Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The ‘Chimera’ of Origins: Association Football in Australia before 1880

In the July of 1880, a movement in Sydney seemed to crystallise.1
A number of letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald were published, advocating the playing of football under the English Association rules.

This long letter from John Walter Fletcher published on July 17, 1880 summed up the level of interest and took the important step of suggesting a meeting.

Sir, I was glad to see in your issue of this morning a letter advocating the introduction of the English Association game into New South Wales, and I am a little surprised that some old English player has not made the suggestion before. I have reason to think from conversations I have had on the subject that if the game could properly be started it would become very popular, not only with players, but with the public. Unfortunately, a very general misapprehension appears to exist as to the nature of the game, a great many people I have spoken to evidently confusing it with the Victorian Association game,2 whereas the two games have not a single point in common. As to its chances of popularity, let any one read in Bell's Life the accounts of International or club contests in Glasgow, Sheffield, London, &c. witnessed often by from 10,000 to 12,000 spectators. It is, I think, about twelve years since the game was first started in England, though its principle, that football is a game for feet and for hands, had long existed in the Eton and Harrow games. At the present time the football players of Great Britain, playing under Rugby and Association rules, are about equally divided, and the two games exist side by side without one interfering in the least with the other, save that of late the value of good dribbling has become universally acknowledged in the Rugby game. I feel that we are rather late in writing in advocacy of the English Association game, inasmuch as a large section of the football players of New South Wales, dissatisfied with Rugby rules, appear to have committed themselves to the adoption of Victorian rules. Nevertheless, there must be many old English and Scotch Association players, or old Eton and Harrow men, who would be glad to see their old game played here, and who would make an effort to introduce it; and I am quite sure that the principle of the game, which forbids the use of the hands, except by goalkeeper, and does away with scrummaging, collaring, mauling, &c, will commend itself to a very large section or this community. The game is essentially a scientific one, requiring, above everything else, unselfish and organized combination. I do not wish to attack the old Rugby game, which, properly played, is interesting and exciting to players and spectators; but must enter a protest against the introduction of the Victorian game, which, though certainly interesting and amusing to look at, is, I believe, rougher than the Rugby, and violates the fundamental principle of all games like football – I mean the law of off side. The very thing condemned under the name of ‘sneaking’ in the Eton game is here encouraged and applauded, and in fact may almost be said to be the chief art of the game. In the brief space of a letter it is impossible to say all that one would in behalf of the introduction of the rules of the English Association; but I hope that, since at the present time a radical change is demanded in the present code, football players and the public generally will give the matter a more thorough investigation than it has yet received before committing themselves to the Victorian game. I should be willing to communicate with gentlemen willing to assist in starting a club under the rules of the English Association, and perhaps it might be possible to convene a meeting to consider the whole question. 
I am, &c.,


Union Club, July 14.3
This is a remarkable and important letter, one that has claims to be a kind of founding document along the lines of Tom Wills’ letter to the editor of Bell's Sporting Life in Victoria in 1858 in which he advocated the formation of a football club (or, failing that, a rifle club) in Melbourne. This moment is generally (though not universally) understood to be the wellspring of Australian Rules football.4
Fletcher believed a large participation and spectator base existed for Association football in New South Wales that was as yet untapped and unsatisfied. The potential contributors to the game came from the English and ‘Scotch’ Associations or Eton and Harrow. He also made it clear that the Victorian Rules (the game which developed into Australian Rules), despite the similarities that some had observed, were for him and his ilk an oppositional code with ‘not a single point’ in common with Association football.5 The letter picked no fight with Rugby, seeing the possibility of the two codes subsisting.
After what seems to be very little time, a meeting was convened for August 3 by Fletcher and J.A. Todd. Its purpose was ‘to consider and promote the introduction of football under English Association rules’. Therefore, all ‘football players and others who may be interested in the improvement of the winter pastime are invited to attend’.6

The plan was not to supplant Rugby but to benefit football generally by (1) introducing Association rules and (2) staving off the challenge from Victorian Rules. Two weeks later, the first game was played.
The first match in New South Wales played under English Association rules was played on Saturday last, by the newly formed club, against the King's School boys at Parramatta. The visitors had a very fair team, allowing for the fact that hardly one of them had played football for some years. This advantage was, however, balanced by the fact that the boys had not played these rules before. The game was well contested for an hour and a half, and terminated in favour of the visitors by five goals to none; the number of goals must not, however, be taken as a criterion of the play, which was remarkably even, particularly after half time, the boys on several occasions only failing to score on account of their want of familiarity with the art of passing and middling the ball. On the side of the English Association Club all played up well, but the play of D. Roxburgh as back was remarkably good and invaluable to his side, and Scott's goal-keeping deserves praise. On the King's School side the play of Fenwick was very fine, and he would make a grand Association player; all, however, played well. Mr Savage, an old International player, played with and coached Kings School. The names of the club players were – T.A. Todd (captain), W.J. Baker, J.W. Fletcher, C.E. Hewlett, C.F. Fletcher, Wastinage, W. Robertson, W. Simson, Chapman, D. Roxburgh, J. Scott (goal).
The article concluded by pointing out that a further ‘match has been arranged, under English Association rules, on Moore Park, for next Saturday, against the Redfern Club’.7

