Explore the History of australian football

By the end of 1908 the fundamental ideas of the Liberals and Labor (sic.) had been written into the statute book. Australia, as they saw it, was to be a liberal, bourgeois society in which the materially weak, the aged, the lame and the blind were to be protected against the laws of supply and demand by a benevolent though austere and frugal state.” (A Short History of Australia by Manning Clark, page 221)  

Alfred Deakin’s administration came to an end in November 1908 when Labour withdrew their support from a proposed Bill which would have made conscription (among males) universally compulsory. Andrew Fisher was installed as Deakin’s successor, but like every Australian Prime Minister he presided over a minority government – of which more in due course. 
Most white Australians were relatively comfortably off in 1908, with more time, and funds than had ever previously been the case. Insecurities over possible Japanese expansionist ambitions were greatly allayed by the visits to Sydney and Melbourne of the American Battle Fleet, alluded to in 1907: Consolidation and Stability. “Newspapers reported that greater and more enthusiastic crowds thronged the streets than on any previous occasion in the nation’s history, except for that of the Commonwealth’s inaugural celebrations.”[1] Australians re-christened the Battle Fleet “The Great White Fleet”, and articles in newspapers reflected the widespread public view that its might was a tangible expression of the superiority of “the Anglo Saxon Race”, which needless to say included Americans (indigenous peoples, blacks, hispanics, Asians and so forth conveniently and unquestioningly excluded). 

It seemed that almost everyone was in an exultant frame of mind - except for some of the visiting American sailors, 221 of whom deserted. Many later rose to prominence in Australian society. 

Many lovers of sport could perhaps be forgiven for regarding the most noteworthy event of 1908 as the birth at Cootamundra New South Wales on 27th August of possibly the greatest batsman in cricket history, Donald George Bradman.

The generally buoyant mood in the nation produced a noticeably greater appetite leisure, particularly sport. Interest and participation in football, cricket, cycling, rugby, tennis and boxing were at an all time high. Given the large amounts of money to be gleaned from  - both legally and illegally – from this burgeoning passion for sport it should come as no surprise that men of an entrepreneurial bent began to roll up their sleeves and prepare to make a killing. Perhaps the two most prominent of these were Melbourne “larrikin” John Wren, and Hugh McIntosh, who had grown up in Broken Hill, and was later based in Sydney. 

Wren’s first success as a speculator had come in 1890 when he earned considerable winnings after backing Carbine to win the Melbourne Cup. After that, he built up an illegal gambling business in a Collingwood backstreet which slowly went from strength to strength. Wren’s strategy involved bribery and corruption rather than physical violence (or threats thereof), and in time he was able to number in his pay members of both state and federal parliaments, and even some policemen. He lived until 1953, by which time he had achieved great influence with both the Labor Party and Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop, Dr Daniel Mannix. He had also reinvested many of his profits in the promotion of various sports. 

McIntosh was regarded as an even tougher figure than Wren. He made his first fortune selling meat pies, which he bought from various local bakeries and then sold on, at a profit, to Sydney’s sportsgrounds, beaches, race courses, and so forth. In 1908 he was behind a number of vaudeville shows and sporting contests, to which end he had erected a huge, roofless, timber boxing stadium at Rushcutter’s Bay. Capable of accommodating 17,000 spectators it was, at the time, the biggest stadium of its kind in the world, and on 24th August 1908 it enjoyed the most prestigious “christening” imaginable, when it played host to a world heavyweight championship bout between Canadian Tommy Burns and Australian Bill Squires. A full house witnessed reigning champion Burns retain his title by flooring Squires in the thirteenth round. 

Burns, as has been noted, was nominally world champion, but  in 1908 the world championship was only contested by white boxers. Their black counterparts had their own unofficial championship, but blacks were strictly forbidden from fighting whites. The black world champion in 1908 was Jack Johnson from the USA, and it was arguably the biggest coup of McIntosh’s career to bring both Burns and Johnson together in the ring to contest what could justifiably be regarded as the first undisputed heavyweight world championship. 

Apparently, other promoters had previously tried, without success, to pair the two. McIntosh succeeded where his predecessors had failed by the simple expedient of offering more money than either man could refuse: a guaranteed purse of £6,000 to Burns, and £1,000 to Jackson. (McIntosh was no anti-racist; this was a purely business venture.) 

