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The origins of Australian rules football ("Aussie Rules") are obscure and still the subject of much debate.
The earliest accounts of "foot-ball" games in Australia date back to July 1829  and the earliest accounts of clubs formed to play football date to the late 1850s. On the Victorian goldfields, men from across the world brought their own ideas of football rules, and their games were played by a variety of rules, sometimes agreed at the beginning, others applied where there was contention. Though football became increasingly common between 1856 and 1858, written details are difficult to find as most of these matches were poorly documented.
There are theories that the game has pre-1858 origins, the predominant ones include;
- a) origination from early Irish games such as caid, an ancestor of Gaelic football brought to Australia by migrants;
- b) origination from English public school football games, particularly early forms of rugby football;
- d) influence from some or all of the above, these multiple influences a consequence of diverse historical circumstances.
Most modern historians generally recognise that the first football identifiable as Australian rules football was organised in Melbourne in 1858. Thomas Wentworth Wills, sometimes described as the game's inventor, was one of the umpires at a match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School in the Richmond Paddock. Played as a 40 per side contest, the game is claimed by some as the first match of Australian football Wills had previously published letters calling for the formation of football clubs in a bid to keep cricketers fit during the winter months. Wills had attended Rugby school and played different types of football in England at a time when their rules were still in flux.
The AFL Commission, the game's current governing body, officially acknowledges the following with regards to the formation of Australian Football:
- a) that 1858 was the commencement date
- b) that the game was invented in Melbourne
In its official account of the game's history for its 150th celebrations, however the AFL dismissed Wills as an inventor of the game and does not recognise any connection to traditional indigenous games. This stance was not without controversy.
However there are some discrepancies in the AFL's account of the game's birth, as the official rules used today were not in place until 1859, and there are claims of similar games being played much earlier.
Pre-1858 accounts of "football"
Some form of football was played in Australia dating back to the period before European colonization. With the arrival of Europeans, a form of football was played very early on with matches being played in by 1829 in Sydney, Melbourne by 1840, Brisbane by 1849, and Tasmania by 1851. Most of these early games took part at local festivals, with no clear set of rules being used, and no codifed version of any game being played. Regional versions of football were played in places like South Australia using house rules predating Victorian codification of the game. The versions played locally in this period borrowed elements from the various codes that are present today including Australian rules, soccer and rugby league with the rules played being decided prior to the start of the match.
1858 – Earliest documented clubs and matches
Football became increasingly organised and ingrained in the colony of Victoria in 1858, particularly in the capital Melbourne and surrounds.
The first written mentions of a football club in St Kilda appears in April 1858, however historians recognise it to be an informal version of the game.
On 15 June 1858 the earliest known record of Victorian football match was played with modified rules between St Kilda Grammar School (now defunct) and Melbourne Grammar School on the St Kilda foreshore.
Media reports cited by various sources claimed that a man named George Bruce is alleged to have played for a team known as Richmond Cricketers and also for the Colony of Victoria and, in 1858, was allegedly voted by newspaper writers as the Champion Player of the Colony. The claim has dubious historical merit. The story is of him playing wearing an iron hook in place of a missing hand.
The first recorded club in South Australia was the Adelaide Football Club, in 1860 (This club has no link to the current Adelaide "Crows" Football Club in the AFL)
Although reports from the media of the time indicate that senior football was played and that some early clubs may have been formed no records from the clubs themselves are known to exist. It is typically assumed that they played by their own rules.
Tom Wills' letter
A little over a year after his return from England and the Rugby school where he played rugby football, Tom Wills promoted the idea of organised football in the colony of Victoria, most notably when he wrote the following letter, published in Bell's Life in Victoria on 10 July 1858:
Dear Sir, Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for the time being only, it is true), but at length again will burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpor to creep over them and stifle their now supple limbs, why cannot they, I say, form a football club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws? If a club of this sort was got up, it would be of vast benefit to any cricket ground to be trampled upon, and would make the turf firm and durable, besides which it would help those who are inclined to become stout and having their joints encased in useless super-abundant flesh. If it were not possible to form a football club, why should these young men who have adopted this new country as their motherland – why, I say, do not they form themselves into a rifle club, so at any date they may be some day called upon to aid their adopted land against a tyrant who may some time pop upon us when we least expect a foe at our own very doors. Surely our young cricketers are not afraid of a crack of a rifle when they face so courageously the leather sphere, and it would disgrace no one to learn in time to defend his country and hearth. A firm heart and a steady hand and a quick eye are all that are requisite, and with practice all these may be attained. Trusting that someone will take up this matter and form either of the above clubs, or at any rate some athletic games, I remain, Yours truly, T.W. WILLS.