The new team did not yet have a name, a situation that was rectified at a ‘committee meeting of the newly-formed English Association Football Club’ on August 19 at which ‘The Wanderers’ were christened. A number of decisions were ratified at the meeting, along with the crucial ambition to obtain membership of the English Football Association. They were:
  1. 'That the club be called “The Wanderers”’.
  2. ‘That the uniform be white jersey and cap, with badge southern cross and blue stockings’.
  3. ‘That an account of the proceedings be sent to England to the secretary of the English Association, for publication’.
  4.  ‘That the club be enrolled (with permission) in the English Association’.8
The first game under the new name saw the team score another win, this time against a team from the Rugby club, Redfern FC.
The second match under the English Association Rules took place at Moore Park on Saturday last, and resulted in a win for the newly-named Wanderers by two goals to nil, both of which were secured in the first 10 min, after which the game was very even. Redfern Club, being strangers to the rules, played up well, ably assisted by W.J. Baker. For Redfern, J. Mulcahy and North played well, whilst for the Wanderers J. Fletcher, Harbottle and M'Donald were in grand form.9
About this well-co-ordinated series of events a conventional and robust narrative has emerged: a club with a name, colours and rules to play by; a series of games played and planned; a desire to affiliate with the F.A. in England and something resembling the founding document/moment so beloved of many football historians are all in place. Australian soccer had kicked off.
But the story is wrong. The narrative details may be correct but the idea of a starting point is wide of the mark. Unfortunately for the ‘Sydney-origin’ thesis, a similar series of events had occurred in the colony of Tasmania's main city, Hobart one year before, albeit on a smaller scale.

Hobart 1879

The Hobart Mercury of April 28, 1879 reported on the City Football Club's AGM and its adoption of the ‘rules of the British Football Association’.
The annual general meeting of members of the City Football Club was held on Saturday evening at the Town Hall. Mr J.R. Betts took the chair. The attendance was good at first, but the proceedings being of a protracted nature, the members dwindled very much towards the finish. The committee recommended the adoption of a fresh code of playing rules, as the present code entirely prevented the club from meeting any foreign team. The rules of the British Football Association, with the addition of the drop kick, were recommended. The following officers were elected: Captain, Captain Boddam; vice-captains, Messrs, Molloy and Pitfield; secretary, Mr A.D. Watchorn; treasurer, Mr Lindley; committee, Messrs. Lovett, Finlay, and Paul.10
Captain Edmond Meyer Tudor-Boddam is a central figure in this decision. Boddam had arrived in Hobart via Sydney in May 1878 to take up a post as ‘Brigade-Major to the corps’, the main function of which was to control public works projects.11 An Anglo-Indian and noted cricketer and footballer, he adopted a position insisting that an English code of football be adopted for the winter months. He had played Rugby in Sydney and seemed concerned to adopt a football code that would enable a sporting commerce with England (and New South Wales) rather than Victoria. In this regard, he prefigures some of Fletcher's anti-Victorian sentiments. It is clear that many City members were unhappy with this decision and Captain Boddam soon found himself on the outer. Undaunted, Boddam moved over to the Cricketers Football Club of Hobart where he directly influenced its decision to adopt the Association code. The Cricketers voted 10–9 to adopt English Association rules at their meeting on May 5. Boddam and his seconder would have preferred Rugby but acknowledged that its rules were too complex. Both were derisory about Victorian Rules.12
Under his guidance, the Cricketers began their season with an internal scratch match on May 10, 1879. The sides were
picked by F.V. Smith and G.S. Chapman. The English Association Rules which have been adopted by this club were played. Chapman's side proved victorious by two goals to one, both kicked by B. Stuart, well judged kicks. H.B. Smith with a good piece of dribbling secured the goal for the other side. Besides the goal kickers, the most prominent players were Boddam, F.V. Smith, Chapman, R. Kirby, H. Prior, L. M'Leod and Davenport (the last three hailing from the High School club). The natural amount of inconvenience was felt by most of the players who essayed the novel rules for the first time, the mysteries of off and on side and the obligation to leave the hands idle proving almost insurmountable. After some practice no doubt those difficulties will be overcome.13
As if to foreshadow the sometimes dubious organisational skills of those running Australian soccer, it is reported that the ‘club played without goal posts; as Mr Briant who had promised to bring them, did not do so, coats were used to mark the goal instead’.14
On June 7, the Cricketers met New Town in a competitive inter-club match. ‘These clubs met for the return match on Marsh's ground, New Town, on Saturday afternoon, playing the English Association Rules. The result was a draw, no goals being kicked by either side’.15 The Tasmanian Mail also reported on the game, remarking on ‘Morriss for the New Town causing special amusement by playing the ball with his head’ – possibly the first in a long line of Australian media guffaws about the practice of heading. The writer also complains of the ‘absurdity’ of the keeper being allowed to throw the ball.16
One soccer match in Hobart in 1879 might be a rogue occurrence; two games a month apart intimate a pattern. Moreover, it is reasonable to interpolate ‘soccer’ practice in-between these dates. However, this was no sparkling beginning of the beautiful game in Australia from which it leapt and bounded, despite the indication that the players intended to keep working at the game. The perceived need for conformity and the weight of numbers ultimately meant the rejection of soccer for the time being.

