Farewell to DeCoites

Front row second from the left is the young Bob DeCoite and on his left is his brother John in jacket and tie. Their father Jack is at the far right of the front row.

R & J DeCoite Pty Ltd, one of the longest continuing businesses in the area, closed down at the end of June after an incredible 98 years in Ferntree Gully.

DeCoite’s commenced in 1924 as a farrier and blacksmith business at 11 Main Road Ferntree Gully near the intersection of Ferntree Gully Road. The founder was Jack DeCoite. His sons Bob and John joined the business post WW2. The business continued shoeing horses, blacksmithing, building truck and delivery van bodies plus farm machinery fabrication and repairs. Rollers and land levellers were made for farmers and delivered around Victoria.

In 1974 the business relocated to the present address at 766 Burwood Highway Ferntree Gully and moved more into builders’ ironwork. John retired in 1989. Bob in 1997. Bob’s family continued running the business post his retirement.

Family historian Richelle McKenzie had these comments, ‘This has not been an easy decision to make, but the time is right for each of us to move on to the next stage of our lives. The business has been a huge part of our lives forever, so it will be a big change. We will all be stepping away and allowing ourselves more time for our respective hobbies and interests.’

Her message continues, ‘We are grateful to all our customers for their business and, in many cases, the friendships that have developed over the years. Thank you and best wishes from David DeCoite, Neil DeCoite and Richelle McKenzie.’

Ferntree Gully News thanks DeCoites for their support in advertising with us almost from the beginning of the newspaper. Richelle has sent stories over the years and Barbara Oehring has taken beautiful photos.

The DeCoites: a dynasty of sporting prowess at Ferntree Gully

By Steve Flemming

By now many local residents and families with long-time connections in the district will be aware that after almost 100 years conducting business in the area, DeCoite Steel (previously also known as R & J De Coite Pty Ltd ) has closed down. This ends a long line of ownership and service to the Ferntree Gully community, which began almost 100 years ago in 1924.

Enduring as it has been the business is not the whole story. John Douglas DeCoite, was to become local patriarch of a family whose sporting exploits in the area were to dominate the playing fields and sporting landscape for the remaining years of the 20th century.

The DeCoite family’s involvement in sport at the highest level in Melbourne can be traced back to David DeCoite, who captained the Footscray Football Club (now Western Bulldogs) in their halcyon days in the VFA (Victorian Football Association) in the late 19th and early 20th century. He played over 100 matches for the club and led them to a hat trick of VFA Premierships between 1898 and 1900.

Prior to joining the VFL (now AFL) in 1925, Footscray was the leading VFA team and a football powerhouse. David DeCoite’s exploits for the club have been recognised in more recent years with acknowledgement of his contribution honoured with Life Membership of the club and in 2010 he was inducted as one of the 13 pioneers into the Western Bulldogs ‘Hall of Fame’.

The roaring twenties in the Gully

Post World War One, David’s nephew John (Jack) Douglas DeCoite (b 1888), quickly established himself as a contributor to Ferntree Gully’s sporting landscape. He joined the Ferntree Gully Football Club Committee in 1922, spending three years as Secretary in the 1920s and was a regular ‘fill in’ for the Ferntree Gully Cricket Club in its earliest years in the Ringwood and District Cricket Association (est. 1920.)

Apart from sport, music and dance was also a passion of Jack’s and with the prompting of George (later Sir George) Knox he helped establish the Ferntree Gully Brass Band (serving for over a decade as its secretary.) He also became well known as the leader of the ‘Johnny Douglas’ band who played at many local functions and events in the Shire Hall and at other community venues across the Dandenong Ranges in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

The Corhanwarrabul Polo Club, 1930s.

In the 1920s George Knox re-established the Ferntree Gully Recreation Reserve Committee and convinced Jack to join the management body in 1926. He served on the committee for the next decade or so, while in his little remaining spare time also took the field as an active member of George’s ‘Corhanwarrabul Polo Club,’ which was established on George Knox’s estate at Kent Park in the late 1920s.

In 1930 with the Reserve being expanded to include a cycling track around its perimeter, Jack established the Ferntree Gully Cycling Club, acting as its president for the first few years. He ensured the club’s success by hosting events at which the stars of Melbourne’s velodromes and road races, including internationally renowned cyclist Hubert (later Sir Hubert) Opperman, regularly participated.

1930s & 40s – the next generation

In the mid to late 1930s Jack’s two sons: Robert (Bob), born 1922 and John, born 1925, became involved in the local sporting clubs that their father was heavily involved in managing. Bob turned out for his first match at the Ferntree Gully Cricket Club as a 12 year old in 1934, and ran the Boundary for the football club between 1935 and 1937. Both brothers also took up cycling for the local club just before the breakout of hostilities that became World War Two. In the late 1930s Bob and Jack both became involved with the Boronia Cricket and Football Club with Bob acting as cricket club secretary and Jack as treasurer in 1939/40.

