Founded in 1866, Queensland’s first football club is today claimed by AFL authorities as an Australian rules club, but in truth the Brisbane FC’s rules were unsettled throughout its two decades of existence.

The annual meeting of the Brisbane Football Club … After some discussion it was resolved to adopt the Rugby Union rules for convenience in playing with other clubs, most of whom use these rules. – ‘The Queenslander’, 6 May 1876

Brisbane FC's rugby XV team of late 1870s.
Brisbane FC’s rugby XV team of late 1870s.

The uniform of the Brisbane Club was black and red striped guernsey and stockings, and blue knickerbockers. – ‘The Week’, 30 August 1879

Organised football came to Queensland in the winter of 1866 with the formation of the Brisbane FC.

The club announced in June 1866 that its official jersey colour was scarlet, and the playing rules would be the same as those adopted by the Melbourne clubs in May 1866 (The Queenslander, 2 June 1866).

The club’s members first took to the field on Saturday 9 June 1866, playing an in-house game among themselves on Queen’s Park, though “the rules were not very strictly adhered too” (The Queenslander, 16 June 1866).

After an enthusiastic beginning, 1867 saw the game fall away, with The Queenslander noting (31 August) that the “game has not been very popular this year, and, but for the interest taken in it by a few good players, would not have been played very much.”

In 1868 the first contests between the club and outsiders were played, with matches against members of the Queensland Police Force as well as a team comprised of men from the “Fiftieth Regiment” (“Queen’s Own”) of the British Army.

The latter game was touched by a minor dispute when the soldiers “objected to ‘marks’ being made, and a free kick taken when the ball was caught” (The Queenslander, 20 June 1868). In an unusual fixture, on 12 June 1869 the Brisbane FC played the Queensland Volunteer Artillery in a 9-a-side game on Queen’s Park. The QVA won by four goals to two.

Come the mid 1870s and Brisbane FC was still the city’s sole football club, with matches against the Artillery and in-house games amongst the members.

A Brisbane FC game in August 1875 against a team chosen from the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum (inmates and staff) was ostensibly played under the Football Association (England) rules (soccer).

An emerging trend though in other games was an increasing number of Brisbane players taking the rules into their own hands, with many displaying a decided Rugby streak in their actions.

The Brisbane Courier observed during 1875 that football in the Brisbane FC and its rules were in a confused state, with seemingly some players intent on following Rugby’s laws, but that this “spoils a game when some play it in full and some do not,” and in other instances “there was an erratic deviation now and then…into the Rugby style, but it was no doubt merely the force of habit”, while elsewhere there was “a disposition to congregate in knots and heaps on the ground took possession of the players, and the ball was kept hugged out of sight in the crowd for some time” and “there was a good deal done, too, in the way of men wandering off their own ground on to the enemy’s territory, in a style that is not allowed at [Rugby] football in England.”

The Queenslander wrote of a Brisbane FC match that same season where “the play was at times marred, in the sense of being foot-ball, by some very palpable throws with the hand” and in another it suggested “in future contests we would recommend the discarding of the rule of ‘touchdown,’ as it is unfavorable to the display of proper football playing.”

It was a haphazard state-of-affairs that suggests new arrivals from Britain, as well as returning students sent to English schools from Queensland, were attempting to play by a strict application of Rugby laws.

A letter writer to The Brisbane Courier confirmed that the Brisbane FC had in fact already modified its rules away from its original decision of 1865 to play the Melbourne code, by calling on the city’s footballers to “simplify and diminish the present number of Brisbane playing rules, or adopt instead the Victorian rules (thirteen in number).”

The 1876 season began with the formation of the city’s first two formal clubs in a decade – the Rangers FC and the Bonnet Rouge FC – both opted for Rugby Union rules, and to make inter-club matches easier, the Brisbane FC voted “for convenience in playing with other clubs” to adopt Rugby as well (The Queenslander, 29 April 1876 & The Brisbane Courier, 4 May & 10 May 1876).

Through June and July a campaign for change to Victorian (Australian) rules was taken up by letter writers and commentators in the city newspapers, championing the Melbourne game’s attributes, its popularity in that city, and the possibility of inter-colony matches with Queensland, while denigrating Rugby for its complexity, rough scrimmages, and imagined dangers (for example The Brisbane Courier, 8 June & 16 June 1876; The Queenslander 24 June 1876).

The Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1876, evidently frustrated at the inability to reach uniformity: “It is uncertain yet whether Rugby or Melbourne rules will carry the day here, but some decision will have shortly to be come to on the subject, and the sooner the better.”

The clubs had begun the 1876 season voting to play Rugby rules, but it was quickly evident “the bulk of the Brisbane players do not appear to ‘savee’ [understand] the complicated Rugby code of rules newly introduced amongst us” (The Queenslander, 17 June).

A correspondent to The Queenslander (10 June 1876) wrote, “Allow me, through your columns, to express an opinion held by a good many footballers in Brisbane about the rules at present in use, viz., Rugby Union. There is too much holding the ball and disputing about ‘on’ and ‘off’ side. This is not football at all … The Rugby Union code contains fifty-seven rules, while the Melbourne rules are only fifteen. I think that the secretary of the Brisbane, or Rangers Club ought to call a general meeting of footballers, and let a decided opinion be expressed. On Saturday last there was much dissatisfaction at the continual picking up, tucking under the arm, running with the ball, and then crying ‘down’ [held].”

The game was soon varied to suit local taste, and “Rugby, with Brisbane variations, was the game played” (The Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1876).

