History of Australian Football

History of Australian Football

History of Australian FootballThe State Library of Victoria has some of one of the best information on the origins of Australian Rules, but sadly its internet page about the origins has been removed.

It had links to Reports, Original Rules, Cigarette Cards, How to Kick and Exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, the origins of Australian Rules Football are obscure and the subject of much debate. While some of its early history may be obscure, the basis of its modern-day rules and clubs is well known (see below).


The earliest accounts of "foot-ball"games date back to July 1829 and the earliest accounts of clubs formed to play football date to the late 1850s. On the Victorian goldfields, men from across the world brought their own ideas of football rules, and their games were played by a variety of rules. As these were mainly scratch matches (not a organised league or competition between different teams), this should not be considered as part of its forming history.

Early theories (pre-1858 origins);

a) originated from Irish games such as caid, an ancestor of Gaelic football.
b) originated from English public school football games (rugby football).
c) inspired by traditional indigenous Australian (marn grook).
d) influenced by all of the above.

Football was definitely inspired, and based on other ball games, with the first football identifiable Australian rules football game organised in Melbourne in 1858.

Thomas Wentworth Wills, sometimes described as the game's inventor, was one of the umpires at a match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School in the Richmond Paddock. Played as a 40 per side contest, the game is claimed by some as the first match of Australian football Wills had previously published letters calling for the formation of football clubs in a bid to keep cricketers fit during the winter months. Wills had attended Rugby school and played different types of football in England at a time when their rules were still in flux.

The first known laws of the game were published by the Melbourne Football Club in 1859.

Again, while there may be conjecture as to which games influenced Australian Rules, it does not diminish its known history that commenced with written rules, formation of clubs and its first gazetted games.

Early Rules

The Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) holds the original hand written rules drawn up by Wills and Co, however the Ballarat rules of 1862, held by the State Library of Victoria are not too dissimilar.

In the early days few non playing participants would have known the rules, or had the ability and desire to umpire, hence it was often the football captains of each team that took on this duty. The rules were so often disputed that the "umpire"would, and could, carry the printed rules on their person, either in their back pocket or down their socks.

Note: 1859 was the origin of Australian Football Rules (not the AFL - Australian Football League). However cricketer Tom Wills probably wanted to introduce Rugby School Rules and cousin Henry Harrison had only just learn't about football in 1858. Founders who put together the first rules on May 17, 1859 on which our Australian Football Rules are based were William Hammersley, Tom Smith, James Thompson and Tom Wills.
Gillian Hibbins, Camberwell


In 1996 when the original of this exhibition was presented at the State Library of Victoria, there was much to celebrate. The Victorian Football Association (VFA - 1877) marked its one hundred and nineteenth year and it was the ninetieth year of the Australian National Football Council (ANFC-1906), which was formed to standardize the laws and co-ordinate the development of the game for all of the different leagues and divisions within Australia. 1996 was also the centenary of the Victorian Football League (VFL)/ Australian Football League (AFL).

This 'the game of the people for the people', has been named various things over the last one hundred and thirty - eight years: Victorian rules and Australian rules, to name just two, from this point on it will be referred to as football. The game that began without rules, regulations and regulatory bodies has come to the point, some could argue, that the organisation running the game is bigger than the game itself.

This exhibition and catalogue hopes to present, through the documents in our collection: newspaper articles, letters to the editor, editorials, ephemera, and generally published material, some of the history surrounding the evolution of football. Few facts of the origin, history and development of this sport are certain, but this has not stopped it from becoming a way of life to many Victorians: "When children are born in Victoria they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots, having a lready commenced a lifetime's barracking..."1

There is evidence and various theories that games of kicking and passing a ball in whatever form have long existed both in Australia and the rest of the world.2 We will begin however, at the commonly accepted s tarting point, the year 1858.

