Tom Wills Country or how the legend has taken over

Tom Wills Country or how the legend has taken over

Roy Hay

Deakin University and Sports and Editorial Services Australia


Thomas Wentworth Wills (1835–1880) is popularly regarded as the founder of Australian Rules Football. A letter to Bell’s Life in Victoria in 1858 is said to have provoked the foundation of a football club and a code of rules for the game the following year. But he has also, recently, been identified as the conduit through which the spirit of Aboriginal ball games influenced the early sport. Wills’ influence may have been overestimated and misinterpreted. When the early history of the Australian game is compared with the emergence of Association Football in the United Kingdom a range of interesting parallels emerge and the juxtaposition of the origins of the two codes throws light on recent theoretical work on the appearance of modern sports. In conclusion, a research agenda for discovering any Aboriginal influence on Australian Rules is proposed.[1]

Anne McMaster’s brilliant painting, Tom Wills Country, is a most evocative piece of argument about Aboriginal influence on Australian Rules football. The picture gives its name to an exhibition by the artist ‘exploring the region’s indigenous, pioneering and AFL roots.’

Tom Wills Country by Anne McMaster. Photo: Roy Hay

Tom Wills Country by Anne McMaster. Photo: Roy Hay

Blending watercolour, Aboriginal motifs and styles, shapes and local vegetation with nineteenth century lace-up footballs is pure genius, bringing out the understanding of many people in rural Victoria that their ancestors had a significant part in the emergence and development of the unique Australian code of football. The Director of the Ararat Regional Art Gallery where this and a number of other works by the artist on this theme were on display in April 2009 said, ‘Tom Wills Country will appeal to the region’s broader community—particularly those with a keen interest in local history, including our region’s special place in the formation of Australian Rules Football.’[2]

Anne McMaster is the daughter of Bill McMaster who played with the Geelong Football Club, winning premierships in 1951 and 1952 and who later coached the club and was its recruiting manager for many years. Growing up near Lake Bolac, the McMasters were farmers and footballers, and Anne has researched both family history and the social history of the area as an art teacher in Mildura. Her work draws on local stories and memories and close understanding of the ecology of the environment. She has been particularly interested in the influence of Tom Wills as the bridge between Aboriginal culture and Australian Rules football. ‘The overlaying and dominating image of the football and the lacing, is a metaphor for the coming of two sides together, the joining of two cultures.’[3]

The Wills family occupied a property near Mount William in the Victorian Grampians from 1840 and then moved a little further north to Lexington in 1842 and it was there that Tom Wills, who was born in 1835 in New South Wales, spent his early childhood. Having no family of similar age to play with it is likely that young Tom spent time with Aboriginal children.[4] There is an accumulating body of evidence that Aborigines played a number of games which involved hands, feet and specially-made balls in different parts of Victoria and Australia.[5]

Etching by Gustav Mutzel in 1862 from William Blandowski's Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857

Etching by Gustav Mutzel in 1862 from William Blandowski’s Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857

Early European settlers and travellers reported the existence of these games and sometimes provided extensive descriptions. Blandowski commented on the game he had seen, which is represented in Mutzel’s etching, ‘The ball is made out of Typha roots: it is not thrown or hit with a bat, but it is kicked in the air with the foot … The aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground.’ Accounts ranged from William Kyle’s brief remark about the people of the area near Dight’s Falls on the Yarra River close to Melbourne, ‘Frequently a piece of opossum skin tied with sinews was used like a football’ to the detailed information supplied by James Dawson, William Thomas, R Brough Smythe and Peter Beveridge.[6]

The Marn-grook or ball is a favourite game with the boys and men. A party assemble, one makes a ball of opossum skill (sic) or fur of another animal, of large size working it over and over with the sinews of a kangaroo tail, the ball is kicked up in the air, not thrown up by hand as white boys do, nor kicked along the ground, there is general excitement who shall catch it, the tall fellows stand the best chance, when the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it, it is sent with great force and ascends straight up and as high as when thrown by hand, they will play the game for hours and fine exercise it is for adults and youths.[7]

A ‘great game at football’ acted as an ice-breaker when the Kurnai people of Gippsland arrived in the Upper Goulburn valley in Victoria to inspect land which had been set aside for a reserve for the Taungurung people in the winter of 1860.

A great game at football inaugurated the festivities, which were closed by a glorious corroboree at night.[8]

So it is beyond doubt that Aboriginal games which used a purposely-made ball existed. Since many of the references apply to the period before 1859, just what did observers have in mind when they used the word ‘football’ to describe what they saw? It could not have been the Australian game since this did not come into existence until then. Ian Syson points out that Blandowski’s description looks more like soccer than Australian rules, or rather the football exercise which we used to perform in our youth in Scotland called ‘keepy-uppy’, keeping the ball off the ground by use of feet, head and body not arms and hands.[9] Those migrants who came from a Scottish or English background might well have seen and played a similar type of game in their youth, since the majority of reported observations come from people who did not attend English public schools or universities. There was a strong Scottish presence in Melbourne and the western district of Victoria, particularly around Warrnambool, Hamilton and Portland.[10] A football match between town and country was played in Hamilton in 1859 and a letter writer to the Portland paper suggested the formation of a football club there in 1860, citing the success of the game in Melbourne.[11]

The first serious argument that the games played by Aborigines had a direct linkage to the origins of the Australian game was advanced by Jim Poulter in 1983 and he has championed this idea since then.[12] He has mined family history and speculated about analogues in Aboriginal languages and words used to describe the white man’s game and certain of its features. He argues that while Wills picked up Aboriginal lore and language when he was a child, by the time he returned to Victoria from England in 1856, the Gold Rush had transformed Victoria and Melbourne and ‘tribal aboriginal life had also been fully extinguished throughout the colony, save for the arid north-west fringe in the Mallee.’[13] A massive depopulation had occurred and the indigenous population had been marginalised. Hence Aboriginal knowledge instead of being an asset was now a liability. So Wills, though he was thoroughly familiar with the Aboriginal games, had no reason to mention this in discussions about the rules and form of the white man’s game as it was defined in 1859. Poulter also argues that the Aboriginal word ‘mumarkee’ signifying a catch was significant and different from the English concept of the mark made in the ground to indicate the place from which a kick was to be taken.[14] Neo-colonial attitudes ensured that this hidden history of Aboriginal influence on the early game never came to light. His most recent take on the issue is in his Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country.[15]

The journalist Martin Flanagan has also proposed that Tom Wills was the conduit through which Aboriginal influence contributed to the early development of what he called ‘our bastard game’, which also had Irish and English roots.[16] He did this in a novel based on what was known at the time of writing of the life of Wills, a subsequent stage play and a number of articles and media contributions.[17] Flanagan mentions that the modern flawed superstar Gary Ablett, senior, of the Geelong Football Club provided insight into his conception of Tom Wills, whom he saw as a character with enormous talent and prodigious sporting ability but with little or no insight into himself or self-awareness. Flanagan objects strongly to being called a romantic, but his portrait of Wills is highly romanticised and idealised. He understands that Wills was lacking in insight into his own character and behaviour, but he exaggerates Wills’ influence on the early game relying too heavily on the man’s own estimation of his role and discounting that of other significant contemporary figures. For example, he follows Wills’ cousin, Henry Colden Antill Harrison in attributing the notion of setting up ‘a game of our own’ to Wills, though the contemporary evidence of the use of such words points to J B Thomson, footballer and journalist with the Argus, rather than Wills.


Monument to Tom Wills in Moyston, Victoria claiming him as the founder of Australian Rules Football. Photo: Roy Hay.

Monument to Tom Wills in Moyston, Victoria claiming him as the founder of Australian Rules Football. Photo: Roy Hay.

Wills was certainly was a man who pushed the boundaries of all the sports in which he took part. He was called for throwing in cricket for his overarm bowling. He was upbraided for using an oval ball instead of a round one in football.  He developed novel tactics including player positioning and used a running game when there were lower numbers of players taking part during the first decade or so of football. But was any of this specifically derived from his experience among Aboriginal youth? Nothing in his writing or writing about him suggests so until the late 20th century and even the notion of ‘a game of our own’ is only attributed to him for the first time in 1923, whereas it was used by J B Thompson, writing in his Victorian Cricketer’s Guide in 1860, when he confirmed, ‘Football, as played in Victoria, is now fit to run alone. I have accordingly omitted the Rugby and Eton rules because we seem to have agreed a code of our own, which to a considerable extent, combines the merits while excluding the vices of both.’ That year Bell’s Life in Sydney thought that the Victorians had adopted Rugby school rules tout court.[18]

Martin Flanagan has conceded there is no evidence of Aboriginal influence on the drawing up of the rules. But he thinks that through Tom Wills there was an influence on the early inchoate game. That is possible, though the things which are known about his innovations or suggested changes include the shape of the ball, positional play and perhaps the running game and his proposals for the rugby crossbar and a designated place kicker.[19] None of these seem to relate to the descriptions of the various Aboriginal games. The early games of what became Australian Rules football in Melbourne, judging by the limited descriptions we have, bore very little relationship to the Aboriginal activities described by the early settlers, protectors and other observers. High marking in particular, jumping in packs to catch the ball in the air, seems to have been uncommon or non-existent. It was a couple of decades before high marking became a distinguishing feature of the game and one researcher thinks that the spectacular jumping of Charlie ‘Commotion’ Pearson, the Essendon star of the 1880s, brought that aspect of the game to the fore.[20] Messenger argues that Pearson may have seen Aboriginal games in Gippsland where he grew up.

