On a recent visit to Melbourne my three year old daughter and I visited Ann Mancini whom I have always loved for, among other things, her ability to combine affection with frankness. Over tea and biscuits we talked about family, art and then football. I told her about living in Alice Springs and playing a game of Aussie Rules for The Yuendumu Magpies, Liam Jurrah’s old team. I said I enjoyed watching Australian Rules Football and writing about it as much as I enjoyed going to art exhibitions and writing about art. For me both were the same. Both art and sport contributed to my understanding of living and being Australian. Certainly when I speak to Warlpiri or Pitjantjatjara, Luritja, Arrante or Pintupi in the desert they make very few distinctions between sport and art. Both football and art seem to hold and play ongoing important roles in the contemporary lives of indigenous Australians in the desert.
Then Ann told me something extraordinary. ‘H.C.A. Harrison’s brother Earnest had a son called Horace Washington Harrison who was my grandpa!’ she said. I must have looked at her inquisitively. ‘Who is H.C.A. Harrison?’ I asked, embarrassingly dropping some of my half eaten biscuit. Somewhere, in the recesses of my mind, I recalled, the VFL’s official head quarters in Spring St. for much of the 20th century carried the name Harrison House Did this have anything to do with what Ann was referring to?
‘Harrison,’ Ann explained, ‘was an outstanding cricketer, runner and legendary footballer. He was a leading administrator in both football and cricket and him and his cousin Tom Wills have for a long time been seen as the founding fathers of Australian Rules football.’
She was silent for a while. By this stage I was no longer interested in my half eaten biscuit; I wanted to hear the rest of what she had to say. She, however, was keen to take her time. The tea I was drinking turned cold. Ann Mancini was my year eleven English teacher. She encouraged me to write stories. At eighteen when my father died she sent me a novel, The Ganges and its Tributaries and a card in which she had written, ‘One day you will write the great Australian novel.’ For some reason the message in the card made sense and gave me purpose and for a moment gave me something to take my mind of my grief. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that if grief was going to be my permanent condition, it would kill me. Strangle me to death with its odd manners and hygiene. And here Ann was, at it again. Challenging me, teaching me! I’ve know this extraordinary woman for at least twenty years and it seems every time we meet she always has something up her sleeve. Anyhow, for a moment I forget where I am and think of eating mangoes on a train, my mind is stumbling all over the past, until my daughter says something and I’m brought back into the moment. I’m thirty six years old and Ann is asking me how I am.
‘Are you writing? What are you reading?’
She asked me if I am still enjoying living in Alice Springs and if I would ever consider moving to live in the city.
‘I’m a part of the community there,’ I reply. We chat about the recent rains and seeing the Todd River flow but I’m more than curious to find out more about Harrison and the origins of Aussie Rules Football. Ann was excited to see me. It’s been almost three years since we’ve seen each other and she seemed pleased to hear about my wife who was expecting and so she eagerly wanted to learn more about my family. Her eyes were on me, bright with a slanting, probing brilliance when she told me she had a book to give me. She got the book from her study. It’s H.C.A. Harrison’s autobiography, The Story of an Athlete. It had been co-edited by Ann Mancini and her friend, the foremost Australian Rules historian, G.M. Hibbins and reissued as Running with the Ball.
‘Its based on detailed research on the origin of Australian Rules Football and provoked some who are keen to make up misleading assertions and myths,’ said Ann as she handed me the book. ‘My friend Gillian did most of the work and she has carried the burden of the public controversy which at times has been very nasty indeed. I suppose the thing to remember is that football has never been the invention of one person,’ she said.
As she gave me the book, a book written by one of her ancestors who happened to be once called one of the founding fathers of Australian Rules football, I can’t help but think about how Ann encouraged to me to write my story. She told me to write about Calcutta, what it was like to come to Australia and live in the suburbs of Melbourne and I did. Ann encouraged and helped me deal with my father’s untimely death by encouraging me to write about my father. I’ve still got the unpublished manuscript. And there she was giving me a book written by her great grandfather’s brother. For my daughter she got out a picture book. On the cover is a dancing mouse.
‘Have another biscuit and I will tell you what I think of the origins of Aussie Rules,’ said Ann.
I greedily got hold of a biscuit. I bit it. It was delicious. Nutty! I looked to see if my daughter was happy. She was busily looking at her book. I asked her if she would like a biscuit. She nodded and sneaked one from my hand without taking her eyes of the picture book. Ann looked at me approvingly.
‘Aussie Rules’ origins were essentially British,’ she said. ‘Its creators included Thomas Wills, T. Butterworth, W.J. Hammersley, T.H. Smith and J.B. Thompson. It has nothing to do with gold diggers or Aborigines playing kick to kick with possum-balls. While such legends might seem attractive, Aussie Rules was not invented in Australia. On the contrary, the origins of Aussie Rules lie in the games played at English and Irish public schools and universities, where the men who first drew up the first set of rules in 1859 came from. This is despite a view held by some historians and football enthusiasts that Tom Wills, in particular, found inspiration in Marngrook, a game Aborigines played with a ball made of possum skin.’
