So what exactly happened leading up to the formation of the VFL in 1896. It is surprising how little has been written on the subject. One possible reason is that it was messy and political and it is a blemish that the AFL/VFL would prefer not to focus on.

For someone interested in history, it is a great story about different perspectives, power and money.

Young and Jackson's

The VFA meetings were regularly held at Young and Jackson's Hotel in Flinders street. In time the VFL would get it’s own premises but since the 1880’s, Young and Jackson's was the home of the VFA. Many of the most important events during this period happened at the hotel.

Young And Jackson, Melbourne, Australia Mat Connolley
Young And Jackson, Melbourne, Australia Mat Connolley

SLV H84.233202 Flinders St., Melbourne 1907
SLV H84.233202 Flinders St., Melbourne 1907

Young and Jacksons on the right. (Looking down Flinders street)

SLV H86.6 77 Swanston St C1900-1905
SLV H86.6 77 Swanston St C1900-1905

Standing near St.Paul's Cathedral looking towards the train terminal and the river. (site of current Flinders Street station). Young and Jackson's ‘Princess Bridge Hotel’ on the right. Note the clocks on the old train terminal.


1896 was not the first time that tension had arisen within the VFA between the bigger and smaller clubs. In fact by 1896, the division with the VFA was clear. A good example is the tension in 1894 regarding the draw.

In earlier years not all teams played each other an even number of times and the top teams had control of the draw.

In 1893 for example Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and Collingwood all started the first few weeks with a stack of home games against weaker opposition, while weaker clubs started the season with a series of away games against the top clubs.

The Argus noted that in 1893 the 13 clubs had essentially been divided into two sections when planning the draw. They noted the affect the draw had on the weaker clubs, reducing their competitiveness. The Argus was clear on how the VFA operated:

"All clubs were supposed to enter the competition for the premiership n equal terms, yet seven out of thirteen clubs had not only no chance of winning, but a very remote prospect of becoming one of the first three."

By having a monopoly on the best dates, the top clubs also received some of the strongest gate taking. For example crowds were generally higher in May when the weather was good than in July when it was colder and wetter.

In 1891 ‘Olympus’ writing in Melbourne Punch proposed to divide the clubs into two tiers, with some crossover games to solve the problem.1

1894 was the first season where teams played each other an equal number of times, and the inequality at the start of the season was removed. This did mean that the advantaged teams lost some of their power.23

Argus 20 Mar 1894 P6 The Coming Football Season
Argus 20 Mar 1894 P6 The Coming Football Season

The term 'unwieldly' came to be used when the smaller clubs fought to even out the competition and the top clubs resisted. The word 'reform' became a byword for ‘less clubs’. Issues regarding venues, player poaching and permits, professionalism, and distributing gate receipts were some areas when the tensions arose.

A quote from Wikipedia shows how that language is still used today:

From as early as the mid-1880s, a number of the Senior VFA clubs showed discontent with the unevenness of the competition, its unwieldiness and the VFA's perceived lack of desire to try and solve the problems. Geelong and Essendon, both of which were among the most successful teams, were at the forefront of the moves towards reform. In 1889 Geelong proposed a more streamlined break-away competition. In 1894, Geelong, Essendon, Melbourne and Fitzroy again planned a new organisation that would consist of the aforementioned four clubs, along with teams from Ballarat and Bendigo. - History of Australian rules football in Victoria (1859–1900) (Wikipedia)

Terry Keenan has argued a similar point in his important article on the 1896 split.

the six clubs that engineered the defection claimed at the time that the VFA had become 'unwieldy'. While more than one meaning can be attributed to this term, the breakaway clubs used it to express their view that there were too many teams in the competition, and that the presence of the weaker clubs was impacting negatively in a variety of different ways. While this explanation clearly had merit, it avoided the principal reason, which was the financial threat posed by Marshall’s proposal to equalise the gate takings.

Terry Keenan - Keeping Out The Riff-Raff: Port Melbourne’s Exclusion From The Victorian Football League in 1896


So after years of difficulty, what made 1896 different?

Various proposals have been made. From pressure due to dwindling gate receipts caused by the great depression, to the increasing violence at games (the evidence here is anecdotal). To me the threat caused by T.S. Marshall’s radical attempt to reduce the inequities within the VFA, and the top clubs lack of voting power against the smaller clubs forced them to either exit the competition or submit to a loss of power.

Mr Marshall’s Proposal

Mr T.S. Marshall, a Carlton Man, had been part of football since the famous 1858 Scotch College-Melbourne Grammar match. He had been a player, captain and administrator. He was a strong advocate of amateurism…. and currently Secretary of the VFA, having served in that post since 1882.

There is a terrific bigraphy at

Sportsman Melbourne 24 May 1892 P1 TS Marshall HonSec VFA
Sportsman Melbourne 24 May 1892 P1 TS Marshall HonSec VFA

TS Marshall
VFA HonSec
Sportsman Melbourne 2 May 1893 P1 TS Marchall VFA HonSec
Sportsman Melbourne 2 May 1893 P1 TS Marchall VFA HonSec

TS Marchall
VFA HonSec
Sportsman Melbourne 16 May 1896 P6 TS Marshall VFA Hon Sec
Sportsman Melbourne 16 May 1896 P6 TS Marshall VFA Hon Sec

TS Marshall
VFA Hon Sec
Sportsman Melbourne 16 Jun 1891 P6 TS Marshall Secretary VFA
Sportsman Melbourne 16 Jun 1891 P6 TS Marshall Secretary VFA

TS Marshall
Secretary VFA

The Proposal

At the end of the regular VFA meeting on Friday 8th of May read a paper dwelling on the history of the game and comparing it with the modern game. He argues for rule changes, the removal of the 'little mark' but then came his key message, that the Association should enact sweeping changes to remove professionalism from the game.

He raised the issue of money:

He found that in 1891 Essendon's revenue was £1060, Carlton’s935, Geelong’s £658; Fitzroy £653; and South Melbourne’s £567, making a total of £4075; while in the following season Carlton received £965; Essendon £925; Geelong, £658; Fitzroy, £653; and South Melbourne £567, making a total of £3760 and a gross total for two years of 7835. What had the clubs to show for the money (Hear, hear) Next to Nothing. Could those clubs not do something more with the money in the future rather than they had in the past? Surely a little more could be set aside that had been for unselfish objects (Hear, hear)

He then proposed a radical solution

His proposal was that the gross receipts of all clubs should be paid into the association, clubs to receive £5 per week, excepting Geelong and clubs journeying there, who would be entitled to more. That would give the Association £500, which could be distributed amongst the charities, and the clubs would thereby render valuable services to needy persons and at the same time enlist increased patronage from the public. (Applause).

The meeting ended with much congratulation….but it was decided to postpone discussion to the next meeting. Marshall's comments were political dynamite.

This proposal would have a dramatic impact on the revenue of the top clubs, increase the ability of the lower clubs to compete, and significantly shift the financial power from the richer clubs over to the Association. The report was to be printed and circulated for discussion.4

At the June 2nd meeting of the Association they decided to deal with the less contentious rule changes be dealt with first.56 This because a catalyst for a wider revision of the rules over the coming year.

It was not until the July 24th meeting of the Association that the Association discussed Marshall’s proposals, And days after that meeting that the first rumours regarding the formation of a new association started. Thus July 24th appears to be a key date in the formation of the VFL.

According to the Age:
The discussion of Mr T.S. Marshall’s paper on Professionalism was resumed.

Mr F.Mitchell (North Melbourne) expressed a fear that the funding f gate receipts would not prevent professionalism, insomuch as supporters of a club could supply it with funds to obtain the services of players.

Mr H.Goding (South Melbourne) disagreed with Mr Marshall’s proposition to donate £500 annually to charities. Clubs had, generally speaking, given a fair proportion of their funds to charities in the past.

Mr J.Sinn (Port Melbourne Ed.) supported the scheme.

Mr Egan (Richmond) remarked that so far from upbraiding Mr Marshall, that gentlemen desearved the thanks of the association for his courage in submitting his scheme. Some improvement on the system in vogue was urgently necessary.

Messrs. A.Woodham (North Melbourne), M.J. Fitzpatrick (Williamstown), J.Williams (Footscray) supported the scheme; Mr Hickey (Fitzroy) spoke against it.

A vote of thanks to Mr Marshall in recognition of his action in writing the paper terminated the proceedings.7

The Argus added "it was pretty plainly hinted that in the event of any such proposal being pushed to extremes, it would mean the more prosperous clubs forming a separate association."8

Note that North, Port, Richmond, Footscray and Williamstown delegates spoke for the motion. These also happen to be the five clubs not invited to join the new association.

With 13 clubs in the VFA, 7 clubs were needed to win a vote. Assuming Essendon, Geelong, Fitzroy and South Melbourne and Geelong making a second block of five clubs. Collingwood, Carlton and St Kilda were potentially the swing votes.

The Association met regularly every Friday fortnight at Young and Jackson's. Now, at this most critical time, the next regular meeting does not appear to have happened!

The next meeting, on August 28 did not revisit the issue9, neither did the September 11th meeting10

The September 25th meeting came just after a special meeting to decide on the date for the playoff match and discussed a raft of rule changes to be adopted, but there was no discussion of Mr Marshall’s plan or attempts to conform the seceding clubs.11

Australasian 20 Jun 1896 P21 Ess V SM At East Melbourne
Australasian 20 Jun 1896 P21 Ess V SM At East Melbourne

Australasian 20 Jun 1896 P21 Essendon v South Melbourne
Australasian 20 Jun 1896 P21 Essendon v South Melbourne

Australasian 9 May 1896 P25 MCG
Australasian 9 May 1896 P25 MCG

The July 24th meeting must be seen as one of the most important moments in Australian football, as days after, the breakaway movement appears to have began.

Other Key Incidents

A revised Cricket Association

1916 was a reform year. In August 1896 Mr George Moir proposed a radical proposal where only five of the existing nine senior cricket teams would compete in the competition.12

In September 1896, at the same time the VFA issues were happening, the Victorian Cricket system rejected Moir’s proposal. The alternative where eight of the nine existing Associated clubs plus Hawksburn (Winners of the 1895/96 Affiliated clubs pennant) made up Division one and the existing Affiliated clubs plus a demoted University team made up division two. The Association voted against a promotion/relegation system.13

Division 1Division 2
East Melbourne
North Melbourne
South Melbourne
St Kilda
Hawksburn (Promoted)
Melbourne University (Relegated)
Port Melbourne

It is not clear how this informed the football debate but the events within the Victorian Cricket Association happened at the same time as events in the Victorian Football Association, and demonstrated that an Association could be reformed.

A Revised Junior Football Association

The Victorian Junior Football Association, the second tier competition under the VFA had reformed in 1895, The 1984 competition had 20 teams in two sections with a final round between the top two teams of each Section to determine the premier. (Two of the twenty teams, University and Camberwell disbanded through the 1894 season).14

Hard decisions were made in early 1895 and the VJFA ejected six of the weakest teams and formed themselves into a single section 12 team competition.15

The VJFA provided a different reform path for the VFA, ejection of the smaller teams.

An Incident at North Melbourne

The ideal of the amateur sportsman was strong in the 19th century. In English cricket there was a distinction between the gentleman player playing for free for the love of the game and the paid professional. Sports such as cricket and the newly formed Olympic games were keenly influenced by the ideal of amateurism. In practice, there were many ways around this rule, and led to the rise of "shamateurism" where players called themselves gentlemen, but found ways of being paid. W.G. Grace, the famous English cricketer was one of the most famous shamateurs of the century.

The amateur nature of Victorian football in the 1890’s game rise to shamaterism, and one of the biggest scandals of the 1896, was the banning of L.Webb an ex Essendon player, now playing at Richmond, for this very practice.16

Amateurism was an ideal for gentlemen players as well as supporters.

The eight hour day movement started in the middle of the century and had a large affect on all sports. The shorter working week meant that working class men had more leisure time, many of them used this time to either play, or view sport. The eight hour day brought in a new class of player and supporter, rowdier and happier to pay players.

Australasian 25 Apr 1896 P24 Eight Hour Day
Australasian 25 Apr 1896 P24 Eight Hour Day

Crowd violence and player behaviour were a rising issue during the 1880's and 1890's.

