How Lost Was My Archive?


The recent developments in the digitization of library archives have profoundly affected the researching of sport history in Australia and beyond. Some images, facts and data once buried are now easily accessible via simple on-line searches. We no longer need to trust the factual accuracy of the Turners, Hesses, Blaineys and Hays because we are able to check their facts in the blink of an eye. This has compromised some long-held suppositions and has opened the door for new arguments and narratives.

This article is a reflection on the research I have done relating to the history of soccer in Australia. A great deal of this work has been in the NLA digital newspaper archive.
The archive is revolutionary in the way it opens up new narrative possibilities.

The database is searchable — so we can discover evidence that was once nearly impossible to find. Previously, this data could only be found accidently or through an awful lot of hard slog using the old-fashioned techniques of trawling through microfilm and hard copy newspapers.

Without having to leave Melbourne, I have made a number of discoveries in the archive that question some of the established narratives of sport history in Australia.
Three general examples:

  • From the Hobart Mercury in 1867 we learn of a group of Aboriginal footballers near Hamilton in Victoria.
  • An 1880 regional news report in the Argus records the suppression of a Ladies’ Football Club which had been proposed at Sandhurst.
  • The Maitland Mercury reveals a form of football being played in Darwin in 1879.

In each example, factual evidence gleaned from displaced sources troubles established narratives.

Soccer history
A major suspicion I have confirmed over the past 2 years is that Soccer has a much deeper and broader Australian history than has been recorded by sports historians. The game is more ‘embedded’ than is usually assumed. The archive reveals that soccer reports are there in newspapers but they are sometimes buried at the end of, or hidden within, a general football report.

Historians have overlooked vital pieces of information because of this. Also many have been guided by master-narratives that already structures and limits their narrative possibilities. Yet I have my own master narrative which is iconoclastic rather than hagiographic.

Consequently I’ve tried to adopt a sceptical and open-minded approach. Trust no established narrative; question all arguments about origins.

Three reasons:

  1. Established histories have been compiled with access to only a fraction of the available data and are necessarily limited.
  2. There are no origins only moments of confluence. Or, there are no fathers of the game (any game) – though there may be godfathers.
  3. Inscription is not origination. Because something is written down for the first time does not mean that it is the first time that it happened. The fetishistic emphasis on written rules and codes (of our own or someone else’s) distorts the historical process.

Perhaps the most significant justification of this approach lies in a discovery I made in 2009.

Trying to find early examples of soccer in Australia, I had scoured the archive for references to football, soccer, british association football and had exhausted those searches. Reading the articles had taught me aspects of the language of the time and so I was able to make informed experiments with search terms. Making a search using the term ‘English association rules’ I found reference to a game played between New Town FC and the Cricketers FC in Hobart on 7 June 1879.

These clubs met for the return match on Marsh’s ground, New Town, on Saturday afternoon, playing the English Association Rules. The result was a draw, no goals being kicked by either side.

Now this defies the conventional understanding that the first game of soccer in Australia was in NSW when the Wanderers took on the Kings School at Parramatta Common on 14 August 1880.

Even earlier examples have since been discovered:

  • 1878 a one-half soccer/one-half rugby game in Sydney
  • 1876 the new Petrie Terrace club in Brisbane initially adopts London Association rules
  • 1873 a football association formed in Adelaide which initially adopts English association rules
  • Throughout the 1870s we see frequent advocacy of soccer in letters to the editor
  • Prior to 1880 games were played in which carrying and handling the ball were outlawed in a number of places around Australia – Woogaroo in Qld, Richmond in Tasmania. Can we describe these games as soccer? If not, how can we describe them?
  • Early 1870s – recollections in the Mercury in the 1920s of soccer being played in the Hobart Domain.

These discoveries and questions inspired me in a number of ways: one was to find out more about the kinds of football played in Hobart during 1879 and the years preceding it.

Hobart football

The public histories of this period are confused and the scholarly histories are generally thin. But an assumption runs through them all: that the game being played in Hobart in the 1860s and 1870s is a kind of warm-up to Australian Rules football – even if not footy per se it is footy in embryo. Indeed this is an assumption that inhabits a lot of Victorian football histories – along with the general problem of the winners rewriting history in their own image.

