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Victorian Rules Football

footy players
Populi Ludos Populo - the game of the people for the people

There is evidence and various theories that games of kicking and passing a ball in whatever form have long existed both in Australia and the rest of the world.2 We will begin however, at the commonly accepted s tarting point, the year 1858.

In 1858 Tom Will and Henry Harrison wrote the first ten rules of Football, thus becoming the first people in the world to codify a kicking-ball game. These rules predate those of Rugby, Soccer and Gridiron. Football may have been inspired by the Aboriginal jumping/kicking game of Marn Grook.

At this time new headmasters from Great Britain were hoping to introduce "manly" games to their students.3 Dr John E. Bromby, educated at Cambridge and the head master at Melbourne Church of England Grammar Sc hool joined forces with William C. Northcott at St. Kilda Grammar School. Together they agreed their schools should play a match of football at the beginning of the Winter of 1858. This is the earliest football game on record between two Victorian schoo ls or clubs. St. Kilda Grammar won the match. Two months later Melbourne Church of England Grammar agreed to play Scotch College, news of the proposed match appeared in the newspaper.4 The game began on Saturday , 7 August 1858 at 12 o'clock, it ran for around five hours, both teams scored a goal so they played again two Saturdays later, neither could score. A fortnight later they played again and again no score. The match was declared a draw and that was the e nd of the first football season.5

1858 is also the year that Tom Wills's letter was published in Bell's life in Victoria calling for an organized sport.

"Sir - now that cricket has been put aside for some months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only 'tis sure), but at length will burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpo r to creep over them, and stifle their now supple limbs, why can not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws ?......" 6

Within three weeks of this letter being published, an article in the same newspaper announced that a James Bryant, the publican of Bryant's Parade Hotel in Richmond would provide a ball so a game could be played in Richmond Park that has since been not iced, was conveniently close to the hotel.7

These events are the documented evidence of the beginning of organised football in Victoria. Yet it should be noted that the fact the above letter could be published, a subsequent match organized, and an interschool game completed means that they were not the first 'games of football' played in Victoria.8


Football was not a new form of entertainment, but up until this point written rules had not been necessary. Rules only become necessary when those playing a game have different perceptions on how the game is played. As clubs became established outsi de the Melbourne area they formed their own set of rules, however they would not have been too dissimilar to the Melbourne Football Club rules.

Melbourne Football Club rules were set down at the Parade Hotel in Wellington Parade, East Melbourne on Tuesday, 17 May 1859. They were developed from the first season of football and the knowledge of T.H. Wills, W.J.Hammersley, H.C.A.Harrison and J. B.Thompson - all founding fathers of the game. Thompson then moved to the Bendigo goldfields, where he became secretary and captain of its first football club - Sandhurst, formed in 1861. Ballarat had a senior football club by 1 862. Tom Wills family's estate was near Geelong, he played a major role in the establishment of the Geelong Football Club in 1859. While these teams rules were similar it soon became clear that when the different areas played each other common rules we re necessary.9

May 8, 1866, football saw the first codification of it's rules by Harrison, Wills, Hammersley and Thompson at the Freemason's Hotel in Swanston Street, Melbourne. The rules have been changed, adapted and interpreted constantly from this point on.

One hundred odd years later a book was published lamenting the direction that football had taken:

"If we could resurrect a devoted Australian Rules follower who died 25 years ago and show him a present-day game we might have trouble persuading him it is the same game...It is not the same...most of the change follows a time of loophole searching of the rules by coaches to see how far the play could be bent to suit their purposes...Along the way policy and tactical pressures have produced drastic and near permanent changes...We have seen the introduction and tolerance of the rugby tackle...Kicking, t hrough all its history one of the two great joys of Australian Rules, has taken a beating and may never be the same again."10

The scratch match that took place on Saturday 31 July 1858 would bear little resemblance to a football match played in 1996. There were around forty men to each side; it was played in a paddock with trees as goal posts; with no boundary lines or poin t posts; neither informal umpires nor written rules; the ball was round, made from a pigs bladder and encased in a leather skin. The game began at around one o'clock and was played until dark - finishing because the ball could not be seen anymore.11 The first to reach two goals was the winner. In 1869, the winner became the team with the highest score.

