultural affairs and hospitals.
At Carlton, the 1968 Carlton Premiership player and former Chief Executive and President Ian Collins remembered Sir James as an understated, but passionate devotee.
“I’m very sorry to learn of Sir James’ passing,” Collins said. “Sir James was very quiet, but very supportive. His family was one of those classic Italian migrant families who came to Australia and settled in Carlton.
“As with Sir Robert Menzies, Manning Clark and BA Santamaria, Sir James was a guest speaker of the club, invariably at player inductions or guernsey presentations whether at the Southern Cross, or in the Social Club or the John Elliott Stand.
Sir James’ address to the Carlton players on the eve of what would be the 1981 Premiership season remains firmly in the memory of the three-time Carlton Premiership player, ’81 club Best & Fairest and former Director Ken Hunter – a promising West Australian recruit in that particular year.
“I distinctively remember Sir James as guest speaker. He delivered an eloquent address about Carlton and what it meant to him. That was on the eve of the ’81 season and for me it was incredibly inspiring,” said Hunter some 40 years after the event.
“Sir James spoke about Carlton and what it meant to his family. He spoke about the significance of representing the club and the impact on Members and supporters. It made me want to go out and play straight away.
“Sir James made me feel how fortunate I was to be representing the Carlton Football Club.”
Sir James Gobbo, AC, CVO, QC served as Governor until 2000 under Premiers Jeff Kennett and Steve Bracks.
In 1997, he shared the podium with the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne Ivan Deveson and Carlton President John Elliott when Premier Kennett formally opened the Legends Stand at the Carlton ground prior to the Round 3 match with Adelaide, on April 13. The following year, he returned to the ground, officiating at the launch of “The Old Dark Navy Blues”, Dr Lionel’s Frost’s definitive history of the club; and in July 2000 he was amongst the dignitaries present for the last suburban battle with Collingwood at Carlton, which ended with the Blues’ record 111-point hammering of the hapless black and whites.
Dr Frost remembered Sir James as “a sincere, down-to-earth fellow”.
“I can recall Sir James’ speech from the book launch in which he talked about watching Carlton games from the outer wing in front of the old Northey Stand at Princes Park,” Dr Frost said.
“Interestingly, he also considered the 1972 Grand Final our greatest win – not 1970 as most people think.”
After leaving office as Governor, Sir James took up the position of Commissioner for Italy for the Victorian government until June 2006, and continued on various boards and councils. He officiated as Chairman of the Council of the National Library of Australia and Chairman of the Australian Multicultural Foundation. He also served as vice-president of the Order of Malta, which supported home-based palliative care in Victoria through Eastern Palliative Care (EPC).
But for all his lofty achievements in life, Sir James Gobbo – the son of Italian migrants – remained true to his humble origins . . . and his lifelong love for Carlton and the Carlton Football Club never waned.