Almanac Footy History: ‘Peter the Great’ Burns, the first 300 game player

“Peter the Great”

The First 300 game player.

By Bob Gartland

August 3, 2016


Longevity in elite sport can be elusive, but this year we have seen six of our game’s champions reach the 300 game milestone. Nick Riewoldt, Shaun Burgoyne, Drew Petrie, Scott Thompson, Sam Mitchell and Jimmy Bartel have all reached this pinnacle that only 78 players in the game’s history have been able to achieve.

Since the commencement of the VFL competition in 1897, 12,473 players have played the game at the elite level across the VFL and AFL. The group to have played 300 games represents just  .6 of one percent,  of all the players to have played senior football at the elite level….

The first VFL player to have reached 300 games however, doesn’t have his name recorded in the history of the game, as having reached this milestone. .. Our very first and oldest 300 game player is never spoken about in these terms, the record of his career has been forgotten, discarded and misplaced.

The reason that Peter Burns is not spoken of in the same tone as our modern champions, is because his career straddled two competitions.. The Victorian Football Association, and its successor, the Victorian Football League. The AFL does not acknowledge the individual records of players from the VFA era, even if their career spans the two competitions… so you see, Peter Burns’ great record is not acknowledged, by our current day administration.

Peter Charles Burns was born on 5th January 1866, at Steiglitz, an old gold mining town, about 40 kilometres north west of Geelong, Victoria. He was part of a footballing family. He and four of his brothers, Harry, Jack, Bill and Allan all played for Ballarat Imperials. Peter started playing football for Ballarat Imperials at the age of 16, in 1882.  His brother Jack also played for Hotham Football Club in the VFA. Hotham would later become North Melbourne… Bill played with Melbourne from 1886 to 1888, and Allan played with South Melbourne in the 1890s.

Peter Burns South Melbourne 1880s


Football was in Peter’s blood, part of his DNA. He was an all-round sportsman and fitness fanatic… and an accomplished cricketer in the Ballarat area, and later in Geelong. When his employment required him to shift to Melbourne from Steiglitz, in 1885, he joined the South Melbourne Football Club, at age 19, where his brother Allan would also play in the 1890’s. In his first year with South Melbourne, the Southerners were undefeated champions, and the young Burns, excelled as a follower, at full back and as a forward.

Peter Burns played a total of 125 games with South Melbourne over seven seasons, and played in their premiership teams in 4 of the 7 years, in 1885, 1888, 1889, and 1890. He was vice captain for 4 years from 1888-1891, and was leading goal kicker in 1885 and 1887. Burns was named Champion of the Colony in 1885 and again in 1891. He played 4 games for Victoria and was captain of the Victoria intercolonial team in 1889.

In 1892, work again took Burns to a different place, and he moved from Melbourne to Geelong, where he was employed to install machinery at the wool business of Dalgety & Co.  Burns joined the local Geelong Football Club, and was an immediate success.

He played his first game for Geelong in Round 2 1892, v Williamstown at the Williamstown Cricket Ground. He had a great physique, was a natural athlete and his stamina was such that he could run all day. He was 185cm tall and weighed in at 82kg. He was courageous, and a great leader, was a man of impeccable values and fairness, and could win games off his own boot.

Today’s game style would be perfectly suited to Burns, he demanded fair play always, and was considered one of nature’s true gentlemen.  He was probably the first “superstar “of our game.. He was universally liked and admired by both Geelong supporters and all opposition teams… he was a great mark and kick, and a skilled ball handler…  he was truly the envy of all footballers, and sportsmen Australia wide, and “the pride of all small youths”.  He would be given the name of “Peter the Great”, such was the admiration of the football world. In 1890 in a game against Carlton to decide the premiership, Burns kicked a 65 metre place kick goal to deliver the Premiership for the Southerners… he was the best, most loved and  most famous footballer in the colony in the 1880s…

md rankin


Peter Burns played a total of 88 games in the VFA for Geelong from 1892 to 1896, and kicked 27 goals. He also played a further 89 games, and kicked 7 goals for Geelong in the VFL competition from 1897 until his retirement in 1902. These games, added to his 125 at South Melbourne bring his total across the two elite contiguous competitions to 302… He was also captain of Geelong in 1896 and also again in 1900 for a total of 35 matches.



Team                         VFA                VFL                 TOTAL

Sth Melbourne        125                 –                       125

Geelong                    88                   89                   177

TOTAL                       213                 89                   302


He was a true athlete and possessed great stamina… early morning exercise followed by a dip into Corio Bay was the staple of his athletic lifestyle. He had poems and songs written about him… and young children when saying their evening prayers would say “God Bless Mummy, God Bless Daddy, and God Bless Peter Burns.” He was universally revered across the colony.

Burns’ career is even more creditable when you think that clubs played an average of 19 games a season.. And no finals matches. Today’s players can play up to 25 or 26 games in a season… 31% more games in a year than Burns could have possibly played. Crippling injuries would end careers of many players prematurely, but Burns’ self-discipline and fitness gave him the longevity in the game, that was so rare at that time. Simple medical procedures, that would today have a player not missing a game, were not available then, and many players not only had their careers ended, but walked with a limp or carried injuries long after they left the game.

Peter Burns 1896



The match for Burns’ 300th game certainly had a bit of romance attached to it. The game would be played on May 31, 1902, at his beloved Corio Oval against South Melbourne… a fitting opponent for his milestone game. Burns had been a true champion of both Clubs, dearly loved by them both, and he would only play two more games after this match…something which no one at the ground that day would have imagined.

