Henry Harrison has long been recognized as ‘The Father of Australian Football’. A term he earned after a long life spent as a player, administrator and umpire of the game. He was born near Picton NSW in 1836 and his family moved to Melbourne in 1850. He was an athlete who excelled at pedestrianism (athletics) then went on to play in the early games of Australian (then Victorian) Football in 1859. 
He played for three clubs, Richmond, Melbourne and Geelong and Melbourne again, at all of which he was captain but probably gained more notoriety as allegedly being solely responsible for drafting the second revision of the rules of the game in 1866.  These changes were adopted unanimously.
The following paragraph written in 1908 by a journalist with the non de plume of ‘Cynic’ from the Referee Newspaper, quotes from page 363 of the Sydney Mail of 25 August 1883, which validates the suggestion that Harrison was not involved with the initial founding of those first rules (the game). History credits Tom Wills as the man most instrumental in the introduction of ‘the game’, but as you can read, it says “Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself…” This leads to the speculation that perhaps all four were ‘fathers of the game’ and possibility W.J. Hammersley, and Englishman, may well not have received the recognition due to him.
“In ‘The Referee’ (17/8/’08) I touched on the origin of the Australian Game of Football, and quoted evidence to show that the title, ‘The Father of the Game’, has been incorrectly conferred, by the Press of Melbourne upon Mr. H. C. A. Harrison. The evidence was from the writings of Messrs, T W Wills and J. B. Thompson, two of the committee of four which drafted the first set of rules just 50 years ago. I have received two letters on the subject from Melbourne footballers, but while agreeing with the statements I put forward, they throw no fresh light on the matter. As Mr. Harrison is still quoted on all sides, in the Press and at official functions, as ‘the father of the game’, further reference to the first code of rules for what is to-day known as the Australian Game having been drawn up by a committee consisting of Messrs. T. W. Wills, W.J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson, and T Smith, is timely. The evidence of Messrs. Wills and Thompson is thoroughly borne out by the late Mr. Hammersley, who, for 18 years. was sporting editor of ‘The Australasian’. In 1883, after he had withdrawn from regular journalistic harness, Mr. Hammersley, in an article referring to football in Victoria, made the following statement :— When the game was first started in Victoria on anything like a sound footing (that was in 1857), it was a very rough game and no mistake. My shins now show honourable scars, and often I had the blood trickling down my legs. No wonder, for hacking was permitted and no objection was taken to spiked shoes. One day, however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond paddock, when blood had been drawn freely and some smart rape exchanged, and a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better. Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself and the result was – adjourn to the Parade Hotel close by and think the matter out. This we did, with the following result: Several drinks and the formation of a committee consisting of Tom Wills, myself, J.B. Thompson and Football Smith, as he was termed, a master in the Scotch College, a rattling fine player, and splendid kick, but of a very peppery temper. We decided to draw up a simple code of rules and as few as possible, so that anyone could quickly under-stand. We did so and the result was the rules then drawn up form the basis of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and most other parts of Australia. I feel sure that neither Rugby nor the Association code will ever supplant them. In the light of this indisputable, corroboratory evidence, ”there cannot be any possible doubt that Mr. H. C. A. Harrison is not ‘the father of the game.’ In the article from which I have quoted, Mr. Hammersley made some reference to the early days of cricket in Victoria and to the ‘old Identities,’ and in this he paid a tribute to the good work done in the interests of that game and athletic sports by Mr, Harrison : There are not many left ; but amongst all the men I remember who have worked hard for the game in Australia, Mr. W. H. Handfield, Mr. T. F. Hamilton, and the late Mr. D.S. Campbell deserve the most credit for their disinterested labor in the game of cricket. And another name I may add to the list, I think, in the promotion of not cricket only, but of all athletic sports that of Mr. H. C. Harrison.” 
 Australian Dictionary of Biography
 Wilipedia – H.C.A. Harrison
 Referee (Sydney, NSW : 1886 – 1939), Wednesday 9 September 1908, page 8
As the game of Australian Football continues to grow and develop and more people become involved and interested in it’s origins, the accuracy about how it actually evolved, spreads wider and wider.
