Football in Australia in the 1850s
By the 1850s football practice in the United Kingdom had diverged into three distinct forms. The village folk football still continued in a number of areas though attenuated and confined by the authorities. In the public schools and the universities a number of variants of the game were played which had distinct and specific sets of rules. Small-sided games of football sometimes for monetary or physical rewards were being played in various parts of England and Scotland. The latter type of football can also be found in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the examples uncovered so far were not the rough village games but something much closer to association football (soccer) as it was codified in England in 1863.
A notice in the Port Phillip Herald of 30 March 1850, under the heading of ‘Old English Easter Sports’ and advertising a ‘Grand Football Match for a Silver Watch’, is not untypical. In late 1850 the Port Philip District of New South Wales marked its separation from its northern neighbour as it became the colony of Victoria with effect from the first of January 1851. Celebrations began in November and lasted five days. The final day, Saturday 23 November, was given over to a carnival of gymnastic games at Emerald Hill on Beach Road, and the last event was a football match. ‘FOOT-BALL—A match at foot-ball between two sides of 12 each concluded the sports. The game was all on one side from the beginning, and won easily by Mr Barry and his 11’. No more detailed account of this game has been found so far. The crowd watching the games had started small but had grown throughout the day and despite the provision of alcohol, the papers reported that there had been no unseemly incidents. So this appears to have been a small-sided game for which no special explanation was necessary for the readers.
Earlier on 26 August 1850 an eleven-a-side football match had been played as a delayed item in the Victoria Gymnastic Games originally scheduled for 12 August, but actually played over two days. The advertisement for the games was clear. Event number 16 was ‘Football, Prize £11. Entrance 10s. The Prize to be awarded to the first eleven at the goal’. Then on 26 August, the Argus noted: ‘The game of Foot-ball postponed from the late Gymnastic Games, has been appointed to come off today, at the Race Course …’. So the following day the match was reported along with other events held on the Monday. ‘SPORTING—A very fair muster of the lovers of a little recreation, took place on the race course yesterday … After a little trifling in the shape of a pony race, the long talked of game of foot-ball came off, and excited very considerable interest and amusement, and led to a struggle which thoroughly used up several of our leading athletes’. The football match was on the agenda the following year on the same terms as before. The Argus reported, ‘The day's sports were concluded by a Football Match, at which several competitors contended, and, in spite of the rain, were engaged till a late hour in the evening.’
In Geelong in November 1850 a three-day athletic festival included a six-a-side football match for a wager. ‘The game of football came next, Mr Hobson being the umpire on one side and Mr M’Gillivray on the other. There were six players on each side. The arena was the cricket ground in the centre of which the ball was placed and the players stood facing each other at opposite angles of the ground. As the play proceeded, it looked 10 to 1 in favour of Mr Hobson’s side, but one of M’Gillivray’s party happened to give the ball a turn, it was taken up by Giles, another of M’Gillivray’s players, who managed to kick it through the proper panel, and so won the game. Prize – £3, entrance 3s’. John Little in Ballarat was advertising cricket equipment just arrived from the best makers in London, but he also had ‘Foot balls, boxing gloves, foils and masks’, for sale in October 1859. Platts in Hindley Street in Adelaide offered ‘Leather-covered India rubber foot-balls’ among their fresh supply just unpacked.
In Castlemaine in Victoria, the local correspondent for the Argus bemoaned the absence of public celebration of the Queen’s birthday in 1855, but reported that a football match had taken place. ‘The Queen's birthday has been kept here in a fashion, the public offices have generally been closed. Some of the officials and of the townsmen have kept up a game of football in the Camp. There have been no parade, no salutes, no grand dinner nor ball and supper—no money for ammunition to fire a salute.’
