Explore the History of australian football

"The Commonwealth of Australia was officially inaugurated in Sydney on 1st January 1901. The city was decked with flags; a huge parade wound its way through the streets, passing under triumphal arches of coal, stone and flowers, many presented by individual sections of the community like the Chinese citizens or the Germans. Others bore congratulations from the nations of the world: 'The United Staes welcomes United Australia.' There were brass bands and soldiers in scarlet and gold, 'two thousand little girls all clad in white shook two thousand handkerchiefs at the dragoons and lancers'; there were Cabinet Ministers and Death or Glory Boys from Victoria; there were reporters and artists and photographers and thousands of ordinary Australians, quite happy to see their taxes spent on a public show. The cry was 'One people, one destiny'.

No one asked the Aborigines to join the celebrations."   (From Australia: a History by Mike Walker, page 105.)

On Tuesday 1st January 1901 millions of people around the globe, particularly in those parts which would nowadays probably be collectively labelled “the west”, celebrated the end of the nineteenth century and the onset of the twentieth. In Australia, there was an additional reason for celebration, for after decades of debate, negotiation, procrastination and uncertainty, it had finally become a distinct, if not in the full sense of the word independent, nation. The six colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia were now united, as states, under a single flag, still intensely loyal to the British Crown, and to a certain degree still subservient to it,[1] but to a large extent now responsible for governing and shaping their own destiny.

The capital city of the fledgling nation, Melbourne, was the scene for the opening, on 10th May 1901, of the inaugural Australian parliament. The close ongoing kinship with Britain was evidenced by the fact that the parliament was opened by the future King George V, then the Duke of York, and the Duke of Cornwall.  The event was described thus in “The Melbourne Argus”:

By the hand of royalty, in the presence of the greatest concourse of people that Australia has seen in one building, and with splendid pomp and ceremonial, the legislative machinery of the Commonwealth was yesterday set in motion. The day was full of smiles and tears, the smiles predominating. Rising gloomily, the dispersing clouds allowed the bright sun to peep through, and when the great ceremony was in progress in the Exhibition-building, the atmosphere was radiant, and illuminated the vast spaces of the building and the great sea of faces with a bright Australian glow.

A sight never to be forgotten was the assemblage which, in perfect order, but with exalted feeling, awaited the arrival of the Duke and Duchess in the great avenues which branch out from beneath the vast Dome of the Exhibition-building. We have not in Australia any sense of the historical prestige which attaches itself to a royal opening of the British Parliament. There the stately function is magnificent in its setting and pregnant in its associations, but it is in scarcely any sense of the word a people's function. Here, by a happy inspiration , the function was made, to the fullest extent, a popular one. Twelve thousand seated in a vast amphitheatre— free people, hopeful people, courageous people— entrusted with the working out of their own destiny, and rejoicing in their liberty, must be impressive by reason of their numbers alone. But there was not wanting splendour of accessories. The mighty arches of the dome, the spread of the great transepts, the grace of the decorations, were in themselves inspiring; nor was even the sombre shade of the mourning dressing, softened by splashes of purple here and there, out of keeping with the event, typifying, as it did, our reverential regard for the memory of a great Constitutional Ruler, the mightiest Sovereign of the people the world has known.

Broadly speaking, what was represented in the noble assemblage was worth. The worthiest of Australia were there— the men who hold their distinguished positions because they have won them, and because they deserve them. All that is best in politics, in commerce, in industry, in the arts, in the Church, in the school, in the public service of Australia was represented there, and every heart beat high with pride and with hope.

 Faint and far off, just about noon there came the sound of the National Anthem, and there was a multitudinous murmur and stir, for here was the actual event coming at last. Then near at hand came the blare of a trumpet heralding the approach of the Imperial envoys, and a moment or two after, with royal punctuality, the Duke and Duchess were on the dais, and the strains of the National Anthem came pealing through the building.

The religious feelings of the occasion were stirred by the singing of the grand "Old Hundredth" to the words of the metrical psalm, commencing "All people that on earth do dwell." This was taken up by thousands of the audience, and its swelling harmonies rose grandly to the dome. Lord Hopetoun, setting aside all complicated questions of religious precedence, himself read several prayers, in his clear, penetrating voice, so pleasantly familiar in Victoria.

