Origins of Australian football (part three): 'Britishness' and national sport mythology

A common assumption about Australian Rules is that it was started as an alternative to football as played in Britain – but in fact the culture of the sport was created entirely within a British, Muscular Christian framework. Thus the motto on the masthead of the house organ of the Victorian Football League (VFL), the Football Record, first published in 1912, was the unashamedly British 'Fair Play is Bonnie Play'. Nor, despite the significant Irish presence in Victoria, was the VFL the slightest bit hesitant in its monarchism. ‘It is the law of the game that there must be matches on the day when all the English-speaking world is celebrating the anniversary of the birthday of our King,’ the Football Record informed its readers in June 1914.(1) In Sydney, where the sport was not strong, the New South Wales Football League published in the early 1900s a guide to the sport titled The Australian Game that described football as being ‘the British boy’s training’.(2)

VFL  Football Record  fawns over Royal Visit in 1970.

VFL Football Record fawns over Royal Visit in 1970.

These sentiments were not merely for public consumption. Internally, the leadership of Australian Rules resorted to British values and principles in organisational debates. Thus, when in 1911 a dispute broke out between the South Australian National Football League and the Australasian Football Council, Charles Brownlow of the AFC defended his position by saying that ‘it was only British fair play to hear both sides of the question’.(3)

Of course, the sport promoted itself as uniquely Australian, not least when contrasting itself to other codes of football. But this was not counterposed to being British. Like cricket in Yorkshire or rugby union in Cornwall, the promotion of a strong regional identity that thought itself superior to the metropolitan centre did not threaten, nor did it seek to threaten, its essential underlying Britishness. This can be seen in the famous address by Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin to the Australian Rules’ 1908 Silver Jubilee carnival, in which he stated that ‘the game is Australian in its origin, Australian in its principle, and, I venture to say, essentially of Australian development.  It and every expression of the sporting spirit go to make that manhood which is competent for a nation's tasks.’

This statement is often interpreted by Australian historians as a clear expression of a distinct Australian national sporting identity. But in fact the speech was an example of the widespread use across the British Empire of sport as an auxiliary to the growing martial patriotism that had emerged since the Anglo-South African war and was to become increasingly shrill in the years leading to 1914. Not only did Deakin quote Newbolt’s British militaristic poem Vitai Lampada, the final sentence of his speech made it clear that the ‘nation’s tasks’ were preparation for Britain’s future wars: 

And when the tocsin sounds the call to arms, not the last, but the first to acknowledge it will be those who have played, and played well, the Australasian game of football before they play the Australian game of nation-making and nation-preserving to stand by the old land.(4) [my emphasis]

Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War One saw the leadership of Australian Rules follow the lead of football organisations in Britain. As in Britain, defenders of amateur sport sought to stop all professional sport from taking place while the so-called ‘greater game’ was taking place. In Victoria, the chief proponents of this view could be found in the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association (MAFA). Its president L.A. Adamson declared in 1914 that Victorian Football League (VFL) players who continued to play during the war should receive the Iron Cross instead of a premiership winner’s medal for their service to the German cause.

In 1915 the VFL’s rivals in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) voted to stop playing for the duration of the war. The VFL itself split down the middle. In 1915 it voted narrowly to stop playing but the season continued because its constitution required a majority of three-quarters for binding decisions. In 1916 only four VFL clubs took to the field, a number that increased to six in 1917. Both sides of the debate looked to Britain for justification. The MAFA pointed to the actions of the Rugby Football Union in canceling all rugby for the duration of the war.(5) Those in the VFL who sought to carry on used the example of soccer in England and Scotland. South Melbourne official L. Thompson explained 'they did not put off football playing in England’, while an editorial in the Football Record commented:

I saw by the cable messages the other day that in Scotland they were going about business as usual, and had given out that their sporting affairs would go on too, notwithstanding the war. Consequently I see no good reason why the same sort of confidence in regard to the ultimate issue of the greatest war in history should not be expressed in Melbourne.(6)
The appeal to Britishness was repeated in World War Two, Writing in the VFL's 1941 annual report, its secretary L. H. McBrien wrote that ‘the history of the British race is replete with evidence of the value of sport to prepare men for the fighting front’.(7)

