Is Melbourne FC our nation’s first football club? Or should the honour reside instead with the South Yarra team of 1858? And what football code did they play?

In traditional histories recounting the first Rugby games in Australia, the story begins with the formation of clubs in Sydney in the mid 1860s. However, in the middle decades of the 19th century, Australia’s largest city was not Sydney, but in the Victorian capital, Melbourne.

English folk football of some description had been played in Victoria’s major towns since the late 1840s. Melbourne’s most popular sports were the English favourites of horse racing, cricket and rowing.

Buried under a century and half of ‘Aussie rules’ dominance, whatever existence Rugby once had in Melbourne before the dawn of ‘the Australian game’ became less than insignificant – no one in Sydney’s Rugby circles knew about it, no in Melbourne had reason to go look for it.

Football in Melbourne c1866 at Richmond Paddock (Yarra Park).
Football in Melbourne c1866 at Richmond Paddock (Yarra Park).

However, newspaper archives and other document sources show Rugby football being played in Melbourne in the years leading up to the Melbourne FC adopting its first playing laws in 1859.

The Melbourne FC’s rules evolved into becoming the Victorian/Australian rules football code (also known as ‘Australian football’ or simply as ‘AFL’).

The 1963 summer issues of the Football Record include a series of articles held in the AFL archives in Melbourne written by TJ Marshall in the 1890s. Marshall, a player from the 1850s and later Victorian Football Association’s secretary, wrote:

“Early in the ’50s games under Rugby rules were played by the miners of many of the ‘diggings’ and during these exciting times a small coterie of Rugbyites kept the ball rolling in Melbourne…who played in the then wilds of South Yarra near what is now Fawkner Park…”

In Australian football lore, an 1858 schoolboys match (Scotch College and Melbourne’s Church of England Grammar School) is cited as the code’s first game – in 2008 the AFL celebrated the code’s 150 years anniversary.

This overlooks though that the first rules of the newly formed Melbourne FC were not devised until a meeting at the Parade Hotel in May 1859, and that the earlier schoolboys match thus could not have been a game of Australian rules football.

In 1858 the Yarra club, the football team under the Melbourne Cricket Club, and seemingly at every school, were all playing football.

The Melbourne correspondent to the Illawarra Mercury (7 Oct 1858):

“The game of ‘foot-ball’ is becoming very popular in and about Melbourne. Clubs have been established during the last winter at most of the principal schools. It is intended, likewise, to originate foot-ball clubs which will commence practice immediately after the cricketing season is over. As an healthful, outdoor, winter amusement foot-ball cannot become too general.”

A letter to The Argus on 17 August 1858 is signed off by:

“The Secretary of the Church of England Grammar School Football Club.”

The Argus of 16 August 1858 described football in Melbourne:

“Football seems to be coming into fashion in Melbourne, and as it is a most manly and amusing game we hope that it may continue to grow in favour until it becomes as popular as cricket.”

“Let those who fancy there is little in the game, read the account of one of the Rugby matches which is detailed in that most readable work, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and they will speedily alter their opinion.”

It was a reaction to these earlier football games in Melbourne, and the way that they were played, that led to the suggestion of a meeting [held on 17 May 1859] to frame playing rules for the Melbourne FC. One of the men present was William Hammersley, who wrote in 1883 (reproduced in The Referee on 9 September 1908):

“When the game first started in Victoria on anything like a sound footing (that was 1857), it was a very rough game and no mistake. My shins now show honourable scars, and often I had the blood trickling down my legs. No wonder, for hacking was permitted, and no objection was taken to spiked shoes. One day, however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond paddock, when blood had been drawn freely and some smart raps exchanged, and a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better. Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself…We decided to draw up a simple code of rules, and as few as possible, so that anyone could quickly understand. We did so, and the result was the rules then drawn up form the basis of the of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and most other parts of Australia.”

A correspondent to The Queenslander (10 July 1876) offers a similar version, writing:

“viz., Rugby Union. There is too much holding the ball and disputing about ‘on’ and ‘off’ side. This is not football at all, and for this reason these rules (or nearly the same) were discarded by Melbourne, and new ones, far better, substituted.”

Mr G. F. Bowen recalled the events of the era at a meeting in 1880 in Sydney to start an Australian rules club, reported in the Australian Town and Country Journal on 3 July 1880:

“He also stated how the Rugby rules were in vogue in 1860 in Melbourne, and that they did not answer, and revision was gone in for by Messrs. Wills (an old Rugby player), Harrison and Hammersley (an Oxford player), and the present high standard of football in Victoria was mainly owed to their indefatigable exertions … If, he stated, players of New South Wales went in for patching up the Rugby game they would eventually arrive at the same goal as Victorian players, and instead of going over the same ground that Melbourne players had, to start the game at once.”

The resultant Australian football code is a simplification, generalisation and mix of the preferred rules taken from various English games, including strong elements of Rugby’s kicking, ‘marking’ and ball-handling.

