– Marngrook Again

The subject of Marngrook, the perceived game played by Aborigines in the 19th century, has once again surfaced this time by other academics who apparently and whole heartedly support the premise that the game of Australian Football was based or influenced by a game played by aborigines.

Many have debunked this notion as mere speculation but some seem to want it to become a fact and want the AFL to recognize it as such.

In 2012, the president of the NSW Football History Society, Ian Granland, provided the AFL with a version of the facts as he knew them.

Not an academic nor a person who has a PhD, Granland, if anything, is certainly a student of the game, having been deeply involved in it since the early 1960s.  He is widely read on football and is known to have written and spoken on many subjects relating to the code over the years.  He was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his services to the game in 2002.

In 2012 Granland was flown to Melbourne where he gave a recorded version on his opinion of the origin of the game; the origins of the game in NSW and how the AFL should treat VFA premierships and players records prior to the establishment of the VFL in 1897.

Recently, ABC’s Radio National interviewed Professor Jenny Hocking of the School of Journalism, Australian and Indigenous Studies at Monash University, particularly on the subject of Marngrook and its influence on Australian Football.  The interview can be heard here.

Granland’s presentation to the AFL in 2012 is as follows:

What role did Marngrook play in the formation of Australian Football?

I take a purely pragmatic view of this subject and ask that it be viewed as such.

This is no evidence of which I am aware, that supports the theory that Marngrook influenced the game of Australian Football whatsoever.

Writing in the Sydney Mail of 25 August 1883, William Hammersley a journalist and one of the signatories to the first recognized set of rules of the game, said, at the time these first rules were written:That “Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules but no-body understood them but himself.”

Following this statement, (and a game) a group of men retired to the Parade Hotel where, after a period, they resolved to form themselves into a committee to “draw up a simple code of rules, and as few as possible, so that anyone could quickly understand.”

These rules were principally for the Melbourne Football Club and written by the aforementioned, all of whom were of European heritage.  One would think they are simple, straight forward and quite logical to act as a guide for people of the day to adopt and play by.

Thomas Wills was the only one of the seven who is recognized as having had any involvement with aborigines.  And yet it would appear that the rules do not reflect any abnormal deviation from what a reasonably minded person of the day would write.

Had Wills had a more dominant say in the construction of these rules, one would think that with his history and involvement in the rugby game, together with his abovementioned and a subsequently disregarded suggestion that those rules be adopted, would have held sway.  It clearly was not and I therefore submit that had he made any suggestion at the time to involve any part of the Marngrook game, these proposals would have been similarly treated.

These original rules were amended in July 1859 at a meeting where Tom Wills was not present.  The amendment was put by William Hammersley, an Englishman. 1

In terms of the original rules that were adopted and in particular, the distance between goal posts, the size of the ground, that captains should toss as to who should kick off, how a goal should be scored, what is meant as kicking ‘behind’ the goal and that a player shall call mark if he catches the ball – were very similar, if not the same as the rules used in the rugby game.

That the ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop and in “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground I believe was inserted to placate both rugby and soccer enthusiasts just the same as the rule prohibiting throwing was inserted in the interests of the soccer playing fraternity.

To quote from an article by A G Daws in a 1958 edition of the Quandrant Magazine, “the main aim of the early rules was to do away with the Rugby practice of running with the ball, because of the inevitable frequent scrimmages, hacking and tripping that went with it”

The rules were first amended in 1860 with an eventual redrafting of the laws in 1866 by H C A Harrison, at which Wills again was not present.  None of these changes in any way suggest an aboriginal influence.

The 1860 changes included:

Rule 8: Was deleted and replaced with: “The ball may not be lifted from the ground under any circumstances, or taken in hand, except as, provided for in rule 6 (catch from the foot), or when on the first hop. It shall not be run with in any case.” 2 

It is said, the most significant change was the provision for captains and umpiring in the newly added Rule 11: “In case of a deliberate infringement of any of the above rules, by either side, the captain of the opposite side may claim that any one of his party may have a free kick from the place where the breach of the rules was made; the two captains in all cases, save where umpires are appointed, to be the sole judges of “infringements”

A newspaper article further reports that “The remaining rules were confirmed without opposition. ”  I must ask,  “what remaining rules?”  Already I have found mention in a somewhat official medium of changes to rules 3 and 7 that were adopted however several newspaper articles of the time rebuke any alterations to those rules at that stage.  The article does go on to say “The Melbourne Football Club may fairly congratulate themselves on the fact, that their rules, with one exception, were formally adopted by the representatives of the (eight)  different clubs present. ” So clearly the rules the respective clubs abided by in 1860 and what we accept today as the foundation of the Laws of the Game, were still those of the Melbourne Football Club.

Therefore to say that Marngrook somehow motivated or shaped the early rules of the game is, to my mind, pure fantasy.  There is no real evidence nor is there any trace of anything that could support such a proposition and if the games were similar in some respects, I believe this was simply a co-incidence.

Without prejudice, let us not forget the social status of aborigines of the day and what we can surmise Europeans would have thought of incorporating rules of the aboriginal game into an effort to standardise what was purely a game of football played, at that time, and for the most part, by Europeans.  Today, it would well be different.

Finally, some contemporary writers fail to recognize how unstructured sport and in particular, football was in the mid-nineteenth century, and how racism was more than an accepted practice by the white community of the time.”

1.   Argus Newspaper, 4 July 1959 page 6
2.  Argus Newspaper, 28 May 1860 page 4
3.  Argus Newspaper, 29 May 1860 page 4

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