It has been thought that the Sydney University Football Club (SUFC) was in 1863 the first rugby football club founded in Australia.
The SUFC’s jersey badge and merchandise feature “1863″ in respect to its founding season, and the club is often referred to as “The Birthplace” of the code in Australia.
Little hard evidence remains though to confirm precisely when the SUFC was founded, and when indeed rugby (or something close to rugby) football was first played by the University’s undergraduates.
Rugby football was played earlier in Australia at Christ’s College in Tasmania in the late 1840s and in Melbourne in 1858.
Though these were the first instances of rugby football in Australia, they have no known lineage to the later development of the code in Sydney or elsewhere.
The coming of organised club football to Sydney lagged behind Melbourne due to the latter city having a larger population, primarily as a result of the Victorian gold boom.
Sydney’s warmer weather also favoured the playing of cricket for a 10-month season, with only July and August considered unsuitable to play the game.
While Melbourne cricketers indulged in football as a means to stay fit over their city’s longer winter lay-off from cricket, there was no such compelling need amongst Sydney’s cricketers to do likewise.
In Guardians of the Game, John A Mulford suggests that rugby football began in Sydney’s schools through the early 1860s. It is likely that it was the rise of this generation, with its desire to keep playing the game, along with arrivals from England and Melbourne, that finally led to club football commencing in Sydney.
In conflict with the SUFC’s claims to its 1863 birth-date, there are no mentions in Sydney newspapers of any club football, nor indeed any playing of football at the University, until 1865.
The University itself (founded in late 1850) lacked sufficient student numbers for any significant internal football games to have been played – a mere 28 undergraduates enrolled in 1860 had risen to a modest 44 at the start of 1865.
The first newspaper mention in 1865 of students at the University playing football was of an internal contest (number of players per side not recorded) in preparation for a match against the Sydney FC held on August 19. The Sydney FC had been founded at meetings in late May and early June, and had played against a team under the “Australian Cricket Club” on 8 July. The Illustrated Sydney News of 15 July stated:
“A football club, the first in the colony, has recently been formed and named the Sydney Football Club.”
However, the undergraduates may have already been playing football games amongst themselves through the final weeks of autumn that year. It is also worth considering that a school or university could play the game without actually being regarded at the time as a “football club” (ie a member based organisation).
Indeed, the members of the “Australian Cricket Club” formed a football team in 1865, but not a separate football club, whereas a significant number of the leading men amongst the Sydney FC’s committee and players were also members of the “Albert Cricket Club”.
Sydney’s long-standing ‘sporting bible’ The Referee wrote in 1918 (and without anyone in the ensuing weeks challenging the statement’s legitimacy) that:
“We believe the first recognised Rugby football club formed in Sydney was the Wallaroos, in 1870, though football was played prior to that in New South Wales and Victoria.”
In 1907 Richard Teece, Chairman of the SCG Trust and well known in Sydney for his long involvement in cricket and boat racing at the University, spoke at a NSWRU function (reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 June 1907):
“Mr Richard Teece said that as certainly the oldest Australian footballer present…he had watched the progress of the game since he had taken part in the formation of the first football club in Sydney 42 years ago.”
Given Teece was enrolled at the University from 1865-67, and his other sporting interests all centred on the University, there seems little doubt he was referring to the SUFC rather than the Sydney FC. Teece’s name does not appear in any newspaper reports of Sydney FC meetings, nor in the list of the club’s players that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 July 1865.
In a later article on Teece’s life (The Sydney Mail 11 June 1919), 1865 is again referred to as the first season, and the writer makes it clear that University was the first club in existence:
“While Mr Teece was at the University there was a man named [Fred] Campbell and another, George Deas Thomson (son of Sir Edward Deas Thomson), in his third year, who had played rugby football in England. These two combined with Teece to form a team among the undergraduates to play the game in Sydney. For some time their efforts were confined to scratch matches among themselves, as there were no other teams to play against. They were the first games of Rugby in Sydney.”
Similarly, in 1893 the Australian Town and Country Journal wrote:
“In 1870 the first football club, the Wallaroo, was formed. Before that the University students, although they had no regularly formed club, played several scratch matches with members of the army or navy or any team that could be got together. After the formation of the Wallaroo Club the University formed a club, and subsequently the Waratah, King’s School, and other clubs sprang into existence.”
Though the newspapers from 1863-1865 do not carry any mentions of the SUFC being founded, nor any of the undergraduates playing the game amongst themselves until after the arrival of the Sydney FC in May 1865, this does not mean that the claims made surrounding Teece and the SUFC are not true. It is possible that the students were playing the game before the Sydney FC was founded i.e. at a time that “there were no other teams to play against.”
Both of the men mentioned in the above report – Campbell and Thomson – had played rugby football at schools in England, and, as Mulford points out, schools in Sydney had also taken up the game.
It does not though seem likely that the students were playing the game in 1863 or ’64, given the comments made by and about Teece and his involvement in the SUFC’s founding, that he did not arrive at the University until 1865, and that there simply wasn’t a large enough pool of undergraduates (let alone willing ones) to sustain forming two football sides.
That the club commenced in 1865 appears to be confirmed in The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 April 1876 which states:
“The committee of the University Club, in presenting this their eleventh annual report…the club both as regards the number of members and strength in the field has never been surpassed during the eleven years of its existence.”
In terms of protocol, the “first annual report” of a club would be at the commencement of its second season i.e. the “eleventh annual report” and the supporting quote pertain to 1865 as the University club’s first season of play.
From the 1876 meeting until 1883 (reported as “the eighteenth annual meeting”) the numbering is consistent and, given many of the men present were involved in the club’s first seasons, that the numbering was not changed to reflect a club playing in 1864 or earlier must be given great weight.
Interestingly, there appears to have been a general trend in the mid 1880s for the number of the annual meeting to be absent from newspaper reports of club annual meetings. A similar gap appears in the reports of the Wallaroo FC – founded in 1870, its 1879 meeting is referred to as its ninth annual meeting, but in 1890 it is given as its 21st (1891 its 22nd, 1892 its 23rd etc).
It appears that football clubs were using newspaper reports of their meetings as de facto minutes. There is no uncertainty that the Wallaroo club was founded at the start of the 1870 season, yet its numbering (like that of the University club) is one above what it should be. Similarly in Victoria the Argus reported annual meetings of the Melbourne FC in 1882 as 23rd and 1884 as 25th, but then in 1885 jumped to 27th, and in 1887 was reported as the 29th.
That both the University and Wallaroo numbering changes on the recommencement after a gap suggests that in the mid 1880s there was a prevailing view (though not agreed by all) that a club’s first annual meeting was its founding meeting. The gap in clubs quoting the number of their annual meeting may indeed be evidence that disagreement existed as to the counting method.
Given that Teece said he was involved in the founding of the SUFC but did not enrol until 1865, a year supported by reports of club meetings in the 1870s and early 1880s, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the University club was founded in 1865.
© Sean Fagan
*The contention that Sydney University club was not formed until August 1865 (i.e. after the Sydney and Australian FCs) is set out in “They Ran With the Ball” by Tom Hickie (page 43) and “Guardians of the Game” by John Mulford (page 11).
Thanks to Geoff Armstrong for additional information on Melbourne FC meeting dates & other comments.
Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
Thomas Hickie, They Ran With The Ball
The Sydney Morning Herald
Geoff Armstrong, The Father of Australian Rugby?
NSWRU / ARU archives
Newspapers as listed