Origins of Australian Football
In his reminiscences about the early days of Australian football, the then President of the VFA (Victorian Football Association), T.S. Marshall, writing in 1896, recalled the formidable Richmond player Alex M. Bruce:
"He had one arm, but his one arm was equal to most people’s two backed up as it was by an artificial one with an iron hook at the end of it. He was a good tempered and fine player, but I verily believe he was the cause of more oh’s and ah’s…than a dozen ordinary footballers, for when he pushed from behind, always of course with an iron hook, it meant weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth to his unfortunate victim–no matter how his victim took it, Bruce always perceived a calm, unruffled countenance." 
One may surmise that if Alex Bruce was available in this year’s draft, he would be just the sort of chap the Richmond football club should recruit to instil a bit of steel (or iron!) into a backline hitherto known for its brittleness.
Serendipity is defined as a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. For this website, australianfootball.com, a new series of books by Dr. Mark Pennings, the first volume from which the above passage is taken, is a serendipitous event of the most welcome kind. Put simply, this series of books promises to recast the early history of the Australian game in Victoria and bring light to a period where darkness has hitherto reigned.
One of the explicit reasons for creating a website specifically devoted to the history of the Australian game of football was to give due recognition to the sport’s early history and the pioneers who developed it. In turn we seek to build an accurate historical record for that distant and all but forgotten past, and to lay a foundation upon which that early history can be reabsorbed into the mainstream of the sport’s collective memory and be reconnected to the contemporary game.
For too long the stories, and the records, of those 19th century pioneers and the clubs they built, have been neglected, left to wither in an historical no man’s land. Much of the lively debate surrounds the origins of the game–with the focus on the founders of the 1850s and the possible antecedents found in the indigenous game of Marngrook–and the creation in 1896 of the VFL (Victorian Football League), the precursor of the current controlling body, the AFL (Australian Football League).
The first four decades of the game’s history after its codification in 1859 are in many respects the most intriguing of all, developing as it did from a relatively minor sport played in local parks by hastily arranged and loosely affiliated groups of men and boys, to the major winter sport of southern Australia with established and properly constituted football clubs commanding significant local support and media attention. Yet this history has been sidelined to such an extent in the overall public consciousness that the period could well be described as the ‘dark ages’ of the Australian game.
This author has argued in a separate article (published on this website only a week before the launch of Pennings’ book, and in complete ignorance of it) that the time has come for the AFL, the self-appointed custodian of the game and its history, to properly recognise the pre-1897 records of the original controlling body in Victoria, the VFA, a competition that before the formation of the VFL was in all aspects the equivalent in relative standard, stature and prestige of the aforementioned bodies.
I argued in that piece that incorporating into the official record the premiership wins, in addition to season ladders, games played and goals kicked, would in essence help reconnect the ‘lost world’ of 19th century Victorian football to the well documented V/AFL era post 1896. I did note, however, that below the level of premiership allocation, many gaps in the historical record of the period still needed to be filled, calling it ‘the great research task awaiting completion’. For the period before 1877, the gaps, I noted, were far greater and the need even more acute.
Relatively straightforward questions–such as who were the great players of this period and how many games did they play; when were the various football clubs admitted to senior ranks and how did they perform; where did the teams play and what were the scores; who kicked the goals and how many spectators were present–could not be answered with any degree of certainly.
Even the most fundamental question of which team won the premiership was a times a matter of interpretation. The difficulty of reconstructing the factual record of the period has been considerable, especially given the contradictory nature of much of the newspaper reporting of the time and the sheer volume and diversity of material to be checked and cross-checked. Only the most committed, focused, and one may say, obsessive, historian could have succeeded in such a task. We are pleased to report that Dr. Mark Pennings is that man.
Based at the Creative Industries Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, by day Dr. Pennings is immersed in research into post modern theories of art and aesthetics, delving into matters such as the political economy of contemporary international art, and the vagaries of consumer culture. But by night, freed of the constraints of the academy, the true nature of Mr. Pennings’ passion is revealed. He is transformed into a football history tragic of the obsessive compulsive variety, trawling through the foggy alleyways of Victorian-era newspapers and journals to uncover the facts that will underpin a new empirically-based understanding of 19th century Australian football. Twelve years of these nocturnal sojourns later, we have before us an outstanding first volume and the tantalising prospect of [at least] three more to come, that will answer all the basic questions about the period, as noted above, and much more.
