Almanac Football History – 1858 and all that: the origins of Australian Rules Football

Despite some the romantic myth making, the creation of Aussie Rules footy, like all the codes of football except rugby league, stemmed from private school boys wanting to keep fit and enjoy themselves. However, it grew steadily through the Australian colonies, to be played by young men of all walks of life from stock and station agents, to stockbrokers and stevedores. In the 19th century there were also all indigenous teams and a team of Chinese gold miners during the gold rushes, Women also played the game in front spectators a century before AFLW surged in the public imagination.

 

Importantly, Aussie Rules became codified as a game before ‘Association Football’ also known as ‘soccer’ and before the rugby codes split and American, Canadian and Gaelic football established themselves. This makes Melbourne, Geelong and Port Adelaide some of the oldest football clubs in the world. Aussie Rules also drew great crowds on an international scale, as it does today.

 

In this extract from his publication on the economics and economic history of the football codes, Tim Harcourt finds that Aussie Rules Football really is ‘a game of our own’ and a social phenomenon that Australians can be truly proud of.

 

 


 

The extraordinary thing about Australian Rules football is that it wasn’t imported like other sports, it is truly indigenous to Australia. It’s also one of the oldest sports in the world and had its rules codified officially even before the soccer or association football got its official act together in the UK. That makes the first Australian Rules football Clubs, Melbourne and Geelong, two of the oldest football clubs in the world.

 

The ‘Australianness’ of the game’s origins had been a source of pride to one of the Australia’s most distinguished historians Geoffrey Blainey. Blainey notes:

 

‘Australian football was the most remarkable of these spectator sports. It is sometimes said to have stemmed from Gaelic football in Ireland, or to have moulded by the football played at the Rugby School in England. Certainly the squatter’s son, Tom Wills, a Rugby boy who did much to shape the game, borrowed from rugby football, but the game was essentially a Victorian invention. It was not born ready-made but changed itself so much that the present game is unrecognisable from that which was first played on Melbourne parklands in 1858.’

 

Those Melbourne parklands described by Blainey, of course became the parklands surrounding the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) today.

 

The economic factors in nineteenth century Australia, cheap land and a shortage of labour were factors that helped Aussie Rules football boom in Melbourne. As Blainey notes:

 

‘The native brand of football gripped Melbourne long before soccer and rugby took a grip on the imagination of big English cities…It belonged to a society where land was cheap and where the government normally set aside large areas of public recreation. Transfer a Melbourne football oval to Hong Kong, Chicago, or Manchester, and whole terraces and apartments would have to be demolished to fit in the ground, its grandstands and embankments. ‘

 

This was good news for workers being able to play and the rest of the community being able to watch as spectators. As Blainey notes, this lead to large crowds of spectators, which at the time were some of the largest crowds in the world at any code of football:

 

‘As a result, this workingman’s paradise of cheap land, good wages and good weather produced Australian Rules Football, truly a game of our own. And particularly after workers got Saturday afternoon off, Aussie Rules was well attended. The South Melbourne – Geelong Grand Final on Saturday 4th September, 1886, drew 34,141 at the Lake Oval in Albert Park.’

 

According to British Sport historian Tony Collins that South Melbourne v Geelong clash was ‘probably the largest crowd that had ever assembled to watch a game of football anywhere in the world.’ And the crowds kept coming, including well attended games under floodlights between Collingwood Rifles and East Melbourne artillery as early as 1879.

 

In many ways, Australian Rules football was invented right when Melbourne was developing as a city on the back of the wealth generated by the gold rushes. This allowed Australian rules to grow organically rather than be imposed from outside on an existing urban social structure. As Tony Collins says:

 

‘In Britain, sport had come to cities that however much they were changing, had been founded centuries earlier and already had their own distinctive cultures. But in Melbourne, football appeared at the same time that the city was in the process of being born. Rather than merging with the city’s pre-existing culture as in Britain, the game was an organic part of Melbourne culture, as integral to the pulse of the city as its climate and geography. Football encompassed all of Melbourne’s classes, from Scotch College’s elite upper-class schoolboys to Collingwood’s unskilled labourers who had to queue to find work every morning. Nowhere, not even in Glasgow, was football so completely inter-twined with the life of the city.’

