How Australian football started

An article by A G Daws in 1958 “An Institution in the Metropolis” celebrated the centenary of Australian Rules football. The trigger was a letter from Thomas Wentworth Wills to Bell’s Life in Victoria in the middle of 1858, suggesting that a football club should form to keep the cricketers fit in the off-season. Wills went overseas to Rugby for his schooling and he captained the cricket and football teams. He made an impact in county cricket before he returned in 1856 to be a leading player, and the organizer of the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868.

Wills and his cousin H C A Harrison drafted the first rules after watching a practice game on the Richmond paddock (near the site of the MCG). They wanted to avoid some features of rugby, especially “lethal tackling”, and some other practices that came from the eccentric “wall games” played at some schools including Eton and Harrow where the objective is to progress the ball along a wall, using all means fair and foul This is scary footage from 1920 .  Nowadays it is less lethal but if  you think this is too silly for words you won’t  get an argument from me.

 The first reported match saw teams of 40 from ScotchCollegeand Grammar do battle over almost a month of Saturday afternoons, without a result. The tree-covered ground was a quarter of a mile in length, truly park football! In 1859 other teams appeared at St Kilda, Emerald Hill, Prahran, Geelong. Two goals were required to win. The longest recorded game between Melbourne and University had to be carried over from 1862 to 1863. There was a shorter game between University and St Kilda. Only 11 Uni players turned up and despite being supplemented by onlookers they plunged to defeat in ten minutes.

Many spectators took a stand inside the field of play, a practice which persisted even after the grounds shrank. “After four or five seasons the practice grew of marking the boundary lines with flags but spectators continued to sit and stand about on the playing area as they had always done.”

Spectators and trees could influence the outcome. One match was won when a wayward kick rebounded from a tree at right angles and scored a goal. Another time a certain goal deflected off the head of a child who ran across the goal line at the critical moment.

The uniforms of the early players were quite amusing, starting with cricketer’s whites they evolved into all colours, some scarlet, some blue, some magenta with caps of correspondingly gaudy hues. “Interpretations of the rules were as motley as football attire. The main aim of the early rules was to do away with the rugby practice of running with the ball because of the inevitable scrimmages, hacking and tripping that went with it”.

The first rules prohibited tripping, holding and hacking  but allowed the ball to be “taken in hand, but not further than is necessary for a kick”. Interpretation of the carrying rule was a persisting problem and eventually in 1866 Harrison“a man of great personal force and the game’s leading figure” was invited to chair a meeting to revise the rules. He produced a list of 11 rules and these were promptly approved and accepted at a meeting of delegates from the  leading clubs.

Rule 1. The distance between the goals shall not  be more than 200 yards and the width of playing space not more than 150 yards. The goal posts shall be seven yards wide, of unlimited height.

Rule 6 provided for the “mark” in the event of catching a ball directly from the foot or leg.

Rule 7. Tripping and hacking are prohibited. Pushing with the hands or body is allowed when any player is in rapid motion. Holding is only allowed while the player has the ball in hand.

Rule 8. The ball may be taken in hand at any time, but not carried any further than it is necessary for a kick, and no player shall run with the ball unless the strikes it against the ground every five or six yards.

Rule 10. When in play the ball may not be thrown.

Rule 8 was crucial to give the game its distinctive form. When scrimmaging was abolished in 1874 next to nothing remained of soccer or rugby in the rules and conduct of the game.

Tom Wills, the original moving influence,  was a tragic figure, dead by his own hand at 37 years of age. Harrison captained Melbourne, Richmond and Geelong in his playing career and was Victoria’s leading sprint runner for several years.

Speaking of Wills reminds me that he was a remarkable figure in many ways, especially for encouraging the game among Aboriginals after most of his family was killed by a hostile tribe in Queensland.

A few years ago I created a blog called The Real Game in the hope that a commentator could be raised from each club to contribute a preview and post mortem on each game, with the possibility of generating some high quality commentary, moving on to individual accounts of early experiences with the game, personal achievements,  high and low moments, folklore, jokes and general reminiscences. Many people were interested before the season but next to none came through when the games commenced. Such is life.

That blog is now cast adrift in cyberspace, along with my first website and another blog called Oysterium where all the other people went away after I started to contribute. Was it something that I said?

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8 Responses to How Australian football started

  1. Dunno Rafe, but keep posting here, this post is superb.

  2. daddy dave

    That blog is now cast adrift in cyberspace, along with my first website and another blog called Oysterium where all the other people went away after I started to contribute. Was it something that I said?

    Nah, I’d say it’s just the atrition rate for new blogs and websites. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm long after the initial buzz and you still haven’t got much of a readership yet.

  3. m0nty

    That grassroots match report concept has been roved, bounced and put through the big sticks several times by the Footy Almanac people, led by John Harms (who occasionally appears on Offsiders) and Paul Daffy. They publish an… almanac every year compiling the match reports, one for every game. A fine enterprise, which I commend to Rafe as a potential participant.

  4. Token

    Thanks for the article Rafe, and the link to the Wall Game. Found this interesting quote about how the future poet was bullied:

    Long ago, one year, they used Percy Shelley–the future poet–as the ball.? Eton could be rough in those days.

    I thought British Bulldogs played on ashfeld was a tough sport.

  5. Rafe

    At least in BB you pick people up, rather than running into them or throwing them on the ground. It was rugged but it was a heap of fun! We played two versions. In the shelter shed when it rained, you had to run from the seats on one side of the shed to the seats at the other side. The defending side stood in the way. Played outside it was more of a running game and the captives had to line up hand to hand against a corner of the toilet block. All were released if a free member of the team could get to the line and touch it.

    On tough sports, under the 100 inches of annual rain on the west coast of Tassie they played Aussie rules on gravel. Geoffrey Blainey confirmed this (he played for the Smelters while he was writing “The Peaks of Lyell”). He said they had local rules against throwing players onto the gravel because missing work cost money!!

    Sadism ruled in the great public (private) schools. Read “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” if you can stand it. When the second committee on the British factories convened to review the Saddler report, at least one of the doctors said that the conditions in the factories compared very favourably with the schools where the Tories (bitter opponents of the factories) sent their children.

    Tragically the findings of the Saddler committee went into the history books, not the findings of the second.

  6. Frank Roberts

    I always thought that “Aussi Rules”” was the Australian equivalent of Gaelic football rules played on a cricket ground rather than a soccer or rugby pitch/????????????

  7. Token

    We’d play BB on the oval, and when the oval turned into a swamp it would spill over onto the driveway. Quite a few sets of ripped trousers and muddy clothes, but as you said, rugged but fun, unless the Grade 6 boys would get in for a bit of fun…

    Strangely enough, BB was always banned at my school, which meant we only played it when it started raining (i.e. when the teachers took off to dryer locations).

  8. Rafe

    Strangely I only recall the game from a primary school that I left midway through grade 4. I don’t recall BB at the primary school in the nearby town where I did 4/5 or at boarding school after that.

    Thanks Frank, most people are impressed by some similarities of AFL and gaelic football however I assume that the author drew from primary sources – he did an MA or PhD thesis – although the article in Quadrant did not have footnotes. He wrote that the rules of rugby were formalized before the 1850s but the rules of gridiron and gaelic football were not formalized until after Harrison did the major revision in 1866. It would help to know how familiar he was with the other games but the most likely explanation is that the rules of rugby were progressively modified (notably without ever having scrums).

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