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The history of the AFL
While many may be unaware, Aussie Rules was formally established in 1858 with the original

concept being organised by a small but professional group of cricket players. The primary purpose was to maintain order, keep up good morale within teams and maintain physical performance during the cricket off season.

However, how the actual components of the game initially came into being is still part of a mystery, as many believe it exhibits elements of Gaelic Football, which was codified some 30 years later. Others have come to the conclusion it was loosely based on Rugby-football while many believe Indigenous Australians may have inspired many aspects of the game with their traditional game of Marn Grook.

As we celebrate the game in its modern incarnation, it is considered one of the most physically demanding and elite sports played around the world. Former three-time premiership player and captain of the Hawthorn Football Club, Don Scott said ‘Football is life in a microcosm, you’re going to have ups and downs all the time, but you’ve just got to weather it.’

Today the Australian Football League (AFL) is ranked as one of the most watched sports from around the world with an average crowd attendance of well over 30,000. Australia is fortunate to have a sport with such a strong following and a rich history and eclectic tradition.

While the game previously came under the Victorian Football Association (VFA) established in 1877, it was the Victorian Football League (VFL) that would have the greatest influence on the sport which commenced its inaugural season in 1897. The VFL initially comprised eight clubs which had broken away from the VFA – Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne, Carlton and St Kilda. Following this transition, the VFL incorporated another exciting element into the evolving game and league. This was the concept of an annual finals tournament that would ultimately decide the premier team and club for each season or better known today as the Grand Final.

Changi Brownlow MedalThe front and back of the original ‘Changi Brownlow Medal’. Photo courtesy of the Australian War MemorialToday the AFL Grand Final is revered for its intensity and pre-eminent level of competitiveness, highlighting players’ aptitude and physical capability. The outcome from the Grand Final is a highly celebrated occasion, show-casing the premiership team and its players, who rightly claim victory by earning their place in AFL history.

It is worthwhile to mention that during World War I and II, both the VFA and VFL were heavily affected by war casualties. The VFL continued to play throughout the war periods, but were restricted to clubs voluntarily participating and with their remaining members being available to play.

An interesting alteration occurred in 1915 with the St Kilda Football Club changing their traditional colours from red, white and black which mirrored the imperial German colours. Temporary changes were imposed to make the colours align with Belgium’s national colours of red, yellow and black, who were allies with Australia. This alteration was also made in part to support St Kilda players who were serving throughout Europe.

There have also been some fascinating accounts brought to light from Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) particularly during WWII, where competitions were held in Singapore and Germany.

One interesting account recalled from WWII was from Singapore, at the Changi prison. Numerous teams bearing VFL club names were organised by POWs and the teams played each other for a period over many months for a few years with their own equivalent Brownlow Medal, known as the ‘Changi Brownlow Medal’, being presented to the ‘Best and Fairest’ player. It is believed the final game decided between ‘Victoria’ versus the ‘Rest’ (remaining Australian team) at Changi attracted up to 10,000 spectators. At the end of the game, the Changi Brownlow Medal was bestowed upon Peter Chitty, a player representing the Victorian side who had also played for St Kilda in the VFL before the war.

As the 160 year anniversary passes since the inception of Australian Rules Football, there has been an immense diversity of personalities, players and members identified throughout the various clubs. Many memorable players have belonged to the Craft and have made a profound contribution to the oldest Australian game and more recently, growing international sport.

Perhaps one of the most revered players and contributors to the game was Charles Brownlow. Following his short playing career for Geelong, Brownlow vested many of his finest years as an administrator for Geelong, the VFL and served as caretaker president of the VFL from 1918–19. He became president of the Australian Football Council in 1919, serving in that position until his death in 1924. Today, the Brownlow Medal which was established and first awarded in 1924 is regarded as the highest honour bestowed upon an AFL player/s for ‘Best and Fairest’ conduct throughout each football season. Charles Brownlow (1861–1924) was initiated into Lodge Unity and Prudence No 801 in 1885.

SirDouglasNicholls Sir Douglas Nicholls, the first Indigenous Australian AFL player.An entrepreneur from a renowned and successful family of Australian manufacturers, Tom Sherrin would continue to follow in the footsteps of his forebears and make a lasting impression on the modern game played today. Sherrin, great nephew of the legendary Thomas William Sherrin, inventor of the Sherrin football assumed control over the family business in 1942 and made the Sherrin brand a household name. Tom Sherrin devoted more than thirty years of service to the Collingwood Football Club, serving in numerous roles and had the privilege to serve as President of the Collingwood Football Club from 1963 to 1974.

The Sherrin football was originally created from a rugby football by the original founder T W Sherrin in 1879. He envisioned that by designing the ball with rounder points at each end, it would make it both easier to bounce and kick.

The outcome of this innovation and insight would revolutionise Aussie Rules football in its formative years and establish the acclaimed Sherrin brand that is still used at the top AFL competition level today. The creation and legend of the Sherrin football and complete family history can be traced back to its origins in 1879. While the original company would eventually be sold in 1972 to Spalding Australia by Sherrin’s heir Tom Sherrin, Russell Athletic would later take over Spalding Australia who continues to manufacture Sherrin footballs in Scoresby, Victoria. However, Syd Sherrin (fourth generation) has maintained family tradition and continues to craft the original Aussie Rules football in Williamstown, Victoria. The method includes hand sewing and personalising each football, using the same techniques T W Sherrin used to make his first football in 1879. Tom Sherrin (1917–78) was initiated into Lodge Bateman No 446 in 1943.

While another legendary player of the great game who would later become an inspirational figure in the annals of AFL history and a national treasure, was Sir Douglas Nicholls. Nicholls is regarded as one of the first Indigenous players to play VFA/VFL and was an altogether remarkable individual. Nicholls despite being of a relatively small build was admired for his speed, energy and tenacious ability on field. He went on to play for Fitzroy at the VFL level and was the first Aboriginal player to be selected to play for the Victorian interstate team. Today, the Indigenous round being annually celebrated in round eleven is held in his honour, with the round bearing his title ‘Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round’, highlighting the cultural influence and importance the Indigenous players have and continue to contribute to the AFL from all around Australia.

Nicholls was a Christian minister, social worker with Aboriginal people who pioneered for reconciliation and was Governor of South Australia. Nicholls was named Victorian ‘Father of the Year’ in 1962 and was notably the first Aboriginal to be knighted. Sir Douglas Nicholls (1906-1988) was initiated into Lodge Antioch No 570 in 1954.

The VFL has celebrated 120 years since its establishment and today an ever exciting prospect and opportunity awaits as the game continues to expand and enter new dimensions.

References:

Kent Henderson, 300 Famous Australian Freemasons 2016.

Syd Sherrin, Sherrin The Family Behind the Football 2010.

www.awm.gov.au/collection/REL32808/ australianfootball.com

Special Thanks:

UGL NSW & ACT, Grand Librarian, RW Bro Robert Taylor.

UGL VIC, Historical Collections Manager, Samantha Fabry.

UGL VIC, Education Officer, W Bro Iain Taylor.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, December 2019, pages 26 to 28.

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