Code Chaos

In early 1879, football rules in Hobart were in chaos and many felt they needed to be streamlined. The urgent need for conformity had been inspired by what was considered as an embarrassment at the local footballers’ unpreparedness to meet challenges from outside of the colony. In May 1879, Melbourne's Hotham FC (the present-day Australian Rules club, North Melbourne FC) had written to the City Football Club requesting a game. While this caused some excitement and anticipation, the Hobart club's committee decided that they could not ‘under present circumstances, respond favourably to the offer of the Hotham Club to pay a visit to this colony’.17 Football across Tasmania was in such disarray that local humiliation could be the only possible outcome from a contest between Hotham and a Hobart team.

Hobart football had been in a fitful slumber in the middle 1870s from which it was still awakening. The Mercury lamented the inevitable refusal of Hotham's request:
The resuscitation of football this winter … ought to have rendered a favourable reply possible, but the peculiar relation of the clubs will, no doubt, interfere. Such an attention, however, from Victoria will demonstrate the necessity for the formation of an Association [and] uniformity of rules.18
In early 1879 Hobart had no set, singular code of play. Of the four Hobart football clubs, Railway and City (post-English Association rules) insisted on playing under Victorian Rules. New Town had its own code which resembled the Victorian game, though with some important differences (like a tape between posts under which the ball needed to be kicked to register a goal and the absence of the free kick paid for a mark). As if to add to the complication, the outlying towns and settlements had their own codes as well.

In 1877 when Richmond hosted the City club, one reporter remarked, ‘It is only fair to say that [City] was at a great disadvantage in having to make the great concession to their opponents of not “running with the ball”’.19 A year later, the boot was on the other foot: ‘The Richmond team were evidently placed at a disadvantage by the novelty of the mark rule of which they made acquaintance for the first time’.20

Some Southern Tasmanian codes allowed running with the ball, some did not. Some paid the mark, some did not. Confusion reigned and the home club determined the rules under which the teams would play. Squabbles and protests were the way of things. Tremendous in-fighting also existed between the clubs based on colonial political loyalties. If some footballers, like Boddam, were holding out for the visit of an English football team, others were advocates of the Victorian game.
In late 1878, hopes were still being held for an English visit. A member of the City Club wrote to the Mercury: ‘Our colony, as compared with the other Australian colonies is but a small one, but, sir, I believe there are sufficient strong and active youths here to form a football association from which we could pick a team worthy to compete with our English friends’.21 The writer advocated the adoption of a ‘general code of rules throughout the colony’ that would facilitate footballing commerce with the English. It was felt that such a relationship would lead to other economic and political benefits. The initial adoption of Association rules by the City Club in early 1879 needs to be seen in this context.

While the promised visit of an English team failed to materialise, the Hotham letter brought home the realisation that extra-colonial football relations were most likely to be established with Victoria and, this being the case, Victorian Rules needed to be adopted by the recently formed Tasmanian Football Association. In the continued absence of a sign of visiting English teams, those pushing for the ‘British’ codes had little argument.