I became drawn into football in the early 1960s, first as a junior player and later in that decade as an administrator. I was only 17 when someone tickled my ego by suggesting that I could take on the secretary’s position in a senior club in Sydney. You would be right in supposing that there was no-one else.
Well I did take on the job and that started a life-long association and passion with Australian Football; one which has had a major bearing on all facets of my life ever since.
As such I became a student of the game. I became interested in the how, when, where and the why of it all and midway in the 1990s urged the establishment of the NSW Australian Football History Committee.
Thankfully this group was comprised of some very keen aficionados of the game who met on a regular basis and now, almost 15 years after somewhat of a shaky start, have gathered into a wonder football history Society now with almost 100 members.
Nonetheless the question of how the game started intrigued me. I would spend hours researching at places like the State Library of NSW then sit there reading the results of my investigations – one of the many pitfalls of a researcher – document what you find and keep the reading to a minimum should be the researchers maxim! It did help me however unearth two interesting publications: One in particular was an article in the Quadrant Magazine from the winter of 1958 and written by A.G. Daws – a writer of whom I have no knowledge. The piece he wrote was called ‘An Institution in the Metropolis’ – for the Centenary of Australian Rules Football ‘ – a strange title indeed and one which I believe more than most, enabled me to practically identify HOW ‘it’ happened which encouraged me to undertake additional research, the results of which I found astounding.
This article quotes much from the Daws piece, so much so, that I have not specifically referenced it throughout. You can read his item through the link.
Initially Daws cited the well hackneyed letter by T. W. Wills which was published in Bell’s Life In Victoria during the midwinter of 1858. In it he suggested and encouraged cricketers to form “a football club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of law et al” Alternately he suggested the formation of a rifle club – aren’t we lucky!
The ‘committee’ (to use the term loosely) turned out to be a group of four (well educated) friends who had adjourned to the local  following a scratch match and after a few jugs went on to draw up a set of rules which were subsequently adopted by others to become the foundation of the laws as we know them today.
All this has to be taken in context that the town of Melbourne, founded only 23 years before in 1835 by John Batman and John Fawkner, would probably have remained a fledgling colony but for the discovery of gold around the Ballarat and Bendigo regions, most of which was then shipped overseas through Melbourne.
It was gold that laid the business and social foundations for the city of Melbourne. 
So at the time of the formation of the game Victoria’s population after such a short life was around 500,000, and growing. The vast majority of these were centred at the goldfields which was a very diverse, ethnic and intellectual collective (because of the discovery of gold).
In his article, Daws suggests that it was never intended that ‘the local players should stick to the ‘lethal’ rugby code which had been established in England some twenty years before.”
“Football and cricket were then the domain of gentlemen and private schoolboys who had the time to play a sport.” (compulsory schooling was not introduced in Victoria until 1872) The vast majority of the population worked at least six days a week so the only time the general population could involve themselves in a sporting activity was of a public holiday, Sundays being very much reserved for religious worship. That is why those very early recorded matches were mostly only played between schools and otherwise is responsible for such a late start to Saturday games (3:00 – 3:30pm)
Rugby was not encouraged because as the quote implies, it was then considered a very violent game by many Melbournites an opinion apparently held by Wills who himself had attended the Rugby School in England some years before.
“Black eyes don’t so good in Collins Street” wrote J B Thompson one of the committee of four who penned those first rules. He had studied at Cambridge University and knew the various English school football codes.  Further, he told the Argus (Melbourne Newspaper) readers that it was “almost as if the Humane Society had taken over football”  after the game was played uinder the new rules.
Few contemporary sports fans do not realise the lack of sophistication of rugby in those early years. It is safe to say that tackling had little or no rules.
He goes on to say that the interpretation of the rules was “as motley as the football attire of the day.” – which again, appears to be a quote from J B Thompson. 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 revised in July of 1859 to add that “tripping, holding and hacking was strictly prohibited” and even pushing with the hands or body was restricted whilst another rule said that “the ball may at any time be taken in hand but not carried further than is necessary for a kick.”