When the Duke stepped forward to deliver his speech to the two Houses, a "Hush" ran round the assembly, and everyone listened intently, but the sound of the ever-moving feet on the boarded floors went on. His Royal Highness spoke deliberately, in a clear, strong voice, and the speech he read was distinctly heard by thousands of those present. It was a dignified, a graceful, a kindly, and a congratulatory speech, and it expressed a confident belief that the new powers granted to Australia will only strengthen the affection of the people for the throne and empire.

 At the final words, "I now declare the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia open," the Duchess touched an electric button which gave the signal outside for the hoisting of the Union Jack on all the State schools of the Colony, and for the sending of a message to England declaring the object of the journey of the Royal envoys accomplished. Trumpets rang out the signal, and outside was heard the booming of cannon in royal salute.

After a brief pause the Duke of Cornwall and York stepped forward once more and read a special cable message of congratulation from His Majesty the King. And now Australia asserted herself. She had been suppressing her feelings to show that she knew how to behave with old-world decorum in the presence of Royalty, but this message, direct from the King himself, was too much — they simply had to cheer. And cheer they did. It was done without order or without concert. It was taken up time after time by sections of the audience; it ran round the aisles, and surged through the galleries; a hearty, spontaneous, irrepressible Australian cheer. It was not down in the programme, but it formed a most effective part of it.

The final part of the ceremony, which altogether occupied about three-quarters of an hour, was the swearing-in of members by the Governor-General. He stood on the dais and read out the oath, whilst the members, Bible in hand, followed him in sections. Then Lord Hopetoun stepped to the front of the dais, and directing the audience by the waving of his hat, called for three cheers for His Royal Highness the Duke, which were given with splendid heartiness, and followed by another round for the Duchess, after which the Duke and Duchess retired and the great ceremony was over.


His Royal Highness read the following telegram from His Majesty the King: "My thoughts are with you on the day of the important ceremony. Most fervently do I wish Australia prosperity and great happiness."


The following telegram was despatched by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York to His Majesty the King immediately after the opening ceremony:

"I have just delivered your message, and, in your name, declared open the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. I also read your kind telegram of good wishes, which is deeply appreciated by your loving Australian subjects, and was received with great enthusiasm. Splendid and impressive ceremony, over 12,000 people in Exhibition-building."


When the newly-elected President of the Federal Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives were presented to His Excellency the Governor-General at the Old Treasury buildings yesterday afternoon, Lord Hopetoun intimated to them and to the members of the Commonwealth Legislature who were present that he had received the subjoined message from the Secretary of State for the Colonies:

 "His Majesty's Government welcomes the new Parliament that to-day takes its place among the great legislative bodies of the British Empire and they feel confident that it will be a faithful interpreter of the aspirations of a free and loyal people, and they trust that its deliberations will promote the happiness, prosperity, and unity of the whole continent of Australia.

"The message was subsequently read in both Houses of the Federal Parliament, and received with cheers.

The above represents a sanitised attitude to federation, as upheld by the nation’s elite, but there seems little doubt that a prevailing spirit of optimism, following the degradations of the economic depression of the previous decade, permeated most sections of Australian society.

The country’s first Prime Minister was Edmund Barton, a liberal protectionist who had formerly been a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Protectionists were “committed to a White Australia, the career open to talent, and natural well-being for all” as well as being “prepared to use the state to ensure a minimum standard of living and to protect the weak against the strong”.[2] Opposition to the Protectionists came from two fronts: the right-wing Conservative Free Traders, and the left-leaning Labour Party.

From the outset, the Australian parliamentary system was a unique derivation of both British and US influences. The federal nature of the Commonwealth and the structure of the Parliament of Australia were the subject of protracted negotiations among the colonies during the drafting of the Constitution. The House of Representatives is elected on a basis which reflects the differing populations of the states. Thus New South Wales has 48 members while Tasmania has five. But the Senate is elected on a basis of equality among the States: all States elect 12 Senators, regardless of population. This was intended to allow the Senators of the smaller States to form a majority and amend or even reject bills originating in the House of Representatives. Nowadays, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory also elect two senators each. Norfolk Island, the third official Australian territory, does not have any parliamentary representation.