One of those leading the charge for Victorian Rules was W.H. Cundy, who was interviewed by the Mercury 50 years later in 1931:
When I first came to Tasmania as a youth … there was really no established code. Rugby, soccer, and a sort of hybrid game were being played, and it can well be imagined the chaos that existed. I had played what was then known as the Victorian code in Melbourne … but at first was unable to induce other teams to adopt the Victorian rules. I had brought over a book of rules, and had 50 copies printed for distribution, and a meeting was later called at the old High School, now the University, to discuss the position. The … meeting could not come to a decision to concentrate on one code, so it was decided that for a season the teams should play the Victorian rules game, soccer and Rugby turn about, and at the end of the year decide which should be adopted, when all were fairly conversant with the codes. When the vote subsequently was taken, the Victorian rules won. I believe, by one vote.22
A further recollection reported in the Mercury on September 15, 1936, 3 years after Cundy's death repeated and reinforced the story.
Few Tasmanians know that the national code of football, now the predominating code of football in Tasmania, was introduced to the State by one vote only. Major W.T. Conder, President of the Australian Amateur Football Council, told members of the Northern Tasmanian Football Association last night that when the late W.H. Cundy came to Tasmania in the 1870s, the Australian game was not played In Tasmania. The football played consisted of Soccer, Rugby and a cross between the two games known as the Tasmanian game. In 1879, those in control of football in Tasmania decided by one vote to play what was then known as the Victorian game and is now the national game.23
Cundy's memories testify to the diversity of Hobart football in early 1879 and the level of disagreement about the way to unify the game in the colony. Nonetheless, by the end of the 1879 season Victorian Rules (with modifications) were established as the dominant football code in Hobart. Hotham's letter was central in that process.

Two short years later the locals managed to beat the Victorians at their own game, in the process confirming Victorian Rules as the primary winter game in Tasmania. In 1881, with the Victorian Rules in place, Tasmanian football was able to return a belated acceptance of Hotham's challenge. The Hobart game on July 5 was a major event for the Southern community. Over 1500 spectators turned out to what the Mercury described as ‘one of the most exciting games that has ever been played in Tasmania’.24 The combined Southern team overcame a spirited Hotham, by 3 goals to 2.
Despite their victory, the locals knew they had faced a superior foe. The Mercury reported that it was ‘pleasing to see that our footballers are not too proud to take a lesson in play from a visiting team’. Immediate footballing improvements were noted, especially in relation to ‘little marking, … the smartness of the Victorians in this respect being copied by the local men’.25

When Hotham revisited in 1887, the Launceston Examiner reminded its readers that the ‘visit of the Hotham team about 6 years ago marked the beginning of a new era in football in this colony’.26 Generally, their first visit was credited with spreading the gospel of Victorian Rules throughout Tasmania.

The Victorian Ascendancy

It is worth pausing on three aspects of the ascendancy of Victorian Rules in Hobart in 1879. First, it occurs after a tussle between a British imperialism represented by Boddam and his ilk and the Victorian imperialism of Cundy (who had gone to the trouble and expense of printing up 50 copies of the Victorian rules) and the VFA, which at this stage was in a heavily missionary mode. Hess et al. claim in their history of Australian Rules, A National Game that the VFA ‘adopted an evangelical approach to the advancement of the game, and its member clubs received every encouragement to play matches in provincial areas and beyond’.27

The development of Victorian Rules around Australia in this time is not so much an inevitable development ‘out of the soil’ but is a product of patterns of politicised advocacy, evangelism and imposition. The fact that the game was being exported from ‘neighbouring’ Victoria made it no less a product of cultural imperialism in Tasmania or wherever else it was taken up.

Second, the ascendancy of Victorian Rules was not complete. Controversially, the Hobart association kept the crossbar: ‘to these (goal) posts shall be attached a horizontal bar, 10ft from the ground, over which the ball must be kicked to secure a goal’.28 This was a nod to English codes of football and a sign of a residual resistance to the Victorian code. While the crossbar was bolted to the uprights, there was still the vain hope of enticing a British team to Tasmania.

As the Mercury reported on June 16, some felt this decision made
the so-called adoption of the Victorian code a mockery and a delusion, the innovation being of so glaring a character as to entirely change the form of the play, and to rob it of its principal points of interest. The post of goal keeper, to which one of the coolest and steadiest was ever appointed, and which has been an object of aspiration as a place of trust, is at once swept away, while the occupation of the goal sneak – the quickest, sturdiest and most alert of the forward players – is also gone. The changes consequent on the adoption of this single excrescence from the Rugby Union code are, however, too numerous for noting in detail.29
The association executive was accused of being a ‘star chamber’ that had added this rule after the general meeting had decided to adopt Victorian Rules. And while that seems a fair criticism, this argument had its chance to be ironed out at subsequent meetings.

