This article highlights the uncertainty and changes in the meaning of 'the premiership' in this early era of Australian rules football. It illustrates how difficult it is to compare modern AFL premierships to this early era.

There are four key items that illustrate the evolution of this era. They are
  • First is the decision to view 1870 as the starting date for ‘The Premiership’.
  • Secondly the formation of the VFA and the SANFL in 1877 and their lack of relationship to the premiership.
  • Thirdly the inclusion of Geelong and the redefinition of the premiership in 1878.
  • Finally the movement in 1888 by the VFA to control the premiership and establish a points system and a structured season.

The attached chart summarizes this three part story and highlights in RED, the years when the premiership was either too close to call or would have gone to a different team if a more modern points system had been used to decide the premiership.


1869-1870 The start of the 'Premiership'

The World in 1869-1870

In 1869 the United States the Cincinnati Reds became the first professional baseball team and the first season of College Football was played, a key moment in the development of Gridiron.

In 1869 Egypt the Suez canal opened and in 1870 The Melbourne Town Hall is opened. Ned Kelly was beginning his bush ranging career. France defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war. The Papal state was defeated and Rome incorporated into modern Italy. The world’s first underground railway station opened in London and the first ever international Soccer match was played between Scotland and England.

In 1871, Melbourne and it’s suburbs had a total population of 206,780 people, the next biggest towns in Victoria were Ballarat 47,201, Sandridge (now Bendigo ) 28,577, and Geelong 21,459.

Victorian Yearbook 1874 p65
Victorian Yearbook 1874 p65

Note the Victorian Yearbook 1874 (above) has Hotham (now called North Melbourne), Emerald Hill (now called South Melbourne) and Sandridge (now called Port Melbourne).

Illustrated Melbourne Post July 27 1866
Illustrated Melbourne Post July 27 1866

Weekly Times 29-Aug-1908 P28 Carlton 1868
Weekly Times 29-Aug-1908 P28 Carlton 1868

In 1869 Australian Rules football was only ten years old, the game was still developing. The year saw the formation of the North Melbourne football club (juniors until 1874). In 1870 South Australia the Port Adelaide Football Club was founded.

For the first time, games were played in two 50 minute halves and teams no longer had to wait for somebody to score before they changed ends - though the two captains could apply variations to the rules by agreement. Players wore caps to identify which team they belonged to.

By 1870 there was a crude structure in place in Melbourne football. Secretaries of clubs met at the start of the season to draw up a program, each team formed its own schedule for and games were then played. This program was an then ad-hoc arrangement, there was no clear process for determining the winner.

At the 1869 meeting Melbourne, Carlton, South Yarra, Albert Park, and Hobson's Bay Railway were in Attendance.1 At the 1870 meeting: - Melbourne, Carlton, South Yarra, Albert Park, Hobson's Bay Railway, Surrey, Carlton United, and Hotham attended. 2 There is little evidence that any other topics were discussed at these meetings other than the arrangement of matches.

1869 - No Clear Winner

1869 was difficult year for determining the best team in Melbourne. Without a system to determine a winner, both Melbourne and Carlton claimed victory, Mark Pennings provides the following summary of senior games.

Albert Park9353
South Yarra6123
14th Regiment3012

With such an uneven number of games, the palm for the winner of the season was decided by the head to head games between Carlton and Melbourne rather than their overall records. This practice would continue until 1878.

In the head to head games, Carlton and Melbourne were even.

DateVenueCarlton GoalsMelbourne Goals
June 12At Melbourne20
July 17Royal Park- Melbourne01
August 28At Melbourne - drawnnilnil

In a letter to the editor of the Leader, Carlton captain Jack Conway disputed the reputed comments made by HCA Harrison, the Melbourne captain after the August game, that Melbourne were the superior team of the season.

Conway argued that their superior goal record in the three Melbourne-Carlton games demonstrated that Carlton were the superior team. 3 In a letter to the Australian newspaper the following week HCA Harrison, the Melbourne captain disagreed with Conway's view. Newspaper journalistd left the winner of the season undecided. 4

There was no central body or system in place to arbitrate this dispute. The indecision of the 1869 season appears to be the main reason why premiership records often start from 1870.

1870 - The 'Premiership'

The 1870 season was very different from 1869 as during the season Melbourne were undefeated. Albert Park, were also without a loss, and although disputed, held the Challenge Cup’. Melbourne though had the best overall record against Carlton.

