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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Australian football had its origins in Melbourne, the capital of the then fledgling colony of Victoria, in the late 1850s. At the time, the city played no soccer or rugby. Indeed, the two codes hadn’t officially separated from each other in England or anywhere else. Football had few set rules. This was the case in America too where gridiron wasn’t formalized until 1869.

In England, folk or mob football had been played sporadically in open spaces since Medieval times. These were often brutal affairs with few rules. In the early 19th century, certain English schools started to adapt the game. By mid century, football was played at a number of public schools. Those such as Eton and Harrow restricted their games to kicking the ball, whereas others like Rugby and Marlborough mainly handled the ball. The rules were peculiar to each institution and the limitations of the playing grounds. Melbourne’s population grew rapidly in the 1850s due to a gold rush and many of the city’s young men had played football of some sort at school in England. But football hadn’t made the transition from a school sport to a game for young men.

It was against this background that publican Tom Wills wrote a letter to sports newspaper “Bell’s Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle” on 10 July 1858 suggesting that cricketers play football in winter to keep fit. A practice session was arranged at Richmond Paddock near Melbourne Cricket Ground on 31 July. Wills provided a football, a rare item in those days. A large number of players turned up but many of them had been used to different rules or lack of rules and the session ended in chaos and fighting.

Another match had been organized on the same day between Melbourne Grammar School and some men from St Kilda, a southern suburb, playing as the St Kilda Club. Rules were laid out which emphasized carrying the ball instead of kicking it. But the men were used to football played in the Eton style where the ball was always kicked and never handled. A fight broke out and the game was abandoned.

A week later, Melbourne Grammar took on Scotch College, with some oval balls from Rugby School that had arrived by ship. They probably used at least some of the Rugby rules. The match was played over three days: 7 and 21 August and 4 September. Other games were organized by cricketers. Players soon realized that the rules needed standardizing. But the cricket season had started and nothing more was done until the following year.

Melbourne Football Club was established on 14 May 1859. A committee was formed of Tom Wills and three other club members to discuss and draft playing rules. Three days later on 17 May, they met in his Parade Hotel. William Hammersley, a noted athlete, worked for “Bell’s Life in Victoria” and had studied at England’s Cambridge University where an early soccer-type game was played between colleges and houses. James Thompson worked for the “Argus” newspaper and had also attended Cambridge. Thomas Smith was from Ireland, where the ball was usually handled, and taught at Scotch College. Wills had attended Rugby School. Thus two of the men had played a kicking game and two were more used to carrying the ball. All four were cricketers, with Wills regarded as the best in the colony.

Wills thought that Rugby School rules should be adopted but the others thought they were too complex. They looked at “Cambridge Rules”, which Hammersley and Thompson had helped formulate in 1848, as well as those of Eton, Harrow and Winchester schools. They wanted something simple with no hacking (kicking an opponent in the shins) or black eyes.

They came up with a set of ten rules. These included the size of the playing field, tossing a coin for choice of end, and defining a goal as a kick that sent the ball between two goal posts without it touching the posts or another player. If a player caught the ball from a kick, it was a “mark” and he was awarded a free kick. This rule was adapted from variations of it at Rugby, Harrow, Winchester and Cambridge. The ball could also be handled when it had only bounced once after a kick, but it couldn’t be picked up off the ground and wasn’t to be thrown. This rule was a compromise between the Rugby type handling game and Eton style kicking game. Pushing and tripping were allowed but no hacking. There was no offside rule. Overall, the rules had more in common with rugby than soccer.

The first game or games of Australian rules football (or more correctly at the time, Melbourne rules football) probably took place on the following Saturday, 21 May 1859.

While English school football was the biggest influence on the origin of Australian football, other possible factors were many. Matches in the goldfields areas north-west of Melbourne may have been played as early as 1853 with similar rules but evidence is anecdotal. At Geelong, 50 miles south-west of Melbourne, football was played to a set of rules, since lost, as early as 1856. Irish football may have been a contributor, given one of the committee, Smith, was from Ireland. There are similarities with Gaelic football but its rules weren’t set down until 1885. Local Aborigines played a game called “marngrook”, where a ball made of possum skin was dropped from a held position and kicked. The game included jumping high off the ground to catch the ball. Further, the dry winter and hard grounds of 1858 are thought to have had some influence on the city’s football rules, as a major purpose of the game was to keep cricketers fit in the off-season and the committee wanted to avoid too many heavy falls.

The 1859 “Melbourne Rules” were promoted by Thompson in the “Argus”. Further refinements to the rules took place in 1860, and in 1866 they were redrafted and became the “Victorian Rules”. Major changes included the requirement for a player to bounce the ball every 10 or 20 yards when running with it, umpires to officiate rather than the captains, time limits for matches, and behind posts. The popularity of the game soon spread and by 1890, Australasian Rules were put in place.

In contrast to the single Australian game, English football diverged in two directions: the kicking game became soccer in 1863 and the handling game became rugby in 1871. If Melbourne hadn’t started playing football for another decade or two, the city would have very likely taken up soccer or rugby rather than inventing a unique game called Australian football. The sport is still evolving today.