Indigenous Round named in honour of NSW Player

By Dr Rodney Gillett

Doug Nicholls

Doug Nicholls after whom the AFL Indigenous Round is named came from New South Wales.

He was born and raised on the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW side of the Murray River in the Barmah Forest, near Echuca.

He told the Sporting Globe in 1935,

“I get a tremendous kick out of football because I know my people in New South Wales follow my doings closely by the wireless and in the newspapers. This always spurs me on, and gives me added confidence”.

(Sporting Globe 1 June 1935)

He began working life as a tar boy on the sheep stations in the southern Riverina. After moving to Melbourne to play football he became a council worker, boxer in Jimmy Sharman’s travelling boxing show, professional foot-runner, pastor, advocate for aboriginal advancement, and finally, Governor of South Australia (1976-77).

However, it was on the Cummeragunja mission oval that he learnt to play football.

Sir Doug played his early football with the Cummeragunja mission team in the Western and Moira Riding district league based around Nathalia. In 1925 he joined nearby Tongala in the Goulburn Valley Football League.

Sir Doug went to Melbourne in 1927 to try out for VFL club Carlton but left the Blues after a trainer refused to rub him down after training because of his skin colour according to his biographer Mavis Thorpe Clark (who wrote Pastor Doug: An Aboriginal Leader in 1965).

He joined Northcote in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) where he starred in the 1929 premiership. He won the club’s best and fairest award in 1929-1930 and finished third in the Recorder Cup for the best and fairest in the VFA in 1930.

Sir Doug Nicholls was 5 ft 2 inches (158 cm), but muscular and lightning fast.

A further highlight of his VFA career was representing the Association in interstate matches in 1931 against NSW at the SCG and against the VFL at the MCG.

In 1932, Sir Doug joined Fitzroy in the VFL and played 54 games for between 1932-36. He finished third in the club best and fairest in 1934 behind Hadyn Bunton (Brownlow medallist 1931-32 & 1935) and Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn (who won the Brownlow medal in 1933).

In 1934 he became the first aboriginal player to represent the VFL when he played against the VFA. He later represented Victoria against Western Australia.

Since 1916 the Australian Football League (AFL) has named the Indigenous Round in his honour to recognise his outstanding contribution both to football and to Australian society. The Indigenous Round recognises the wonderful contribution of all aboriginal players to the game.

However, it should be noted that there is no written evidence to support the claim that the Aboriginal game of marn-grook influenced the drawing up of the rules of the game we know as Australian football.

There are assertions that as Tom Wills grew up in the western district of Victoria and had played football with aboriginal children that this somehow influenced him in the drafting of the rules. But there is no evidence of this in his correspondence or contemporary accounts.

On the contrary Wills had advocated the adoption of the Rugby School rules (from where he went to school in England) but these were rejected as too complicated and unsuitable for the drier and harder Australian grounds by the his colleagues on the Melbourne Football Club committee that devised the rules in 1859.

While there are advocates of an oral indigenous narrative to support the case that there was an indigenous influence on the codification of the game there is still no firm evidence to support that claim.

Most historians have moved on, according to respected historians Gillian Hibbins and Trevor Ruddell in the journal of the Melbourne Cricket Club, The Yorker in 2009, to commemorate the achievements of indigenous players in the evolution of the game since 1859.

More recently, Roy Hay in his book Aboriginal Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come From Nowhere (2019) clearly shows that that there is no direct evidence that the game of Australian football was derived from the Aboriginal game.

Hay challenges the proponents of marn-grook as a major influence on the origins of football to subject the outcomes of their research to historical assessment in order to show that it is “more than a seductive myth”.

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.

Harrison Questioned as “Father of the Game”

   H.C.A. Harrison

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. [1]

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. [2]  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.” [3]

[1]  Australian Dictionary of Biography
[2]  Wilipedia – H.C.A. Harrison
[3]  Referee (Sydney, NSW : 1886 – 1939), Wednesday 9 September 1908, page 8

– 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

New Footy Book On The Market

Book Image thumbnailQueenslander member of the Society, Murray Bird has released a book on the early history of football in that state.

Bird’s place in football history can never be erased – he was the first Queenslander to umpire at AFL level and officiated in 43 games from 1990-94. Yet his contribution to the local football scene goes far, far deeper than that or his 177 local games, including four grand finals.

