The Champions That Never Were

As a kid starting out following football via Scanlen’s footy cards in 1976, I quickly embraced the game and everything that it entailed. Of particular interest was history and I couldn’t get enough of reading the few bits available to me at the time. The 1970’s did not have a lot of published material but what there was fascinated the mind of my childhood.

One thing of particular interest was hearing about Champions Of The Colony, an award that had been handed out in football’s infancy of the 1800’s. Unfortunately the VFL Yearbooks that were published by the VFL never mentioned it. In fact no publication ever mentioned it. I was fascinated what this award was and who had won it.

In 1982 Graeme Atkinson, a keen football historian who had been at the forefront of football research in the 70’s along with the likes of Russell Holmesby, published a book called ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about Australian Rules Football but couldn’t be bothered asking’. Certainly the strangest title to a book I had come across but it had answers to questions I was asking, namely that it listed the mysterious Champions Of The Colony that I had not been able to locate anywhere else.

So there it was, this award had been given as a kind of media award by the leading football writers of the time.

By the late 80’s I wanted to know more about football history than just the items I had found scattered in books. The Courage Book Of Brownlow Medals and Every Game Ever Played had become dogeared over the years but apart from basic history of the VFL, little else was available. I followed Hawthorn and knew virtually nothing about them pre-1925 and they had formed in 1873 – there were 52 years of history where I knew nothing about my own club.

Just at that time in 1990, the Hawthorn Football Club released their history book – The Hard Way. As brilliant as I found this book, it still covered very little of the pre-1925 era. I decided that I wanted to research in depth the history of not only the Hawthorn Football Club but also the game itself and how it was played in the 1800’s. To do this I started to go to the State Library and start going through the old newspapers which were recorded on microfilm. I found that the Hawthorn FC that was famously formed in 1873 actually rather quietly disbanded 10 years later and that the club of today was formed in 1902. It took me quite a few years to convince the club that they were formed in 1902. I still have the letter from then Hawthorn CEO John Lauritz in 1993 where the board and Hawks Forever state that the club rejects my research and they continue to claim 1873 as their formation date – it took me nearly 10 years to eventually convince them – long enough for them to miss their actual centenary – but they now have 1902 as their formation date…but that is a story for another time.

The other thing I found was more in the context of what I didn’t find. Going through all the newspapers of the 1880’s I found absolutely no mention of Champion Of The Colony ever. Not even once was there a report. How could this be if this was an award given by the media…and in the 1800’s the only media was newspapers and an annual book called The Footballer (1875-c1887).

By this stage I knew Graeme Atkinson as he was running some collectibles auctions in the early to mid 90’s where I would buy footy memorabilia. He told me that the information had come via C.C.Mullen who had privately published some books in the 1950’s. I was intrigued how someone such as Mullen could find such a list of what seemed a prestigious award yet was not even recognised by the VFL in any of their publications. After looking for a while I found 2 of Mullens’ books, the 1951 Almanac and the 1958 History Of Australian Rules (he also produced an Almanac in 1950 apparently but I have not found that yet).

Therein I found the information that Graeme had used but I also found some anomalies (Graeme had the 1941 winner as Ted Cordner (Melb) and 1942 Jack Dyer (Rich) while Mullen had W.J.F.Buttsworth 1941 and E.R.Cordner 1942 respectively). The 1951 Almanac had all the winners listed to 1950 (while Graeme only listed to 1945) and also mentioned that captains met at the end of seasons to vote and later this was done by leading writers. There was no meeting of captains ever recorded for such a purpose that can be found.

Interestingly in the 1958 book Mullens had dropped any reference to captains meeting and only made mention that it was awarded by football writers from newspapers, in line with Graeme’s blurb. Even more interesting was that the list only went to 1940 now (a third different end date to the previous 1945 and 1950) and that newspapers made their own selections since then.

That it was an award given by football writers was, for some reason, something that was strangely never actually reported in any newspapers as Champion Of The Colony. Graeme had just used Mullen’s information and as Mullen was the only person who seemed to know anything about this award it was necessary to find out more about this football historian.

A great article on C.C.Mullen appeared in the official VFL publication Football Life April 1969. Cecil Clarence Mullen was born in 1895 and started to follow football in 1905. He worked at various newspapers (The Argus, The Australasian) which gave him access to historical newspapers long before microfilm and it was through their files that he did his research. Interestingly, his scrapbooks that he is pictured with below, now reside in the MCC Library. There are no articles contained in these scrapbooks that even once mention an original report of a Champion Of The Colony.

