Just over 130 years ago, North Melbourne (Hotham FC) became the first Victorian footy club to visit Tasmania. They played the locals under the code of Victorian Rules – once the crossbars had been taken down.
1. North Melbourne in Hobart: What have they ever done for Us?
Around Hobart the question is probably being asked: ‘What has North Melbourne ever done for us?’
Unlike the scene from the Life of Brian, the reasonable response might well be, ‘Nothing really.’
History suggests otherwise.
For a start, North Melbourne (as Hotham FC) was the first Victorian team to visit Tasmania, playing games in Launceston and Hobart in early July 1881.
The Hobart game on July 5 was a major event for the Southern community. Over 1500 spectators turned out to what the Mercury described as “one of the most exciting games that has ever been played in Tasmania”.
The combined Southern team overcame a spirited Hotham, by 3 goals to 2.
Despite their victory, the locals knew they had faced a superior foe. The Mercury reported that it was “pleasing to see that our footballers are not too proud to take a lesson in play from a visiting team.”
Immediate footballing improvements were noted, especially in relation to ‘little marking’, “the smartness of the Victorians in this respect being copied by the local men.”
When Hotham revisited in 1887, the Launceston Examiner reminded its readers that the “visit of the Hotham team about six years ago marked the beginning of a new era in football in this colony.”
Generally, their first visit was credited with spreading the gospel of Victorian Rules throughout Tasmania.
Earlier, in May 1879, Hotham had written to Hobart’s City Football Club requesting a game.
While this caused some excitement and anticipation, the club’s committee decided that they couldn’t, “under present circumstances, respond favourably to the offer of the Hotham Club to pay a visit to this colony.”
Football across Tasmania was in such disarray that local humiliation could be the only possible outcome from a contest between Hotham and a Hobart team. Hobart football had been in a slumber in the middle 1870s and was still awakening.
The Mercury lamented:
“The resuscitation of football this winter … ought to have rendered a favourable reply possible, but the peculiar relation of the clubs will, no doubt, interfere. Such an attention, however, from Victoria will demonstrate the necessity for the formation of an Association [and] uniformity of rules.”
Hobart football in early 1879 had no set code of play. Some clubs played Victorian rules, others preferred a form of rugby, one chose soccer and there were also local codes. Some allowed running with the ball; some didn’t. Some paid the mark; some didn’t.
Confusion reigned and the home club determined the rules under which the teams would play. Squabbles and protests were the way of things.
Moreover, tremendous in-fighting existed between the clubs based on colonial political loyalties. Some footballers were holding out for the mooted visit of an English football team whereas others were advocates of the Victorian game.
The Hotham letter brought home the realisation that intercolonial football relations were most likely to be established with Victoria and, this being the case, Victorian Rules needed to be adopted by the recently formed Tasmanian Football Association.
In the absence of visiting British teams, those pushing for the British codes had no argument.
Leading the charge for Victorian rules was WH Cundy who was interviewed by the Mercury in 1931, a few years before his death:
“When I first came to Tasmania as a youth,” he said, “there was really no established code. Rugby, soccer, and a sort of hybrid game were being played, and it can well be imagined the chaos that existed. I had played what was then known as the Victorian code in Melbourne … but at first was unable to induce other teams to adopt the Victorian rules.
“I had brought over a book of rules, and had 50 copies printed for distribution, and a meeting was later called at the old High School, now the University, to discuss the position. The … meeting could not come to a decision to concentrate on one code, so it was decided that for a season the teams should play the Victorian rules game, soccer and Rugby turn about, and at the end of the year decide which should be adopted, when all were fairly conversant with the codes.
“When the vote subsequently was taken, the Victorian rules won. I believe, by one vote.”
Cundy may be getting a few facts skew-whiff here but even so he testifies to the diversity of Hobart football in early 1879 and the level of disagreement about the way to unify the game in the colony.
Nonetheless, by the end of the 1879 season Victorian rules (with modifications) was established as the dominant football code in Hobart. Hotham’s letter was vital in that process.
As we have seen, two short years later (indeed, 130 years ago last Tuesday) the locals managed to beat the Victorians at their own game, in the process confirming footy as the primary winter game in Tasmania.
So: “What has North Melbourne done for us?” Hobart could answer: “Nothing – apart from 1) helping to create the foundations of the game in Tasmania; 2) being the first Victorian team to visit Hobart; 3) improving the standard of play in Tasmania; and 4) confirming footy as the Tasmanian winter game!”
North Melbourne kept up its connection with Tasmania throughout the following century, returning a number of times, especially immediately before and after World War II.
Other clubs might have visited more often and with more recent impact but North will always have the claim: we were there first!
2. Victorian Rules in Hobart: “the manly old English Game of Football”
It is worth pausing on two aspects of the ascendancy of Victorian Rules in Hobart in 1879. First and controversially, the association kept the crossbar: “to these (goal) posts shall be attached a horizontal bar, 10ft from the ground, over which the ball must be kicked to secure a goal.”
As the Mercury reported on 16 June, some felt these were,
“words which make the so called adoption of the Victorian code a mockery and a delusion, the innovation being of so glaring a character as to entirely change the form of the play, and to rob it of its principal points of interest.
“The post of goal keeper, to which one of the coolest and steadiest was ever appointed, and which has been an object of aspiration as a place of trust, is at once swept away, while the occupation of the goal sneak – the quickest, sturdiest, and most alert of the forward players – is also gone.
“The changes consequent on the adoption of this single excrescence from the Rugby Union code are, however, too numerous for noting in detail.”
The association executive was accused of being a “star chamber” that had added this rule after the general meeting had decided to adopt Victorian rules. And while that seems a fair criticism, this argument had its chance to be ironed out at subsequent meetings.
It is telling that the Hobart footballers kept their crossbar until as late as 1884.
In 1883, for example, the association’s secretary reported that he had written to all the town clubs relative to altering the rules relating to the use of the crossbar and pushing, and had received replies, “it being agreed by 136 members to 91 to keep the rules as at present.”
In 1884, the Tasmania delegates to the intercolonial rules conference held in Melbourne argued for the installation of the crossbar in all colonies. According to the Mercury 13 May 1884, he was defeated by 9 votes to 6!
The second point relates to the idea of what game the participants thought they were playing. Had they adopted “a game of their own”? Were they reluctantly playing a Victorian intercolonial imposition? Did they care one way or the other?
It’s hard enough to get the facts right never mind work out what was in the participants’ heads – though perhaps the following report gives us some idea.
At the end of the 1879 season a celebratory dinner was held in Hobart on 27 September. The footballers had settled most of their differences and unbeknownst to them were at the beginning of a long historical thread that continues today.
The Mercury reports a number of speeches given that night:
“Mr. GIBLIN proposed the toast of the evening, “Success to the Tasmanian Football Association.” (Loud and prolonged cheers.)
“There was not the least doubt that the game of football had taken such a hold of the young men of Hobart Town that season such as none of them could remember before. (Hear, hear.) It was a grand winter game.
“Many of them loved cricket with an intense love, but in our climate cricket could not be played all the year round, and there was no game to be compared to the manly old English game of football. (Cheers.)”
Giblin, it seems, was fairly confident about the nature of the game in which they were participants. The response suggests others agreed.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Footy Record on the weekend of 9-10 July.