It is telling that the Hobart footballers kept their crossbar until as late as 1884. In 1883, for example, the association's secretary ‘reported that he had written to all the town clubs relative to altering the rules relating to the use of the crossbar and pushing and had received replies from the whole of them, it being agreed by 136 members to 91 to keep the rules as at present’.30 In 1883, the Tasmania delegates to the intercolonial rules conference held in Melbourne argued for the installation of the crossbar in all colonies. Perhaps surprisingly, according to the Mercury, they were defeated by only 9 votes to 6!31

A third and final point relates to the idea of what game the participants thought they were playing. Had they adopted ‘a game of their own’?32 Were they (reluctantly or otherwise) playing a Victorian colonial imposition? Did they care one way or the other? It is difficult enough to establish the facts, never mind work out what was in the participants’ heads – though the following is suggestive.
At the end of the 1879 season a celebratory dinner was held in Hobart on 27 September. The footballers had settled most of their differences and unbeknownst to them were at the beginning of a long historical thread that continues today. The Mercury reports a number of speeches given that night:
Mr GIBLIN proposed the toast of the evening, ‘Success to the Tasmanian Football Association.’ (Loud and prolonged cheers.) There was not the least doubt that the game of football had taken such a hold of the young men of Hobart Town that season such as none of them could remember before. (Hear, hear.) It was a grand winter game. Many of them loved cricket with an intense love, but in our climate cricket could not be played all the year round, and there was no game to be compared to the manly old English game of football. (Cheers.)33 [emphasis added]
Giblin, it seems, was fairly confident about the nature of the game in which they were participants. The response suggests that many others agreed with him.

Soccer in the Shadows

After 1879, Association football appears to have retreated into the Hobart background until its re-emergence in 1898, and firm establishment in the early 1900s on the back of migration from the British Isles. The possible continuity of soccer in this period should nonetheless be entertained, even if imagined merely as the informal kicking-around of the remaining surplus round balls that were widely available and sold in the early 1870s.34

While those first games of soccer very much happened, they failed to happen historiographically. Archivally buried and misremembered, their status as two of the very first games of organised soccer in Australia has been lost. And they remain lost because, their discovery has had little purchase, despite the fact that one of them is the first recorded competitive inter-club game of soccer with premiership implications. Curiously, it is not even remembered by those who might be seen to have an interest in doing so, the various soccer governing bodies in Australia.35 It is barely remembered as just one game of the 1879 Hobart football season, thereby keeping in the shadows the story of the Cricketers’ cameo role in the grander narrative of soccer's early Australian rumblings.

The received history is that Australian Rules (via Melbourne Rules and Victorian Rules) football was played in Hobart from the beginnings of organised football in Tasmania. It is historically inaccurate but remains a culturally powerful truism. It is an error that is repeated and compounded by mythologisers who have their purposes and historians who should know better.

The website ‘Tasmania AFL: It's Time’, devoted to the ongoing attempt to establish a Tasmanian team in the AFL (the national Australian Rules competition) understandably appeals to ideas of the historical depth of Australian Rules in Tasmania and the state's cultural commitment to the game. It notes that ‘Tasmania has a long and proud football history, dating back to the 1860s. Ours was the first state outside of Victoria to play the game, with football clubs established in New Town, Derwent and Stowell in and around 1864.’ It happily claims these clubs for Australian Rules, skirting around the historical complications, and asserts, nonetheless correctly:

A number of clubs came and went and by 1879, the Tasmanian Cricket Association had officially formed a club (called the Cricketers) and Hobart had four senior football teams. Arguments about the rules of the game were solved at a meeting of club secretaries on 12 June, 1879, which formed an association and decided to adopt Victorian Rules with slight modifications.36

Given the nature and political project of the organisation making the argument, its use of this shorthand mythology is entirely expected and not particularly unreasonable.37

For a professional historian, such errors are less forgiveable. Geoffrey Blainey's A Game of Our Own is one of the influential and most respected histories of Australian Rules football. Its section on early football in Tasmania, while acknowledging the uncertainty of codes in the colony, nonetheless constructs Melbourne Rules as the norm against which other codes butted. Blainey writes on a football game in Launceston in 1875, intended to be 11 versus 11 but which ended up as 11 versus all comers:
This particular match was closer to Rugby than to the football normally played in Melbourne, for the players on various occasions obtained a ‘touch down’ and with it the right to kick for goal. Four years later football in Launceston, unmistakeably, was played according to the Australian rules.38
Rhetorically, Blainey presents the Launceston game as a departure from the norm. Despite quibbles that could be made about the fact that ‘touch downs’ were performed in many forms of football other than Rugby and that the ‘Australian Rules’ did not exist in 1879, the important error here is the inadvertent deception of constructing Tasmanian football as Victorian Rules in embryo. This is compounded by an illustrating photograph, anachronistically representing the post-ascendancy Southern Tasmanian football team from 1890 (with its characteristic sleeveless playing vests, bulging biceps and brimming confidence) as a pictorial example of a moment 11 years earlier when Tasmanian football is actually in disarray. Blainey's subsequent mentioning of Tasmanian football is to Hotham's visit in 1881 – when the code war is over and Victorian Rules is established as the Tasmanian winter game.

