On this date in 1859 players in Melbourne codified the rules for Australian rules football (Aussie rules) for the first time. When I was researching the topic I was surprised to discover that the original rules for Australian football are older than those for any other type of football. Who knew? When I played in the 1950s and 60s it seemed like a kind of rugby with quirks. I was wrong.
There is documented evidence of “foot-ball” being played sporadically in the Australian colonies in the first half of the 19th century. There is no telling what type of football this was. In the early 19th century European football varied a great deal, and presumably Australian players followed suit. In 1858, public schools in Melbourne are first recorded organizing football games modeled on precedents at English schools. The earliest recorded match, held on 15 June, was between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School on the St Kilda foreshore.
On 10 July 1858, the Melbourne-based Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle published a letter by Tom Wills, captain of the Victoria cricket team, calling for the formation of a “foot-ball club” with a “code of laws” to keep cricketers fit during winter. Wills was born in Australia and had learnt an early form of rugby football whilst a pupil at Rugby School in England, and had returned to Australia a star athlete and cricketer. His letter is regarded by many historians as giving impetus for the development of a new code of football:
Sir, – Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only ’tis true), but at length again will burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpor to creep over them, and stifle their new supple limbs, why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws? If a club of this sort were got up, it would be of vast benefit to any cricket-ground to be trampled upon, and would make the turf quite firm and durable; besides which it would keep those who are inclined to become stout from having their joints encased in useless superabundant flesh.
Two weeks after Wills’s letter, his friend, cricketer Jerry Bryant, posted an advertisement for a scratch match at the Richmond Paddock adjoining the Melbourne Cricket Ground. This was the first of several “kickabouts” held that year involving members of the Melbourne Cricket Club, including Wills, Bryant, W. J. Hammersley and J. B. Thompson. Trees were used as goalposts and play typically lasted an entire afternoon. Without an agreed upon code of laws, some players were guided by rules they had learned in the British Isles, and others just made them up as they played.
Another significant milestone in the sport’s development was the match played under experimental rules between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, held at the Richmond Paddock. This 40-a-side contest, umpired by Wills and Scotch College teacher John Macadam, began on 7 August and continued over two subsequent Saturdays, ending in a draw with each side kicking one goal. It is commemorated with a statue outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the two schools have competed annually ever since in the Cordner-Eggleston Cup, the world’s oldest continuous football competition.
A loosely organized Melbourne side, captained by Wills, played against other football enthusiasts in the winter and spring of 1858. The following year, on 14 May, the Melbourne Football Club officially came into being, making it one of the world’s oldest football clubs. Three days after its formation, Wills, Hammersley, Thompson and teacher Thomas H. Smith met at the Parade Hotel in East Melbourne and drafted ten simple rules: “The Rules of the Melbourne Football Club”. These are the laws from which Australian rules football evolved. The document was signed by the rule-framers and three other club office bearers: Alex Bruce, T. Butterworth and J. Sewell. The rules were distributed throughout the colony; Thompson in particular did much to promote the new code in his capacity as a journalist. Australian football’s date of codification predates that of any other major football code, including association football (codified in 1863) and rugby union (codified in 1871).
Wills’s role in founding Aussie rules is something of a controversy nowadays because he wound up as an alcoholic who committed suicide. Contemporary Australians tend to downplay the image of the hard-drinking, potentially suicidal bushwhacker as stereotypical of Australian character, so, in consequence, modern journalists and historians have undercut his importance in the history of the game. Whatever your views of the beer-swilling digger, Wills’s role was pivotal.
There have also been claims recently that Wills was influenced by indigenous games in his development of Aussie rules. At best, the speculations are sketchy. Wills was the son of a squatter and, although he was educated at Rugby School in the 1850s, it is possible that the football game he helped invent could have been inspired in part by indigenous Australian pastimes involving possum skin “ball” games (sometimes collectively labeled “Marn Grook”), and this speculation has gained ground in recent years as efforts to promote the indigenous contributions to Australian culture have gained steam. I certainly applaud the impulse to accord greater recognition to aboriginal cultural influence in Australian culture, but here, I feel, the effort is misguided. At the very least, the historical evidence is virtually non-existent.