Generally, a game would begin with a place kick. Ruckmen, as we know them, did not exist in the early years of football. In fact jumping for the ball after the umpire threw it into the air was forbidden. The ball was only thrown in to play when it w ent out of bounds. Rules of 1874 stipulated that the ball after leaving the umpire's hands must touch the ground before any player could again kick or touch the ball. It was permissible to push when a player was in rapid motion, whether or not he had the ball. He could only be held, not tackled if he did indeed have the ball. If the player was held, a scrummage would proceed. The goalposts were seven yards apart, but there were no point posts, as points did not yet exist. There were however 'kick-off' posts, which were twenty yards on either side of the goal posts. If the ball passed beside the goal within the 'kick-off' the defending side would kick the ball in from a distance of twenty yards inside these posts. After each goal the sides would chang e ends.12

Up until and including the 1870's, ground play was the main skill.13 It was around this time that kicking began to become more of a feature of the game. The ball was now being manufactured with rubber for t he bladder instead of pig. This meant the ball was less likely to explode when kicked, and if it did, a spare was more readily available as they were less expensive.14 There were 'long k icks' and 'little kicks', the rules allowing a player who marked the ball to take his time unimpeded to kick the ball. There was no specification on distances. Players soon realized if they were near the goal but at a difficult angle, the ball could be c hipped around until it was in a good position. The receiver of this 'little kick'was known to be taking a 'little mark'.15 As with the increase of handpassing later in the twentieth century the 'little kick' wa s not a favorite part of the game for the spectator, especially for the opposition's supporters.16

A mark was based on the rugby 'fair-catch'. A player would stand his ground and cleanly catch the ball on the chest and call out 'mark'. With the play breaking up more, and the ball being kicked from packs, players were beginning to leap into the ai r so they could 'catch'17 the ball. However, this was not encouraged as the grounds were often rough and uneven and injury could occur as the player fell back to the hard, often uneven ground.18

Grounds and teams

Unlike rugby, soccer, grid iron and Gaelic football, football is the only code that is played on an oval. In the beginning football was seen as a poor cousin of cricket for Victorian cricketers were very successful between 1861-1890. Unable to use the cricket grounds for fear it would ruin the pitch.19, the football game was relegated to rough, uneven grounds and paddocks, that were, if any shape at all - oblong rather than oval. Football in Victoria was more organized and attracted bigger attendances than even then football codes in Britain, but cricket was the established sport in the 1800's in Victoria. It was successful and so held the 'upper hand'.20 The Melbourne Football Club was not given permission to use the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a regular basis until 1869. 21

Ten years after the 'first' scratch match, gum trees and supporters continued to litter football grounds. It was not only the players who had to contend with trees on the 'oval' as a hindrance to the game, it was also the spectators. They complained that higher branches obstructed the clear view of play.22 Spectators often went as far as to walk onto the ground to improve their view of the match. Collisions between players and spectators, and balls bounci ng off spectators or trees standing within the boundaries were common. It happened that often, that a ball bouncing off a spectator or tree, and going through the goals, was still deemed a goal.23

Grounds often had no facilities, (nowhere to change, etc.) so local pubs were used. There were no fences, even the goal posts were taken down after the game. The Madeline Street Reserve where Carlton played was one of the first clubs that erected an iron fence so entry could be controlled and an entry fee of sixpence could be charged. By doing this Carlton, who were known as the 'Bulldogs', nearly halved their crowd attendance for home matches.24

As with ground rationalization today, numbers of different teams would use the same ground. For example, at Albert Park the following teams played - Albert Park, South Melbourne Imperial, Melbourne City, Rising Sun, Young Victorians, South Park, and S outh Melbourne.25 Still there was no central organizing body to organize the season or enforce the rules. Clubs would 'agree' to play on certain days.26 It was not un til 1877 that by public demand, the clubs in Melbourne formed themselves into the Victorian Football Association.27

