Aussie Rules Football History

Well, thank you Henry.
FWIW, I was invited to be, and was for several years, a member of the Australian Football Heritage Group when I lived in Australia.
The AFHG is the AFL’s official group of historians, most of whom work for the various clubs either in club Halls of Fame or similar.
The thing with being an historian is you need actual evidence of something to declare it as real.
Without evidence you’re linking possibilities and surmising.

Without question there is evidence that Marn Grook was some form of ball game played by Indigenous Australians.
Without question there is evidence that Thomas Wills, one of the founders of Victorian Football (later called Australian Rules) had contact with Indigenous Australians.
There is no evidence that Thomas Wills ever saw Indigenous Australians play Marn Grook. Though it is possible.
There is no evidence that any of the rules Thomas Wills (and his four counterparts, for whom there is no evidence that they had any contact with Marn Grook) had any influence from the game of Marn Grook.

Marn Grook was described as a game where one person kicks a ball high in the air and everyone else scrambles to catch it, with note that leaping high was part of this contest. The reward for catching the ball was to be the person who was the next to kick it.
There was no defined field, no set number of players.
Victorian Football had 10 rules (, all of which can be compared to accepted rules of Rugby Football in 1858.
They being size of field, method of scoring, what happens when the ball goes out of play, and what is not allowed.
This is not to deny the influence of Indigenous Australians on the game as it evolved.
However, as far as the tenuous link of Wills, the Indigenous game of Marn Grook and the initial rules of our game, it is, as historian Geoffrey Blainey once noted, a seductive myth.


You’ve given me a better idea.

Let’s introduce Marngrook to primary schools…


Except there’s basically zero (contemporary) evidence marn grook had any relation to anything.
Much stronger evidence that footy’s inception was influenced by the various English codes (Rugby rules - where Tom wills went to school, and captained the rugby team, harrow rules, what ended up as FA rules etc etc). They were using a rugby ball from 1860 on - ie basically from the start.

@Mero probably has more.


There’s absolutely no evidence of any Marn Grook connection.

However, I find the people that want there to be a connection don’t really accept actual hard evidence and attempt to link unrelated events with each other, across eras, to somehow concoct something they feel comfortable with.
So I don’t bother engaging on the subject any more.

FWIW the descriptions of Marn Grook are nothing like the earliest descriptions of Australian Football.
The only similarity is that the ball was kicked and caught.
I would suggest there has been an influence on the game by Indigenous Australians across various eras, however the initial rules and playing of the game in its earliest days is not amongst those eras.


And one of those explanations, @Mero, was “look at the annual Marn Grook carnival…that game is identical to Aussie Rules”.

Yeah…conclusive evidence that…they’ve grown up playing Aussie Rules. They’ve just claimed Marn Grook as a forerunner of Aussie Rules.


Eyewitness accounts[edit]

Robert Brough Smyth, in an 1878 book, The Aborigines of Victoria , quoted William Thomas, a Protector of Aboriginesin Victoria, who stated that in about 1841 he had witnessed Wurundjeri Aborigines east of Melbourne playing the game.

The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. …The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for that purpose. …The tallest men have the best chances in this game. …Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. …This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise. [10]

The game was a favourite of the Wurundjeri-william clan and the two teams were sometimes based on the traditional totemic moeties of Bunjil (eagle) and Waang (crow).

Tom Wills was exposed to this game as a child and growing up, it seems ridiculous to indicate it took no part in influencing the game of Australian Rules that he was pivotal in codifying.

I think a good question to ask is what game does Marngrook most resemble, even down to having teams called Crows and Eagles … (maybe a bit of tongue in cheek there)

"Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball"

Mero makes it sound incidental that Marn Grook involved kicking and catching, but high marking is probably the most distinctive aspect of our game.


Yeah we’ve all got wiki mate.
They quote one third hand source, written almost four decades after the fact. In historian terms, that’s a step down from “it happened to a friend of a friend of mine”.
The rest of it - some cricket writer apprently knowing who a kid born in 1830 played with first?? - has even less documentation than that.

The bloke was the captain of the rugby team at rugby school FFS. The obvious answer is undoubtedly the right one.

The marn grook stuff is a whole lot of very late, very shaky white washing.
No doubt cos of 150 years of a fairly nasty history of relations with the indigenous people. It’s like the Chinese govt finding sus relics that proves they explored Australia or Mars.


That is a ridiculous point.

I’ve used it to find a primary source, which in historian terms is the gold standard.

But if you like:

Here are the details of the person I quoted:

In 1860 Smyth had become honorary secretary to the Board of Protection for Aborigines and in 1863 a voting member, retiring in 1878. As a Board member Smyth had collected much information on culture and languages of the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria. He had been assisted in this by “guardians” of the Aborigines, and like Curr, also sent out a questionnaire. On his resignation from the Department of Mines he set about finishing his book The Aborigines of Victoria.

