written by Sean Fagan

Brisbane FC's rugby XV team in 1879.
Brisbane FC (founded in 1866) rugby XV team in 1879.

The area that was to become known as Brisbane began as a penal settlement in 1824.

The region was opened up to free settlers in 1842.

In 1859 the Queensland colony was created, separating it from NSW.

Brisbane, which by this time had grown to 6,000 people, was made the capital.

As in the other major centres in Australia through this period, forms of folk football were played in Brisbane and surrounds on special holidays and at local celebrations.

For example, an advertisement for Boxing Day sports including football “and other genuine English pastimes” appeared in The Courier on Christmas Day 1861.

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 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 amongst 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.

Meanwhile The Queenslander of 29 August 1868 clipped a paragraph from the Cleveland Bay Express (near Townsville in far north Queensland) which reported that “a number of our fellow townsmen have brought into existence a Football Club. Already there are about twelve or thirteen members, who assemble occasionally on the opposite side of the creek, for the purpose of enjoying this manly amusement.”

On 9 October 1869 The Queenslander carried news that boys from the Brisbane Grammar School had ventured to Ipswich to play the local school at football. The playing rules weren’t mentioned, however, from the description of play it was most likely under Victorian rules.

The following winter saw the founding of football club in Ipswich, which was welcome news at the Brisbane FC’s annual meeting, The two clubs exchanged visits, playing first in late July at the Parade Ground in North Ipswich, then in August in Brisbane at Queen’s Park. In the game at Ipswich, the Queensland Times – Ipswich Herald noted “The players, nothing daunted, turned out in scanty attire to do the best, the Brisbane men being distinguished by blue caps and ours red”. The Ipswich club’s rules however were not in uniformity with the Brisbane club’s, and though good relations were always maintained, matches were not without some squabbles during play and afterwards.

Though football had begun at Warwick and Toowoomba, the 1875 season opened with the Brisbane FC, now a decade old, still the capital’s only formal club. Matches against the Artillery continued, and in-house club contests.

An emerging trend though was an increasing number of 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). Meanwhile Brisbane and Ipswich Grammar Schools met in their annual contest, using Victorian rules.

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. Brisbane Grammar (The Brisbane Courier, 10 September 1877) were noted for rules which “belong to no code recognised elsewhere in Brisbane”, and appear to have been Victorian rules stripped of all ball-handling except for the taking of “marks”.

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.”

In June 1882 a report in The Brisbane Courier noted that students from the “Christian Brothers College on Gregory Terrace” [St Joseph’s College] and Brisbane’s first private school, Eton School, had met in 20-a-side football match under Australian rules at Walsh’s Paddock in Milton. In what appears to be the first ‘outside’ football game for both, the ‘Gregory’ team finished the afternoon as victors.

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 noting 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.

Suggestions were made in both cities that the NSWRU (Rugby) and the NSWFA (Victorian rules) should share the costs of the visit and that the teams play matches under both codes. The NSWFA readily agreed with the proposal, but were gazumped by the NSWRU. The NSW Rugby body offered to the Brisbane officials to pay all their costs provided they only played Rugby during their visit – the offer was immediately accepted.

It was also agreed that both teams should adopt the name of their colony, and players be selected from all clubs in the respective capital cities.

The decision caused an outrage amongst Victorian rules supporters in Brisbane, igniting a war of words in the city’s newspapers, as well as at QFA and club meetings. It was insinuated that the joint clubs negotiating committee was comprised of men of “strong Rugby tendencies” and that the unseemly haste with which the deal with the NSWRU was finalised practically confirmed the suspicion (The Brisbane Courier,4 August 1882).

Letter writers from Victorian rules advocates to the newspapers called for the tour to be scrapped, arguing that Rugby was not the colony’s most popular code, that it was wrong to accept the NSWRU’s all-expenses offer if it meant denying a fair and balanced dual-code tour, and the “representative” team was as a result anything but representative of Queensland football.