Most historians (amateur and professional) allow for the fact that a lot of the football played around Australia in the 1850s and 1860s was often an undifferentiated and usually locally ‘flexible’ set of behaviours. Many, however, are in error because they fail properly to trace the shift to codification. Sometimes a convenient look away (in the vein of a professional wrestling referee) allows Australian Rules to be there in place smiling innocently when the historian returns to the narrative. Almost all amateur histories do this; as do some professional accounts. Series of tussles, arguments and code wars get effaced in this process, whereby competing codes and claims are written out of the narrative. David Young, for example – whose Sporting Island, a history of Tasmanian sport is spatially generous towards soccer39 – nonetheless commits this kind of error. Despite the momentary formal adoption of Association rules in 1879, which Young acknowledges, soccer is only ‘introduced’40 like a species foreign to Tasmania in the late 1890s, whereas Australian Rules ‘rises’41 like a tree from the soil. The indexing convention adopted for the book also embeds a particular narrative. Soccer and the rugby codes are given their own entries, whereas Australian Rules sits within the generic entry on football (alongside all references to pre-codified forms of the game).

The same kind of flaw applies to many of the histories of Melbourne football, with some notable exceptions. Other codes are excluded from historical consideration by the invention of a great Australian Rules tradition which, having acknowledged (or asserted) its contemporary social dominance, looks back over history and colonises the lot for itself.42 The circular logic runs: if there's a reference to a game of football in a Melbourne newspaper in the 1850s then it must be to Australian Rules football because all football games in colonial Victoria lead inevitably to present-day Australian Rules. An example of this can be found in Phil Roberts’ history of the North Ballarat Roosters. Citing an example of an eleven-a-side game in Melbourne in 1850, Roberts suggests that whether ‘this was an “Aussie Rules” game is open to question, but it is an evidence of the start of Melbourne's football’.43 It is simply not open to question because it could not have been Australian Rules. But the rhetorical trick has already been taken. Merely raising the question introduces the notion that even if it is not Australian Rules per se, because it occurred in the city that came to be dominated by Australian Rules it is therefore Australian Rules in embryo.44

Hess et al. attack this kind of logic head-on. They are very careful to argue that the game inaugurated by Wills and his fellows in 1858 is an English game introduced to the colony and not some inevitable genealogical progression from pre-existing games. They point out that ‘Wills and others made it known in the press that they had introduced a new code of football into the colony – not that they had adopted and reshaped a game that was already in existence’.45 The Australian-Rules-in-embryo argument is ruled out by this reasoning. Games played resembled the Melbourne rules to come, but they also had many differences.

Soccer historians also need to take this argument on board. It would be ahistorical to look for organised soccer prior to the game's codification in England in 1863. Yet attentive historians nonetheless need to keep their eyes and minds open for games resembling soccer being played well back in Australian history. As Roy Hay has claimed, ‘Football probably more closely akin to the association football rather than what became Australian Rules was being played in and around Melbourne in the mid-nineteenth century’.46

Evidence suggests that Warrnambool Football Club was established as an ‘English Football’ club in 1861. According to the club's web site, on 4 June 1861
Warrnambool was the scene of a game of ‘English football’ in which two goals were scored. Shortly after the second of them the ball burst, bringing a premature end to the proceedings, with no victor declared. However, the sport itself appears to have been a winner, and today's Warrnambool Football Club traces its origins all the way back to that winter of 1861, making it among the oldest football clubs in Australia.47
Warrnambool FC is one of the oldest football clubs in Australia and it has been an Australian Rules club for almost all of that history. But a game more resembling soccer might well have been thereabouts at its origins. It has already been shown that Hobart's New Town FC (an earlier incarnation of present-day Glenorchy Magpies FC) played soccer before they played Australian Rules.

But these foundation narratives are hegemonic and soccer counter-narratives are rarely taken seriously. Because of this entrenchment it is not just a simple matter of correcting foundation errors and allowing the truth to unfold. Like fallen boulders that have caused the damming of a creek and whose removal has no consequence once the dam is established, their consequences need to be dismantled and unravelled. Such errors have been a deep impediment to attempts to write other histories.