In New South Wales, a writer referring to the western outpost of Sydney at Parramatta wrote about the value of sports to the youth of Australia: ‘At all events, one thing is clear, that whenever a new township is formed, several portions of land should be set apart in the immediate vicinity of the town for the public benefit. Cricket, quoits, football, &c, are manly exercises, and ought to be encouraged, if we wish Australian youths to grow up a strong and athletic race.’ The local paper in Bathurst reported on sports at the Bushman’s Inn, on Monday 14 October 1850. Following a cricket match between the Bathurst gents and the bushmen of the neighbourhood, ‘this was succeeded by that healthy and invigorating old country game—a football match, at which a few of the sinewy sons of the soil showed themselves adepts.’ On Easter Tuesday 1853 a fete at Booral, Port Stephens, had games of cricket and football for the young men. A match race for two pedestrians, Lynch and Cheeseman was scheduled to take place in Hyde Park in Sydney in June 1854 and ‘After the match it is expected a game of football will take place between two elevens to be picked on the ground’. Footballs and hurling sticks were on sale at the Hyde Park Toy and Fancy Bazaar a decade earlier in 1844.
The Reverend B Ashley took up the promotion of health on behalf of the Christian Knowledge Society. Reflecting the contemporary fear that Australians might be atrophying for want of exercise and the seduction of alcohol he recommended ‘Cricket; football; quoits; swinging; trap-ball; leaping over a moveable bar, or with poles; parallel bars to exercise the arms; leap-frog; or shuttle-cock, a number of persons standing in a circle. Such recreation would tend to draw men from the debasing habits of drinking and licentiousness, and the exercise would promote health, diffuse a feeling of lightness through the body, and increase cheerfulness of mind.’
In Tasmania a Grand Fete Champetre on Boxing Day 1850 was advertised to be held on the Regatta Ground. ‘Different Amusements, including Football, Hurling Matches, Dancing, and running for the Pig will be prepared on the Ground.’ Earlier in the year, a correspondent to the Colonial Times was exercised about the desecration of the Sabbath on Sunday 1 September 1850 ‘by a party of 70 or 80 composed of boys, youths and children and some of a larger growth, men of somewhat respectable exterior, devoting themselves to a game at foot-ball; and what made the matter worse, the language—cursing and swearing, and shouting were such as would be considered infamous on a market day.’ This might have been an example of the old villages game, but it is equally likely that it started as a small-sided game among a group of players and grew as others joined in. The following year after the election of Mr Gregson as representative for Richmond, ‘In the afternoon a match at football took place in a large paddock near the township.’
Football cannot have been associated with violence in the minds of the Tasmanian authorities for when the committee organising the Richmond Jubilee on 10 August 1853 wanted to celebrate the cessation of transportation to van Diemen’s Land they did so with ‘games of cricket, foot-ball, quoits, pigeon-shooting, running and jumping and other sports’ for prizes. Nobody had to instruct the young people who attended. ‘The youngsters were very early, and while the guns (fifty) were yet discharging to collect the people, set to foot-ball, and one or two pretty cricket-matches were played.’ The Sorell Jubilee on 7 September 1853 also had ‘general sports of the day: cricket, football, etc, etc’. The following year the advertisement for the Ploughing Match at Richmond had a final offering, ‘A foot-ball and other sports will take place during the day.’ The football matches (plural) at this one turned out to be more like the village games as a couple of players finished up in a creek and another ‘tumbled into the midst of a group of gentle dames’. The Queen’s Birthday celebrations in Longford included several prizes for juveniles, ‘Foot Ball, cricket, jumping in sacks, throwing the hammer’.
The expedition to the Arctic in 1850 by Sir John Ross searching for Sir John Franklin, the former governor of Van Diemen’s Land, was reported in the Perth Gazette in Western Australia and the Courier in Tasmania, including this item, ‘Ample time was allowed to the crews of both ships to meet each other and games of foot-ball and other exercises relieved the monotony which surrounded them.’
