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Cracking the code: Why Western Australia abandoned rugby for Australian rules football in 1885

Cowan, Sean (2015) Cracking the code: Why Western Australia abandoned rugby for Australian rules football in 1885. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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This study of the early years of football in Western Australia investigates the reasons for the abandonment of the Rugby Union rules and the adoption of the new Victorian rules in 1885. Through an examination of the newspapers of the day – which are the only known primary material concerning those events – it will be established that the people of Western Australia were not wedded to a particular code before the 1880s. This changed in 1882 when the first clubs were formed and the Rugby Union rules were adopted.

Advocates for the Victorian rules were immediately active, claiming the British game was on its way out elsewhere because it was too violent and not entertaining to watch. As a result, playing that code would rule W.A. out of intercolonial competition in the future, they argued. The ad hoc nature of the matches played in Perth did little to convince people that football was moving in the right direction under the Rugby Union rules, while the footballers who enjoyed playing under them were also able to embrace the Victorian rules because the two codes were not as dissimilar in 1885 as they are today.

While historians have previously named Bill Bateman, Harry Herbert and Hugh Dixson as being responsible for forcing the adoption of the new rules, the situation was actually much more complex. Each club voted separately on whether to play under the Victorian or Rugby Union rules in 1885 and there were lobbyists for the new code at each club. Herbert’s importance to the decision taken by the Fremantle Football Club has been over-stated by previous historians, while Charles Bishop has never been recognised for his efforts at the Perth Rovers Football Club.

Migration from the eastern colonies and social class were also factors in the change. Before 1885, the homogeneity and insularity of the groups of footballers at each club had weighed against the adoption of the Victorian rules. At the crucial juncture in 1885, however, a group of South Australians, led by Dixson and supported by working class West Australians, formed a new football club. This tipped the balance in favour of the new code.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Sturma, Michael
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