Explore the History of australian football

"Now, fresh from foreign travel, from a wider knowledge of the beauties of the old world, he felt doubly alien; and, with his eyes still full of greenery and lushness, he could seals beauty than ever in its dun and arid landscape.-It was left to a later generation to discover this: to those who, with their mother's milk, drank in a love of sunlight and space; of inimitable blue distances and gentian-blue skies. To them, the country's very shortcomings were, in time, to grow dear: the scanty, ragged foliage; the unearthly stillness of the bush; the long, red roads running inflexible as ruled lines towards a steadily receding horizon ..... and engendering in him who travelled them a lifelong impatience with hedge-bound twists and turns. To their eyes, too, quickened by emotion, it was left to descry the colours in the apparent colourlessness: the upturned earth that showed red, white, puce, gamboge; the blue in the grey of the new leafage; the geranium red of young scrub; the purple blue depths of the shadows. Too know, too, in exile, a rank nostalgia for the scent of the aromatic foliage; for the honey fragrance of the wattle; the perfume that rises hot and heavy as steam from vast paddocks of flowering lucerne - even for the sting and tang of countless miles of bush ablaze.(The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, page 585.) [1]

The leaders of each of Australia’s main political parties enjoyed, or perhaps a more accurate word would be endured, a stint as the country’s Prime Minister in 1904. At the start of the year, Protectionist Alfred Deakin was the incumbent, but on 27th April he was replaced by Labour’s Chris Watson, who in turn gave way to George Reid of the Free Traders on 18th August. The main problem which all three men faced was that they presided over minority governments, and were reliant on a measure of cross-party support in order to enact any legislation. Such support proved virtually impossible to obtain. Reid managed to see out the year, but he in turn felt compelled to step down midway through 1905, when Deakin again became Prime Minister. The trend of Prime Ministers presiding over minority administrations would continue for the foreseeable future, however.

Australia’s original capital city was Melbourne, but it was never intended that this would remain the case indefinitely. In 1904 the federal government formalised a recommendation made the previous year by a Royal Commission that the town of Dalgety in New South Wales be established as the nation’s capital. It proved a highly contentious choice, however, not least because it lay some distance from the main Sydney to Melbourne rail link. In 1908 plans to make Dalgety Australia’s capital were dispensed with and it was decided instead to construct an entirely new settlement for that purpose. Construction of the settlement in question, which was named Canberra, was meticulously planned, and commenced in 1913. The federal legislature was relocated to Canberra on 9 May 1927.

Australia’s need for a new capital city derived from the intense rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest cities in the nation. Canberra may technically have been situated within the geographical borders of New South Wales, but it was officially deemed to lie within the boundaries of a completely new, neutral area. The Australian Capital Territory is a small, self-governing enclave located 280 kilometres south-west of Sydney and 660 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Virtually all of its approximately 380,000 inhabitants reside in Canberra, which is the Territory’s only city.

Beyond the shores of Australia several important events took place in 1904. Great Britain and France signed an agreement known as the “entente cordiale” which would prove to have enormous significance ten years later on the outbreak of the Great War. Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest, was completed, while another major construction project, the joining of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via the Panama Canal, commenced. A major war between Japan and Russia broke out, marking Japan’s emergence as a major military power, a status that was emphasised within a year by its ultimate victory. The nature of the conflict presaged in many ways the style of warfare which many Australians would experience at first hand in Europe between 1914 and 1918.

The Sydney-Melbourne rivalry alluded to above was, and is, manifested in many ways, with sport being one of the most prominent. In cricket, regular fixtures between New South Wales and Victoria commenced during the 1855-6 season, and rapidly became the most avidly contested first class matches in the country.[2] When it came to football, however, the two states could not even agree on which code was preferable. Most of New South Wales favoured the English game of rugby, whilst in Victoria devotion to the locally devised Australian code was obsessive and unwavering. The Victorian Football League attracted the highest attendances of any sporting competition in the land. The second tier Victorian Football Association was also extremely popular, while other hotbeds of the game such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Sale and Mildura were scattered all over the state.

Compared to Australian football in its various strongholds, rugby in Sydney was a somewhat lukewarm affair, generating considerably less in the way of fervour, revenue and newsprint. Whereas Australian football attracted passionate interest from all sections of society, rugby tended to be rather elitist. Indeed, it was arguably this very fact which had contributed more than anything else to Australian football’s failure to gain more than a minor toehold in the eastern states. As the game of the establishment, rugby was aggressively and widely promoted, whereas Australian football was actively undermined. A key example of this is that local Australian football clubs in Sydney were prohibited from playing matches at enclosed venues, and thereby making spectators pay for admission. From 1903 onwards the VFL, and later other state controlling bodies, endeavoured to alleviate the dire financial state in which the code was forced to operate by regularly sending clubs to Sydney to engage in exhibition matches. Indeed, as noted above, in 1903 the VFL staged two official premiership matches in Sydney, and a third such fixture - Essendon versus Melbourne on 28th May - took place in 1904.

Such efforts had little long-term effect in raising the profile of Australian football in Sydney, and it was much the same in most of the rest of New South Wales as well as in Queensland. When, in 1908, a new version of rugby, known as “northern union” or rugby league, arrived it quickly superseded the established code of rugby - henceforward known as rugby union - in popularity, and the status of Australian football correspondingly diminished still further.

In Melbourne in 1904, however, Australian football was tantamount to a religion, with such places as the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Victoria Park, Brunswick Street and Princes Park its cathedrals. The standard of play was improving discernibly each year, and teams were developing increasingly sophisticated tactics. The game was becoming altogether more professional, and even though payments to players were officially prohibited there is little doubt that many clubs were surreptitiously circumventing this injunction.


[1] Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, (3 January 1870 – 20 March 1946), known by her pen name Henry Handel Richardson, was an Australian author who wrote half a dozen novels between 1908 to 1930.

[2] The first ever first class cricket match in Australia took place in Launceston in 1851, with home colony Tasmania defeating Victoria by 3 wickets.

1904: A Political Merry-Go-Round