Australian Rules Football


The first game of Australian Rules football occurred in August of 1858 when Scotch College played Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in a game where composite rules were used to overcome the different rugby type games that were played in England and Scotland at that time.

The following year (on 17 May 1859) the laws for Australian Rules football were drawn up by a committee which had participated in the 1858 match.

As Professor Geoffrey Blainey points out in his book ” A Game of Our Own”, many aspects of rugby were incorporated including the oval ball, the ‘mark’, tackling and drop kicking (no longer featured in the Australian game),

The early games also started with a place kick off from the centre,

Aussie Rules quickly diverged from its rugby cousin because the ‘offside rule’ was rejected by the founders (as in some early Scottish rugby type games).

The rules of Gaelic football were set down by Michael Cusack in Dublin on 1 November 1884 some 25 years after Australian Rules.

The main reason the Australian game diverged away from its rugby type roots was in the non-acceptance of the ‘offside’ rule, i.e. this meant in the Australian Rules the ball could be kicked to a team mate ahead.

(The ‘offside concept’ originated in the ‘rugby rules’ set down at Rugby School, England on 28 August 1845.)

It is evident that Scots were prominent in the game’s beginning’s. The ‘first game’ involved Scottish born players in the Scotch College team and one of the umpires was Glaswegian Dr John Macadam. Alexander Bruce, also from Glasgow, was on the committee which drew up the first rules. The first championship cup for senior competition was the Caledonian Challenge Cup donated by the Scots in 1862 and the famous Essendon Club was founded by the McCracken family from Ayrshire.

The Scots may have had some influence on the non acceptance of the English ‘offside’ concept as it is on record that in 1857 it was voted as ‘rot’ by students at Merchiston College in Edinburgh. (Eventually it was accepted in Scotland when their Rugby Union was formed in 1873).

It is hard to envisage the footballing Scots in Melbourne in the 1850s being in favour of the incorporating the ‘offside’ concept in the new Australian game.

Documents have now been found in the National Archives of Scotland containing membership lists and accounts of an Edinburgh football club, between 1824 and 1841. The Club was known as the John Hope Football Club, and it may be one of the oldest football clubs in the world. The club was dominated by young lawyers and other professionals and also the sons of the Edinburgh legal fraternity and the landed gentry.

These documents were held in four small pocket books and three bundles.

A set of rules were included which indicated it was a ball carrying, running, tackling and kicking game.

From the 1880s to the First World War many (mainly) Scottish Australian medical students flocked to Scottish Universities to complete their medical training. They formed the Edinburgh Australasian Club with plush premises in Archibald Street. They had their own sporting teams including an Australian Rules team which played a match against London University at Balham, London on 12 June 1888, a match which was reported enthusiastically in the Times, the Sportsman and the Scotsman, among others.

Many of the players had been prominent in Victorian clubs and in 1889 it was hoped an Australia team would travel to the UK to meet the Edinburgh Australasian in a series of exhibition games to be played in Yorkshire and Lancashire but the tour was aborted by the VFA.

I also found that in 1857 a carrying, tackling, kicking game took place between Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Academy which has a certain familiarity with the famous 1858 match between Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and Scotch College which took place eight months later.

It also appears that the first recorded description of a football match is David Wedderburn’s description of a match in his Latin work Vocabulary at Aberdeen Grammar School in 1633, in which he describes a handling, tackling kicking game.

During my research I also came across P. Baxter’s book ‘Football in Perthshire’ (1898) which described early village (or ‘folk’) football in the Tay valley in Scotland, up to the 1830s.

I would like to acknowledge Mr. John Williamson who sent me the above information which he gleaned from research for his book Football’s Forgotten Tour ;The Story of the British Australian Rules Tour of 1888: ISBN 0958101809.

The book is indexed and is fully researched with notes on sources.

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