The Chairman of the committee hit back (The Brisbane Courier, 7 August 1882), pointing out that the NSWFA would not only be unable to provide a Sydney team worth playing (or worth paying to watch get beaten), and that the NSWFA had recently provided far more generous terms to Melbourne’s Geelong FC for a Sydney visit, but even that famous club ended up losing £150 itself for their trouble.

“I leave to the imagination,” he wrote, “what we should have lost had we gone down. If the Sydney public would not go in payable numbers to see the best team in Australia play the Victorian rules, would it not be presumption on our part to suppose they would come and see us play?”

After readying themselves with trial games in Brisbane, the first Queensland Rugby team sailed to Sydney. In the first inter-colonial (inter-state) contest, the red-and-black jerseyed Queenslanders faced a strong NSW team on the SCG in front of a crowd nudging 4,000. The home side ran out 26-4 victors (some sources recorded the score as 28-4). The Queenslanders defeated Cumberland in an unexpected surprise, and then positively astounded the Sydney Rugby world by overpowering the mighty Wallaroo FC, the city’s premier Rugby club.

Despite almost all the team being Rugby novices, they had made a great impression in Sydney, mounting a convincing case that the NSW team would soon find a willing and able adversary to test themselves against. Their success also generated widespread coverage in their home colony of “our football team down south.”

It was a telling fillip for the Rugby game in Queensland, and as soon as the team arrived back in Brisbane plans began to put into action to bring a NSW team north in 1883.

By mid 1883 the likelihood of the NSWRU side visiting became increasingly certain, triggering a repeat of the criticism experienced in 1882. As one Victorian rules supporter put it, “The decision is manifestly unfair to most of our players, as they will be precluded from joining in any contest. All our players are acquainted with the Melbourne game, comparatively few are adepts at Rugby” (The Brisbane Courier, 25 May 1883).

Open trial games under Rugby rules were held to provide an opportunity for any footballer to attempt to gain selection. In the main trial held at Queen’s Park in the city, (The Brisbane Courier, 25 July 1883) “Several players cried ‘enough’ at half-time, and, when play was again resumed, each side was three or four short.”

With the NSWRU keen to keep the inter-colony matches going, a NSW team journeyed to Brisbane in 1883. The two colonial teams met at the Eagle Farm Racecourse, with 3,000 spectators on hand.

The Queenslanders mounted a remarkable comeback, turning an 11-2 deficit late in the game into a 12-11 victory over the New South Welshmen. Wild scenes erupted at the final whistle, with the more prominent home players carried shoulder high from the field. Queensland had proven it had the players to at least contend in on-field battles with the other Rugby playing colonies (NSW and New Zealand).

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

The QFA pronounced that it alone “shall have the entire control and management of all international, intercolonial, and associated club matches” (The Queenslander, 6 October 1883). It was clearly an attempt to ensure players no longer dabbled in both codes, and to place the QFA and the Victorian code as the colony’s only recognised and official football body.

The Queensland Figaro (27 October 1883) added that the QFA would decree “one very hard and fast rule will be – none of you men may play Rugby.” With the clubs having joined the QFA, there would be no players to fill the Queensland Rugby team, unless the men were prepared to risk suspension. Jim Stafford, the QFA’s first Secretary and chief organiser of the movement, openly said of Rugby “it soon shall be no more” (The Brisbane Courier, 12 October 1883).

The football writer for The Queenslander (6 October 1883) implored the city’s Rugby players and supporters to rally against the QFA before the start of the 1884 season, by forming a “bona fide Queensland Football Association” under Rugby rules.

Instead of capitulating to the QFA, or simply giving up football altogether (as would happen in Western Australia c.1885), the Brisbane Rugby players and their supporters resolved to form their own association, and on 2 November 1883 the Northern Rugby Football Union (later re-named the QRU) came into being (The Brisbane Courier, 3 November 1883).

It was a bold and unprecedented step to form an association when there were no existing clubs – the reverse was the norm. As many detractors quickly pointed out, the NRU (QRU) was an association in name only.

