Folk (or mob) football, following its various traditional forms from across Britain, was played in the Australian colonies from at least the 1830s up to the early 1870s, usually as part of the bill-of-fare at festivals and holiday celebrations, and occasionally for money or other prizes.

The most favoured time for football was across Shrovetide, particularly Shrove Tuesday, which many perhaps better recall as ‘Pancake Tuesday’ or ‘Pancake Day’.

In Australia, where towns and cities were populated with migrants from across Britain, no known example exists of any attempt to institute an annual mob-style football contest that involved hundreds and hundreds of players. What instances we had in the colonies did mimic what took place “at Home”, but were of a much, much, more modest scale, having far less participants, lasting no more than an hour or so, and played upon a small space.

These centuries-old football games usually had no rules about how the ball could be kicked,carried, thrown or punched goalwards, nor how opposing players could be tackled, wrestled, tripped or “shin-boned” to be got out of the way. Sometimes matches were comprised of two opposing sides, with goals located at opposite ends, or just one central goal some distance from where the contest was commenced. Most games were simply every-man-for-himself, with the first to get the ball to the goal being the winner.

mob football England
REVIVAL OF OLD ENGLISH SPORTS AND PASTIMES — FOOT-BALL.— We understand that a lover of the old English games has offered one of Mrs. O’Hagan’s most fashionable bonnets as a prize to the fortunate party who shall give the winning (final) kick in a game of foot-ball, to be played on the new cricket ground, near St. John’s Church, on a day to be hereafter fixed. Parties desirous of entering the lists will be pleased to put down their names at the ‘Chronicle’ office, that final arrangement may be made for its coming off on an early day. — Maitland Mercury, Oct 1860

An account from 1829 describes the Shrovetide football played in the streets and fields at Derbyshire in England:

…the inhabitants of all join in the sport, together with persons from all parts of the adjacent country. The players are young men from eighteen to thirty or upwards, married as well as single, and many veterans who retain a relish for the sport are occasionally seen in the very heat of the conflict.

The game commences in the market-place, where the partisans of each parish are drawn up on each side; and, about noon, a large ball is tossed up in the midst of them. This is seized upon by some of the strongest and most active men of each party. The rest of the players immediately close in upon them, and a solid mass is formed. It then becomes the object of each party to impel the course of the crowd towards their particular goal.

The struggle to obtain the ball, which is carried in the arms of those who have possessed themselves of it, is then violent, and the motion of this human tide heaving to and fro, without the least regard to consequences, is tremendous. Broken shins, broken heads, torn coats and lost hats, are among the minor accidents of this fearful contest, and it frequently happens that persons fall in consequence of the intensity of the pressure, fainting and bleeding beneath the feet of the surrounding mob.

But it would be difficult to give an adequate idea of this ruthless sport: a Frenchman passing through Derby remarked, that if Englishmen called this playing, it would be impossible to say what they would call fighting. Still the crowd is encouraged by respectable persons attached to each party, and who take a surprising interest in the result of the day’s sport; urging on the players with shouts, and even handing to those who are exhausted, oranges and other refreshment.

First hand experience and oral or written accounts of such games did provide a source of inspiration for our exuberant youth and others who perhaps later regretted their involvement.

In a letter to The Sydney Herald in 1832 a writer called for police action as: “Last Sunday, during Devine Service, a large batch of youngsters were eagerly engaged in playing at football on Hyde Park. Have they no power to prevent the disgraceful pitched battles that take place weekly in the neighbourhood.”

A year later a wide debate erupted about what activities ought to be permitted on Sundays. After he had banned recreational shooting on Sundays the Governor of NSW, Sir George Gipps, openly declared that he would swiftly ban any other amusement, “even football”, if it became such a Sunday nuisance that it began to impact on “the religious feeling of the community” (The Sydney Gazette, 10 June 1841).

Similarly in Hobart in 1850, a correspondent to the Colonial Times (10 Sept) lamented the “crying evil” of a recent Sunday football match in the town “by a party of at least 70 or 80 players, composed of boys, youths, and children of a larger growth (men of somewhat respectable exterior), who were heart and soul devoting themselves to a game at foot-ball; and what made the matter worse, the language — cursing, swearing, and shouting were such as would be considered infamous at a fair or on a market day.”

