THE FIRST RULES OF THE GAME

H C A Harrison smallWe were doing some very exacting research on the football in Sydney (and NSW) in the first decade of the last century and  came across a very interesting article on the origins of the game.

Other than some very minor changes to make it more understandable, we have reproduced the following from a long unpublished newspaper of 1908.  It asks some very interesting questions and, we would suggest, quite pertinent to football historians as to just who was responsible for our game and somewhat throws some further light on the Marngrook myth:

”We are Informed from year to year that Mr. H. C. A. Harrison (pictured), a highly respected gentleman in Melbourne to-day, and a very noted amateur foot-runner halt a century back, is ‘the father of tho Australian Game of Football.’ The title is 0ne of very high honor in this the year of the jubilee celebrations (50 year anniversary of the game of Australian Football), implying as it does that Mr. Harrison was the originator or founder of the game.

Is this a fiction that from repetition over 30 years or so has taken unto itself the guise of historical or is it a really a genuine historical fact?

My old friend ‘Observer,’ in ‘The Argus,’ in a recent article, as able and readable as it is instructive, tells us that ‘Mr. H.C.A. Harrison in drawing up the first code of rules became the father of Australian Football.  And on he goes : ‘Thus the great events from little causes spring. Had Mr. T. W. Wills been an enthusiast in Rugby there is not the slightest doubt that he would have been able to influence his companions in its favor, that Rugby under those circumstances would have become the universal game in Australia, and the Jubilee which is being celebrated this year would be an event of an altogether different character.’

It may be added that Mr. Wills was a cousin of Mr. Harrison, and was sent Home (England) to be educated at the famous Rugby School, where he gained his first knowledge of football. Mr. J. B. Thompson, a Melbourne journalist and a sportsman of note in the 5O’s, (1850s) tells us something in a letter to Mr. T. W. Wills (vide ‘The Australian Cricketers’ Guide, 1870-71′) :”

‘My Dear Tom …. you may remember when you, Mr. Hammersley, Mr. T. Smith, and myself  framed the first code of rules for Victorian use. The Rugby, Eton, Harrow, and Winchester rules at that time (I think, in 1859) came under our consideration, the outcome being that we all but unanimously agreed that regulations which suited school boys well enough would not be patiently tolerated by grown men. Thus, holding, tripping, hacking, scrumming with the ball were strictly forbidden; although the, in my humble opinion, almost equally objectionable practice of place-kicking was retained. This is the thin end of the wedge, the mere momentary retention of the ball in hand being an infringement of the main principle of FOOT-ball properly so called. It leads to PATTING the ball on the ground and catching it again, as one runs, and this given the more fleet of foot an immense advantage over other players.’

The statement of fact given by Mr. Thompson is borne out, with the, exception of the exact year, by Mr. T. W. Wills in his book ‘The Australian Cricketers’ Guide for 1874-5,’ in which he also touches on football : ‘The manly game was first introduced into the Colony by the writer (T. W. Wills). A.U. 1857 but it was not taken to kindly until the following year, when a committee was appointed (viz., Messrs. Hammersley Smith, Thompson and -Wills), to draw up a code of Rules, etc., and taken all in all they worked well, and were, in fact, better carried out than the present laws, many of which seem to be quietly ignored. . . . Since the team referred to football has taken a deep hold on Victorian soil. No cry stirs tho blood of young and old sooner than ‘Go it Carlton !’ ‘Charge Melbourne!’ Or the counter cries of ‘Well done, Lacey !’ ‘Go it Goldie !’ or ‘Bravo, Specs!”

If the statement of historical fact of Mr. J. B. Thompson and Mr. T. W. Wills is correct, it is clear that though Mr. Harrison was an ardent and enthusiastic exponent of the game in its infancy, the unique and distinguished title of ‘The Father of the Game’ as applied to him, would appear to be incorrect. There were seemingly a quartet of fathers, and these did not include Mr. Harrison. It was before the appearance on this planet of the big majority who will read this, and, of course, our evidence must be largely drawn from the records of the time. The memory of man is weak. Some of the most wonderful and delightful stories of the cricket held in this country stand not the glare-light of the records. – However, one does not rise as a vile iconoclast to disturb the serenity or tincture the sentiment of those who, perfervid admirers of the Australian Game, give to its traditions almost sacred infallibility. My statements are but evidence from ‘chroniclers of the time,’ men empowered by their association with the game to speak with authority and one by his association with journalism, trained to think with more or less historical accuracy.”Hammersley's letter - part small

We have always been led to believe, and as confirmed by the original set of rules, which are on show at the MCG Museum, that they were drawn up by a committee of seven, whose names appear at the front of this document.  J B Thompson, one of those authors, however says in his above quoted communication that there were only four present when they were comprised.  Well Thompson could be forgiven for a memory lapse in the fifteen years between the event and his letter or article but a later article by another named author, William Hammersley, who went on to become a journalist of some note in Melbourne, was reprinted in the Sydney Mail of 2 September 1882, it also suggests that there were only four present when the first rules were drawn up.  See Hammersley’s attached article.

Who or what is right?