A month after his letter appeared, Wills acted as co-referee of a game between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, played in the parkland surrounding the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Played over three afternoons by teams comprising forty players with the goal-posts approximately 500 metres apart, only one goal was scored (by Scotch). The rules required the winner to score twice, so the match was deemed a draw. It appears that there were major differences between Australian rules football as it was to evolve and this early school game, but the match is important as some claim it led to Tom Wills calling a meeting in 1859 at the Parade Hotel (on the site of the present M.C.G. Hotel) at which rudimentary rules for Victorian rules football (later known as Australian rules Football) were drawn up.
In late July, Wills was organising practice matches at Yarra Park with Parade Hotel proprietor Jerry Bryant.
On 31 July, the earliest recorded senior match at Yarra Park was between a "St Kilda scratch team" and "Melbourne scratch team". Trees were used for goal posts and there were no boundaries and the match lasted from 1pm until dark. There were no rules and fights broke out. The media noted that each nationality (English, Irish and Scottish) played the match their own distinctive way.
Wills called a meeting for 1 August 1858 and this date is regarded by some as the formation date of the Melbourne Football Club (although records of the earliest records of the club's incorporation are in 1859).
On 7 August 1858 a famous match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College began at Richmond Park, which was umpired by Wills and McAdam and also involved Scotch headmaster Thomas H. Smith. A second day of play took place on 21 August and a third, and final, day on 4 September. While the full rules that were used is unknown, the match was played with a round ball, the distance between the goals was approximately half a mile (approximately 4 times longer than the modern MCG playing surface), there were 40 players per side and one goal each side was scored with the game being declared a draw. The two schools have competed annually ever since for the Cordner-Eggleston Cup.
Some regard these early matches as the first matches of Australian rules football, however to many it is clear that the game was still in the process of evolving.
1859: first rules
The Melbourne Football Club rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian rules football. The eleven simple rules were drawn up on 17 May in a meeting was chaired by Wills and in attendance were journalists W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson. Accounts of the people directly involved differ. Some sources also claim that Thomas H. Smith and H. C. A. Harrison were also present. The meeting was held at the Parade Hotel, East Melbourne hosted by owner and Melbourne Cricket Club member James (Jerry) Bryant. The publican was a friend of Tom Wills with a personal interest in introducing football to Melbourne's schools. Bryant had played a role in organising early football matches at the nearby Richmond Park and his son was one of the first players. The rules were signed by Tom Wills, William Hammersley, J. Sewell, J. B. Thompson, Alex Bruce, T. Butterworth and Thomas H. Smith. Importantly, the rules were widely publicised and distributed.
A hand-written copy of these first rules still exists.
English school football
Geoffrey Blainey, Leonie Sandercock, Ian Turner and Sean Fagan have all written in support for the theory that the primary influence was rugby football and other other games emanating from English public schools.
There are pronounced similarities to the Sheffield rules (which were being formed at a similar time). The most noticeable similarity was the absence of an offside rule and the prevalence of the fair catch (or mark). One theory claims that may have been due to the influence of Henry Creswick (possibly a relative of Nathaniel Creswick) who was born in Sheffield but emigrated to Australia with his brother in 1840 (the town of Creswick is named after them). He moved to Melbourne in 1854 and became involved in the local cricket scene. He played first class cricket for Victoria during the 57/58 season alongside 3 of the founders of Melbourne Football Club including Tom Wills.
The first rules of Australian football were published in the annual Victorian Cricketer's Guide alongside rules used in English public schools for the purpose of comparison. In the 1860 edition, J. B. Thompson announced:
Football, as played in Victoria, is now fit to run alone. I have accordingly ommitted the Rugby and Eton rules, because we seem to have agreed to a code of our own, which, to a considerable extent, combines the merits while excluding the vices of both.
