The first documented account of the playing of football in colonial time Australia was of a game held in the centre of Sydney in late July of 1829.
Three newspapers reported of soldiers at the city’s George’s Square Barracks finding amusement and activity most days by playing football amongst themselves on the parade ground.
The last remaining part of the original parade ground of the Barracks is a semi-grassed and paved public area known today as Wynyard Park – located directly to the east of the York Street entrance to Wynyard railway station.
The largest military barracks in the Southern Hemisphere, in 1808 the Barracks were a central scene of the infamous NSW Corps uprising (the “Rum Rebellion”) when Governor William Bligh (former captain of the Bounty) was taken prisoner and held there behind lock-and-key.
The first football known to have been played at the Barracks was in 1829.
From Sydney Monitor 25 July 1829:
The privates in the barracks are in the habit of amusing themselves with the game of football, the ball being daily descried repeatedly mounting higher or lower, according to the skill and energy of the bold military kickers thereof. It is a healthy amusement, and much played in Leicestershire.
Intriguingly, the above account refers to football being a game “much played in Leicestershire” – a perhaps somewhat significant point given that the town of Rugby, and its famed school, are in the neighbouring Warwickshire county.
The report in The Sydney Gazette of the same date refers to Irish regiments being involved, and hints towards them playing Irish folk football:
Some of the military have been amusing themselves for several days past in the Barrack-square at the game of foot ball. The 57th and 39th are Irish regiments, and shew considerable ability in the practice of one of their national recreations.
A comment a day earlier in The Australian suggests football was first played much earlier, but on an ad hoc basis:
The privates and others of the garrison have lately been amusing themselves more than usual in the ordinary practice of foot-ball, in the Barrack Square, and a healthful exercise is foot-ball.
The playing of football games spread throughout the colonies, following in the years after each settlement became established and its population grew into the tens of thousands.
All football in the first half of the 1800s in the townships and cities of Australia were forms of traditional folk football, following the usual features and traditions of British festivals and holiday celebrations.
The George’s Square Barracks were closed in 1848, with the military relocated to the newly constructed Victoria Barracks at Paddington.
Over recent years the Australian Wallabies squad have used the Victoria Barracks oval for training sessions when in Sydney.
© Sean Fagan