Explore the History of australian football

Sons of the South, aroused at last!

Sons of the South are few!

But your ranks grow longer and deeper fast

And ye shall swell to an army vast

And free from the wrongs of the North and past

The land that belongs to you.

​                                                                          - Henry Lawson [1]

One might be forgiven for imagining that Russia’s crushing military defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905 would have been well received in Australia. For decades, Russia had been Britain’s - and hence, by extension, Australia’s - traditional foe, while Japan was an important British ally. Few Australians gleaned any solace from this, however. For one thing, the Japanese people were perceived as being “the wrong colour”, and hence “inferior”. For another, Japan was much closer than Russia to Australia, and ally of Britain or not its future aspirations could not readily be predicted. Moreover, if push came to shove, in the event of Australia’s and Japan’s interests coming into conflict, how might Britain be expected to react? There were some Australians who believed that the importance to Britain of Japanese military support in the Pacific region would override any feelings of fraternity it might harbour with what, when all was said and done, was really only a minor colonial outpost, almost entirely bereft of political, economic or military significance.

It was probably for this reason above any other that Australia began, for the first time, to examine its own military strength, and conclude that it needed bolstering. On 5th September 1905, in Sydney, the Australian National Defence League was formed. Comprising a broad cross-section of Australian society and covering the entire political spectrum it rather surprisingly arrived at a consensus when announcing its principal aim:

Universal compulsory training (military or naval) of the boyhood and manhood of Australia for purposes of National Defence, the military training is to be on the lines of the Swiss system, and the naval training of the British Royal Naval Reserve, modified to suit the local circumstances.[2]

The National Defence League published a monthly propaganda periodical known as “The Call” which was distributed free of charge to all federal politicians. It had a discernible effect, as over the ensuing years Australia’s military capacity, particularly its naval strength, increased quite considerably. In addition, conscription of sorts was introduced in 1907. This involved all able-bodied men aged between eighteen and twenty undertaking two to three weeks of compulsory annual training in various military arts. Had Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, appointed after the elections of July 1905, been more supportive of the idea, conscription might both have been brought in earlier, and involved longer periods of compulsory activity.

To the average Australian, however, particularly in the southern states, the rights and wrongs of conscription were of only peripheral interest, with the activities that garnered most attention taking place every Saturday afternoon between April and early October on the football field. The game by now was really flourishing. In the VFL, for instance, home and away matches attracted a record average attendance of 88,000, almost 15,000 more than in 1904. Football was also undergoing noteworthy growth in Tasmania, with the Hobart-based Southern Tasmanian Football Association now comprising a record seven clubs: North Hobart, Argyle, Standfast, Glenorchy, Sandy Bay, South Hobart and Newtown. North Hobart won the flag, but was beaten by northern premier North Launceston for the state title, emphasising that standards were improving all over the state.

In Melbourne, Collingwood was the dominant team during the home and away rounds, topping the ladder with 15 wins and just a couple of losses, to Fitzroy by 3 points and Essendon by 13 points. However, in the finals the Magpies performed poorly, losing their semi final to Carlton and the challenge final to Fitzroy. The Maroons thus won their fourth VFL premiership making them the most successful club in the league up to that point.

After the body blow it suffered in 1897 when eight leading clubs broke away to form the VFL, the VFA had gradually recovered, and by 1905 was a vibrant, healthy competition with its own distinctive identity. It boasted ten clubs - two more than the VFL - and attendances were respectable, much higher than in the SAFA and WAFA for instance. The 1905 challenge final between Richmond and North Melbourne attracted 20,000 patrons, just 10,000 fewer than attended the VFL challenge final.

In the WAFA the premiership went to West Perth in somewhat controversial circumstances as is discussed in greater detail elsewhere. The Cardinals also captured the state flag with an 8.10 (58) to 4.13 (37) defeat of Goldfields premier Kalgoorlie Railways. The WAFA competition was increased to seven clubs with the admission of Midland Junction.

North Adelaide was the dominant team in South Australia, claiming the premiership with resounding wins in the finals over first Norwood, and then Port Adelaide.

In the so-called “minor states” growth was negligible, but at least the game now had a toehold. Sydney won the New South Wales premiership, defeating YMCA by the narrowest of margins, while the Queensland flag went to City who trounced Valley by 51 points.

Vying with football for the sports headlines during the 1905 football season was news of the Australian cricket tour of England. Captained by Joe Darling, the Aussies lost only three times in thirty-five matches, but two of the defeats came in tests, and they lost the series 2-0. Disappointment in Australia was considerable, particularly as England had captured the Ashes against the odds on their previous tour of Australia in 1903-4.


[1] Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson (17 June 1867 – 2 September 1922) was an Australian writer and poet. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia's "greatest short story writer". He was the son of the poet, publisher and feminist Louisa Lawson.

[2] William Morris Hughes vol. 1, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964, page 221,

1905: A Call to Arms