So what was this award, this Champion Of The Colony? It appears little more than a combination of unrelated reports in newspapers to create an award that never existed. There NEVER was an Champion Of The Colony. Some individuals named were voted for in newspapers, most were just the results of Mullens’ opinion based on what he read. The players named were, on the whole, good players in those seasons but none of them were ever named Champion Of The Colony.

There are a number of anomalies in the actual list, such as the following:

1: Wills could not have won in 1856 as he only arrived in Victoria on Dec 23 after having spent years in England

2: There was no Richmond CCFC in 1858 although a player named Bruce did play cricket for Richmond

3: Hugh Gavin played football in WA in 1903 and could not have possibly won with Essendon that year as he never played a single game with the club all season.

This is where the story should end. Champion Of The Colony was an award created by C.C.Mullen for his own purpose in a private publication.

Fast forward to 2003 and for the first time ever – in the Season Guide – the AFL now mention Champion Of The Colony:

The AFL publish a list copied from Mullen for the years 1856-1875 and re-introduce the claim that captains help choose the winner – something that even Mullen abandoned mentioning after 1951 and Graeme never mentioned it.

From 2004-2007 they publish the list to up to 1940 and in 2008 extended it to 1945 (below)

It is starting to get farcical as the AFL realise that Australian football wasn’t invented until 1858 so how could you have a winner before the game even existed. Their blurb at the top is purely fabricated. The AFL now claimed that awards – that were never made – were now for sporting excellence in 1856-57 and transferred to football in 1858 with votes from captains. Absolutely none of that claim is based on any actual facts or evidence.

From 2009 until the present the following has appeared in the Record Season Guide:

The AFL continue to mention a “custom” and the “it was eventually abolished”. There never was any custom and something that never existed can’t be abolished. They do however now credit the list to C.C.Mullen’s book of 1958 (even though their list goes to 1945 and the 1958 Mullen book goes to 1940 and the 1941-45 addition is Graeme’s version)

I have discussed this topic with a number football historians and they are also aware that there never was any such award. If anyone who studies the history of football in Victoria is aware that there never was and Champion Of The Colony award, it makes it most unusual that the AFL continue to endorse something that never existed.


  1. Speaking purely as one train-spotter to another, I found this story fascinating. They say that if you say something often enough it becomes true. We think that the internet age creates instant fictions (just ask our politicians), but the lack of consistent documentation probably makes this even truer of yesteryear.
    I had a pile of Footy Life magazines in the 60’s. Had a glossy colour cover which was rare in Australian magazines of the time. Sad to say I must have junked them when I left school and moved to the city.
    Great stuff, Armin (I now also know who aussie80’s is).

  2. Really interesting.

    Apart from the fascinatng findings you have reminded us of another Footy Almanac. Mullen’s Footballers Almanac. Les Everett also has one:

  3. Graeme A says

    Armin Richter sounds like a man after my own heart :)

    For many years I took everything at face value, I believed they much have been well researched and documented, and therefore close to the truth. Since I became seriously involved in researching the game’s history (especially in SANFL) I’ve found so much to be incorrect, and that many “facts” had been merely accepted and endured the test of time.

    I’ve also found some people have taken it upon themselves to create history, to fabricate events that simply never occurred. For example, a certain Port Adelaide administrator many years ago suddenly produced a list of best & fairest winners that go back long before anyone ever gave that award.

    The was no record of these winners in annual reports, nor were there any record of a B&F being awarded. It has since been found that this administrator had taken it upon himself to award a B&F to the player he deemed the best player for the season.

    I have also realized that it is fraught with danger to pick up a book from the 1950s and assume everything documented in that book to be true. Many so-called “facts” have been discounted and altered over the years.

  4. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Armin, interesting read. Would love to read your story for another time too.

  5. Dear Armin
    I am sorry you had a such a long trawl to find out that Cec Mullen was not a reliable source on the early game. Academic historians have long ago stopped using Mullen unless his information could be corroborated from contemporary sources. I spent many fruitless hours chasing up games supposed to have been played by the Geelong club(s) in the 1850s and 1860s and wrote it up in an article: Roy Hay, ‘Cec Mullen, Tom Wills and the search for early Geelong football,’ The Yorker, Issue 42, Spring 2010, pp. 3-5.

  6. Well done Armin. Extraordinary how these myths become “official.” Since about 2008 I’ve disputed the award’s existence with the AFL and Michael Lovett (editor of the annual Season Guide). My requests for it to be removed have been ignored, often with the comment that the award was genuine and had been thoroughly checked and verified !! Extraordinary too how both of us noticed the especially dubious refs to Wills (1856), Bruce (1858) and Gavin (1903), even to the way we use practically the same words..a version of my website page on the award from 2009
    Hopefully by the presentation of this evidence, the publication of the “Champion winners list” will now cease and references to it will be removed from the public record.

