How footy kicked off: Origins of Our Great Game Unclear

Where did what we now call Australian Rules football come from?

Many people still believe that the game was influenced by Gaelic football, an impression that is sometimes reinforced by the hybrid game played between teams of Australian and Irish footballers in recent years. But the Gaelic game was not codified or some would say reinvented until the 1880s and there is no contemporary evidence that Victorians borrowed from the Irish in any significant way in the 1850s when our version of football started.

Others, including the Australian Football League, have tried to emphasise links with Aboriginal games played in the western district of Victoria especially one called marngrook. The link in the latter case is often said to be Tom Wills, who grew up near Ararat and probably played with the local Aboriginal children in his youth. He later coached and played for the Aboriginal cricket team before they went on their celebrated tour of England in 1868, though Wills did not accompany them. Wills also wrote a letter to Bell’s Life in Victoria in 1858 suggesting the setting up of a football club and drafting a code of rules. This is often seen as a key step in the evolution of the game.

Martin Flanagan, author, journalist, novelist and now playwright, has turned his imaginative book The Call into a theatrical experience currently running at the Malthouse in Melbourne. In it Flanagan has restated his credo that Tom Wills was the bridge between Aboriginal culture and the creation of ‘a game of our own’, the dominant football code in this part of the world. Flanagan’s work delivers the message to readers and audiences who may or may not know anything about the history of the game in its formative years, so a generation may grow up accepting this vision as historically and psychologically accurate. And of course it is politically correct in the early twenty-first century, putting Aborigines back in the picture from which they have been excluded for generations. The Australian Football League reinforced similar ideas when it supported the erection of a monument to Wills at Moyston in western Victoria. The pleasure which leading Aboriginal players like Michael Long have taken in the notion that their ancestors were there at the origins of the game they have graced with such skill is not to be discounted, nor is the possibility that the rational methods of the academic historian may not be the only appropriate ones for the investigation of cultural practices and the transmission of ideas between social groups.

So it is probably, as my wife would say, curmudgeonly to suggest that Flanagan’s novel and play are myth-making not history. Some words about having a game of our own were put into Tom Wills’ mouth by H C A Harrison in his memoirs published in 1923 but Wills’ original letter has no such content. Indeed, Wills suggested that if football did not appeal a rifle club or even an athletics meeting would be reasonable substitutes.

In the mid-nineteenth century the game which was emerging took a decade or two to become clearly distinguished from the other forms practised in the colonies. Flanagan himself makes use of an article from the Argus in 1860. The nub of that article was that Wills was not using the round ball, which was the preferred kind for the game being played at the time. Games were played on rectangular pitches, round balls were used, rules were debated and styles varied for many years before the game settled down into anything we would recognise as close to the code we play today.

Historians including Bill Mandle, Geoffrey Blainey, Rob Hess, Robin Grow and Bernard Whimpress have demolished the anachronistic attempts to give the game Irish or Aboriginal antecedents. The celebrated marngrook references come from later publications like James Dawson’s Australian Aborigines: The Language and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1981 edition, originally published 1881, p. 85. High marking was not a feature of early Australian Rules so the suggestion this was derived from the Aboriginal game is also very dubious.

Familiarity with the mores of Melbourne bourgeoisie in the mid-nineteenth century would destroy any notion that they would reach out to an Aboriginal activity for a game to teach their sons, Tom Wills or no Tom Wills. Their focus, perhaps regrettably, was the United Kingdom, though the game they helped evolve eventually set up a unique pattern among Australian sports in that it was one which was not played in that country. As I have argued in my article ‘The last night of Poms: Australia as a post-colonial society’ in John Bale and Mike Cronin (eds), Sport and Postcolonialism, Berg, Oxford, 2003, the only characteristic Victorian football shared with the later Gaelic game was that it was not played elsewhere. Cricket became the national game in Australia, precisely because it could be played against the English as part of the great imperial project. Aussie Rules could not, and hence its legacy, like its origins, is very curious, with only the invented hybrid game against the Irish to give it a modern international dimension.

(An edited version of this article appleared in the Geelong Advertiser, 6 November 2004, p. 37.)

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