Australian Rules football

A guide to researching history, players, matches and clubs

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Andrew McConville
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Subjects: Literature


This guide highlights specific texts on different aspects of the history of Australian Rules football. There are also tips on searching and a focus on material that can be accessed online.

Some online material will be from subscription databases and can be accessed by any Victorian resident registered with the Library.

For detail on some iconic games beyond living memory see the great games you may have missed page.

Origins of Australian Rules football

There have been a wide range of books and articles written on the origins and history of Australian Rules football.  It is generally accepted that the first games of Australian Rules football (although at that stage devoid of rules) took place in 1858.

In July 1858, Tom Wills wrote an open letter to Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle

In the letter Wills exhorted young men to:

form a football 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 a vast benefit to any cricket-ground to be trampled upon

Football in the Richmond Paddock

Football in Richmond Paddock 1866 IMP27/07/66/304

A few weeks later locals had accepted the call. Mr Bryant posted a notice in the same publication inviting 

gentlemen interested in keeping the muscles in full vigour during the winter months, and also anxious for an occasional afternoon's outdoor exercise, have determined upon getting up a football club. Mr. Bryant, of the Parade hotel, on the principle that "an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory," will have a ball on the Melbourne cricket ground, or adjoining portion of Richmond Park, to-day, at one o'clock. After the game, a committee will be formed to draw up a short code of rules.

History has to a great extent forgotten Mr Bryant's gathering. The game generally credited as the first organised match was between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar, commencing on 6 August and being completed over three afternoons. The game was not without controversy as the Melbourne Grammar Secretary took umbrage at suggestions that his school had failed to attend the second afternoon of the match. The game finally ended in a draw, a month after it commenced. The match is commemorated in a Louis Laumen sculpture outside the MCG.

Other informal games followed between interested groups and in May 1859 Melbourne Football Club first codified the rules refining them further in July 1859.

Football's popularity waned in the early 1860s but by 1865 new clubs had been formed and an organised competition for the Challenge Cup was established.

On 8 May 1866 delegates from several of the leading football clubs met at the Freemason’s Hotel in Swanston Street, Melbourne to formalise the rules to the game. The meeting was presided over by Henry Harrison. Others present  were from Melbourne (R.W. Wardill - sometimes mispelled as Wardell), Carlton (B. James and Thomas Power), Royal Park (A.E. Clarke and J.W. Chadwick) and South Yarra (George O'Mullane and Hugh Murray). 

While some of these rules have disappeared from the game, many of them still exist in similar form and define the nature of the sport. They include: the behind posts; kicking in from the goal square; the distance between the goal posts; running with, disposing of and marking the ball; legitimate body contact; and boundary throw ins. 

Football records 2019 -

Almost all Football Records available on our Football records page.

AFL Football records for 2020 and 2021 can be downloaded from the publisher's site.

Note that at this stage it does not include the 2019 final series.

Football in Yarra Park IAN13/07/74/11

Football in Yarra Park IAN13/07/74/11

George Coulthard_APW24_07_80_49

Sketch at the football match, Carlton v. Geelong  APW24/07/80/49

George Coulthard, considered the greatest player of his day, sprints away from a Geelong opponent

T Blake  Carlton Football Club IAN01/06/95

Tom Blake Carlton captain 1895  IAN 01/06/95/4