Tracing back the origin of Australian Rules Football

The origin of Australian Rules Football has inspired many books, articles and much historical research. This in itself gives us a clue as to how important this game is to so many Australians.

Anyone who drives along Punt Road or spends timearound the city of Melbourne on a Friday night, or Saturday afternoon, cannotdeny the great popularity of this game. Let alone anyone who watches TV during the football season, (Autumn andWinter). 

It is only when something is so popular and soprominent in a society that we become interested in how it all began. WithAustralian Rules, the focus is always on how such an original game came intobeing, given that much of who we are derives from other cultures orcivilisations.  How did Australian RulesFootball get created and why?  Thefollowing sources give us some clues.


The First Australians are said to have contributed tothe development of Australian Rules Football. There are accounts of Australianaboriginals throughout Victoria playing a game called Marn Grook, (Gunditjmara language for game ball).  This game featured an oblong ball made ofpossum skin, slightly spongy, and included high jumps to catch the ball, alarge side of players, and long kicks of the ball over long distances.  Sound familiar? Players were also dividedinto teams that often had totems as a team symbol (cockatoo, crow, eagle).  Kristin Otto in her history of the Yarra Riverstates that Marn Grook was probably played on the same site as the MelbourneCricket Ground (MCG), home to current football matches, as it is on the site ofthe Woiwurrung meeting and corroboree ground.

Indigenoustime and place

For anthropologists the landscape, weather and geologicaltimeline (e.g. pre or post-industrial revolution) significantly influence thedevelopment or evolvement of a human social practice.  In this case, large, flat and clear tracts ofland around the early settlements of Melbourne, provided by the Yarra Riverflats, can be said to contribute to the origins of Australian Football.  They enabled a game to be played across awide space in a fluid, fast pace, rather than fixed manner; and quick growinggrass in all seasons plus a temperate climate, provided a ready pitch andopportunities for outdoor games most of the year.  Given that the ground was often hard, playerskept the ball off the ground, preferring to run with it and throw or kick it toeach other, and opted for games that involved less tackling and throwing ofplayers to the ground in opposition to English rugby.


Europeans naturally brought their own traditions ofsport and games with balls.  Many ofthese, in particular, English rugby football and Gaelic football (caid) wereplayed in varying forms throughout the early 1800's in various settlementsacross Australia.  The knowledge andunderstanding of a game with rules, played with a ball and against opposingsides was present as soon as Europeans were. 

In Melbourne 1859, the first formal rules for anAustralian Football match were written down and agreed upon. The aim was tocreate a game that could be played during winter, (when the cricket season wasfinished, taking into account the physical environment, and drawing from gamesthat were already being played informally across the country) by bothindigenous Australians and new Australians. A hand written copy of these rulesstill exists: published and widely distributed at the time.  A man by the name of Tom Wills, credited asbeing the 'father of Australian Rules Football', was the convenor of thismeeting.  He was the Chairman of theMelbourne Cricket Club and a renowned cricketer.  Present at this meeting were journalists andseveral other men who were interested in introducing a game, with clear andagreed upon rules that could be played in Australian schools.  

Another man named H.C.A Harrison (also known as the'father of Australian rules Football' due to his significant contribution in managingthe game), established and formed the first five teams from the early days, makingup the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1877.  H.C.A. Harrison was the Vice Chairman of theVFA, the inaugural Chairman of the Victorian Football League (VFL) formed in1897, and active in the Melbourne Football Club for many decades. 

The Victorian Football Association (VFA) wasestablished primarily as an administrative function, to resolve disputes,reinforce rules, and to facilitate inter colony matches, as each Australianstate or territory was ruled independently before Federation in 1901.  Prior to the establishment of the VFA, theSecretaries from each club would meet at the beginning of each year to plangames.  The VFA began with five clubs andby 1897 had sixteen established clubs all over Victoria.  The VFL began its life when the eightstrongest clubs of the VFA broke away to form a more professional association -Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and SouthMelbourne were the founding clubs.  Overthe next twenty-eight years they were joined by Richmond, Footscray, North Melbourneand Hawthorn.  These twelve teams thenremained unchanged for fifty-seven years.

Until the mid-1980's, players lived and worked in thesuburbs their team represented, and therefore mingled with localresidents.  The players in your localteam that you saw every Saturday were often your car mechanic, your shop keeperor your children's teacher.  Mygrandfather lived and worked in Essendon and he and my father and his brotherwere and still are avid Essendon supporters. My father went to school with some of the players - he and his brother wentto the matches each week at the Essendon football ground, and de-briefed afterthe game at the pub with the players.  Mygrandfather's newsagency became the place where stories from the match thatweek were swapped and embellished, often with the players themselves involvedor in ear shot.

My grandfather and my dad attended matches until theywere too old and frail to make it to the stadium, and then they watched them onTV.  My uncle played for Essendon as ayoung man and became Vice President of the Essendon football club, contributinggreatly to its refurbishment and upkeep. His grandson currently plays football for Essendon in the 'littleleague', the club for under 18's. Barracking for Essendon is our familytradition passed down generation to generation even though they are now threesince any of us lived there. When I arrived back in Melbourne with my Italianhusband, one of the first conversations my father and uncle had with him washis 'choice' of football team.  There wasnone. 

Similar with most people in Melbourne, my father anduncle moved from the suburb in which they grew up.  This became problematic for many of the clubsas their membership bases eroded and they became financially weak andunsustainable.  The chaos theory suggestshowever, that this entropy led to a re-flourishing in a different form for theVFL, which became the Australian Football League (AFL), as clubs were privatelybought and moved interstate.  Thissupported the most recent version of the game that we see today, of clubs fromall over Australia coming to play and compete in Aussie rules.  Although the origins of our game may beunclear and disputed at times (indigenous, Gaelic, English, European) one thingthat is never in dispute is that it is 'our' game, evolving and changing butunique and distinctly 'us'.