The Origin of Australian Rules Football
An article by A G Daws in Quadrant magazine in 1958 “An Institution in the Metropolis” celebrated the centenary of Australian Rules football. The trigger was a letter from Thomas Wentworth Wills to Bell’s Life in Victoria in the middle of 1858, suggesting that a football club should form to keep the cricketers fit in the off-season. Wills went overseas to Rugby for his schooling and he captained the cricket and football teams. He made an impact in county cricket before he returned in 1856 to be a leading player, and the organizer of the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868.
Wills and his cousin H C A Harrison drafted the first rules after watching a practice game on the Richmond paddock (near the site of the MCG). They wanted to avoid some features of rugby, especially “lethal tackling”, and some other practices that came from the eccentric “wall games” played at some schools including Eton and Harrow where the objective is to progress the ball along a wall, using all means fair and foul This is scary footage from 1920 . Nowadays it is less lethal but if you think this is too silly for words you won’t get an argument from me.
The first reported match saw teams of 40 from Scotch Collegeand Grammar do battle over almost a month of Saturday afternoons, without a result. The tree-covered ground was a quarter of a mile in length, truly park football! In 1859 other teams appeared at St Kilda, Emerald Hill, Prahran, Geelong. Two goals were required to win. The longest recorded game between Melbourne and University had to be carried over from 1862 to 1863. There was a shorter game between University and St Kilda. Only 11 Uni players turned up and despite being supplemented by onlookers they plunged to defeat in ten minutes.
Many spectators took a stand inside the field of play, a practice which persisted even after the grounds shrank. “After four or five seasons the practice grew of marking the boundary lines with flags but spectators continued to sit and stand about on the playing area as they had always done.”
Spectators and trees could influence the outcome. One match was won when a wayward kick rebounded from a tree at right angles and scored a goal. Another time a certain goal deflected off the head of a child who ran across the goal line at the critical moment.
The uniforms of the early players were quite amusing, starting with cricketer’s whites they evolved into all colours, some scarlet, some blue, some magenta with caps of correspondingly gaudy hues. “Interpretations of the rules were as motley as football attire. The main aim of the early rules was to do away with the rugby practice of running with the ball because of the inevitable scrimmages, hacking and tripping that went with it”.
The first rules prohibited tripping, holding and hacking but allowed the ball to be “taken in hand, but not further than is necessary for a kick”. Interpretation of the carrying rule was a persisting problem and eventually in 1866 Harrison“a man of great personal force and the game’s leading figure” was invited to chair a meeting to revise the rules. He produced a list of 11 rules and these were promptly approved and accepted at a meeting of delegates from the leading clubs.
Rule 1. The distance between the goals shall not be more than 200 yards and the width of playing space not more than 150 yards. The goal posts shall be seven yards wide, of unlimited height.
Rule 6 provided for the “mark” in the event of catching a ball directly from the foot or leg.
Rule 7. Tripping and hacking are prohibited. Pushing with the hands or body is allowed when any player is in rapid motion. Holding is only allowed while the player has the ball in hand.
Rule 8. The ball may be taken in hand at any time, but not carried any further than it is necessary for a kick, and no player shall run with the ball unless the strikes it against the ground every five or six yards.
Rule 10. When in play the ball may not be thrown.
Rule 8 was crucial to give the game its distinctive form. When scrimmaging was abolished in 1874 next to nothing remained of soccer or rugby in the rules and conduct of the game.
Tom Wills, the original moving influence, was a tragic figure, dead by his own hand at 37 years of age. Harrison captained Melbourne, Richmond and Geelong in his playing career and was Victoria’s leading sprint runner for several years.
Speaking of Wills reminds me that he was a remarkable figure in many ways, especially for encouraging the game among Aboriginals after most of his family was killed by a hostile tribe in Queensland.