Writing to Wills in 1871, Thompson recalled that "the Rugby, Eton, Harrow, and Winchester rules at that time (I think in 1859) came under our consideration, ... we all but unanimously agreed that regulations which suited schoolboys ... would not be patiently tolerated by grown men." The hardness of the playing fields around Melbourne also influenced their thinking. Even Wills, who favoured many rules of Rugby School football, saw the need for compromise. He wrote to his brother Horace: "Rugby was not a game for us, we wanted a winter pastime but men could be harmed if thrown on the ground so we thought differently."
Some historians, including Martin Flanagan, Jim Poulter and Col Hutchison postulate that Tom Wills could have been inspired by indigenous Australian pastimes involving possum skin "ball" games (sometimes collectively labeled "Marn Grook").
Anecdotal evidence of such pastimes appears in the 1878 book, The Aborigines of Victoria, in which Robert Brough-Smyth quoted that William Thomas, a Protector of Aborigines in Victoria had in about 1841 he had witnessed Wurundjeri Aborigines east of Melbourne playing a "foot ball" game. The account appears to fit the general description of the traditional game of Marn Grook. This appears to be the earliest record of Europeans observing such pastimes. William Blandowski's 1857 sketch of indigenous Australians in Merbein clearly depicts children playing a form of "foot ball". Further research has established that this may have been a separate game (possibly Woggabaliri). Written record of such traditional pastimes is otherwise scant and as there is no known record of these pastimes in traditional Indigenous Australian art it is not possible to trace its history further.
The Marn Grook connection is argued as follows. Wills arrived in Victoria's western district in 1842. As the only white child in the district, it is said that he was fluent in the local dialect and frequently played with local Aboriginal children on his father's property, Lexington, in outside of the town of Moyston. This story has been passed down through the generations of his family. The tribe was one that is believed to have played marngrook. However the relationship of the Wills family with local Djabwurrung people is well documented.
Col Hutchison, former historian for the AFL wrote in support of the theory postulated by Flanagan, and his account appears on an official AFL memorial to Tom Wills in Moyston erected in 1998.
Gillian Hibbins in the AFL's official account of the game's history published in 2008 for the game's 150th celebrations sternly rejects the theory:
- Understandably, the appealing idea that Australian Football is a truly Australian native game recognising the indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted. Sadly, this emotional belief lacks any intellectual credibility.
Irish football theories
Both Irish and Irish Australian historians, including Patrick O'Farrell, Marcus De Búrca, Chris McConville, B. W. O'Dwyer and Richard Davis have supported the theory that Australian rules football and Gaelic Football have some common origins. Though Australian historians, including Geoffrey Blainey, Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner have specifically rejected any such connection,.
Arguments follow that:
- Modern Irish games bear strong superficial similarities to the game of Australian rules football
- Traditional Irish games were the earliest recorded instances of "football" being played in Australia
In 1843, Irish settlers celebrating Saint Patrick's Day in South Australia played some kind of football. Football, cricket and shinty were also commonly played in the early settlements of Hobart and Richmond in southern Tasmania during the 1840s and 1850s as well as part of St Patricks Day celebrations. In South Melbourne, football was also played on St Patricks Day. Since none of the modern football games had been codified at the time, these matches were a traditional gaelic form of football such as caid. Patrick O'Farrell has pointed out that another Irish sport with ancient origins, hurling — which has similar rules to Gaelic football — was played in Australia as early as the 1840s, and may also have been an influence on the Australian game.
B. W. O'Dwyer suggested that there is circumstantial evidence that traditional Irish games influenced the founders of Australian rules, when the game was codified by Tom Wills and others at Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria in 1858–59. O'Dwyer argued that both Gaelic football and Australian rules are distinct from other codes in elements such as the lack of limitations on the direction of ball movement — the absence of an offside rule. According to O'Dwyer:
These are all elements of Irish football. There were several variations of Irish football in existence, normally without the benefit of rulebooks, but the central tradition in Ireland was in the direction of the relatively new game [i.e. rugby]...adapted and shaped within the perimeters of the ancient Irish game of hurling... [These rules] later became embedded in Gaelic football. Their presence in Victorian football may be accounted for in terms of a formative influence being exerted by men familiar with and no doubt playing the Irish game. It is not that they were introduced into the game from that motive [i.e. emulating Irish games]; it was rather a case of particular needs being met...