The first of Pennings’ projected four volume series was released in September 2012 by Connor Court Publishing and is entitled ‘The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History: Amateur Heroes and the Rise of Clubs, 1858 to 1876’. Accordingly, it deals with the formative years of the code before the establishment of the VFA as the governing body in May 1877. Without having read the three forthcoming volumes in this series, it is perhaps a tad premature to proclaim this first volume as the most significant of the lot, suffice to say that the two decades of football being investigated therein are the least known of all, and hence most in need of the type of meticulous research Pennings brings to bear upon the subject.
The book is divided into two distinct sections separated by sixteen pages of images (one wishes there were more illustrations and photos). The first section, which comprises one third of the book, is a season-by-season summary arranged in chronological order, introduced by decade summaries that place the development of the game into a wider historical perspective. The second section, comprising two thirds of the book, is devoted to the basic statistics of the period.
Although the contentious issue of the game’s beginnings is not a focus of the book, commanding as it does less than one page of text, Pennings’ views on such matters are to be taken seriously, backed up as they are by twelve years of immersion in the primary sources of the period. He could not find evidence that those who wrote the first rules were influenced by the indigenous game of Marngrook. He did find plenty of evidence to suggest that they were adapting traditional English games, most particularly rugby, to local conditions. Of course this will not be the last word on this matter, but it does add further weight to the case of the ‘seductive myth’ theory, as espoused by Gillian Hibbins in the AFL’s official history, ‘The Australian Game Of Football’. 
On the other hand, Pennings does note that “much less time has been spent on investigating the impact of indigenous styles of play on football after the formation of the ‘Melbourne Rules’,” especially so after the high mark–a notable feature of Marngrook–became a regular feature of Australian football from the late 1870s on. . It would have been hoped that Pennings himself may have taken up his own invitation to look into the issue but such ‘diversions’ are not the focus of this book.
It is generally accepted that Tom Wills’ famous letter of 10 July 1858 to Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle in which he advocated the formation of a football club and a set of rules by which to govern subsequent games, is Australian football’s ‘declaration of independence’, so to speak. As such, the matches played subsequent to that–either the 31 July 1858 ‘scratch match’ on Richmond Paddock initiated by the publican Jerry Bryant and including such members of the Melbourne Cricket Club as Tom Wills, William Hammersley, James Thompson, Thomas Smith, and Bryant himself (all of whom would play a significant role in the formation of the first set of rules formalized the next year and the early development of the code in general), or the more formally organized match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School, which commenced on 7 August 1858 and was played over a number of subsequent Saturdays, are the first ‘so called’ games of Australian football.
Pennings acknowledges the significance of these matches and documents them in the 1858 stats section, as well as including in the list an earlier match played between Melbourne Grammar and St Kilda Grammar on 5 June 1858, five weeks before the Wills letter, and another match, played on 31 July 1858, between the same combatants. But he qualifies all the 1858 inclusions by noting that although the 1858 season:
“…did introduce the major personalities, institutions, some embryonic teams and the playing grounds that shaped the Australian game in its formative years…the 1858 games cannot be regarded as specific examples of Australian Rules football…the code properly commenced when the rules of the Melbourne Football Club were written in May 1859, for the modern Australian code can trace its origins from those rules." 
The corollary of this is the rather unsettling notion that the first game of the 1859 season, a hitherto neglected Melbourne Football Club ‘scratch match’ between publican Jerry Bryant’s side and Scotch College master and academic Thomas Smith’s side on 14 May on the Richmond Paddock, marks the first officially constituted game of Australian football, rather than the more famous matches of 1858.
A more welcome revelation, at least for those who have long suspected as much, is that the oft-cited award of ‘Champion of the Colony’ is in fact a subjective construct put together in retrospective in the 1950s by the football historian Cec Mullen. As Pennings notes:
"I did not find any official reference to a ‘Champion of the Colony’ because this award did not exist…in later years, journalists for newspapers like The Age, Australasian, and The Sportsman offered different opinions (often differing) about who was the best player during the year, or by reputation, but there never was an official award."
Thus, while Mullen’s list of winners may well represent a fair assessment of which players were the best in any given year, they are his opinion and must from now on be labelled as such.
