The foundation of state Australian football leagues

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By The_Wookie, The_Wookie is a Roar Guru


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    Followers of the sport of Australian football might be surprised to learn just how unpopular the game was before being adopted by state associations in the 1880s.

    In almost every territory outside of Victoria, the matter of which rules to play was up for considerable debate.

    South Australia might have ended up a soccer state if one of the delegates hadn’t been so persuasive. Western Australia might have ended up a rugby state if three clubs hadn’t banded together.

    Tasmania could have gone either way, and only took up the Victorian game by the narrowest of margins – and even then evidently voted to include a crossbar for reasons the media reported as bizarre.

    Likewise survival appears to have been tough outside of Victoria for many of the WA and SA founding clubs no longer exist, and while there appears to have been something of a revolving door in the early VFA years, most of the early clubs still exist, even at country football level (many in the Geelong and Ballarat competitions).

    Of the teams existing at the time of the VFL and VFA split, every single team remains active (yes even Fitzroy still exist at VAFA level).

    In those early days, football as we know it now, was almost certainly Victorian in nature.

    Media reports in the Advocate in 1926, mention that in 1875 there were 96 clubs in Melbourne alone, and a further 42 clubs in the state with more than 3,000 players. At the same time, there were barely 20 Australian football clubs across the rest of the country.

    South Australia (April 30th, 1877)
    In 1910, the Adelaide Daily Herald remarked that prior to the formation of the South Australian Football Association forming that there were three different codes of football being played around the city of Adelaide.

    Matches between sides were played with general confusion over rules, and so in 1877 a meeting was called with the aim of forming a body to oversee football matters and to draw up the rules.

    The meeting was held on April 30, 1877 at the Prince Alfred Hotel and resulted in the formation of the South Australian Football Association.

    It included Port Adelaide (est 1870), South Adelaide (1877) as well as other team like Victoria, Woodville, Kensington, South Park, Bankers and the original incarnation of Adelaide.

    The meeting is notable for also deciding on playing Victorian Rules, including the bounce, adopting the Melbourne code ‘almost in toto’ according to The Register.

    Victoria – May 17th, 1877
    In Victoria there appeared to be no such uncertainty over the rules, which had been originally written in 1859 and then modified in 1866. Umpires were introduced in 1872 and Uniforms in 1873. Just over two weeks after the South Australians, the Victorian Football Association was formed on May 17, 1877.

    The original VFA sides included Melbourne (1859), Geelong (1859), Carlton (1864), St Kilda (1873).

    It also included Albert Park (later merged with South Melbourne), Hotham (later known as North Melbourne), Ballarat (later in the Ballarat Football league), and Barwon (later merging with Belmont and still alive in the Geelong Football league). Still other clubs including Essendon and Richmond were listed as junior clubs in the new Association.

    The same year, Carlton would travel to Sydney to play the Waratah at the SCG in Australian football and rugby. Carlton lost the rugby game, but evidently did well in the Australian game.

    Tasmania – June 21, 1879
    The Australian game was introduced into Tasmania in the 1870s prior to this rugby and soccer were played in the colony, as well as a hybrid of the two known as the Tasmanian game.

    At a meeting on June 21, 1879, the Tasmanian Football Association was formed, and the decision to play the Australian game was passed by one vote. There are today no known clubs still existing from that Association (that I was easily able to find anyway, I’m happy to be corrected)

    New South Wales – 1880
    The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at a meeting on the 18th August, 1880 the New South Wales Football Association voted to play Australian football on the grounds that the rules were an improvement on those used by the English Association, and very different to rules used by the rugby code.

    Western Australia – 1885
    The Western Mail reported in 1939, that when the Western Australian Association was formed in 1885, the dominant game in the colony was rugby. It was noted that of four football clubs in the colony, only one played the Victorian code.

    In 1885, delegates from the Fremantle, Rovers and Victorian clubs voted to move as a body to Victorian football. They would be joined a year later by another Fremantle club, Unions. Today, only Victorians survives, now known as West Perth.

    Victoria splits – 1896
    The rumblings began when inner Melbourne clubs began to feel that they were carrying the outlying regional clubs, and so in 1896 six clubs Carlton, Melbourne, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy and South Melbourne broke away from the Association, persuading Geelong and St Kilda to go with them.

    This left the VFA with just five clubs – three of whom would later join the VFL – Richmond (1908), North Melbourne (1925) and Footscray (1925). Williamstown and Port Melbourne remained, and have done so until now.

    Queensland – 1903
    A governing body for the game in Queensland didn’t take place until 1903, the game in the country was essentially run from Victoria before that.

    Notes: I am heavily indebted to the National library for the articles and source material used for this article.

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    The Crowd Says (104)

    • Roar Guru

      January 12th 2014 @ 6:28am
      The_Wookie said | January 12th 2014 @ 6:28am | ! Report

      Should note that the links to the source material can be found in the article here:

    • January 12th 2014 @ 9:21am
      Floreat Pica said | January 12th 2014 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      Informative Wookie- any idea when independent governing bodies were set up for the territories?

    • January 12th 2014 @ 9:37am
      Timmuh said | January 12th 2014 @ 9:37am | ! Report

      A few things regarding Tasmania:

      There was not a state league until 1986, when the Hobart based TANFL invited Noth Launceston and East Launceston from the NTFA into the southern league. North-west clubs Devonport and Cooee (renamed to Burnie) joined in 1987.