1870 Senior Results
1 Melbourne (P) 11 7 40
2 Albert-Park 8 3 50
3 Carlton 8 1 52
South Yarra 4 0 04
Hobson's Bay Railway 3 0 03

In October 1870, ‘Fair Play’, writing his ‘retrospect of the season’ in the Australasian used a new term, that is the word ‘Premiers’, though nothing had changed from the year before in terms of organisation, or method. Subsequent writers have recorded 1870 as the first ‘Premiership’

The Melbourne club have had a very successful season, and the validity of their claim to the title of premier, both as regards the quality of their play and their seniority, cannot be well disputed. Out of the 11 matches which they have played, not one has gone against them; and it was but in the last game played with the Carlton that the first and only goal the season was kicked against them.5

In 1869, ‘Fair Play’ had used the term ‘champion club of the colony’ in the same situation. 6

This term ‘Premiers’ was initially not used by all journalists, or even consistently by ‘Fair Play’ himself, but gradually took hold as the title for the best team of the season.

Robert Russell - Melbourne From Emerald Hill 1870
Robert Russell - Melbourne From Emerald Hill 1870

Samuel Calvert Bourke Street, Melbourne, From The Post Office 1871
Samuel Calvert Bourke Street, Melbourne, From The Post Office 1871

1871-1877 The Melbourne-Carlton Era

Throughout the early 1870’s the premiership, still an unofficial title, was given to the best performer in the Carlton v Melbourne head-to-head matches, as these two teams dominated the era, but by the latter 1870’s and the rise of Geelong this measure became less useful. The Footballer, an official publication of the newly formed Victorian Football Association included reference to this in the 1878 edition.

The opinion was expressed pretty freely during last season that the, old style of settling the premiership, namely, the results of the matches played between Melbourne and Carlton, was about played out. – ‘Punter’, ‘Review of the Season 1878’ - The Footballer 1878 – p96

The 1871-1877 results below clearly show the dominance of Melbourne and Carlton over the other teams in the competition during this era.

For academic interest, if Marshall’s 1888 points system was applied to these earlier seasons then the outcomes would have been quite different. The early system favoured only results against other leading teams, the 1888 system favoured the overall win record.

Changes if the 1888 Points system was used.
  • 1871 premier from Carlton to Melbourne
  • 1872 premier from Melbourne to Carlton
  • 1876 premier from Melbourne to Carlton
  • 1877 premier from Carlton to Melbourne
  • 1878 Carlton had the best Metropolitan average.

1871 Senior Results
1 Carlton (P)13 652
2 Melbourne 15 942
3 Albert-Park 8305
South Yarra 6 0 06

Carlton Fc South Yarra Winners 1871 Wikipedia
Carlton Fc South Yarra Winners 1871 Wikipedia

1872 Senior Results
1 Melbourne (P)15 843
2 Carlton11632
3 Albert- Park7313
South Yarra 6 105

1873 Senior Results
1 Carlton (P) 15 697
2 Melbourne 17 953
Albert- Park12 534

1874 Senior Results
1 Carlton (P) 17 1250
2 Melbourne 18 1215
Albert- Park19 766
North Melbourne11722
St Kilda18288

1875 Senior Results
1 Carlton (P) 17 12 4 1
2 Melbourne 18 12 3 3
3 Carlton Imperial 11 5 4 2
East Melbourne 14 635
North Melbourne 11 6 32
Albert- Park10 0 3 7
St Kilda cum University8035
St Kilda 43 0 1

1876 Senior Results
1 Melbourne (P) 17 10 5 2
2 Carlton 20 15 3 2
3 Albert- Park10 6 2 2
St Kilda 15 5 5 5
East Melbourne 13 3 6 4
Carlton Imperial 8 2 0 6

1877 Senior Results
1 Carlton (P) 21 14 4 3
2 Melbourne 23 16 4 3
3 Hotham 14 7 2 5
Albert- Park12 5 3 4
St Kilda 17 5 5 7

Australian Sketcher 22-Jan-1876 p168 Intercolonial Cricket Match
Australian Sketcher 22-Jan-1876 p168 Intercolonial Cricket Match

Australian Town And Country Journal 9-May-1874 p28 Football
Australian Town And Country Journal 9-May-1874 p28 Football

Australian Sketcher 12-Jun-1875 p41 Football  SLV
Australian Sketcher 12-Jun-1875 p41 Football SLV

Illustrated Australian News For Home Readers 13-Jul-1874 p113 Football In Yarra Park
Illustrated Australian News For Home Readers 13-Jul-1874 p113 Football In Yarra Park

1876 -1877 – Football Associations

1876 A Disputed Premiership

In 1872 and 1874, delegates from the leading clubs met in May, before the start of the season and revised the rules. These meetings were specifically to discuss rules of the game and votes only went to the senior clubs. These were ad-hoc events, and no body yet existed that could adjudicate the rules

During this era on field disputes led to calls for reform. This appears to have come to a head in 1876.

