Marngrook, Tom Wills and the Continuing Denial of Indigenous History

The following link is to an excellent article from the forthcoming edition of Meanjin and it will be of interest to all Almanac readers. It provides an in-depth analysis and historical overview of all aspects of the origins of football, and considering the role Footy Almanac is taking with  the restoration of Tom Wills’s grave, will enable readers to develop further understandings about this great game of ours.

About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.


  1. Dear Colin

    Thanks for posting this. I must get a copy of the issue of Meanjin. I fear this article will mislead more than it will illuminate. The new piece of evidence about Johnny Connolly playing an Aboriginal game, far from changing everything, changes nothing. Women’s involvement in Aboriginal games is well known, see the work of Ken Edwards in particular. I think that Tom Wills was aware of the games some Aboriginal adults and children played, but there is nothing his biography or his writings to suggest that it had any influence on his contribution to the game. Most English public school games involved both kicking and running with the ball and passing it around. If his innovation in Australia was keeping the ball off the ground, then it does not seem to have caught on for a long time since all the descriptions and the few attempts to show the early game have it being played on or close to the ground. I think David Thompson has found one example of high marking but that is all.
    I’m trying to develop an alternative explanation for the pattern of Aboriginal involvement in the game in the second half of the nineteenth century and I had great hopes that this article would provide new evidence and interpretation to be considered but it really adds very little. The repeated criticism of Gillian Hibbins who has spent a huge amount of her time trying to find evidence in support of a link between Aboriginal games and the codification of Melbourne football in 1859 is particularly unfortunate.

  2. Allan Grant says:

    And so the debate goes on. Thank you for such a well researched article which has greatly assisted me in understanding just that little bit more about the ongoing history wars. I am but a small part of this debate. I do believe the argument the Wills must have been aware of the indigenous game is irrefutable and I Also have respect for the truth in history historians like Gillian Hibbins who hopefully continue to search for that evidence to prove a link between Aboriginal games and the codification of what we know as Australian rules football. Thank you Colin for a great read.

  3. Michael Viljoen says:

    Nicely written piece. Very eloquent.

  4. no debate,there game was more like soccer than afl

  5. The Laws of Football as Played at Rugby School 28th August 1845

    i. FAIR CATCH, is a catch direct from the foot.

    The innovation in the game devised in Melbourne from 1858 onward was the absence of an ‘off-side’ rule, allowing the ball to be passed forward to a team-mate. The high leaping for the ball to obtain a free kick from a ‘fair catch’ which didn’t become a feature of the game until after Wills was dead can be seen as a logical development to gain advantage. If Marngrook was an inspiration for the ‘high catching/marking’ in Australian football (never called Australian ‘rules’ by the founders of the game or senior body administering it) then it is most likely that it came not via Wills. It is however all conjecture except for the evidence of the Rugby Rules of 1845 allowing for the ball to be caught from a kick.

  6. bring back the torp says:

    The 1859 Rules reinforced the mark (fair catch) by awarding a Free Kick -thus, with no off-side, a mark/then kick, was the easiest & most effective way to propel the ball FORWARD. The round ball could not be picked up from the ground -unless it was only the first hop ie bounce.

    D.Thompson’s excellent book “The Rules that Made Australian Football”2013 Walla Walla Press, NSW,has provided several examples of whites observing Marngrook, also close to Melb. up to the 1860’s -& the whites then applauding the high leaping skills of Aboriginals to catch the possum skin ball -pg 91.

    Charles “Commotion”Pearson was jumping high to catch the ball in Melb. in the 1870’s on a regular basis -but other footballers occasionally leapt high in the air before then. Thompson states, even the first games from 1858 pg90 –

    Thompson correctly states ‘ It seems more than a coincidence that Aust. football featured similar catching methods. It seems likely that some future Aust. footballers had watched & approved of the way the Aborigines leapt for a catch introducing this technique to the new game”. Pg 91
    The decision to incorporate the free kick for a mark by Wills etc and/or jump to catch the ball may have been SUBCONSCIOUSLY formed by Wills/other whites having watched Marngrook previously.

    “The football produced by these (1859) Rules was a skilful game where the ball was delivered close to goal through a series of (free) kicks & marks. There was truly no other game like it”pg18

    Some supporters of other codes have vested interests for wanting to eliminate marngrook from the early AF code & narrative.
    Some have had the audacity to suggest that Marngrook never existed before whites arrived -that Aboriginals only developed Marngrook after seeing Melbourne Rules; & decided to “emulate”it as one of their Aboriginal games.

    Some historians declare that if there is no written evidence, then one cannot definitively conclude something happened (… too bad for Aboriginals’ rich oral tradition, they don’t count).
    Is there written proof of the creation of NMFC pre 1869, or 1869 in Trove, or written any where? No -but we have made assumptions, based on circumstantial evidence that NMFC existed in 1869.

    Ditto Shinboners (re North Melb. old nickname)
    Can we find it in Trove, diaries, letters etc to determine when the nickname started.

    It is incontrovertible that Tom Wills could speak the West Vic. dialect fluently -no dialect Guide Book for him then; that he played,as the only white child in the Moyston area, with other Aboriginal children & after he left, Aboriginals came to the homestead, wanting to know when he would return; that he could sing their songs, & dance their corroboree etc.
    Of course he played marngrook (mingorm) with Aboriginal children!

    The History Wars will continue!

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