Much is made of Tom Wills’ “call for football” letter on 10 July 1858, but it was the arrival in the colonies six months earlier of the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays that really ignited interest in football in Australia, particularly in its largest city, Melbourne.

The book told the story of student life at Rugby School, and amongst its highlights was a chapter Rugby and Football in which ‘Tom Brown’ (a thin alias for the author, Thomas Hughes) became the hero of the day in a grand football match on The Close, the school’s field.

The Sydney Morning Herald gave a glowing review (16 October 1857):

The ‘Old Boy’ [Hughes] has written a book which will interest almost equally thoughtful youths and genial men who look back to their youth with pleasure. Tom Brown’s school is Rugby in the days of Dr. Arnold; and Tom Brown himself is a thoroughly English boy, full of kindliness, courage, vigour and fun — no great adept at Greek and Latin, but a first-rate cricketer, climber, and swimmer, fearless and skilful at foot-ball, and by no means averse to a good stand-up fight in a good cause…And its tone is so hearty, its good sense so strong and so thoroughly national, its morality so high, and yet so simple and practical, that it must recommend itself as one of the most delightful and at the same time true pictures of the better sort of schoolboy life ever yet published. We venture to prophesy for it an extended and permanent popularity.

Football (Tom Wills) statue at MCG
Football (Tom Wills) statue at MCG. “Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself.”

Tom Wills, who himself had returned home to Australia from life as a Rugby School boarder at the end of 1856, and subsequently gained fame as a cricketer in the Victorian team, was elevated by the book’s popularity into a mystical ‘Harry Potter’ like figure amongst Melbourne’s schoolboys.

On 7 August 1858 Wills acted as an umpire in a football match between the students and masters of Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar. In Rugby tradition it was played in large numbers (40-a-side) and over three afternoons to produce a result (best of three goals).

Wills’ likeness can be seen today in a sculpture of the 1858 match that stands outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, as he overlooks two boys fighting for possession of a Rugby ball.

A week after the football game The Argus discussed the merits of the sport, and pointed to Hughes’ recent book about Wills’ old school:

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…To lookers-on a well-contested football match is as interesting a sight as can be conceived, the chances, changes, and ludicrous contretemps are so frequent, and the whole affair so animated and inspiriting. 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 read able work, ‘Tom Brown’s School-days’, and they will speedily alter their opinion.

The impact of the book in Melbourne over the 1857-58 summer and into autumn can be seen by how widespread interest was amongst the schools and young men to start playing the sport. The Illawarra Mercury‘s correspondent in the Victorian capital wrote (7 October 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.

Rugby ball in the Tom Wills sculpture at the MCG (photo courtesy Stan Correy)
Rugby ball in the Tom Wills sculpture at the MCG (photo courtesy Stan Correy)

As the winter of 1859 neared The Argus (18 April) made plain how all-pervading football had begun to become, with everyone attempting to emulate the on-field deeds described in the book:

On the 1st of May the cricket season closes. Even now rapidly shortening evening, cold winds, and frequent showers, warn the patrons of the bat that their reign is for  the nonce nearly at an end. Not that they intend their physical energies to lie dormant until warm weather sets in again, for football clubs in almost all the suburbs are either being formed or reorganised. Whether that manly and healthy book, ‘Tom Brown’s School Days,’ or the natural anti-American tendencies of Victoria, adult and adolescent, or a little of both, have produced such a love for robust exercise, it matters not to inquire. Football, like cricket, has become an institution in and about the metropolis, and it would not be surprising if the epidemic spread wider.

But even with Tom Wills amongst them the majority of footballers were still struggling to decipher the 40-odd known laws of the Rugby School game, while not realising the celebrated match in the book was played in 1835 under the game’s then unwritten rules. The Argus 16 May 1859 writing:  

…the Melbourne Football Club…committee will meet on Tuesday afternoon, to draw up a code of rules. This proceeding is the more necessary as exceptions were taken last year to some of the Rugby regulations, which even a perusal of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ has not made altogether palatable to other than old Rugbeians.

William Hammersley, who was at the Melbourne FC rules meeting, recalled that at the start of the discussion:

Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except them himself.

The Melbourne club devised their new set of football rules, for a game made safer and simpler, so the players could continue to get their football fix.

