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 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 for $39.95.


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?