Explore the History of australian football


by A.D. Hope [1]

A nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey

In the field uniform of modern wars

Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws

Of sphinx demolished or stone lion.

​They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry;

​Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drawn among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity.

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: 'we live' but 'we survive',

​A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

1903: A Three Team Cricket Match.

Australian politics in 1903 were dominated by three parties: Protectionists, Free Traders and Labour.[2] All shared a commitment to what might broadly be termed “a white Australia”, but in other important respects their views were very different. Ever since the Commonwealth of Australia had come into being, no single party had enjoyed sufficient popularity to be able to form a government on its own. Following the first ever Federal election in March 1901 a Protectionist Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, headed a minority government, with support from Labour. The situation following the second Federal election, which took place in 1903, was ostensibly similar, with another Protectionist, Alfred Deakin, taking on the role of Prime Minister in an administration which involved coalition with the Labour Party. However, the way in which the voting was split in 1903 was very different to two years earlier. In 1901 the Protectionists had attracted almost 37% of the vote, the Free Traders 30%, Labour just under 16%, with a variety of other parties accounting for the remaining 17%. In December 1903 the Free Traders (37%) proved to be the single most successful party, followed by Labour (31%) and the Protectionists (30%). Deakin thus faced the thankless task of having to govern despite his party enjoying less public support than his two main rivals. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, the alliance with Labour was soon de-railed, and over the course of the parliament all three parties would hold the reins of power at some stage.

A detailed discussion of the respective parties’ ideals and philosophies would be out of place. However, in brief, the Protectionists, as the name implies, might be said to be chiefly characterised by their staunch advocacy of protective tariffs to help Australian industry to grow as well as to provide employment. The party was most popular in Victoria and in the rural areas of New South Wales.

The Free Traders were a centre-right party fundamentally opposed to protectionism, arguing that economic growth would be facilitated if trade with other countries was free and unrestricted. The party, which was at its most popular in New South Wales, was also characterised by a vehement and often outspoken antipathy towards socialism.

Labour is the only one of Australia’s original major political parties still in existence. It was the only party to flirt with socialism, albeit in a somewhat watered down form which rendered it potentially more palatable to business as well as the establishment in general. Its outlook, as encapsulated in its constitution, is broadly similar today to what it was in 1903. Its constitution puts it this way: "The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields".

Arguably the two most significant aspects of the 1903 Federal elections were that they witnessed women being granted the vote throughout Australia for the first time, and they heralded the first significant national political impact of one of Australia’s greatest ever politicians and Prime Ministers, Alfred Deakin.

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in 1856, Deakin was something of a political paradox, and has been described as “at once the greatest Australian nationalist and the greatest imperialist in the Australian parliament”.[3] Deakin believed that unswerving loyalty to the British Crown was in no way inconsistent with the aggressive pursuit of Australia’s national interests. Indeed, the latter ought to be regarded as a direct and logical extension of the former.

The fact that Australia boasted three political parties of roughly comparable strength and popularity made it rather difficult for individuals to shine, but Deakin managed this owing to a combination of charisma and great shrewdness. Much of his most telling work took place surreptitiously, when he could utilise his affable personality and charm to best effect. Between 1903 and 1910 he enjoyed three stints as Australian Prime Minister - but more of that in due course.

Deakin compared the Australian political landscape in 1903 to a cricket field on which three teams rather than two were engaged in a match. Being charged with oversight of such a situation was a thankless task, and perhaps not surprisingly Deakin’s first tenure as Prime Minister was brief. In March 1904, following disagreement with informal coalition partners Labour over details of a proposed arbitration bill, he resigned, and was replaced by Labour leader John Watkin.

If the political situation in Australia generated a certain degree of uncertainty as well as undermining to some extent attempts to formulate a clearly definable national identity, much of the optimism spawned by federation in 1901 was still very much in evidence in 1903. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the nation’s ongoing love affair with sport.

For Australian football, the 1903 season was one of optimism and growth. Arguably the most important single development of the year was the establishment in Sydney of the New South Wales Australian Football League comprising no fewer than eleven clubs: East Sydney, North Shore, Paddington, Redfern, Balmain, Sydney, Newtown, YMCA, West Sydney, Ashfield and Alexandria, which finished the inaugural season in that order. The VFL gave the fledgling competition a promotional boost by scheduling the round four fixture on 23rd May between Fitzroy and Collingwood for the Sydney Cricket Ground. The match attracted great public interest, and was watched by a sizeable crowd of 18,000. Later in the season, on 1st August, the experiment was repeated when Geelong and Carlton played their postponed round two fixture in Sydney. There were no other VFL matches on that particular Saturday as the state team was playing South Australia in Adelaide.

Two other games involving visiting VFL clubs were played in Sydney in 1903, with the New South Wales state team taking on, and narrowly losing to, both Fitzroy and Carlton.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, the game’s growth was further emphasised with the formation of the Queensland Football League. However, in 1903 only informal matches took place; the first official premiership would not be contested until 1904. Once organised football in Queensland got underway, however, it arguably progressed more quickly than in New South Wales, despite the fact that the VFL continued to provide the competition in the latter state with a fair amount of financial support. Between 1904 and 1907 the Queensland and New South Wales state teams opposed one another five times, with the Queenslanders triumphing on all but one occasion.


[1] Alec Derwent Hope was born at Cooma, New South Wales, in 1907. He worked as a teacher and vocational psychologist and later became Professor of English at the Canberra University College.

[2] The Australian Labour Party was re-named “Labor” in 1912.

[3] Russel Ward, op cit., page 50.