Tom Brown's Schooldays (French edition, 1875)
Tom Brown’s Schooldays (French edition, 1875)

Across the colonies the playing of football as a mental and physical development tool was encouraged, as Adelaide’s South Australian Register (23 July 1861) explained:

But of all games for the young and strong limbed, commend us to football. The author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ has conferred a boon upon his country [Britain and its colonies] in calling attention to its advantages. Skill and science, without any preconcerted arrangements, find a constant sphere for their exercise, while the almost ceaseless draft upon the energy of every player leaves no room for dullness and inactivity. A finer sight can scarcely be seen than 60 or 80 impetuous youths contending with earnest emulation to drive the ball home to opposite goals. We hope the ladies will largely grace those matches with their presence, and thus lend an impulse to what is of considerable importance to the healthy development of the youth of our colony.

In 1866 in Geelong (reported in the Geelong Advertiser):

The month’s Penny Readings in Christ Church Schoolroom were brought to a very successful termination last night; every part of the room was occupied … Mr J. B. Wilson rendered with great pathos quotations from Wordsworth on Immortality, and recited rather than read the description of the game of football at Rugby, from ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’, entering most heartily into the spirit of the scene.

A generation later the book was still resonating, this example in Queensland in The Brisbane Courier in 1885 (28 April):

…football is certainly an excellent game, one which only sturdy and plucky men would play, and which keeps them plucky and sturdy. Its revival in modern days we attribute greatly to the enthusiasm aroused by “Tom Brown”. That work was the missionary and pioneer in the country of a great and useful exercise, Rugby Football.

Three years earlier in an account of an inter-colonial Australian rules contest played out on Adelaide Oval between South Melbourne and Norwood, the football reporter for The South Australian Advertiser (19 June 1882) offered:

There is something in football which makes it go with greater verve than even the noble game of cricket. Who, for instance, can read that stirring description given by Mr. Hughes in that never-to-be-forgotten book ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, of the Rugby football match without feeling his sympathies awakened! The fortunes of Tom Brown are followed with the liveliest interest, and it is not, therefore, strange that in the colonies where we have numbers of the ‘Tom Brown’ ilk, athletic and manly, that our feelings should be aroused when we see the game itself played. There are no doubt objections to be urged against the game, but if properly played it has both a moral and physical benefit inasmuch as it leads a player to exercise self-control while it also tends to increase his muscular development.

Unveiling the Thomas Hughes statue in 1899, Rugby School, England
Unveiling the Thomas Hughes statue in 1899, Rugby School, England

Well into the 20th century the football columnist in Adelaide’s The Advertiser (1 August 1930), having read Hugh’s book for himself, gave his take on what had happened in Melbourne in 1859:

…one great test point had divided football into two camps. Does one play only with the feet— and head? Or does one use the hands? As to this last, it is but a bare century since a Rugby boy [William Webb Ellis], whose name is commemorated as pioneer by a tablet at the School, ran with the ball, instead of kicking it when caught. Indeed, the old Rugby game, as faithfully described in ‘Tom Brown’, is not unlike our Australian code. The Melbourne pioneers had to make a nasty decision between two extremes. Compromise was the only way to get a game at all…

The notion that a precursor to football as played under Victorian/Australian rules could be seen in the game in Tom Brown’s Schooldays was repeated in Adelaide’s The Advertiser in 1893 (20 June): 

Experts and enthusiasts have recently been debating as to what manner of football was played on the historic day when “Tom Brown”, as a new boy at Rugby, saved a goal [try] for the school-house, and had all the breath knocked out of his body. There is clear evidence that the ball could be caught and drop-kicked; but it also appears that it could not be carried, as is now done in that form of the game to which Rugby School has lent its name. For “driving the ball in behind goal” [kick into the in-goal] is spoken of as effective play; and young Brooke is described after a long run [repeatedly toeing the ball ahead] as “close to the goal, the ball not three yards before him.” So it would appear that this form of game was something archaic, not conforming to either of the codes at present recognised in England, but more resembling, in the features above-mentioned, football under Australian rules.

