Origins of Australian Rules football (part one)


- - The Australian Rules football season kicks off this week. Despite its geographical isolation the sport has a fascinating history, both in itself and as it relates to the other codes of football. To mark the new season, I'm posting the first of three parts of an article - 'The invention of sporting tradition: national myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules Football' - that originally appeared in Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport, edited by Stephen Wagg and published in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan.


The history of sport is a palimpsest. Meanings, interpretations and purposes are written and rewritten over that history as people seek to give a broader significance to the act of play. Details and fragments are reassembled and rearranged to create a story that meets the desires and demands of different generations, social groups and ideologies.

These stories have been fashioned around incidents, such as Babe Ruth’s 1932 supposedly ‘called’ home run; artefacts, like W.B. Wollen’s 1895 ‘Roses Match’ painting of a northern English rugby match; or philosophies, for example de Coubertin’s reinvention of the Greek Olympics as a beacon of amateur sport.

But the most powerful re-imagined narratives have been those that have invented creation stories for their chosen sport. William Webb Ellis’ picking up that ball and running with it for the first time at Rugby School in 1823 and Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball at Cooperstown in 1839 have little to commend them as examples of historical accuracy.(1)

Yet their resonance lives on, not least in the name of rugby union’s world cup and at Doubleday Field, Cooperstown’s ball park. These invented traditions acquired their power and resilience because they articulated the desires of each sport’s leaders and supporters for special social significance. For rugby union, Webb Ellis demonstrated that this was a game created by and for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday confirmed that this was truly a uniquely American game.

In 2008 a ferocious debate broke out in Australia about the origins of Australian Rules football. Tracing its origins back to 1858, the code was founded and has it centre in Melbourne. Its national competition, the Australian Football League, was until 1990 named the Victorian Football League, and outside of New South Wales and Queensland it is Australia’s most popular code of football. The controversy was ignited by the publication of a lavishly-illustrated official history, ‘The Australian Game of Football: Since 1858’ that aimed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian football match.(2)

Two of the opening chapters in the book detailing the formative years of the code were written by the widely respected Melbourne historian Gillian Hibbins. The first, ‘Men of Purpose’ recapitulated much of her earlier detailed work on the men involved in drawing up the first rules of football in Melbourne in 1859. A second much shorter piece examined popular claims that the sport had its origins in Aboriginal ball games and dismissed such beliefs as a ‘seductive myth’.(3)

Nothing in these chapters was new or unknown to historians. Yet they attracted the wrath ofmany Australian Rules supporters and writers across the game’s heartlands. Accusations of inaccuracy, insensitivity, poor scholarship and even racism were raised. Throughout the middle of 2008 a battle raged across newspapers, radio, television, the internet and even literary magazines over what seemed to be the minutiae of football rules.

For historians, it was a rare moment. Like astronomers witnessing the birth of star, they were observing a new tradition in the process of being invented.

Inventing an Australian tradition

Hibbins’ critics major charge against her work was that she had written out of the sport’s early history the influence of Aboriginal ball games and especially one called Marn Grook. Her adveraries argued that Tom Wills, the man who had written to Bell’s Life in Victoria July 1858 suggesting the formation of a football club and who had been one of the four men who had drawn up the first set of football rules in Melbourne in 1859, was heavily influenced by Marn Grook when he drew up the rules of Australian football. The reason for this influence was, in the words of Martin Flanagan, author of The Call, a novel based on Wills’ life:

It's recorded that games of Aboriginal football, commonly called marn-grook, were played at the Victorian gatherings and that one of the groups that attended the meetings, or corroborees, were the Tjapwurrung. Wills grew up in Tjapwurrung country, his father being the first white settler in the Ararat area, arriving in 1838 when Tom was three.(3)

 According to nineteenth century descriptions of Marn Grook by white European colonists, the game featured high kicking and leaping for a ball. ‘The ball is kicked high in the air, not thrown up by hand as white boys do, nor kicked along the ground, there is general excitement who shall catch it, the tall fellow stands the best chance’, wrote James Dawson in 1881. ‘When the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it, it is sent with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by hand’.(4) Descriptions such as this were combined with accounts of Wills’ boyhood activities with Aboriginal children to claim that the true origins of Australian football were to be found in Aboriginal ball games. 