In support of this theory, some of the founders of Australian rules may in fact have been Irish. According to some sources (including himself in an 1876 letter to The Australasian) Irishman Thomas H. Smith was one of few people to be present at the 17 May 1859 meeting in which the first Laws of Australian Football were decided upon and written though it is unclear as to whether traditional Irish pastimes had any influence in agreed upon rules.
Atkinson considers it likely that Geelong's rules were drawn up prior to the first rules of the Melbourne Football Club which were drafted on 17 May 1859.
In support of his theory are his "records" of the first recorded champion of formalised football in Victoria was Corio Bay (later Geelong) in 1856 and he also claims that an interclub match occurred between Melbourne Cricketers and Geelong in 1858 under compromise rules.
The rules allegedly used used by the Geelong Football Club in 1859 were originally written down by hand, however there is no record of them from earlier than 1866 when they were incorporated by way of compromise into the official Victorian Rules by H C A Harrison and committee:
1. Distance between goals and the goal posts to be decided by captains.
2. Teams of 25 in grand matches, but up to 30 against odds.
3. Matches to be played in 2 halves of 50 minutes. At the end of first 50 teams may leave ground for 20 minutes for refreshments but must be ready to resume on time otherwise rival captain can call game off or (if his side has scored) claim it as a win.
4. Game played with 200 yard [sic.] [182.9 metre] space, same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centre of the two goals, and two posts to be called "kick off" posts shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards [1.83 metres] on each side of the goal posts at both ends and in a straight line between them.
5. When kicked behind goal, ball may be brought 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the kick off and kicked as nearly as possibly [sic.] in line with opposite goal.
6. Ball must be bounced every 10 or 20 yards if carried.
7. Tripping, holding, hacking prohibited. Pushing with hands or body is allowed when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of ball, except in the case of a mark.
8. Mark is when a player catches the ball before it hits the ground and has been clearly kicked by another player.
9. Handball only allowed if ball held clearly in one hand and punched or hit out with other. If caught, no mark. Throwing prohibited.
10. Before game captains toss for ends.
11. In case of infringements, captain may claim free from where breach occurred. Except where umpires appointed, opposing captain to adjudicate.
12. In all grand matches two umpires – one from each side – will take up position as near as possible between the goal posts and centre. When breach is made appeal to go to nearest umpire.
The Founder of the Game
In the 21st century the role played by Tom Wills in the establishment of the game is generally recognised as pivotal. However, in the latter part of the 19th century and much of the 20th, H.C.A. Harrison was accepted as "the father of Australian rules football". He was to become a vice-president of the Victorian Football Association and later the inaugural chairman of the Victorian Football League and was actively associated with the Melbourne Football Club until the late 1920s.
Respected journalist Martin Flanagan postulates that the game's administrators engaged in historical revisionism of the story of Tom Wills involvement in the origins of football because he was a drunkard and because he committed suicide.
- History of Australian rules football in Victoria (1859-1900)
- Australian Rules Football
- Marn Grook
- The Sydney Monitor 25 July 1829
- AFL's unsung hero, Tom Wills, honoured in book
- History Official Website of the Australian Football League
- "Classified Advertising.". The Moreton Bay Courier (Brisbane, Qld. : 1846 - 1861) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 20 January 1849. p. 3. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
- Hess, Rob; Nicholason, Matthew; Stewart, Bob; De Moore, Gregory (2008). "Australian Rules football begins". A national game : the history of Australian rules football. Camberwell, Victoria: Viking. pp. 1–18. ISBN 9780670070893 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. OCLC 298717020.
- "Classified Advertising.". The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 - 1859) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 11 February 1851. p. 4. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
- Pill, Shane (September 2012). "Rich Nowell Twopenny: Should he be recognised as one of the 'fathers' of Australian football?". Bulletin of sport and culture (Melbourne: Victoria University of Technology. Dept. of Physical Education and Recreation) (38): 26. ISSN 1328-1997. 12886655.