‘I have heard that assertion before,’ I interrupted her. ‘Do you know Martin Flanagan? Isn’t that what he says in his novel, The Call?’ By sheer coincidence I had picked up The Call a day earlier of my childhood friend Rupert Betheras, the artist and ex Collingwood footballer’s, bookshelf. Extraordinarily Rupert happens to be a friend of Martin Flanagan and they had recently come up to the centre with some of the Melbourne Football team and their ailing president, Jimmy Steins, to visit Liam Jurrah’s community out at Yuendumu.
Ann looked at me and smiled. It was the same twinkling smile I associate with her. She must be over seventy now but when I see her smile, look into her eyes, it’s the same mischievous intelligent look as before, as always. ‘The debate has moved on,’ she said. ‘The game Aussie Rules and its organisers are inclusive. Just look at the contributions that indigenous players have made to the game It never has been the invention of one person. But suggestions that Australian Rules Football is directly linked to an ancient ball game played by Aborigines in Victoria is curious and there is very little evidence to back this opinion,’ said Ann. ‘All this has been impeccably researched by G.M. Hibbins! Have you spoken to her?’
I let the matter rest. While indigenous Australians have made a number of inroads in Australian Rules the fact remained Aboriginal men in general died younger than their white counter parts. It was almost time to go. My daughter seemed to have enjoyed meeting my old teacher and eating biscuits. Both of us carried our respective books proudly.
That night, I eagerly read Harrison’s autobiography. Harrison was eighty seven when he wrote it. The book contains his reminisces not only about football over a hundred years ago but also the many other sports he was involved. His life and athletic career paralleled the growth of Melbourne from the time he went squatting and gold digging with his family, through his career as a custom officer in the days of the clippers, until his retirement when he rode to Sydney on a bicycle to get rid of superfluous energy. The book goes into some details of the very beginnings of football in Melbourne. In his account, Harrison tells of when his celebrated cousin T.W. Wills arrived from England, fresh from Rugby school, full of enthusiasm for all kinds of sports, he suggested taking up a new game because he considered Rugby unsuitable. So a number of Melbourne folks got together and began playing the ‘new’ game of Australian Rules. It was a go-as-you-please affair at first, but a set of rules gradually evolved, noted Harrison. The first club formed was the Melbourne captained by Tom Wills and in the same year (1858) clubs were formed in Richmond, South Yarra, Royal Park and Geelong, and in a short time there was not a suburb of Melbourne, nor a town in Victoria without its football club.(p.118 119)
Wills, in particular, is an interesting character. According to Martin Flanagan, in his novel The Call, Wills is sentimentally described as a hero who connected Melbourne’s young white men with the indigenous game, Marngrook. A gifted sportsman, Wills childhood was spent on a remote property in North West Victoria where he played with Aboriginal children from a nearby tribe.
In contrast, Harrison’s autobiography tells, in some detail of the way Wills family were attacked and killed by Aborigines in Queensland in 1861. This incident, known as the Cullinlaringo Massacre is regarded as the biggest massacre of white men in Australia by Aborigines. After it, the ‘conciliatory’ method was dropped and no blacks were allowed on any of the Queensland stations for ten years, on pain of being shot (142,143). Tom Wills’s incoherent letter provides a moving insight into the impact the tragedy had on him. ‘I can only say that all our party except I have been slaughtered by the blacks…’’ (p8). The book goes on to tell about paybacks and retribution. It is a powerful, crazy, sad story. Wills survived his family and went on to be a wonderful sportsman.
Curiously, Harrison leaves out a number of significant details in his autobiography that are dealt with by the two editors in their impeccable researched introduction and comprehensive end notes. One of Harrison’s omissions that are addressed by the editors of the book, Ann Mancini and G.M. Hibbins, is the Harrison family’s convict past and another is the way Tom Wills’s life ended. Sadly, Tom’s life ended tragically in 1880 when aged 44 and an alcoholic he stabbed himself with a pair of scissors.
Back in Alice Springs, in the heat and haze, after reading Running with the Ball and thinking about it and recalling my memorable meeting with my extraordinary teacher, Ann, I had a number of thoughts. It seemed fitting that Tom played with Aboriginals as a child. It is appropriate that this story is not simply sentimental. It deals with murder and death and horrible cruelty. In between all this however, somehow, a game emerged and grew into what it is today. Whatever one thinks about how the game originated what is undeniable is: Australian Rules football is inclusive and it has a wonderful capacity to enthral people of all races.