It was the most widely publicised prize fight in history and, to the horror of most of those watching, Johnson battered Burns so ruthlessly that in the fourteenth round  the police intervened and stopped the bout, fearing for the white man’s life. Johnson was perhaps not as wealthy as Burns, but he was the undisputed champion of the world. The next day, in Bendigo, Methodist preacher Rev. Henry Worrall condemned the fight as a “carnival of savagery”[2]. He went further, suggesting that the result might be seen as posing a real threat to Australia’s future: 

God grant that the defeat on Saturday may not be a sullen and solemn prophecy that Australia is to be outclassed and finally vanquished by these dark-skinned people.[3] 

Another carnival took place in 1908, although the savagery, if indeed there was any, was more muted. In Melbourne in August all six Australian states plus New Zealand contested the inaugural Australasian Football Championships. Technically, it was also the only time that such a competition could be said to have taken place, as no subsequent championships involved New Zealand. The competition was referred to as a “carnival” because it was meant to be a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the game, but the Melbourne public, then as now, was not really interested in the game as played in other states (and countries), and attendances were meagre. Victoria’s consummate triumph in the championships doubtless only served to reinforce most Melbournians’ sense of superiority. 

Most football supporters in Melbourne, once again then as now, were only truly interested in the fortunes of the club they had chosen or been destined to support, and in 1908, as in both of the two preceding seasons, it was followers of Carlton who had most to savour. The Blues' only reversal during the 18 match home and away series came in round 12 away at Essendon. They then proceeded to trounce St Kilda in a semi final for the second year running, and then outlasted The Same Old in the final in front of an immense crowd of 50,261. It was a truly dour match, with the two sides managing only 8 goals between them, and Carlton registering just a single behind in the second half. Final scores were Carlton 5.5 (35) defeated Essendon 3.8 (26).

There were two new sets of supporters to be seen at league grounds in 1908 as both Richmond (ex-VFA) and University (formerly of the Metropolitan Football Association). The latter's involvement in the "big time' would be brief, but Richmond would go on to be a major force for many years.

​Following Richmond's departure the VFA added two new clubs in the shape of Brighton and Northcote. The premiership went to Footscray, who accounted for Brunswick by 4 straight kicks in the decisive match. The Association reduced the number of players in a team from 18 to 17 this season.

The 1908 SAFL season saw West Adelaide reign supreme for the first ever time. The red and blacks did so at the expense of the previous year's premier, Norwood, which had finished the minor round at the head of the ladder. West therefore had to defeat the Reflags twice, which they did by // points in the final, and // points a week later in the challenge final. They went on to overcome Carlton on the Adelaide Oval in a match designated as being for the championship of Australia - at least if you happened to reside on the South Australian side of the border. Most Victorians regarded the superiority of their own premiership team over all others as a 'given' , and saw the West-Carlton match as a meaningless sideshow.

​What the football supporters of Western Australia thought about the West-Carlton match is unknown, but one suspects that they felt - with some justification - a little aggrieved at the non-participation of their own premiership team, East Fremantle. After all, at that year's Melbourne carnival the Western Australian representative team had finished second behind Victoria, defeating South Australia twice in the process. (A photo of Western Australia's 1908 carnival team is shown at the foot of this page.) Moreover, the East Fremantle team of 1908 was perhaps the most dominant in the club's history up to that point, losing only 3 home and away matches and keeping opponents Perth goalless in the final.

​There was a dramatic end to the TFL[4] season when North Hobart and Leroy drew the premiership decider. North Hobart won the replay by 4 points in front of a crowd estimated at approximately 8,000, which had it been officially confirmed would have been a record attendance at a Tasmanian football match. The Sydney premiership went to YMCA and the Brisbane flag was won for the second successive year by Locomotives.



[1} The History of Australia in the Twentieth Century by Russel Ward, page 63. 

[2] Ibid., page 66. 

[3] Ibid, page 67. 

[4] The Southern Tasmanian Football Association was renamed the Tasmanian Football League this year.

​1908: Carnivals and Corruption