Of the teams in 1896, five had joined more recently than the rest. Many of these clubs brought with them an unruly supporter base that were a genuine problem for the game.
• Fitzroy (1884-)
• Williamstown (1884-)
• Richmond (1885-)
• Footscray (1886-)
• Port Melbourne (1886-)

Punch 2 Aug 1888 P18 Our Remedy For Rough Play
Punch 2 Aug 1888 P18 Our Remedy For Rough Play

Port Melbourne, home of the dockworkers had one of the worst reputations on and off the field, but the major incident on 1896 happened at the North Melbourne v Collingwood game on July 25th.

Local fans at the North Melbourne Recreation Reserve rioted following North Melbourne's 4–5 loss to Collingwood in Round 12, mostly venting their anger against umpire Roberts' interpretation of the little mark. They invaded the field, some with weapons, and players from both teams were forced to protect Roberts from the mob, with Bill Proudfoot, a constable with Victoria Police, escorting him out of the ground. McDougall of North Melbourne was the most badly injured player in the riot, concussed after a blow to the head. The incident added to the already bad reputation of the North Melbourne ground and the "ruffianly element" of its patrons. - 1896 VFA season - Wikipedia

Punch 30 Jul 1896 P3 At The Football Match Collingwood V North Melbourne
Punch 30 Jul 1896 P3 At The Football Match Collingwood V North Melbourne

Leader 8 Aug 1896 P8 The Football Umpire Of The Future
Leader 8 Aug 1896 P8 The Football Umpire Of The Future

Free Lance Melbourne 6 Aug 1896 P9
Free Lance Melbourne 6 Aug 1896 P9

This incident could not have come at a worst time for North Melbourne, coming only days after the Association discussion over the Marshall proposal.

For the six rebels it must have been a choice between including Carlton or including North Melbourne as the 7th team, North Melbourne blamed Collingwood for their exclusion, and if true, this incident might have played a part in that.

August 1896 - A new Football Association in Planning

From July 1896, just days after the Association had met to discuss Mr Marshalls proposal, newspapers began reporting rumours of the formation of a new Football Association for 1897

It is not surprising therefore, to learn that some of the leading clubs contemplate following the lead of the Victorian Cricketers' Association, and reorganising the association on a fresh basis. Many of the clubs simply struggle on from year to year with little strength in the present and less hope for the future, and the idea is to drop these teams and confine the competition to six or eight at most, thus giving three or four good games ever Saturday.
– The Argus 27-Jul-1897 p5 'A Football Row'

There is a strong probability of the premiership competition being conducted on quite a different basis next season by reducing the number of competing clubs. It is urged that with 13 clubs engaged, as at present, there are too many "off "days, upon which the matches are unattractive, and that the adoption of a similar course of action to that which was followed in cricket last season would be attended by equally satisfactory result. The matter is yet in embryo, but it is almost certain that some change will be made before another season commences – Follower The Age 27-Jul-1896 p3

By early September, more details emerged. Port Melbourne was out. Geelong and Carlton were in.

The recognised notion amongst those not behind the scenes is that of the thirteen clubs now constituting the V.F.A. no more than eight will be included in the new body which it is rumoured will be formed to carry on the principal fixtures in seasons to come. I think this surmise is as nearly correct as possible, but upon what basis the selection is to be made I do not pretend to know. That it will not depend in any way upon the positions of clubs in this year's premiership list may be accepted as certain, for the men who are said to be moving in the matter would not, I am sure, participate in the ousting of clubs like Geelong and Carlton, and neither of these is likely to finish amongst the first eight. Geelong may perhaps climb a step or two higher than they are at present. but Carlton appear to have no hope of winding up in front of any team. save Richmond. The Port Melbourne delegates, from all I hear, are outside the pale, and their club, though almost a match for the first on the list, will, it is feared, be left. out in the cold. Like injustice will be suffered by other well-equipped teams. The Australasian 5-Sep-1896 p18 Football Notes by Markwell17

The Playoff

Round 19 of the 1896 VFA season was played on Saturday 19th September 1896 and in two key games, Fitzroy defeated Collingwood by one goal, at Victoria Park and South Melbourne scored a three goal victory over Port Melbourne at Port Melbourne.

With only one shortened round to go, South Melbourne and Collingwood were equal on premiership points and neither were to play in the final round. It was decided that the top two teams would play an extra 'play-off' match to determine the premiership.

Collingwood and South publicised that the match would be played the following week

South Melbourne18143185550.058
North Melbourne1788191770.034
⇓ Williamstown1768358880.030
⇓ Port Melbourne1768367620.030
St. Kilda17610164810.026

A Special meeting of the VFA was held at Young and Jackson's Hotel on Tuesday 22nd of September 1896 to discuss the date and venue for the playoff match.

Some clubs were concerned that the playoff match would hurt the gate takings of the clubs playing that week, and that the playoff should be delayed to the following week. (In fact Collingwood had voted for a delay the previous year when a playoff nearly eventuated).

Collingwood and South Melbourne argued that the match Should take place during the regular season and delaying it would financially hurt their clubs. Two proposals were put and in a close decision, it was decided to delay. (Carlton and St Kilda delegates split their votes and remained neutral). The votes of the other clubs show the factions within the VFA at play18:

For Saturday Week (11 Votes) Next Saturday (8 Votes)
Egan (Richmond)
Mitchell and Woodham (North Melbourne)
Sinn and Hunter (Port Melbourne)
Fitzpatrick and Baker (Williamstown)
J. Williams and Fotheringham (Footscray)
Shaw (Carlton)
C.G. Wilson (St Kilda)
E.L. Wilson (Collingwood)
Goding and Sloss (South Melbourne)
Hickey (Fitzroy)
Crebbin and Dallas (Essendon)
Melville (Carlton)
W.H. Williams (St Kilda)

After the vote the Collingwood and South Melbourne delegates threatened to play the game anyway. Another meeting was scheduled for the following night. They warned the weaker clubs that defiance now would have consequences.

They (The club representatives) contend that such a step, if forced upon them, will lead not to the damage of the two clubs concerned, but that the inevitable result will be the break-up of the association as at present constituted.

