Henry Harrison has long been regarded as one of the founding lights of Aussie Rules and indeed was christened “Father of the Game” back in the 1860s. But was he? It’s something I wasn’t aware of until reading Roseville Rod Gillett’s and Ian Granland’s 2019 Journal of the NSW Australian Football History Society.
We’ve all had plenty of time to read and research during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, so to see Harrison downgraded from the equivalent level to the legendary Tom Wills was something of a mini-bombshell.
Input from a journalist named ‘Cynic’ in a 1908 edition of the Referee newspaper convincingly argues that Harrison was not involved with drafting the first rules of the game in 1859.
So that’s good. Sense and sensibility have been restored.
The four members of the MCC committee who drafted the first rules of our game were TW (Tom) Wills, WJ Hammersley, JB Thompson and Thomas ‘Football’ Smith.
Hammersley served as sports editor of The Australasian newspaper for 18 years and in 1883, after retiring from journalism, gave an account of footy in the early days.
“When the game first started in Victoria on anything like a regular basis (in the late 1850s, in fact) it was a very rough game and no mistake.
“My shins now show honourable scars and often I had the blood trickling down my legs.
“No wonder, for hacking was permitted and no objection was raised about spiked shoes.
“One day, however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond paddock when blood had been drawn freely and some smart blows exchanged, as well as a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better,” Hammersley recalled.
The veteran journalist recalled Tom Wills suggesting the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself. “So the result was to adjourn to the Parade Hotel close by and think the matter out. This we did. “The following result was reached after several drinks: the formation of a committee consisting of Tom Wills, myself, JB Thompson and Thomas ‘Football’ Smith as he was termed. ‘Football’ was a master in the Scotch College, a rattling fine player and a splendid kick, but of a very peppery disposition.”
Hammersley wrote that the elected committee drew up the rules after deciding that a simple code, including as few rules as possible, be used.
“We did so and the rules then drawn up form the basis of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and most other parts of Australia.
“I feel sure that neither Rugby nor the Association code (a reference to soccer) will ever supplant these rules,” wrote Hammersley.
Remembering that even though the quoted article was written in 1908 Hammersley’s remarks were from 1883, much closer to the dates of the origin of the code.
Journalist ‘Cynic’ concluded in his 1908 article “in light of this indisputable, corroboratory evidence there could not be any doubt that Mr HCA Harrison was not the Father of the Game”.
So who was Henry Harrison, known as HCA Harrison in the style of the 19th century? Well, he was born near Picton in NSW in 1836, then travelled with his family to Melbourne in 1850. “He was an athlete who excelled at “pedestrianism” (athletics) then went on to play for three clubs: Richmond, Melbourne and Geelong before returning to Melbourne again,” the NSW Football History Society journal states.
He was captain at all three clubs, but is also widely acknowledged as being solely responsible for drafting the second revision of the rules of the code in 1866.
Harrison’s changes were adopted unanimously, so maybe later footy writers mixed up the foundation rule-writers with Harrison’s following contribution: the amendments.
Incidentally, the very first game of Aussie Rules is acknowledged as being played in 1858 between teams from Melbourne private schools: Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar.