Barrie Robran, one of the great South Australian players of Australian football, honoured by a statue at the southern entrance to Adelaide Oval.

by choosing it over rugby at a meeting in 1877


FOOTBALL IN THE 21st CENTURY SENSE IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA still means the Australian-rules game or AFL (Australian Football League).

The South Australian Football Association was formed at the Prince Alfred Hotel, next to Adelaide Town Hall, in 1877. Now called the South Australian National Football League, it is the oldest continuous AFL competition in Australia.

That meeting in 1877 also decided the future of Australian football by opting for the game's first set of uniform rules.

John Acraman is acknowledged as the father of South Australian football by bringing over the first footballs and goalposts from Victoria, where the game was invented, in 1859. He set up the original Adelaide Football Club.

But the Australian football being played in South Australia before 1877 was more like rugby. 

At the 1877 meeting, Adelaide club captain Noel Twopenny argued that the South Australia Football Association should adopt bylaws of Sydney Football Association – a rugby group. Twopenny argued for running with the ball – a crucial characteristic of rugby.

But future South Australian premier Charles Cameron Kingston, representing the South Adelaide club, favoured the Victorian practice of players having to bounce the ball every five yards.

Kingston argued that Victorians had no problem bouncing the ball and that South Australia aligning with Victoria was essential to setting up intercolonial football. Kingston had every Victorian rule endorsed – with one South Australian rule added: no pushing in the back.

Thus South Australia was instrumental in shaping the Australian game and ensuring it continued as a entity.



in South Australians making the decision to adopt Victorian rules

John Acraman brings Victorian-rules football to South Australia after meeting Henry Harrison

Prominent English-born early businessman John Acraman is credited with bringing Australian football to South Australia. Acraman’s diverse business interests, after arriving in the colony in 1846, included coastal and River Murray shipping, insurance, pastoral management and agents for Guinness Stout. He was on the board of governors of St Peter's College, a collector of fine arts and one of the oldest members of the Adelaide Club. Acraman also was a keen sportsman and later an official of the South Australian cricket, rowing and lacrosse associations. In 1860 at Adelaide’s Globe Inn, Acraman, with William Fullarton and Robert Cussen, met Henry Harrison who, with Tom Wills, was “father of the Victorian game” of football. Acraman imported five (round) footballs to South Australia from Victoria and is reputed to have erected the first set of goal posts used in the colony. The original Adelaide Football Club, founded on April 26, 1860, at the Globe Inn was South Australia’s Australian (then Victorian)-rules football club. Acraman became captain of one of the Adelaide club teams, with John Brodie Spence (brother of reformer Catherine Helen Spence) leading its other team. An avid player during the 1860s, Acraman was still directly involved in the game, as president of Adelaide, when the South Australian Football Association was formed in 1877. He was later vice president of North Adelaide Football Club. Acraman has been dubbed the “father of South Australian football" and,In 2002, he was inducted into the South Australian Football Hall of Fame.

Adelaide (Old Adelaide) formed at the Globe Inn as first South Australian football club in 1860

Adelaide Football Club, formed on 1860 at a meeting in the Globe Inn Hotel, in Rundle Street, Adelaide, with John Brodie Spence in the chair, was South Australia’s first. It initially only played internal matches between players north and south of the River Torrens. In the first ever internal game on the north city parklands in April 1860, Spence led one side and John Acraman the other. The fourth game was on the south parklands in 1860 with coloured uniforms adopted.  For this match, the captains were T. O'Halloran and Robert Cussen. By June, the club had already grown to more than 100 members, including four members of the South Australian parliament. The final game for 1860 attracted 200 spectators, with Acraman again captain of one side and the other led by Thomas O'Halloran. North Adelaide won by one goal. The first recorded match against a rival club was played in 1862 against the Modbury and Teatree Gully Football Club on a strip of grass near Modbury Hotel. Adelaide won the game two goals to nil. During the final stages of the last match of the 1863 season between Adelaide and Modbury/Teatree Gully, some Aboriginal Australians were allowed to take part for both sides. In 1864, Old Adelaide club (as it became known) produced printed rules to avoid disputes. Adelaide was beaten in 1868 by a local collegians team and, in 1870, the club lost many of its best players to the new city club: Young Australians. In 1876, Adelaide won 3-0 against a team from the 50th Regiment. At this stage, Adelaide had stopped playing other suburban clubs, due to a rules dispute.  

Charles Kingston settles 1870s South Australian football rules divide: Adelaide v. Kensington

In 1873, Adelaide Football Club stopped playing games against other clubs that had adopted the Kensington club rules. The 13 clubs that developed since 1860, from Willunga in south to Kapunda in north, all started with their own rules. Other clubs gradually aligned with Kensington club’s rules developed in the early 1870s. This upset Adelaide, or Old Adelaide as it became known. Adelaide had printed copies of its rules, similar to those from the game’s originators in Melbourne. Kensington rules were closer to rugby. Future South Australian premier (1893-99) Charles Cameron Kingston, a South Adelaide player and later club president, moved to settle the mess by Kingston who set up a committee (Alexander Crooks, Tom Letchford, Kingston, Joe Osborn, Charles Perkins) “to confer with the various Football Clubs to find their ideas about the role of the proposed Association and the rules they want to play by”. In 1876, Kingston organised a meeting at the Prince Alfred Hotel and pleaded with local club delegates that Old Adelaide rules be universally adopted. Kingston’s argued that choosing Old Adelaide club rules, similar to those in Melbourne, over Kensington rules, meant intercolonial football matches could be contested. Kingston got his way and Old Adelaide rules were chosen. Kingston had insisted that, as in Melbourne, a player shouldn’t be able to run with the ball without bouncing it. Otherwise, South Australian football may have evolved into rugby. This started the cultural divide between Australia’s southern states as against NSW and Queensland who moved to rugby league.

The South Australian Football Association the sport's first governing body, formed in 1877

The South Australian Football Association was formed at a meeting at the Prince Alfred Hotel (next to the town hall) in King William Street, Adelaide, on April 30 1877. It was the first governing body for football in Australia – predating the Victorian Football Association (VFA) established in May 1877. South Australian Football Association was pushed particularly by three club captains George Kennedy (South Adelaide), Joseph Osborn (Woodville) and 20-year-old Noel Twopenny (Adelaide). The trio men saw many benefits of a formal organisation to administer the game and control its rules. Kennedy placed the notice for the meeting in The Register newspaper that had suggested the first step to advancing football in the colony should be association, along the same lines as the South Australian Cricket Association. Twelve of South Australia's football clubs adopted a uniform set of game rules to be overseen by the governing body. This meant restoring the goalposts and bouncing the ball, both in the Old Adelaide club rules abandoned by the Kensington club. The inaugural 1877 season was contested by 13 clubs: Adelaide, Bankers, Gawler, Kapunda, Kensington, North Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Prince Alfred College, South Adelaide, South Park, Victorian, Willunga and Woodville. Immediate benefits from the association’s role were evident with the 50-60 spectators at games in 1876 growing to hundreds in 1877. Prominent patrons of the game boosted its acceptance in Adelaide society’s wealthy class. The association brought innovations such as calculating a premiership list. 

William Magarey, first football association chairman, begins medal to fairest/most brilliant

William Magarey, great nephew of South Australian pioneer Thomas Magarey, was first chairman of South Australian Football Association (before it became the South Australian National Football League; SANFL) from 1897. He introduced the Magarey Medal in the following year. The medal, nicknamed “Beautiful Bill”, went to the player deemed by umpires to be the season’s fairest and most brilliant. The oldest individual award in Australian football, it aimed to stamp out rough play and improve respect for umpires. The game weathered criticism and tightened rules after the death of young Bankers’ player Charles Poole in 1877. The first  Magarey Medal winner was Norwood’s Alby Green. William Magarey, who presented every medal until he died in 1929, was partner with future South Australian chief justice George Murray in the law firm Murray & Magarey that continued into the 21st Century as Finlaysons Lawyers. SANFL Reserves medal is also called Magarey. Other medals for SANFL competitions included the McCallum and Tomkins that, until 2008, went to best and fairest Under-17 and under-19 players. These merged in 2009 when the under-age competitions were replaced by an Under-18s league. The Jack Oatey Medal is for best on ground in the SANFL grand final; first won in 1981 by Russell Ebert of Port Adelaide. Also that year, the Fos Williams Medal first recognised the standout performer (Peter Carey, Glenelg) for South Australia in interstate football. The R.O. Shearman Medal is awarded to the player voted on by league senior coaches for each home-and-away game. 

