Marngrook and its place in Australian Football: historian Jenny Hocking presents new evidence

The AFL’s official 150th anniversary history is a collection of essays by various writers. I have two pieces in it: one on fans, one on the nature of the game.


The most critiqued essay is by historian Gillian Hibbins about the origins of the game. It’s best you read it for yourself. It seems to me to be an attempt to put in place a definitive foundation story.

There has been much debate over the influence of various forms of kicking and catching and running games from around the world  – including the public schools of England, Ireland, other cultures and Indigenous Australians (known by various names but especially marngrook).

The topic has become contentious and historians, working in good faith, have their view. However it is more complicated than just having written evidence as authority. There are many types of evidence. Some historians value certain types of evidence – in keeping with some approaches to history. So there are layers to this complication.

This is interesting from Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University:


This is the type of evidence valued by all historians.

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. Thanks for the link, JTH.

    “An AFL spokesman said… ‘Ultimately any view on our game’s history is really a matter for the AFL Commission through the Hall of Fame.’ ”

    Curiouser and curiouser.

  2. Rick Kane says

    I think the author, Malcolm Sutton, does a disservice to both Professor Jenny Hocking’s find and the incredibly interesting story and historical search for the origins of Australian Rules football. From the first paragraph and lines like, “a historian citing transcripts she says proves a key Aboriginal influence” Sutton’s conclusive tone clouds what would otherwise be an intriguing development in this search.

    What is of interest to the development of Australian Rules is Hocking’s find of a “transcription of an interview with [Mukjarrawaint man] Johnny Connolly”. However Sutton extrapolates far beyond what the transcript with Connolly reveals to infer (or almost outright claim) that this transcript is the smoking gun, the absolute proof that Wills took his knowledge of Marngrook to create Australian Rules football. The transcript would be fascinating to read and it indicates a geographical connection to Wills and Connolly. I think that is more than enough to contemplate without burdening those contemplations with absolutes.

    We already have more than enough evidence to draw reasonable connections between the game played by Aboriginals and the game designed called Aussie Rules. Trying to lock in the proof, especially with a questionable rationale such as by Sutton does not advance the bigger search.

  3. bernard whimpress says

    I was a member of an AFL History Committee along with Professor Geoffrey Blainey, Greg de Moore, Gillian Hibbins, Jim Main and others which met about three and half years ago and found against Aboriginal origins of Australian Football by a margin of about 17-2. There’s a difference between accepting the existence of traditional Aboriginal games and possible influences and finding an absolute connection to the beginning of the sport founded as Victorian Rules. Perhaps the strongest argument against the Aboriginal connection (and I think I can say asserted by de Moore, Blainey and Hibbins) is that Wills, a voluminous newspaper correspondent on sport in his day, made no mention of it. Since Wills had a further intimate connection with Aboriginal people through his original captaincy of the cricketers who subsequently went to England in 1868 under the leadership of Charles Lawrence, there is no reason to imagine why he would have omitted to do so.

  4. Thanks for this post JTH, and all comments. I find it very interesting, and even a little mysterious.

  5. “the most important thing is it situates the game in its local version in the Grampians region at the same time as Tom Wills. There’s now no doubt about that.”

    Which means that the previous promotion of Wills’ exposure to marngrook has been revealed by Hocking as conjecture. However that this exposure influenced the rules and style of play of the of the code of football developed in Victoria from 1858 onward remains itself as conjecture.

    Meanwhile what could be conjectured from these?

    “The Football Association was accordingly formed, and a set of rules was drawn up, which, by a very curious coincidence, are very nearly similar to those which were decided on at a meeting of representatives of football clubs, held at the Parade hotel, near Melbourne, some five years ago. I forget exactly at this time who were the gentlemen appointed, but amongst them I know were Mr. J. B. Thompson, Mr. Smith, then of the Scotch College, Mr. Hamersley, Mr. Wills, Mr. Wray, and others, and it is certainly creditable in every way to the judgement of the gentlemen then appointed, that the very rules they then decided on have subsequently been adopted by tho members of the Football Association In England. Whether a stray copy (for the rules were neatly printed and got up) ever found its way home, I do not know; but if not, It is a strong argument in favour of our code, that the two football parliaments, assembled on opposite sides of the globe, should bring about the identical same result of their labours. ”

    Article: “Football in Melbourne” by ‘Free Kick’ writing in ‘Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle’. Sat 14 May 1864 p.2

    “The Melbourne Football club, the first club started in Victoria, originated in 1859, with Messrs. T.H. Smith and T. W. Wills, who were subsequently joined by Messrs. Hammersely and J. B. Thompson, who formed themselves into a committee. The present rules were framed subsequently, by a committee formed of delegates from the principal clubs. They are nearly the same as the rules of the Football Association in England.”