His working life with what started out as the QAFL, became the QSFL and is now AFLQ, had five different chapters. And each was underpinned by a passion for football that is shared by many in Queensland but topped by none.

He was a development officer for four years, an umpiring development officer for 12 months, junior programs co-ordinator for four years, umpiring manager for four years and football operations manager for four years.

Now Murray has taken on a football historian’s cap and centred his research on Queensland footy and what a job he has done.

Years of research has produced a wonderful book on our game in the northern state and makes fascinating reading.  Here is a short introduction to the period:

Tom Wills, Geelong and Queensland football
In 1866, over a decade before South Australia finally adopted what was then called the Victorian Rules, Queenslanders were playing the Australian game. Prior to the late 1870s Australian Rules football was played in only two colonies, Victoria and Queensland.

All of the schools adopted the game and by the early 1880s the sport had spread throughout Queensland, and was played in places as far flung as Thargomindah, Normanton, Cairns, Cunnamulla and Townsville.

Australian Rules was ‘the game of the colony’ and Queenslanders were enamored with the skill and finesse of a sport that was gradually diverging from its rugby roots during the 1870s.

Some of the founders of football in Queensland were from the famous Geelong Football Club, where the great Tom Wills had played a leading role in the development of the sport.

Wills’ good friends and football teammates at Geelong, George Glencross-Smith and Thomas Board, were at the helm of the Brisbane Football Club when it formed in 1866.

Wills travelled to Central Queensland in 1862 in an ill-fated odyssey to set up a pastoral property with his father, Horatio. His father and 18 others were brutally murdered by a hostile aboriginal tribe in reprisal for atrocities committed by previous colonists. Wills was absent from the property collecting supplies, returning to the scene of the massacre only hours after it had occurred.

His brothers Horace and Cedric were soon summoned to Queensland to assist with the property as the distraught Wills eventually returned to his luminous cricket and football careers in Victoria. Horace and Cedric Wills were both useful players for Geelong in the early 1860s. When they visited Brisbane they would play Australian Rules football with their Geelong mates.

Another Brisbane Football Club founder, Charles Wallen, played for Scotch College in the school matches of 1858 that were the precursor to codification of Australian Rules. The Hart brothers, Fred, Studholme and Graham, were also members of the Brisbane Football Club in its early years. They played for the Albert Park club in some of the first games of Australian Rules before they travelled to Queensland.

Victorians kicked off Australian Rules in Queensland and they were the driving force for football in its first decade.

By 1869 the grammar schools of Brisbane and Ipswich had adopted the code and by the mid-1870s they were beginning to provide graduates to the football clubs of southeast Queensland. In the early 1880s some of these young men were venturing to regional Queensland as accountants, schoolteachers, civil servants and lawyers. When they arrived in places like Maryborough, Gympie, Toowoomba, Warwick, Mackay and Charters Towers they commenced Australian Rules football clubs.

By 1884 there were over 50 Australian Rules clubs throughout Queensland, and only two rugby clubs in the township of Rockhampton.Promotion poster thumbnail

Two of the strongest clubs were Ipswich (The Athenians) and Brisbane (Red Invincibles). The teams were, by the early 1880s, filled with the old boys of the Brisbane and Ipswich Grammar Schools. Victorian influence on the code had waned and it was local Queenslanders who were playing and administering the code.

Crowds would flock to the Queen’s Park in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens to see the Athenians and Red Invincibles fight out matches that were almost always close and often violent. There was no love lost between Queensland’s two biggest towns.

All of this was to change after a bitter battle of the codes erupted in 1884. This battle was to shape the course of Australian sporting history for the next 130 years.

YOU can order a copy of the book by completing the order form, just click here.

The Old Argument of Who Invented the Australian Game of Football

H C A HarrisonGoing 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.  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.

Tom Wills Documentary

Tom Wills smallSociety member, Greg de Moore, the author of the popular book on Tom Wills, said to be the founder of the game way back in the mid nineteenth century, is now the backbone to a documentary on Wills.

The book is basis of the documentary and looks further into the birth of the game, the personalities and events which surrounded the life of Tom Wills.

We have been able to obtain a trailer of the programme which can be viewed here:

Copies of de Moore’s book, which is already in its second print run, can be obtained from the Society with details available on our Sales page.