Anecdotal evidence of aboriginal football appears in the 1878 book, The Aborigines of Victoria, in which Robert Brough Smyth relates that William Thomas, a Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, had witnessed Wurundjeri east of Melbourne playing a “foot ball” game in 1841. The account appears to fit the general description of the traditional game of Marn Grook. This appears to be the earliest record of Europeans observing such pastimes. William Blandowski’s 1857 sketch of indigenous Australians in Merbein clearly depicts children playing a form of “foot ball”. Further research has established that this may have been a separate game (possibly Woggabaliri). Written record of such traditional pastimes is otherwise scant and because there is no known record of these pastimes in traditional indigenous Australian art it is not possible to trace its history further.
Some historians make the following argument. Wills arrived in Victoria’s western district in 1842. As the only European child in the district, and being fluent in the local dialect, he frequently played with local Aboriginal children on his father’s property, Lexington, outside of the town of Moyston. This story has been passed down through the generations of his family. Jim Poulter has argued that there was a direct link between the oldest versions of Australian rules football and sports played by some members of the indigenous Australian population. Poulter argues that Tom Wills had knowledge of Aboriginal oral traditions and language, but, when the rules of Australian rules football were codified, the status of Aboriginal culture in Australia was such that Wills may have been disadvantaged had he mentioned any connection, and as such “had no reason to mention this in discussions”. I am going to call this a dubious claim at best. Lack of firm evidence does not give you the right to make up history as you see fit.
Aussie rules became popular cable fodder in Britain and the U.S. on sports-only channels for a time because they could feature live action in the middle of the night in those countries, when it was day time in Australia, and when nothing else was available in the local area. I’m not sure what foreigners made of the game other than that it looks like a lot of tough guys leaping high to catch the ball, running fast, and stomping on each other a lot. That pretty much sums up the game. I played in school from age 6 to 15. We had pickup games at lunchtime in the winter and formal games once a week in high school. No one was exempt. I was forced to play every week for 3 years. I know the game intimately even though I was useless. I played left forward flank which sounds important, but was really given to me by my captain to keep me out of the way.
My team was the weakest in the school, so the best players were assigned as rucks or rovers who were the mainstays, or were on the defense where they were needed most. I spent most of my time standing around near our goal posts chatting to my “mark” (defender on the opposite team) who would occasionally catch a long ball that came our way and kick it back. My team kept the ball away from me when play came in my direction. Just as well, I had the bad habit of throwing it if I caught it, or holding on to it too long. The great bulk of play swirled on in the far distance and I rarely paid attention. I got more action in primary school in lunch games because I was decent at drop kicks from hours of practice.
I can’t think of a better recipe to celebrate Aussie rules than Vegemite on toast. Vegemite is a dark brown, almost black, Australian food paste made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives developed by Cyril P. Callister in Melbourne, Victoria, in 1922. Like Aussie rules, it’s distinctively Australian but with English roots. Vegemite is similar to British Marmite, but the taste is rather different. Vegemite is very salty, slightly bitter, malty, and rich in umami.
In 1919, following the disruption of British Marmite imports after World War I, Callister’s employer, the Australian company Fred Walker & Co., gave him the task of developing a spread from the used yeast being dumped by breweries. Callister used autolysis to break down the yeast cells from waste obtained from the Carlton & United brewery. He concentrated the clear liquid extract and blended it with salt, celery, and onion extracts plus flavorings to form a sticky dark paste.
The thing about Vegemite (and Marmite) is that it has a very strong taste, so you need to be ultra-sparing with it. Thickly butter your toast and then spread a SMALL amount of Vegemite evenly over all the toast. If you are daring, you can omit the butter, but the Vegemite must be spread in a thin layer. It’s a popular breakfast food accompanied by milky tea. It’s a common item on the breakfast table along with marmalade where guests help themselves.
If you are adventurous you can try this recipe for Vegemite and cheese rolls. Looks good. The link has good instructions and helpful stepwise photos.