When Chris Hudson came to compile his comprehensive history of soccer in Tasmania, A Century of Soccer, 1898–1998, he began with the claim that ‘British Association Football first came to Australia in 1880’,48 repeating the three intertwined myths: soccer's late importation; Australia's soccer origins in Sydney and Australian Rules’ Tasmanian universality. Guided and blinded by these narratives, Hudson inadvertently ignored a crucial part of his own state's history. This is no slight on Hudson. The corrective documents are buried in the archive and hard to find. And it would have required a wilful disregard of, and resistance to, the established narratives to allow him look for a game so early on.49

On the other hand, fortune might have smiled upon him. Had he happened upon the elements of the earlier discussion in relation to W.H. Cundy from 1931, his project would have been altered fundamentally and positively. While probably not representing veracious history, Cundy's recollections are a fascinating warning bell to the historian bent on citing origins. Cundy makes the verifiable claim that Southern Tasmania only just adopted Victorian Rules football by one single vote. While soccer had its disciples at that time, it did not have enough to carry the day.
Discovery of the following letter from James Sprent to the Mercury on July 3, 1926 would have caused an even more serious rethinking by Hudson. Possibly error-ridden itself, the letter is nonetheless usefully suggestive of leads to follow. The final sentence urges a major re-conceptualisation of both the content and the method of Hudson's study.
‘Referee’ states that Soccer was first started in Tasmania by the late Mr J. B. B. Honeysett in 1912. Re-started would be more correct, as the game was played regularly in Hobart during 1900, 1901 and 1902. Australian Football in this State being under a cloud at the time several old Soccer players combined to introduce the game, and the chief credit must be given to the Rev. F. Taylor, of Holy Trinity, now of Longford. He had played for Durham University, and had, I think, captained the team. Rev. H.H. Anderson, of Hutchins School, was another old player: in fact, the first practice was held on his ground. T.F. Hills, of Friends’ School, a gigantic centre forward had also played in good company at Home. Three teams were formed, University, Gunners, and Sandy Bay, the two latter being from the volunteers. Regular matches were played for three years, and if the skill of the new recruits was not great, we nevertheless had a lot of fun. Later the Australian game regained its popularity, chiefly owing to the efforts of the late W.H. Gill, and the University declared for the old game again. So for a while Soccer was neglected. But if ‘Referee’ cares to do a bit of research work as to the origin of the game in Tasmania I can give him the address of an old friend, who swears that a round-ball game was played regularly on the Domain over 50 years ago.50 [emphasis added]
Sprent's letter intimates an important point: the latent potential of soccer rapidly to move into spaces vacated by dominant codes when they make way, either voluntarily or reluctantly. It is not known whether ‘Referee’ ever got around to visiting the ‘old friend’. In all likelihood his stories died with him. But if Sprent was correct soccer was played in Hobart in 1876 or earlier.

The following reflection from 1876 relates to a particularly violent game of football in Hobart, one which created a deal of public rancour and press correspondence. The game was probably not soccer, but the response seems to be a clear expression of one individual's impulse towards the kicking game:
SIR, I am a Lancashire man, but to be more precise in locality ‘a Bolton Felly.’ Any townsman of my age cannot but remember the seven clog shin kicks (or purring) of those days. The opposing sides generally kicked in Bradshawgate or Church gate. It was a warfare of English v. French, and football has long to be remembered by those engaged in, I may say, these Waterloo contests.
At a match like this, which includes legs and arms and objectionable exclamations, temper is hard to keep. The recent contest in Hobart Town between the City and New Norfolk Clubs, calls up to memory the scenes I witnessed half a century ago; but without a bias, I would recommend to all clubs, more of the feet and less of the fists and jaw.
Yours truly. 
August 5th.51
Do Sprent and ‘Bolton felly’ point to a soccer sensibility of long residence in Tasmania and, by extension, Australia? It is a vital question because an affirmative answer explodes a number of origin myths.

Brisbane 1875

It is not necessary to speculate about cultural silences and faint archival traces to assert that the Sydney-origins thesis has been dismantled. But nor will it do to replace the Sydney thesis with an earlier Hobart variation. The Hobart Cricketers’ two matches were not the first games of soccer (codified or otherwise) in Australia. A number of earlier games were also played.

One took place on Saturday August 7, 1875 in Woogaroo (now Goodna) just outside of Brisbane. The Queenslander reported that the Brisbane FC met the inmates and warders of the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum on the football field in the grounds of the Asylum: ‘play commenced at half-past 2, after arranging the rules and appointing umpires; Mr Sheehan acting as such for Brisbane, and Mr [Jaap] for Woogaroo. One rule provided that the ball should not be handled nor carried’.52 In itself this description is not enough to justify the claim that the game is Association football. The clinching evidence comes from the Victorian publication The Footballer in 1875 which notes in its section on ‘Football in Queensland’ that the same ‘match was played without handling the ball under any circumstances whatever (Association rules)’.53