  7. aussie80s says

    The dodgy winners of 1856, 1858 and 1903 I had got from the Champion Of The Colony wiki page where I had a dispute about the existence of this award with a character called The-Pope in 2011. He insisted it was fact as the AFL accepted it – fuzzy logic if there has ever been any. I presume these are your findings that I am using for those years and I should acknowledge them as such, all I did was to cross reference them to authenticate the statements which all proved true.

    If the AFL have responded with “the comment that the award was genuine and had been thoroughly checked and verified” – Who checked and verified these awards and where is the resultant evidence that was produced?

    That the AFL will defend the existence of this award is bizarre. If they and/or Michael Lovett insist that they were an actual award and not just the creation of C.C.Mullen, then they should be able to answer the following questions to statements which appear in the current AFL Record Season Guide 2014.

    1. “The Champion Of The Colony was awarded to Tom Wills (cricket) for all round sporting excellence in 1856 and 1857.” – Where is the evidence that there was a Champion Of The Colony award for sporting excellence for those years?

    2. “From 1858, the award transferred to Australian Football with the captains gathering at the end of the season to decide who was the best player of the year.” – Where is there evidence of Champion Of The Colony being presented for football and that captains met to discuss the winner?

    3. “Although the honour did not have official status” – show that it had any status at all.

    4. “years later, leading writers and critics kept up the custom but, after the introduction of the Brownlow Medal in 1924, the naming of The Champion Of The Colony was eventually abolished.” – show one example of writers or critics keeping up this custom and where it was abolished.

    5. The list of Champion Of The Colony winners covers every year from 1856-1945 but even when taking in just the pre Brownlow years of 1856-1923 then the list still contains the names of 68 winners. If the list has been thoroughly checked and verified by the AFL, then they should be able to just show where any one of the 68 winners was accepted. I’m not asking for all 68, just any 1 winner along with original citation as Champion Of The Colony.

    The list of Champion Of The Colony now needs to be retained in the official AFL records due to it’s numerous references that have been made in various sources that claim it’s an actual award. It needs to be clearly introduced with a new blurb stating that Mullen made up this list from his opinions and research but that it was not an actual award.

  8. Fascinating stuff Armin – many thanks for publishing this on the web site. It is amazing to think of how this award has become legitimate over the years given what you have described above.

  9. Brilliant stuff, Armin.
    It reminds me of Williamstown Football Club president Trevor Monti’s claims that Ned Kelly once played footy for Williamstown. I have not seen a lot of evidence to support those claims.

  10. Dr Rocket says

    John Lauritz thought he knew everything…

    Like all know-alls, he didn’t!

    No surprise to see him play the arrogance card.

  11. Luke Reynolds says

    Fascinating read Armin. Amazing how many myths become ‘facts’.
    Hope you one day tell the story of Hawthorn’s formation date.

  12. Richard Prentice says

    A really interesting read Armin and great work on the research. Another feature of Mullin’s writing was his claim that there was a thriving Australian Rules League in the Glasgow Docklands pre World War 1. A UK based AFL historian John Devaney (formerly of the excellent ‘Full Points Footy’ website) spent many hours of ultimately fruitless research looking into this and has essentially disproved Mullins claims on this issue. Just as with your research Mullin’s ‘facts’ had still been repeated about this fictitious league many times.

  13. Just noticed that the latest edition of the 2015 AFL Record Season Guide has changed the winner of the 1903 Champion Of The Colony (p.617) from Hugh Gavin to ‘unknown’ and yet it claims to be from the list published by CC Mullen in 1958. Previously the AFL had published Gavin as the winner as per Mullen’s almanac despite the fact that he had not played a single game for Essendon all year.

    It looks like it is starting to unravel for Michael Lovett’s attempts to retain fabricated football revisionist history as part of an official AFL Season Guide.

  14. Not before time!

  15. Glenn Mitchell says

    Having looked at some early VFA records it also calls in to question Geelongs claims of a further 7 “premierships” including 2 “3 peats” during the early years of the VFA. Given that term wasnt even coined then makes it very questionable . There wasnt a gazetted season finals or a Grand Final Geelong played against other regional teams in a hap hazard roster which only saw them finish top of the ladder once during his period

  16. Carn the cats says

    This article is very interesting. I had only before seen champion of the colony in the book “100 years of Australian football” published to celebrate the AFL/VFL centenary. It listed the champions in the same space the brownlow was for every season, and I thought the award must have been a similar award before the brownlow. The evidence you have shown however, clearly show this award is a load of rubbish and therefore, I am confused as to why the AFL keep telling us this award was real. I wonder how many other AFL records such as these also have no shred of truth. Anyway it was a good read.

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