A recent rediscovery by Ian Syson of a proposed football match between Aboriginal cricketers and their European counterparts from the town of Hamilton in the Western District of Victoria in 1867 might have shed more light on the similarities and differences between the games, but unfortunately it did not take place.[21]

‘On Saturday morning the party arrived at Trainor’s Hotel near Hamilton, where they were entertained to dinner by the host. A number of cricketers from Hamilton came out to meet them, with a view to inducing the blacks to play a game at football on Saturday afternoon; but Messrs Lawrence and Hayman declined, as the Hamiltonians had refused to meet them again in the cricket-field. The troupe therefore passed through without making a call, as they were disappointed at the Hamilton Club not wishing to regain the laurels they lost two years since.’[22]


Statue of Tom Wills and two boys from Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photo: Roy Hay

Statue of Tom Wills and two boys from Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photo: Roy Hay

There is however some earlier evidence, also turned up by Geoffrey Blainey and Ian Syson, on Aborigines playing the white man’s game. It comes from Adelaide in 1862.[23]

Topics of the Day

The Adelaide Football Club played their opening game on the North Park Lands on Saturday last. The weather was all that could be desired. The members divided themselves into two parties, the one wearing blue caps and the other pink. Mr. Fullarton was chosen captain of the pink and Mr. Payne captain of the blue. Play commenced shortly after 2 o’clock and continued till nearly 5 o’clock, at which time the score was—Pink, three goals; blue, 1 goal. The pink caps were thus declared to have won the game. During the afternoon between 200 and 300 persons, for the most part ladies, visited the field. Schrader’s band was in attendance, and its enlivening strains cheered the players and contributed much to the pleasure of those on the field. Several aborigines who were present were permitted to play on both sides, and we most confess that for activity and good play they bore favourable comparison with the white fellows. They seemed to bear their “spills” very good humouredly, and their grotesque actions afforded rather too much amusement to the “pinks “ and the “blues,” inasmuch as they “couldn’t do it for laughing.” We believe that a match between the members living north and south of the Torrens is shortly to take place.[24]

Though the Aborigines are treated in this report as light relief, despite their acknowledged good play and ability to withstand the physical contact, it is possible that they were guying or sending up the white players by their actions rather than being grotesque. There is no sign that they taught the whites anything but they obviously had a capacity to play the white man’s game and the question arises, where did they learn that?[25]

Gillian Hibbins has been the most effective critic of arguments about Aboriginal influence on the foundation of the Australian game. Her method is one which has been long developing, since she and Anne Mancini published an edited edition of Colden Harrison’s autobiography, Running with the ball in 1987.[26] In that they reproduced his work, but accompanied it with an extended essay on the origins of Australian Rules football, which broke new ground and stressed the links to the games played in the English public schools and at universities. At that time the understanding of the early phase of the game was based on the unreliable work of Cec Mullen, an article by Bill Mandle, and Ian Turner’s incomplete research subsequently rounded out and published by Leonie Sandercock as Up Where, Cazaly: The Great Australian Game.[27]

Origin myths abounded with English, Irish and domestic influences competing, though at this stage there was no suggestion of Aboriginal involvement. The roles of the various putative parents of the game remained unclear. Hibbins cut through the arguments with some disciplined research in England and Australia, emphasising the contribution of the public school games in England, a somewhat unpopular conclusion for local nationalists. She also contextualised Harrison’s contribution in a much more just appreciation of his role than that derived from the widely believed ‘father of football’ label which was attached to him.

Since then research on the early years of the game has exploded with official and unofficial histories, the setting up of research collectives and conferences to celebrate and analyse the sport.[28] Hibbins has attacked this plethora of material on two fronts. She has re-asserted the value of empirical research in a short, but profound, article on the history of the history of the game in Sporting Traditions and she has imaginatively created the world in which the sport began, and cricket and horse racing evolved, in her own brilliant evocation of mid-nineteenth century Melbourne, Sport and Racing in Colonial Melbourne: The Cousins and Me: Colden Harrison, Tom Wills and William Hammersley.[29]

A first class biography of Tom Wills has subsequently been published by Greg de Moore, but Hibbins got in first with her cooler and more critical view of Wills, through the eyes of Hammersley. She finds Wills a bit hard to take and uses some of the contemporary criticism of the man to debunk the hagiography that has grown up around him in recent years. Wills’s role in the development of the first Aboriginal cricket team to tour England in 1868 has also been carefully examined by de Moore, John Mulvaney and Rex Harcourt.[30] These researchers outline the contributions by others, William Reginald Hayman, Thomas Gibson Hamilton, James T. Edgar and John Brian Fitzgerald which have been largely overlooked, as they were at the time by the Melbourne public, and subsequently by other writers. Charles Lawrence, who came to Australia with the first English touring cricket team in 1861, led the tour to England after Wills’s connection to the players had been severed.[31]

Sign at the free swimming lake at Narracoorte, South Australia. Photo: Noreen McAdam.

Sign at the free swimming lake at Narracoorte, South Australia. Photo: Noreen McAdam.

Hibbins has also painstakingly described the emergence of ‘A Code of our Own’ in an article in The Yorker which outlines the debates which were going on in England at the time and the ways in which these were conveyed to Victorian readers through the Australian press.[32] She also provides brief biographies of some the other significant figures in the early game in Melbourne. This is a critical step, since it provides the possibility of balancing the contributions of Wills and his significant contemporaries.[33] Though she has looked hard for any signs of Aboriginal influence on this formative phase she can find none. As a result she has come in for much unjustified criticism from those who wish to believe that this existed, despite the lack of evidence.

A survey of the debate about the recent work of Gillian Hibbins by Ciannon Cazaly adds no new evidence to the discussion.[34] John Hirst, suggests that a more open, long kicking game evolved earlier than was thought, citing the work of his student, David Thompson, and a newspaper account of a Geelong versus Melbourne game in 1862. ‘Is it in this process of evolution rather than in the founding moment that we can find an Aboriginal influence?’[35] If so, it cannot have come through Tom Wills, who was in Queensland at the time.

Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin was probably the first Aboriginal player to turn out for Geelong Football Club, when he had a single game in 1872.[36] Aboriginal teams and players, including Austin, took part in matches in the Western District after 1877, quickly adapting to the tactics and techniques of the evolving game. Austin’s successors have had much greater impact in the twentieth century.[37]

Barry Judd published an extended reflection on the life and career of Wills in his On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football. Judd argues that anyone from the Anglo-Australian tradition or heritage who sincerely embraces Aboriginal Australian culture and seeks to explore and understand and use or promote it, such as the singer/song-writer Neil Murray becomes invisible to mainstream Australia.[38] He objects to binary oppositions of European and Aboriginal Australia and argues that each has interacted with and been influenced by the other, following Marcia Langton. Behind this interpretation is a notion of hybridity as the space between these discursive concepts of Aboriginality and Anglo-Australian-ness. Inspired by Martin Flanagan on Murray and Wills, particularly The Call, Judd criticises Geoffrey Blainey’s characterisation of Wills as someone driven by his English education and experience and seeks to restore the Aboriginal element to his character. Was Wills neglected because he had been too closely involved with Aboriginal society at a time when it was inappropriate to be so?[39] Judd says, ‘I believe that British colonisation and Aboriginal dispossession became a critical issue for Wills and his failure to find an adequate solution to this dilemma of Australian colonialism may have contributed to his growing alcoholism and ultimately his decision to commit suicide at the relatively young age of 44.’[40] Judd admits to seeking some personal salvation through identification with a liminal historical figure.[41]

The notion that Wills committed suicide because he was unable to cope with Aboriginal dispossession and British colonisation strikes me as psychologically questionable, particularly in a person not given to reflection and self-awareness. We might get a better understanding of Wills from the inability of some sports superstars to cope with life after the adulation during their professional careers.[42] This at least is plausible if you seek some explanation beyond the careful forensic work of Greg de Moore, whose biography of Wills has a much more psychologically and physiologically based account of Wills’ life and suicide.[43]

Greg de Moore, a consultant psychiatrist, came to his study of Tom Wills not through an interest in sport but as part of his concern with understanding and dealing with suicide. He tracked down the medical notes relating to Wills’ untimely death and worked backward from there to try to fathom the man and sportsman who had such a hold on his era. And he has been highly successful in creating a picture of Wills, stripping away much of the mythology which has grown up around him in recent years, yet enhancing rather than diminishing him in the process. The deficiencies in his character and his treatment of those around him are laid bare, while his talent and his charismatic appeal shine through. The trajectory of his career and the detail of his upbringing and his activities on and off the field in cricket and football have been meticulously researched. We get a sense of the expectations placed upon the boy who was sent to the other side of the world to be trained as an English gentleman and the ways in which he both embraced and rejected that model. His ambivalent relations with his father and the impact of the latter’s death at the hands of Aborigines in Queensland are explored to the limit of the sources available.

In 2009 the late Russell Stephens published a study of Tom Wills and the Wills family. Written for a non-academic audience the work contains no references but internal evidence suggests that he still relies on the work of Cec Mullen for some of his material relating to Wills and his family.[44] Stephens canvasses the arguments about Wills as the link between Aboriginal games and football but leaves the debate open, without adding new evidence.

To return to Judd. He is aware that the frame of reference of William Thomas writing of the 1830s and James Dawson, published in the 1880s and probably referring to a somewhat earlier period, differed But it does not appear that he really appreciates the significance of the fact that Australian Rules did not exist in the period before 1859, or that Dawson picked out significant points of difference between the Aboriginal activity he described and the white man’s game of football. Dawson made the point that skill in Aboriginal marn-grook did not entitle a person to be a lawgiver for his people. Both Dawson and his contemporary Richard Twopenny may well have been referring to the captain of the Carlton Football Club, John Gardiner, who was popularly believed to have been elected to the Victorian legislature primarily because of his skill as a footballer.[45] Richard Twopenny, who wrote Town Life in Australia which came out in 1883, mentioned ‘Some measure of the popularity of the game may be gathered from the fact that the member who has sat in the last three parliaments for the most important working-man’s constituency owes his seat entirely to his prowess on behalf of the local football club. In no other way has he, or does he pretend to have the slightest qualifications.’