Melbourne and Geelong are the oldest teams in the competion, being formed in 1858 and 1859 respectively. From this point on clubs and teams were formed all over Victo ria and the rest of Australia. In 1860 the South Yarra and Richmond Clubs came into being; 1864, Carlton, Albert Park (became South Melb ourne) and Royal Park Clubs formed. 1866 saw University and Warehouseman's Clubs; Hotham (now North Melbourne) in 1869; Essendon and St Kilda 1873; Fitzroy 1882; and Footscray in 1883. In 1892 Britannia merged into Collingwood and the Collingwood Club was formed in 1893.28

Towards the end of the 1896 season Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda seceded from the Association and formed the Victorian Football League. These clubs were th e stronger clubs of the competition, they drew the biggest crowds and financially were the most successful. They complained that they were carrying the weaker and less popular clubs because they had to share the gate money.29 There was also the feeling that the VFA were not professional enough, an indication of which was the fact that the VFA was not taking advantage of the interest shown overseas and interstate.30

The first VFL season was not until the following year in 1897. In 1908, Richmond and University were admitted into the League, however the University Club was disbanded in 1915, due to the First World War. The Great War also affected how many teams played in the League, for the 1916 season only four teams competed, and in 1917 six teams. It was not until 1924 that Footscray, Hawthorn (having been admitted into the Association in 1913) and North Melbourne we re admitted into the Victorian Football League.31

The more things change, the more they stay the same. New clubs, powerful clubs and clubs merging and folding in the competion are not new; nor is players changing teams; ground rationalization; debates on game rules; player payments; entrance fees to the grounds; the main skills of the game changing and developing. By studying old newspapers, magazines, annual reports, private papers and photographs we can see the changes the sport has gone through, through it's long and varied history. Much has bee n written on the uniqueness of Australian football. What is it based on? Where was it first played? Why is it not really a 'national' sport? These questions are being asked and debated, for there is still much that is not known about this sport. But answers can be found and developed, if information is stored and held for future generations, as it is in the State Library of Victoria's many and varied collections.


         THE AFL

  In 1897 the newly established Victorian Football League, the AFL’s predecessor,  implemented the world’s first finals system for a team sport where a series of play-off matches was played by the top four clubs at the conclusion of the season.  
  Australian football reached a low ebb in 1916.  Only four of the ten established League clubs were able to compete due to the fact that so many players had enlisted in the military forces at the height of World War I.  
   Almost 450,000 people play Australian football regularly throughout the nation.  On a pro-rata basis, more spectators attend matches at the elite AFL level than any other team sport in the world.  In 1998 the average match attendance was 36,172 for the 185 official games (excluding the Final Series).  
  The largest match attendance in Australian football occurred at the 1970 Grand Final, when 121,696 fans squeezed into the MCG to watch Carlton defeat Collingwood by 10 points in a thrilling encounter.



Curator: Sasha Orive
Assistance: Catherine Herman
Catalogue Essay: Sasha Orive
Catalogue Assistance: Catherine Herman and Jane Miller
Photography: Adrian Flint
Publicity: Cathy Miller
Catalogue Design: Lynda Patullo
Exhibition Mounting: Conservation Department, State Library of Victoria
Multimedia exhibition: Anne South (Multimedia Unit, State Library of Victoria)

ISBN: 0 7306 9209 4


Australasian, May 9, 1868, pg.870

Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, Saturday, September 4, 1858, pg.3

Blainey, Geoffrey. A game of our own: the origins of Australian football. Melbourne; Information Australia, 1990

Blair, Dale James. The "greater game" Australian football and the army in Melbourne and on the front during World War I, in Sporting Traditions: the Journal of the Australian Society for Sports History, Vol.11:No.2, May 1995, pg.91-102

Campbell, R.H. Football facts: a complete record of League Football 1897-1928, Melbourne Specialty Press, 1928