On June 3rd 1876 at Royal Park, 8,000 to 10,000 people had turned up to watch the big Albert Park v Carlton Clash, but there was a delay. Carlton were proposing to play W. Monie who had played with Williamstown earlier in the season. The Albert Park captain saw this as a clear breach of the rules. In the end Albert Park took the field.

"The game was exciting and as darkness crept in the crowd "had gradually been drawing nearer and nearer to the centre, till only a lane was left to the players. When it wanted about five minutes to time being called, the crowd closed in, and the whole ground was a sea of heads, and thus putting a stop to one of the grandest displays of football ever witnessed, neither side having secured a goal."

"The Albert Park captain would not have played, only he was urged to do so by his team, and it was then only under protest. But what would have been the good of a protest if the Carlton had won? Who would decide it? No one. This at once shows that there should be a Victorian Football Association, who should have the power to deal with all such matters, in the same manner as the Cricketing Association. If it is not too late in the season I should like to see one formed now."
Oggmagog - North Melbourne Advertiser 9-Jun-18767

The above game is the first call I can find for a football association.

Later in the year an even bigger controversy took place, which appear to be the catalyst.

In 1876 Carlton were reigning premiers for the last three seasons, (1873 to 1875). In 1876 Carlton and Melbourne played four matches. The first three resulted in a win each and a draw. This led to a big final clash, The public understood this to be the premiership decider, even though both teams played other teams after this game. The match was played on Carlton’s new Madeline street ground and about 6,000 people turned up, the proceeds were going to charity. This new ground had a picket fence to keep the crowd off the playing area, a useful addition.

In this era there were few goals and often one goal would decide a match, Carlton scored first, about 20 minutes into the game when George Coultard kicked to Henry, who kicked a ball off the ground through the posts. The key event in the game then occurred later into the first half and was a disputed mark by Fred Baker of Melbourne.

"F.Baker caught it near the goal posts. He held the ball for a few seconds, while there was an appeal of some kind to Mr. Searcey, (possibly, who acted as central umpire, and then when the decision was given turned smartly round, and before the Carlton men near could prevent him, kicked it cleverly through. There was great cheering from the supporters of Melbourne, but the Carltonians objected to the goal, on the ground that F.Baker had, contrary to rules, pushed one of their men forward as he was about getting the mark which F.Baker secured. The goal umpire, of course, allowed the goal, as the ball went fairly between the posts, and the Carlton men then spoke to Mr.Searcey in a manner he did not like, and he walked off the ground."8

The umpire did not return to the field and fifteen minutes later Mr Bride took the role of umpire and completed a rough game. At half time the scores were level, but Nicholas of Melbourne secured a goal which secured the premiership for Melbourne.

Afterwards umpire Searcey explained that he had meant to say “Free kick to Carlton” but had said “No Mark” instead.9 The premiership was in dispute and there was no forum to find a solution.

The Australian’s Peter Pindar weighted in, damning the confusion from the umpire and calling for the creation of a Football Association.

“The central umpire has been appealed to regarding the protest - how much better if the subject could be referred to a football association-but he shows a strong disposition to run with the bare and hunt with the hounds" in the matter, and will only say if he had not lost his head and temper, and left the ground, he would have given a free kick to Carlton, annulling the goal, as the act of the Melbourne man was manifestly unfair, but he will not say whether the ball was in play or out of play when the goal was kicked, and I suppose, therefore, Melbourne will go on considering the game a win, and Carlton a draw.10

On 5-Oct, only a few days after the big Carlton-Melbourne match, a Letter to the Editor of the Australian strongly defended the Melbourne football club and ended with the following comment:

Next season in all probability a football association will be inaugurated, having power to deal with the conduct of players and infringement of rules, and it is to be hoped this step in the right direction11

1877 The V.F.A. and S.A.F.A

In March 1877, the first Test Cricket Match was played at the MCG and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake debuted in Russia. The year saw the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club begins its first lawn tennis tournament at Wimbledon, and in technology, the installation of the world’s first commercial telephone service (in Canada) and the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison. Inter-colonial cricket was well established in this era, Victoria and New South Wales played regular matches, South Australia would play it’s first game against Tasmania in 1877 and against Victoria in 1880.