In Adelaide in 1877 (South Australian Register, 15 June) an advocate for soccer lamented the influence that Tom Brown’s Schooldays had made on ‘football’ development, and that even if the Rugby code was to be eschewed, it didn’t bring forth the open round-ball code, but an Australian game that retained some of the Rugby ardour and features:

The old Eton game allowed of no catching or holding the ball under any circumstances. Even if accidentally caught, it had to be dropped at once. The result was a display of skill in footing the ball to which the present game has no parallel. Another result was that there was no unnecessary holding, or struggling, or wrestling, which so mars the pleasure of the present game [in Adelaide using Victorian rules] and renders it particularly dangerous when not merely schoolboys but men are engaged. A style of game very suitable and excusable for boys may well be unfit for men. I fear that it is hard to fight against Rugby influence, backed as it is by all the éclat [brilliance of success] of ‘Tom Brown’; but I cannot but think from my own experience at Eton and Oxford, that if the game of bona fide football, with no catching or holding, was allowed a fair trial, it would quickly win the universal approval both of players and lookers-on who love skill and science more than violence.

The Brisbane Courier (17 July 1893) took a view that the majority shared (Rugby and Australian rules):

…there is evidence that the coming native [-born Australian] will be a lover of sport and a worshipper of muscle; the typical Australian should not be less athletic than his forebears. In spite, too, of much antipathy on the part of nervous parents, football keeps its position as a popular game. When a book like ‘Tom Brown’s School-days‘ is put into the hands of youngsters, what else could be expected? If a mother would prefer her lad to feel sick as he reads of the first game played by the hero at Rugby, where Tom is hauled out of a ‘scrum’ limp and battered, she must accept disappointment as another dispensation or Providence if the boy be lusty and worth his salt. He may not quite understand the full bearings of a game where fifty or sixty young players composing the School-House team are pitted against nearly three times the number; but there is quite enough life in the description to make his heart jump as “Old Brooke ranges the field like Job’s warhorse” to kick a goal at last as Crab Jones places the ball. There is more wrapped up in the game than mere horseplay when the classic of English school life makes the struggle more exciting under the applauding voice of Dr. Arnold, whose name has made Rugby famous for its traditions of manliness and good work.

Thomas Hughes (1822-96) [Vanity Fair, 1872]
Thomas Hughes (1822-96) [Vanity Fair, 1872]
It was a poorly kept secret that ‘Old Brooke’ was based by Hughes on fellow student John Philip Gell. In his role as the School House team’s captain, ‘Brooke’ is the designated place-kicker and the most prominent and enthusiastic footballer throughout the book’s account of Brown’s first encounter with a ‘Big-Side’ match at Rugby.

In late 1839, the now 23 year old ‘Reverend Gell’ moved to Hobart in Tasmania. Personally recommended to the colonial government by Thomas Arnold, in the late 1840s Gell became headmaster at Christ’s College in Bishopsbourne (rural northern Tasmania), a school modeled on Rugby.

During his stewardship Gell taught the Tasmanian schoolboys how to play Rugby football [link], but he had returned to England well before ‘Tom Brown’, ‘Flashman the School-house bully’, ‘Scud East’ and ‘Old Brooke’ became famous names across the colonies.

In July 1859 The Argus gave an account of a match on the MCG between the South Yarra and Melbourne clubs, which included:

… the ball was kept up near the South Yarra goal almost uninterruptedly, until Mr. Wray [Melbourne FC], who had, as is his wont, been in close proximity to the enemy’s quarters ‘ab initio’, managed to make up for a previous mistake by kicking the leathern sphere as cleanly between the posts as even ‘Old Brooke’ could have desired.

Similarly in 1865, this time in Bell’s Life in Victoria reporting on Melbourne FC vs South Yarra:

Fleming, for the fourth or fifth time this season executed a clever drop-kick, which sent the ball flying between the posts as cleanly as even ‘old Brooke’, of Rugby fame, could have desired. Loud cheers from players and public greeted this performance, and the backers of Melbourne felt greatly relieved.

Over 150 years after it was first published, Tom Brown’s Schooldays is still in print today.

© Sean Fagan

Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by an Old Boy

Tom Brown’s Schooldays has been made into a number of films and tv shows, the first in 1916. Below is the football scene from the 2005 ITV made-for-tv production [Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer].  Despite Hughes’ story being set a decade after the time of William Webb Ellis (1823), no one is mentioned in the book as running with the ball in hand. The ‘feat’ though does appear in this re-telling of the famous football game.