John Gardiner, captain of Carlton and politician, Tony de Bolfo, ‘John Gardiner JP - Big V's first captain’, Carlton FC official website,, accessed 12 May 2016.

John Gardiner, captain of Carlton and politician, Big V’s first captain’, Carlton FC official website,, accessed 12 May 2016.


Early migrant football games

Few of the modern commentators whose work is discussed here seems to appreciate fully that varieties of football were being played frequently in Melbourne and Victoria almost from the first arrival of overseas migrants in the area.

In Scotland and England it is clear that small-sided games with agreed rules were being played long before the setting up of the Football Association in 1863. What is now also clear is that similar games were being played in Australia before members of the Melbourne club drew up its rules for what eventually became Australian Rules Football in 1859.

A scheme had been formed for establishing public games in Port Phillip, and the programme for 1850 had been made public, and the names of the stewards. The games are to come off on the 12th August, on the Melbourne race course, and prizes varying in amount from £10 to £2 are announced for foot races, putting the stone, leaping (six modes), casting the hammer, race over hurdles, foot-ball, and quoits.[46]

The notices for many of these early games referred explicitly to English, Irish and Scottish practice. This notice in the Port Philip Herald of 30 March 1850 is not untypical.[47]

Notice in the Port Philip Herald of 30 March 1850

Notice in the Port Philip Herald of 30 March 1850


In Geelong in November that year a three-day athletic festival included a six-a-side football match also for a wager.[48] It is likely that this was closer to what became Association Football than Australian Rules as it evolved in the next decade but it is hard to be certain.

The game of football came next, Mr Hobson being the umpire on one side and Mr M’Gillivray on the other.  There were six players on each side. The arena was the cricket ground in the centre of which the ball was placed and the players stood facing each other at opposite angles of the ground. As the play proceeded, it looked 10 to 1 in favour of Mr Hobson’s side, but one of M’Gillivray’s party happened to give the ball a turn, it was taken up by Giles, another of M’Gillivray’s players, who managed to kick it through the proper panel, and so won the game. Prize – £3, entrance 3s.[49]

The St Patrick’s Day games of 1856 in Melbourne had a football match as well as wrestling and athletics. The football match offered a prize of £20 against an entry fee of 5 shillings, with the note that the prizes will be increased if funds permit.[50] Gillian Hibbins has drawn attention to numerous other football games in Melbourne, Castlemaine and the diggings around Ballarat.[51]

A couple of years after the foundation of the Melbourne and Geelong Australian Rules football clubs, the newspaper in the Victorian west coast town of Warrnambool reported that:

There is every prospect of the good old English game of football becoming quite a popular institution in this District during the winter time. On Saturday last there were about twenty players assembled on the cricket ground, and away they went to work kicking with all their might. Unfortunately, however, but two goals had been attained, before bang burst the ball, and as no substitute could be obtained, the players were obliged to give up just as they were getting nicely warmed to their work. The meeting ultimately resulted in the formation of a football club, entry, etc. Twenty-four members joined and the following officers were appointed. President, Frank Frost; Vice-President, Richard Osbourne; Hon secretary and Treasurer, J Matson. The club will meet for exercise on the cricket ground every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon and a supply of bladders will always be ready, in order that the game may proceed. We understand there are three matches already on the tapis, viz, Town and Country, Volunteers and Civilians and the Married and Single.[52]

The original advertisement had been for a three-a-side game, but in the event it was about ten per side when the match took place.[53]

Warrnambool Examiner, 28 May 1861.

Warrnambool Examiner, 28 May 1861.

Football was not confined to Victoria.[54] Soldiers played football in Sydney in 1829 and there was a later Queen’s Birthday match.[55] In 1832 there was a complaint about youngsters playing football during divine service.[56] Football and cricket matches for prizes in Hyde Park in Sydney were reported in the Port Philip Herald in December 1855.[57] Ian Syson has collected multiple references to football in advertisements, reports and letters and literary contributions to newspapers across Australia from the second decade of the nineteenth century onwards.[58] Footballs were on sale in Tasmania at Rumpff and Moses of Frankfort House, Brisbane Street, Launceston in 1860, and one was stolen from the racecourse during the Boys’ Corps parade by ‘a man in a check jumper with brown wideawake hat’.[59] The Irish celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a football match at Thebarton in South Australia in March 1843.[60] In June 1860, the North and South Adelaide football clubs met on North Park and played in what was described as ‘this ancient game’.[61]

So what was clearly seen as small-sided, rule-bounded games of football for monetary prizes were quite common in the 1850s in Australia well before the Melbourne rules of 1859 or the setting up of the Football Association in England and three decades before what some regard as the first match under Association Football Rules in Sydney in the 1880s.[62] Unfortunately the names and the backgrounds of most of the pioneers of football in the 1850s remain unknown.[63] But the existing evidence is enough to show that the first generations of migrants to Australia had brought their various forms of football to their new country, which significantly reinforces the modern interpretations of Tranter, Harvey, Goulstone, Swain, Hutchinson and others that football survived and was flourishing in the United Kingdom in the first half of the nineteenth century far from the English public schools.[64] Brendan Murphy goes further and argues that Henry Creswick, who played cricket in Victoria in 1857–58 may have brought the rules of the Sheffield Football Club to Melbourne, and thus influenced the rules committee of 1859, but since he left England in 1840 at the age of 16 this is unlikely.[65] There is even an outside possibility of a reverse flow from Melbourne to London.

A correspondent, signing himself ‘Free kick’, writing in Bell’s Life in Victoria in 1864 about the efforts to get a single code of rules for football in England, noted:

The Football Association was accordingly formed, and set of rules 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 5 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 Hammersley, Mr Wills, Mr Wray and others, and it is certainly creditable in every way to the judgment of the gentlemen then appointed, that the very rules they then decided on have subsequently been adopted by the 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 own code, that the football parliaments assembled on opposite sides of the globe, should bring the identical same result of their labours.[66]

Modern commentators tend to point to the differences between the two sets of rules, the lack of offside in the Victorian game, different handling rules and so on, so it is interesting that at least one contemporary writer was taken more by the similarities. But it is a big jump from that to causal connections. There is no mention of Sheffield in the discussion on forming the 1859 rules in Melbourne and none of Melbourne Rules in those at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London in 1963.

Understanding transitions

Thanks to John Bale and others we are much more aware that some forms of indigenous cultural practices which bore some apparent similarity to modern sports had no direct relationship with them. His masterly dissection of Tutsi high jumping Gusimbuka-urukiramende demonstrates that a skill which appeared to superior to that of any competitive sportsperson of the late nineteenth century did not translate into athletic performance.[67] In East Africa imperialists and colonists discovered many strange practices. One classic case was among the Tutsi. If you went to visit the king he would send a couple of his young men to jump over you, to put you in your place and show your relative subordinate position. Needless to say people marvelled at the athletic feat, and perhaps unsurprisingly the German colonists in East Africa produced some iconic images, one of which showed a young Tutsi leaping over a bar suspended between two forked sticks with the Duke of Mecklenburg standing almost underneath. The heights achieved appeared to be well above the world record for the high jump at the time. But you can scour the records of the Olympic games or athletic meetings and you will not find any Tutsi high jumpers.  As John Bale puts it the Europeans ‘imagined Olympians’ thinking that these skills would translate into athletic performance to stagger the world. But they did not. The cultural practices which were witnessed did not survive beyond their specific contexts.


John Bale, Imagined Olympians: Body Culture and Colonial Representation in Rwanda. Sport and Culture Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, p. 111.



Similarly, when the Australian Society for Sports History published an article by a Chinese scholar Professor Ling Hongling, of Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, arguing that golf had originated in China from the practice of chuiwan, there was an international furore led by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The article was complete with illustrations showing Chinese participants swinging clubs at balls and knocking them into pits in the ground, and the Professor argued ‘we may safely deduce that it is due to the propagation of Chinese Chuiwan that golf has been able to emerge in the West as a mature game’. The R&A begged to differ. ‘Stick and ball games have been around for centuries but golf as we know it today—played over 18 holes—clearly originated in Scotland’, was its reaction. The R&A’s imperial view is reflected on its website:‘At the China Golf Development Forum held in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the R&A Director of Golf Development, Duncan Weir, presented a commemorative plate to the Vice Executive Chairman of the China Golf Association, Mr Hu, to mark 20 years of golf in China’.


‘Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming Dynasty is Playing.’ Ling Hongling, ‘Verification of the fact that golf originated from Chuiwan,’ Bulletin of the  Australian Society for Sports History, 14, July 1991, p. 16,  Figure 4


In the same vein, many team games with balls have been claimed to be distant ancestors of Association Football but none has a direct connection to that which was codified in England in the mid-nineteenth century.[68]

So ancient and ongoing cultural activities may translate into or influence modern sports, but they may not and we need to examine what happened in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century very closely if we are to answer the questions raised about Aboriginal influence on the early inchoate years of what became Australian Rules. We will short change Aboriginal people and indeed the people of Australia if we don’t do the same sort of research in Australian history.

