The real founders of Aussie Rules?

By Tony Ward

Tony is author of the recently published Sport in Australian National Identity: Kicking Goals (Routledge). Paperback ISBN 978-0415575553, published 31 March 2010 in UK – copies available:

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There’s been a decent tussle over the last couple of years on who can claim the title of founder of Australian Rules football.   Some people, emphasizing the playing of the game, acclaim the 80 players from Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar on 7 August 1858.  A plaque at the MCG commemorates their efforts as the ‘first game of Australian football’.  Others argue that ‘Australian Rules’ could only start with formal rules of the game.  Thus the founders were the four men who wrote rudimentary rules at the Parade Hotel in East Melbourne on 17 May 1859.

Both groups have their supporters – and both, as we shall see, have their problems.  Perhaps we should adopt the wisdom of Solomon, that well-known umpire, and give out guernseys to both the players and the rule makers as the game’s founders.  Though there may be a problem with the number to give Tom Wills, who both umpired the 1858 match and turned up at the Parade Hotel.

But there is another group in hot contention for the guernseys.  The building workers who marched from Melbourne University to Parliament House on 21 April 1856 in support of an eight hours day.  Seeking, as a supportive letter writer to The Age put it, ‘the improvement of our better nature’.[1]

A trade union demonstration seems an unlikely occasion for the founders of a football game.  Especially as the noisy demonstration did not mention sport.   However, the strength of their claim can be seen if we look at some of the complications in each of the other claims – and at the way our game developed.

Start with the Scotch-Grammar match.  That match was neither the first game of ‘Aussie rules’ (the first widely-accepted rules came nine months later) nor the first game of football in Victoria.  As many have pointed out, Koori tribes had long played games played with balls made from possum skins or hair.  And newspapers in the white settlement ran several advertisements for football matches from 1850.  Two such were organised by hotels, with football one of several sports.  The Old White Hart Inn in Bourke Street sponsored the ‘fun and frolic’ of ‘Old English Easter Sports’ on 1 April 1850.  Johnston’s Hotel in Prahran similarly celebrated New Year’s Day in 1855.  On other occasions, scratch games of football were part of ‘Gymnastic Games’, such as in St Kilda on 27 August 1851, and at Flemington Racecourse to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in 1856.[2]

The Scotch-Grammar match was not even the first football game in 1858.  Melbourne Grammar played St Kilda Grammar School in early June, [3] and on 31 July James Bryant, the owner of the Parade Hotel, advertised that he would have a ball available for a game ‘on the Melbourne cricket ground, or adjoining portion of Richmond Park.’ He also foreshadowed a meeting after the match to agree on rules.[4]

If the Scotch-Grammar game was not the first football game in Melbourne, the four men drafting rules in 1859 also had varied antecedents.  We do not know what rules applied to earlier games, though they clearly differed.  The Scotch-Grammar game was 40 aside, while the 1851 St Kilda gymnastic games promised a prize of £11 ‘awarded to the first eleven at the goal’.  And, on 25 September 1858, The Herald advised “about thirty gentlemen resident at South Yarra and neighbourhood” would play “an equal number of gentlemen connected chiefly with the Melbourne Cricket Club”.[5] This game was played under ‘South Yarra Rules’, and while we do not know the details, contemporaries noted these differed from the ‘Melbourne Football Club’ rules.[6]

For a long time, the earliest set of known rules for Australian football dated from 1866.  And Henry Harrison, prominent in their drafting, was widely acknowledged as the ‘father of the game’.[7] The hand-written rules from May 1859 only resurfaced in 1980 when the curator of the MCC museum found them in an old tin trunk in a storeroom.[8] Maybe some future discovery will enable us to anoint the South Yarra rules as an even earlier start to the game.

But the rules drawn up in the Parade Hotel in May 1859 were clearly the basis for subsequent editing, revisions and variations.  We know of immediate revisions in July 1859 and May 1860.  There were at least another three full drafts in 1866, 1874 and 1877, and further changes through to 1900. [9]

The initial rules governed a very different game from the one we know. Some features were present from the start, such as the lack of an off-side rule, and the ability to interchange players.  Others took some time: scorers only started counting one point for a behind in 1897.[10] And still others were controversial, such as a vigorous debate in the early days over whether, and how far, players could run with the ball.

An important influence on these refinements of the rules came from the increasing crowd numbers coming along to watch.  In July 1859, 2,000 people watched Melbourne play South Yarra.[11] A decade later, regular inter-club matches in Melbourne were attracting 10,000, and by 1880 crowds were up to 15,000.[12] These were much larger crowds than in Sydney – when Sydney University played rugby against the Wallaroo club in July 1880 a non-paying crowd of 4,000 turned out. [13] Or indeed elsewhere in the world – only 6,000 people attended the final of the FA Cup in England in 1880.[14]

Melbourne crowds influenced the game in two ways.  They encouraged clearer rules, which helped understanding of the game – even if just to allow crowds to abuse umpires for not applying them consistently.  They also encouraged more of the spectacular – high marks and more goals.[15] There was little attraction in the scrimmages that dominated the early game.  Few later crowds would have tolerated the initial Scotch-Melbourne game which, lasting three Saturdays, ended in a draw with one goal aside.[16]

So Melbourne crowds played an important part in the development of the State’s dominant code of football.  Indeed, this was critical.  There were plenty of games around, played to a bewildering variety of rules, in the mid nineteenth century.  The key point is not the ‘first’ invention or match – these were commonplace.  What was important is how particular concoctions developed into accepted and fiercely beloved codes by 1900.