In Guardians of the Game, John G Mulford notes that in the 1850s workers at Sydney’s substantial ship yards in Mort’s Bay (Balmain) are likely to have played some form of traditional football against the crews of ships. Ample instances exist in Australian cities of matches against teams of British soldiers and sailors from visiting naval vessels.

Newspapers across Australia through the 1840s and into the early 1870s refer to football being played as part of public celebration days, picnics held by associations, volunteer groups and company’s for their staff, as well as traditional holiday community gatherings (especially on Easter Monday, “Christmas Sports” and Boxing Day), along with open days granted at the various private estates and mansions peppered throughout the larger towns and their nearby reaches (accessed via boat or rail).

In 1840 a football contest of some form took place on Sydney’s Hyde Park as part of celebrations marking the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday (May 24). The Sydney Herald recorded: “There was also a game of football attempted which also gave rise to sundry scuffles and broken shins to boot.”

In Adelaide in 1843 the South Australian Register noted Irish immigrants at Thebarton playing football as part of St Patrick’s Day celebrations. In 1859 the South Australian Advertiser carried a review of village festivities at Aganston (in the Barossa Valley) where “the sports of the day were resumed when several of our staid and more mature citizens distinguished themselves by the proficiency they exhibited in that fine old game, football.”

The Christmas Day edition in 1861 of The Courier in Brisbane included a public notice providing information on the opportunity to watch or take part in Boxing Day sports including football “and other genuine English pastimes”.

The Bathurst Free Press in 1850 (19 Oct) gave an account of “sports at the Bushman’s Inn” in which “the Bathurst gents” and “the bushmen of the neighbourhood” engaged in various games of competition, which were “succeeded by that healthy and invigorating old country game — a football match, at which a few of the sinewy sons of the soil showed themselves adepts.” 

As late as 1875, at a St Patrick’s Day gathering upon the Albion Ground in West Maitland, the free-for-all old football was still able to seen and indulged in, perhaps in as bigger numbers as ever, as reported in The Maitland Mercury (18 March):

But the best fun of the day was undoubtedly the foot-ball play – it could not be called a game – which engaged hundreds of men in running after the ball with all the ardour and abandon of boys. They ran in and out among the crowd in pursuance of the leathern globe [the ball], and wrangled, and laughed, and shouted, getting amusement out of the thing themselves, and affording infinite sport mingled with some feeling of apprehension, to the spectators. For the ball went everywhere that it was kicked and the kickers could not discriminate, in their spirited gyrations, whether the missile was directed among a compact mass of ladies and children, or into the open space.

At the opposite end of the scale, in the late 1840s and into the 1860s, folk football games were reduced to less than a dozen participants, competing for prizes as individuals or as two teams. Organised by publicans, they were played on vacant land or rough open fields adjacent to the hotel, and in most cases had just one goal (a circumstance roughly analogous to today’s half-court basketball games).

Each entrant would pay a fee to take part. Depending on the rules, the team or individual who obtained the goal took home (or spent at the bar) the offered cash prize pot, valuable cup, pocket watch or some other reward.

A 6-a-side football game for money took place on the Geelong cricket ground in 1860 [report]. In Sydney, newspaper advertisements can be found in the 1850s-60s for steamer-ferry excursions from Circular Quay and Woolloomoollo Bay to various popular sites along the Sydney Harbour foreshore, with many including the playing of football “for which prizes are guaranteed to be given” as amongst the outing’s key attractions. The Balmoral Gardens picnic ground at Middle Harbour was a particular favourite, with The Sydney Morning Herald (in 1864) reporting this “football creating the most amusement from the number and variety of collisions”.

In England, folk and mob football was modified (and tamed) within the public schools and universities, over time evolving into the beginnings of today’s modern codes.

At Rugby School, with its large grassed playing field, the more vigourous and ball-carrying game of earlier times survived.

In NSW and Queensland, the taste for this heavier, robust form of football provided by the Rugby game found the greater favour, and remains so today.

© Sean Fagan