The 1877 Footballer, edited by Carlton Secretary T.Power described the introduction of the new Football Association :

“During the last two seasons a Football Association had been frequently suggested, but it was not until the commencement of the present one that the initiative was taken by the Honorary Secretaries of the Senior Clubs, and the project assumed a definite shape. Several meeting were held, at which representatives from the leading clubs discussed, and ultimately approving it desirable, the Victorian Football Association was ushered into existence. Its principal objects were – the promotion and extension of Football throughout the colony; to have the entire control over all inter-colonial contests; to act as a court of appeal in all cases of dispute; to undertake, when required, the revision of the playing riles; and watch over generally and protect the best interests of the game.” - The Footballer – 1877

Footballer 1877 P17
Footballer 1877 P17

These early meetings that Mr Power talks about, do not appear to have made it into the newspapers.

Many modern references argue that the VFA was formed in response to the formation of the SAFL in South Australia, but contemporary references do not bear this out. Overall, the formation of the VFA is not well documented, but some scraps help us out:

Messrs Power and Budd

In April 30 1889 meeting of the VFA, Life Honorary Members were proposed for Messrs: H. C. A. Harrison, T. Power, H. H. Budd, and J. Boyd, these men's names were put forward for their valuable service to football. Importantly secretary T. S. Marshall added a comment, that "Messrs Power and Budd had been the two gentlemen who first took up the formation of the Association, while Mr. Boyd had acted as their secretary."

Carlton Secretary. Tom P. Power was the editor of "The Footballer" which ran from 1875-1881. It was the first publication devoted to Australian Football. At this time he was secretary to the Carlton team.

Henry Hale Budd (Melbourne) was elected first VFA Secretary. He was an umpire and heavily involved in Victorian Cricket. Budd was umpire for first three Melbourne-Carlton Games in 1896. Many would have regretted that he had not umpired the controversial fourth game as well.

1871 T. P. Power (blueseum)
1871 T. P. Power (blueseum)
Leader 13 Jan 1894 P30 Australian Cricket Council HH Budd
Leader 13 Jan 1894 P30 Australian Cricket Council HH Budd

South Australia

At the beginning of 1878 letters appeared in various newspapers discussing the possibility of an intercolonial football match. The first letter appeared in the Australasian in January 1878.12 Other letters soon followed.13 14

Australasian 27 Jan 1877 P13 Football
Australasian 27 Jan 1877 P13 Football
Express And Telegraph Adelaide 8 Feb 1877 P2 Letter To The Editor
Express And Telegraph Adelaide 8 Feb 1877 P2 Letter To The Editor

A key event happened in April when the East Melbourne Cricket team visited South Australia. The East Melbourne cricketers brought news of the newly forming Victorian Football Association.

Intercolonial Football Match. — 'While the East Melbourne cricketers were here, they had some conversation with our leading football players, with a view to arranging an Intercolonial match in Melbourne during the present season. The Melbourne Clubs are forming a Football Association, and the same plan might with advantage be adopted here. - South Australian Register 9-Apr-1877 15

With a proposed inter-colonial match to be arranged, the South Australians quickly jumped on the concept of a football association. Nomad from the South Australian Register called for a South Australian Association on April 9th.16

At the South Adelaide Football Club Annual Meeting on April 17th 1877 there is another glimpse of action in Victoria as a letter was read out from the Carlton Secretary Mr Power, now acting for the new football Association.

A letter was read from Mr. T. P.Power, of Victoria, in reply to a proposal for an intercolonial football match to be played some time this season, which stated that he (Mr. Power) had much pleasure in accepting, on behalf of Victoria, the South Australian challenge. The writer also remarked that he was acting in a pro tempore, for a Football Association which was to be formed in about three weeks' time, and that body would confirm the action taken by him. - Adelaide Observer 21-Apr-187717

On April 19th at the Prince Alfred Hotel in Adelaide , a noisy meeting resolved to form a Football Association, the another meeting was scheduled to formally set up the new body.18 And on April 30 again at the Alfred hotel, the South Australian Football Association was formed.19

South Australian Register 1 May 1877 P7 Football
South Australian Register 1 May 1877 P7 Football

Prince Alfred Hotel, King William Street, 1920 SLSA
Prince Alfred Hotel, King William Street, 1920 SLSA

New South Wales

South Australia was not the only destination in 1877, and the Carlton Secretary proposed games against Sydney teams as well. He proposed a matches against Carlton, and as a representative of the VFA, an inter-colonial match.