I’d like to argue for a more fractured and diverse story – one ultimately of colonisation and imperialist contests.

From the Mercury we are able gather that football in Hobart in 1875 is in a slump and that a concerted effort is needed to get the competition on its feet again lest the male population becomes enfeebled. The effort is made and the second half of the decade is a period of good growth. Contemporary journalists do not describe the games in great detail, so it is very hard to decipher the rules in use. Though we can gain a sense from the match reports.

One journalist has several objections to the way the game is being played in 1878:

  • He bemoans too much “holding the ball”
  • He criticises “the vicious habit of running with the ball”
  • He wants the emphasis on kicking:

From the Mercury 15 April 1878 we learn that:

The “Mark” Rule of the Melbourne Association was played for the first time, having been adopted at the general meeting of the club last month. As displayed on Saturday, it appeared to have practically the same effect as the rule of the Rugby Union . . . The rule is, however, one which should not be carried to excess, as [it is] connected with the primary use of the hands which is the principal cause of the many mishaps recorded in connection with the game. The more the ball is kicked, and the less it is handled, the beauty of the game is enhanced, and the danger of it is proportionately lessened. Shoving, handling, and all the many prohibited causes of harm, are connected with the primary use of the hands which should therefore be avoided as much as possible. As an incidental to the game the Mark system may be admissible; but as its ruling principle . . . it would be decidedly objectionable.

What we see here is the crux of a local conflict – and perhaps we also see a moment in a long-term shift in sensibility from a kicking game to a handling game.  There is other evidence of difference and shift:

  • When City FC played at Richmond FC in August 1877, “City were at a great disadvantage in having to make the concession to their opponents of not running with the ball”.
  • When Richmond visited City next season, Richmond “were evidently placed at a disadvantage by the novelty of the mark rule of which they made acquaintance for the first time”.

Richmond clearly play a non-running and non-marking game in 1877.

It appears that the more established forms of local football, especially outside Hobart, are being displaced by Victorian rules after the formation of the VFA in 1877.

In 1879 something of a ‘rules war’ erupts in Hobart. A great deal of rancour develops between the clubs and the situation is so fraught that at least 3 different sets of rules are adopted by Hobart football teams at the beginning of 1979:

  • The cricketers and momentarily the City FC adopt soccer;
  • The Railway Club and eventually City adopt Victorian Rules;
  • New Town has it own set of rules that seem a kind of third way.

There appears little impetus to break the deadlock until the City Club receives a letter from Hotham FC requesting games in Tasmania. It provides the basis for unity. The Tasmanian Mail reported on 10 May that “such an attention . . . from Victoria will demonstrate the necessity for the formation of an Association, uniformity of rules . . .”

From here the general drift was towards the adoption of Victorian Rules which indeed occurred on June 11 (with the ‘minor’ exception of the use of a crossbar over which the ball had to be kicked to score a goal).

The question might be put: was the ascention of Victorian rules an inevitable evolution or a managed political outcome?

This is where I seemed to have fallen into a hole – until, that is, one of the strengths of the archive came to my aid. The archive facilitates the discovery of deferred as well as displaced data.
Looking up ‘Hobart soccer’ with ‘1879’ as an accompanying search term, revealed a wealth of retrospective material in the form of 50-years-ago-today type articles and other recollections published in the 1920s and 30s.  A central figure emerged.

WH Cundy arrived in Hobart with his father, a railway engineer, in 1879. Cundy also worked in the railways and was the inaugural captain of the Railway Club. He was a very good player who had played for Essendon — though this claim is debatable. Cundy insisted that the game he brought with him should be the one to attain hegemony in Tasmania.