Having dispensed with that piece of footy folklore, Pennings takes us season by season through the 1860s and 1870s, highlighting the significant events, people, and developments of the new code, with a particular emphasis on what happened on the field of play. All the keys facts are covered, such as the ‘crisis’ of the 1862/3 seasons when the popularity of the game waned and it may well have died a natural death had it not been for efforts of men such as the prolific writer and one of the game’s first evangelists, William Hammersely, the introduction of various trophies to revive interest in the game, such as the Caledonian Cup, and the more enduring Challenge Cup, which led to more games between the bigger clubs, the subsequent revamping of the rules in 1866 under the chairmanship of Henry ‘Colden’ Harrison, Tom Wills’ cousin, and one of the leading players of the decade, and the establishment of new clubs and the intense rivalries that emerged, particularly after the concept of a ‘premier’ team gained currency in the 1870s.
The most notable of these club rivalries was that between Melbourne and Carlton, two teams from different socio-economic classes (in other words, the ‘toffe-nosed’ Reds and the ‘democratic’ Blues) that came to dominate the entire period under review and whose clashes were among the most eagerly awaited and contested sporting contests of 19th century Australia.
Many of the greatest players of the era faced off when the Reds and the Blues met, in the early days led, respectively, by two giants of the 1860s, Harrison and Jack Conway, and subsequently by champions such as Jack Donovan and Harry Guy at Carlton, and Jim Byrne and Ben Goldsmith at Melbourne. Many great tussles were had, but perhaps none better than the 1872 premiership decider played at the M.C.G on 7 September. Described by Pennings as ‘one of the greatest games of the century’, the Australasian reports one passage from the game:
"...Loughnan [Melbourne] whips it up, and is collared just twenty yards in front of goal; a rough and tumble crush takes place, and just as the umpire thinks of stepping in and throwing up the ball, Goldsmith breaks free, ball in hand, capless, and breathless, dodging Dismorr; with teeth set and head down, right into another foe he goes–bone and muscle cannot stand that rush–over he rolls, and sends the ball flying on to Forrester [Melbourne] but Blanchard [Carlton] is thereabouts, and as the ‘chubby one’ [Forrester] gathers himself together for the mark, fair under the ribs he [Blanchard] plants his Carltonian shoulder, giving him a clever fall."
The game continued at a frantic pace, but goals were exceedingly hard to come by, as was common at the time. Eventually, with less than half an hour to play, Towle of Melbourne snapped what proved to be winner. The Reds were triumphant, 1-0.
Pennings treatment of this match and many others, and the stats he includes to record them, is what sets this work apart from what has come before. There have been a number of quality research efforts over the years from authors such as Blainey, Hibbins, Hess, Grow, and de Moore that have covered this period, and done so very well, but what makes the Pennings work different is the emphasis placed on the matches themselves and the leading players involved. Although all the major off-field developments are discussed and handled with confidence, they are not analysed to any great depth, rather it’s what happened on the field of play that is Pennings’ focus here.
Season summaries follow the fortunes of all the teams, most particularly those in the senior league, but also junior and regional leagues, covering the exploits of the great players of the era–the likes of Wills, Harrison, Conway, Donovan, Goldsmith, and Guy, and other early stars such as George O’Mullane, Robert Murray Smith, ‘Toppy’ Longden, Andrew Loughnan, Billy Dedman, and the incomparable George Coulthard–and provide extended match reports for the most significant battles of the season, particularly those which decided the premier team. These are supplemented by the unique aspect of the book, the basic stats of every game played.
Pennings achievement in sourcing, checking, cross-checking, and collating the stats, which here means complete team lists, match results, goal-kickers, best players, dates, venues, goals scored (in each match and collectively), season ladders, and attendances (where known), is truly remarkable. Although others have attempted the task, most recently for the VFA period by Andrew Robinson, Pennings has gone above and beyond the call to such an extent–in the relatively uncharted 1858-1876 period under review and in forthcoming volumes which take the story to 1896–that he has not only set a new benchmark, his research will likely form the statistical basis for all future work in this field and in time establish itself as the official record of the period. Future research may well undercover new facts and provide corrections and clarifications to what Pennings has documented, but taken as a single piece of work this volume/s is as comprehensive a record book as there’s likely to be.