It was not until May 1884 that words finally became action, with the NRU forming two Rugby clubs, Fireflies and Wanderers, and dividing the players up as evenly and friendly as possible. Despite the QFA’s threats, some of the members of the Queensland Rugby side of 1884 gained selection in the colony’s Victorian rules team a few weeks later. That year also saw the founding of the “Anglo-Queensland Football Association” (soccer).

In 1885-86 the NRU had expanded by the addition of Wasps, Fortitudes, Sandgate, as well in regional cities Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Warwick and Townsville.  The despite the QFA declaration the Brisbane and Wallaroo clubs 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.”

It was reported at the NRU meeting in April 1886 that Toowoomba Grammar School had crossed over to Rugby, but the move was cautioned as premature unless all three schools (Toowoomba, Ipswich and Brisbane) agreed. The Queenslander (19 June 1886) recorded news of a Rugby match between the Wasps second XV and a team from Eton School at Nundah.

The inter-colonial clashes between NSW and Queensland were now enshrined as annual event on the winter calendar. Victorian rules was still in the majority, but Rugby was fast gaining players and support.

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).

One of the stars of the 1886 Queensland team was Fred O’Rourke – an outside back who a year earlier led an (unsuccessful) call amongst fellow students at Brisbane Grammar School to change from Victorian rules to Rugby.

However, O’Rourke’s on-field deeds and fame for Queensland in 1886 in Sydney led to the boys demanding the change be made. The Queensland Figaro wrote (23 April 1887) of “More deserters from the Australian Rules of football – it is currently rumoured that the Brisbane Grammar School this season will adopt the Rugby rules.”  In August 1887 the Brisbane and Toowoomba schools played their annual match under Rugby rules for the first time (The Brisbane Courier, 22 August 1887).

Brisbane Grammar School Rugby Team 1887. Image courtesy Peter Eedy

While legend has it that a meeting of “Independent Schools headmasters” in 1887 agreed by just one vote to switch to Rugby, it is a story that ignores (as in the instance at Brisbane Grammar referred to above) that the choice of football code and rules was in the hands of the students, not the headmasters (see also Courier-Mail, 24 March 1951). Moreover, there was at the time only three such schools, no “Independent Schools” group, nor any evidence of any collective vote between the schools at all.

Indeed, at Ipswich it was not until two years later that “the Grammar School…made their first appearance in the Rugby field” against the town’s Athenian FC (The Brisbane Courier, 10 June 1889), an event confirmed by the School’s headmaster (The Queenslander, 27 December 1890) who stated “last year the school abandoned the Melbourne rules, and what is called the Rugby game is now played. Our school would have been isolated from the other schools had the change not been made.” 

The change in the schools mirrored the trend throughout the colony, with the NRU boasting 25 clubs in 1887. On the back of the success of the 1886 Queensland team and its influence upon which code footballers and supporters placed their allegiance, the local interest was aided by a visit by NSW in 1887 (losing the opening game to the home side 9-8 in an exciting battle), then through 1888-89 the city and neighbouring centres hosted crowd-drawing Rugby matches against England, New Zealand Maori (Natives) and NSW.

In listing the QFA matches for 1887’s Brisbane competition there were just four senior clubs with South Brisbane, Rovers, Excelsior and Brisbane. 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 (revived briefly in 1892).

Speaking at the QRU annual meeting in 1894 (The Brisbane Courier, 5 April) JE Stevens, the QRU President, reflected upon how far the code had come: “Some years ago one or two clubs played Rugby, but it was now played throughout the colony, and the football game of Queensland was undoubtedly Rugby. There were no signs that any other game was likely to become so popular as it.”

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
Ian Diehm, Red! Red! Red! The Story of Queensland Rugby
C.E.W. Bean, Here, My Son: an account of the independent and other corporate boys’ schools of Australia
NSWRU / ARU archives

Rugby scene used in a political satire cartoon in
Rugby scene used in a political satire cartoon in “Queensland Figaro and Punch” September 1888

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