He was interviewed by the Mercury in 1931, a few years before his death:

“When I first came to Tasmania as a youth,” he said, “there was really no established code. Rugby, soccer, and a sort of hybrid game were being played, and it can well be imagined the chaos that existed. I had played what was then known as the Victorian code in Melbourne . . . but at first was unable to induce other teams to adopt the Victorian rules. I had brought over a book of rules, and had 50 copies printed for distribution, and a meeting was later called at the old High School, now the University, to discuss the position. The . . . meeting could not come to a decision to concentrate on one code, so it was decided that for a season the teams should play the Victorian rules game, soccer and Rugby turn about, and at the end of the year decide which should be adopted, when all were fairly conversant with the codes. When the vote subsequently was taken, the Victorian rules won. I believe, by one vote.” (22 Sep 1931)

Now I’m not sure I trust Cundy’s tale. Nor do I have much truck with the Mercury describing him as the “father of the game” in Tasmania. But Cundy’s recollections nonetheless function to open up the story to new narrative possibilities – the most radical of which is that the ascendancy of Australian rules football Hobart is a matter of a colonial imposition of a foreign set of rules.
And for that new story we have the NLA digital archive to thank, or blame.


  1. Ian, This is all very interesting, and when I have a little more time I would like to take up some of the assertions, many of which make a lot of sense to me. My experience is similar. Having begun my history life as someone looking for needles in haystacks (and finding a few) I know now how much easier the search has become, and I agree that this should help uncover some other stories.

    For example, in 1990, I spent a semester reading the Toowoomba Chronicle of 1883 having been set the task by Dr Greg Melleuish (spell?)to try to establish the nature of Toowomba life at that time. By sheer fluke 1883 was the year an ad went in to the paper for the men of Toowoomba to form a football club. A key moment in the life of the club was the decision as to which rules they would play by. They chose Victorian rules.

    I think this was a key decision for many newly-formed clubs at the time (and in many cases an annual vote was taken). It seems to have been the a question for the first brisbane Football Club which met to play outside the old governor’s residence in what is not the Botannic Gardens in 1866. Again they chose the Victorian rules.

    I think you are right to say that the various forms of the game emerged according to the influences of the day – whether they be colonial or organically local, persuasive figures or whatever. This seems so obvious that I’m not sure how or why this is an issue anyway, or how those two are intertwined. Surely blokes had the nuts to say this is how I’d like to play. It looks like the separation of the codes is an issue of preferene and democracy rather than imperial dominance and tyrannical imposition.

    Much to consider. I look forward to returning to your piece.


  2. John, the imperial argument is partly tongue-in-cheek but only partly. It’s a deliberate inversion of the argument about soccer’s football ‘colonisation’ of countries like Brazil and Argentina via the influence of English railways workers.

    The point is that the decision to adopt Victorian rules proper (ie the removal of the crossbar and other minor deviations) is a mercantile/political decision based on the perceived benefits of Hotham’s visit. Hotham refused to play with a crossbar. Had the ‘other’ side’s planned invitation of an English football team got up a little earlier, the decision to adopt rugby might have been made. Who knows?

    Interstingly, when the Hobart guys got together for their final celebration in 1879, they make a toast to the “great English game of football”, meaning the game/s they had been playing all season. Whichever rule teams and clubs adopted in this era, they were all playing the same ‘game’. It’ll be interesting to trace when this feeling changes to the idea of an Australian game separate from the English one.

    I’ll be going to Hobart in a month or so to do more research on this stuff. It is so underdone in Blainey and Hess’s work that there is space for a new and substantial story to appear.

  3. IS, I am no expert in this area, in the way that career historians are. I have canvassed their work to the depth that allows me to communicate a synthesis of the ideas for Saturday morning newspaper readers. And have done some primary source research myself. I reckon the professionals have done more than your post suggests, and I reckon you would find far more common ground with them than you suggest. I think, first and foremost, they do not present their material as definitive. However stakeholders in the various codes do. They cling to narratives, which is no surprise. People have myths. Analysts expose the myths.

    Again, I am short for time. I will return in the morning. I hope some of the experts in this field pick up the conversation.

    Thanks for providng this topic to discuss.

  4. John, Have a look at Blainey and Hess again and you’ll see leaps and gaps in the narrative around Hobart football in the 1860s and 1870s. I think the research behind it was sound but technology has made it flawed. I’ve spoken with Rob Hess about this and I think he agrees to some extent.

