The Melbourne football team, 1902. The team members are wearing lace-up football Guernseys.
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: Who were the original Australian Rules football teams? How have the teams changed over time?
Answer: Australian Rules football was invented in Melbourne in the 1850s and codified in 1859, making it the oldest code of football in the world. Although the Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne area played a similar game called marn-grook, Australian Rules football was first played amongst Melbourne’s private schools (Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School) as a way of keeping the cricket players fit through the winter.
The first football club formed was the Melbourne Football Club in 1858. This was quickly followed by Geelong, which formed in 1859. In 1877 the amateur Victorian Football Association (VFA) was established and consisted of twelve clubs from across Victoria: Albert Park, Ballarat, Barwon, Beechworth, Carlton, Castlemaine, Geelong, Hotham, Inglewood, Melbourne, Rochester and St Kilda.
New clubs continued to join the VFA until 1897 when eight VFA clubs withdrew from the amateur league to form a professional league: the Victorian Football League (VFL). In its inaugural year the VFL consisted of Melbourne (established in 1858), Geelong (1859), Carlton (1864), Essendon (1873), St Kilda (1873), South Melbourne (1877), Fitzroy (1884) and Collingwood (1892).
In 1908, Richmond (1885) and University joined the league. University later withdrew from the league in 1915, suffering waning support as a result of the First World War. In 1925, another three VFA teams, Hawthorn (1873), North Melbourne (1874) and Footscray (1883) made the shift to the professional league, bringing the membership of the VFL to 12 teams.
The next major change in Australian Rules football was the near demise of the South Melbourne Football Club. Rather than folding however, South Melbourne was moved north to become the Sydney Football Club, creating the first professional team outside of Victoria. With the addition of two more interstate teams, the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears in 1987, the Victorian Football League became the Australian Football League (AFL).
Three additional clubs have joined the AFL: Adelaide in 1991, Fremantle in 1995 and Port Adelaide in 1997. At the conclusion of the 1996 season, Fitzroy and Brisbane merged to form a single team, the Brisbane Lions. The total number of professional Australian Rules football clubs currently sits at 16.
Blainey, Geoffrey. 1991. A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football. Melbourne: Information Australia.
Pascoe, Robert. 1996. The Winter Game: Over 100 Years of Australian Football. Port Melbourne: Mandarin.
Brown-May, Andrew & Swain, Shurlee [eds.]. 2005. The Encyclopedia of Melbourne. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 278-280.