A few days before the official formation of the VFA , the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser reported that Sydney representative had met and that the Waratahs would play a series of matches against them, one under rugby rules and the other under Victorian rules. They then turned to the intercolonial offer.

“As to the proposal made by Mr. Power, secretary of the Victorian Football Association, for an intercolonial .match, the idea meets with very general acceptance here/and if it could be managed without clashing with the Waratah-Carlton match we should probably be enabled to send a picked fifteen to Melbourne.” - The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 5-May-1877 20

Unfortunately, the Southern Rugby Union delegate did not attend the meeting owing to the weather and a decision was postponed, and ultimately rejected

“The Southern Rugby Football union had their annual General Meeting on Monday night the 7th of May and voted to not accept the offer of an intercolonial game “Owing “insomuch as the rules under which the game is played in the two colonies are so diametrically different that any attempt to play a match in either of the modes proposed by Mr Power would be unsatisfactory. And the result would be no test of strength of either colony in the game.” - The Sydney Morning Herald 8-Nay-187721

Foundation of the Victorian Football Association

On Friday the 4th of May, the Carlton Football Club had their annual meeting at the Carlton Club Hotel. The club’s thirteenth Annual report was submitted. The controversy around the final match against Melbourne the year before was again discussed. There had been four matches between the two clubs in 1876, the first three resulted in one win each, and a draw. The final game was the de-facto premiership game of the season. In the game an umpiring controversy had resulted in Melbourne player Fred Baker kicking the winning goal.

"The committee in dismissing this vexed subject, regretted having to place on record their disapproval of the proceedings in the match referred to. They were not likely to enhance the value of the game on a public point of view, and to protect its best interests against future abuses the formation of a Football Association was strongly urged."22

The Age 9 May 1877 P2 Victorian Football Association
The Age 9 May 1877 P2 Victorian Football Association

This urge to create an Association is hardly a surprise as a leader of this new Association was the club Secretary. Again, the need for the association appears to be from events in 1876 rather than a reaction to events in South Australia.

And so, as planned the Victorian clubs met on May 7th to form an association at Oliver's Cafe in Collins Street East, opposite the Town Hall (built 1870), near Swanston Street. Unlike the early meeting in South Australia, there was no confusion or debate over the process, the number of delegates, or the rules. This appears to reinforce the idea that there had been earlier informal meetings.23 The foundation members were Melbourne, Carlton, Hotham, Albert Park, St Kilda, Geelong, Barwon, Ballarat, Beechworth, Castlemaine, Inglewood and Rochester.24

Footballer 1877 P23 Senior Clubs
Footballer 1877 P23 Senior Clubs

At this stage the new Association had nothing to do with the premiership. The establishment of a competition premiership with points would be the next major innovation.

Oh…the South Australian intercolonial match fell through in 1877 but a number of inter-club matches were played. Carlton visited New South Wales and played the Waratah’s. On 23 June, Waratah defeated Carlton 2–0 under the rugby rules, and on 25 June, Carlton defeated Waratah 6–0 under Victorian rules. Melbourne visited South Australia and defeated Victorians 1–0 on 11 August, then defeated a composite South Australian team 5–0. St Kilda also visited South Australia and defeated Adelaide 5–2 on 18 August, then defeated a composite South Australian team 7–2.

More information of intercolonial matches of the era can be found at hardballget.

Australian Pictorial Weekly SLV 26-Jun-1880
Australian Pictorial Weekly SLV 26-Jun-1880

NSW Waratah Club v Carlton - Australian Town And Country Journal 30-Jun-1877 P20
NSW Waratah Club v Carlton - Australian Town And Country Journal 30-Jun-1877 P20

Australasian Sketcher 6 Jul 1878 P8 Wreck Of The Loch Ard
Australasian Sketcher 6 Jul 1878 P8 Wreck Of The Loch Ard

Ned Kellys - The Sydney Mail And New South Wales Advertiser 10 Jul 1880 P64
Ned Kellys - The Sydney Mail And New South Wales Advertiser 10 Jul 1880 P64

Albert Charles Cooke 1881 SLV
Albert Charles Cooke 1881 SLV

1878-1887 From Metropolitan to Victorian

The early VFA era saw many teams come in and out of the senior competition. By 1883 there six teams, but by 1887, including the three Ballarat teams, there were 18 teams in the Senior premiership. Without a clear method to determine the premiership, the titleholder was not always clear-cut.