All these references predate the codification of football in Australia and the United Kingdom but make clear that the game was embedded in the social lives of migrants as it was in their homelands. Football is often mentioned as just one of a list of sports that have taken place or are planned. For example, ‘There will be games of all kinds, cricket, quoits, football, throwing the hammer, etc.’ ran a report on the plans to celebrate at a public holiday in Geelong on 14 December 1855. The word football was in common use in political and other discourse as metaphor and image. The very fact that football did not have to be explained to readers—it could be taken for granted—reinforces this point.
The social composition of the footballers is only just beginning to be studied and it is likely that some of the participants had good, sometimes first hand, experience of the games being played in the public schools in England. When debates about a common code of rules took place later in the decade the newspapers and the accounts of the deliberations make clear that the rules of these schools were thoroughly considered by the people concerned. Nevertheless the claim by Tom Wills, who was educated at Rugby, to have introduced the game of football to Victoria in 1858 is unsustainable.
None of these matches in 1850 and through to 1859 led, as far as is known, to the setting up of a continuing organisation or the promulgation of a set of rules, unlike the meeting of Wills and three or four others at the Parade Hotel in Melbourne which wrote down a set of rules for the Melbourne football club. But then in the 1860s and probably for some time thereafter, clubs were formed for the duration of the relevant season, but had to be reconstituted the following year. Also it is well into the 1870s before there is anything like general agreement on one set of rules for football, even though sets of rules were debated and written down in both England and Australia.
Now there is no claim that similar evidence can be found for every year following the arrival of the Europeans in Australia and there were probably periods when the game disappeared from the printed press sources mentioned here. But it is becoming clear that there was much more football being played in areas quite remote from the Home Counties of England in the United Kingdom and its colonies than has been discussed so far. Any suggestion that this empirical research is driven by a quasi-political agenda to elevate the working class contribution to the sport misses the point. More empirical research to underpin theoretical analysis is what I have been advocating since I started writing on the early history of the game.
The notion that people had to be taught the game of football by the public school men as distinct from having their games codified and organised on a broader basis by them has always seemed an inadequate explanation of the processes involved. The explosion of popularity of football within a generation has always been inexplicable in those terms and it is that which is the key feature of both the game of Association football in the United Kingdom and overseas, and the game of Australian football in the southern states of Australia.
Source Note: The above article was first published (with some modifications) in the journal 'Bulletin of Sport and Culture', no. 37, March 2012, pp. 16-19. We wish to acknowledge the source and to thank the author, Roy Hay, and the editor, Rob Hess, for allowing it to be republished here.
Author Note: Roy Hay is an Honorary Fellow at Deakin University, where he taught for 25 years, and a partner in Sports and Editorial Services Australia. Recent publications include ‘A tale of two footballs: The origins of Association Football and Australian Rules revisited,’ Sport in Society, Vol. 13, No. 6. August 2010, pp. 952–969 and ‘A Club is born,’ in John Murray, ed., We are Geelong: The Story of the Geelong Football Club, Geoff Slattery Enterprises, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 23-31. He edited The World Game Downunder with Bill Murray and wrote The Story of Football in Victoria with Ian Syson.
- Hugh Hornby, Uppies and Downies: The extraordinary football games of Britain, English Heritage, London, 2007.
- Eric Dunning and Kenneth Sheard, Barbarians, gentlemen and players. A sociological study of the development of Rugby football, Martin Robertson, London, 1979; Tony Mason, Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915, Harvester, Sussex, 1980.
- Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years: The Untold Story, Routledge, London, 2005; Neil Tranter, ‘The Chronology of Organised Sport in Nineteenth Century Scotland: A Regional Study I - Patterns’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 7 (No. 2), 1990, pp. 188-203; and ‘II - Causes’, 7 (No. 3), pp. 365-387.
- Port Phillip Herald, 30 March 1850, 3. We owe this and several other references to Dr Tony Ward.
