Footy’s first free kick: How and why we got a game of our own

The full story, complete with the relevant statistics, is in an article in the International Journal of History of Sport.



by Roy Hay

The football season is about to kick-off in Victoria. No doubt there will be an increase in media coverage, but over summer during the cricket, tennis and soccer seasons, every day there are footy stories though there have been no competitive games since September. The game is deeply ingrained in local consciousness and has been since the mid-nineteenth century. Have you ever wondered how it all began and why?

Europeans only began settling in Victoria in the 1830s but within a few years they were playing varieties of football. Many of these games had a relatively small number of participants, relied heavily on kicking, not handling, and were played for money or other prizes. That means they must have had rules, for you don’t gamble unless you know the rules. One afternoon after a particularly violent game in a paddock near the current MCG a group of young men decided they would draw up a set of rules to regulate the game they wanted to play. That set of rules has survived and was adopted by the Melbourne football club in 1859.

Four years later in London, another group of young men formed the Football Association and drew up a set of rules that were very similar. From then on the rules began to diverge in the two countries. In England there was a split into what became rugby and the Association game, often called soccer to distinguish it from the originally more popular rugby version. Here in Victoria, Melbourne club rules eventually became dominant. But why?

Historians have been puzzling over this question for years. Me too. The answer has been staring me in the face, but I could not see it. I was interested in the migrants and what they brought to Australia, but I never asked, ‘What happened when the migrants didn’t come?’ In the 1850s over 313,000 people came to Victoria, most of them young men chasing gold. But after 1860 only 28,000 arrived in the next twenty years. That’s about 1,400 a year on average and in most years between 1860 and 1880 there was a net outflow of people from Victoria. There was an even sharper decline in the number of young men of football playing age. So for more than 20 years the new code of football had no competition from migrants with different ideas of how football should be played.

Within Victoria there was a striking redistribution of the population between 1860 and 1880. Disappointed gold seekers and others who realised that more money might be made from supplying the people’s needs rather than risking your life underground flocked to Melbourne. In those twenty years Melbourne’s population more than doubled to a quarter of a million, while Victoria only grew by 60 per cent. Even Geelong, which had ambitions to be the pivot of the Victorian economy, stagnated. In the late 1850s its population was just over 23 000 but by 1881 it had only added 145 people. Yet it is Geelong that produces the most successful football team of the first few years of the domestic game and again in the late 1870s. So no migrants, no soccer and the birth and adolescence of the local code.

Tony Ward has argued in recent articles that the early achievement of a Saturday half-day in Victoria, initially by the stonemasons, meant more leisure for some skilled workers and hence a chance to attend sporting occasions. Others, like the tramway drivers, worked broken time and had gaps in afternoons. But it was probably the growth of a middle-class with discretionary income and more control over their working hours that enabled men and women to attend matches in significant numbers. My argument here about the key role of the absence of inward migration reinforces the importance of demographic factors in the establishment of football in Victoria.

One other matter needs to be emphasised. The people who promoted football in Melbourne and Victoria in the newspapers of the mid-nineteenth century were, like the framers of the first rules, recent migrants with a knowledge of the English public schools and their games. On the other hand, they knew nothing about the varieties of football already being played in Victoria, and hence, in ignorance, could believe and assert that they were introducing football to the colony. Their unconscious imperialism helped establish the local code and gradually obliterated domestic and overseas rival forms. It’s a mindset that hasn’t entirely vanished today.






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  1. Dave Brown says

    Interesting thanks Roy. I think the Victorian economy probably had a bit to do with the expansion of the game to, certain, other colonies too. During the 1870s as the game was getting established in SA there was significant migration from Victoria as the gold rush died down. A club like Norwood, established in 1878, based its colours on Melbourne and had sustained success over that period as a result of being able to recruit Victorians looking for work.

  2. Thanks, Dave. That is an excellent point. Up till now I have known very little about what happened after 1860, so now I need to explore how the codes diverged because as Ian Syson keeps saying there was a great deal of confusion over precisely what game was being played at times. I suspect the story may well hinge on some of those economic and demographic issues which we have tended to ignore. The great thing about history is that the proposed solution to one problem just sets up the next round of puzzles to be solved.

  3. Hamish Townsend says

    A great new question to ask Roy. What happens when a growing city stops growing? It’s almost like Australian Rules becomes one of those things you find on the beach when the tide goes out a really long way, or like those meals people invent during war times and then decide they like when the days of plenty return. Are there other aspects to Melb/Geel (I think they have to be seen to develop in parallel) at the time that benefit from isolation? I would think the increasing dominance of unions would have enhanced most collective activities. Also most of Melbourne’s suburbs began to develop in the late 1850s ( I think Fitzroy was first in around 1858, Collingwood 1860) that means new spaces to play sport and tribes worth representing… and you thought you’d retired.

  4. Yes, Hamish, I think timing is critical and the domestic responses to the lack of newcomers from overseas. I think Victoria in those days had not thrown off the radical tinge which the gold diggers brought with them. Though there was a lot of obeisance to the UK, I think the idea of going it our way was quite strong too. So a game of our own made sense. But then it needed a bit of a gap to put down roots, roots which would be impossible to dislodge. Domestically the separation from NSW was important already as the Sydnesiders turned up their noses at anything Victorian, and Melbourneites reciprocated in spades.

    You are right to draw attention to the growth of suburbs as sources of new teams for the competition. Critically these would be location/district based, not aligned with ethnicity or the latest batch of migrants, of whom there were none.

  5. Kevin McDonnell says

    South Australia would be a rugby state had it not been for Charles Cameron Kingston, the former Attorney-General and Premier. Kingston went to that critical meeting that formed the South Australian Football Association, at the Prince Alfred Hotel on April 1877 as one of South Adelaide FC’s delegates. Nowell Twopenny, representing the Adelaide Football Club, proposed SA football’s first ruling body, SAFA, live to the by-laws of the Sydney Football Association – a rugby group. Twopenny argued the rugby way was “genuine football” and, from his experiences in England, he assured all at the meeting that there was less controversy with the running game. By contrast, he argued, bouncing the ball created too many arguments and left too much for the umpire to control.
    Here, Charles Cameron Kingston “saved” SA from being a rugby state. He argued Victorian footballers had no problem bouncing the ball. He pushed for SA to follow the Victorian game rather than the Sydney preference for Rugby football. And he added that aligning SA to the Victorian way was “essential” to setting up “intercolonial” (later interstate) football. Kingston had every Victorian rule endorsed – and added SA’s first rule for Australian football, the free kick for a push in the back.
    And so SA became a pivotal part of Australian football’s growth rather than a new fertile ground for rugby.
    Abridged version of an article by Michaelangelo Rucci

  6. Interesting, Kevin. There were earlier attempts to play Association football games in South Australia, but inter-colonial club footy games really get going from 1877 onwards and there one or two representative matches as well. I must have a look at the demographic statistics for South Australia as Dave Brown suggested for the source of migrants and their experiences could be very significant. Have you got a copy of the original Rucci article? I’d like to read it. If not I will try to contact him for the reference. Incidentally my article is now available free till the end of May at

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