How Australia’s Rich Tried (and Failed) to Cancel Football

To drum up support for World War I, Australia’s ruling class tried to cancel the 1915–17 seasons of the Victorian Football League, labeling fans “truculent shirkers” and “hoodlums.” This did not go over well with the game’s working-class fans.

Men on the front line were still following the football season and their teams with the same vigor as they had when they were at home. (Photo credit: Australian War Memorial)

In 1916, a debate raged in Australia over conscription for World War I. Billy Hughes, who had become Labor prime minister in 1915, led the “Yes” campaign. He was joined by every non-Catholic church, the Salvation Army, most newspapers, the judiciary, business leaders, and “just about every influential public man in Australia.”

At the head of the “No” campaign stood most Labor Party members (against their leader), the Victorian Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World. They were joined by trade unionists, feminists, and Irish Catholics incensed by the British suppression of the Easter Uprising.

In October 1916, 52 percent of those polled — over 1.1 million — voted no. The Labor Party expelled Hughes, who took many MPs with him. He eventually joined with the Commonwealth Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party, which held power, with Hughes as prime minister, until 1923. Undeterred, Hughes scheduled a second conscription referendum for December 1917.

Meanwhile, the 1917 Victorian Football League (VFL) season was set to commence in May. Following failed calls to suspend the 1915 and 1916 seasons, football once again became a battleground between the pro-war establishment and VFL fans, who were working-class, pro-union, and staunchly anti-conscription.

Truculent Shirkers and Respectable Warmongers

Not satisfied with the extent of its unpopularity among workers, Billy Hughes’s government added its voice to demands that the 1917 season be called off, hoping this would build support for conscription. It later sent army recruiters to every game. Football fans responded with such anger that the recruiters were forced to retreat well before the game finished, for fear of being attacked afterward.

The Bulletin, an influential periodical associated with the White Australia policy, missed the point completely. Its editorial labeled supporters “truculent shirkers” and claimed that “football crowds are notoriously intolerant of plain facts … the football barracker … fastens his mind to his club colors as party dogma, and reckons it his duty as a man to howl the opposition down.”

This was hardly exceptional — at the time, it was de rigueur for journalists to launch screeds against working-class football crowds. Yet class politics also divided the VFL internally. Just a few years prior, in 1915, the VFL season commenced on April 24. Just one day later, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli, in the former Ottoman Empire. It was Australia’s first major military engagement in the war.

Essendon and South Melbourne both played in round one and lost. Perhaps this added an incentive to their decision to join Melbourne, St Kilda, and Geelong in putting a motion to the VFL board to discontinue the season, in support of the war effort. Carlton also lost — but in a display of working-class solidarity, they joined the team that had beaten them, Fitzroy, in voting against the motion. Richmond and Collingwood (who had beaten Melbourne and Essendon, respectively) also voted against.

The Argus, a conservative daily broadsheet, claimed that the teams voting to continue the season were in dire financial straits, and were only in it for the money. But in reality, only Carlton was on the brink of bankruptcy. Richmond, Fitzroy, and Collingwood maintained a fairly comfortable financial position. The real explanation had much more to do with the class composition of the teams.

The neighborhoods from which the no-voting teams drew their names are now considered quite well-off. But back in 1915, with the partial exception of Carlton, they were largely working-class districts, each containing more than a few blocks of slums. In contrast, the teams that called for the season to be cancelled were from well-to-do neighborhoods.

The pro-cancellation teams led by example and boycotted in 1915 and 1916. By 1917, Geelong and South Melbourne had caved and rejoined the competition. St Kilda, Essendon, and Melbourne continued to boycott — although the Melbourne Cricket Club (which owned the Melbourne Football Club) still hired out the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for games. Their patriotism did not extend to sacrificing profits earned from the season they wished to cancel.

Class Conflict in Australian Rules Football

Working-class attendance at matches grew over the late nineteenth century, partly because the industrial working class of Melbourne had more money for leisure than their British counterparts. By 1888, a football game between Carlton and South Melbourne attracted a crowd of thirty to thirty-five thousand — then about 7 percent of Melbourne’s population. It was rapidly becoming a workers’ game, in contrast to sports like golf, tennis, and cricket that were considered civilized pastimes for the middle and upper classes.

As historians Robert Pascoe and Mark Pennings detail, footy-loving crowds in colonial Victoria had created their own unique culture that the middle classes regarded as “uncivilized.” As audiences swelled, concerned citizens demanded that the unruly football crowds be disciplined, sometimes calling for the prohibition of the sport.

They argued that prohibition would stop “lewd behavior amongst the plebeian social order.” These moral reformers also took up arms against “highly uncivilized” sports such as dog and cock fighting and “folk football,” as well as the drinking and gambling that went along with them.

In the early twentieth century, the stake of the middle classes in football was further threatened by a thriving, new system of club membership in which working-class supporters could subscribe to their team and, in return, enjoy a more formalized influence over it. Today, Australian football clubs claim over a million members. This system of club membership is unusual in national sporting competitions; the early twentieth century press saw it as a threat.

This is not to say that middle- or upper-class people did not attend games. But when they did, stadium layouts made class divisions readily apparent. Middle- and upper-class attendees were seated in the grandstands and members’ sections, and were expected to act in accordance with restrained, bourgeois standards of conduct. Workers who insisted on enjoying football “inappropriately” were relegated to the “standing room only” area known as the “outer.”

It was fairly common practice for fans to wait for and attack rival players and umpires as they left the grounds after the game. For middle-class journalists who couldn’t understand team loyalty, this was perplexing — and more than a little frightening.

These differences explain why talk about calling off the 1915 VFL season was immediately understood in class terms. The left-leaning Melbourne newspaper Truth published an article asking why Toorak (a wealthy suburb, both then and now) was “… urging the toiler to go forth to battle,” to protect property interests: “What about the golfing gawks and tennis toffs?” the newspaper asked.

War in the Victorian Football League

By the time the war started in 1914, football crowds were massive. The 1913 grand final between Fitzroy and St Kilda drew sixty thousand people. Columnists described fans as “hoodlums and barrackers,” unlike the “better class of citizen” that they believed had typified audiences of years gone by.

At the same time, the trade union movement had been steadily growing. In 1912, union density was at 31 percent, the highest in the world at the time. Between 1914 and 1918, the number of days lost to strikes was at its highest point ever in Australia’s history. Given this, and the fact that working-class Melbournians worked, lived, and sought recreation in their local areas, it’s reasonable to assume that trade unionists made up a sizable proportion of the football crowds.

The trade unions vehemently opposed conscription. They argued that World War I was a trade war, and they refused to see workers used as cannon fodder in a conflict between rulers. So, the unions organized strikes in the lead up to the 1916 referendum, and a general strike in 1917. Anti-conscription Labor politicians occupied positions on many football clubs’ boards, in both of the major organizations of the time, the VFL and the Victorian Football Association (VFA).

Inner-city, working-class suburbs were also home to large numbers of Irish Catholics. Many were led by the recently installed Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, whose opposition to conscription was partly born of an Irish nationalist hatred of Great Britain.

For the upper classes, then, canceling the season and getting the crowds out of the grounds and onto the battlefield served two interests. Of course, they wanted more fodder for their trade war. But they also wanted to discipline the poorly behaved football crowds that they publicly condemned, and privately feared.

As war propaganda illustrates, Billy Hughes’s army recruiters tried to convince fans that frontline troops felt betrayed by footballers and crowds back home who were carrying on at games while they risked their lives for the empire. But this isn’t how men on the front line saw it; they were still following the season and their teams with the same vigor they had at home.

When Collingwood made the grand final in 1917, a former player on active service in France sent players a good-luck charm made from a German shell. It helped — in September 1917, Collingwood won the grand final in front of 28,400 people.

Just one month prior, in August, unions had organized a nation-wide general strike of 100,000. On one occasion, 150,000 people marched in Sydney. Although the aftermath was ambiguous, the strike was crucial to defeating Billy Hughes’s second conscription referendum, scheduled for December 1917. Although not quite as momentous, Collingwood’s win surely played its part.

The More Things Change

Sadly, but necessarily, much of the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19. Although the sport has been transformed over time, there is still class conflict at the heart of Australian Rules Football (as VFL is now known).

For example, following years of commercialization, many games are only available to watch on paid streaming services. So, to avoid losing revenue, the AFL opted to evacuate teams from states hit by the coronavirus, housing them in Hunger Games-style hubs. All the while, players’ salaries were slashed in half, leaving some looking for a second job. Middle-class dismay at rowdy crowds is still an annual tradition, come the grand final.

Yet as a sport, AFL has been uniquely defined by its passionate support base and democratic ethos. Without the crowds, the “poor man’s and poor woman’s amusement” (as it was described in 1915) wouldn’t be the same. As the nation reopens, crowds have only begun to return in limited numbers.

But on the bright side, at least 2020 spared us the moralistic rants about audience behavior. And if the game’s history is anything to go by, the crowds will be back, enjoying a beer without much concern for respectability — unless, of course, you’re seated in the exclusive section at the Melbourne Cricket Club.