General footy writing: May 17, 1859 and the codification of footy

by John Harms


The date, May 17, is of great significance to the Australian nation. Especially footy-lovers.


Not that too many of us know about it.


On May 17, 1859, at the Parade Hotel, on Wellington Parade, East Melbourne, four men from the committee of the fledgling Melbourne Football Club (and maybe the publican) sat down and nutted out the first rules of football as it was to be played in the Australian way. Although it has benefited from many other influences since – the Irish influence, the Indigenous influence, the local influence – football as we know it, and the laws which govern it today, is linked to this meeting.


This date is barely known because a different foundation myth has existed. Over the years the public memory has been consumed by the events of August 8, 1858 the so-called first ever game of Australian rules football, between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School in the Richmond Paddock. The AFL chose this date as the focus of its 150th anniversary celebrations last year, a logical follow on from the centenary celebrations of 1958.


That game retains a symbolic significance. And we are often reminded of it. But historians tell us that wasn’t even the first game – football matches (ad hoc folk games played by a variety of rules) had been played in the colony of Victoria for a number of years beforehand (and football-like matches in Indigenous communities for generations).


When it comes to football celebrating a single day, May 17, 1859 is far more appropriate. It was the day when Australian football was codified; the day a number of influential men of football agreed on set of specific laws. These laws were publicized. These laws gained currency.


In cities and towns, when the instigators of football clubs decided on the rules by which their club would play, many chose the rules prescribed by this meeting and further meetings of the Melbourne Football Club committee. Of course, clubs modified these laws as well, and the laws inherited local quirks.


So it was a pretty important meeting really, and one which is mentioned by those historians who have written about the early days of football – Geoffrey Blainey, Rob Pascoe, Gillian Hibbins, Robin Grow et al. And while the details of the meeting itself are sketchy, quite a lot is known about the characters involved, and about the rise of football around that time.


In 1858 a push to make football more organized, in part encouraged by Tom Wills’ letter to the editor of Bell’s Life in Victoria, led to the formation of the Melbourne Football Club. The problem was, depending on their backgrounds, and the schools they’d attended, its members understood football to be played under a variety of rules. This needed to be sorted out.


On May 14 1859, following a practice match within the club, players elected a committee. Four members of that committee met at Jerry Bryant’s pub on Wellington Parade.


Bryant was not on the committee but he was a sportsman. He had played cricket as a professional for the Surrey Cricket Club in England. He had also been involved in the Surrey Football Club which had its own set of football rules.


William Hammersley was a local journalist. He had played cricket as a gentleman amateur with Bryant at Surrey. The illegitimate son of a prosperous Englishman he had attended Aldenham Grammar, and Trinity College, Cambridge. The men of Cambridge, drawn from the public schools of EnglandEton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, Shrewsbury, and the like – had had the same problem as the Melbourne Football Club. They had compromised and established the Cambridge rules.


James Thompson had also been at Trinity. A journalist, he wrote for the Ballarat Times before becoming the theatre critic with the Melbourne Morning Herald. He also wrote sporting pieces for Bell’s Life in Victoria.


Tom Smith was also in attendance. Known as ‘Red’ (and later as ‘Football’ Smith) he was the Classics master at Scotch. He had played in the August 7 match. The son of a Protestant merchant, he had grown up in Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin. Gaelic football had not been codified at that time.


The final committee member at the meeting was Tom Wills, Australian born, and educated at Rugby. Having returned from England he had built a reputation as a cricketer and a character. He was loved by Melbourne crowds.


Accounts of the meeting differ. Hammersley claimed Wills wanted football played by Rugby rules, but the others thought such rules were too localized, and specific to Rugby. Thompson was prepared: he had brought with him the rules of Rugby, Eton, Harrow and Winchester. It was quite a task to find the common ground.


It seems discussion would have focused on a number of principles. How rough should the contest be? When could the ball be handled? How was the ball to be returned to play?


The meeting outlawed hacking, which was the custom of kicking your opponent in the shins. The rules also prevented a player from picking the ball up; he could only handle it when marking a kick. Until mavericks ignored the rule, players couldn’t run with the ball (as was the case at Cambridge, but not at Rugby). It was a game of kicking and scrimmaging.


But the very limited number and scope of the rules also made the game ill-defined and these sizable gaps gave the game room to develop.


This committee met from time to time in 1859 and in the years following to discuss and modify the rules. Their rules became known as the Melbourne rules and while it is unlikely they were universally prescriptive, they were certainly influential.


Other footballs were codified and won their disciples. But many stayed with the local game.