Albert Park -1880
Barwon 1877-1878
Geelong 1877-
Hotham 1877-
Essendon 1878-
South Melbourne 1879
West Melbourne 1879-1881
East Melbourne 1880-1882
Fitzroy 1884-
Williamstown 1884-
Richmond 1885-
University 1885-1887
Port Melbourne 1886-
StKilda 1886-
Footscray 1886-
Prahran 1886-1887
South Williamstown 1886-1887

1878-1887 Geelong on top

In 1878, Melbourne were considered Metropolitan premiers. Geelong played most of their games against other provincial clubs. The Melbourne and Geelong clubs arranged a playoff game at the end of the season to determine the premier of the colony. In front of 7,000-8,000 people at the M.C.G., Geelong were victorious five goals to one.

This playoff game was effectively between the winners of two separate competitions.

In 1879, the Barwon club, Geelong's main competition through the 1870's dissolved. Geelong, now effectively played as a metropolitan team. This increased the difference between the metropolitan and regional teams and subtly changed the definition of the premiership.

1878 Senior Results
1 Geelong (P) 4 4 0 0
2 Melbourne 16 6 5 5
3 Carlton 13 8 0 5
Hotham 10 4 2 4
Essendon 10 3 4 3
West Melbourne 10 2 3 5
Albert- Park13 2 6 5
St Kilda 6 1 2 3

The adhoc process of teams getting together at the start of the season to work out a calendar continued. The premiership was also no longer decided by the head to head of Melbourne v Carlton, this led to a number of years where history provides an 'official' premier, but at the time there was no clear winner. 1880, 1881, 1883 and 1887 were less clear than record books often show.

Geelong Football Club Team, Circa 1877. Courtesy GFC
Geelong Football Club Team, Circa 1877. Courtesy GFC


Geelong was undefeated in 1879, so there was little confusion in the premiership. Peter Pindar in the Australasian summed it up as :

Foremost among the clubs comes Geelong, which has gone through this season, as it did that of 1878, without a single reverse, and defeated all the metropolitan clubs in turn, besides sending a team to Adelaide, which thrashed all the clubs there, jointly and severally.25

Melbourne Football 1st Twenty. Season 1879 SLV
Melbourne Football 1st Twenty. Season 1879 SLV


Geelong, South Melbourne and Carlton had similar records, but Geelong's was fractionally better. The Australasian newspaper correspondant wrote:

Coming to the clubs themselves, I candidly confess a great difficulty this year in assigning the first position, the performances of three of the clubs (Geelong, Carlton, and South Melbourne) being so equal in point of merit that each has a fair claim for first position. Carlton has played the most matches, won most, lost the same number (two) as each of the others, and drawn fewer than the South and more than the Geelong, kicked about the same average of goals as Geelong, and a much better one than the South. The latter, however, shows a shade better in senior matches, and beat Carlton in both their contests together. Carlton shows a better average in senior than other only being beaten once, and these are the real tests. I think this may be regarded as a sol __difficulty, and very well begin the list with that club. - The Australasian 16-Oct-188026

Top Teams 1880
Top Teams 1880


In 1881 the records of Geelong and South Melbourne were nearly identical, the Herald27 and Australasian called it for South Melbourne. The Weekly Times saw no clear premier 28.

Top Teams 1881
Top Teams 1881


1882 was clearly Geelong’s season. Peter Pindar again:

Among the clubs themselves Geelong undoubtedly claims pride of place this year, as on the analysis of the senior matches it far outstrips all competitors - The Australasian 7-Oct-188229


The season was close. Peter Pindar at the Australasian, gave the season marginally to Geelong based on their overall senior record30 But South Melbourne had beaten Geelong twice and Pindar's view was not unanimous. The Sportsman saw no clear premier.