Aboriginal people playing Marn Grook. It is an early form of Aussie Rules? Or a kind of soccer? Or a precursor of a rugby league kicking duel? Of course it is none of these - and why should it be? William Blandowski's  Australien in   142 Photographischen Abbildungen , 1857, (Haddon Library, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

Aboriginal people playing Marn Grook. It is an early form of Aussie Rules? Or a kind of soccer? Or a precursor of a rugby league kicking duel? Of course it is none of these - and why should it be? William Blandowski's Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857, (Haddon Library, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

There are a number of significant problems with the idea that Wills developed Australian Rules from Aboriginal ball games. Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest he was the primary force behind the drawing up of the 1859 set of football rules. He was merely one of four men who met to draw up a code of rules for the Melbourne Football club on 17 May 1859.(5)

Secondly, even if he were, there is nothing in the historical record would suggest that Wills, who despite being born in New South Wales was educated at Rugby School in England, was in the least influenced by Aboriginal ball games. As Gregory de Moore has found during his exhaustive biographical research, there is not a single mention of the subject in any of Wills’ private or public writings. Quite the opposite in fact, as Wills favoured rules that bore a closer resemblence to those of Rugby School such as a cross bar on the goalposts and a designated kicker to take kicks at goal.(6)

All supporters of the ‘Wills/Marn Grook tradition’ shared a common misapprehension, best expressed by Ciannon Cazaly in the literary magazine Meanjin. She quoted James Dawson’s 1881 account of the ball being kicked high in an Aboriginal game and concluded by saying ‘to me, that sounds a lot like what happens at the MCGmost weekends’ [Melbourne Cricket Ground is the sport’s premier stadium].(7) The problem, of course, is that this an anachronism - the description may sound like what happens at the MCG today but it does not sound like an Australian Rules match during the formative decades of the sport.

Indeed, the sport’s now characteristic ‘high mark’, where a player leaps above an opponent to catch the ball in the air, seems only to begin to become a significant feature of the game in the mid-1870s, almost twenty years after the first rules were drawn up. In its 1876 edition the handbook of the game, The Footballer, advised players to avoid ‘jumping for marks’ because of its inherent dangers.(8) Loose scrummaging was a more important part of the game than the high mark in its early years.

Such was the importance of scrummaging that the 1874 Victorian rules of football laid down that ‘a scrummage commences when the ball is on the ground, and all who have closed round on their respective sides begin kicking it.’ Even as late as the 1890s complaints were heard in Melbourne that the game had become dominated by scrummaging in which sides would often each have ten players competing for ball. Australian Rules football in its formative years bore little resemblance not only to Aboriginal ball games but also to its modern self.(9)

This type of anachronistic misinterpretation is one of the typical features of all forms of invented tradition. As Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger noted in their introduction to their 1983 collection, The Invention of Tradition, 'the peculiarity of "invented" traditions is that the continuity with ['a historic past'] is largely factitious ... they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition’.(10)

Moreover, in addition to an anachronistic view of the past, the Tom Wills, Webb Ellis and Abner Doubleday myths highlight four other key characteristics shared by invented sporting traditions.

The first of these is the fact that the ‘founding father’ of the sport must have had minor rather than extensive involvement in it. Webb Ellis had no involvement in football after he left school. Doubleday built a career in the U.S. military apparently untroubled by any involvement with baseball. Similarly Wills’ major contribution to the development of football in Victoria occurred while he was secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The lack of substantive long-term engagement with the sport is an important factor in such invented traditions due to the narrative space it leaves open for speculation and supposition.

Secondly, the weight of evidence to support the invented tradition is based on largely on hearsay or personal affirmation, usually of one person. Thus Webb Ellis’s role was founded on nothing more than the testimony of Matthew Bloxam, an old boy Rugby School who based his case entirely on his ‘enquiries’. The Doubleday story was predicated on a letter by Abner Graves, had been a five-year old child in Cooperstown in 1839.

Wills’ famous claim that Australia now had ‘a game of our own’ is based on the recollections of his cousin H.C.A. Harrison written some sixty years later. Claims that his boyhood interaction with Aboriginal youths provided the inspiration for his innovations in football rules lacks any supporting evidence. (11) Again, the plasticity of the evidence allows the story to be fashioned according to the needs of the advocate.

The third common feature is that these traditions emerge at pivotal moments in the history of the sport. Thus the Webb Ellis myth came to prominence at the time that rugby union felt itself to be in mortal danger from the threat of working-class influence in the sport, which resulted in the split in the rugby code of 1895, the year that the Old Rugbeian Society’s inquiry into the origins of the game decided that Webb Ellis was its inventor.