Although there is little to be gained in critiquing the enterprise for not doing what it never intended to do in the first place, I believe the readability and appeal of the work would have been enhanced by deeper and more sustained analysis of football issues external to the playing field in the context of wider socio-economic developments. Matters such as the extent of indigenous influence on the game, starting with Marngrook, the early involvement of women as supporters and the role they played in popularizing the game, the class dynamics of the different clubs, the vexed issues of grounds and finances, and the spread of the game interstate are all subjects that are touched on but not dealt with in any great depth. Exploration of these issues, coupled with more frequent sojourns into the fascinating anecdotes and stories of 19th century football, would have made for an even greater work. While there is a good selection of anecdotes and assorted tidbits in the book, these are structured as vignettes to be savoured as distinct morsels and used to break up (and perhaps bring relief from) the stats heavy second section of the book rather than as entrees and segways to a more succulent narrative of the great characters and incidents of the period flowing from within the main body of the text itself.
The prospect that after the current series is completed, Dr. Pennings and his colleague, fellow footy tragic Professor Robert Pascoe of Victoria University, may be bringing out even more volumes, some of which may deal with some of the matters mentioned above, and take the story into other states and subsequent decades, is a mouth-watering one indeed. We will be watching developments very closely.
In sum, the book under review is an outstanding research work that will become a seminal text in Australian football historiography, and an essential tool for anyone interested in the 19th century game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that from this time on, no one should be researching, writing, or even reading in the field without a copy of this book (and its forthcoming companion volumes), close at hand. As such, the book is highly recommended to all lovers of the history of the great Australian game, and in particular, libraries, universities, football clubs, and of course, readers of australianfootball.com.
Published September 2012
Mark Pennings, The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 1: Amateur Heroes and the Rise of the Clubs, 1858 to 1876, Connor Court Publishing, Ballan, Victoria, 2012, pp.474.
ISBN: 9781921421471 (paperback) ISBN: 9781921421495 (hardback)
Forthcoming titles by Mark Pennings (to be published by Connor Court)
The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 2: A Golden Era: Football in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, 1877 to 1888.
The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 3: Tough Times: The Amateur vs. the Professional, 1889 to 1896.
The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume 4: Players and Clubs: The Complete Records, 1858 to 1896.
Summary book extract from the back cover
This is volume 1 in a series of four about Australian football origins evolving in Victoria between 1858 and 1896. This volume addresses its very beginnings as an amateur sport and the rise of the first clubs.
Invented by a group of Melbourne cricketers and sports enthusiasts, Australian Rules football was developed through games played on Melbourne's parklands and was originally known as ‘Melbourne Football Club Rules’. This formative period of the game saw the birth of the first ‘amateur heroes’ of the game. Players such as T.W. Wills, H.C.A. Harrison, Jack Conway, George O’Mullane and Robert Murray Smith emerged as warriors engaged in individual combat in rugby-type scrimmages.
The introduction of Challenge Cups was an important spur for this burgeoning sport. Intense competition and growing rivalries between clubs such as Melbourne, South Yarra, Royal Park, and Geelong began to flourish and the game developed as a result. In the 1860s, new cups were introduced such as the Caledonian Trophy and the Athletic Sports Committee Challenge Cup which in part catalyzed the strong rivalry that still exists today between clubs such as Melbourne and Carlton. It also announced a shift in emphasis in the game from individuals towards teams, and by 1870 there was general agreement that a ‘Premier’ team should be recognised at the end of each season.
By the 1870s the game of ‘Victorian Rules’ had become the most popular outdoor winter sport across the state. In subsequent decades, rapid growth in club football occurred and the game attracted increasing media attention. From amateur heroes came the rise of the clubs.
- T.S. Marshall, The Rise and Progress of the Australian Game of Football, April 24 1896, M.C.C. Library, quoted in Mark Pennings, The Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Volume Amateur Heroes and the Rise of the Clubs, 1858 to 1876, Connor Court Publishing, Ballan, Victoria, 2012, p175.
- Gillian Hibbins, ‘Wills and the Aboriginal Game: A Seductive Myth’, in Geoff Slattery (Mg Ed.). The Australian Game Of Football Since 1858, Geoff Slattery Publishing for the Australian Football League, Melbourne, 2008. p.45.
- Pennings, op.cit, p.17.
- ibid, p.11
- ibid, p.xix, 32.
- The Australasian, 14 September, 1872, quoted in Pennings, p.86.