The performances of the several senior clubs for the past season will be found in a tabulated form below, end it will thus be seen that the Geelong has slightly the best of the average; but that of the South Melbourne is almost as good, and as they beat the Geelong in both their matches, their claims for the premiership must be regarded as about equal. - Sportsman 10-Oct-188331

Top Teams 1883
Top Teams 1883


1884 Geelong clearly had the best record

Geelong Football Club 1884
Geelong Football Club 1884

1888-1896 A VFA Premiership

1884 – 1886 Calls for Change

In 1884 the issue of the VFA deciding the premiership was raised at an Association meeting. Some delegates were of the opinion that any VFA plan would be useless “because the public would form their own opinion as to which was the premier club, whatever the decision of the association might be”. These words, eight years after the formation of the VFA show how separate the concepts of premiership and VFA actually were at that time.32

Argus 3-May-1884 p6 Victorian Football Association
Argus 3-May-1884 p6 Victorian Football Association

Follower, writing in the Leader in 1885 gives another example of how unlinked the VFA was from the premiership.

"I am pleased to hear that at last my oft repeated suggestion, that a system of points to determine the premiership should be adopted, is to be brought under the consideration of the association, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Marshall’s motion may result in the association coming to such an understanding as will effectually prevent the possibility of doubt or discussion as to what club in future shall be entitled to the premiership. 1 am inclined to think that the associated clubs desirous of competing for the premiership should be required to register a formal entry for the competition in connection with which a Victorian Football Association Cup could be established. Such a course would do away with any doubt as to whether such and such matches ought or ought not to be counted." - Leader 19-Sep-188533

Follower's suggestion for a special “VFA Cup’ would make no sense if the competing clubs were already competing for an official premiership.

TheNationalGame   Arthur Streeton 1889
TheNationalGame Arthur Streeton 1889

Geelong 1888 -The Road To Kardinia  Russell Stephens
Geelong 1888 -The Road To Kardinia Russell Stephens

Carlton 1888 - Footballs Forgotten Tour -  John Williamson
Carlton 1888 - Footballs Forgotten Tour - John Williamson

1887-1888 - the Marshall plan

In 1887 there was still no official system for determining the premiership, it was still acclaimed by newspapers and not by the VFA. By the 1880’s the premiership, and the rule of thumb was that the premiership was awarded to the team who had lost the least number of games. Geelong’s relegation to second in 1887 was due to a loss in Ballarat, where they effectively fielded a B team in a game that they believed would not be counted. This appears to be a final catalyst for change (though discussions had started earlier that season).

By late 1887, the Association finally developed an official points system to help determine the premiership. This would be first used in 1888.34

Argus 8-Oct-1887 p13
Argus 8-Oct-1887 p13

Apart from taking over the deciding of the premiership, the VFA also made other reform efforts.

They reduced the number of competing clubs. The dispute at Williamstown was ended and the two clubs formed back into one, the Prahran and St Kilda clubs combined and the Ballarat teams effectively eliminated from premiership with a threshold set for minimum games played against other senior sides.

1888 was the first year the Association created a symbol for the premiership as for the first time they presented ‘Premiership caps’ to the winning team.35. The early 1890’s see the first references in football to a "Premiership flag". (In 1889 the Victorian Cricket Association began playing for a "Premiership Pennant".36)

1888 is possibly the first time that ‘VFA and ‘premiership’ became one.

Alick Dicks 1893 Premiership Cap - Essendon FC
Alick Dicks 1893 Premiership Cap - Essendon FC

1894 Scheduling Changes

By 1894 the Association had taken the schedule away from the leading clubs and each senior team played each other the same number of times. This format would essentially be used for the next hundred years.

Listings of premierships

In 1892, the Victorian Sporting Guide was a popular annual for the season happily produced a table listing premiership winners back to 1870 without any separation between the VFA and non-VFA years. At first glance there is no separation of 1870-1876 and 1877+, and this seems strange, as that is when the VFA started, but this a list of the best teams in Melbourne over time, regardless of competition or method used to pick the premiership. This was easily understood by contemporary readers. Variations of this table were used until around 1917.

From about 1910 there were attempts to label the all premierships since 1870 as ‘League Premierships’, but this confusion was abandoned by 1918. This attempt correlated with a rise in tension between the VFA and the VFL.