At this time new headmasters from Great Britain were hoping to introduce "manly"games to their students.3 Dr John E. Bromby, educated at Cambridge and the head master at Melbourne Church of England Grammar Sc hool joined forces with William C. Northcott at St. Kilda Grammar School. Together they agreed their schools should play a match of football at the beginning of the Winter of 1858. This is the earliest football game on record between two Victorian schoo ls or clubs. St. Kilda Grammar won the match. Two months later Melbourne Church of England Grammar agreed to play Scotch College, news of the proposed match appeared in the newspaper.4 The game began on Saturday , 7 August 1858 at 12 o'clock, it ran for around five hours, both teams scored a goal so they played again two Saturdays later, neither could score. A fortnight later they played again and again no score. The match was declared a draw and that was the e nd of the first football season.5

1858 is also the year that Tom Wills's letter was published in Bell's life in Victoria calling for an organized sport.

"Sir - now that cricket has been put aside for some months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only 'tis sure), but at length will burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpo r to creep over them, and stifle their now supple limbs, why can not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws ?......"6

Within three weeks of this letter being published, an article in the same newspaper announced that a James Bryant, the publican of Bryant's Parade Hotel in Richmond would provide a ball so a game could be played in Richmond Park that has since been not iced, was conveniently close to the hotel.7

These events are the documented evidence of the beginning of organised football in Victoria. Yet it should be noted that the fact the above letter could be published, a subsequent match organized, and an interschool game completed means that they were not the first 'games of football' played in Victoria.8


Football was not a new form of entertainment, but up until this point written rules had not been necessary. Rules only become necessary when those playing a game have different perceptions on how the game is played. As clubs became established outsi de the Melbourne area they formed their own set of rules, however they would not have been too dissimilar to the Melbourne Football Club rules.

Melbourne Football Club rules were set down at the Parade Hotel in Wellington Parade, East Melbourne on Tuesday, 17 May 1859. They were developed from the first season of football and the knowledge of T.H. Wills, W.J.Hammersley, H.C.A.Harrison and J. B.Thompson - all founding fathers of the game. Thompson then moved to the Bendigo goldfields, where he became secretary and captain of its first football club - Sandhurst, formed in 1861. Ballarat had a senior football club by 1862. Tom Wills family's estate was near Geelong, he played a major role in the establishment of the Geelong Football Club in 1859. While these teams rules were similar it soon became clear that when the different areas played each other common rules we re necessary.9

May 8, 1866, football saw the first codification of it's rules by Harrison, Wills, Hammersley and Thompson at the Freemason's Hotel in Swanston Street, Melbourne. The rules have been changed, adapted and interpreted constantly from this point on.

One hundred odd years later a book was published lamenting the direction that football had taken:

"If we could resurrect a devoted Australian Rules follower who died 25 years ago and show him a present-day game we might have trouble persuading him it is the same game...It is not the same...most of the change follows a time of loophole searching of the rules by coaches to see how far the play could be bent to suit their purposes...Along the way policy and tactical pressures have produced drastic and near permanent changes...We have seen the introduction and tolerance of the rugby tackle...Kicking, t hrough all its history one of the two great joys of Australian Rules, has taken a beating and may never be the same again."10

The scratch match that took place on Saturday 31 July 1858 would bear little resemblance to a football match played in 1996. There were around forty men to each side; it was played in a paddock with trees as goal posts; with no boundary lines or poin t posts; neither informal umpires nor written rules; the ball was round, made from a pigs bladder and encased in a leather skin. The game began at around one o'clock and was played until dark - finishing because the ball could not be seen anymore.11 The first to reach two goals was the winner. In 1869, the winner became the team with the highest score.

Generally, a game would begin with a place kick. Ruckmen, as we know them, did not exist in the early years of football. In fact jumping for the ball after the umpire threw it into the air was forbidden. The ball was only thrown in to play when it w ent out of bounds. Rules of 1874 stipulated that the ball after leaving the umpire's hands must touch the ground before any player could again kick or touch the ball. It was permissible to push when a player was in rapid motion, whether or not he had the ball. He could only be held, not tackled if he did indeed have the ball. If the player was held, a scrummage would proceed. The goalposts were seven yards apart, but there were no point posts, as points did not yet exist. There were however 'kick-off' posts, which were twenty yards on either side of the goal posts. If the ball passed beside the goal within the 'kick-off' the defending side would kick the ball in from a distance of twenty yards inside these posts. After each goal the sides would chang e ends.