Which is where the building workers come off the interchange bench and into the fray.

In demonstrations in April 1856, building workers argued for ‘eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest’ a day.  Their success in achieving this[17] was a world leader.  It came 30 years before strikes and demonstrations in favour of the eight hour day, in Chicago in May 1886, became commemorated in international workers’ day on May Day.

Success in achieving the eight hour day encouraged other efforts to reduce working time.  By the late 1860s, many skilled workers in Melbourne had Saturday afternoons off, and this created the possibility of the big crowds.  This was well in advance of developments in Sydney or elsewhere in the world.

As so often in sport, this timing was crucial.  If Melbourne, like Sydney, had started to develop mass sport in the early 1880s, it could have drawn upon established codes of rugby and soccer from England.  But fifteen years earlier, when Melbourne started seeing large sporting crowds, there were many possible football rules, and no accepted ‘English’ code. [18] So as Melbourne crowds sought an afternoon sport in the 1860s, Australian rules was there to meet the demand.  And the crowds in their turn helped shape the directions the sport took.

Australian football had many influences, and developed over considerable time.  There is perhaps little basis for acclaiming any specific people as the game’s ‘founders’.  But, if we do want to bestow that title, there is a big cast we can applaud for founding the game.  By all means, take a bow, the 80 players in Yarra Park on 7 August 1858.  And the deserved next round of applause is for Tom Wills and his colleagues who drafted rules in the Parade Hotel on 17 May 1859.  But we also have to make space on the crowded stage for the building workers who marched through Melbourne on 21 April 1856.  Dip your colourful ‘eight hour day’ banners and take a bow too, you originators of leisure time on Saturday afternoons.

[1] Letter from ‘J.W.R.’ from the early closing movement, The Age 22 April 1856, p3

[2] Results from free text search of the word ‘football’ in Port Phillip Herald,

[3] Blainey, Geoffrey A Game of Our Own, Melbourne: Information Australia, 1990 p15

[4] Hess, Rob; Nicholson, Matthew; Stewart, Bob; and de Moore, Gregory. A National Game: the History of Australian Rules Football Melbourne: Penguin, 2008, p8

[5] Gillian Hibbins ‘Are we celebrating a year too early?’ The Age 2 August 2008, Insight p9.  See also Martin Flanagan ‘Football ebbs and flows with tide of society’ The Age 9 August 2008, Sport p8.

[6] Hess et al, A National Game p29, citing The Argus newspaper, 13 June 1859

[7] Blainey A Game of Our Own, p96

[8] Grow, Robin, ‘From Gum Trees to Goalposts 1858-1876’ in Hess, Rob and Stewart, Bob (eds) More than a Game: An Unauthorised History of Australian Rules Football. Carton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1998, p8

[9] Blainey A Game of Our Own, appendix p103-7 includes various sets of rules – from 1859, 1860, 1866, 1874, 1877, and South Australian and Gaelic rules from 1877 and 1889 respectively.

[10] Blainey A Game of Our Own, p37

[11] Grow, ‘From Gum Trees to Goalposts’, p20

[12] Blainey A Game of Our Own, p64

[13] Hickie, Thomas. They ran with the Ball: How Rugby Football began in Australia. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1993, p157.

[14] Blainey A Game of Our Own, p64

[15] Blainey A Game of Our Own, 94-5.

[16] Similar changes to limit scrimmages were made in Sydney to boost rugby crowd numbers – see Hickie They ran with the Ball, p157f

[17] See the report and editorial in The Age 22 April 1856, p3

[18] Blainey A Game of Our Own, p23.


  1. John Butler says


    Thanks for a great look back in time.


  2. My family were having a good argument about the founding of Australian Rules and its ancedents.

    I generally accepted that it was 1858 with the Scotch College-Melbourne Grammar game.

    Very interesting, too, to consider the trade unions. Especially the Saturday afternoons off.

    So next time you watch the game, think about this.

  3. Lovely article Tony. Not sure about claim for world record crowds in Melbourne. Early attendance figures are notoriously rubbery but here are some UK examples.

    Crowds for games in Scotland and England.

    Rangers History

    Sheffield versus Glasgow, 19 February 1876, 7000. Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Glasgow won 2–0.

    Scotland v Wales, 26 March 1876, 17,000, Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow, Scotland won 4–0.

    Vale of Leven v Rangers, 13 April 1877, 15,000, Hampden Park, Glasgow, Vale won 3-2 in replay.

    The FA Cup final was not the largest drawing game in the UK

  4. Ian Syson says

    Hello Roy!