Perhaps the most significant legislation introduced by the Australian parliament in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act, which formed the basis of the White Australia Policy. Whilst not explicitly prohibiting the entry to the country of individuals of non-whites, in practice it did so by means of permitting immigration officers to require selected individuals to undertake a 50 word dictation test in a European language of the immigration officer’s choice. For prospective non-white immigrants this would invariably be a language unknown to the prospective immigrant.[3]

Somewhat unusually for the period, from 1902 both men and women were permitted to vote in Federal elections, although generally speaking this right did not extend to non-Caucasians. [4]Indigenous Australians, for example, were not universally given automatic entitlement to vote until 1967, while enrolling to vote was not made compulsory for people of indigenous descent until 1984.

Even as Australia was taking its first faltering steps toward nationhood it was already embroiled in war. Between October 1899 and May 1902 roughly 23,000 Australian combatants served on the British Empire side against the Dutch-descended Boers in the Second Boer War in South Africa. The majority of these were initially embers of individual colonial forces - New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and so on - but following federation they combined under the new Australian flag. Roughly 7,000 of the combatants fought with other colonial or irregular units, whilst a large number of Australians also went to South Africa to provide medical support to the troops. Apart from Britain, Australia contributed more personnel to the Empire cause in the Second Boer War than any other nation.

The causes of the conflict were complex, but centred on Britain’s desire to reverse the humiliation suffered during the First Boer War of 1880-1 which had seen the Boer forces triumph. The Second Boer War began with the Boers in the ascendancy, but as more and more imperial troops arrived in the country weight of numbers eventually told, and in May 1902 the Boers finally surrendered, with British rule being formally re-introduced by means of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31st May of that year. During the war, a total of 251 Australians had been killed in action, 267 had died of disease, and 43 had been declared missing in action. Another 735 had been wounded.

From an Australian football perspective the Second Boer War was significant in that it represented probably the first time that the game had been played in South Africa. Australian troops are known to have played it as early as 1899, and a number of local teams were later formed. The game continued to be played, on a largely informal basis, at least until the start of the Great War in 1914.

In Australia itself, Australian football was far and away the most popular winter sport in four of the six states: Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. It was also highly popular in some parts of New South Wales, although in most of that state, as well as in Queensland, rugby was favoured. In Victoria and South Australia the highest standard of football was played by the big clubs in the state capitals, Melbourne and Adelaide respectively. Melbourne boasted two competitions of particularly high quality, the Victorian Football Association, formed in 1877, and the Victorian Football League, which had been established in 1897 following a breakaway from the VFA of that competition’s eight strongest clubs. The top competition in Adelaide was the South Australian Football Association, which like the VFA dated back to 1877. In 1901 Sturt had entered the SAFA bringing its total number of clubs to seven.

The situation in both Western Australia and Tasmania was somewhat different, as the highest quality football in both states was played in two different regions. Western Australia had the Perth and Fremantle-based Western Australian Football Association, plus the Goldfields Football Association which included clubs from in and around Kalgoorlie. In Tasmania there were strong Associations in both the south and north of the state, based in and around the cities of Hobart and Launceston.


[1] At this time the Australian government was regarded as co-equal with that of Great Britain in terms of sovereignty. Full autonomy for Australia and other dominions such as Canada and New Zealand was not formally acknowledged until the Balfour Declaration of 1926, and even then the British government retained a measure of oversight over Australian domestic affairs. As late as 1975 the British appointed representative of the queen, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, proved legally capable of dismissing a serving Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Needless to say, this was a highly controversial action, which will be discussed in greater detail at the appropriate time.

[2] A Short History of Australia by Manning Clark, page 213.

[3] Initially, the dictation test was in English. However, it would soon realised that many bilingual Asians, black Americans and other “undesirables” would be capable of passing such as test, and so immigration officers were given license to choose any European language - in other words, in the case of prospective immigrants of the “wrong” race, a language with which the person would be unfamiliar.

[4] Universal suffrage for those of white British descent, plus a handful of others, had been introduced for colonial elections in South Australia in 1884 and Western Australia five years later. When South Australia and Western Australia became foundation states of the new Commonwealth of Australia, voters of both sexes from those states were also granted the right to vote in the first Federal elections. Meanwhile, however, in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland only males of white British descent were initially entitled to a vote, a discrepancy which provoked considerable disgruntlement in those states, and which was swiftly addressed by granting the vote to women within a year.

​1901: Birth of a Nation