As early as 1841, there is documented evidence of “foot-ball” being played in metropolitan and country Victoria as well as mention of early matches in Adelaide (1843) and southern Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). While the exact rules being played in these matches are unknown they may have shared similarities and influences.
In 1858 English public school football games began to be played in Melbourne and surrounding districts. The earliest known such match was played on 15 June 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School on the St Kilda foreshore.
A letter by Tom Wills was published in Bell’s Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle on 10 July 1858, calling for a “foot-ball club”, or some other “athletic game”, with a “code of laws” to keep cricketers fit during winter. This letter is regarded by many historians as being a catalyst for the development of a new code of football in 1859 today known as Australian football.
On 31 July, a knock-a-bout match at Yarra Park was played between a “St Kilda scratch team” and “Melbourne scratch team”. Trees were used for goal posts and there were no boundaries and the match lasted from 1 p.m. until dark. There were no rules and fights frequently broke out. Melbourne being a relatively young city, the majority of the early players were migrants and the media of the time noted that participants of each nationality played the game their own distinctive way: the English played in a fashion that resembled rugby football, the Scots played recklessly, and the Irish played in a fashion that resembled the Irish sport of Gaelic football. How the Welsh played is unknown.
Another significant milestone in the sport’s development was a match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, which began on 7 August 1858 at Richmond Park, was umpired by Wills and Macadam, and which also involved Scotch College headmaster Thomas H. Smith. A second day of play took place on 21 August and a third, and final, day on 4 September. While the full rules that were used is unknown, some details of the match survived. It was played with a round ball, the distance between the goals was approximately half a mile (approximately four times longer than the modern Melbourne Cricket Ground playing surface), there were 40 players per side and one goal each side was scored with the game being declared a draw. The two schools have competed annually ever since for the Cordner-Eggleston Cup.