Associativity and the emergence of modern sport

In an important recent article, Stefan Szymanski argues that it was the associativity of the Anglo-Saxons, their propensity for forming clubs and associations with specific interests which underlies the early development of modern sports in the English-speaking world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[69]

Many sports that we call modern grew out of this form of associativity. The development of associative sports in England during this period paralleled the development of the coffee houses, public societies, and the press, institutions that typified this new public sphere. The basic organisational unit of this branch of modern sport was the club, a voluntary association of individuals agreeing to abide by a form of private law, autonomous within the state. During the eighteenth century the development of cricket, golf and horseracing, inter alia, created the models along which later modern sports such as baseball, football (in all its various codes) basketball and tennis developed.[70]

In Szymanski’s model modern sports first developed in the United Kingdom for very specific reasons.

a    modern sport is a reflection of modern forms of associativity;

b    the essential unit of modern sport, which makes it distinctive from earlier forms of sports, is the club;

c    there were essentially two currents of associativity that developed in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards. The Anglo-Saxon current was independent of the state, while the current in the rest of Europe was based on cooperation with, if not subordination to, the state and its demand for military preparedness;

d    the Anglo-Saxon model depended on the existence of basic bourgeois freedoms—not just of association but also of free speech and freedom of the press, so that independent organisers of clubs could advertise their activities and build membership. In the rest of Europe those who wanted to engage in associative sporting activities were obliged, tacitly or explicitly, to seek approval of the state, and therefore nineteenth century European sporting organisations had to a significant degree to meet the demands of the state; and

e    the Anglo-Saxon model developed in the eighteenth century, prior to the Industrial Revolution, which therefore cannot be considered the prime mover behind modern sports. The legal and institutional constraints that permitted the German and French states to control and direct associative activities in sport were established around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Again this took place before these countries were far advanced down the path of industrialisation.[71]

There is no doubt that associativity was a key feature of early settlement in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, which became the colony of Victoria in 1851. Within three years of John Batman’s arrival and his noting that the site of Melbourne would be a good place for a village, the Melbourne Club, traditionally the social body of the governing elite of the emerging town and later city, and the Melbourne Cricket Club had been established. A Mechanics’ Institute followed in 1839, and the Port Philip Club in 1841.[72] Churches and schools were established with their own rules and allegiances. The first Turf Club dates from 1841, though it had to reconstituted each year following the depression of 1842.[73] The Melbourne Commercial Exchange began in 1841 and the Chamber of Commerce was set up in 1851.[74] The memberships of these organisations often overlapped and before and for the first years after the establishment of representative government in the colony, they collectively formed its social and political establishment. Many more social and cultural institutions were founded in the next decades, so the emergence of football clubs in the late 1850s was building on an associative culture, derived in large part from the experience of the first generation of migrants from the United Kingdom.

In the first years of football however, teams got up for the occasion, drawn from those who happened to be present or divided according to some devised category, took part in matches. Other games involved combining players from separate clubs. So while there was a coming together for the game, it was not necessarily through the institution of a continuing organisation. Players moved freely between clubs—a few stars like Wills, Harrison, Bruce and Thompson representing several in the course of one winter season. It was only gradually that the clubs became the primary focus of the game and the rules of the Melbourne Football Club were accepted throughout the colony.[75] In Portland, a weekly match had been played for some time by July 1866, but the local paper reported.

We understand that a committee has been formed, and rules adopted, but this we believe is not correct, as no intimation of such rules has been given to most of those who have taken part in the meetings, from the first. If a committee is to be formed, or a club organized, let it be done openly, and not in a style which savours considerably of the hole and corner. There is no one who takes part in the matches who should not be consulted in the formation of the Club.[76]

While the concept of associativity is very illuminating, it requires to be supplemented by other insights. Economic historians are familiar with the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery and with the contributions to production and productivity of subsequent incremental improvements to original designs. They tend to emphasise innovation, that is the first commercial exploitation of an invention, rather than the invention itself. Many of the great inventions of the nineteenth century, the steam engine, the railway locomotive, heavier than air flight, electric lighting turn out to be far more than the work of one heroic inventor as portrayed in popular accounts and their economic potential was only realised over a significant period by a host of contributors, many of whom have left only the barest personal impact on the sources.[77] As Geoffrey Blainey says, ‘In trying to understand the origins of the present game of Australian football, we forget that it was moulded by many people and influences, decade after decade. Instead we imagine that it was largely shaped in its first years, and we hope that if only we can uncover those years we will find its birth and the single most formative influence.’[78]

The heroic model, not surprisingly, was carried over into sports history, producing founding stories for most of the major modern sports. Examples include, William Webb Ellis picking up the ball at Rugby School and running with it; Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball in 1839; Thomas Wills and the devising of Australian Rules;[79] The group of public school alumni who wrote what Melvyn Bragg described as one of the dozen books which changed the world, the 1863 Rules of Association Football.[80] In each case the popular mind and the sporting organisations have seized on these stories and cling to them in the face of the most forensic demolition by expert scholars. The influence of relativistic interpretations of the nature of history, with their emphasis on the reader rather than the researcher and writer, have often seemed to provide a warrant for the retention of these popular stories. So we get the bizarre inversion of historical scholarship where the absence of information on a particular topic can be used to justify the retention of a particular view because it cannot be disproved, even though the weight of most or all existing evidence points in a different direction.[81]

In the British context thanks to some highly detailed empirical work by a number of scholars we are now increasingly aware of the diverse strands which fed into the emergence of Association Football as the winter game of England and Scotland. J A Mangan and Colm Hickey’s study of the role of schoolteachers in the spread of football is an excellent example.[82] Regional studies by Hutchinson, Swain, Murphy, Curry and Tranter add depth and detail to the processes involved. A synthetic treatment by Eric Dunning and Graham Curry should appear soon. If the United Kingdom picture has become much clearer, there is further to travel in Australia.

Portrait of George Reynolds Rippon, courtesy of Tim Rippon.

Portrait of George Reynolds Rippon, courtesy of Tim Rippon.

One of the problems in the current debate is that relatively little is known about the other characters who played the early game in Victoria, some of whom seem to have been at least as influential as Wills, Harrison, Thompson and Hammersley. George Reynolds Rippon is one such figure. Born in Berkshire in England on 17 September 1838, he was the first secretary of the Geelong Racing Club, which replaced the defunct Geelong Turf Club on 21 March 1865. Rippon was an all-round athlete, administrator and journalist. He was among the best of Geelong’s cricketers and footballers, and for some time he was president of the Geelong Football Club, first elected in 1860, according to Russell Stephens.[83] He first appears in Geelong team lists in 1863.[84] He kicked the winning goal for Geelong against Melbourne in the Caledonian Cup match on 12 September 1863.[85]

Rippon played cricket for the Corio club. On one occasion he and Tom Wills issued a challenge to play cricket against any other two men in Australia but got no takers.[86] He was secretary of the fund-raising committee and then played against the English touring cricketers led by H H Stephenson in 1862 and against George Parr’s team in 1864.[87] When Wills brought an Aboriginal team to Geelong in 1867, Rippon took on Jungagellmijuke (Dick a Dick) in a competition to see if he could hit him with a thrown cricket ball but failed to do so. He topped the bowling averages for Corio in 1870–71 and did well with the bat.[88] He bowled both fast and slow and in 1874–75 he shaded Tom Wills as a bowler for the club. Wills described him as ‘a good run getter, who bowled well last season, fast’.[89] In his last cricket match in Hamilton, he and his two sons amassed 179 runs between them, being the only players to reach double figures.

In 1872, while still vice-president of the Geelong football club, Rippon was one of the handicappers for the Geelong Easter Sports. It may have been his influence which resulted in Albert Austin being selected for the football team.[90] He was secretary of the Geelong Coursing Club, which was formed on 3 May 1873, and remained secretary of the racing club for twelve years.[91] He was on the staff of the Geelong Advertiser but left Geelong in July 1876 to become editor and later proprietor of the Hamilton Spectator. Among his gifts on his departure was a purse of 225 sovereigns.[92] He was a country member of the Yorick Club in Melbourne.[93]

In addition to his cricket and football, Rippon was a rower, a skilled quoits player, and a top class amateur billiard player.[94] Off the field he was involved in a huge range of activities as a Freemason, an Anglican, vice-president of the Hamilton Pastoral and Agricultural Society and president of the fire brigade and the horticultural society. He died at Hamilton in April 1899.[95]

Many of the other members of the founding generation remain just names, often only surnames and until we have a collective biography of this group we can make little progress in understanding the contribution they made. This work is beginning in Geelong and Melbourne. In the case of the indigenous game and its possible linkages there are also signs of research which may prove highly illuminating.

A way forward

The challenge remains for those who would advance the idea of Aboriginal influence on the early as distinct from the later game to do some research in the Aboriginal oral traditions and artefacts to produce new evidence from such sources which can be tested by scholarship, just as all the evidence from other sources is tested.[96] It is not true as some people have suggested that the oral tradition cannot be treated in a scholarly way. Aboriginal oral traditions today rarely exist in pure form. They are often an amalgam of Aboriginal and European knowledge mixed together in often very surprising ways and it is only by thorough understanding of both cultures at the macro and micro level that the valuable elements for the study of influences of practices like sport can be teased out. The pleasure which leading Aboriginal players like Michael Long and Adam Goodes have taken in the notion that their ancestors were there at the origins of the game they have graced with such skill is not to be discounted, nor is the possibility that the rational methods of the academic historian may not be the only appropriate ones for the investigation of cultural practices and the transmission of ideas between social groups.[97] However, the requirement now is the enormously hard work of research in recalcitrant and dispersed sources if the claims are ever to be more than a seductive myth as Gillian Hibbins correctly labels the current state of play.

John Harms argues that ‘indigenous Australians should not have to prove their story to the community’, but that risks undermining the very people it aims to protect from academic scrutiny.[98] Of course the oral tradition is important, as it is in other societies, but untriangulated, unexamined, untested it is not history. The same, of course, applies to all varieties of Australian and world history including the oral components.