    Narratives of growth also need to be leavened with articles such as the following from the Argus 1 May 1865 which suggest a cyclical nature to such things:

    Now that the cricket season is over, active preparations are being mode for the revival of the game of football during the winter months. Six or seven years ago this game was carried on with much spirit and vigour, but of late years it has gone out of fashion. With a view of giving it that prominence which as a manly exercise it deserves, the Athletic Sports Committee have determined to offer a handsome challenge cup of the value of ten guineas, to be competed for by the various clubs of the colony, the winners of three consecutive games to become the proprietors of it. Overtures have been made to the Geelong Club (the wlnners of the last trophy of a similar kind), to play the first game on the Melbourne ground, on the Queen’s Birthday, and it is believed they will accede to the request. The first game of the season will take place next Saturday on the Melbourne ground, and football players are invited to attend. After the match a general meeting will be held.

  5. Tony Ward says


    Many thanks for pointing out some big soccer crowds in the late 1870s. Those give some great extra detail, and qualify the picture – but I’d still argue that Melbourne crowds were ahead of the pack, and influenced the course of the game. Your useful rangersfc link shows Rangers played their first game in May 1872, and only 2,000 spectators attended the first Scottish Cup on 21 March 1874. Melbourne Aussie Rules crowds were up to the 10,000 level by then.

  6. Ian is spot on about the cyclical nature of early footy. These extracts from the Geelong Advertiser confirm that the game was not flourishing in the mid-1860s.

    Monday 26 June 1865, p. 2.
    ‘The Geelong football club is deteriorating, owing to the counter attractions of the Rowing and Quoits clubs.’
    Melbourne is likely to win easily unless the gauntlet is thrown down.

    Monday 17 July 1865, p. 3.
    Quoits championship final between Mr McMullen and Mr Rippon. McMullen won 41 to 23.
    ‘The latter player, a new member of the club, and consequently has had little practice, without which all his attempts to secure the championship when it is held by such skilled players as the victorious gentleman on Saturday, will be futile.’
    ‘There is every probability that the Geelong Football Club which has so long been the pride of Geelong, will be broken up, owing to the very meagre attendance at the usual weekly practice. For the last few weeks some half dozen of the best players have made a point of going to the ground, but have always been disappointed. What are the Committee and their hitherto active Secretary thinking of? Why do they not get up one of the annual matches such as Natives v the World, or Civilians v Volunteers? We trust that they need no more warning but will set to work at once to stir up the flagging spirits of our players.’

  7. johnharms says

    Must say, then, I’m very surprised quoits didn’t kick on.

    Good to read your words, lads.

    Thanks Tony. (Did you end up having a launch in Melbourne?)

  8. Ian Syson says


    It did kick on but it transformed into Trugo — which uses a rubber instead of rope ring. There we have it: 150 years of Trugo in 2015.

    After all, Trugo is closer to Quoits than present day footy is to the version they were playing in the 1860s!


    I’ve ordered your book for the VU St Albans library and I look forward to reading it.

  9. Lovely, but pull the other one. Quoits was a really big game in Scotland and the North of England. My great grandfather was quoiting champion of Coylton for 5 years out of six between 1884 and 1889. I wonder how he would have gone at Trugo?

    I helped launch Tony’s great book at St Kilda Library. We need a campaign to force the Australian distributors to produce a domestic paperback edition which they are currently resisting doing.


  10. Peter McLean says

    Can’t speak about other clubs but Carlton’s crowds;
    No crowd figures given 1864-1869, but “many” or , “large” commonly used.
    1869 3,000 v Geelong
    1873 6,000 v Melbourne
    1874 10,000 (at least) v Melbourne 3 times that season.
    1875-1876 4 times crowd 10,000
    1879 12,000 v Melbourne
    1879 13,000 v Geelong
    1879 15,000 v Melbourne
    1886 20,000 v South Melbourne
    1886 25,000 v South Melbourne
    1887 30,000 plus v South Melbourne
    1888 25,000 v England
    1888 30,000 v South Melbourne
    1890 32,595 v South Melbourne, said to be a world record crowd.

    Many attendances said to be 10,000 1874 – 79, or “immense crowds.”
    Charging for admission to games did not happen till 1878 and only at the MCG and later at East Melbourne. Many other grounds were not fenced off so it was free to attend, so the actual numbers I suppose were estimated. Seems a lot were 10,000.

    The game was not flourishing in the Geelong area and possibly the metro area too in the early 1860’s, but a revised set of rules in 1866 eliminated a lot of the rugby type scrimmages and the game was “opened up” and the crowds returned.

    Historians C. C. Mullens and Hugh Buggy both mention matches in the gold fields and a competition in the Geelong area prior to 1858.

    Crowd info from Blueseum (

  11. Brad Carr says

    Tony, fascinating stuff, particularly the quirk of history that Melbourne adopted mass sport at a different time to Sydney, and hence chose its own versus choosing the imported/international/empire kind. Also thought-provoking that chopping and changing the rules of the game constantly is not a uniquely recent phenomenon…

    Peter, really interesting stats on the Carlton crowds pre-1900. One stands out: 25,000 to watch Carlton vs England in 1888. I imagine that was a bit of a training run against the English witches-hats… But then a similar-sized crowd came to watch Carlton vs GWS this year.

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