Up until and including the 1870's, ground play was the main skill. It was around this time that kicking began to become more of a feature of the game. The ball was now being manufactured with rubber for t he bladder instead of pig. This meant the ball was less likely to explode when kicked, and if it did, a spare was more readily available as they were less expensive.14 There were 'long k icks' and 'little kicks', the rules allowing a player who marked the ball to take his time unimpeded to kick the ball. There was no specification on distances. Players soon realized if they were near the goal but at a difficult angle, the ball could be c hipped around until it was in a good position. The receiver of this 'little kick'was known to be taking a 'little mark'.15 As with the increase of handpassing later in the twentieth century the 'little kick' wa s not a favorite part of the game for the spectator, especially for the opposition's supporters.16

A mark was based on the rugby 'fair-catch'. A player would stand his ground and cleanly catch the ball on the chest and call out 'mark'. With the play breaking up more, and the ball being kicked from packs, players were beginning to leap into the ai r so they could 'catch'17 the ball. However, this was not encouraged as the grounds were often rough and uneven and injury could occur as the player fell back to the hard, often uneven ground.18

Grounds and teams

Unlike rugby, soccer, grid iron and Gaelic football, football is the only code that is played on an oval. In the beginning football was seen as a poor cousin of cricket for Victorian cricketers were very successful between 1861-1890. Unable to use the cricket grounds for fear it would ruin the pitch.19, the football game was relegated to rough, uneven grounds and paddocks, that were, if any shape at all - oblong rather than oval. Football in Victoria was more organized and attracted bigger attendances than even then football codes in Britain, but cricket was the established sport in the 1800's in Victoria. It was successful and so held the 'upper hand'.20 The Melbourne Football Club was not given permission to use the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a regular basis until 1869. 21

Ten years after the 'first' scratch match, gum trees and supporters continued to litter football grounds. It was not only the players who had to contend with trees on the 'oval' as a hindrance to the game, it was also the spectators. They complained that higher branches obstructed the clear view of play.22 Spectators often went as far as to walk onto the ground to improve their view of the match. Collisions between players and spectators, and balls bouncing off spectators or trees standing within the boundaries were common. It happened that often, that a ball bouncing off a spectator or tree, and going through the goals, was still deemed a goal.23

Grounds often had no facilities, (nowhere to change, etc.) so local pubs were used. There were no fences, even the goal posts were taken down after the game. The Madeline Street Reserve where Carlton played was one of the first clubs that erected an iron fence so entry could be controlled and an entry fee of sixpence could be charged. By doing this Carlton, who were known as the 'Bulldogs', nearly halved their crowd attendance for home matches.24

As with ground rationalization today, numbers of different teams would use the same ground. For example, at Albert Park the following teams played - Albert Park, South Melbourne Imperial, Melbourne City, Rising Sun, Young Victorians, South Park, and S outh Melbourne.25 Still there was no central organizing body to organize the season or enforce the rules. Clubs would 'agree' to play on certain days.26 It was not un til 1877 that by public demand, the clubs in Melbourne formed themselves into the Victorian Football Association.27

Melbourne and Geelong are the oldest teams in the competition, being formed in 1858 and 1859 respectively. From this point on clubs and teams were formed all over Victoria and the rest of Australia.

In 1860 the South Yarra and Richmond Clubs came into being; 1864, Carlton, Albert Park (became South Melb ourne) and Royal Park Clubs formed. 1866 saw University and Warehouseman's Clubs; Hotham (now North Melbourne) in 1869; Essendon and St Kilda 1873; Fitzroy 1882; and Footscray in 1883. In 1892 Britannia merged into Collingwood and the Collingwood Club was formed in 1893.28

Towards the end of the 1896 season Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda seceded from the Association and formed the Victorian Football League. These clubs were th e stronger clubs of the competition, they drew the biggest crowds and financially were the most successful. They complained that they were carrying the weaker and less popular clubs because they had to share the gate money.29 There was also the feeling that the VFA were not professional enough, an indication of which was the fact that the VFA was not taking advantage of the interest shown overseas and interstate.


The Victorian Football Association (VFA) was formed in 1877.
Teams: Albert Park, Carlton, East Melbourne, Essendon, Geelong, Hotham, Melbourne, St Kilda, South Melbourne

By 1896, there were 13 teams in the VFA Senior competition.
Collingwood, South Melbourne, Essendon, Melbourne, Fitzroy, North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Williamstown, St Kilda, Footscray, Geelong, Carlton and Richmond.