At the present state of knowledge, it seems that Aboriginal influence did not occur until they began to become directly involved with the game as developed in Melbourne and Victoria.[99] As noted above, the first Aboriginal player to play a senior game may have been Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin in 1872 but he played only once for Geelong and, as far as is known at present, he had no followers for several years after that.[100] Joe Johnson played 55 games including two premierships for Fitzroy in 1904 and 1905.[101] According to Andrew Demetriou between 1906 and 1980 only 18 players who claimed indigenous heritage have played in the Victorian Football League.[102] Serious Aboriginal influence on the playing field begins in the latter part of the twentieth century both on and off the field. In recent times this has grown dramatically and at both senior and grass-roots level. Australian Rules deserves credit for the way that it has tried to make up for more than a century of exclusion and denigration of Aboriginal people. Though it is arguable that it, and the other codes, need to do far more to promote people of Aboriginal heritage as coaches, administrators and members of governing bodies. In its past and present practice Australian Rules reflected and reflects common attitudes among Australian people. Let us not cheat the people of Aboriginal heritage in this country by feeding them more myths, but rather better history, a history which includes theirs and those of later migrants to this country.[103]

Ken Edwards, with assistance by Troy Meston, Yulunga: Traditional Indigenous Games, Indigenous Sport Program of the Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 2008.

Ken Edwards, with assistance by Troy Meston, Yulunga: Traditional Indigenous Games, Indigenous Sport Program of the Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 2008.


[1]     A version of this story has appeared in Roy Hay, ‘A tale of two footballs: the origins of Australian Football and Association Football revisited,’ Sport in Society, Vol. 13, No. 6. August 2010, pp. 952–969.

[2]     Media release, Ararat Regional Art Gallery, 19 March 2009.

[3]     Anne McMaster, email 5 May 2009.

[4]     Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2008, p. 15. The sources quoted are Horace Wills, his brother, who was not born till 1847, and who would have only been three years old when Tom left for England, and Colden Harrison, whose memoirs were not published until 1923. Terry Wills-Cooke, the great grandson of Horace Wills is ambivalent. In his published account of the Wills family, he says Tom Wills’ playmates tended to be Aboriginal children. T.S. Wills Cooke, The Currency Lad: A Biography of Horatio Spencer Howe Wills, 1811–1861, privately published, Leopold, Victoria, 1997, p. 201. But later in interviews quoted by Judd he withdraws from that notion. ‘Anyway so the first thing I’d say is that all this romantic stuff about how he grew up playing with Aboriginal children simply wasn’t the way it was. … So the first thing is that is Tom there during his youth playing marn grook with the Aboriginal children while it’s politically convenient is just not true.’ Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football, Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 231, note 24. Greg de Moore also quotes from a contemporary letter from Horatio Wills, Tom’s father, sent to Tom while he was at Rugby school in England in which a young Aboriginal boy from Mount William inquires about when Tom is coming back. de Moore, Tom Wills, p. 30.

[5]     Ken Edwards, with assistance by Troy Meston, Yulunga: Traditional Indigenous Games, Indigenous Sport Program of the Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 2008; Ken Edwards, Choopadoo: Games from the Dreamtime, QUT Publications, Brisbane, 1999, pp. 15–33.

[6]     William Kyle, ‘Reminiscences from 1841 of William Kyle, a Pioneer,’ communicated to and transcribed by Charles Daley, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 10, 1925, p. 165 (I owe this reference to Dr John Hirst and Gillian Hibbins); James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Canberra City, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1981 edition, originally published 1881, p. 85; William Thomas, Brief Remarks on the Aborigines of Victoria, 1838–1839, 1839, Latrobe Library Manuscript Collections, La Trobe University, Melbourne, MS7838, Box 862/9(a), p. 28; see also Jim Poulter, ‘Marn Grook—Original Aussie Rules,’ endnote 7 below; R Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, 1830–1899, John Currey O’Neill, Melbourne, 1972, First published 1876; Peter Beveridge, The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina: as seen by Peter Beveridge, M.L. Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1889, pp. 45–6.

[7]     William Thomas, Brief Remarks on the Aborigines of Victoria, 1838–1839, 1839, Latrobe Library Manuscript Collections, La Trobe University, Melbourne, MS7838, Box 862/9(a), p. 28, quoted in Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2008, p. 33.

[8]     The report appeared in the Melbourne Herald on 6 June 1860 and was reproduced in Empire, Sydney, 12 June 1860, p. 2.,+NSW+:…%7Ctitleid:67%7C%7C%7Cl-decade=186%7C%7C%7Csortby=dateAsc%23reloadOnBack. I owe this reference to Ian Syson.

[9]     Ian Syson, ‘Response to the debate over the ‘rediscovery’ of the Blandowski/Mutzel etching in 2008’, by email, May 2008.

[10]   The publican of the hotel in Cavendish named McCallum instigated and performed in a football match in 1867. Hamilton Spectator, 2 October 1867, p. 2.

[11]   ‘The Hamilton Courier states that a foot-ball match between the “town and the country” came off at Mr Butler’s Nine Mile Creek, which ended in the defeat of the town.’ Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, Monday 29 August 1859, p. 2; ‘Being a great admirer of the athletic sports, I wish to call the attention of the young men of Portland to the raising of a Foot Ball Club. I am sure it would afford great amusement to them. It is all the rage now in Melbourne, and having lately been up there, I saw that it was as well attended as the Cricket Club. I think a club could be easily got up here. Hoping it will be attempted.’ Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, Monday 1 October 1860, p. 4.

[12]   Jim Poulter floated the idea in ‘An old, old ball game,’ Australasian Post, 4 August 1983, p. 8 and then in developed it in ‘The origins of Australian Rules Football’, in Peter Burke & Leo Grogan, This Game of Ours, Eatwarlflemsd, St Andrews, Vic., 1993. Since then he has expanded his discussion into a longer essay, ‘Marngrook—Original Aussie Rules’, and kindly supplied a copy. See also the posts by Gillian Hibbins and Martin Flanagan on on 15–16 May 2008.

[13]   Jim Poulter, ‘Marn-Grook—Original Aussie Rules,’ Melbourne, April 2008, copy supplied to Roy Hay by the author.

[14]   Poulter also asserts that the word ‘barek’ or ‘barak’ means cheering and hence explains the Australian use of the word barrack to support a team, a reversal of common English usage.

[15]   Jim Poulter, Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country, Red Hen Enterprises, Templestowe, Victoria, 2011.

[16]   Martin Flanagan, The Call, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1998, pp. 180–1.

[17]   Martin Flanagan, The Call; Martin Flanagan, The Call; A realisation for the stage by Bruce Myles, currency Press in association with Playbox Theatre, Melbourne, 2004; Martin Flanagan, ‘Tom Wills: The Original Spirit,’ Australian Football Quarterly, Issue 1, 2004, pp. 10-16; Martin Flanagan on Tom Wills, on 15–16 May 2008; Martin Flanagan, ‘A battle of Wills’, Age Sport, 10 May 2008, p. 4.

[18]   ‘Albert Club Rules’, Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, Saturday 24 November 1860, p. 2. This article is on the rule book of the Albert cricket club in Sydney given to the author by the Alberts’ secretary, Mr Curtis. It concludes, ‘The whole being supplemented by the latest revised rules of cricket; and the Rugby foot ball regulations; which, during the past two winters, have been adopted with so much success in Victoria.’ Again this item was discovered by Ian Syson.

[19]   The Geelong running game can be ruled out, because Wills took little or no part in the development of this style of play between 1859 when the Geelong club was founded and sought to play by Melbourne rules and 1866 when his cousin Colden Harrison chaired a meeting which revised the rules of the game. He did use a running tactic for Melbourne against South Yarra. Greg de Moore, Tom Wills, p. 101. Several of the references to Wills in Geelong line-ups prior to 1863 almost certainly refer to his brothers since Tom Wills was in Queensland from January 1861 to late 1862.

[20]   Robert Messenger, ‘Charlie “Commotion” Pearson and Australian football’s flying mark’, Sporting Traditions XVI, Biennial Conference of the Australian Society for Sports History, Canberra, 28 June 2007. Messenger speculated that Pearson might have been influenced by an Aboriginal game played in Gippsland where he grew up.

[21]   Roy Hay, ‘New evidence’, Geelong Advertiser, 21 October 2009, p. 29.

[22]   ‘Mr. Lawrence’s new team of black cricketers en route to England,’ Supplement to the Warrnambool Examiner, 1 October 1967, p. 1. Syson found the reference in the Hobart Mercury on Wednesday 16 October 1867, p. 3, using the National Library of Australia’s digitisation project of early Australian newspapers. The Hobart paper took the material from the Warrnambool Examiner. Rex Harcourt and John Mulvaney picked up the football reference and commented on it in Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aborigines in England. But their take was somewhat different. Relying on an article in the Hamilton Spectator they argued ‘lack of time made them decline an invitation to play the new fangled game of football which Tom Wills had introduced a few years previously’. John Mulvaney & Rex Harcourt, Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aborigines in England, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1988, p. 76. The football match is not mentioned in Mulvaney’s original publication. D J Mulvaney, Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aboriginal Cricketers on Tour 1867–8, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967.

[23]   Geoffrey Blainey, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football, Information Australia, Melbourne, 1990, p. 78.

[24]   The South Australian Advertiser, Adelaide, Monday 19 May 1862, p. 3.

[25]   There was an advertisement for the formation of an Adelaide football club in the South Australian Register on 25 April 1860 according to Rob Hess, Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart and Gregory de Moore, A National Game: The History of Australian Rules Football, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 71–3. See also The South Australian Advertiser, Wednesday 25 April 1860, p. 1. It is not clear yet whether there were Aboriginal players involved with the club at any time after that until 1862. The attendance of a preponderance of women at the match in 1862 is also interesting.

[26]   A Mancini & G M Hibbins (eds), Running With the Ball: Football’s Foster Father, Lynedoch Publications, Melbourne, 1987.