During the past season the desirability of so rearranging the premiership matches as to have at least three good games every Saturday has been frequently discussed. The members of the Collingwood and South Melbourne clubs say that if the lesser clubs on the association determine to go to extremes in this matter, it simply means their own extinction. The matter of re-organising the association is, therefore, likely to be brought to issue much sooner than was anticipated.

The position of the second rate clubs is an especially awkward one, since they are likely by their action last night to bring into effect a scheme disastrous to themselves. Two plans for reform were suggested. One was the division of the clubs into A and B sections, as in cricket, with the lowest club in the A section exchanging places annually with the highest in B section. The other was the formation of a distinct association, composed of fewer clubs, and in the event of a conflict between the two sections now occurring, the second is the scheme likely to be adopted. - The Argus 23 Sep 1896 p.6 19

The clubs met again at Young and Jacksons Hotel the following night and the decision to delay the game was upheld.20

Herald 24 Sep 1896 P3 Football 600thumb
Herald 24 Sep 1896 P3 Football 600thumb

It is interesting whether this meeting was the catalyst to create the VFL. Collingwood and South warned that there were still two options on the table, a two tier system or the formation of a new association with only limited teams in it. They specifically warned that if their power was threatened, the faction voting against them would be out. This is then exactly what happened.

Weekly Times 10 Oct 1896 P10 Football Premiership Collingwood v South Melbourne
Weekly Times 10 Oct 1896 P10 Football Premiership Collingwood v South Melbourne

October 1896 - The Announcement

The announcement of the new association became public on the day of the play off, won by Collingwood.

In any event, even though the clubs announced they would create a new competition following year, they did not immediately leave the VFA.

This came to a head in early October and was announced in the papers.

The Age 3-Oct-1896 p9 Football Reform
The Age 3-Oct-1896 p9 Football Reform

A crude review of results from 1888 to 1896 in the table below shows that that six break-away teams were the best performing teams of the era. Their decision to bring in Carlton and St.Kilda from the remaining seven teams was not based on recent performance,

VFA 1888-1896
VFA 1888-1896

A similar crude analysis of the modern era based at the end of the 2018 home and away season produces an interesting table, seen below. Assuming the top eight teams this time, and maybe 3 or 4 of the remaining 10 teams being invited to join. Would they pick based on supporter base, performance, or to have better coverage in different cities? Would the remaining teams immediately be classified as second class?


Freelance 17 Oct 1896 P8 Football Reform
Freelance 17 Oct 1896 P8 Football Reform

Port Melbourne’s Exclusion

Terry Keenan, the club historian for the Port Melbourne Football club has written on the issue of Port Melbourne’s exclusion.

Keenan argues that the split was for financial reasons, and notes the opposition from South Melbourne. His key argument for exclusion is that Port Melbourne were seen as the wrong type of people

Regrettably, the PMFC had sinned too often and too outrageously for it to be accepted by a coterie of clubs with whom it had no natural affinity Moreover, the club represented a suburb that was itself, due to its waterfront characteristics, seen as socially undesirable. Clearly, it was the PMFC, and perhaps the suburb that it represented, that was ‘outside the pale’. And, as a consequence, it was ‘left out in the cold’.
Terry Keenan - Keeping Out The Riff-Raff: Port Melbourne’s Exclusion From The Victorian Football League in 1896

The Local Port Melbourne paper did not mention roughness of play, but rather that they would not accept their place when they explained the exclusion.

Why Ports were not admitted to the charmed circle was simply because of their close proximity to South Melbourne?.

They should have been in the first six clubs of the new Association for the following reasons :— They have daring the past four seasons been either 6th or 7th on the list ; they have one of the beat, if not the best, football grounds in the colony ; they have produced some of the finest footballers Victoria has seen, and their membership roll is as large as that of Essendon, and twice that of St. Kilda or Carlton. No, because they did not truckle and cringe to the bigger clubs or allow their players to leave them without a struggle, they are left out in the cold21.

North Melbourne’s Exclusion

The North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser carried an article on the Victorian Football Association on March 19-1897. The article reviewed North Melbourne’s contribution to the game, and the quality of their ground, it then turned to their detractors:

Yet, in face of this, the Collingwood Club-for that club's delegate, Mr. Beasley, M.L.A. has persistently been trotted out as the League's champion in all matters where a breadth of oratorical powers was necessary to squelch the unfortunate five clubs out of existence-and this the avowed representative of a democratic constituency sees no injustice in lending himself to a project which should be abhorrent to him - the exercise of the power of might over right-the Collingwood Club, whose members, two seasons ago, kept the North Melbourne players barricaded in their dressing room until the arrival of a large re-enforcement of the local police, under whose escort they were eventually enabled to reach the cabs awaiting them. The Collingwood delegates are credited rightfully or wrongfully-with being the main instigators in the position the North Melbourne Football Club now occupies. But virtue has its own reward. Mr. Beasley is president of the League; the other Collingwood delegate, Mr. E. L. Wilson, is secretary. Further comment is needless. - North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-189722

It is probable that Carlton's long connection to the game, their history of bringing in large crowds and their place in the establishment would have had a larger affect on the decision than a single violent incident.

StKilda’s inclusion

The recent affair at the North Melbourne/Collingwood game would have been front of mind of the six exiting clubs. It is possible that the event increased the importance of 'conduct' when selecting the final team. This would also square with the view of Terry Keenan that Port were the wrong type of people, so who were the right type?

One should remember that this was the era where power in society was changing. The 1890’s saw a series of industrial disputes and strikes and the formation of the Labour party. This power shift can be seen on the sporting field in the clash over professionalism in sport.

