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Tony Ward

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Melbourne workers won Saturday afternoons off in the 1860's, and without that, AFL probably wouldn't be the city's dominant code today.

A new study by the University of Melbourne, to be published in the journal Sporting Traditions, questions the fairytale origins of Aussie rules.

The study found that the 1856 campaign for the eight-hour workday was the most important step in Aussie rules becoming Melbourne’s dominant sporting code.

Study author Dr Tony Ward said the ‘creation moments’ of footy, such as Tom Wills’ letter to Bell’s Life and the famous three-day Scotch College-Melbourne Grammar game in 1858, were not as important to the dominance of Aussie rules as many think.

“For a sport to become the dominant code, more than anything, it needs to attract large numbers of paying spectators,” said Dr Ward, an honorary research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies.

In the 1850’s, Melbourne’s population boomed with the gold rushes, but people worked long, six-day weeks. Then, in 1856, stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne won the right to an eight-hour working day, and other trades soon followed.

In the 1860’s and 70’s, Melbourne workers became the first in the world to win Saturday afternoons off.  At the same time, various Aussie rules competitions were getting off the ground.

“Workers wanted entertainment and to let off steam when they clocked off on Saturday afternoon. A trip to the footy was the ideal outlet,” said Dr Ward.

Workers in Sydney didn’t get Saturday afternoons off until the 1880’s, by which time the English football codes were well established. Dr Ward said there was probably also an element of Sydney-Melbourne rivalry in Sydney rejecting Aussie rules. “Back then, they were called the ‘Victorian Rules of Football’, and I am sure that didn’t help the promotion of the sport in Sydney.”

If Melbourne had similar timing, Dr Ward said rugby or soccer would probably have become the dominant code in Victoria, too.

But by 1880, Melbourne footy crowds were up to 15,000 strong, and Aussie rules was here to stay.

“If the AFL wants to truly celebrate the moment Aussie rules’ dominance was assured, they should put up a statue at the MCG celebrating the eight-hour work day,” said Dr Ward.