      Prior to that the Hobart based TANFL (previously TFL), Northern (really north-east, NTFA based in and around Launceston) and North West (NWFU) were all theoretically the same level. For the most part the Hobart league was stronger, but it was not dominant and not a de facto state league. State rep sides were drawn from all three leagues. Occasionally state premiers were decided with the premiers from each league playing off against each other. The infamous Wynyard (NWFU) – North Hobart (TFL) post-pulling incident, where spectators removed goal posts in order to stop a potential winning goal (and what they saew as a cheating umpire) was one such match.
      The first state league was disbanded after the 2000 season, and the second attempt is on the brink of oblivion thanks to a combination of the dominance of the AFL destroying local footy, and supreme mismanagement by AFL Tasmania.

      The oldest surviving club in Tasmania is Launceston, est 1875, which went into the NTFA when that was formed. Launceston now plays in the state league, the TSL.

      • Roar Guru

        January 12th 2014 @ 9:58am
        The_Wookie said | January 12th 2014 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        In Tasmanias case I used the earliest known governing body for a wide area of the state, theres no question that this was the TFA in 1879
        Launceston may have been formed in 1875, but according to an Examiner arrticle from April 22nd, 1938, they didnt play a competitive game before 1879. (

        • January 12th 2014 @ 10:37am
          Timmuh said | January 12th 2014 @ 10:37am | ! Report

          That’s fair enough, just that it wasn’t a state league like the others. As for existing clubs that were part of the TFA, I can’t easily find any either. Glenorchy are a renamed New Town, but a quick check says they are not the same New Town that played in the TFA.

          • Roar Guru

            January 12th 2014 @ 10:45am
            The_Wookie said | January 12th 2014 @ 10:45am | ! Report

            Its a fair enough point too – note that this article elsewhere is simply entitled ‘back to where it all began”.

            I spent hours last night looking for these things and other than Launceston, couldnt find any current clubs. That and the number of Victorian clubs was surprising.

    • January 12th 2014 @ 10:36am
      Chocco said | January 12th 2014 @ 10:36am | ! Report

      i am not suprised at all, that some leagues discussed rules etc, what game they would play, we are talking about a long time ago, when communication was slow and in some places probably a bit like Chinese whispers.

      I have heard that QLD had a vote on what game they were going to play in the schools, and football lost to rugby by one vote, but just recently the right to gay marriage was lost by one vote in the NSW parliament, euthanasia by one vote in Tassie, and how will those votes look to someone in 100 years.

      Initially the game of Australian Football has been driven by emigration from Victoria, essentially in WA by the gold rush, at one stage 30% of the population of WA was born in Victoria, during the depression od the 1890’s, money sent back kept thousands of families in Bendigo, Ballarat going, roughly 30% of Kalgoolie men signing up for WW1, listed their birthplace as somewhere in Victoria, the same could be said of Broken Hill.

      • January 12th 2014 @ 12:49pm
        Chocco said | January 12th 2014 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

        The very early champions of the game in SA, and i am talking about the 1870’s, were Victorians, or generally South Aussies schooled in Vic, the very early advocates of the Game in WA were West Australians schooled at Prince Afled college in SA around the mid 1880’s, untill the gold rush in WA it was South Aussies who introduced the game.

        If we look at Wookies article on East Freo, you will find that the founders of the club were Dave Christy from Ballarat, Tom Wilson who played for North Melbourne and introduced the Blue and White, and the famous Doig family who migrated west from SA.

    • January 12th 2014 @ 11:20am
      Freddie said | January 12th 2014 @ 11:20am | ! Report

      Australian rules is still unpopular in the eastern states.

      • January 12th 2014 @ 11:38am
        Australian Rules said | January 12th 2014 @ 11:38am | ! Report

        I’m quite popular thank you very much!

      • January 12th 2014 @ 11:42am
        Drac said | January 12th 2014 @ 11:42am | ! Report

        So much salt Freddie….

      • Roar Guru

        January 12th 2014 @ 12:29pm
        Ben of Phnom Penh said | January 12th 2014 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

        Given the Eastern states are Tas, Vic, NSW & QLD I’d say it’s a 50/50 split.

      • January 12th 2014 @ 12:31pm
        Chocco said | January 12th 2014 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

        it may not be the main code in some states, but it is far from being not popular.

      • January 12th 2014 @ 8:05pm
        Floreat Pica said | January 12th 2014 @ 8:05pm | ! Report

        Have you told the towns around the Murray-Darling Basin or the communities in NQ and along the SA/NT borders that?

      • January 12th 2014 @ 9:32pm
        Timmuh said | January 12th 2014 @ 9:32pm | ! Report

        In the majority of regions in the north-eastern states, sure.

      • January 12th 2014 @ 9:54pm
        Penster said | January 12th 2014 @ 9:54pm | ! Report

        Ah Freddie I hate to be the one to break it to you …

    • January 12th 2014 @ 11:42am
      Shifty Xr said | January 12th 2014 @ 11:42am | ! Report

      West Perth is now Joondalup Falcons

      • January 12th 2014 @ 12:30pm
        Chocco said | January 12th 2014 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

        No its not, unless they voted very recently.