Some newspaper extracts from the period focus on StKilda's conduct rather than on their skill:

St. Kilda have maintained their reputation for playing the game upon its merits as a pastime. They never make a business of it. They have the knack of rising to a big occasion, and they invariably afford gratifying and sportsmanlike: entertainment. They have risen four steps higher than last year. They are players who are an ornament to the game. No question can be raised as to their right to the title of amateurs" - The Past Season - The Australiasian 3-Oct-189623

Assuming that the suggestion to reduce the number of clubs competing for the premiership be adopted, I suppose it may be taken for granted that Essendon, Collingwood, South Melbourne, M.C.C., Fitzroy and Geelong will be left in for certain. The claims of St. Kilda cannot possibly be ignored unless the best interests of the game are to be sacrificed to less worthy considerations. They have a conveniently situated ground , with ample accommodation, and a team, not only capable of playing good football, but whose personnel is a credit to the game in every sense.
Leader 1-Aug-1896 p17

An eighth club being required for the new competition, the choice unanimously fell upon St. Kilda. If it be a merit to couple a good game of football with manly and decent conduct, both on the field and off it, St. Kilda had every right to consideration, and its inclusion will give very general satisfaction." - The Argus 3-Oct-1896 - 24

Many propositions have been put forward for the inclusion of St.Kilda. The most prominent are, they had a quality ground, they had a train line and that the new competition wanted to have a team south of the Yarra. While these are true, they assume that St.Klida was picked for football reasons. I contest that they were included due to the ideal of amateurism and that they were the 'right kind of people', this fits best with contemporary comments who never appear to mention these other factors.

I would also like to consider the location of Victoria’s top private schools. These schools would have been seen as a breeding ground for amateur footballers. St.Kilda may have been seen as having better access to this talent.
I have highlighted key football grounds on an inner Melbourne train map for 1900 from This modified map shows that Richmond and North Melbourne, not St Kilda, were the most logical teams for transport access. Remember that this is a train map and that trams also provided access within the city.

Railwaymap Melbourne 1900
Railwaymap Melbourne 1900

Population – The Rarely Mentioned factor

Melbourne had a population of less than 500,000 people. Most people lived in what is today considered inner Melbourne. It is clear that in most cases, the populations in the districts of the excluded teams were smaller than the districts of those included.

Looking at the table below. It is clear that St.Kilda had a larger population that the districts of Port, North, Williamstown or Footscray. St.Kilda also connected to Prahran which had a large population without a VFA team. The standouts in the table are Richmond and Hawthorn. Richmond’s with its large population, may begin to explain the rise of Richmond and their inclusion in the VFL in 1908. Hawthorn’s large population should have supported a Senior football team but was without a suitable ground.

Note that the teams to rebuild the VFA came from Brunswick (1897), Prahran (1899), West Melbourne (1899), Essendon Town (1900) and Preston (1903).

Geelong’s population was 24807, significantly smaller than Ballarat (46137) or Bendigo (43075) at the time.

Source: POPULATION OF GREATER MELBOURNE, 1897 Victorian Year Book 1895-8 Part II Population (p65)
Sub DistrictMean Population 1897
Melbourne City (Incudes Carlton)69,977
Prahran City36,228
South Melbourne City35,044
Richmond City 33,518
Collingwood City31,965
Fitzroy City29,289
Brunswick Town21,263
Hawthorn City19,934
St.Kilda City 18,775
North Melbourne Town17,749
Footscray City 16,253
Essendon Town 13,895
Williamstown Town12,970
Port Melbourne Town 10,901
Flemington and Kensington Borough10,255
Malvern Shire 9,605
Brighton Town9,425
Caulfield Shire8,650
Kew Borough 8,535
Northcote Town7,325
Boroondara Shire 6,925
Coburg Shire5,836
Preston Shire 3,436
Oakleigh Borough1,192
Remainder of District13,842
Shipping in Hobson's Bay and River1,965


The announcement of the new association, soon to be called the Victorian football League, did not mean that negotiations ended and that the following season could not go forward with a single competition.

The Copeland Alternative

On the 6th of October a letter to the editor appeared in the Age from E.W. Copeland, Hon Sec of the Collingwood Football club.. It floated a two division system of promotion/relegation or a series of amalgamations (as had happened in 1889).

He proposed a nine club competition with amalgamations
  • Collingwood/Richmond,
  • Carlton/North Melbourne
  • South Melbourne/St.Kilda
  • Footscray/Williamston
  • Fitzroy
  • Port Melbourne
  • Essendon
  • MCC
  • Geelong
The suggested amalgamation of South Melbourne and StKilda, would have matched two teams who had a common interest in the amateur ideal. These would also be two of the weakest VFL teams over the next 100 years. Carlton and North had much in common…but Richmond/Collingwood….would have had a large population base and been difficult to stop.

The Leader (1-Aug-1896) had also proposed amalgamations as a solution in their case Carlton/North Melbourne, Footscray/Williamstown and Port Melbourne/South Melbourne. They argued for the dumping of Richmond and the protection of St Kilda 25.

Amalgamations would have reduced the voting power of the smaller clubs, but Copeland's proposition did not get much of a response.

The Marshall Alternative

T.S. Marshall, whose paper set off the secession, proposed that all teams stayed in the VFA in two divisions, the eight VFL’ers in Division 1 and the others in Division (with the addition of a few more junior teams). He proposed that the tier two clubs get one delegate and the tier one clubs two delegates, that each division organise its own matches and importantly, that there was a system of promotion and relegation. Essentially this is the plan that the seceding clubs had already considered.26

Marshall's proposal went to a meeting of the VFA on 23-October-1896, as usual at Young and Jackson's Hotel. The meeting started and the began with the five clubs excluded clubs agreeing to Marshall’s proposal. What would be the response. According to the Age,

For some time there appeared to be a conspiracy of silence amongst the delegates of the seceding clubs, but, ultimately, Mr. R. H. M'Leod stated be was empowered to say on behalf of the eight seceding clubs that they would not accept Mr. Marshall's scheme. Pressed to state why, he answered that he could not enlighten the association without first consulting the seceding clubs27.

This made it crystal clear that the seceding clubs and no interest in reforming the VFA, they wanted a clean start.

Proposed VFL/VFA amalgamation

At the end of the 1897 season delegates from the VFA met the VFL and proposed amalgamation, and again with the Marshall alternative.

Mr R.H. McLeod from Melbourne supported the amalgamation. Mr C.G. Wilson, the St Kilda delegate (and bottom ranked team) said he would not stand in the way.

Mr Shaw, the Carlton delegate asked whether this idea had been previously considered. (Showing how little information had been shared by the six instigators)

Mr M'Leod said that the idea had been strongly favoured, but it was solely owing to an appeal by Geelong, who represented the unfortunate position they would occupy if transferred to the B Division that caused the committee to reject that scheme. - The Argus 23-Oct-1897 p.1428

Mr M'Mullen, the Geelong delegate then popped up strongly objecting to any amalgamation.