The umbilical cord to Britain and its imperial trappings proved difficult for the sport to sever. As late as 1970 the Melbourne Herald Sun published a guide to the 1970 VFL season entitled Football ’70: the Royal Year, the first five pages of which consisted of photographs of the Queen and her family. Perhaps most telling is the fact that ‘God Save The Queen’ was still being sung at the VFL Grand Final in 1980, despite the fact that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ had become the official Australian national anthem (at least on non-regal occasions) in 1974.(8)

The only example of an anti-British political opposition in Australian Rules is that of J.J. Simons, secretary of the Western Australia Football League in the decade before World War One and founder of the quasi-militaristic Young Australia League. Simons promoted the Rules game over what he saw as ‘British’ soccer, not least because of his racist suspicion that the British government favoured unrestricted Chinese immigration that would undermine white Australia. Australia Junior, the magazine of of the Young Australia League, featured racist cartoons of Chinese people to highlight to its young readers the supposed threat to Anglo-Saxon Australia. Even this opposition was based on racial fears commonly held across the British Empire and reflected in many ways what Humphrey McQueen described as the desire of many emigrants Down Under to create a ‘New Britannia’.(9) And sadly, as we have seen, racism in Australian Rules was not confined to such fringe activists of the sport. An editorial in the Football Record in 1912 congratulated players for their performances in recent games with the words ‘the work was high class. No Chinese factory stamp on it. Pure White Australian’.(10)

But in general it appears that it wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea that Australian Rules football represented an overt cultural alternative to Britain became commonly accepted. Westminster’s abrupt shift in its relationship with Australia - exemplified by Britain’s undermining of the economic link with Australia in favour of the European Common Market and the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act’s restrictions on Australian visitors to the UK - forced Australians to rethink their relationship with the culture of the ‘Mother Country’. This was reflected strongly in sport. In both rugby league and cricket, Australian attitudes moved from a rivalry underpinned by an ultimate deference to a distrust that bordered on hostility.(11)

Although Australian Rules football had no direct link to British sports, something of this changing relationship can be seen in its attempts to build an alliance with the Gaelic Athletic Association and its abandonment of ‘God Save the Queen’ on the 1967 tour of Ireland. Indeed, without cricket and rugby league’s heritage of colonial tours, it was much easier for Australian Rules to be seen as a symbol of the spirit of independence that was now abroad. Today, the AFL’s continual focus on the heritage of the sport, real or imagined, is a conscious part of its strategy to portray itself as the uniquely Australian national sport.

Conclusion - the invention of sporting tradition
As in all historical disputes, the debate over the origins of Australian football raises a number of historiographical questions.

The first of these is the extent to which historians accept the assumed traditions of a sport. Those who take the a priori viewpoint that the sport’s origins are uniquely Australian naturally look for points of difference with those football codes based in Britain. Thus evidence of the similarity between the various types of football, such as the widespread use of the mark - is overlooked or dismissed. The differences that are taken as the point of departure are largely drawn from football as it played today, not in the 1850s and 1860s. Thus commonplace assumptions are taken as self-evident and historical research starts from these premises, rather than beginning with an interrogation of them.

Moreover, because differences are automatically assumed, there is little rigor applied to the logic by which those differences are affirmed. Thus Australian Rules is seen both as an older form of football than those in Britain - Bill Murray describes it as ‘the code of football that is closest to nature, the game of the noble savage‘ - and as a new sport that reflects the modernity of its birthplace, Melbourne - Rob Pascoe believes that it ‘reflects the liberal social democratic milieu in which it was formed’.(12)

Other examples of one-sided logic can also be seen, such as the claim that the use of cricket ovals for Australian Rules football matches demonstrates the unique abundance of space in Australia. Yet it could also be argued that this shared use of pitches far, from highlighting an abundance of space, could be taken to suggest restricted space for sport, forcing cricket and football to share the same playing space in a way that was almost unheard of in Britain.