The game of the century
Geelong v South Melbourne played on 4 September 1886 is, arguably, the most important Aussie Rules game to be played in the 19th century. Although regular final games had not yet been instituted, the VFA arranged this game so as to determine the Premiers for 1886; both teams had gone through the season undefeated.

V.F.L - Victorian Football League

The first VFL season was not until the following year in 1897. In 1908, Richmond and University were admitted into the League, however the University Club was disbanded in 1915, due to the First World War. The Great War also affected how many teams played in the League, for the 1916 season only four teams competed, and in 1917 six teams. It was not until 1924 that Footscray, Hawthorn (having been admitted into the Association in 1913) and North Melbourne we re admitted into the Victorian Football League.31

The more things change, the more they stay the same. New clubs, powerful clubs and clubs merging and folding in the competion are not new; nor is players changing teams; ground rationalization; debates on game rules; player payments; entrance fees to the grounds; the main skills of the game changing and developing. By studying old newspapers, magazines, annual reports, private papers and photographs we can see the changes the sport has gone through, through it's long and varied history. Much has bee n written on the uniqueness of Australian football. What is it based on? Where was it first played? Why is it not really a 'national' sport? These questions are being asked and debated, for there is still much that is not known about this sport. But answers can be found and developed, if information is stored and held for future generations, as it is in the State Library of Victoria's many and varied collections.


The league currently consists of 18 teams spread over five states of Australia.

Many AFL teams date back to the beginnings Australian rules football, including the very first club, Melbourne Football Club. The Victorian Football League (VFL), started in 1897 with eight teams from the Victorian Football Association (VFA): Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne, and St Kilda. Richmond and University entered in 1908, but University disbanded in 1915. In 1925, Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne entered the competition. It remained in this 12-team single-state configuration until 1982 when South Melbourne relocated to Sydney and became the Sydney Swans.

The next phase in 1987, introded the West Coast Eagles from Western Australia and the Brisbane Bears from Queensland. The league was renamed the Australian Football League in 1990 to reflect the expanded nature of the competition. South Australia was first represented in 1991 when the Adelaide Football Club joined the league. The Fremantle Football Club joined as the second WA team in 1995. After the 1996 season the Brisbane Bears merged with Fitzroy, creating the Brisbane Lions in 1996 and the Port Adelaide Football Club joined to maintain the league at 16 teams. In 2011, the Gold Coast Football Club joined the AFL, while Greater Western Sydney expanded the competition to 18 teams in 2012.


History of the Football League

The history of Australian football will soon be turned on its head if a series of recommendations to the AFL Commission is accepted - recommendations that will rewrite the official birth date of the Australian Football League.

A working party chaired by commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick has accepted that the origins of the AFL competition should be backdated about a quarter of a century, from 1897 to as early as 1870 - the year Melbourne won the first recorded premiership.

In a move that would lift Carlton to the top of the premiership table on 22, ahead of Essendon on 20, the AFL is also expected to redefine the origins of the expanded national competition. Fitzroy would gain an extra flag , as would Collingwood, with the Magpies moving to 16.

The radical revision would correctly establish Australian football as one of the oldest in international existence. The prevailing view is that the completion of the research should lead to sweeping historic changes and would be announced by Fitzpatrick at the 2015 Hall of Fame presentation.

Although the VFL was officially renamed the AFL in 1990, history in future is expected to record that the Australian Football League truly began in 1987 - the year the Brisbane Bears and West Coast joined the competition. This is despite one consideration that AFL premierships should count from 1982 - the year South Melbourne relocated to Sydney.

Under the working party's proposal, premierships will fall under various categories . For example, Melbourne, should the competition's starting point be dated back to 1870, will increase its premiership tally from 12 to 15 but will boast no AFL flags , rather 12 VFL flags and a further three from the previous era.

Richmond will still boast 10 VFL flags but no AFL premierships, while Geelong's new total of 16 will equal Collingwood's but be broken up into seven VFA flags , six VFL and three AFL.

Hawthorn, which did not exist as an elite club until the 20th century, will not see its total premiership tally change, but the Hawks will boast the most AFL premierships , with four of their 11 falling in the national era.