A fascinating story is waiting to be told about why the Woogaroo Asylum played soccer when all other clubs in the region were playing Rugby or a Queensland variation on the Melbourne rules.54 It may well have boiled down to the preference of an authority Figure (in this case the Asylum's superintendent, John Jaap) or even the players themselves.55 Jaap was the superintendent of the Asylum between 1872 and his death at 39 years in 1877.56 He graduated from Glasgow University with an MD in 185857 and probably resided in Britain until he was married in London 1869.58 In January 1871 he was living and working as a doctor in Warwick, Queensland, prior to taking up the post at Woogaroo.59

Jaap was noted for implementing humane methods and programmes at the Woogaroo institution. He ‘employed patient labour to establish a piggery and farm pursuits, which were a feature of the asylum for many years. Jaap drew attention to the overcrowded conditions at the asylum, a perennial problem which plagued the institution for most of its existence’.60 He also supervised the implementation of a sports programme. For example, in November 1873 the Asylum held a sports day and ball.

Following the humane and indulgent treatment which characterises the modern system of dealing with the insane, the Surgeon superintendent of the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum (Dr Jack) afforded the patients in that institution an excellent day's amusement on Saturday last, in the shape of athletic sports, &c, with a ball in the evening.61

Football can be seen as part of a continuum of ‘improving’ activities established by Jaap, who would very likely have been in favour of Association rules, given that he learned his organised football at Glasgow University. David Murray notes that the game there was
a dribbling one, the ball must be kicked and could not be carried or handled, no collaring or hacking was permitted and there was little rough play. If the ball was caught in the air a free, that is an undisturbed, kick was allowed. The player who held the ball dropped it from his hand and kicked it as [it] fell. The game was practically the same as Hand Ball as regards numbers and manner of playing; in the one case the ball was struck with the hand and the other with the foot.62
There were at least two other games of football under Jaap's supervision, an earlier one against Brisbane FC on July 19, 1873 and one against Rangers FC on June 24, 1876, though there is no indication of the code used in those games. Were the 1873 game found to have been played under Association rules (as might have been likely under Jaap's direction) it would be the earliest codified game on record in Australia.

The Chimera of Origins

But nor would this be the very first game of soccer in Australia. There is little doubt that there were earlier games, less formal, less structured perhaps and which escaped the notice of the press. Hay's recent work on football in Australia in the 1850s, influenced by Adrian Harvey and others, has begun to gather the unearthed traces of rule-bounded small-sided games brought to Australia from Britain and Ireland well before the codification of Australian Rules.63 Some of these would have been games with a strong developmental link to present day soccer in Australia.64

The nearly disabling problem for this kind of research is that as researchers venture archivally backward in time the images become more blurred and the distinctions between codes become harder to make. Even as potential origin points become temporally closer they recede into the shadows of archival absence. Gavin Kitching suggests that football historians need to look at how football codes develop rather than discover when they begin.65 Kitching also cites personal correspondence from Tony Collins who makes the vital point that
the problem with looking for the ‘origins’ of football is that it almost inevitably reads history backwards – almost all historians of ‘football’ look at history through a teleological lens, projecting current concerns and configurations backwards onto the past. At its simplest level this can be found in the assumption that ‘football’ is a synonym for their favoured modern code of football.66
Yet the dilemma for football historians lies in the necessity of engagement with the established origins that lie at the heart of the professional and amateur historiography of all major sports, origins that both orient and limit debate. Moreover, present-day administrators compound the problem by using anniversaries of origin to generate publicity. They help to get stories rolling: ‘Once upon a time Wills or Webb Ellis or Doubleday did something so special that they got a great game started’. Aside from often being simply incorrect, origin theses tend to nurture hegemonic narratives that by their very nature rule counter-narratives out of bounds.

The great historian of the counter-narrative, E.P. Thompson, famously claimed the English ‘working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’. With apologies it might be argued that ‘Soccer did not arrive in Australia at an appointed time. It was present at its own arrival’. Even as soccer was ‘getting off the boat’ in its organised Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney articulations, soccer was already here in the ghostly presence of its pre-figurative forms and isolate kickists. To borrow once more from Thompson, football historians cannot allow either to suffer from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’.67 Recalibrating the study of football origins to better register the processes of development and innovation68 is a fine start.

Endnotes can be found via the  International Journal of the History of Sport.


  1. What is interesting in the Tasmanian case is that it is also an example of how Australian clubs often experimented with the rules. This somewhat destroys the myth that the rules of the Melbourne FC quickly spread throughout the southern colonies.


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    2. Even though the Hobart Association adopted Victorian Rules in 1879, they kept the crossbar (over which the ball needed to be kicked to register a goal) until 1884. They also saw themselves as engaging in "the English game of football".