After discussion it was decided to get the VFA delegates to submit their proposal in writing and have another meeting within a month to deal with the proposal, but I can find no record of any follow-up meeting.

Argus 23 Oct 1897 P14 Senior Football Associations
Argus 23 Oct 1897 P14 Senior Football Associations

January 1897 - The Five take action

The five outsider clubs did not sit idle. They started to meet to work out what they were going to do. They could not meet as the existing body, as the eight exiting clubs had not yet left the association. The Footscray Independent posted an article in early January 1897 that presented the latest news. The phrasing is interesting as the talk about the five teams being ‘kicked out’, and at the same time note that they are continuing the old association.

A meeting was held on Thursday evening of the representatives of the discarded five football clubs, which the eight proposed to unceremoniously thrust out of the Victorian Football Association. It is understood that the eight, which comprise Melbourne, Collingwood, Essendon, South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Carlton, St. Kilda and Geelong will band together under the name of the Victorian Football League. The five, namely, Footscray, Williamstown, Port Melbourne and Richmond will stick to the old name and have Mr Marshall as secretary. Essendon District, Hawthorn, Brunswick, Hawksburn, and another junior club are to be invited to join the discarded five. - Independent (Footscray) 9-Jan-1897 p.329

Finding Replacement Clubs

The five clubs left out of the new competition began approaching other clubs to join the VFA. Brunswick were keen to join and the Coburg Leader reported on 23-Jan-1897 that "a large and influential meeting was held at the Mechanics Institute last Wednesday to consider an offer by the Victorian Football Association to admit Brunswick into the Premiership ranks. The meeting resolved ‘that Brunswick form itself with a Premiership Club.’ which was carried unanimously"30

Other clubs considered included :
  • Essendon District, (Note that the existing Essendon team in the new VFL had played their home game in the inner city East Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1881.)
  • Hawthorn and Hawksburn did not have a large enough grounds 31
  • Prahran, Brunswick and University32
  • Brighton
  • Geelong Juniors

Friends of the VFA accused the VFL clubs of sabotage

two clubs-Hawksburn and Essendon District-who were considered certainties to join the Association, are now hanging off-the former, because of the injury they might do the St. Kilda Football Club; and the District-ask the powers that rule the Essendon Football Club? Great though their difficulties, the old delegates are sanguine of ultimate success. - North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-189733

Essendon District, Hawthorn and Hawksburn were at first willing to join, but various influences were set to work, which successfully prevented them from doing so. - Standard (Port Melbourne) 20-Mar-189734

Prahran Chronicle 27-Feb-1897 p3
Prahran Chronicle 27-Feb-1897 p3


On Friday the 5th of February, the new Victorian Football League met to appoint a Secretary. Mr E.L. Wilson of Collingwood. They also discussed their exit from the existing Association.

The question of finally severing the connection with the Victorian Football Association was also considered, and it was decided to call a special meeting of that body to discuss the financial position. The levy due on last season is payable at the annual meeting of the V.F.A., and under the rules it would only be necessary for the clubs composing the new league to decline to pay the levy, and they would cease to belong to the association. The desire is, however, that an amicable arrangement should he made, and the Collingwood Club formally presented with the premiership caps won last season under the V.F.A. – Argus 6-Feb-1897 p9

Sportsman Melbourne 24 May 1892 P1 Alexander McCracken VP VFA
Sportsman Melbourne 24 May 1892 P1 Alexander McCracken VP VFA
Sportsmen 8 Aug 1899 P6 EL Wilson Collingwood Delegate VFL
Sportsmen 8 Aug 1899 P6 EL Wilson Collingwood Delegate VFL

On Friday night, 19 February 1897 the clubs leaving the VFA forced a meeting to discuss VFA finances. This would be the last VFA meeting that they ever attended. As usual the meeting took place at Young and Jackson’s hotel opposite the railway terminal, (the magnificent Flinders Street Central station did not yet exist.) Essendon’s Alexander McCracken was in the chair.

The Collingwood delegates Mr Beazley and Mr E.L Wilson spoke first. They believed that the Association should pay the club for premiership caps and proposed a motion that "The Association pay the liabilities to the Collingwood club and any other liabilities, and the balance in hand, after receiving the amount from the various clubs, be divided equally among the 13 clubs composing the association.". R.H. McLeod from Melbourne seconded the motion and the chair (McCracken from Essendon) noted what a just and fair proposal it was.

Finally, the chance came for the remaining five clubs to speak. Mr J. Fotheringham of Footscray spoke first in protest then Mr Mitchell from North Melbourne and finally Mr Fitzpatrick from Williamstown. The common thread was that "the five clubs involved intended to remain as an association and have financial charge, and pay their obligations." Or in other words,"Why should the association’s funds be divided up and proportionally given to the exiting clubs when the association was going to continue?"

At around this point, the chairman said ''"that while he was sorry the secession had taken place, the league were doing the proper thing with regard to the finances. If the position taken up now were not perhaps legal, it was strictly equitable. Trouble about the finances would do no good."

After further at attempts by the five clubs to delay the vote, the leaguers forced the vote through. Mr Beazley (Collingwood) said "the object of the league was to dissolve a partnership, and square up the finances".

After the adjournment of the VFA, the VFL club delegates walked out of Young and Jackson's and down to their the Port Phillip Hotel which appears to have been their regular meeting place till around 1908. The five clubs remaining in the VFA continued their meetings over the following years at Young and Jackson's.3536

Site Of Port Phillip Hotel
Site Of Port Phillip Hotel

Port Phillip Club Hotel, Flinders Street J. W Lindt. SLV
Port Phillip Club Hotel, Flinders Street J. W Lindt. SLV

Sportsman Melbourne 24-May-1892 p1 Alexander McCracken VP VFA

With the finances divided the breakaway clubs finally left the VFA.

After announcing the formation of a new competition, the seceding clubs remained in the VFA for over five months, blocking the clubs that wanted to remain in the competition from moving on, as the breakaway clubs controlled the numbers.

Port Melbourne and other clubs were severely in debt at this time. The split in the association reduced their capacity to repay that debt. The exiting clubs, by leaving without warning, the VFL clubs caused a financial crisis on the remaining clubs who had assumed a higher revenue into the future. Taking a share of the VFA funds on the way out was not seen as assisting an amicable exit.