Victorian Sporting Guide 1894 P39
Victorian Sporting Guide 1894 P39

1903 Victorian Football Follower N23 11 Sep P26 SLV
1903 Victorian Football Follower N23 11 Sep P26 SLV
1910 Victorian Football Follower R26 P30
1910 Victorian Football Follower R26 P30
AFL Record 1912 Week 4 Finals P29
AFL Record 1912 Week 4 Finals P29
AFL Record 1913 Week 4 Finals P25
AFL Record 1913 Week 4 Finals P25
AFL Record 1916 Week 4 Finals P11
AFL Record 1916 Week 4 Finals P11
AFL Record 1917 Week 4 Finals P11
AFL Record 1917 Week 4 Finals P11
VFL Football Record 1920 Week 3 Finals P27
VFL Football Record 1920 Week 3 Finals P27

1897 and beyond

The concept of the premiership continued to evolve after 1888, and I see three key shifts in that evolution. The split creating the VFL, the creation of a finals system and the shift in the concept to a national competition.

THE VFA/VFL Split in 1897

The split in the competition in 1896 forced People in Melbourne to think of ‘the Premiership’ in a new way. Until that time there had been only one competition in the city, but now there would be a VFA premiership and a VFL premiership.

For the first time people had to ask themselves, was this new premiership the same thing as the old; Also, was the VFL premiership for the best team in the state, or was it just the premiership of the strongest competition.,,another new distinction.

As the VFA competition re-established itself from 1897-1907, the VFL teams had a definite edge on the VFA, but in the period just before the first world war, the VFA had a resurgence with Brunswick, North Melbourne and Footscray fielding strong teams.

Herald 20 Aug 1909 P2
Herald 20 Aug 1909 P2


The next major evolution of the premiership was again in 1897. The newly created VFL created a two part season, with the minor premiership, followed by a second round, what we now consider to be a finals series. This created more excitement late in the season.

This new system meant that the ‘Premier’ became the winner of the finals competition and not the team with the best overall record for the season. This was another fundamental change.

Herald 22 Jul 1910 P2 A Stiff Climb
Herald 22 Jul 1910 P2 A Stiff Climb

Interstate Teams

The final variation of the concept of the ‘Premiership; was the shift from being a Victorian competition title, to that of a national competition.

During the 20th Century, the SANFL and WAFL produced great teams. There was no regular playoff at the end of the season between teams from the various competitions and no way to determine the national premier.

It is worth noting that Port Adelaide defeated Melbourne teams in 1910, 1913 and 1914 to win matches billed as “Championships of Australia’, and in 1972, SANFL premiers North Adelaide defeated Victorian premiers Carlton in a similarly billed competition.

The expansion of the VFL, the rebranding of the competition as the AFL and the establishment of AFL clubs in South Australia and Western Australia significantly shifted the concept of 'the Premiership', winners were no longer just the best teams in the VFL, but the best team in the country.

Interstate Clubs 1987
Interstate Clubs 1987

In Conclusion

Because premierships evolved separately from the organising bodies of the VFA and VFL/AFL, talking about premierships can be confusing. Geelong can fairly say that they won seven senior premierships between 1870 and 1896. But as these were won prior to 1888, these are hardly VFA premierships.


In 1870 the Champion Club of the Victorian Colony was clearly the Melbourne Football Club, acclaimed 'premier' by the Leader newspaper.….there was no official competition, just a collection of senior clubs.... This was seven years before the formation of the VFA and 18 years before there was a points system, 27 years before the VFL existed and finals were played.

One must say the concept of 'AFL premier' today is very different to what existed in 1870 and that the concept has evolved greatly over that time.


4. The Australasian 11-Sep-1869 p.13
5. The Australasian 22-Oct-1870 p.12
6. The Australasian 16-Oct-1869 p. 12
7. North Melbourne Advertiser 9-Jun-1876 p. 2.
10. The Australasian 30-Sep-1876 p.12
12. The Australasian 27-Jan-1877 p.13
13. The Express and Telegraph 8-Feb-1877 p.2
14. The Express and Telegraph 10-Feb-1877 p.3
15. South Australian Register 9-Apr-1877 p.5.
16. South Australian Register 9-Apr-1877 p. 7
17. Adelaide Observer 21-Apr-1877 p.4
18. Evening Journal 20-Apr-1877 p.3
19. South Australian Register 1-May-1877 p.7
20. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 5-May-1877 p.566
21. The Sydney Morning Herald 8-Nay-1877 p. 5
24. Mark Pennings, Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History Volume 2, 1877 to 1885, P17
25. The Australasian 18-Oct-1879 p.13
26. The Australasian 16-Oct-1880 p.12
28. Weekly Times 1-Oct-1881 p.20.
29. The Australasian 7-Oct-1882 p.13
30. The Australasian 6-Oct-1883 p.14.