    I agree with the common ground as well. Blainey and Hess are both very sound in their arguments.

    But it a bit like astronomy pre- and post-Hubble. This new technology has revolutionised the research and has revealed stories in hours that could only be pieced together through painstaking research over years in the past.

  5. #2 – Ian – look forward to reading the fruits of your labours. I reckon this is fascinating stuff.

  6. Ian Syson says

    JTH — just had a squiz at Turner and Sandercock. Not much mention of early footy development in Tas except to point out the VFA’s “missionary zeal” when it came to spreading the game in Tas and SA especially.

  7. johnharms says

    #6 And your point is, IS?

  8. Ian Syson says

    John — whenever there is “missionary zeal”, a form of imperialism (political, cultural or economic or all three) is not all that far away. The thin-ness of T and S on Tassie also backs up my point about established histories having leaps and gaps.

  9. smokie88 says

    Fascinating reading, Ian.
    I await more with great interest.

  10. johnharms says

    IS, I agree with the idea that the studies are not exhaustive. But that is an issue of scope, and the fact thta the world was organised along local lines of smaller communities then. It’s a massive task to be exhaustive. It is also an issue of the pioneering nature of their book. And yes, that all contributes to your position that there is much to be done. Australian sports historians wouldn’t argue with that.

    There are so many possible readings here.

    Missionary zeal could be a stylistic device to convey enthusiasm. Far be it from me to discredit enthusiasm for something you thik it is worthy.

    I’d also be interested to know who the individuals of the VFA were. The VFA is a real organisation, but like any organisation there is also an imagined sense of what it is. The VFA doesn’t act. Individuals act. Perhaps the actors in the VFA could be understood a little more to see what motivated them. The sports ideology of the time etc

    I think to impose the values of contemporary imperialistic capitalist greedy sporting entities on the entities of the 1870s opens you up to the sort of accusations you are making about others.

  11. Ian Syson says

    John, You’re right of course. The points you raise will hopefully be covered in the longer work I produce out of this. You’re especially right to warn me about transposing values between eras, but the evidence suggests that at the heart of the troubles of 1879 in Hobart is the question of what code will be adopted and mercantile interests are closely involved. There’s a comic-book-like character called Captain Boddam who insists that an ‘English’ game (preferably rugby, but soccer will do) should be adopted first at the City club and then at the Cricketers (I think he moves because he gets rolled at a City Club meeting). He is very much anti-Victorian Rules. Cundy, on the other hand, sees himself as someone who is taking Melbourne footy to Southern Tasmania (and who gets printed up 50 copies of the Victorian rules to aide this process). There’s some serious proselytising going on.

  12. It’s an addictive resource and, frustratingly, it opens up a lot of questions, in this case about Tasmanian sports’ development at the time. There’s a necessarily heavy reliance on the Mercury so it would be good to know its editorial stance. No doubt, somewhere, the High School has records that would help. I like the story of the Railway as a uniting, expanding force. “Immigrant workers” – in this case Victorians – playing “their” game, making towns and teams and, maybe, rules.

  13. Fascinating article, Ian, and equally challenging discussion between you and JTH.

    What’s the title of Turner and Sandercock’s work?

    And I’m proud to say that I was there at the pub with Ian when he made a great proclamation after receiving electronic notification of the online availability of one of his sought-after archives.

    Ian put down his iPhone and turned to us, stating, “We are in the future!”

    Indeed we are, Ian. Or we will be soon…

  14. Ian Syson says

    Gigs, Up where, Cazaly? : the great Australian game / Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner

  15. Ah, yes. Thanks Ian.

  16. Rick Kane says

    Hi Ian

    First, I want to acknowledge your statement re “recent developments in the digitization of library archives have profoundly affected researching”. Ten years ago, while completing my Masters (uncompleted) at La Trobe I did a bit of teaching to First Year students. I made the point to them that when I was an Undergraduate in the early 80s I could argue the library’s lack of resources for my request for an extension, once again. Students now could no longer pull that one out of the bag. Use Google or Northern Light search engine, and no excuses!