From then until today the rules have been organic, changing according to the desires of the footy community – the players and coaches, the administrators, the footy-loving public.


So this is an important day, when two journalists, a teacher and a cricketer, sat down in a Jerry Bryant’s pub to codify (over a few beers) a game to which they were attracted.


The hand-written document survives, found in a tin chest in 1980 by Bill Gray, then the curator of the MCC Museum.


Copies of the original documents are on show in various places at the MCG including a huge version of them on the walls and ceiling of the atrium at the entrance to the Olympic Stand.


These are the original ten rules of football


1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.


2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal. The side losing the toss has the kick-off from the centre-point between the goals.


3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts without touching either of them or a portion of the person of any player of either side.


4. The game shall be played within the space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally upon each side of the line drawn through the centre of the two goals and two posts to be called the kick-off posts shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends and in a straight line with them.


5. In case the ball is kicked behind the goals, anyone of the side behind whose goal it is kicked, may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the kick-off posts and shall kick it as a nearly as possible in the line of the opposite goal.


6. Any player catching the ball directly from the boot may call ‘mark’. He then has a free kick. No players from the opposite side being allowed to come into the spot marked.


7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed but no hacking when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball except for the case provided by rule 6.


8. The ball may be taken in hand only when caught from the boot or on the hop. In no case shall it be lifted from the ground.


9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary line and thrown in at right angles with that line.


10. The ball while in play may under no circumstances be thrown.




It is hard to imagine what the game looked like.


What is clear is that it was played on a large field and that the scoring of a (kicked) goal was the object.


Players could not pick the ball up off the ground. They could only handle it when someone else kicked it off the ground and they caught it on the full in which case they could call ‘mark’ and be awarded a free kick. Or when it was kicked and they caught it on the hop (the bounce) in which case they could sink the slipper into the pig’s bladder and roost it as far as they could. They couldn’t run with the football, other than to take enough steps to balance themselves, steady, and kick. It was during this time they could be tackled. Reading between the lines a couple of things seem evident. One, that it took some players a long time to balance and steady because the rules suggest the player in possession of the football could reach ‘rapid motion’. Two, that tackling was extremely vigorous and included tripping. And three, that it is quite possible, given that the rules don’t outlaw the practice, it may have been fine to tackle a player without the ball. (The latter is mere speculation but it also might explain the rapid motion scenario.)


At this stage there was no differentiation in the name. It was all called football. Codification of rugby and soccer came later.


It’s all a bit like the Catholic church (or the catholic church) and the Byzantine church, the Orthodox church and then Luther and his Reformation.











About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. An interesting piece on the history of our game John. As well as illuminating us to some interesting elements regarding the inception of Aussie ‘Rules’, it also demonstrates how room for debate on the subject will probably remain with us forever. I’ve been fortunate enough to play both Aussie Rules and Gaelic Football in my time and I reckon one could build a case in favor of the influence of the Celtic game. For example, part of Rule 8 (“In no case shall it be lifted from the ground”) reminds me of the Gaelic Football rule which says (something like) a player cannot lift the ball (when lying idle) off the ground by hand but must use his foot to do so. The way Gaelic footballers typically do this is to put their head over the ball, bend down with hands in front of the ball and then gently ‘scoop’ it into their hands (more or less) with the boot off the ground (all in one quick motion). Interestingly, in my experience, its one of the hardest rules for Aussie Rules players to get used to when playing Gaelic for the first time. Maybe ‘Red’ Smith had a say in Rule 8 based on his time at Trinity College. I guess we’ll never know…..that’s what I like about it.

  2. John, I have an (ermm) eccentric position on this whole debate. Now there’s a surprise.

    I don’t think footy is properly codified until 1877 when it is finally established by the VFA that players are indeed allowed to pick the ball up from the ground. This is a decisive move that helps to give the game its character and point of divergence from other codes. It is this which enables the mark to become such an important aspect of the game. This is also the first formation of an association rather than an ad hoc grouping that played a variety of rules depending on who was the home team.

    Don’t the rules you list make a distinction between a player in possession and one in rapid motion?

    For your interest these are the first ten of the Sheffield rules of 1858 (taken from wiki):

    1 The kick off from the middle must be a place kick.
    2 Kick out must not be more than 25 yards [23 m] out of goal.
    3 A fair catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free-kick.
    4 Charging is fair in case of a place kick (with the exception of a kick off as soon as a player offers to kick) but he may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot.
    5 Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping up is fair under any circumstances whatever.
    6 No player may be held or pulled over.
    7 It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatever.
    8 The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.
    9 A goal must be kicked but not from touch nor by a free kick from a catch.
    10 A ball in touch is dead, consequently the side that touches it down must bring it to the edge of the touch and throw it straight out from touch.

