19th Century Timeline - the Growth of Australian Rules Football around the World

Initially compiled by Brett Northey from various sources, maintained by WFN editors

Most organised codes of football around the world began to be formalized in the 19th century, before which the various forms tended to overlap. The distinct game of Australian Rules football began to take shape in the 1850s, in Melbourne in the British colony of Victoria, which would go on to be a state of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 (the year of Australian federation). By the end of the 19th century the game had spread to most of the country and was already the primary sport in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. The following is a selective Timeline of the key dates in the development of Australian football in the 19th century.

pre-19th Century Many forms of football played in communities, with games often involving one half of a town against the other, moving the ball over great distances for hours on end. Examples include the games played on the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland and a violent contest in Rome. There were also the ancient Gaelic sports, and Marn Grook, an Aboriginal game, played in south-eastern Victoria.


The various versions of football were under pressure to follow uniform rules in England as people travelled more and teams from different areas competed but used a variety of rules. Interestingly one source indicates the name foot-ball may not be due to kicking with the foot but to the aristocracy playing sports on horseback and the commoners on foot. The many football games were reducing down to several smaller sets of agreed on rules and the separate sports we recognise today were emerging. The pre-cursors to Rugby and to Association Football (also now called soccer) were taking on their distinct forms. It also seems likely something vaguely resembling modern Australian Football was played in Victoria (and possibly elsewhere including South Australia) - but as in England rules continued to vary from region to region (as they did for many more decades).
1845 Rugby rules officially codified at Rugby School England.
1858 On July 10 Tom Wills wrote his famous letter to the sport weekly Bells Life in Melbourne requesting that foot-ball clubs be formed to help the cricketers keep their fitness in the winter. In the late 20th century this year would become increasingly considered the founding of the code of Australian Football (variously referred to as Victorian Rules football, Australian Rules football, Australasian Rules football then Australian Football, though colloquially still Australian Rules, Aussie Rules or simply footy, or AFL, much to the frustration of many who point out it is a sport not a league).
  Scotch College vs Melbourne Grammar on August 7 - start of first game recognised by historians (though almost certainly just the next step in the game's evolution to set rules). It was played over three Saturdays on Richmond Paddock near the MCG.
1859 First clubs formed in Victoria - including Melbourne and Geelong.
  First known written version of the rules, drafted by officials of the Melbourne Football Club on May 17 - some interpret this event as making Australian Rules the second oldest football code behind Rugby.
1860s First known clubs in Tasmania and South Australia (original Adelaide FC thought to be formed in 1860).
  Game taken to New Zealand's South Island by Victorian Gold miners through until the 1870's
1863 First Soccer rules officially drawn up on December 8 - it would be decades before the sport went on to become the dominant football code worldwide.
1866 Running with the ball and bouncing it every 5/6 yards officially codified. This rule takes the game on a different path to the other football codes, combined with the no throwing the ball rule in 1859.
1869 First University American football (not Australian football - included for comparison) game played on November 6 in New Jersey.
1877 South Australian Football Association formed (renamed the SANFL in 1927).
  Victorian Football Association (VFA) formed.
  Rugby No 2 Oval ball now official, Round Ball banned.
  Number of players on ground reduced to 20.
1870s Football spreads to Western Australia with some goldminers and garrison soldiers from Victoria.
1880 New South Wales Australian Football Association formed.
1880s Over 300 clubs playing in Queensland (Rugby Union and League yet to arrive in force).
1884 The first Gaelic Football rules drawn up in Dublin. This throws into serious doubt that our game evolved from that sport, although an ancient game of Gaelic football had previously existed. Since 2000 researchers now believe that some of Australian football's rules were incorporated into that game. An oval ball was used early on, and also the four field posts either end, without the crossbar at times. Quirks of history may have been all that prevented the two codes being the same.
1885 The West Australian Football Association formed, but Rugby was also popular.
1888 A touring English Rugby team in Australia to play Rugby in NSW, QLD and NZ also play a series of nineteen Australian Rules matches in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and attract huge interest. All subsequent attempts to take an Australian Rules team to England and hold follow up exhibition matches failed.
  There is now evidence that an Edinburgh University team (perhaps mostly Australians studying there) travelled to London and played a local University in a game of Victorian Rules in the same year. If the VFA had been successful in getting a tour to the UK underway, they intended to link up with the Edinburgh team and tour holding demo matches. There were a lot of Colonial Victorians studying at the Edinburgh Uni at the time.
1893 In New Zealand, as many as 43 clubs in existence.
1894 Major Gold finds in Western Australia. These events brought thousands of gold seekers from Victoria (became almost 30% of WA population in the period) bringing Australian football with them. The game became the dominant code on the Goldfields and in Perth pushing aside Rugby in this period. The first 2 clubs formed on the WA goldfields were at Coolgardie in this year.
1895 Birth of Rugby League when twenty two Northern England Rugby Clubs breakaway to form their own comp, also played amended rules from Rugby Union, and reduced players on ground to thirteen. Became fully professional game.
1896/97 Victorian Football League (VFL) formed, splitting off from the VFA, leaving behind the weaker clubs, saying they were not exploiting interstate/overseas potential of the game.
  Many rule changes implemented by the VFL - number of players on ground reduced by 2 to 18. Behinds included in the score for the first time. "Little mark" abolished.

See also History of World Footy - 20th Century and History of World Footy - 21st Century