Similarly the Doubleday myth emerged in the mid-1900s due to the 1905 Mills Commission report on the origins of the game, published in 1908, at precisely the point that baseball was emerging from turmoil in labour relations and intra-league disputes, leading to the National League’s acceptance of the American League as partner major league and the first World Series in 1903. In Australian Rules, the emergence of the Wills/Marn Grook tradition has emerged as the sport is seeking to position itself as the national football code of all Australia, highlighted by the transformation of the Victorian Football League into the Australian Football League in 1990 and the subsequent expansion of the game.

Fourthly, supporters of the invented tradition ultimately base their position on an unverifiable act of faith rather than on the historical record. Thus the official 1970 history of the Rugby Football Union wrote of those who wanted proof of the Webb Ellis story, ‘what these materialists are unable to understand is that not only are we unable to prove it, but also that this fact does not bother us at all’.(12) In a similar vein, the exhibit on Doubleday at baseball’s Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown reads: ‘In the hearts of those who love baseball, he is remembered as the lad in the pasture where the game was invented. Only cynics would need to know more.’ (13)

Writing in defence of the idea that Australian Rules derived from an Aboriginal game, Jim Poulter wrote that ‘we should reverse the onus and accept the indigenous origins to our game, unless somebody can clearly prove otherwise’, putting those who disagree in the position of having to prove a negative.(14) All three statements serve to seal off their arguments from critical enquiry, elevating the invented tradition to an article of faith for followers of each particular sport. Once more, the history of sport becomes the tablet on which to write about society using the metaphors of play.

And finally, the invented tradition projects back into the past a picture of how the inventors see the modern world. For rugby union followers, Webb Ellis confirmed their belief that theirs was a game for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday supported their ideas of American exceptionalism. And for Australian Rules, the Wills/Marn Grook story of cultural exchange between European colonists and Aboriginal peoples offers a sanitised version of the bloody genocidal reality of race relations in nineteenth century Australia.

Like all Australian sports, Australian football was no less racist than the society which nurtured it. One of its most famous clubs, Essendon, was for the early decades of its history known as ‘the blood stained n-----s’. Aboriginal football clubs were often excluded from local competitions and even the greatest of aboriginal footballers faced racist taunts and humiliations.(15) Doug Nicholls, who was to become governor of South Australia, transferred from the leading Carlton club in the late 1920s because the other players claimed that he smelled. The Marn Grook story views Aboriginal involvement in Australian Rules football through the rose-tinted spectacles of the late twentieth century.

The AFL’s record of racial equality and integration is no better than that of its major rival, the National Rugby League. The percentage of Aboriginal footballers in the National Rugby League (NRL) in 2009 stood at eleven per cent, the same as in the Australian Football League, although a further twenty-nine per cent of NRL players were of Polynesian heritage, a group with little representation in the AFL. Since the 1960s, Aboriginal players such as Arthur Beetson and Mal Meninga have captained the national side and coached at the highest levels of rugby league.

Moreover, some of the arguments used in support of the Wills/Marn Grook are based on racially-stereotyped conceptions of the ‘natural affinity’ of aboriginal players for Australian Rules. ‘They express themselves both on and off the field, to watch them play is exhilarating at times’, claimed Essendon coach Matthew Knights, a racially-encompassing view that is unlikely to be expressed about ‘European’ players.(16)

Since the 1950s the debate on the historical roots of Australian Rules football has been a barometer of changing ideas about Australian national identity. In 1958 the journalist C.C. Mullen published a history of the game which speculated, on the flimsiest of evidence, that the sport had been popular in Scotland in the years before World War One, reflecting the prevailing sense of ‘different but equal’ Britishness then prevalent in Australia.(17)

In the 1960s and 1970s, after Harold MacMillan’s government had effectively broken the imperial link by ending free entry into Britain for all Commonwealth citizens and by applying to join the European Common Market without consulting Australia, a more radical nationalist outlook became fashionable, bringing comparisons with Ireland to the fore. In 1967 an Australian Rules side undertook a short tour of Ireland, where‘Waltzing Matilda’ was played before matches instead of ‘God Save The Queen’ (still the Australian national anthem at the time). They returned the following year. The idea that Australian Rules was derived from Gaelic football also became fashionable, despite the fact that Melbourne rules were codified twenty-five years before those of the Gaelic game.(18)

Today, the dominant liberal (and largely official) view of Australian national identity is based on diversity and reconciliation between European and Aboriginal Australians, as highlighted by prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the country’s Aboriginal population for what he described in a mild euphemism as past ‘mistreatment’. Thus it has now become popular to imagine that the sport has its roots not in Australia’s imperial past but within its native Aboriginal culture.