It can be readily argued that these first rules were purely an attempt by Melbourne Club’s footballers to implement a quickly understood and tamer version of how Rugby football was played at that time.

In a study National myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules football, Dr Tony Collins (Director of the International Centre for Sports History & Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester) compared the early laws of Australian football clubs in Victoria with those being played in schools and clubs throughout the UK at the time:

“The set of rules developed in Melbourne in the 1850s and 1860s was simply one of many dozens of variations in the playing of football throughout the British Empire.”

Bell’s Life in Victoria of 25 June 1859 reported that:

A match is talked about between tho St. Kilda and Melbourne Clubs, but the first-named club objects to rule No. 7 of tho Melbourne Club, which provides for ‘tripping’ but not ‘hacking’, whether over the ball or not.

The ‘hacking’ that St Kilda saw as integral to the game was a form of open field tackling prominent in Rugby School football.

Greg de Moore, in his biographical account of the life of Tom Wills, described football in Melbourne in 1858 as:

“…close in style to Rugby School football…Australian Rules football owes its defining features – emphasis on handling the ball, the importance of kicking, the shape of the ball, receiving a free kick after marking the ball and much more – to the Rugby School rules that Tom Wills brought.”

The Argus 16 May 1859, reporting on the formation of the Melbourne FC and its first rules committee, tells us football in 1858 was played under ‘Rugby regulations’ and teams included ‘old Rugbeians’:

“This proceeding is the more necessary as exceptions were taken last year to some of the Rugby regulations, which even a perusal of Tom Browns Schooldays has not made altogether palatable to other than old Rugbeians.”

The South Yarra football club had in September 1858 challenged and then played against a team organised by members of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Neither that match, nor any other played in Melbourne that year, could have been under the yet to be devised ‘Australian football’ game [now AFL].

The Argus on 13 June 1859 and 1 August 1908, appears to support TJ Marshall’s recollection that Rugby was being played at what became Fawkner Park (in South Yarra) before the emergence of the Melbourne FC and its rules:

“The rules under which the South Yarra gentlemen play differ materially from those of the Melbourne Club, so that unless some concession is made on one side or both, there is not  much chance of a match between the two clubs this season.” [1859]

“The first regular club matches were played between Melbourne and South Yarra, which had its ground at the back of the Presbyterian Church, in Fawkner Park.” [1908]

The newspapers of 1859, especially at the start of the football season, all refer to the South Yarra team as a football club, giving no suggestion it was an informal group, or that it came into existence after Melbourne FC.

Indeed The Argus on 18 April 1859, a month before Melbourne FC is founded, makes it plain that not only were the South Yarras and the Melbourne Cricket Club’s football teams ‘football clubs’, but they were ‘amongst’ other clubs in the city:

“…for football clubs in almost all the suburbs are either being formed or reorganised…Amongst the best football clubs who will shortly break ground may be mentioned the Melbourne and South Yarra.”

Of the backgrounds of the South Yarra club players, Geoffrey Blainey in A Game of Our Own:

“South Yarra’s footballers were mostly gentlemen and white-collar workers, many of whom had played football at well-known English public schools, especially Rugby and Winchester…”

Winchester College’s version of football (‘Winkies’) was a centered upon a Rugby-type scrummage (‘hot’). Bell’s Life in Victoria of 25 September 1858 was probably the source of Blainey’s comment:

Another exciting match will be played to-day, the contending parties being an equal number from South Yarra and Melbourne. The latter are said to have the advantage as far as practice goes, but the former bring with them the prestige of old Winchester and Rugby experiences, as well as of perfect discipline.

An ‘old timer’ writing in Geelong Advertiser (5 September 1908) noted the South Yarra teams of the late 1850s wore a light blue shirt in the same hue of the traditional colour of Geelong Grammar School, and:

“The men looked very different in the field to what they do now, owing to the custom prevalent then of wearing the hair and beard so long, giving the teams a more aged and less athletic appearance.”

Melbourne’s Age newspaper of 1 August 1908:

“According to authentic records, and within individual memory, the Australian game was developed in 1858 [sic] through public dissatisfaction with brutal exhibitions of rough play under the old Rugby rules.”

“New laws, which rendered the game playable without undue risk of life or limb, were then adopted by the leading Melbourne clubs.”

The Argus on 24 April 1914 carried a letter in reference to the first football at Scotch College, written by the school’s headmaster:

“…the game was introduced into the school by one of the masters, a Mr Harvey, from Rugby at some time in the fifties. The exact date is unknown, but it was not later than 1858. Indeed, old boys of the school have always claimed that Mr Harvey was the pioneer of football in Victoria.”

Geoffrey Blainey in A Game of Our Own:

“It is on record at Scotch College that one of its masters, Harvey, imported six footballs from England and taught some of his students to play football in the school yard: their code was probably Rugby, from which school he is said to have come.”