 

There has always been speculation that Australian Rules also had historical links to ‘Marn-grook’ (or Marngrook) a game played by Aboriginal peoples with a possum skin (or a variety of games played by many diverse Indigenous communities). Some of this is conjecture is understandable given the success of so many Indigenous champions of the game, on and off the field. The TV show, itself called Marngrook was hosted by very popular Aboriginal footy stars and panel gained an enthusiastic following from the wider football community, especially as it celebrated Indigenous footballers and the communities they belonged to. However, despite the wishful thinking, the links have yet to be proven, and Aussie Rules followers may have to be left with the fact that their code was also started by private school boys, like almost every code of football, except rugby league.

 

As well as Marngrook, there also is also a romantic attachment of Australian rules to Gaelic football. Again, this is due to so many great Irish-Australian champions who have played the game, and the traditional links between Irish and Australian nationalism, especially in the early Australian republican movements. But the games actually developed totally separately and again, Australian rules got in first in terms of official codification of the rules. There’s no mention of Gaelic football when Australian rules was first created and codified despite the fact that one fifth of the population of Victorian were themselves Irish born or had Irish parents. And the creation of Gaelic football had its own unique Irish history and links to Irish nationalism quite separate to the English private schools (known ironically as ‘public schools’) that created rugby and soccer. However as the games developed, because of their similarity, games of ‘international rules’ (a modification form of Gaelic and Australian rules football) were played from 1967 when former umpire and entrepreneur Harry Beitzel’s ‘Galahs’ toured Ireland. And from the 1980s a number of Irish Gaelic footballers tried their luck at Australian Rules with the most famous being Melbourne legend the late Jimmy Stynes, winner of the Brownlow Medal in 1991, who also has had an enormous community impact off the field.

 

So the game’s origins were Australian, or rather Victorian (in terms of era and colony of origin). But from its humble beginnings in Victoria, Australian Rules Football spread quickly to the then colonies of South Australia (SA), Tasmania and Western Australia (WA) and even to New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. Part of the reason was the spread of inter-colonial migration particularly when gold was found in WA in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie just as it had been found in the middle of the century in Victoria in Ballarat and Bendigo. Amazingly, at one stage Aussie Rules was popular in Queensland in the late 19th century and Rugby Union in WA, but the gold rushes and vast inter-colonial migration put paid to that.

 

According to esteemed South Australian sports historian, Bernard Whimpress:

 

‘Australian Football started in the same decade as the gold rushes. Immigrants came from all over the world to try their luck prospecting and were no doubt imbued with the optimistic spirit of the age, a spirit which might also favour a nationalistic, republican identity and a willingness to adopt anything Australian made.

 

The concept of ‘a code of our own’ had arrived at just the right time. South Australia and Tasmania, as Victoria’s geographical neighbours, were more likely to adopt the Victorian game than its northern neighbour New South Wales, jealous of its position as the premier colony, and threatened by Victoria’s rapid expansion. While football made a promising start in Queensland, the tyranny of distance in its isolation from Victoria told against its expansion when rugby links started to be forged with New South Wales.

 

Early football in Perth benefitted from the influx of a substantial number of Victorian and South Australian immigrants (many following the gold rushes westward – my addition) who had already been playing the Australian game. Twenty years later, the establishment of football in the territories perhaps relies on political history. What became the Northern Territory had previously been administered by South Australian governments and many of its public servants were drawn from Adelaide and played Australian Football. Although Canberra was much closer to Sydney than Melbourne, the southern city had been the headquarters of the national government so that, in its formative years, the bulk of public servants transferring to the new capital would have come from Melbourne and brought its football code with them.’

 

The States therefore grew their own separate competitions with the Victorian Football League (VFL) in Victoria comprising 11 teams largely in inner city Melbourne plus Geelong. The South Australian National Football League (SANFL) in Adelaide and the Western Australian National Football League (WANFL) in Perth (although there had been a successful Goldfields League too at the turn of the last century) and three separate leagues in Tasmania based in the South, North and North West in the decentralised island state. The competitions basically operated independently for almost 100 years with little interaction with each other.