    ‘The Sportsman – Answers to Correspondents’. ‘The Australasian’ 12 August 1865 p.4

  6. bring back the torp says

    Racism, overwhelmingly rampant then, may have been the very good reason Wills/others did not want to privately or publicly mention the Marngrook influence (kicking from the hand/marking) on the new game of Melb. Rules.

    As Jim Poulter has stated, mentioning this” would kill-off the new game stone-dead” -the prejudice against the Aboriginal “savages” & culture etc. was so endemic. It would never have been socially acceptable to say the uniqueness & focus in Melb. Rules of kicking from the hand, forward to a player, already in a FORWARD position (NO OFFSIDE Rule!), & free kick for a mark ( & possible shot at goal) was inspired by Marngrook.
    This new game style was NOT British! Wills in 1858, & the original 4 Rulemakers of 1859 knew that, as did most others.
    Admitting Aboriginal influence implied Aboriginal superiority in game style & aesthetics over traditional English public school games -TOTALLY unacceptable to society, enamoured with an Empire where the sun never sets etc.

    The Bells Life Article above (open Trove link) by Free Kick ( actually, Hammersley) states many already opposed the Free Kick For a Mark Rule -imagine how greater that opposition would be, if people knew its genesis was in Marngrook.
    Hammersley writes how exciting it is to watch players try to catch the ball -then go back, after a free kick, to have a kick at goal. This indicates a very early, acute awareness, of the new game’s focus, popularity & implied antipodean superiority.

    Author & researcher on Australian Football, David Thompson, has written ”It is unlikely that the catching in marngrook and Australian Football is a coincidence”( Marks were recorded in the first games of 1858).

    This is a considerable understatement.

    No where else in the world has an ancient game -which focused solely on kicking a ball out of the hand & contested catching -coexisted contemporaneously, & in proximity, with a brand new, unique game: which had a similar main focus on kicking & catching -then free kick (the round ball could not be lifted from the ground in the first Rules of 1859).
    A strong argument can be made this is not pure coincidence, that the older game had some influence on the new game.

    One cannot draw an analogy about Wills relaxed attitude with publicly training, & writing about, his Aboriginal cricketers – with his public silence on a possible Melb. Rules/ Marngrook connection.
    He was training them at cricket -the ENGLISH game, so no implied “dissent”, disrespect etc. with English games/customs/superiority.

    It will be interesting -now that it has been proved Marngrook was played in the region Wills grew up in (& also around Melb. up to about 1870, where some/all the Rulemakers may have seen it)-to see how the historian naysayers will react. A fundamental plank has been removed from their “No evidence in Moyston region”argument.

  7. Then there is the history of the ‘fair catch kick’

  8. bring back the torp says

    Prior to the recent findings of Prof. J. Hocking re Johnny Connolly & other Aboriginals playing Marngrook in the Moyston/ Grampian region, there was previous other evidence it was played in that region.

    In D. Thompson “The Rules That made Australian Football 1858 -1879”, Walla Walla 2013, Petersham NSW, pgs 12, 15 & 16, it is stated:-
    “…in the 1850’s… Rugby school football catches were not rewarded with free kicks in general play. Rugby football, in addition, enforced many offside rules and was fundamentally a carrying type of football…”.

    “Catching was merely a secondary practice of the carrying & dribbling games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Delivering the ball towards goal through a series of kicks and catches was an Australian invention (in 1858 -my words)”.
    As Melb. Rules had no offside rule, a player could be positioned any where on the ground, including in a forward position -& the kicker could kick the ball to him. If marked, a free kick to score a goal was possible.

    De Moore “Tom Wills” at pg 101 stated in 1859 the four Rule makers considered the Rugby, Harrow, Eton, & Winchester school football code rules.

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