Because these very early rules actually identified the restriction of brutal play it is reasonable to assume that they were included to differentiate this ‘football’ from rugby football and perhaps reassure players of the perceived safer nature of the game.
One of the initial laws was that the ball “under no circumstances” could be thrown. This implies a soccer influence by the codifiers and one which probably and unwittingly promoted passing by kicking the ball utilising the use of the rugby regulation and term of the ‘mark’ being permitted from a kick. It may well have also led to passing the ball by punching it. The principle behind this rule has never really changed or tampered with. Not everyone though was happy with the ball being physically handled. 
The local press derided the amended rules saying that they were “tame”  but despite this, in 1860 Rule VIII was amended to provide “that the ball may not be lifted from the ground under any circumstances or taken in hand except as provided for in Rule VI (catch from the foot) or when on the first hop [bounce – ed.]. It shall not be run with in any case.”
At that stage most games were played with a round ball and although players could claim a mark and a resultant (free) kick this new rule saw the game then adopt a soccer-like characteristic, fortunately though only momentarily. The Richmond and Melbourne Clubs had discarded this rule from their games by 1861.
Some clubs wanted to use rugby balls and by 1865 the game had the situation of having both types of balls (round and oval) being used in respective matches. Carlton in particular had trained with a round ball and used them in their games, so they weren’t happy if a rugby ball was produced to play with  (the home club had the choice of the ball).
Between 1861-65 the ‘carrying the ball’ rule, referred to above, continued to be a breached and was much infringed by many of the players doing just that. 
So, in May 1866 delegates from four leading clubs met at the Freemason’s Hotel in Melbourne to reach some sort of agreement about ball-handling, realising that this was a crucial issue which had sprung up between players and clubs. Henry Harrison was an apparently a particularly forceful speaker. He had drawn up a new set of rules to present to the meeting, which he chaired.
Rule VIII was the all important one and realistically the one on which hinged a possible divide in the football community of the day between those who wanted the game to be played like soccer and those who favoured the rugby influence and wanted to run with the ball. Harrison’s bold manner saw his rules accepted unanimously and without alteration and Rule VIII was changed to read: “The ball may be taken in hand at any time but not carried further than it is necessary for a kick, and no player shall run with the ball unless he strikes it against the ground every five or six yards”.
Many are unaware that these rules were the rules of the Melbourne Football Club, the Victorian Football Association was not formed until 1877. That is possibly why there were a limited number of club delegates represented at the meeting: Melbourne, Carlton, South Yarra and possibly Royal Park. There was no fixture of games as we know them. Matches were arranged between clubs by means of one corresponding with another to decide on playing a game.
These new rules though, it is said, were written by Harrison (ref?), a MFC delegate and player and while it is said he championed their adoption in a bold manner, I can find no evidence of his club supporting them before this meeting of clubs. It would appear then they had already been agreed to by Melbourne so the meeting was really a dissemination of these rules to other metropolitan clubs who chose to attend.
Historians and writers have previously said that these rules were adopted unanimously. In reality, it would appear that other clubs had little choice. You could say that in that period, the Melbourne FC ‘owned the game’.
Following their understanding by these clubs, books of ‘Victorian Rules of Football’ were printed att 11 shillings per hundred , apparently under MFC authorisation – most certainly under the ‘Athletic Sports Committee’  – seemingly a sub-committee of the Melbourne Football and/or Cricket Club , these rules were circulated and the respective clubs who were not present, then voted between their players whether they would play under them.  It appears all conformed.
So the revised Rule VIII was the start which gave our game its uniqueness and character by placating the majority of the bloody-minded interests who wanted ‘football’ to go one way or the other. It formed a compromise and if you can see through the smoke, it is the basis of the game we play today.
And all this from the two men who were born in NSW – cousins, Wills and Harrison.