 

In fact, crossing the border to get some excitement, only came at State Carnivals and Club ‘Champions of Australia’ games at the end of the season (a bit like the excitement of new state based beers being poured on interstate trains like ‘The Overland’). And from the 1970s, State football became even more exciting as matches took place on a ‘State of Origin’ which enabled South Australians, Western Australians and Tasmanians to play for their home state even if they played club football in Melbourne in the VFL. In fact, once it became State of Origin, Victoria didn’t dominate as they once did, with star studded SA and WA line-ups (full of VFL based players) regularly defeating ‘the Big V’ and even Tasmania beating Victoria on a couple of famous occasions.

 

Border crossing became common at the club level when the VFL decided to take the game national, to save some struggling Melbourne clubs, and to head off the threat of the proposed National Football League (NFL) set up by some SA and WA football administrators to put the Australian game on a national competition footing. To protect its patch, and hopefully preserve most of its clubs the VFL decided an expanded Victorian competition with a few interstate teams grafted on, was better than starting a truly national competition from scratch.

 

The catalyst was the South Melbourne Swans. The struggling inner city club South Melbourne, unsuccessful on and off the field, flew from Lake Oval, Albert Park to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) and became the Sydney Swans.

 

This gave the VFL a beachhead in Sydney, Australia’s largest city and was the beginning of the VFL looking beyond its traditional heartland.

 

The West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears joined the VFL in 1987, followed by the Adelaide Crows in 1991 (by now the VFL was the Australian Football League, or the AFL as we know it today). A second WA side, the Fremantle Dockers joined in 1995, and Port Adelaide (the most successful club side in the South Australian National Football League, the SANFL) joined in 1997. Port joined at the same time the league facilitated a controversial merger between the Fitzroy Lions and the Brisbane Bears (who became the Brisbane Lions adopting Fitzroy’s colours of maroon, blue and gold and a modified version of the Fitzroy theme song). The merger was regarded by football traditionalists as an assassination of a proud inner city club of 113 years standing, although the efforts to incorporate Fitzroy’s identity in the new club, followed by three premierships did help heal some but not all of the wounds. In a further aggressive expansion into the northern states, the AFL added the Gold Coast Suns in 2011, and the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants in 2012. In nod to the active Aussie Rules community in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) it was decided that the Giants play three home games a year in Canberra as well as at their home ground in western Sydney and have ‘Canberra’ written on the backs of the Giants’ guernseys. The question is whether the GWS Giants can be enough to satisfy Canberra’s appetite for Aussie Rules, which before the rise of the Canberra Raiders in rugby league and ACT Brumbies in rugby union had a healthy Aussie Rules following as many public servants had been transferred from Victoria when Canberra became the nation’s capital. In addition, Canberra is also close to the Aussie Rules rich regions of southern New South Wales and as the capital of Australia attracted transfers in personnel (particularly in Defence and the other parts of Public Service) from Aussie Rules dominated states. Alex ‘Jezza’ Jesaulenko, Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale and James Hird are all famous names associated with the ACT.

 

But this aggressive expansion still leaves some unfinished business in the traditional footy heartland of Tasmania. Tasmania has a vigorous Australian Rules football tradition with the game played at the grass roots all over the island state from the stormy North West to the gravel oval of the mining community of Queenstown and has produced champions like Royce Hart, Laurie Nash, Darrel Baldock, Alastair Lynch, Ian Stewart, Brent Crosswell, Nick and Jack Riewoldt and Peter Hudson. But somehow despite its historical status, the VFL and AFL have given short shrift to Tasmania, preferring to enter expansion clubs in non-traditional states and use Tasmania as landing pad for Victorian clubs, North Melbourne and Hawthorn who play a few ‘home’ matches in Hobart and Launceston respectively. That may soon change on improved economic position of Tasmania, the breakdown of the historical north-south rivalry within the state and the successful hosting of two AFL finals in 2021 when Covid-19 prevented them being played in Melbourne. It is likely that the Tassie Devils will soon enter the AFL and finally all Australian states will have representation at the top level.

 

Once Tasmania is admitted, that only leaves the Northern Territory (NT) without a berth in the AFL (assuming GWS continues to play some matches in the ACT). The NT has produced some fantastic footballers, many from the Indigenous communities from the Red Centre up to the Tiwi Islands and has a strong local league. Footballers like Michael Long, Gilbert McAdam, Maurice Rioli, Andrew McLeod, and Nathan Buckley have been some of the greatest players ever seen and hail from the Territory. The question will be size and climate given the unique circumstances of the Top End but the emphasis on the development of Northern Australia may help the case for a NT side in the AFL.