    Now to your article. I find it immensely interesting that have triggered several research questions. In Richard Twopenny’s book, ‘Town Life in Australia’, he talks about Australia being “the land of newspapers”. He goes on, “every country township has its weekly or bi-weekly organ … nor is the quality inferior to the quantity … the tone is healthy, the news trustworthy” (pg. 221-222). I will take it that Twopenny’s observations are fair and reasonable.

    Is what Twopenny says about the newspaper trade in Australia the case in Tasmania?
    How many of the newspapers of the time can still be accessed today?
    What consideration is given to records of newspapers that have survived vs. those that have not?
    What means of cross-referencing (the range of different newspapers) would need to be conducted to detect and ascertain dominant and less central narratives?
    Did the currents and preferences of local politics and state and emerging (nationalistic) politics flavour the narratives of the developing sports?
    We live in a time of over bearing dominance by media barons/corporations (witness Murdoch’s latest move to buy up British media). Twopenny’s essay suggest that (for a while, at least) Australia had many newspaper publishers. How did such a climate impact on the narrative of the growth of different codes?


  17. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Ground breaking stuff Dr.Syson.

    Would it be valid to say that if ‘Soccer’ had a better class of rhetoricians in Victoria and Tassie at that critical point in time, it would have garnered much more popular support?

    My curiosity revolves around why Aussie Rules evolved so quickly in those parts. Does the Irish and Aboriginal spirit of resistance towards the English have anything to do with it? How do we measure that?

    Why is Soccer NOT the number one sport in former colonies like Canada, USA, India and South Africa? I wonder how much of a role anti-British sentiment plays here?

    Thought provoking work mate, keep it coming!

  18. johnharms says

    IS, PD, I do like Keith Dunstan’s explanation for why footy didn’t take hold in Sydney. When the footy missionaries headed zealously north to convert the heathens, they were entertained on a boat in Sydney Harbour. One of the missionaries coat tails were hanging over the side, and were taken by a shark. So disturbed were the missionaries that they turned for home, and went straight back to Melbourne. And rugger and footer by the English rules prevailed.

  19. Chalkdog says

    For anyone interested in following the codified “Aussie Rules” I think they should follow the miners. As the Gold Rush in Central Victoria [which was bankrolling the Victorian Colony] petered out the miners moved on. They went to New Zealand, Tassie and eventually Kalgoorlie. I believe they took their game with them. For example round the mid 1880s there was a team in Perth called the Victorians.
    I was in Queenstown NZ a while back where I saw some photos from the late 1880s depicting Victorian Football teams of Queenstown.

  20. johnharms says

    It’s a good trail, Chalkdog. Certainly worth considering in the Queensland case.

    Rick, an important book (and much quoted). And a good point you make about newspapers. Even Ballarat was a long way from Melbourne (in the mind) in 1877. And Oakey was a long way (in the mind) from Brisbane when I was a kid, in 1977.

  21. Chalk,
    They may, of course, have just been British Loyalists…I can’t imagine Irish miners playing under the “Victorian” banner.

  22. Who says soccer isn’t the dominant sport in South Africa, and how would you quantify that anyway? I think it’d be a safe bet to say that soccer is by far the most popular sport amongst black South Africans, who after all do make up the vast majority of the population – but do they have the economic power to challenge the white rugby and cricket establishment? And is assuming that South African soccer has less importance/dominance possibly a sign of an old Empire mentality, because we regularly see and hear about the South African cricket and rugby teams because there’s no avoiding them in Australia?

  23. Hi Paul,

    The problem with your argument is that if we slash away the media hype and cultural mythologies we are left with raw numbers that would suggest soccer is the most popular football code in Australia as well. And we couldn’t have that, could we?

  24. Dave Nadel says

    Yes but you have to distinguish between playing amateur and semi-amateur local sport and watching professional sport. Soccer may be the most widely played sport (at least if you include all ages and both genders) but the professional game does not even draw similar crowds to Rugby League, much less Australian Rules. I have no idea whether the same distinction applies to football in South Africa, I have never studied the crowd figures, but given the conjunction of class and race in South Africa, attendance figures may only represent the comparative costs of the games rather than their true levels of popularity.

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