Flanagan, Martin. Southern sky, Western Oval. South Yarra; McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1994

Footy Annual -1967, ed. John Dunn and Jim Main, Melbourne; Lansdowne Press, 1967

The Herald, Saturday, August 7 1858, pg.5

Hibbins, G.M. The Cambridge connection; the origin of Australian Rules football, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.6:No.2, September 1989, pg.172-192

Hickie, Thomas V. They ran with the ball; how rugby football began in Australia, Melbourne; Longman Cheshire, 1993

IAESR. A whole new ball game; re-estimating the demand for Australian Rules football, Melbourne; Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, 1986

Mason, Nicholas. The story of all the world's football games. Football! London; Temple Smith, 1974

Morrow, Dan. The institutionalization of sport: a case study of Canadian lacrosse, 1844-1914, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.9: No.2, August 1992, pg.236-251

O'Dwyer, B.W. The shaping of Victorian Rules football, in Victorian Historical Journal, Vol.60:No.1, Issue No. 232, March 1989, pg.27-41

Sandercock, Leonie and Turner, Ian. Up where, Cazaly?: the great Australian game. Great Britain; Granada, 1981

Turner, Ian. Games people played: cricket and football in England and Victoria in the late nineteenth century, in Historical Studies in Australia and New Zealand, April 1973, pg.511-538

Turner, Ian. Work and play in Victorian Victoria, in Victorian Historical Journal, February 1978, pg.37-48

Wicks, B.M. Whatever happened to Australian rules? Hobart; Libra. 1980

Whimpress, Bernard. Australian football, in Sport in Australia: a social history, Sydney; Cambridge University Press, 1994, pg.19-39

Wills, T. Winter practice, in Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, Saturday, July 10, 1858, pg.3



1 B.Dawe, Life Cycle, in, A whole new ball: re-estimating the demand for Australian Rules football, IAESR, Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, 1986.

2 N. Mason. The story of all the world's football games. Football!, London; Temple Smith, 1974.

3 I.Turner. Work and play in Victorian Victoria, in Victorian Historical Journal, February 1978, pg.37-48

4 The Herald, Saturday 7 August 1858, pg.5

5 Blainey. op cit. pg.17

6 T.Wills. Bell's life in Victoria and sporting chronicle, Saturday 10 July 1858, pg.3

7 T.V.Hickie. They ran with the ball; how rugby football began in Australia, Melbourne; Longman Cheshire, 1993, pg.10

8 B.W.O'Dwyer. The shaping of Victorian Rules Football, in Victorian Historical Journal, Vol.60:No.1, Issue 232, March 1989, pg.27

9 Blainey. op cit. pg.26

10 B.M.Wicks. Whatever happened to Australian Rules?, Hobart; Libra, 1980, pg.7

11 G.Blainey. A game of our own; the origins of Australian football. Melbourne; Information Australia, 1990, pg.19

12 O'Dwyer. op cit. pg.29-38

13 Blainey. op cit. pg.67

14 ibid. pg.68

15 ibid

16 ibid. pg.69

17 O'Dwyer. op cit. pg.31

18 Blainey.op cit. pg.69

19 Blainey. op cit. pg.60

20 I.Turner. Games people played: cricket and football in England and Victoria in the late nineteenth century, in Historical Studies in Australia and New Zealand, April 1973, pg.511-512

21 R.H.Campbell. Football facts: a complete record of League football 1897-1928. Melbourne; Specialty Press, 1928, pg.4

22 Blainey. Op cit. pg.62

23 ibid.

24 ibid. pg.64-66

25 ibid.

26 Australasian, May 9, 1868, pg.588

27 L.Sandercock and I.Turner. Up where, Cazaly? The great Australian game. London; Granada, 1981, pg.38-45

28 Footy Annual - 1967. Melbourne; Lansdowne Press, 1967, pg.9-10

29 Sandercock and Turner. op cit. pg.46-53

30 B.Whimpress. Australian football, in Sport in Australia: a Social History. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1994, pg.24

31 Footy annual - 1967. op cit. pg.10