Fitzpatrick is understood to have been close to announcing the historic changes at the 2014 Hall Of Fame function, but postponed the ratification pending more specific research into previously unrecorded club win-loss records and individual game and goal tallies.

The AFL chairman referred briefly to the historians' work at the recent function, which recognised a group of the game's founding fathers. They will also further examine the true influence of Marn Grook and indigenous Australians on the AFL code.

The league's new chief executive, Gillon McLachlan has said: '' There's a review being done but it hasn't come to the commission as yet. Any speculation as to what the outcome may be is premature.''

But it is known that a group of historians and researchers led by the AFL's Col Hutchinson and author and academic Mark Pennings have also been searching to cor- rectly credit some of the game's early champions with games previously not attributed to their records.

These include Australian football Hall of Famers Charles Brownlow, Peter '' The Great"Burns, George Coulthard and Charlie Pannam. Brownlow's captaincy of a Geelong VFL premiership is not recognised in AFL records, while Burns, the game's first superstar , is credited with only 89 games for Geelong despite his extensive career in the VFA playing for South Melbourne.

Coulthard, three times the champion of the colony, died of tuberculosis at the age of 27 and despite seven years and a premiership with Carlton in the VFA, his playing record, according the the AFL, has a '' NA"alongside it. Pannam's extensive VFA games for Collingwood are not recognised.

While individual bragging rights could prove a focus in the rewriting of the AFL's historic narrative, the Fitzpatrick-chaired committee is understood to be determined that previously unallocated premierships be categorised according to their competitions at the time.

The AFL Commission could also choose to backdate the birth of the competition, not to 1870 but to 1877 - the year the VFA was formed. This move was pushed strongly and publicly by Geelong in 2011 when its president Colin Carter presented the commission with a detailed submission to reclaim the game's '' lost years'' .

In 1877, the VFA's founding, nine senior clubs made up the competition. Six of those - Carlton, Essendon, Geelong, North Melbourne (then known as Hotham), Melbourne and St Kilda - still underpin the AFL. Between 1877 and the formation of the VFL in 1896, Fitzroy, Richmond, Footscray and Collingwood joined the VFA.

Carter, a former AFL commissioner, presented the AFL with a detailed submission requesting the commission reclaim '' 20 forgotten years of our football history'' , in a move ridiculed in some quarters as a push to credit the Cats with its seven VFA premierships from that era.

But the commission took the Geelong submission on board and its argument through various historians that the VFA competition and Australian football origins deserved to be recognised as one of the world's oldest and most successful football codes.

'' Our present Aussie Rules record book is wrong,'' historian Geoffrey Blainey said. '' It is based on an old feud between two sets of football officials . It is time to end the feud.''

Blainey added of the 20 unrecognised VFA years: '' The AFL record book ignores them or treats them as phantoms. If they don't take the field in or after 1897, they apparently don't exist, and yet their achievements are astonishing and a glory to the game.''

Supporting the revision is the relevant fact that in the 20 VFA years up until the VFL's formation in 1897, traditional AFL clubs recorded 76 of the total 80 top-four finishes .

Among the wider implications for the game has been the challenge to research team lineups and scores from statistics seemingly no longer in existence.

As Carter argued in 2011: '' Any restatement of history will involve additional research , arouse sensitivities, and spur new debates over gaps in the data. We should expect this but our commitment should be to do what is right rather than what is easy.''

❊ Web Links ❊

History of Australian Football 







List of Australian rules football clubs by date of establishment

❊ Also See... ❊

State Library of Victoria - Closed

❊ COVID-19 Notice ❊

Many locations have gone into lockdown as the state takes action to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).

Disclaimer: Check with the operator before making plans...

Trending HOT

View Event: Drive-In Movie Club
Drive-In Movie Club
Drive-In Immersive Cinema Nights Are Coming to Melbourne Put together by our friends at Hot Tub Cinema, a string of family-friendly, social distancing-safe, drive-in ..

View Event: Things to see, hear & do this weekend
Things to see, hear & do this weekend
Make the most of your weekend in Melbourne with these fabulous events. No city does it better than Melbourne, so get out and discover the very best shows, festivals, ..

Update Page