Football logo 2We have often been asked why Australian football never did take on in Sydney?

The explanation is long and drawn out and possibly a controversial one.

The Society’s president, Ian Granland, has written a comprehensive but yet to be published account of Australian football in Sydney between 1877-1895 and in it he attempts to explain why the game failed to get off the ground in the NSW capital.

Here, he offers a frank and previously unexplored explanation.  In it Granland provided us with a brief but factual account of his theory why: “Bascially, it all started with politics,” Granland said.

Victoria, or Port Phillip (District), as it was then known, was part of the colony of NSW up until 1851 when under acrimonious circumstances (as far as the NSW authorities were concerned) it was granted separation and autonomy by Britain as a separate colony.

Those in control in Sydney were not happy.  Ironically though, it was they who had treated the Port Phillip district with disdain, but at the same time, did not want to lose the area from NSW control.

So there was this underlying current of unease, particularly for example when things like custom duties were introduced between the two colonies and collection officials were placed at various points along the Murray River.

There were other issues as well and these festering differences received a further shot in the arm in of all places on the cricket field in 1863  during an intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales played on Sydney’s Domain.

During the game, Victorian wicket keeper, George Marshall, removed the bails when New South Wales batsman, Jones was wandering out of his crease, reigniting a similar incident when the two colonies had met previously.  The Victorian umpire, Jack Smith gave Jones out but the home state umpire, Richard Driver, president of the NSW Cricket Association and after whom the road in front of the SCG is named, decreed he was not out and said he had called ˜over” prior to Marshall’s action.

As a result, Victorian captain, Tom Wills (one of those acknowledged as a founder of Australian football) led his protesting team from the field under police escort only to be hit in the face with a stone while his other players were similarly assaulted.  Marshall and fellow professional, Bill Greaves, together with umpire Smith would not continue with the match and left for home by steamer; this was well before the rail line was connected to Albury.

This event created headlines in the two colonies and fuelled the situation.

So in 1877 when Carlton FC visited Sydney to play the rugby club Waratah in two games, one under Victorian rules and the other under the rules of rugby, it gave rugby (and Victorian) opponents the stage on which started their century plus opposition to what would become, the Australian game.

Sport was an easy target and as it turned out fitted the protagonists agenda nicely.

The establishment of football in Sydney followed a more traditional line from the mother country and in the early 1860s they began to play rugby, not soccer. Strangely this was not the case in Victoria whose population exploded upon the discovery of gold in 1853.  Victoria then began to develop into a very rich colony indeed, leaving Sydney authorities more bitter at their territorial and population loss.

Gradually, football clubs began to pop up all over Victoria but with no central theme, most invented their own rules or played a general version with a local bias.

At that stage Tom Wills was a rugby man through and through.  He had been educated at the Rugby School in England and played the game there.

When he involved himself with a bunch of cronies playing ˜football” on the Richmond1891.10.01 - Illustrated Australian News small Paddock in 1859, it was decided they should write some rules for their game.  He suggested the rules of rugby but the others were unfamiliar with the game so his suggestion was dismissed. This group of seven then wrote ten simple rules for their football which would go on to become the foundation for the Australian game of football.  This actual list of rules incidentally, still exist today and is housed in the MCG Museum.

So there you have it.  Sydney playing under Rugby rules and Victoria under a hybrid brand which became their rules.  Sydney had some highly placed people endorsing and promoting rugby, Melbourne apparently did not.

The political differences flowed onto the sporting field or for that matter, in anything that Sydney or NSW had to do with Victoria and yet, over the years, the reverse was not the same.

The early loathing of the Victorian game and the venom from the architects of it, particularly in Sydney, was simply inconceivable and to my thinking quite childish.

I can cite many occasions of pure spite against Australian football in Sydney, none worse than in May 1903 when the VFL assisted to resurrect the game in Sydney by staging a competition match at the SCG between the Collingwood and Fitzroy clubs.

To counter this the NSW Rugby Union (Rugby League was yet to be formed) fixtured a double bill.  One game, at the adjacent Sydney Sports Ground, featured the NZ All-Blacks and another game next door at the RAS Showground.  Each had a (reduced) entry charge of sixpence (5 cents).

