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Roycroft, James William (Bill) (1915–2011)

by Harriet Veitch

It is one of the greatest stories in Australian Olympic history.

At the 1960 Games, in Rome, Bill Roycroft was thrown from his horse during the three-day event and badly injured. Nonetheless, he climbed back on the horse and finished the cross country section. Then he was given oxygen (and whiskey) and taken to hospital by helicopter. The big drama was how to finish the event. A three-day team has four riders, three of whom are judged at the end. Australia now had two good riders, one rider with an injured horse and one rider in hospital.

Easily fixed. The following day, Roycroft got up to leave the hospital. The doctors refused to let him go, he threatened to walk out in his underpants and eventually they signed him out but refused any responsibility.

Roycroft was so stiff that his team had to dress him and get him back onto his horse, Our Solo, and hand him the reins. Off he went and rode a clear round in the jumping section, taking Australia to its first equestrian Olympic gold medal, and fifth place overall at those Games. Roycroft also had to be lifted off the horse again but said later, ‘I never felt the pain at all. During the ride, I only concentrated on doing it. Afterwards, the happiness of the result overwhelmed the pain.’

Although he said at the time that he thought he would be too old for any more Olympics, Roycroft went on to compete in four more, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976, as well as being equestrian team manager at Moscow in 1980 and a flag carrier at the 2000 Sydney Games. He won team bronzes in Mexico City in 1968 and Montreal in 1976. His sons, Barry, Wayne and Clarke, also rode in Olympics, as did Wayne’s wife, Vicki.

James William George Roycroft was born March 17, 1915 in Melbourne and grew up in Flowerdale, north-east of the city, one of seven children, five boys and two girls, of parents who had a dairy farm and ploughed with horses. Bill rode all through his childhood, to school and on the farm. He and his schoolmate Laurie Morgan, later also part of the 1960 Olympic equestrian team, used to set up tree branches along bush tracks and race their horses over them but Bill didn’t get a saddle until he was 14, about the time he left school.

As he was leaving school, his parents’ marriage broke down and his mother went to New South Wales with his father’s brother. Bill went with them but was soon looking after himself. His first job away from the farm was as a messenger boy in the Water Commission in Leeton.

After a couple of years of that he was bored so he did some share cropping then went back to Flowerdale. There he lived in a hut and kept himself by rabbit trapping and fox shooting and odd jobs on local farms. He made enough to live on and have a good suit to wear to dances, and all the time he was riding and making a name for himself in competitions.

One day he met a fellow competitor, a good looking young showjumper called Mavis Jones, 154cm to his 188cm. She rather liked the look of him too. Then World War II started and Roycroft joined up, but at his first big leave, he and Mavis were married. Before he left to fight in the South Pacific, she was pregnant and Roycroft didn’t see his first son, Barry, until he was two, then went back to fight for another two years.

After the war, the Roycrofts settled on a 200ha soldiers block near Boorcan in western Victoria. There they lived in a garage while they built a house, had two more sons and turned the property into a successful dairy farm. But all the time, Roycroft was working on his riding, building his own training equipment as necessary.

He decided he should try for the 1960 Olympics, despite that fact that he would be "old", 45, when it happened. In 1959 he was selected for the team and the horses and riders set sail for five months of intensive training in the UK.

As part of this, the Australians entered the Badminton Horse Trials and Roycroft was the first Australian to win the individual three-day event there. The Australians also took the team event. After the 1960 Games Roycroft concentrated on the 1964 Games, although the Australian team came only seventh. In 1965 he had a six-month stay in England, where he was the first person to ride three horses in the Badminton three-day event, which meant covering more than 80km over about 120 jumps in one day in the cross country. At the end of the season Roycroft sold his horses Stoney Crossing and Glenoe to an English businessman for £Aus23,750.

Away from competition there was always life on the farm with Mavis and the boys. Roycroft trained his sons and Mavis selected the horses. Roycroft said she was "a great person and a great judge of horses. Our success revolves around her". The family also worked hard to make dairy farming pay and Roycroft only stopped riding after a fall in 1997 that broke three ribs. When the Olympic Flame came to their nearby town of Camperdown in 2000 on its way to the Sydney Games, Roycroft walked into the town with it, bringing the town to a standstill, then son Barry rode out it out of town again.

Bill Roycroft is survived by his sons Barry, Wayne and Clarke and their families. Mavis died in 2007 and a grandson in 2003.

Original publication

  • unpublished, May 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Roycroft, James William (Bill) (1915–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/roycroft-james-william-bill-13382/text24024, accessed 16 November 2018.

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