This is related to the second problem, that of hindsight. By assuming that the configuration of the football codes in their formative years is essentially the same as exists today, non-contextual or ahistorical meanings and significance can be ascribed to events or actors. Thus the phrase ‘a game of our own’, which was unexceptional in the football context of 1860, now assumes the importance of ‘a radical proclamation’ from the perspective of modern Australian nationalism.(13) By looking the wrong way through the telescope of history, those facts that confirm the beliefs of today will be highlighted and those details that do not will appear to be inconsequential.

It is instructive to examine a British colonial football code that did not survive. In Cape Town, South Africa, a unique set of football rules developed in the 1860s and 1870s based on a variation on Winchester College rules. Known locally as ‘Gog’s Game’, after the nickname of Canon George Ogilvie, the headmaster of Cape Town’s Diocesan Collegiate School where it originated, it was codified in 1873. By 1876 the Cape Times could refer to it as the ‘well-known game which has grown up in the colony ... its principles are generally understood by young South Africa’.(14) It was only in 1879 that the local game began to be eclipsed by rugby.

Yet the South African rules of football were not an expression of English-speaking South African nationalism, but simply an attempt to find the most pleasing way to play a game of football. Yet the logic underlying the assumptions of Australian Rules’ historians should lead them to suggest that Gog’s Game was a nascent nationalist project that reflected the character and particularities of the local population.

This also raises a third methodological issue, that of comparative perspective. Because the creation and sustenance of invented tradition is based on the claim of an individual sport to be unique and exceptional, origin stories exclude meaningful comparisons with other sports. Indeed, for Australian Rules the British football codes as the ‘other’ against which is defines its origins. Yet without a comparative perspective, any research into the history of football, of whatever code, becomes a form of tunnel vision that can only confirm the premise from which one started.

But, of course, this is not simply a debate about historical evidence or research methodology. Invented traditions also play an important commercial role in the business of sport. Rugby union’s world cup is fought for the Webb Ellis trophy. Well-heeled spectators at Twickenham can enjoy luxury corporate hospitality in the stadium’s exclusive ‘Webb Ellis Suite’. Visitors to Cooperstown can stay in Doubleday inspired hotel suites, visit the Doubleday exhibit in the Hall of Fame and watch a game at Abner Doubleday Field.(15) Heritage is now part of the ‘revenue stream’ of all commercial sporting organisations. Presenting a complex and often uncomfortable view of the past that challenges existing and perhaps cherished notions of sporting history is rarely compatible with ‘revenue-generating’ schemes.

So while the AFL’s campaigns since the 1990s to stamp out racial vilification in the sport are highly laudable, its use of heritage for commercial and public relations purposes is no different from any other sporting body. Martin Flanagan’s seemingly rhetorical yet actually plaintive question - that if the Wills/Marn Grook story is wrong, ‘the AFL has got no more claim to having a connection with indigenous culture than rugby union does and so all these big games it has like the Marn Grook Trophy and 'Dreamtime at the G', what are they? Are they just marketing exercises?’ - has to be answered largely in the affirmative.(16)

Commercial exigency today plays a major role in the shaping of sporting history and heritage. The re-fashioning and even the falsification of history for commercial, publicity or political reasons is just as likely in sport as it is in politics or any other activity. Indeed, the shallow reach and narrow focus of much of the current historical research into sport means that this tendency faces little challenge when its misapprehensions enter the public arena, as was the case with the Australian Rules ‘football history wars’ in 2008.

In many ways, this is only to be expected. The contemporary importance of sport to national identity increases the power of the invented traditions of sport. As we have seen in the case of Australian Rules football, the stories that are re-woven from the historical fabric of sport are not merely narratives about sport, but are projections of how Australian nationalists today want to perceive themselves and their history. As Hobsbawm commented about to the invented traditions of the USA, they became important because ‘Americans had to be made’.(17)

And so too did Australians in the final third of the twentieth century as the umbilical link with ‘Mother’ Britain was cut. Just as the culture of ‘football’ in the mid-nineteenth century offered supporters of the British Empire, whether at ‘home’ or in the colonies, the reassurance of the superiority of British male, today each football code provides comfort to and confirmation of its ideology and values to its supporters. In the constant reinvention and revitalisation of national identity, sport occupies a central position.  

And that means that if, in Ernest Renan’s words, getting its history wrong is part of being a nation, so too is inventing its history a part of every sport’s culture and function.


1 - Football Record, vol. 1, no. 1, 27 April, 1912 and vol. 3, no. 9, 13 June, 1914
2 - NSWFL, The Australian Game, Sydney, undated, unpaginated, in the E.S. Marks Collection at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, shelfmark 728.
3 - Australasian Football Council, minutes of meeting August 1911, p. 81.
4 - Deakin’s speech of 28 August 1908 is reprinted in full in Richard Cashman, John O'Hara and Andrew Honey (eds), Sport, Federation, Nation, Sydney, 2001, p. 111-3. For similar sentiments expressed by British rugby union writers in the years before 1914, see Tony Collins, ‘English Rugby Union and the First World War’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 4. (2002) pp. 797-817
5 - Joseph Johnson, For the Love of the Game: the centenary history of the Victorian Amateur Football Association, South Yarra, 1992, p. 50. For the war and Australian Rules in general, see Richard Stremski, Kill For Collingwood, Sydney, 1987, pp.63-5; Dale Blair, ‘War and Peace 1915-1924’ in Hess and Stewart, More Than A Game, ch. 4 and Michael McKernan, ‘Sport, War And Society: Australia 1914-18’ in Richard Cashman and Michael McKernan (eds), Sport in History, Queensland, 1979, pp. 1-20.. For a British perspective see Colin Veitch, 'Play up! Play up! And Win the War!' Football, the Nation and the First World War 1914-15’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 20 (1985) pp. 363-78.
6 - Thompson in Football Record, vol. 4, no. 1, 24 April, 1915 Editorial by ‘Wideawake’, Football Record, vol. 3, no. 20, 29 Aug. 1914.
7 - McBrien quoted in Keith Dunstan, Sports, Melbourne, 1973, p. 184
8 - Australian Football Yearbook 1990, Melbourne, 1990, p. 157. I am grateful to Roy Hay and Dave Nadel for their help and advice on this issue.
9 - see Simons' magazine Australia Junior, vol. 2 (undated, c. 1907) in the J.C. Davis Collection in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
10  Football Record, vol. 1, no. 5, 25 May 1912.
11 - For a discussion of this change see Tony Collins, ‘Australian Nationalism and Working-Class Britishness: the case of rugby league football’ History Compass, 3 (2005)AU 142, pp. 1-19.
12 - Bill Murray, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer, Aldershot, 1984, p. xiii-iv. Rob Pascoe, The Winter Game, p. xvi.
13 - See Martin Flanagan’s 2001 Alfred Deakin lecture Sport: Touchstone of Australian Life transcribed at, accessed 14.06 31 May, 2008.
14 - Cape Times, 18 July, 1876, quoted in Floris van der Merwe, ‘Gog’s Game: The Predecessor of Rugby Football at the Cape, and the implications thereof’ paper presented to the 35th Conference on Social Science in Sport, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 24-27 August 2006. I am grateful to Prof van der Merwe for providing me with a copy of his paper.
15 - The importance of the Doubleday myth to baseball’s Hall of Fame is described in Vlasich, A legend for the legendary: the origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
16 - Flanagan interviewed on ABC television’s ‘The 7.30 Report’, 22 May 2008, transcript available at, accessed 14.21 on 20 Sept. 2008.
17 -  Hobsbawm, ‘Mass Producing Traditions’, p. 271.