    NB rule 7 which prevents a player from picking up the ball. These rules contributed substantially to soccer.

    It’s my view that soccer and footy in their 1860s guises were very similar games. Each had the dilemma of allowing handling but disallowing picking the ball up from the ground. Soccer solved the problem by disallowing handling; footy solved it by allowing players to take the ball from the ground.

  3. I find it interesting that the first ten rules from May 17 are focussed on, but, there’s often little recognition of the July 2nd 1859 revision that saw an 11th rule added.
    The July 2nd revisions also saw Rule 8 amended to permit that “The ball may at any time be taken in hand, but not carried farther than is necessary for a kick.”
    This was perhaps the first ‘Australian’ rule – – however, it was ‘negatived’ in the May 28, 1860 revision.

    However, note that the 2 Rules meetings of 1859 were producing the rules of the Melbourne Football Club. The May 28, 1860 rules meeting was inclusive of representatives of Melbourne, StKilda, South Yarra, Richmond, Scotch College, University, Williamstown, Collingwood and Boroondara (clubs), and after some very minor (other than rule 8) amendment, it was resolved to “…have 300 copies of the rules, to be called ‘The Victorian Football Rules,’ printed and distributed amongst the various clubs.’

    The Argus suggested “The Melbourne Football Club may fairly congratulate themselves on the fact, that their rules, with one exception, were formally adopted by the repre- sentatives of the different clubs present.”

    btw – rule 8 then became ” The ball may not be lifted from the ground under any circumstances, or taken in hand, except as, provided for in rule 6 (catch from the foot), or when on the first hop. It shall not be run with in any case.”

    That to me, suggests a reasonable codification of the Victorian Rules in 1860. Just how well it ‘stuck’ there after, well, they agreed to send a set to Geelong. But, we need only look at the London FA in 1863 – their rules were hardly universally adopted – few of the founding ‘clubs’ persisted or survived, and it took until the late 1870s when the Sheffield and London FA’s effectively merged for the real game of Association Football to move forward.

    WHat is interesting when a small set of rules is in place – is not necessarily what is written in black and white at anytime – but, what is not. Also, what is experimented with over time. This shows the growth of the ‘spirit’ of the game.

    It should also be noted, that for comparison to the 1845 Rugby school rules, the 1856 Cambridge and the 1858 Sheffield Rules, that the July 1859 1st revision of the Melbourne rules saw the first mention of ‘free-kick’. And that the Melbourne rules were the only one’s to mention a toss for choice of goal. The Melbourne rules were the only one’s to outlaw throwing. Granted games like the Eton field game outlawed handling – but, for a ‘handling’ game as the Melbourne game was – to outlaw ‘throwing’ was quite distinct.

    So, I reckon, from 1859/1860 on, it was already a ‘game of our own’ both in actuality and most certainly in spirit. That already in 1860 it was declared ‘Victorian Rules’…..well,
    actually, it’s interesting, many people still attribute the 11th rule to the 1860 meeting – but, that was an MFC rule by July 1859. And the 1860 meeting is also commonly attributed to the MFC – but, it was a broader one that the Argus reported on the Saturday before as being requested by “…St Kilda Club, with whom ‘pushing’ does not seem to agree.”

    So, someone might want to update Wikipedia!!!!

  4. noting also, that J.B.Thompson’s ‘Victorian Cricketers Guide’ published in Nov 1860 included a football section “…with hints, together with Victorian, Eton, and Rugby rules.”

    So, I wonder why people persist in ignoring the ‘Victorian’ element that was established in 1860. It didn’t have to be universal overnight!!!

    Granted – the language still used, such that in 1862 the newly formed ‘Essendon and Flemington FC’ voted to adopt the rules of the Melbourne Club. Was it just that the ‘Victorian Rules’ were still heavily identifiable as the ‘Melbourne FC rules’??

    btw – what is interesting is an article in the Brisbane Courier from October 1883 that speaks of the 3 games of football in England (whilst denigrating the Melbourne game as ‘handball’, ironic given the illegaility of throwing compared to the Rugby games). ANyway, the article talks of the English Association game, the Rugby Union game, and also the ‘old Rugby game’ – – described as including ‘…such little amenities as tripping and hacking’.

    What is clear in many discussions is that people get confused between ‘old Rugby’ and ‘Rugby Union’.

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