When World War Two began, all sporting engagements were put aside as the brothers signed up for the War effort, both serving with distinction in the Royal Australian Navy. Bob’s ship: the corvette HMAS Ballarat was involved in a daring rescue at sea of future Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton. In 1942, while on furlough from Naval duties, he was persuaded by Wal Tew, then Ferntree Gully Cricket and Football Club secretary, to fill in for the two ‘local’ clubs again.

In 1943 Jack shifted the premises of his business to the southeast corner of Ferntree Gully Road and Burwood Road (Highway) and the business became known as DeCoite Steel, with the return of his sons from war service adding to the workforce.

The brothers immediately re-established themselves in the local sporting community with Bob and John resuming at the Ferntree Gully Cricket Club in the 1946/47 season and playing together for a couple of seasons. Bob returned to the football club and both took on two wheels for the cycling club again.

Bob’s sporting career expanded post war and saw him recognised as one of the best all round sportsmen of the district where he was a key figure for the cricket club, cycling club and the football club. He dominated as a top order batsman at the cricket club and in the newly formed Ferntree Gully District Cricket Association (est. 1947), when he represented on more than 40 occasions in matches played against other associations and at the Melbourne Country Week tournament held every year across the best turf playing fields in the State. John also shared success with his brother at the cricket club with the first and second elevens, both winning Premierships in the Association’s inaugural season (1947/48).

While John gave cricket away for work (and cycling), Bob went on to play a significant role in an amazing era, when the cricket club’s first eleven won six premierships over the next decade. He was regularly invited to trial at District Cricket and League Football Clubs – once even riding his bicycle to football training at St Kilda, only to be told by club officials that this was not acceptable! (He never returned and recommenced his local playing career.)

While the football club didn’t have the same level of success as the cricket club in the 1940s and 1950s, he did play in premierships for the first and second XVIIIs in the era.

The first Sun Tour

Bob and John DeCoite shared their love for the sport on two wheels and both participated in the first Sun Tour, held in 1952, when an estimated 500,000 people watched as 56 riders battled it out across Victoria over 6 straight days – only 18 completed the entire tour and two of them were the DeCoite brothers!

In 1954 Jack retired. (He passed away in 1960, aged 72.) His two sons assumed control of the business establishing their shop on the Ferntree Gully Road/ Burwood Highway corner as a major landmark in the area.

Bob and John with their parents.

1960s: Another generation takes the stage

By the 1960s the next generation of DeCoites were engaged on the sporting field as Bob and wife Florence, and John and wife Betty had children who also represented the area with distinction on their chosen sporting arenas. Bob’s eldest child, daughter Richelle, rose up through the ranks as a star local netballer and went on to become one of the State’s great servants of the game being involved as a player, coach and administrator at the highest level in Victoria for the next five decades.

His two sons, Neil and David both turned out for the Ferntree Gully Cricket and Football Clubs with distinction – Neil having the honour of playing in a Cricket Club Premiership with his father as a team mate in 1975 and the two brothers combining to play over 150 matches for the football club between them.

Bob retired from playing cricket at Ferntree Gully in 1990, with an unrivalled career record that stretched back over five decades. This saw him recognised locally when the Ferntree Gully and District Cricket Association named one of Premier Grades after him: the DeCoite Shield. Like his father before him, he had contributed significantly to the Ferntree Gully sporting community, in particular to the cricket club and football club, but importantly also in an off field and administrative capacity that saw the brothers’ legacy and that of DeCoite Steel heavily committed to the local Recreation Reserve (now called Wally Tew Reserve), where even the steel works in the multi storey pavilion had DeCoite’s name on it!

John’s children engaged in athletics with son John (third generation), after playing A Grade cricket at the Ferntree Gully Cricket Club, establishing himself in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the country’s premier sprinters. He became one of Australia’s leading professional sprinters with world class performances across Australia at events such as the Stawell Gift, the Burnie Gift, the Wangaratta Gift and other professional sprint races, that saw him post retirement ranked by State Athletics Administration as one of the best sprinters ever in Australian history.

His younger sister, Wendy followed John into athletics and became a State ranked sprinter and long term servant of the Knox Women’s Athletics (later Knox Athletics Club) herself, where she served with distinction on and off the track throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Of the DeCoite brothers, John retired first, and passed away in 2005 (aged 78), while Bob stopped working at the family business in 2002 (aged 80) and passed away in 2008 (aged 85).

The three generations of the DeCoite family that have grown up in an around Ferntree Gully have probably contributed more significantly than any other family dynasty to the sporting landscape of the area, playing in excess of 600 games of cricket, over 300 games of football, ridden countless miles/kilometres on horseback (and on roads and circuits), and plied the local, State and interstate netball courts and athletics tracks with distinction for over 90 years.

The closing of DeCoite Steel isn’t just the closing of a local business with long connections in the area, it is also the removal of a family name that has been synonymous with sporting prowess in and around Ferntree Gully for over 90 years.

Steve Flemming
Archivist of the Ferntree Gully Cricket Club

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