Bendigo’s footy history stretches back to 19th century
by Richard Jones
When researching stories about Bendigo’s long and storied football history a writer needs to dig deep into 19th century news reports.
Because that’s when it all started.
Not in the early 20th century, say in 1908 or 1910.
No, in the gold rush and deep lead mining times of the mid to late 1800s.
It’s fascinating to note that James Thompson, the sports writer who was one of the four signatories on the original set of guidelines for the code of Aussie Rules, was the first secretary of the Sandhurst Football Club.
After Melbourne and Geelong were established in the late 1850s Ballarat Football Club (1860) and Sandhurst in Bendigo (1861) were formed.
There has been a case mounted in recent years that because Castlemaine was formed in June 1859 they’re one of the oldest footy clubs still going around.
The fact that they didn’t play a competitive season for a decade-and-half seems to have slipped some writers’ minds.
After all, what’s a footy club established for if it doesn’t play football. Nonetheless, Maine’s 1859 date of founding is correct.
Anyway Maryborough, Kyneton and the Maine all formed clubs with members of Melbourne’s professional classes who had moved to country areas essential in the establishment of the new code.
These people were bankers, land commissioners, solicitors and law clerks and businessmen such as hotel proprietors.
They placed the game on a professional footing through their bookkeeping and administrative skills.
Local businessmen in the towns where the ex-city slickers moved to saw the advantage of having a footy team in their own town, so they too became involved.
Shire councillors moved onto club committees, some no doubt with an eye on re-election down the track.
The Melbourne men took Aussie (or Victorian) Rules into the regions and the country, then local men took over the running of their own clubs.
By the 1870s the Victorian Football Association was up and running and it was this body which made decisions about the laws of the code.
The VFA began with five senior clubs in Melbourne: Melbourne, St. Kilda, Albert Park, Carlton and Hotham (later re-named North Melbourne).
There was also a provincial division formed made up of Ballarat, Ballarat Albion, Sandhurst, Kyneton, Geelong and Barwon, a club formed in the industrial area of South Geelong.
Small clubs around the colony of Victoria affiliated with the VFA as the Melbourne body provided formal governance and the chance to play challenge matches against city clubs.
As I wrote in Reflections (back in 2016) Inglewood hosted Melbourne in 1877 and Carlton in 1879.
With city teams travelling up by train from the capital to play challenge matches, such as the games at Inglewood, the game known back then as Victorian Rules continued to grow in popularity.
But there were changes brewing in Melbourne. Geelong and South Melbourne dominated the VFA right through the 1880s (winning seven of the 10 premierships available).
South won in 1881 and 1885 while Geelong notched two hat-tricks of three-in-a row: 1878-1879-1880, 1882-83-84 and again in 1886.
Charles Brownlow (after whom the AFL’s medal for player of the season is named) was one of Geelong’s leading players in the 1880s.
This domination led to talk about forming a breakaway competition, including clubs from Bendigo and Ballarat.
The main gripes of some of the VFA clubs included the distribution of gate takings (there’s the old thorny money question in the headlines even then) and the concern about safety at some grounds.
There was a distinct lack of police protection at Port Melbourne and North Melbourne, the VFA administrators wrote.
In 1896 the VFA virtually sounded its own death knell.
Administrators announced most of the gate takings would be handed to the poorer clubs with the remainder going to charity.
So in late 1896 six VFA clubs broke away to form the Victorian Football League: Geelong, South Melbourne, Melbourne, Fitzroy, Essendon and Collingwood.
They then invited Carlton and St. Kilda to join them – Carlton because men from the original six believed the club could rebound from its recent hard times and the Saints because they needed a team south of the Yarra River.
Importantly, teams from the Goldfields region were not included in the new scheme, although country competitions were invited to seek affiliation with the new VFL.
In 1897, the VFL’s inaugural year, two representative teams were assembled to play against the two best country competitions: Bendigo and Ballarat.
The standing of games against teams representing the new VFL was enhanced because the VFL teams were known as ‘Victoria’.
It turned out that the Victorian teams were not the best the VFL could assemble, but they were still pretty strong.
The first game was Victoria vs. the Bendigo District Football Association (the forerunner of the modern day BFL) at the Upper Reserve on a Wednesday afternoon in June.
Turmoil ensued when the VFL players ran out. They stood around on the ground for 20 minutes waiting for their Bendigo hosts to emerge from the training rooms.
The Bendigo side said they couldn’t come out because the players from Eaglehawk were protesting about the perceived low numbers from their club in the BDFA side.
Finally common sense won out, but the Bendigo team was a shambles and Victoria crushed the hosts.
It was a different story when the Ballarat Football Association side travelled to Melbourne to take on Victoria at Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street Oval.
After the Bendigo game a number of VFL stars reported in ‘injured’ but the Melbourne papers reported that “able replacements were found.”
Ballarat ended up winning, a result which became common over the next decade, proving that the standard of footy in the Goldfields wasn’t far behind that of the competition in Melbourne.
In 1901 the six colonies of Australian joined together to form a federation of states under a Federal Government.
Melbourne was named the nation’s capital making Victorians feel very confident and proud about their place in the new nation.
By 1913 the Bendigo competition had been renamed the ‘Bendigo Football League’ with the two main bodies --- the VFL and the VFA --- constantly at odds, battling over clearances and their position in Victorian footy’s pecking order.
The VFL had introduced in the late Nineties what was popularly accepted as a major innovation: a finals system. The VFA did not follow suit until 1903.
And then when World War 1 erupted in 1914 all country footy bodies went into remission. So, too, did the VFA.
The VFL played right through the war, even with the loss of so many able young men, and that decision was controversial.
Many from both inside and outside the football world felt it was wrong and improper to play a sport when all the energies of the young Aussie nation should have been directed to defeating Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm.
In 1914 and then in 1915 six of the VFL’s 10 clubs went into recess out of respect for the war effort, leaving only four clubs to play on in 1916: Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond.
The fact that the VFL had continued to conduct a competition during the dark years of WW1 gave it a huge edge when the war ended in 1918.
The VFL emerged as the strongest entity in Victorian football, while the VFA never fully recovered. As the 1920s approached many country footy associations changed their names to ‘leagues’ rather then ‘associations’ to stress their links with the VFL.
The national footy council (established in 1906) held two interstate carnivals in Perth (1921) and Melbourne (1927) and Victoria won both.
In a sign of the gap which was emerging between the VFL and country competitions the VFL won almost every match played in this era against the Ballarat and Bendigo leagues.
Excerpts from Paul Daffey’s Behind The Goals: the History of the Victorian Country Football League. Published May 2017.