- Supplement to the Argus, Tuesday 19 November 1850, p. 15; South Australian, Thursday 5 December 1850, p. 4. Nearly all of the following references taken from the contemporary press are drawn from the National Library of Australia’s wonderful newspaper digitisation project. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/home. There were probably several Barrys in Melbourne in 1850. The best known at the time was the pre-eminent figure in Melbourne in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Irish immigrant and later cultural icon, (Sir) Redmond Barry. He was a judge, founder of Melbourne University and its first Chancellor, inspiration for the State Library and the man who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang. Is it possible that Mr Barry is Redmond Barry, as the name is used in the press without further explanation? There is no mention of football in Peter Ryan’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Given the range of Barry’s activities, including polo, it is quite possible that he included football. Peter Ryan, 'Barry, Sir Redmond (1813–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barry-sir-redmond-2946/text4271, accessed 9 January 2012. Barry’s day book which is an invaluable source is missing for 1850 as are the rest of his personal records for the next eight years. Ann Galbally, Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Australian, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p. 69. I consulted Andrew Lemon, historian of thoroughbred racing in Australia and an authority on all things connected with sport in Melbourne in the mid-nineteenth century. He replied: ‘Short answer is that it could be Redmond in the football match but there is no mention of it in biographies. He was only about 37 in 1850 and was at that time still regarded as athletic, though he reached 16 stone and his family said he was "butty" when he went to visit them in Ireland a decade later in 1862. He rode horses in steeplechases at private race meetings in Woodlands in the 1840s and he was a swimmer and walker, but there is no reference to football playing. His adolescent schooling was at a boarding school Hall Place in Bexley, Kent, that biographer Ann Galbally says had 'the specific aim of preparing boys for entrance into the British Army'. She says only 'the physical pursuits of his Irish boyhood—swimming and fishing—could be continued in the nearby River Cray.' (p. 15). After a spell at home he spent most of the years 1833-38 in Dublin as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin. No mention of football but Galbally does again emphasise his 'love of physical exertion and adventure'. In late 1850 he was well entrenched in his legal career in Melbourne. Can't normally imagine him wanting to get around with a football team but he might just have been able to do so (if Mr Barry's team) for a special event such as Separation as a leading barrister and commissioner of the court of requests. This was before he became Solicitor General and before he became a judge. There were not very many Mr Barrys in Melbourne in 1850 but maybe he was not the only one. If the other names in his team were legal names, that might offer a clue. Short answer: it is just possible. Can't say for sure.’ Geoffrey Blainey, author of A game of our own: the origins of Australian football, see below note 11, was also consulted. He responded, ‘Most interesting. I have no specific knowledge. I would be rather surprised if it were the Sir Redmond Barry. Not an unusual surname. I notice that the street directory for Melb in 1862 has about 12 different Barry households. Maybe a Geelong or Sydney paper will have a ref to the same event a few days later.’ I haven’t been able to find a follow up reference so this puzzle remains a puzzle.
- The advertisement appeared in the Argus over several days. This one is taken from that of 12 August 1850, p. 3.
- Argus, 26 August 1850, p. 2.
- Argus, 27 August 1850, p. 2.
- Argus, 28 August 1951, p. 2.
- Argus, 29 August 1851, p. 2.
- Geelong Advertiser, 20 November 1850, p. 2; Geoffrey Blainey, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football, Information Australia, Melbourne, 1990; new edition, Black, Inc., Melbourne, 2003, p. 12.
- Geelong Advertiser, 21 November 1850, p. 2.
- The Star, Ballarat, 20 October 1859, p. 1.
- South Australian Register, 7 January 1859, p. 1.
- Argus, 28 May 1855, p. 2.
- Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28 December 1850, p. 5.
- ‘Local intelligence,’ Bathurst Free Press, 19 October 1850, p. 5.
- Hunter River District News, Port Stephens, from the Maitland Mercury, 6 April 1853, p. 2; Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April 1853, p. 2.
- Empire, Sydney, Monday 12 June 1854, p. 2
- The Australian, 27 June 1844, p. 1.