Twenty years 1877-1896 reduce South Australian Football Association teams toward the eight

The South Australian Football Association’s record 13 teams in 1877 were trimmed to seven in the next season, with North Adelaide, Willunga, Prince Alfred College, Gawler, Kapunda, Bankers and Woodville dropping out. Norwood came in to make in a seven-team competition. For 20  years, Norwood, South Adelaide and Port Adelaide began to dominate with teams not up the standard dropping out. The association began to stabilise from 1897 into the eight teams that would make up the South Australian National Football League for the first half of the 20th Century. One club lost soon after early success was Victoria. Formed in 1874, Victoria finished second in the interclub competition in 1875 and won in 1876, becoming a founding member of the South Australian Football Association in 1877, sharing its first premiership with South Adelaide. It was nicknamed the Bumblebees and had its home ground at the foot of North Adelaide’s Montefiore Hill. Struggling to compete in its later years after an exodus of players, the club disbanded in 1884  and became a North Adelaide Football Club – but not related to the present club. One of the Victoria Football Club’s notable moments was playing at the first intercolonial match involving a South Australian club. This game was in 1877 on the Adelaide Exhibition Grounds against Melbourne Football Club, with the visitors winning, one goal to nil. Five teams – Natives, North Adelaide, Norwood, Port Adelaide and South Adelaide – were left 1896. Natives and North Adelaide struggled and were allowed to field 23 players against the other three clubs’ 20.


as the SANFL competition gathers strength through 20th Century

Adelaide club bows out with win over British Lions rugby team in 1888 playing Australian rules

The original Adelaide Football Club had a final triumph in 1888 by defeateing the British Lions rugby union team at Adelaide Oval in July 1888 – playing Australian rules. Adelaide’s win was fittingly symbolic. Formed in 1860 as a social outing, Adelaide codified Victorian rules that became the Australian game. It disbanded in 1876 when other clubs followed Kensington club’s rugby-like rules. “Old Adelaide” rejoined the South Australian Football Association that adopted its rules in 1877. Its open playing style saw it finish third but the club declined. After three years in mothballs, Adelaide rediscovered its style in 1886 to win the premiership  – captained by J.D. Stephens, with goalsneak Richard Stephens shining. In 1887, Adelaide thrashed Victorian Football Association premiers Carlton by an nine goals to three, with Stephens kicking six. Poor management let many key players leave and, after wooden spoons in 1891-93, the club disappeared. Adelaide club had brought Australian football a long way from the typical 1861 adjourned game between 40 Past and Present Collegians in the wintry northern parklands. Spectators were mainly horsemen and “ladies, who kept guard of the prizes they presented to players … With hearty goodwill, the players went to work; in about an hour, the College party gained a goal ... they were rewarded with another goal after about two hours exertion …A horse ... bolted across the playground. Master Gwynne immediately rode in pursuit but ... one of the players ran between the horses causing them to fall and throwing Master Gwynne. No one was injured.”

South Australian league one of world's oldest; football team districts introduced from 1899

The South Australian Football Association changed its name to the South Australian Football League in 1907 (20 years later it became the South Australian National Football League or SANFL). At that stage, the SANFL was set to consolidate as the oldest surviving football league of any code in Australia and one of the oldest football competitions in the world, being formed in 1877, a few years after the United Hospitals rugby challenge cup in London. The South Australian competition struggled through an 1896 economic depression and was suffered from a lopsided competition with South Adelaide, Port Adelaide and Norwood clubs dominating the newcomers North Adelaide (1893), West Adelaide (1897), West Torrens (1897) In 1899, the association brought in the electorate system where players were allocated to clubs based on their district. Sturt joined the competition in 1901. The competition was on an upswing until suspended by World War I (1916-19) The SANFL continued on for the first few years of World War II but, from 1942-44, operated with merged clubs: Port Adelaide-West Torrens; West Adelaide-Glenelg; Sturt-South Adelaide; Norwood-North Adelaide. In 1946, the teams were expanded to add a 19th player on the bench. Ovals such as Jubilee (1898–1906), Thebarton (1922–2012), Kensington (1875-97), Glanville Hall Estate (1870-79), Hindmarsh (1905-21), Wayville Showgrounds (1927–1939) and Bice (1992–1993) have been left behind. The SANFL continues to manage all levels of football below the national AFL clubs in the state. 

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