 Sydney Mail 25 August 1883 p.363
 History of the City of Melbourne –Melbourne City Council
 The Argus 11 March 1858 p.5
 The Argus 14 April 1860 p.5
 A Game of Our Own p. 31 by Geoffrey Blainey
 Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, 19 May 1860 p.3
 The Argus 14 May 1860 p.5
 The Argus 11 September 1865 p.5
 Bells Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle 3 March 1866 p.4
 Bells Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle 12 May 1866 p.4
 Bells Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle 19 May 1866 p.4
 Geelong Advertiser 22 May 1866 p.2
 In 1980 the Melbourne Football Club splits from the MCC to become its own entity
 Geelong Advertiser 22 May 1866 p.2
Going through various newspapers of past years we came across the following article in a September 1908 issue of the Referee (Sporting) Newspaper.
It refers to Harrison as often being referred to as the father of the game (of Australian Football) and decries that title. It goes on to say the initial rules were drawn up by an ad-hoc committee, over a few drinks following what would be described as a rough game.
One of our members, Greg de Moore wrote a especially interesting book, a Game of Our Own, on the one he labels as the game’s founder, T W Wills.
Nevertheless the article from 1908 makes interesting reading and it was written after there was much celebration in Melbourne at the time over the 50 year anniversary of the game:
“I previously touched on the origin of the Australian Game of Football, and quoted evidence to show that the title, ‘The Father of the Game”, has been incorrectly conferred, by the Press of Melbourne upon Mr. H. C. A. Harrison. The evidence was from the writings of Mr T W Wills and J. B. Thompson, two of the committee of four which drafted the first set of rules just 50 years ago. I received two letters on the subject from Melbourne footballers, but while agreeing with the statements I put forward they throw no fresh light on the matter.
As Mr. Harrison is still quoted on all sides in the Press and at official functions as the father of the game, further reference to the first code of rules to what is to-day known as the Australian Game having been drawn up by a committee consisting of Messrs. T. W. Wills, J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and T Smith, is timely. The evidence of Messrs. Wills and Thompson is thoroughly born out by the late Mr. Hammersley, who for 18 years was sporting editor of The Australasian.
In 1883, after he had withdrawn from regular journalistic harness, Mr. Hammersley, in an, article referring to football in Victoria, made the following statement:” When the game was first started in Victoria on anything like a sound footing (and that was in 1857) , it was a very rough game and no mistake. My shins now show honourable scars, and I often had blood trickling down my legs. No wonder, for hacking [kicking at another’s leg] was permitted and no objection was taken to spiked shoes. One day however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond Paddock, where blood had been drawn freely and some smart raps exchanged and a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better. Tom Wills suggested the rugby rules but no one understood them except himself and the result was, adjourn to the Parade Hotel, close by. This we did, with the following result: several drinks and the formation of a committee consisting of: Tom Wills, myself, J B Thompson and Football Smith, as he was termed, a master at the Scotch College, rattling fine player and a splendid kick, but of a very peppery temper. We decided to draw up a simple code of rules and as simple as possible so that anyone could quickly understand. We did so and the result was the rules then drawn up form the basis of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and in most other parts of Australia. I feel sure that neither Rugby nor the Association code will ever supplant them.
This article has gained some merit over the years and is recognized as good foundation at which to consider the actual starting of the game of Australian Football. The above quote is not entirely accurate, there were others whose signatures appear at the bottom of the original rules of football which are still in existence and are on display at the MCG Museum.
It is true though, that in 1866, H C A Harrison was asked to revise the rules of the game, which he did. His amended rules were accepted without change and they remained the code’s principle rules until they were further revised a number of years later.
Harrison was prominent in very early football He was captain of both Melbourne and Geelong football clubs at various times.Â When the VFA was formed he was made a vice president and when the VFL was instigated they made him their first life member. He was also made a life member of the Australian Football Council when it was first formed.
He was also deeply involved in cricket, in particular with the Melbourne Cricket Club which he had an association, first as a player, then an official from 1861. Harrison died in 1929 and while the title Father of the Game may be up for argument, he was certainly there and active in the very early days of the game.
We 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.”
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.Â 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.