- South Australian Register, Adelaide, 10 May 1850, p. 4.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, Friday 20 December 1850, p. 1.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, 10 September 1850, p. 3.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, 24 October 1851, p. 3.
- Richmond Jubilee, Hobart Courier, 6 August 1853, p. 4.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, 13 August 1853, p. 2.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, 15 September 1853, p. 2.
- ‘Richmond Ploughing Match’, Hobart Courier, 14 October 1854, p. 4.
- Colonial Times, Hobart, 28 October 1854, p. 3.
- The Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 23 May 1860, p. 7.
- ‘Sir James Ross’s Arctic Expedition,’ Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 5 July 1850, p. 4.; Courier, Hobart, 9 March 1850, p 2.
- Report from their own correspondent in Geelong, Argus, 13 December 1855, p. 6.
- See for example, Inquirer, Perth, 9 October 1850, p. 2; Maitland Mercury, NSW, 6 April 1850, p. 2; South Australian Register, 9 May 1850, p. 2. Ian Syson has tagged several such references in his research.
- Many of these references were discovered thanks to Gillian Hibbins who pointed out a typo in an earlier version of this piece. She spotted ‘foothall’ rather than ‘football’. Given the problems the Optical Character Recognition system has with ‘b’ and ‘h’ in early newspapers, I started searching for ‘foothall’ and found several more examples of football games as a result.
- Mark Pennings and Robert Pascoe are compiling a prosopography of the first generation of footballers involved with the code which became Australian (Rules) football. Mark Pennings and Robert Pascoe, ‘The Corio Oval Tribe: A Prosopographical Perspective of the Geelong Football in the Nineteenth Century,’ Sporting Traditions, vol. 27, no. 2, May 2012, pp. 77-94. See also Roy Hay, ‘A Club is born,’ in John Murray, ed., We are Geelong: The Story of the Geelong Football Club, Geoff Slattery Enterprises, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 23-31.
- Gillian Hibbins, ‘A code of our own,’ The Yorker, Issue 39, Autumn 2009, pp. 3-13; Trevor Ruddell, ‘The evolution of the rules from 1859 to 1866,’ ibid, pp. 14–23 and ‘‘The evolution of the rules from 1872 to 1877,’ The Yorker, Issue 41, Autumn 2010, pp. 16–27.
- There is now a large literature on the relative influence of individuals and groups (and historians) on the emergence of what became the Australian game from the late 1850s onwards. See, for example, Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008; Hess, Rob, Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart, and Gregory de Moore. A National Game: The History of Australian Rules Football, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 2008; Tony Collins, ‘The Invention of Sporting Traditions: National Myths, Imperial Pasts and the Origins of Australian Rules Football,’ in Stephen Wagg, Myth and Milestones in the History of Sport, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2011, pp. 83–31.
- For a comprehensive account of the meetings and deliberations on the rules of game in England and Scotland see Tony Brown, The Football Association, 1863–1883: A source book, Tony Brown, Nottingham, 2011. For Australia, see the references above note 30 and Gillian Hibbins, ‘Myth and History in Australian Rules Football,’ Sporting Traditions, 25, no. 2, November 2008, pp. 41–53.
- Roy Hay, ‘Approaches to Sports History: Theory and Practice,’ comprising reviews of Douglas Booth, The Field: Truth and Fiction in Sport History, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxford, 2005, and Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years: The Untold Story, Routledge, London, 2005, Sporting Traditions, Vol 22, No. 2, May 2006, pp. 70–81; Roy Hay, ‘Soccer and social control in Scotland, 1873-1973,’ in R. Cashman and M. McKernan (eds) Sport: Money, Morality and the Media, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1981, pp. 223-247; Roy Hay, ‘British Football, Wogball or the World Game? Towards a social history of Victorian Soccer’, in John O’Hara (ed.), Ethnicity and Soccer in Australia, ASSH Studies in Sports History Number 10, Australian Society for Sports History, Campbelltown, 1994, pp. 44-79.