The history of Australian Rules Football

23 November, 2008

The Melbourne football team, 1902. The team members are wearing lace-up football Guernseys.
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.

Further Reading

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.

Comments (14)

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Barry Rooney 13 December, 2010 20:07
Dear Sir,I have been informed that a""Danish"" Prince played Aussie Rules Football in the Ballarat Area.His name was Edment Rooney,Is this Statement True or False? His Grandsons Herbet Clifford Rooney(1933) and Frederik Rooney played for Collingwood Football Club.Would You research this information for Me. Barry Rooney Mail Medallist 1968/1969 Best & Fairest Metropolitan& Country Footballer in South Australia in all competitions in this State
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Discovery Centre 16 December, 2010 12:15

Hi Barry, for information about the Ballarat Football League, consider contacting the Ballarat & District Genealogical Society http://www.ballaratgenealogy.org.au/ who may have more detailed archives.  For information about the Collingwood Football Club you may need to contact them directly: info@collingwoodfc.com.au

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dennis wallace 3 September, 2011 14:30
Do you have any information on Commonwealth Championship Games played early in the 20th century. I have info re game between Carlton and Norwood (SA) in 1907. what years were the championships played.
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John James 5 August, 2013 17:55
Three or four brothers played for richmond in the late 1890 s there surname was Watson can any one give more info about these brothers ?
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james johnson 9 August, 2013 11:03
Young footballer invents new kick to counter muddy conditions In 1949 15-year-old Jim Johnson and his older brother Charlie joined Mt Evelyn Football Club, Second XVIII. Mt Evelyn Football Ground’s surface was then uneven and often very muddy. Studying the Sporting Globe Football Book (1948), Jim Johnson adapted Jack Dyer’s ‘crazy’ Drop-Punt … ‘the silliest looking kick in football history’ (p.49) into an effective Drop- Punt (field pass) and later invented a Stab Punt (pass), both kicks being suitable to Mt Evelyn’s mud. These kicks were able to be kicked at full pace with accuracy; they are in constant use today in Australian Rules football. Playing just three games, Jim won the 1949 Second-Best-and-Fairest trophy (The T.O. Millard Trophy). Theo Millard (Jim’s uncle) was Mt Evelyn’s major employer at Millards’ Timber and Trading. Jim, 157.5cm and weighing 51kg, was promoted to the first XVIII, winning the umpire’s vote for best player on three occasions; joined Ringwood Football Club as First Rover for the First XVIII in 1950; and in 1960 played in a Premiership team for Croydon. ‘Johnson was outstanding in the mud with clever turning and accurate disposal.’ The Ringwood Mail, August 1951. Journalists had trouble finding the correct name for Johnson’s Stab Punt. ‘Johnson sent his delightful little drop punt pass direct to Manfield’. Frank Casey, The Post, September 8, 1960. ‘Johnson should write a book on stab kicking – he has found the lost art’. Davey Crocket, The Ringwood Mail, September 8, 1960. From Helen Johnson Jim Johnson’s story appears in the ‘Face to Face’ exhibition at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum. Jim also donated the concert program signed by Melba, part of our display ‘The Mitchells in Mt Evelyn’ at the Exhibition Space. . Jim Johnson (right) with brother Charlie at Yarra Glen oval, 7 May 1949. Things Past Newsletter 44 October 2011 Mount Evelyn History Group Inc Page 3
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Leisha Young 1 February, 2015 16:58
Hello, My dad played for the Port Melbourne Colts in the late 60's and early 70's, his name is Ian James Young. Can you advise me on how I can find records of his playing history? Thank you.
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Discovery Centre 3 February, 2015 12:40

Hi Leisha,

The best thing to do would be to contact the Port Melbourne Colts directly to see if they have any records. If they no longer have any records, you may wish to contact the Public Record Office Victoria and check with them.

Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:05
The official name of the code of football devised in Victoria is 'Australian Football'. It has never ever had ‘rules’ incorporated in its title by any senior body administering the sport. The "rules" tag is a construct of the press of the Rugby holdout colonies of NSW and QLD, dating from the 19th century. This construct developed into a standard denigration of the Australian game as only a variant of the ‘rules’ of superior games from England. According to this notion, nothing devised in Australia and especially in Victoria could be original or as worthwhile as anything devised in the ‘home country’. As such, it can be seen as a component of what came to be known as the ‘Australian cringe’. Australia’s indigenous code of football is ‘Australian Football’. You don’t hear Americans talking about ‘American Rules football’. Shame on the Museum of Victoria for spreading the ‘Australian Rules’ nonsense.
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Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:12
"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). " At its establishment, the VFL was no more 'professional' than the VFA, as payments to players were not allowed. Payment of players for their services to the clubs were not introduced until 1911.
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Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:20
In regard to the formation of the VFA: During the period 1877 to 1879, of Beechworth, Castlemaine, Inglewood, and Rochester, only Castlemaine played other affiliated senior clubs without odds. However, as Castlemaine only played one game per season, these games were not listed as counting towards the premiership
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Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:31
"University later withdrew from the league in 1915, suffering waning support as a result of the First World War." There was also much concern amongst University players, officials, and members at the League's move to professionalism in 1911, with a number players remaining as amateurs after this date. This and the fact that the club lost all but one match (one win in round 3 of 1912) in its last three seasons in the League was as much a factor in its withdrawal from the League at the end of the 1914 season as the outbreak of the war.
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Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:34
”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.” At the time, the VFA was as ‘professional’ as the League in that players were paid for playing.
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Michael Rogers 28 February, 2015 07:37
”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).” The Victoria Football League altered its name to the Australian Football League for the 1990 season – not 1987.
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Pappy 18 May, 2015 15:27
Recent discoveries by the Castlemaine Historical Society have uncovered the formation of the Castlemaine Football Club predates Geelong by one month. The formation meeting having been held on 15 June 1859 and reported in the local press.
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