Though the VFL clubs talked of fair treatment, this was probably of the view of the delegates left in Young and Jackson's as they watched the final walkout of the delegates from the VFL clubs.

No Quorum

On Friday March 12th, at Young and Jackson’s, a meeting of the VFA was to have taken place. This time the exiting clubs did not appear leaving only the delegates of the five remaining clubs and delegates from the Brunswick club.
It is clear that the five planned to continue the old association, as they chose not officially act, as they did not have a quorum present.

the delegates now composing the Victorian Football Association were "not taking any;" they are determined to carry on the Association, notwithstanding the difficult position in which the League persists in keeping them; for, be it known that, although the facts as stated above are public property, the seceders refuse to tender their resignations to the parent body; and by this means trying to cripple them in their efforts to induce other clubs to join. - North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-189737

Weekly Times 29-May-1897 p11 Football Favourites
Weekly Times 29-May-1897 p11 Football Favourites

Statements at Annual Meetings

The 1897 annual meetings were the first chance that the committees had to explain what had happened to their supporters. The teams not selected for the new League expressed their disappointment.

Footscray Annual Meeting
At the Royal Hall in Footscray
"Mr J Fotheringham spoke at some length, giving the particulars of eight of the clubs seceding from the associations, and the present position of those remaining in the association. He anticipated that the latter would not suffer any loss or prestige by secession." - Independent (Footscray) 10-Apr-189738

Port Melbourne Annual Meeting
At the Port Melbourne Town Hall, Mr J.J. Sinn read the report of the committee

…" also express our deep regret at the unsportsman like action of a number of clubs, with whom we have been associated tor the past eleven years, seceding from the V.F.A. and forming wrhat is called the Football League.

This has not been done with the idea of improving football, hut solely for the purpose of improving their gate receipts. The less clubs there are the more money to divide is the principal on which the League formed. The five clubs left in the V.F.A. endeavoured to conciliate their autocratic brethren by proposing A and B sections, but these spoilt children would only patronise us by giving affiliation without representation, an idea not to be tolerated by any club with manliness in it." - Standard (Port Melbourne) 10-Apr-189739

Williamstown Annual Meeting
At the Mechanics Institute in Williamstown, Mr F.J. Ogden read the report
…"Your committee desire to refer to the fact that several of the leading clubs have withdrawn from the V.F.A. and formed themselves into a new Association, styled the "Victorian Football League". The V.F.A. however has taken in one new club (Brunswick) making six in all, and they hope to carry on as successfully as in the past……Your committee wish the Association every success, and a short life to the "Professional Group," alias the "Victorian Football League".40

North Melbourne Annual Meeting
At the U.F.S. Hall in North Melbourne Mr F.Mitchell addressed the meeting,
The North Melbourne Club was one of the oldest in the Association, and it was only a matter of gate money which had excluded it from the charmed circle of the League, though it was not altogether certain that the local club would have cast its lot in with the seceders." - North Melbourne Gazette 2-Apr-189741

I cannot find a record

Discussion of the new League at the Annual meetings of the clubs that made it was quite different, sometimes transactional and just like the remaining Association teams, presented with a bit of spin.

Fitzroy Annual Meeting
Since the close of the season delegates from the eight leading clubs (including Fitzroy) met and decided to retire from the Victorian Football Association and form the Victorian Football League. This action was approved of by your Committee, as it was thought by reducing the number of premiership teams renewed interest would be taken in the game. - Fitzroy City Press 8-Apr-189742

Geelong Annual Meeting
At the Wool Exchange,
A new football league had been formed, consisting of the following clubs'—Geelong, Essendon, South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Collingwood, Carlton and St. Kilda, and consequently the club will now withdraw from the old Victorian Football Association. - Geelong Advertiser 10-Mar-189743

St Kilda Annual Meeting
At the Prahran Town Hall, Secretary Wilson read the report.
At the invitation of some of the leading clubs of the Victorian Football Association, the committee had decided to secede from the association and join the newly formed league, such a step being considered to be in the best interests of the club and of football generally. - The Argus 8-Apr-189744

South Melbourne Annual Meeting
At the South Melbourne Cricket Club’s pavilion, “Since the close of the season it had been found necessary to secede from the Victorian Football Association and join the Victorian Football League, the reason being that it was thought advisable to reduce the number of clubs playing for the premiership.45

Essendon Annual Meeting
At the Vienna Café, Mr W.J. Smith commented that ….
The formation of the new league had to be looked upon as inevitable, and it was to be
hoped that the organisation would prove a success. Had his suggestion some time ago been
adopted, and the old association been divided into two sections, the accession of the strong
clubs might not have been necessary.- The Argus 27-Mar-189746

Collingwood Annual Meeting
Collingwood did not offer any explanation of the change to the VFL at their annual meeting. They were focused on celebrating their victory.47

I cannot find a record

Premiership Caps

The V.F.A. also distributed the 1896 premiership caps. Though it appears the manner in which it was done could have been better:

Some of the delegates at the league meeting on Friday night expressed disapproval of the manner in which the old association handed the premiership caps over to the team, Mr. Goding saying that they bad been thrown at the players in the past. Mr. M'Leod said that the finance committee had considered that matter, and in all probability the league would arrange a social evening, to which the premiers would he invited, end at which the caps would be formally handed to the winners. - Leader 17-Apr-189748

Two senior competitions.

The 1897 season started for the first time with two senior competitions in Melbourne. Although observers accepted that the VFL was the stronger competition, they saw the two competitions as rivals. The VFA certainly saw such a rivalry.

The Annual Meeting of the Victorian Football Association was held at Young and Jackson's on 10-April-1897. Office bearers were elected, and votes were held reducing on field players to 18 and allowing behinds to count. It was also proposed by Mr T.S. Marshall that "if an interesting match were required for the charities, the association should challenge the league. There would, he felt sure, be a great crowd to witness a game between representative teams of the rival associations". - The Argus 10-Apr-1897 p.849

The five clubs which were left in the association, but left out in the cold so far us the new body is concerned, are North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Williamstown, Footscray and Richmond. These have been joined by Brunswick, and the six clubs will play under the auspices, and as representatives of the old Victorian Football Association.

