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.