A report of a meeting of the Rangers FC (The Queenslander, 29 July) noted its players had spent that winter having “tried the Rugby Union, Melbourne, and rules of our own, wished to go back to Rugby Union rules.”

The Brisbane clubs had, intentionally or not, evolved from Rugby their own unique form of the game.

The Queenslander (11 & 12 August 1876) reported that the Brisbane and Rangers clubs had met and “decided to alter certain rules to meet the views of both clubs,” while a letter-writer suggested “The game as played in this colony is really a pitiful, mongrel imitation of neither English nor Melbourne football.”

Through 1877 and ’78 the local version of the Rugby game continued to be the norm. Teams for inter-club matches were usually 15-a-side, and tries, conversions, cross-bar, drop-kicks and scrimmages were strong features of the game. 

The Ipswich FC (Victorian rules) and Brisbane FC (Rugby) met in two games during 1878, with a match under each code (The Brisbane Courier, 19 August & 9 September 1878). That same winter a new Victorian rules club emerged in Brisbane, called the Excelsiors.

In 1879 the Brisbane FC (now tagged as the “Invincible Reds”) adopted Victorian rules for the coming winter “in place of the Rugby Union Rules played by the club during the last three seasons” (The Brisbane Courier, 2 June 1879) and began by playing the Excelsiors.

These two clubs were then joined by the newly founded Wallaroo FC. The season ended with Brisbane FC playing a “United Team” made up of players from “the Excelsior, St. Killian, Wallaroo, and Grammar School Football Clubs combined” (The Brisbane Courier, 22 September 1879).

In April 1880 four clubs – Brisbane, Wallaroo, Excelsiors, Athenians/Ipswich – held a meeting and resolved to form the Queensland Football Association (QFA).

While the QFA is recognised today as AFLQ (Australian rules) it in fact began as a dual-code body.

After a proposal by Brisbane FC officials Fred Lea (a former Blackheath FC Rugby player) and Thomas Welsby, it was resolved that the QFA would “recognise both strict Melbourne and strict Rugby Union rules of football, and that arrangements should be made to play a match under the Rugby Union rules each fourth Saturday” (reported in The Brisbane Courier 29 April, 1 May & 4 May 1880).

The balance of matches in favour of Australian football over Rugby seems to have been reasonable given The Brisbane Courier (16 September 1879) unequivocally stated that “The Rugby game, however, is certainly not in favour here amongst either the majority of the players or with the public.”

Rugby was not the more popular code in Brisbane, but games continued to be played and it was far from dead. The 1882 season began with a crowd of 2,000 watching a “Hospital Saturday” charity match under Rugby rules between the Brisbane and Wallaroo clubs. Of the twenty matches played that winter, all but three were Victorian rules.

It is worth examining here that the often repeated “fact” that “By 1883, there were more than 300 teams in South East Queensland” playing Victorian rules is absurd. To attain such a number would have necessitated well over 6,000 footballers – as we have seen Brisbane itself would not have had more than 100. The Queenslander (2 September 1882) noted in all of NSW there were 48 Rugby clubs and between 2,500-3,000 players.

It was with some surprise that news emerged in July 1882 that the colony would be sending a Rugby football team to play in Sydney, rather than a Victorian rules side to meet Sydney’s NSWFA players.

Pring Roberts, on behalf of the Brisbane FC, had contacted the Wallaroo FC (Rugby) in Sydney, challenging them to a match. The Wallaroos handed the matter over to the NSWRU and it was agreed that the Brisbane club should be invited to Sydney. A committee of the Brisbane clubs was formed to further the negotiations. Ultimately a Queensland team was selected, and wearing Brisbane FC’s red-and-black jerseys, made their Rugby debut in Sydney against NSW.

Queensland Rugby team in 1883, wearing red & black jerseys of Brisbane FC.
Queensland Rugby team in 1883, wearing red & black jerseys of Brisbane FC (as they had also done in 1882).

The intercolonial team of footballers met … A discussion taking place as to the uniform to be worn, it was resolved that this should consist of a scarlet and black guernsey and knickerbockers, or. as is more familiarly known, the “Brisbane.” – ‘The Queenslander’, 29 July 1882

The Victorian rules faction reacted sternly. A new QFA was founded in mid 1883, declaring it would adopt Victorian rules alone. Unlike under the original QFA, there would be no Rugby games. Brisbane FC joined the QFA.

Despite the QFA declaration Brisbane FC sometimes arranged to play Rugby clubs, and Queensland Figaro revealed (4 July 1885) that the Excelsiors alone “form the only club which has, by its constitution and rules, adopted the Australian Rules pure and simple.”

The defining moment in the code battle came with the 1886 Queensland side, who defeated NSW for the first time in Sydney. “The success of this team undoubtedly won the day for Rugby game in Queensland. The Victorian game supporters were struggling hard to uphold the premier position they had gained but after the brilliant performance of the 1886 team, who lost only one match through their tour, the Rugby game became very popular and the next season several new clubs were formed and the Victorian game began to wane” (QRU Annual, 1902).

In listing the QFA matches for 1887’s Brisbane competition there were just four senior clubs with South Brisbane, Rovers, Excelsior and Brisbane FC.

For the ‘Brisbanes’ – the city’s first football club, and for a brief time once a Rugby club – it was their last season, unable to muster enough interest to front up for 1888.

The Queensland Figaro wrote in September 1888 of the state of play in the colony as “Rugby, an unbounded success; Melbourne rules very sick indeed, in fact on their last legs; British Association Rules, also in a sickly state but if anything showing more life than the Victorian game.”

The final games under Aussie rules in Brisbane and Ipswich were played in 1889.

© Sean Fagan