Despite the charge at the SCG of one shilling (10 cents), the game attracted 20,000.

So not only did Australian football have to battle generally to introduce the game to Sydney, the Sydney Swans also fought for acceptance when they emerged in 1982. They had to battle with opponents of the game, many of whom saw rugby, not so much with a mortgage on football in NSW – because they offered no opposition to soccer when it was introduced, but as the game of preference.

1908 FootballerThis attitude has gone on year after year, decade after decade, spurred on by some journalists looking for a cheap headline. It has permeated into following generations, many of whom really had no idea why they held such an aversion to Australian football, they simply followed suit.

The approach led to fear of it over taking and to some extent envy at the mere mention of the game of Australian football.

Thankfully this attitude is slowly changing so that all Australians can now enjoy the skills and wonderful features of our great national game.


There have been so many claims recently about the ‘ownership’ of the word, ‘football’, more particularly from the followers and supporters of soccer.

Have you ever stopped to think about how many codes of football are played in the world?

* Australian football
* Soccer
* Rugby Union
* Rugby League
* Gridiron
* Gaelic Football

1883-08-25 – The Sydney Mail & NSW Advertiser, p363
article by William Hammersley

There is a suggestion that Canadian football is a game of its own but it is based on Gridiron with the only differences, in particular, are that they play with 12 players while American football has 11 and the Canadians have three touch downs per possession as opposed to four. If you like, subtle differences similar to those in VFL and VFA – in years gone by.

Out of these six codes of ‘football’, would it surprise you to know that Australian (or then, Victorian) football was codified first? Yes, this occurred in 1859.

The Melbourne Football Club rules of 1859 are the oldest surviving set of laws for Australian football. The ten simple rules were drawn up on 17 May in a meeting was chaired by Thomas Wills, one who urged the playing of … ‘football’ and journalists W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson were certainly at the meeting.

Accounts of the people directly involved differ. Some sources also claim that Thomas H. Smith and H. C. A. Harrison were also present. The meeting was held at the Parade Hotel, East Melbourne hosted by other and Melbourne Cricket Club member James (Jerry) Bryant. The publican was a friend of Tom Wills with a personal interest in introducing football to Melbourne’s schools. Bryant had played a role in organising early football matches at the nearby Richmond Park and his son was one of the first players. These hand written rules would appear to be signed by Tom Wills,  William Hammersley,  J. B. Thompson and Thomas H. Smith were also present. They were printed and widely publicised and distributed as RULES OF THE MELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB.  The club’s committee are listed on the front page besides those already named and include J. Sewell, Alex Bruce and T. Butterworth

Amazingly, these hand-written rules still exist. They are at the museum at the MCG and if you get the chance to undertake a tour of the ‘G’ you will get to look at them. This whole exercise itself is extremely fascinating.


The Irish at the goldfields or other influences on the evolution of Australian football are a myth.  Australian football just evolved and rules were changed or introduced as people realised that “this did not suit” or “that practice was dangerous” or the like.

One thing we can admire about Australian football is that many of those who came before us were visionary and where they saw a problem or a an opportunity to advance they game with a change to the rules, they took it.  It is a pity other games did not follow suit.

Nevertheless those rules which were written and accepted in 1859 beat the acceptance of a code of rules by the British Association Football (soccer) – and not by design – by only a matter of a years.  The other codes were mostly formulated in the 1870s or so.  Rugby League was started in 1908.

In the early days in the reporting of sport in newspapers, football was the heading with the various forms of it reported sequentially.  Certainly in Sydney in the late 19th century, the reports of various games, and codes, were interspersed with each other – it was all ‘football’.  One paragraph may have referred to a rugby game while the next went into Australian football then the next might describe another rugby game etc.

So you see, while soccer may be the biggest and most popular football game in the world, they certainly were not the first to have their rules adopted.

Picture shows A game at the Richmond Paddock in the 1860s.  A pavillion at the MCG is on the left in the background. (This is from a timber engraving by Robert Bruce on 27 July 1866).

Incidentally, the game is not recognized or known as ‘Australian Rules’;  It is: Australian Football.  The often used term ‘Australian Rules, comes from when football (the game) was played under ‘Australian rules’.  Rugby was played under ‘Rugby Rules’ and soccer was played under ‘Association Rules’.