[27]   Cec Mullen, History of Australian Rules Football, 1858–1958, Horticultural Press, Carlton, Melbourne, 1958; Cec Mullen, Mullen’s Footballers’ Australian Almanac, 1951, 187 Langridge Street, Abbotsford, 1951. These sources contradict each other on a number of points of detail. Trevor Ruddell, Assistant Librarian at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library, performed a detailed critique of Mullen’s work in 2006 and supplied a copy of his presentation. Thanks to David Studham of the MCC Library I have been able to consult some of Mullen’s original material, compiled in his youth, which forms the basis of these later publications. One volume consists of a fair copy of the information derived from Mullen’s research notebooks entitled ‘Interesting Records of the History of the Australian Game of Football’, Melbourne Cricket Club Museum, Registration Number, M15485. According to the handwritten title page it was compiled in 1922 and contains most of the information on which the later published works were based. Reconstructing Mullen’s research methods on the basis of this material is difficult, but it appears that he did look at contemporary newspapers and talked to a number of people who had memories of the early game. Those memories seem to have been assertive and forthright as to names of influential individuals but very hazy as to specific dates, as one might expect some 60–70 years after the events took place. So it is not surprising that Mullen and his informants may have run together episodes which took place at different times. The manuscript volume has dates and names of clubs overwritten and changed, sometimes more than once. It is not absolutely certain that all the changes were made by Mullen, but it seems likely that the majority of them were. Mullen’s original notes may well have been made when he was very young, possibly still at school. Having got some results for each year, it is likely that he compiled his own league tables and awarded the title of the champion team. In 1864 he had Melbourne as champion, Ballarat second and Geelong third. But that year Geelong won the Caledonian Cup and at the start of the 1865 season a member of the club writing to Bell’s Life said, a propos of Geelong, ‘The members of the champion club, to the number of twenty, met on Tuesday last for the purpose of holding their annual general meeting.’ Bell’s Life in Victoria, Saturday, 6 May 1865. See also Rob Hess, Case Studies in the Development of Australian Rules Football, 1896–1908, PhD thesis, Victoria University, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 5–6, and Greg de Moore, In from the Cold: Tom Wills—A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero, PhD thesis, Victoria University, Melbourne, 2008, Appendix, pp. 315–21; W.F. Mandle, ‘Games people played: Cricket and Football in England and Victoria in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ Historical Studies, vol. 15, no. 60, April 1973, pp. 511–35; Leonie Sandercock  and Ian Turner, Up where, Cazaly? The great Australian game. Sydney: Granada, 1982. For a somewhat more detailed look at the issues raised see Roy Hay, ‘Cec Mullen, Tom Wills and the search for early Geelong football,’ The Yorker, Issue 42, Spring 2010, pp. 3-5.

[28]   Rob Hess, Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart and Gregory de Moore, A National Game: The History of Australian Rules Football, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008; James Weston, ed., The Australian Game of Football since 1858, Geoff Slattery Publishing, Melbourne, 2008; Rob Hess and Bob Stewart, eds, More than a Game: An Unauthorised History of Australian Rules Football, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998; Rob Pascoe, The Winter Game: The Complete History of Australian Football, Text, Melbourne, 1995.

[29]   Gillian Hibbins, ‘Myth and History in Australian Rules Football’, Sporting Traditions, vol. 25, no. 2, November 2008, pp. 41–53; Gillian Hibbins. Sport and Racing in Colonial Melbourne: The Cousins and Me: Colden Harrison, Tom Wills and William Hammersley, Lynedoch publications, Melbourne, 2007.

[30]   Greg de Moore, Tom Wills, pp. 166–89; John Mulvaney and Rex Harcourt, Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aborigines in England, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 35–42. The original version was by Mulvaney and was published as Cricket Walkabout: The Australian Aboriginal Cricketers on Tour, 1867–8, by Melbourne University Press in 1967.

[31]   Mulvaney and Harcourt, Cricket Walkabout, pp. 63–5 & 80–1; Greg de Moore, Tom Wills, pp. 165–89 & 193.

[32]   Gillian Hibbins, ‘A Code of Our Own, The Yorker, June 2009, pp. 3–13.

[33]   Daryl McLure has called for a new stand at the Geelong Football Club to be named after Wills for his unique contribution to the founding of the game. Daryl McLure, ‘Honour Wills: Name stand after code’s greatest champion,’ Geelong Advertiser, 20 June 2009, p. 35. But see also, Roy Hay, ‘Don’t be hasty: Wills not the only one with credentials for a guernsey,’ Geelong Advertiser, 24 June 2009, p. 21.

[34]   Ciannon Cazaly, ‘Off the Ball: Football’s History Wars,’ Meanjin, vol. 67, no. 4, Summer 2008, pp. 82–7. The Meanjin blog Spike contains some spirited defence of Hibbins’ work from Mark Pennings, Trevor Ruddell, David Studham, Ken Edwards, Geoff Slattery and Roy Hay, and a supportive response by Barry Judd.

[35]   John Hirst, ‘Comment’, The Monthly, September 2008, pp. 8–11.

[36]   Trevor Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin: The first Aborigine to play senior football’, in Peter Burke & June Senyard (eds), Behind the Play: Football in Australia, Maribyrnong Press, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 89–105.

[37]   There were 72 players of Aboriginal heritage on AFL player lists in 2008. Information from John Murray.

[38]   Bill McMaster confirms that Murray is almost invisible outside his local area, but attributes this as much to personal choice as community attitudes. Personal communication, 22 May 2009.

[39]   ‘What prevents me from accepting the academic view is this: Maurice Marks from Dimboola was the only Aboriginal player in the Wimmera League of the late [19]60s and people used to say “he ought to be good, it’s their game” and I don’t recall anyone ever challenging it, even though we were in the guts of Wills’ territory, Edenhope’s half an hour away, we’re among old men whose fathers knew Wills personally, and it’s hardly an atmosphere of racial generosity. Yet, when the game these white blokes live for is attributed to blackfellas, it goes unchallenged. So where did the good people of the Wimmera pick up that baseless rumour? It certainly wasn’t from Martin Flanagan. Did they read it in their paper? Apparently not as the historians say there’s ‘no evidence’. I’m not expecting any Dead Sea Scrolls to turn up and resolve it so the ‘historically accurate’ version will prevail lest we’re ditching science, but that ‘accurate’ view has got some gaping holes in it. Perhaps those same historians can now turn their attention to why so many people would choose to believe such a thing when there’s no obvious grounds to do so.’ Posted by: Dennis on May 16, 2008 10:59 AM, on Martin Flanagan’s blog on The history wars and AFL footy,, accessed 17 August 2008.

[40]   Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2008, p. 9.

[41]   Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line, pp. 1–76.

[42]   Garry Linnell, Playing God: The Rise and Fall of Gary Ablett, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2003; Joe Lovejoy, Bestie: A Portrait of a Legend, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1998; Roy Hay, ‘Of Jimmy Johnstone, George Best, Diego Maradona and Gary Ablett: A preliminary search for some aspects of the creative genius in sports’, Sporting Traditions, University of Otago, Queenstown, New Zealand, February 1999.

[43]   According to Daryl McLure, former editor of the Geelong Advertiser, Terry Wills-Cooke retains some letters relating to Tom Wills and his family which he promised not to make available during his own lifetime. Given the family’s difficult relationship with Tom in the latter stages of his life and after, it is likely that these contains sensitive matter, but possibly some which might throw further light on Wills himself. Telephone conversation, 19 June 2009. Martin Flanagan is insistent that Terry Wills-Cooke is adamant that his grandmother told him that Tom Wills played with the local Aborigines. By email, xx.xx.2013, copy held by Roy Hay.

[44]   Russell H T Stephens, Wills Way: Three Generations of the Wills Family that Provided a New Game—Australian Football, Caringbah, NSW, Playright Publishing, 2009.

[45]   Gardiner defeated the sitting member for the Victorian lower house seat of Carlton at the election of January 1880 and held it until 1891. He continued playing for his club until 1883. He was a fast-moving defender and managed to kick four goals in his career. In Parliament he was not so conspicuous, though in his second term, while still a young man in political terms, he spoke out against the attempt by another young man in a hurry, Alfred Deakin, when the latter moved a motion to shorten parliamentary speeches, surely one of the most beneficial proposals to come before any legislature. After he was defeated in 1891, Gardiner became a Melbourne City Councillor and, after a brief retirement to the country, returned and represented the Victoria ward for almost 30 years. He was still an Alderman when he died on 29 October 1929 at the age of 81. His death coincided with Black Monday of the Wall Street Crash, but the two events are probably not connected. Roy Hay, ‘Sporting MPs,’ Geelong Advertiser, 21 June 2008, p. 43.

[46]   The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 29 June 1850, p. 4, drawing on the Port Philip papers to the 17th of June.

[47]   Port Philip Herald, 30 March 1850, p. 3. I owe this and several other references to Dr Tony Ward.

[48]   Geelong Advertiser, 20 November 1850, p. 2; Geoffrey Blainey, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football, Information Australia, Melbourne, 1990; new edition, Black, Inc., Melbourne, 2003.p. 12.

[49]   Geelong Advertiser, 21 November 1850, p. 2.

[50]   Port Philip Herald, 26 February 1856, p. 8 and 5 March 1856, p. 8.

[51]   Gillian Hibbins, ‘A Code of our Own,’ The Yorker, June 2009, pp. 3-13.

[52]   The Warrnambool Examiner and Western Districts Advertiser, Tuesday, 4 June 1861, p. 2; Ron Cole, Harry Keilar, Ron McCorkell & Ian Wright, The Birth of the Blues: Warrnambool Football Netball Club, 1861–2007, Warrnambool Football Netball Club, Warrnambool, 2008, pp. 2–5.

