BOOK REVIEW by Dr Rodney Gillett

Roy Hay’s Aboriginal Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come From Nowhere clearly shows that that there is no direct evidence that the game of Australian Football was derived from the Aboriginal game, marngrook.

There is a fundamental problem with the view that Tom Wills, one of the four members of the Melbourne Cricket Club that devised the original rules for the game in 1859, was influenced by marngrook. This is because there is no contemporary evidence that Wills saw Aborigines playing marngrook; there is no record of it in his or his family’s correspondence or in published sources about Wills at that time.

On the contrary, Wills advocated the adoption of the rugby rules that he had played under at the Rugby School in England to his fellow MCC committee members (J.B. Thompson, William Hammersley and Thomas Smith) at the meeting but it was rejected as they were not commonly understood. The rules drafted were an amalagam of the rules for football games played in England during this period.

Hay argues that Wills’s role in the origins of the game have been overestimated largely as a result of an early history of the game in The Footballer (1876) that unduly attributed credit to Wills and his cousin H.C.A. Harrison for devising the game. A myth that continues to this very day. Wills even got the year wrong, stating 1858. Another myth perpetuated.

Hay elects to focus less on finding a link between the games that the indigenous people played and the origins of Australian football in Melbourne, but to develop “the stories of those who saw the white men play their strange game.”

This outstanding scholarly work shows that Aboriginal footballers have had a profound influence on the game of Australian football and have shaped the game and the way it is played. This has not just been in the major competitions, particularly in recent years, but also in the country leagues around the nation.

Hay suggests that the first Aboriginal players of the new code learnt how to play to a high standard in the latter part of the nineteenth century and were ready to take their place in senior teams. The problem was that these richly talented indigenous footballers were trapped within the confines of the isolated missions in rural areas to which they had been consigned in the late 1860s by the colonial authorities. Thus, they could not participate as fully as they might otherwise have been able to in the emerging elite teams of metropolitan Melbourne and country towns.

Much of this book details the stories of notable indigenous footballers living on these seven missions across the colony, namely, Coranderrk, Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ebenezer, Lake Tyers and Ramahyuck, and Cummeragunja (situated on the NSW side of the Murray River near Echuca).

These aboriginal missions were described in contemporary newspapers as “crucibles of athletic achievement” – Cummeragunja in particular. Despite their undoubted talent, these Indigenous athletes were rarely accepted into elite football clubs across the colony. Framlingham’s ‘Pompey’ Austin’s appearance in the Geelong team in 1872 was an aberration; far more common was the refusal by football’s governing authority to allow them to play such as the case of Dick Rowan from Coranderrk to play for South Melbourne.

In the case of Cummeragunja the football officials penalized the whole team because it was too good. It was the winner of the premiership in 1921 (quite possibly with Sir Doug Nicholls in the team before he went to play in the VFL) and it was excluded from the local league as a result. After winning the Western and Moira Riding League (now the Picola District Football League) five times out of six between 1927 and 1932, the club was restricted so that no players over the age of 25 were allowed to play.

Hay’s research is mostly based on his reading of relevant local Australian newspapers that have digitized through the Trove program, a government-sponsored project that has seen many thousands of pages of colonial newspapers made available through trove.nla.gov.au He also made extensive use of the reports of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines in Victoria.

Hay has complemented the story with remarkable visual material, including a host of team photographs of country clubs in which white and dark faces feature at ease with each other.

Of interest to this reviewer is the Dimboola premiership team of 1928 that includes aboriginal players, Alf Marks and star centre half-forward A. Taylor, alongside my grandfather, Mick Gillett.

The Cummeragunja team photo of the mid-1920s, is all-aboriginal, and while it does not feature Doug Nicholls, it is a roll-call of names still prominent in football in the local area including the Rumbalara aboriginal team based in Shepparton but over the years, Kyabram, Nathalia, Lemnos, Mooroopna, and Echuca. Players named Atkinson, Briggs, Charles, Jackson, Whyman, Morgan, Nelson, and Walker all feature; the former Carlton star Andrew Walker has continued the tradition and now coaches Echuca in the Goulburn Valley League.

Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century is an ambitious project. It covers a lot of territory but in doing so, Roy Hay has considerably enhanced the knowledge and widened the perspective of the origins of the Australian football and the role and influence of Aboriginals on the game. He has handled the complex issues with great respect and strong admiration for his subjects. His work exhibits deep empirical research and well-considered historiography – he challenges the proponents of marngrook as a major influence on the origins of football to do the research and provide the hard evidence to show that it is “more than a seductive myth”.

Roy Hay, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere,
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK, 2019. ISBN: 9781527526488
Hardback, A5, 315 pages, illustrated. RRP £64.99. Paperback $39.95.
Paperback version is available from the author roy@sesasport.com.au for $39.95.