The invention of an Aboriginal pre-history for Australian Rules football therefore plays the role of, as Hobsbawm and Ranger point out in different contexts, ‘establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities’ and ‘legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority’.(19) For the sport, it plays a crucial role in authenticating its claim to be Australia’s true nation football code.


1 - For Doubleday, see Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, Oxford 1960, pp. 8-12 and James A. Vlasich, A legend for the legendary: the origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wisconsin, 1990. pp. 162-8. For Webb Ellis, see Tony Collins, Rugby’s Great Split, London, 1998, pp. 5-8 and William Baker, William Webb Ellis and the Origins of Rugby footballAlbion, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 117-30. Douglas Booth his The Field, Abingdon, 2006, ch. 6, pp.111-26, discusses sporting myths but in typical post-modern fashion draws no distinction between actuality and invention.

2 - Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football, Melbourne, 2008. Controversially, the book was published to mark the match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College on 7 August 1858, which, as Gillian Hibbins pointed out, was definitely not played under any type of Australianrules. See Hibbins, Are We Celebrating a Year Too Early?, The Age (Melbourne), 2 Aug. 2008 and Martin Flanagans defence, Football ebbs and flow with tide of society’, The Age (Melbourne), 9 Aug. 2008.

3 - Hibbins, pp. 31-45 in The Australian Game of Football. Her views had already been widely disseminated in The Cambridge Connection: The English Origins of Australian Rules Football’ in J.A. Mangan (ed.) The Cultural Bond, London, 1993, pp. 108-27, and (with Anne Mancini) in Running With the Ball: Footballs Foster Father, Melbourne, 1987.

4 - Martin Flanagan, A Battle of Wills, The Age, 10 May 2008. The general outline is also suggested in David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round: A global history of football, London, 2006, p. 93.

5 - James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.

6 - See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 23-4.

7 - Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Sydney 2008, pp. 161,  (for his support for a rugby-style cross bar and designated kicker), and pp. 283-6 for lack of mention of Aboriginal ball games. As Rob Hess has pointed out, Wills involvement in the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of the UK make it unlikely he would seek to disguise any aboriginal influence.

8 - Ciannon Cazaly, Off The Ball’, Meanjin, vol 67, no. 4 (2008) [ accessed 11.23, 28.5.09]. The quote is from James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.

9 - Blainey, pp. 118-22.

10 - Blainey, pp. 64-5 and 227. For a discussion on scrummaging, See Robin Grow From Hess, pp. 15, 30 and 78.

11 - Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition Cambridge 1983, p. 2.

12 - It was J.B. Thompson, one of the four Melbourne rule-framers who used the phrase in the Victorian CricketersGuide for 1859-60. See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 18.

13 - U.A. Titley and R. McWhirter, Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union, London, 1970, p. 9.

14 - Quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Creation Myths of Cooperstown’ in his Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, New York, 2003, p. 199.

15 - Jim Poulter, From Where Football Came... (September 2007) at accessed 13.05, 25 May 2009.

16 - For example, see the accounts of Aboriginal footballers in the 1920s and 1950s in Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: a history since 1800, Sydney 2005, pp. 224-5. For a post-war example, see Peter Read, Charles Perkins, A Biography, Penguin revised edition, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 51-2.

16 - For participation rates, see Roy Masters, Leagues Polynesian powerplay muscles in on indigenous numbers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April, 2009, and Antonia MacGee, Sports stars embrace Rudd apology’, Herald Sun (Melbourne),13 Feb. 2008, which also includes the Knightsquote.

17 - C.C. Mullen, History of Australian Rules Football from 1858 to 1958, Carlton, 1958. The Scottish link is examined in John Williamson’s Footballs Forgotten Tour, Applecross, 2003.

18 - For the tours to Ireland, see Peter Burke, Harry and the GalahsASSH Bulletin, no. 29, Dec. 1998, pp. 9-17. Barry ODwyer, The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football’, Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1, pp. 27-41, argues the case for the Irish origins of the game, but see Blainey, A Game of Our Own, pp. 187-96. for a debunking of this myth.

19 - Hobsbawm and Ranger, p. 9.