[53]   Warrnambool Examiner, 28 May 1861.

[54]   Roy Hay, ‘British Football, Wogball or the World Game? Towards a social history of Victorian Soccer’, in John O’Hara (ed.), Ethnicity and Soccer in Australia, ASSH Studies in Sports History Number 10, Australian Society for Sports History, Campbelltown, 1994, pp. 44-79.

[55]   Nicholas Mason, Football, Hicks Smith, Sydney, (English edition by Temple Smith, London) 1974, p. 86.

[56]   ‘Last Sunday, during Divine Service, a large batch of youngsters were eagerly engaged in playing at foot-ball, on Hyde Park.’ The Sydney Herald, Monday 30 July 1832, p. 15, perhaps should be 5 of 6.

[57]   Port Philip Herald, 17 December 1855, p. 7.

[58]   Ian Syson was writer and researcher at the Football Federation of Victoria in 2009, while on research leave from Victoria University. He kindly supplied a copy of some of his discoveries of material relating to football drawn from the National Library of Australia digital archive. See for example, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 June 1841; Courier, Hobart, Tasmania, 2 June 1847; Moreton Bay Courier, 20 January 1849.

[59]   Advertisements in Launceston Examiner, 4 February 1860, p. 1 & 24 July 1860, p. 1. The theft is recounted on 17 November 1860, p. 4. Ian Syson found that story.

[60]   ‘Yesterday, being St. Patrick’s Day, the natives of the Emerald Isle kept their usual anniversary by a game at football in the neighbourhood of the City Market, Thebarton, after which an ox was roasted whole, with which they regaled themselves and their families in genuine Irish style.’ South Australian Register, Adelaide, Saturday 18 March 1843,p. 4.

[61]   ‘The figures of the competitors, engaged in this ancient game, requiring both skill and activity, marked as they were by their distinctive badges of blue and pink, now scattered over the field, and again mixed together in the hot conflict for possession of the ball, gave an animation to the picture far exceeding the usual appearance of a cricket match.’ The South Australian Advertiser, Adelaide, Tuesday 19 June 1860, p. 6.

[62]   Philip Mosely, A social history of soccer in New South Wales, 1880-1956, University of Sydney, PhD thesis, 1987.

[63]   Mark Pennings and Robert Pascoe are compiling a prosopography of the first generations of footballers in Victoria and presented a brief introduction at the Worlds of Football Conference in 2010.

[64]   Neil Tranter, ‘The Chronology of Organised Sport in Nineteenth Century Scotland: A Regional Study I – Patterns’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 7 (No. 2), 1990, pp. 188-203; and ‘II – Causes’, 7 (No. 3), pp. 365-387; Neil Tranter, Sport, economy and society in Britain, 1750–1914, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998; John Goulstone, ‘Working-Class Origins of Modern Football,’ International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 17, no. 1, March 2000, pp. 135–43; John Goulstone, Football’s secret history, 3–2 Books, Upminster, Essex, 2001; Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years: The Untold Story, Routledge, London, 2005; Peter Swain, ‘Cultural Continuity and Football in Nineteenth Century Lancashire,’ Sport in History, Vol. 28, no. 4, December 2008, pp. 566–582; John Hutchinson, ‘Sport, Education and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Edinburgh: The Emergence of Modern Forms of Football, Sport in History, Vol. 28, no. 4, December 2008, pp. 547–565.

[65]   Brendan Murphy, From Sheffield with Love: Celebrating 150 years of Sheffield FC the World’s Oldest Football Club, SportsBooks Ltd, Cheltenham, 2007, pp. 40–41. The Dictionary of Australian First Class Cricketers, p. 12, has an account of Creswick’s undistinguished cricket career but no mention of involvement in football. He did play cricket twice for the Melbourne Cricket Club in first class matches in 1857–58.

[66]   Free kick, ‘Football in Melbourne’, letter to Bell’s Life in Victoria, 14 May 1864, p. 2.

[67]   John Bale, Imagined Olympians: Body Culture and Colonial Representation in Rwanda. Sport and Culture Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002; For a taxonomy of cultural sporting types, see John Bale and Mike Cronin, eds, Sport and post-colonialism, Berg, Oxford, 2003, pp. 7–9.

[68]   David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Penguin edition, London, 2007, pp. 3–18.

[69]   Stefan Szymanski, ‘A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport,’ Journal of Sport History, vol 35, no. 1, pp. 1–32.

[70]   Szymanski, ‘A Theory’, p. 2.

[71]   Szymanski, ‘A Theory’, p. 23.

[72]   The Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution and School of Arts was founded by members of the Union Benefit Society a mutual benevolent society assisting skilled workers across the various trades and modeled on United Kingdom friendly societies. Though initially very much an artisans’ initiative it was very quickly taken over by its patrons becoming the Melbourne Athenaeum. Among its vice-presidents was Thomas Wills Esq. JP, magistrate in 1841 and member of the provisional committee of the Melbourne Club, son of a convict who became a landowner, and brother of Horatio Wills whose party were massacred by Aboriginals in Queensland, and uncle of Tom Wills. Susan Kruss, The Goddess and the Lyre: A Cultural History of the Melbourne Athenaeum, forthcoming 2009.

[73]   Dr K M Haig-Muir, Dr Peter Mewett and Roy Hay, Sporting Facilities in Victoria, Final Report to Heritage Victoria on the history of sporting sites in the state, 2000.

[74]   Roy Hay and G A McLean, Business and Industry, Geelong: A History of the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, 1853–2005, Sports and Editorial Services Australia in association with the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, Teesdale, Victoria, 2006, p. 20.

[75]   Roy Hay, ‘The beginnings of football in Geelong and the Geelong Football Club’ in John Murray, ed., We are Geelong: The Story of the Geelong Football Club, Geoff Slattery Enterprises, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 23-31.

[76]   Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, Thursday 5 July 1866, p. 2.

[77]   Samuel Smiles, Lives of the Engineers, originally published in 3 volumes in 1862 is the classic source. It has been republished many times including by Augustus M Kelley in 1968.

[78]   Blainey, A Game of our Own, p. 202.

[79]   Floreat Rugbeoa, ‘Football is a game peculiar to Rugby, though I am glad to say that it has spread to every quarter of the world, and it has even been started in Australia by a Rugboeian [i.e. T.W.Wills ]’. Bell’s Life in London, 19 December 1858, quoted in John Goulstone, Football’s secret history, 3–2 Books, Upminster, Essex, 2001, p. 47.

[80]   Melvyn Bragg, 12 books that changed the world, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2006; The Rules of Association Football, Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2006.

[81]   Greg de Moore, ‘Tom Wills, Marngrook and the Evolution of Australian Football,’ in Rob Hess, Matthew Nicholson and Rob Stewart, eds, Football Fever: Crossing Boundaries, Maribyrnong Press, 2005, pp. 5–15.

[82]   J A Mangan and Colm Hickey, ‘Soccer’s Missing Men: Schoolteachers and the Spread of Association Football,’ Soccer and Society, vol. 9, no. 5, December 2008, pp. 589–802. The special issue of the journal is given over completely to this highly detailed account.

[83]   Russell H T Stephens, The Road to Kardinia: The Story of the Geelong Football Club, Playright Publishing, Sydney, 1996, p. 18. Though since Stephens relies on Cec Mullen for much of his early information about the club, this may be an error.

[84]   Geelong Chronicle, 14 August 1863.

[85]   Geelong Chronicle, 16 September 1863, p. 2.

[86]   Hamilton Spectator, 29 April 1899, p. 4.

[87]   Kevin O’Dowd, Geelong’s Blazing Century: Runs and Wickets Since 1862, self-published, Geelong, n.d., pp. 1–37; W R Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay, Geelong Advertiser, Geelong, 1990 edition, pp. 527–8.

[88]   T W Wills, The Australian Cricketer’s Guide for 1870–71, J & A McKinley, Melbourne, 1871, p. 92.

[89]   T W Wills, The Australian Cricketer’s Guide for 1874–75, Henry Franks, Geelong, 1875, p. 58.

[90]   Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin’, pp. 96–8.

[91]   W R Brownhill, The History of Geelong, p. 552.

[92]   300 sovereigns according to his obituary in the Hamilton Spectator, 29 April 1899, p. 4.

[93]   Paul de Serville, Pounds and Pedigrees, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p. 432. I owe this reference to Daryl Wight, who compiled the entry on Rippon.

[94]   He played off in the final of the Geelong Quoits Club championship in 1865, despite being a novice at the sport. Geelong Advertiser, 17 July 1865, p. 3.

[95]   Brownhill, History of Geelong, p. 522.

[96]   Among those who are working in this area are Ken Edwards, Barry Judd, Abby Cooper, Ciannan Cazaly, Jim Poulter, Robert Messenger, Anne McMaster and Sean Gorman. I am indebted to all of them for responding to my requests for information, though none of them carries any responsibility for the content of this paper.

[97]   Minoru Hokari, Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, NSW, 2011 and review by Martin Flanagan, Age, Life and style, 28 May 2011, p. 30.

[98]   John Harms, ‘Bounced out of footy’s history,’ Age, Insight, 24 May 2008, p. 3.

[99]   Such involvement might have begun in Hamilton in 1867, when the Aboriginal cricketers who were to tour England the following year passed near the town. ‘On Saturday morning the party arrived at Trainor’s Hotel near Hamilton, where they were entertained to dinner by the host. A number of cricketers from Hamilton came out to meet them, with a view to inducing the blacks to play a game at football on Saturday afternoon; but Messrs Lawrence and Hayman declined, as the Hamiltonians had refused to meet them again in the cricket-field. The troupe therefore passed through without making a call, as they were disappointed at the Hamilton Club not wishing to regain the laurels they lost two years since.’ ‘The Black Cricketers,’ from the Warrnambool Examiner, 1 October 1867 as quoted in the Hobart Mercury, Wednesday 16 October 1867, p. 3. This gem was rediscovered by Ian Syson, who alerted me to it. I have strong suspicion that this is not the whole story, since I think that Lawrence and Hayman would have been worried that their youngsters would have suffered injuries playing football in the white man’s style and hence been unable to perform at their best in the important cricket matches coming up. But it is a huge pity that this game never took place since it would have provided some contemporary evidence about relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal football.