Burns was forced to retire from playing football at the age of 36 in 1902, after a serious leg injury sustained in a game against Fitzroy at the Brunswick St oval, prevented him from playing on. He played his last game of football in Round 8, 1902 v Carlton at Corio Oval. Newspaper reports on July 14th in 1902 reported that Burns was unlikely to play again because of a “ricked leg”.

Upon retirement Burns took up the role of official timekeeper for the Geelong Club, a role which he held until the end of the 1941 season. Col Hutchinson, AFL historian has estimated that he would have kept time in around 700 matches. Between 1894 until 1927 Burns was also a member of the club’s Selection Committee. Peter Burns died on 11th October 1952 at the age of 86.

Peter Burns timekeeper 1937

In the history books, and old newspapers, Peter Burns is spoken about in the terms of a true legend of the game. One of the greatest ever. Mark Pennings described him as “arguably the best player of the century”.

The facts are that Peter Burns played 302 games of senior football at the elite level. He was the first man to do it… the next person to follow in his footsteps would be Gordon Coventry some 35 years later in 1937! Burns record is irrefutable, and cannot be ignored. Our administrators have not seen fit to acknowledge him, in the manner that he has richly deserved.

Peter Burns was known to all who knew him as a man of great fairness and a champion of good sportsmanship and fair play. He was admired for his great qualities right across the nation, and perhaps it is time that we showed the same respect that he demonstrated over his lifetime.

Peter Burns was the first man to play 300 games of Australian Rules football at the elite level, and a true champion in every sense of the word.

Let’s celebrate him!

“Peter the Great”!



  1. Thanks for this Bob. YOu have done a mighty lot for footy history and the history of Geelong.

    We so easily forget these old champions – and that footy was almost half a century old when he hung up the boots.

  2. Also, Bob, I see Mark Pennings next book is about to hit the shelves. More news on that soon I suspect.

  3. Paul Spinks says

    Hear, hear!

  4. Wonderful piece, Bob.
    And welcome.

    Such a rich history, spanning many facets of life, to be considered here. Long may our minds wander along old streets and upon old playing fields.

    The timekeeper position that he kept is a point of interest.
    As is his brothers playing for different Melbourne clubs.
    And the idea of the cricketer/footballer/all round sportsperson.

    Thanks for sharing here.

  5. Paul Spinks says

    Furthermore …I’ve just been looking at the AFL Hall of Fame list and his pre-VFL record is not included; whereas other players have their SANFL and WAFL games as well as VFA (post VFL formation) games etc added, so there is precedent.

    It seems odd the AFL would exclude, or ignore, achievements from the very league that began it all.

  6. This a great piece that really opens up some major issues for the game.

    There was such antipathy between the VFL and the VFA that continued right up until the demise of the VFA in the early 1990s – and even the VFL couldn’t help but put the boot in!

    All the records of the VFA up until the formation of the VFL should be acknowledged – premierships, games played, etc because it is a core component of the history of the game.

    We do the game a dis-service – the history of senior competition in Victoria started in 1877.

    On this basis the Swans get five more premierships!

    When clubs change competitions they continue to list their achievements. Just because Rochester is now in the Goulburn Valley League it doesn’t erase its Bendigo league achievents.

  7. Dave Brown says

    Interesting read, thanks Bob. I confess I was not aware of Peter Burns. A remarkable record. Although isn’t the Champion of the Colony thing a myth:

    I find the push for recognition of other leagues interesting – we tend to forget that the AFL is just the most powerful Australian league that imposed itself on the game nationally and is for the most part interested in only telling its own story. They are poor national guardians of the game and its history (i.e. it took many individual donors rather than a multi-billion $ governing body to restore Tom Wills’s grave) and I am constantly amazed all of the other leagues allowed them to take ownership of the national game. Money talks.

  8. A fantastic read. Thanks, Bob.
    Up until now I too was unaware of Peter Burns.
    What a servant of the game and of Geelong!

  9. You raise an interesting point there Dr Rocket. The VFA-VFL acrimony lingered for many moons. It would be god if the figures from 1877 + were included, but that could pen a Pandora Box.

    Re five more premierships for the Swans the team that won five premierships in the VFA was South Melbourne, a team that no longer exists. They have not been around since Round 22 1981, though there is a team based in Sydney that has the ir colours, and been given their history. But that’s a story for another time and place.


  10. Wonderful piece Bob. Thanks.

    Sounds like Peter Burns was the superstar of his time. Strange the AFL don’t acknowledge his VFA games. Just seems wrong, and a bit petty. Surely after 120 years it’s time to let go of old anti-VFA grudges and amend historical records to acknowledge the great players, teams and stories of long ago.

    For instance do Charles Brownlow’s 80-odd games for Geelong in the early VFA era count for nothing? Is it only his work as a VFL administrator that matters? In a way the AFL are airbrushing almost 40 years (1858-1896) of Australian football records out of the official history. Why?

    Cheers, Burkie

  11. Thanks Bob. Really enjoyed reading your tribute to Burns. It appears he was not only an extraordinary player but also a decent, humble bloke.
    It is sadly consistent with AFL behaviours that it only acknowledges its own version of history.
    As pointed out by other readers of your piece, by choosing to paint its own picture of things past, the AFL assumes ownership of the game. For example, the AFL, in its tally of silverware earned by particular clubs, does not only consider those premierships won since 1990. It counts those won in the VFL. Why not then, those won in the VFA? Similarly, Burns ought to be recognised for his 300+ games played across clubs, the VFA and VFL.
    Understanding the AFL and its machinations is as difficult as trying to make sense of the deliberate out of bounds rule.
    Again, thank you for your piece.

  12. Peter Haby says

    Thanks Bob … your brilliant efforts with the Cats’ Story through the ages continues to roll on … inspirational stuff …

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