“The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong … The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for that purpose … The tallest men have the best chances in this game … Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it … This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.”

Is it more true now that I got the same words from the National Library rather than Wikipedia?

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I never said that Australian rules wasn’t an amalgam of sports, and we did end up with a rugby shaped ball, but he did grow up playing with Aboriginal children in an area Marn Grook was played, and Aussie rules isn’t rugby, so we know there are other ideas involved.

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You’re saying you believe what a ~50 year old saw when he was 11.
I wouldn’t trust an 11 year old on what they did yesterday.

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Probably not an appropriate reference.

I am looking forward to seeing Francis in the firsts next year and take the competition apart.

Apologies for derailing the thread.

LOL. No it wasn’t.
But memories aren’t regarded as as strong evidence as anything written, and (generally) an adult’s word will go over a child’s. Very very old memories of what a kid saw are not a strong basis for anything, IMO.

And have a look at how many different types of games of football were bubbling and brewing in the 19th century. Rugby, Cambridge, Harrow, Eton, winchester. Then different towns and counties had different games, ireland had gaeic and hurling, wales had some bizarre one. And They’re all different.
I’m not sure that catching a ball being a thing would be such a novel invention to a bunch of cricketers.

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But keeping the ball in the air is certainly a feature, with rugby fans having used the term aerial ping-pong to describe our sport.

Anyway, it is possible to argue this infinitely, but I choose to argue that some important features are in common, similarly the rugby ball, the place kick and tackling and goal kicking would reasonably be assumed to come from rugby, and there are certainly novel features like handball, which were probably just invented, so who knows.

If you do accept that Tom Wills did play with Aboriginal kids and it was likely that he was exposed to at least the childrens kick to kick version of Marn Grook, and the less structured free punt kicking and mark part of the game does seem to be incorporated.


Concur with this. Also glad you mentioned Wales- because (Anecdotally) the ‘tackling to win a free kick’ = aka holding the ball- emerged from at least one Welsh tributary.

PS- 24th March at Blacktown will be a wonderfully off-broadway location for A.Francis to kick-off what I predict to be a pretty special year.

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He’s no longer wombat-shaped.

But he will damage you badly if you run into him.

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For my part I enjoy the romanticism of the idea that an indigenous game in some way influenced our modern day indigenous game.

While I accept there may not be sufficient historical evidence to regard this influence as indisputable fact equally there is no evidence which can categorically deny the possibility. There is clearly enough circumstantial evidence to suggest Wills was exposed to indigenous games.

‘Influence’ is a difficult thing to quantify and there is no recipe written down for Aussie rules. It would be silly to think though thatexperiences in our childhood don’t inform and influence our personality, interests and way of thinking in our adult life.

Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would deny the possibility of there being some indigenous influence. Of course saying there is no ‘evidence’ and denying the possibility are two different things.


These issues are interesting - at Dreamtime games, it is often stated “as given” that Australian football has descended from Marngrook. It is all a set of influences and Wills was not the only person influencing the game in it early years. People also debate whether it was based on Gaelic football, but again the evidence is not compelling. It is what it is.

We do know that Wills grew up with significant aboriginal contact in his early years. We don’t know if Marngrook was played in his area. We do know that there were significant interactions between aboriginal tribes over long distances, and so Wills would have grown up in an area where the local aboriginals had contact with others who we do know played Marngrook - so it would be impossible to rule out Marngrook having influence on the formation of Australian football.

Early writings of people who were in contact with Aboriginal groups in the 19th century do report significant structure/interaction/entrepreneurship/sophistication in the way the tribes conducted themselves and how they related to other aboriginal groups. By the late 19th century, this was ignored because it did not suit the “savages” narrative. The late 19th century whitewashing of history makes it hard for us to really understand what the influences were before that. Disclosure: I’m not aboriginal.

Football in the 1850s 60s and 70s was still setting. Each school had its own rules. Slowly groupings formed and we had rugby - then later league and union, association football, gridiron and our own game develop their own take on what football could be. Marnbrook, I think, had an influence, but also so did many things. In the end, we ended up with a great game. When it is played at a high standard, it is absolutely fantastic to watch.

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The bloke in the office next to me is an historian who is a prolific publisher. He says history has nothing to do with finding out the facts as we can never know what really happened. History, according to him, is just a comparison of different people’s accounts ie he said this, but she said that; and that’s as far as we ever get.

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It’s pretty unlikely Francis invented Marngook. Not outside the realms of possibility, but unlikely nonetheless.