[100] Trevor Ruddell, ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin,’ pp. 100–102.

[101] Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line, pp. 76–7. Paul Oliver, What’s the Score? A survey of cultural diversity and racism in Australian sport, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2006, p. 26, incorrectly attributes his premierships to Essendon. Does this reflect the modern involvement of Essendon under Kevin Sheedy in bringing significant numbers of Aboriginal players into the game? I appreciate Barry Judd correcting me about Johnson.

[102] Andrew Demetriou, ‘The Glue that Brings us Together: combating racism in sport’, speech at the 5th Annual Human Rights Oration, 9 December 2005.

[103] There is a risk involved here, in that Aboriginal games may only be studied as if they were or were not precursors of European developments in sport. Ken Edwards insists that Aboriginal games should be considered in their own right and as part of an indigenous culture in all its varieties. His published work reflects this approach including Ken Edwards, ‘Traditional Games of a Timeless Land: Play Cultures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 2009, pp. 32–43.


  1. Earl O'Neill says

    Roy, many thanx for your scholarship.

  2. Richard Smith says

    Hi Roy, I don’t think there is a need for the Aboriginals that played in Adelaide in 1862 to have learnt the game anywhere. I suspect many of the people on the field had never played the game and learnt it on the field that day. As neophytes they would have learnt on the job and also bought their own ideas. Without preconceptions of the rules, they would have tried their own thing and innovation would have been rampant in those early days.
    Radiolab has a podcast about the ‘innovations’ (cheating) made in the early 1900s to the versions of rugby then played at US universities that resulted in the development of US football.
    Interestingly the game first played at Harvard seems to have been a FA variant, and on a visit to McGill in Canada, they learnt the Rugby variant.

  3. I agree, Richard. When I used to teach Aboriginal economic history at Deakin University, one of the things that always impressed me was the speed with which our indigenous people picked up those aspects of European technology which were interesting or of practical use to them. Ian Syson’s work on what he terms ‘code confusion’ in the 1860s to the 1880s shows that neither the Europeans nor the indigenes were clear about what game they were playing and a wide variety of forms took more than a generation to diverge into more (but not completely) settled and distinct patterns. So there was continual ebb and flow between rules and practice really until formal leagues come into operation at which point regular and constant repetition helps bring about conformity within and between codes. So I am certain that if and when they were allowed to play the white men’s games that indigenous folks would have done so and would very quickly have become very adept. In so far as they were able to do so in the latter part of the nineteenth century in rural areas particularly, then you might expect this to be the bedrock of the modern beliefs that indigenous people had been involved in football ‘since time immemorial’. If Tom Wills produced a football for a kick about while he was coaching the men of Lake Wallace in cricket, as I speculate, that might have been one of those moments.
    What I have been very disappointed about is how little new material, argument, evidence, is being produced for this early period by the people who are most scathing about reliance on the colonial archive, and the mindsets it is supposed to have engendered in historical writing.

  4. Steve Hodder says

    I’ve been ruminating on this piece for some days; thinking thinking thinking. I love it. I love the stripping of sentimentalism from the historiography. I love the masterful control over such a complex and intricate article. I appreciate the formidable nature of the topic. It’s been a terrific read.

    When J.T.H says aboriginal people “… should not have to prove their story to the community …” I get it. It’s a refrain you hear from a few oppressed groups and they have a valid point. The energy and resources needed to prove the most salient and cogent ideas can be overwhelming and sapping; however I think this is essentially a whitefella argument. The silence from the Djab Warring and the Jardwadjali mobs (the originals from around Moyston) is deafening! If they had a direct influence of the origins of the game, you’d reckon they’d have something to say on the matter, yet I’ve never heard them say anything, nor have I read anything attributed to their views. Perhaps they’ve decided there is nothing to be gained from entering this debate one way or another? Maybe they just can’t be bothered. Fair enough,

    Interestingly, if you type “aboriginal people Moyston” into Google the first five or six sites are all about Wills and the origins of Aussie Rules, with Martin Flanagan’s name prominent amongst them. Such is the widespread popularity of the connection of Marn Grook and Aussie Rules. Incidentally, some years ago when Martin Flanagan was promoting his book The Game in Time of War, at a bookshop in Brunswick, I asked him about the writing of The Call. Flanagan said he based the character of Wills upon Gary Ablett Snr. An interesting literary device but from a historical perspective I was non-plussed. I think Flanagan’s contribution to the debate needs to be taken in that context. It might be that the most accurate contributor could be the (deservedly) controversial Blainey’s comment about how footy “… was moulded by many people and influences, decade after decade. ” Not what some of us were brought up on.

    As a small historical aside, for some years I taught local history at Whittlesea Secondary Colege and had access to some early maps of the area. The names Wills and Harrison prominent. Harrison was the indomitable Cpt John Harrison, Will’s Uncle. In fact, in 1842, Cpt Harrison and his son Henry were robbed on their Plenty River property by the bushrangers who were to become the first whtiefellas (not first persons – Two Tasmanian Aboriginals have this grisly honour) hanged in Melbourne. I’ve never been able to work out whether the Wills mentioned was Tom Wills father or Uncle or what connection I don’t know. Any ideas?

    Appreciate the article immensely.


  5. Fantastic work Roy. Having done my honours with a focus on nineteenth century life in Victoria, it is obvious interest to me.

    Wills role in the formulation of the game is important, but is his role the primary one ? It’s as though we perceive the requirement of an Anglo identity to claim the origins of our great game. It makes me think of what Bertolt Brecht said, “Happy is the people who need no heroes.” Until White Australia comes to terms with itself re the history of invasion and dispossession, we will need ‘heroes’ to avoid any awkward conversations re these episodes.

    Steve if you are still around the Whittlesea area grab a copy of the April edition of the Town Crier. There’s an article of mine on HCA Harrison. Short but to the point. I also wrote an article last year re the Plenty Road bushrangers, though I can’t recall what month it was.


  6. Thank you Steve and Glen for your kind words and thoughtful responses. I am certain the modern day descendants of our indigenous peoples have far more pressing and important issues to deal with than researching arcane issues about links between their cultural activities in times past and the origins of sport. That is one reason why I quoted Ken Edwards about studying indigenous games in their own context not simply as precursors or not of white men’s games. But as I have hinted already I think there is a much more interesting and complex set of relationships between indigenous people and football that has evolved since the white men codified their own game in Melbourne in 1959 and subsequently continued to modify it in response to internal and external influences from then till now. I am entirely with Geoff Blainey on this, only saying that is not unique to the Australian game.
    Now on the Harrison-Wills bushranger story, Steve, I am no genealogical historian. Greg de Moore or Trevor Ruddell at the MCC Library might be able to point you in the right direction.
    Glen on the need for heroes. Spot on again. There is lovely history of Scotland by Chris Harvie entitled No Gods and precious few heroes: Scotland 1940-1981. A very good read.

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    This is good stuff Roy. We must remain vigilant about over-romanticising specific individuals and propagating foundation myths. I just re-read Hibbins’ essay in ‘The Big Red Book’ and the quote about Wills being the darling of the public, while “older, university-educated men, the intellectual, the gentlemen and the teacher were probably less impressed by Wills…” struck me with what might be happening here today.
    The roguish, anti-authoritarian, some may argue mercenary type that finds a tragic telos may be flawed, but they are damned interesting to read about (Lawson, Ned Kelly, Darren Millane to name a few).
    Learning about Tom Wills’ life and death has helped me to understand and confront my own demons as I’ve outlined in another post.
    He may not be the sole father/founder of Australian football, but he is a metamorphosis of the Myth of Icarus and that gives him a power rightly or wrongly, that resonates in the imaginations of many. Thanks again for the balance. Always learn something when I read your work.
    Speaking of olden day heroes, James (Dun) Hay would be pretty peeved looking down on Newcastle FC’s dismal effort this season.
    Howay in the Championship for 2016-17.

  8. Thanks, Phil. Yes, I’ve no doubts about the fascination of Wills to his contemporaries and when he was rediscovered to lots of us today. We had a conference of sports historians in New Zealand some years ago under the title ‘The End of Sports History’. Post Fukayama, OK. But I thought that was arrant nonsense and gave a talk entitled ‘Jimmy Johnstone, George Best, Diego Maradona and Garry Ablett: A reflection on flawed heroes who were creative geniuses in two football codes’ looking at the Dionysian heroes and what they meant and why they happened. What linked them for me, was that I had seem them all play in the flesh, not just on the box or on film. They were all people who raised your conception of what was possible in their sports, soccer and footy but who just seemed unable to cope with ordinary life. Subsequently, Shane Warne, would be a candidate. Little boys who never managed to grow up and were sustained through their primes by adulation and people who protected them, or tried to, and then … Tommy Wills fits that mould. Certainly fascinating to read about, bloody hard to live with. And deserving of recognition and remembrance in the way you propose.
    Now did you get the big sports story of the day? Ayr United beat Stranraer on penalties and will play in the second tier in Scotland next season. The old man would be happy about that, though I agree he would probably be ‘sick as a parrot’ about the Toon.

  9. Interesting Roy.
    You might like to compare this with my paper, ‘Another look at Marn grook’, published in Sporting Traditions, May 2015.
    It’s on my web site.

    Best wishes
    Ruth Gooch

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