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 (28)

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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
Discovery Centre 16 December, 2010 12:15

Hi Barry, for information about the Ballarat Football League, consider contacting the Ballarat & District Genealogical Society who may have more detailed archives.  For information about the Collingwood Football Club you may need to contact them directly:

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.
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 ?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Eedy 28 March, 2016 17:26
Dear MV -- I don't agree with your (and others') assertion that 'Australian Football' is "the oldest code of football in the world", just because the original 'Melbourne Rules' were set down in 1858. A comparison shows that those rules were clearly based on earlier (written) English football rules, such as the Rugby rules of 1845 and the Cambridge rules of 1848. Indeed, one could argue that Australian Football did not exist as a 'code', until the formation of the Victorian Football Association in 1877 (some years after the [Soccer] Football Association (1863) and the Rugby Football Union (1871).
Miles Platting 2 April, 2016 22:38
Do Collingwood have catholic origins, and Carlton protestant ones?
Discovery Centre 7 April, 2016 13:55
A very interesting question Miles! We asked one of our volunteer researchers to see what they could find out:

The founding Victorian football teams grew from a winter game for footballers at Melbourne private schools and later towns and suburbs. Each team brought local men into their team. This meant influences such as class, political party preference, ethnic origin and religion were evident in clubs over different eras. We cannot however confirm the original religious connections for Carlton and Collingwood.

Ozman 30 September, 2016 12:15
Miles. I remember Lou Richards saying he was one of the first non catholic players at Collingwood. As for Carlton I believe there was no religious connection with the club. Many early players were from Ireland, England, Scotland and local. Unlike Melbourne who were public servants and professional people Carlton were tradesmen, professionals, and working people and that appealed to the working class and made Carlton the competition's most popular club from the 1870's.
Adrian 20 May, 2016 22:36
I heard some of the first ever games were in Tasmania. Does anyone know about this?
Discovery Centre 26 May, 2016 17:49

Hi Adrian, according to The Companion to Tasmanian History  the first Tasmanian football matches were played between Hutchins and the High School in 1859. The Hobart and New Town clubs were formed in 1866 and the Tasmanian Football League was formed in 1879.

Mathew 19 June, 2016 21:25
Can you offer any advice for professional historians seeking to access AFL/VFL archival records for research purposes? Are they available? Specifically looking for documents from late 19th century up to 1914 with respect to how the league dealt with concerns around illegal player payments, betting, match fixing, and the challenge system. Appreciate your advice! Thanks. Matt.
Discovery Centre 21 June, 2016 11:06
Hi Mathew, 

We would suggest the best place to start would be the MCC Library and Research enquiries, which shares resources with the National Sports Museum. 
Ron James 22 July, 2016 18:38
We have a medallion awarded to a our grandfather R Dwyer "Best all round player B S F A 1908" Do you have any information as to the club and league etc?
Discovery Centre 1 August, 2016 13:38
Hi Ron - it's not clear from your query that the medallion neccessarily refers to Australian Rules Football, or another code of football. In any case, our Curator wasn't able to find anything definitive, so we think you'd be better placed to contact the National Sports Museum at the MCG with your query. Good luck!
Paul Stott 2 October, 2016 18:21
My father grew up in Hawthorn & spoke of the"gasometer" end of the oval. Where would that have been?
Discovery Centre 3 October, 2016 13:32

Hi Paul - we've looked into this, but we've only found reference to the famous Gasometer associated with the Arden Street oval in North Melbourne; this wasn't necessarily at one of the goal ends, it was on the Maculey Rd side of the oval, roughly aligned with the north-east wing of the oval. There is some information on this on the Arden St Oval Wikipedia page with a photo of the Gasometer here. I can't find reference to a comparable gasworks structure at Glenferrie; perhaps the National Sports Museum at the MCG or the Hawks Museum might be better placed to give a more definitive answer?

Good luck with your research

james johnson 9 November, 2016 03:03
tjpc type of of swb-punr'in"wh!'c'h swb-punt which he he dropped I lhc ball point-first and stabbed ulike;w a shot arrow with hair-line accuracy. ; g —-,and i: inaccurate.a lost art. „ Kicking, he says, is wo The above is an extract from the 2559 word Electronically Translated Text of “Dick! Dick!-Dick-e-e-e “ By H. A. de Lacy as published on Trove. The above is corrected as “a type of stab-punt in which he dropped the ball point- first and stabbed it like a shot arrow with hair-line accuracy. He says he always picked crowd and took aim at it.” a lost art. spot in the Kicking, he says What would you advise the above means.
James Johnson 18 November, 2016 12:10
My further research has provided the following information. "Jack Dyer uses the "stab-punt kick", dropping the ball point down and almost vertical, kicking it with the toe of his boot. Dick Lee, famous Collingwood forward used the same type of kick". Extract from Trove - National Library of Australia “Dyer Sees Red” By Jim Blake Sporting Globe Wednesday 31 March 1948 page 9. And, From close in I dropped the ball end on and kicked a punt from the end of the ball. Practice it in the back yard with a stick as a target. Once you get the hang of it the accuracy will surprise you. I won many contests at the Eastern Market and on the stage with that kick with narrow little goals to shoot at. Extract from Trove - National Library of Australia. DICK LEE sees FLAWS By Hec de Lacy Sporting Globe Saturday 18 May 1940 Page 6 Dick Lee himself being interviewed by Hec de Lacy. My question now is? Are both Dick Lee & Jack Dyer both kicking a drop punt?
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