Even before Harvey, another former Rugby School student in 1849, Richard Hale Budd was appointed the first and only headmaster of Melbourne’s Diocesan Grammar School – the school closed at the end of 1854 but is seen by many as the the precursor of Melbourne Grammar School.

After these formative years of Rugby that led to Australian rules football, it was not until late June 1878 that Rugby was again seen in Melbourne, when Sydney’s Waratah Rugby club and Melbourne’s Carlton FC met in a series of cross-code matches. Keen to broker a ‘football fusion’ between NSW and Victoria, the clubs played matches under both codes in Sydney (1877) and then Melbourne (1878 at the MCG).

In an intriguing reference back to the earlier history of football in the Victorian capital and its Rugby origins, The Argus observed (29 June 1878) in its preview of the Waratahs v Carlton match that:

“It will be played under the rugby union rules, which are never used here now.”

The same newspaper (1 August 1908) in a lengthy article reviewing the history of the code over its first 50 years wrote:

“the Australian game…is none the less a child of Rugby.”

In The Australasian in 1871 (4 Nov) ‘By An Old Stager’ claimed to have been involved in Melbourne football since before the first rules at the Parade Hotel, opening his treatise on the game’s past with the words:

“No matter who was the actual father of football in this colony, who got the first Rugby ball, and kicked it – if the writer was not that identical being he is very nearly related to him, and took part in the first match of any note ever played.”

The Melbourne and South Yarra clubs did meet in 1859, when the latter yielded to playing under their opponent’s new rules, and thus produced the first game under what would become Australian football [AFL]. Now also recognised as the first football match played on the MCG, Melbourne won the day in close fought battle, benefiting perhaps from the advantage of practice matches under their own rules.

The South Yarra team that day purportedly included Thomas Alexander Browne, who under the pen name ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ wrote the classic Australian novel Robbery Under Arms, about the bushranger ‘Captain Starlight’.

The South Yarra club was one of the strongest and most influential clubs of the code’s first decades, developing a strong rivalry not only with Melbourne, but other clubs still today in the AFL, including Carlton, Geelong and Albert Park (the latter merged with South Melbourne, now Sydney Swans).

In 1865 in a match against Carlton, the South Yarras showed their Rugby influence by refusing to allow a soccer ball to be used (The Argus 11 September): 

“The Carlton Club ascribe their defeat to the fact that they were obliged to play with the oval, or Rugby ball, while they had always been accustomed to a round ball; and they complain that their opponents would not allow a round ball to be introduced even after they had won the first goal.”

Over the summer of 1871-72 the South Yarras led the charge to sanction an increasing amount of ball-carrying and robust Rugby-like ‘scrimmage’ play that was entering the game, from players not dropping the ball the moment they were clutched by a defender, but struggling on to break the tackle to get free and run on. The Australasian (25 May 1872) was in favour of reducing all carrying of the ball, bar enough to get in a kick before a tackler grabbed on:

“…the agitators for a change in the rules – this time the leaders being the South Yarra Club – imply by inference that the holding of the ball by a player, with a view to trying to get away and secure his kick, is authorised. It does not, however, strike me in this light. A strict enforcement of rule 8 by the umpire [8 says, ‘The ball may be taken in hand at any time, but not carried further than is necessary for a kick, and no player shall run with the ball unless he strikes it against the ground in every five or six yards’] would seem all that is necessary to change the style of play…the umpire, without being appealed to, should have the power of awarding a free kick to any one infringing the rule, [and] most of the holding of the ball would be done away with.”

But the South Yarra club was soon in fast decline, sometimes unable to field enough players for a team and forfeiting games, it was openly referred to in newspapers as “the once famous South Yarra club”.

A fatal blow was struck when a new club was started at St Kilda, resulting in many of the South Yarra players and supporters residing in that suburb switching allegiances for the 1873 season. While St Kilda went on to join the VFL (now AFL), The Australasian reported that though  “it died a hard death,” the old South Yarra club was defunct.

The 1876 publication, The Footballer: An Annual Record of Football in Victoria, noted:

“St. Kilda has rapidly pushed herself to the front, and this season stands in a highly creditable position, doing honor to the memory of old South Yarra, from whose dying embers she sprung.”

South Yarra – Australia’s first football club, our first Rugby club – and its story soon became forgotten to history.

What we can now see is that the pioneer football code of Australia was Rugby football, not Australian rules. After all, if the Melbourne FC’s rule-makers were endeavouring to improve on Rugby football, then logically Rugby must be the older code, and must have been the game played first. 

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
Greg de Moore, Tom Wills
Alf Batchelder, The First Football Matches on the Melbourne Cricket Ground
Geoffrey Blainey, A Game Of Our Own: The Origins Of Australian Football
Tony Collins, Aussie Rules: A Very British Game and AFL Origins Revisited
Other sources as identified in the article