The method pursued by the eight league clubs in cutting the painter was not perhaps tho beat that could have been adopted, and I am not surprised at tho discarded clubs taking exception to it. These latter naturally enough saw-only in the new departure a move by which the bulk of the gate receipts of the season were to be shared amongst a reduced number of clubs, and their, practical view of the matter may not be far wrong. In some respects it might have been more satisfactory had the association remained intact as a body, but have divided the clubs into two playing divisions. The character of the matches would have been exactly the same as in the programmes which have been arranged respectively by the two bodies, and the senior clubs which we're not taken into the new league would have had no cause for complaint. - Leader 1-May-1897 50


To limit the effect of their defection, the VFL consitituion and rules issued in February 1897 included the following statement:

4. Any player who has played during season 1896, or plays during season 1897, with any of the clubs at present known as Footscray, North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Richmond or Williamstown shall not be allowed to played during season 1897 with any of tho clubs represented on the league. - Leader 6-Feb-189751

This clause effectively protected the VFA clubs from poaching for 1897. This was a great public relations move but effectively recognised the VFA clubs as senior clubs for the next season, as they received special treatment that the Junior clubs did not. In many ways this made the VFL more reliant on junior players.

On 9th July, a deputation from the Victorian Junior Football Association attended the VFL meeting. They had a number of requests, for financial assistance, recognition of their delegates for free entry into VFL games and finally “that the old rule as to allowing junior players to join the ranks of the seniors only at certain dates be resumed, as the present practice of allowing them to join at any time caused junior teams to become disorganised at critical periods of the season.” – The Age 10-Jul-1897 p11. The VFL asked for the VJFA balance sheet at the end of the season, said no to free admission and would not consider the permit issue until the following year.52

The best way for the VFL to eliminate the VFA would have been to immediately treat them as junior clubs, but this did not happen.

In May 1897, after discussing whether to treat the VFL as a senior organisation, the VFA accepted VFL players with a valid permit.53 But in June the VFL rejected the VFA's request to add treat Brunswick as a Senior club in 1896 and therefore be protected from player poaching.54

In 1898 Markwell, writing in the Australasian was able to report that the League again extended it's protection to the VFA:
The V.F.A. are a compact little body of six clubs, and amongst them there exists so strong a feeling of kinship that one is justified in anticipating for them a peaceful and prosperous season. They entertain no animus against their rivals of the league. On the contrary, they willingly acknowledge the league's high sense of honour as exemplified in their expressed intention to recruit from sources outside the ranks of V.F.A. clubs. This is exactly as it should be. - The Australasian 7-May-1898 p9

In 1899 Prahran and West Melbourne joined the VFA. This time the VFL accepted players with a valid VFA and VFL permit.55

This recognition of the VFA by the VFL would have great consequences over the coming years, but it also indicates that the 1896 split was seen as a schism within the VFA rather than the 'top' teams leaving to form the VFL. In a way, this is a recognition of the strength of the VFA teams and VFA competition.

The Next Hundred Years

The next hundred years saw a schism in Victorian football with the V.F.A rebuilding and having a roller coaster journey as a competition. Richmond joined the VFL in 1908, and North Melbourne, Footscray and Hawthorn in 1925. But Brunswick, Brighton, Northcote, Prahran, Preston and many other teams joined the VFA and over the years it played as a competition of the VFL and later as an alternative Sunday competition.

In the past the VFL has worked to downplay the role of the VFA during the 20th century. This is still evident in how many wikipedia pages are written.

There have been recent claims that the 1877-1896 era should be taken from V.F.A. history and put into VFL/AFL history, the main arguments for this appear to be that 'they were the same clubs'.


But this retelling only works through the lens of VFL interests. Looking through the eyes of Port Melbourne this view of history does not hold up. And nor does it with the facts of what happened in 1896-1897. As this article demonstrates, the VFL was the result of considering and then rejecting reform within the VFA and was done to ensure control by the top clubs.

Marc Fiddian's 'The VFA : a history of the Victorian Football Association (1877-1995)' is one book that tells the history through V.F.A. eyes and is recommended.

Final Notes

In 1896, the 13 team senior football competition which contained too many uneven games. This could have be solved by either splitting the competition in two (or into two tiers or as separate competitions) or by putting in place practices that would even the overall playing field. In 1896 the big clubs did not have the votes at VFA meetings to stop attempts at evening the competition. This above all else caused split and eventual VFL breakaway.

Today, forms of 'socialism' such as sharing gate receipts, salary caps, draft picks and other measures are an accepted part of the game to keep the competition even and exciting for fans. Very different indeed.


Parallels in the 1970's

Anyone interested in this story may also be interested in the struggle for control of football in the 1970’s. Hardballget has a series of reviews of interstate night football competitions that provide a fascinating read.

allso at wikipedia

1. Melbourne Punch 17-Mar-1892 p.11
3. The Australasian 21-Apr-1894 p.18
5. VICTORIAN FOOTBALL (1896, June 2). The Age 2-Jun-1896 p.7
13. Fitzroy City Press 10-Sep-1896 p.2
17. The Australasian 5-Sep-1896 p.18.
21. Port Melbourne Standard 10-Oct-1896 -
22. North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-1897 p.3
23. The Australiasian 3-Oct-1896 -
29. Independent (Footscray) 9-Jan-1897 p.3
30. The Coburg Leader 23-Jan-1897 p.1
32. Standard (Port Melbourne 10-Oct-1896 p.3
33. North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-1897 p.3
34. Standard (Port Melbourne) 20-Mar-1897 p.2
37. North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser 19-Mar-1897 p.3
38. Independent (Footscray) 10-Apr-1897 p.3
39. Standard (Port Melbourne) 10-Apr-1897 p.3 Retrieved July 12, 2019, from 40. WILLIAMSTOWN">]
40. WILLIAMSTOWN FOOTBALL CLUB. (1897, April 10). Williamstown Chronicle 10-Apr-1897 p.3
41. North Melbourne Gazette 2-Apr-1897 p.2
42. Fitzroy City Press 8-Apr-1897 p.3
43. Geelong Advertiser 10-Mar-1897 p.4
47. Mercury and Weekly Courier 9-Apr-1897 p.3.