Victoria is the birthplace of Aussie Rules Football. The diggers played a rough version of this football in the Gold fields in the 1850’s with characteristics adopted from games played in Britain and Ireland.
The account of some of the pioneer players of the game appeared in Australian Newspapers in the 1880’s on how the game began; though not authentic version, makes an interesting read. Prior to 1858, when the game started, several people including Cricketer and Rugby player – Thomas Wentworth Wills, Sporting editor of “The Australian” – W. Hammersley, Athlete – H.C.A Harrison and J.B. Thomson used to go down to Richmond paddock opposite MCG and used to have a kick with the ball. Several Scotch and Irish were also joined with them for the play. Everyone had their own non descriptive style of play influenced by their country or place of origin. Tom Wills is considered as Australia’s first cricketer of significance and was a good Rugby player too . A meeting was held at Richmond paddock by the group to draw up a set of standard codes for the game to suit all styles. The rules set were free and easy as possible to keep everyone happy.
Thomas Wentworth Wills wrote a letter to “Bells Life” in Victoria, which was published on 10th July 1858. Due to the historical importance of the letter, we will reproduce it here in its entirety.
To the Editor of Bell’s Life in Victoria.
SIR, — Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only ’tis true), but at length will again burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpor to creep over them, and stifle their new supple limbs, why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws ? If a club of this sort were got up, it would be of a vast benefit to any cricket-ground to be trampled upon, and would make the turf quite firm and durable; besides which it would keep those who are inclined to become stout from having their joints encased in useless superabundant flesh. If it is not possible to form a foot-ball club, why should not these young men who have adopted this new-born country for their motherland, why I say, do they not form themselves into a rifle club, so as at any-rate they may be some day called upon to aid their adopted land against a tyrant’s band, that may someday “pop” upon us when we least expect a foe at our very doors. Surely our young cricketers are not afraid of the crack of the rifle, when they face so courageously the leathern sphere, and it would disgrace no one to learn in time how to defend his country and his hearth. A firm heart, a steady hand, and a quick eye are all that are requisite, and, with practice, all these may be attained. Trusting that someone will take up the matter, and form either of the above clubs, or, at any rate, some athletic games,
I remain, yours truly,
- W. WILLS.
Taking a cue from it, prominent private schools in Melbourne fielded teams to play this new form of game. The first game that found a place in Newspaper columns of that time was one between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College.
On 9th August 1858, The Argus published,
A match at this excellent game was played in the Richmond Paddock on Saturday, between the scholars of the Church of England Grammar School and those of the Scotch College. The ground was visited during the afternoon by a considerable number of persons interested in the sport. Dr. Macadam acted in the capacity of umpire on the one side, and Mr. Wills on the other. The contest, which lasted until late in the day, was undecided, a game having been declared in favor of each party.
On those days people were not fuzzy about the size of the playing ground. Teams were with 40 a side and rules were as free and easy as possible. They played for 3 hours on 7th August 1858 and during that time Scotch College scored one goal. The game continued on the next two subsequent Saturdays. No further goals were scored, and the match ended in a draw.
The earliest rules of the game stated that the side that first secured two goals won the match. This resulted in many of the instances, the game concluding in few minutes and the teams returning to the field, the same day to play a return game. At the same time, in other instances the game went on for days.
In 1859, Tom Wills founded the Melbourne Football Club along with Hammersley, Harrison and J.B Thompson. Wills was the first captain of the club. With his cousin H.C.A Harrison, Tom Wills co-wrote the first rules of Australian football.
As the game grew in Victoria it was spread to other colonies in Australia too. In 1877, Carlton Football Club travelled to Sydney to play two matches with Waratah Club, one played under Rugby rules and other under Australian Rules. The first match was witnessed by 3000 people and the second by 5000 people including the Governor of NSW.
There were no uniforms for the clubs in the beginning and Melbourne Football club was the first to introduce uniforms.
It is believed, Australian Rules Football is influenced by elements from several football codes and it is absurd to suggest that it derived entirely from Gaelic Football. Australian Rules football started with a few very simple rules and it was altered and improved continuously.
In 8th May 1866, two delegates from each of the four principal clubs in Melbourne – Carlton, South Yarra, Melbourne and Royal Park met together and elected H.C.A Harrison of Melbourne club as Chairman, and a set of rules drafted and submitted by him were unanimously accepted and adopted as rules of the game.
On 5th May 1874, another meeting of the delegates of Melbourne, Carlton, St Kilda, North Melbourne, Geelong and Albert Park were held at Nissen’s Café in Melbourne to modify some of the rules of the game.