- Pennings, Mark (September 2012). "Researching the Origins of Australian football". Bulletin of sport and culture (Melbourne: Victoria University of Technology. Dept. of Physical Education and Recreation) (38): 25. ISSN 1328-1997. 12886655.
- St Kilda Historical Society Aug–Sep 2008.
- The Melbourne Book – A History of Now. Published 2003. Hardie Grant Books. South Yarra. ISBN 1-74066-049-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. pg. 182
- Blainey (1990), p 17–18.
- Mancini & Hibbins (1987), p 21.
- pg 36. Melbourne FC Since 1858 – An Illustrated History
- Ken Piesse (1995). The Complete Guide to Australian Football. Pan Macmillan Australia. ISBN 0-330-35712-3 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. p303.
- Scotch College – Cordner-Eggleston Cup
- "25 Oct 1858 - SPORTS IN THE DOMAIN". Ndpbeta.nla.gov.au. Retrieved 2012-10-08.
- Thomas Smith himself made this claim in response to an article about the history of Melbourne FC in The Australasian published 26 February 1876 (from Melbourne FC Since 1858 – An Illustrated History pg 36). Smith's personal account mentions Thompson arriving after the decision to form the club
- Harrison's involvement in the early stages is believed by many to be due to him being perceived as the "father of the game" in later decades and subsequent erroneous reporting
- pg 20–10. Melbourne FC Since 1858 – An Illustrated History. Goeff Slattery Publishing
- John Murray, ed. (2008). Melbourne F.C. : since 1858 ; an illustrated history. Geoff Slattery Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9804420-0-7 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Davis, Richard (1991-1992). "Irish and Australian Nationalism: the Sporting Connection: Football & Cricket". Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies Bulletin 3 (2): 47–59.
- O'Dwyer, B.W. (March 1989). "The shaping of Victorian Rules football". Victorian Historical Journal 60 (232): 27–41. More than one of
- Murphy, Brendan (2007). From Sheffield with Love. Sports Book Limited. pp. 39–41. ISBN 978-1-899807-56-7 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- The Victorian Cricketers' Guide for 1859-1860.
- The Australian Cricketers' Guide 1870-1871, p. 114
- de Moore, Greg. Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall. Allen & Unwin, 2008. ISBN 174176548X [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], p. 94
- Martin Flanagan, The Call. St. Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 1998, p. 8 Martin Flanagan, 'Sport and Culture'
- Gregory M de Moore. Victoria University. from Football Fever. Crossing Boundaries. Maribyrnong Press, 2005
- Minister opens show exhibition celebrating Aussie Rules' Koorie Heritage, Government Media Release accessed 4 June 2007
- "AFL News". Real Footy. 2011-05-17. Retrieved 2012-10-08.
- AFL's native roots a 'seductive myth' from theaustralian.com.au
- Goodes racist, says AFL historian
- pg. 187. The Irish in Australia, by Patrick O’Farrell: University of NSW
- Light, Rowan (2012). From ‘Irish Exile’ to ‘Australian pagan’: the Christian Brothers, Irish handball, and identity in early twentieth-century Australia. University of Sydney.
- Marcus De Búrca "The GAA: a history". Gill & Macmillan
- See, for example: Richard Davis, 1991, "Irish and Australian Nationalism: the Sporting Connection: Football & Cricket", Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies Bulletin, v.3, no.2, pp. 49–50 and; B. W. O'Dwyer, 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.
- Wilfrid R. Prest & Kerrie Round, 2001, The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History (p. 58)]
- Cited in Davis, p.49n
- B. W. O'Dwyer, March 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.
- The Australasian February 26, 1876.
- Graeme Atkinson, 1981, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Australian Rules Football but Couldn't be Bothered Asking", Five Mile Press
- Ross Hutchinson, 1998, "THE CLUBS. The Complete History of Every Club in the VFL/AFL", Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
- Stated during an interview of Martin Flanagan by Mick O'Regan, ABC Radio National "The Sports Factor", first broadcast on 2 January 2009. The interview was supported by a complete transcript that appeared on the Radio National website during January 2009.