– 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

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.


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?