By 1875, there were around 96 clubs in Melbourne and suburbs with a membership of 4037 and a playing list of 2800.
After the codification of rules, many football clubs were formed. Melbourne Football Club was formed in 1858, Geelong Football Club in 1859, Carlton and North Melbourne Football Club in 1864, Essendon Football Club in 1872, St Kilda and Hawthorn Football Club in 1873, South Melbourne Football Club in 1874, Fitzroy Football Club in 1883, Richmond and Footscray Football Clubs in 1885 and Collingwood Football Club in 1892.
Victorian Football Association (VFA) was formed in May 1877 after a meeting of Club secretaries at Oliver’s Café in Melbourne. It was decided, the Association will have the entire control and management of all intercolonial matches. The Association consisted of delegates from all Senior clubs represented and country clubs could appoint a proxy residing in Melbourne. It was decided, annual meeting of the association will be held on first Monday in May. The Association revised some of the codes of Football in its first meeting after inception.
During the 1890’s trouble was brewing at VFA between stronger and weaker clubs – stronger clubs seeking greater administrative control considering their financial contribution to the game. In 1896, when it was proposed to share the gate profits equally, which were always lower in matches against weaker clubs; and there was a possibility for it to get endorsed on the votes of the weaker clubs, Melbourne, South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Geelong and Essendon formed a breakaway league and invited St Kilda and Carlton to join to form Victorian Football League.
On 30th January 1897, “The Age” published,
The Collingwood, South Melbourne, Essendon, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Geelong, St. Kilda and Carlton clubs having decided to form an association amongst themselves, to be called the “Victorian Football League”, attention is drawn to an advertisement elsewhere inviting applications for the position of secretary to the league. Such applications much reach Mr. L. F. Dallas, Town Hall Hotel, not later than 5 p.m. on Thursday, 4th February.
In February that year Victorian Football League (VFL) issued a constitution in which its affairs will be conducted, the chief alterations relate to the method in which matches were played.
The remaining clubs continued with VFA and increased the numbers by admitting new clubs from time to time. The first round of matches for VFL were played on 8th May 1897. Essendon took out the first Premiership without even having to play off in the Grand final. In 1898 and ‘99 Fitzroy won Premiership.
In 1897, VFA reduced the number of on-field players from twenty to eighteen and in 1899, VFL followed it. From 1897 onwards VFA became the secondary level of club competition. VFA still enjoyed peaks of popularity in the 1940s with a faster-paced rival code of rules. Richmond defected to VFL from VFA in 1908 and Footscray, North Melbourne and Hawthorn followed suit in 1925. Until 1995, VFA remained independent from VFL.
In 1952, when VFL hosted ‘National Day’, all six matches were played outside Melbourne, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, North Hobart Oval, Albury Sports Ground, Brisbane Exhibition Ground, and Victorian country towns Yallourn and Euroa.
The 1970 season saw the opening of VFL Park, later known as Waverly Park, first purpose-built stadium.
In 1976, the National Football League, which was the national administrative body for Australian rules football on those days, began NFL night Series which played concurrently with Premiership season, with television telecast of the games. It also planned to expand the night series to incorporate teams from VFL, SANFL and WAFL, as well as state representative teams from other states.
In November 1976, VFL withdrew from the NFL’s competition and arranged its own night series for 1977 featuring only VFL clubs. For that purpose, VFL established a proprietary limited company called Australian Football Championships Pty Ltd in 1978. It helped VFL spread its wings interstate.
NFL night series ended before 1980. Then AFC Night series competition became the biggest event of the calendar, with 34 teams competing with VFL, WAFL, SANFL clubs and four minor states teams. In 1982, the size of the competition reduced giving importance to the quality of the teams rather than the quantity.
1986 saw West Australian Football League and Queensland Australian Football League being awarded licences to field expansion teams in the VFL, and West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears were established, and both joined the league in 1987. Salary Cap was established in 1987.
Victorian Football League was renamed in 1990 as AFL (Australian Football League) to show its national character. Today apart from Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Tasmania, every other Australian States and Territories have AFL clubs. Out of the 18 teams in AFL, 9 are in Melbourne. The teams are Adelaide Football Club, Brisbane Lions, Carlton Football Club, Collingwood Football Club, Essendon Football Club, Fremantle Football Club, Geelong Football Club, Gold Coast Suns, Greater Western Sydney Giants, Hawthorn Football Club, Melbourne Football Club, North Melbourne Football Club, Port Adelaide Football Club, Richmond Football Club, St Kilda Football Club, Sydney Swans, West Coast Eagles and Western Bulldogs