 

Historically, the domestic expansion of the VFL then AFL has raised some interesting questions. Is it a genuine national competition or Victoria plus? Many traditional Australian Rules football followers point out that the game is not just about Victoria but there have been many proud clubs not in the AFL like Norwood, South Fremantle, North Hobart and Southport. And why should the AFL Grand Final be played at the MCG every year until 2057? Surely, we saw during Covid-19 affected seasons that Brisbane did a good job hosting the Grand Final at the Gabba in 2020 and Perth showed how great its magnificent new stadium was in the 2021 Grand Final in terms of atmosphere and facilities. It could be like the Superbowl that is shared around different cities of the USA each year. Or some would counter that in soccer in the UK the FA Cup final is always at Wembley so Australian Rules should stick to the Grand Final at the MCG for the ultimate game of the year.

 

There’s also the question of launching into non-traditional territory or consolidating the base like rugby league. It would seem the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Lions, both clubs with VFL roots, are a great success but the jury is still out on the GWS Giants and the Gold Coast Suns (especially the Suns). The additional of two sides from both SA and WA seems natural, hence the case for adding the Tassie Devils from another traditional Australian Rules football state. Again, it’s the question of whether the AFL is run as a business or custodians of the code or a mixture of both, balancing all interests.

 

But when it comes to international expansion, apart from the quirky musings of Richmond and Essendon legend Kevin Sheedy (who after all created some great traditions like the ANZAC Day game, the Indigenous, Women’s and Country Rounds) the AFL has always been realistic and kept its feet on the ground. There have been exhibition matches in London and North America, in the Middle East, Africa, New Zealand and North East Asia. After some flirtation with China by Melbourne (‘it’s a grand old red flag’), Port Adelaide took its Chinese engagement very seriously with actual games for premiership points in Shanghai. As Port Adelaide’s visionary chairman David Koch pointed out Port Adelaide is the only foreign sports club to play in China for competition points, not just playing an exhibition game. And of course there are AFL clubs set up for social games of Australian Rules football amongst expats and enthusiastic locals across Asia, Europe, USA, Canada and Latin America. Having watched the Shanghai Tigers in action against the Beijing Bombers I can testify to the vigour of the games and the enthusiastic fund raising they do especially for local charities in China.

 

But for all this talk of domestic and international expansion the real great leap forward had of course been in the women’s game – the AFLW. Whilst historically female participation in the playing ranks is not new, there were Women’s games together with spectators in the early 20th century, the game has really exploded professionally since the AFLW was established in 2017. And with 18 AFLW teams representing all 18 AFL clubs as of 2023, they can now make their own history.

 

In conclusion, there are seven codes of football that developed in the 19th century, but only one, Australian Rules football, was created here (and codified before most of the others). Clubs like Melbourne, Geelong and Port Adelaide are some of the oldest football clubs in the world and continue to this day playing at the top level in front of some of the biggest crowds in the world, both then and now. It really is a game of our own and a social phenomenon that Australia can be rightly proud of.

 

 


 

*Tim Harcourt is Industry Professor and Chief Economist at IPPG at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and host of The Airport Economist, The Big Picture and Footynomics – The Economics of Sport www.footynomics.com.au

 

 

Notes:
Geoffrey Blainey (1984) Our side of the Country. The story of Victoria. Methuen Haynes. page 81
Blainey, (1984) page 82
Blainey, (1984) page 84
Tony Collins (2019) “Melbourne. A city and its football” in How Football Began – A global history of how the world’s football codes were born, Routledge, London. page 84
Collins (2019) page 85.
Bernard Whimpress (2008) ‘Border Crossings’ in The Australian Game of Football since 1858 Geoff Slattery Publishing, Australian Football League (AFL) Docklands Victoria, 2008.
Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart, Greg de Moore & Rob Hess (2021) Australia’s Game – The History of Australian Football, Slattery Media Group for Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Terrific read. Thanks Tim and for posting on the site.

  2. A very detailed extract, thank you for sharing it with us, Tim.

  3. Thanks Plug yes i admit I wish we didn’t have the expanded VFL it’s killed off the state leagues which bizarrely and incompetently the afl seemingly don’t care. Women’s footy has exploded pretty sure it’s the fastest growing sport in the country it’s certainly helped save and grow community clubs

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