The South Adelaide Football Club, 1876-1900

A short history of the early decades of the South Adelaide Football Club, 1876-1900


Moves to establish a South Adelaide Football Club began in 1875 and were formalised in April the following year. The club is not to be confused with the ‘South Adelaide’ team that is referenced in newspapers from earlier years. This was a division of the Adelaide Football Cub which had been formed in 1860. This Adelaide entity arranged intra-club matches between different groupings of its players, and some of these matches, as reported at the time, were between its players that lived north of the Torrens, ‘North Adelaide’, and south of it, ‘South Adelaide’.

The first attempt to create a South Adelaide Football Club in its own right occurred in 1875 when a group of Adelaide Football Club players broke away to form a South Adelaide team. This team is known to have played at least one match in 1875. On 21 August that year, South Adelaide played Kensington in the south parklands, losing four goals to one. The team was captained by E Colbey and it was reported that South’s lone goalkicker on the day was a player by the name of Dexter. [1] The history of the South Adelaide Football Club, therefore, could well be dated from 1875.

In April 1876, however, a group of prominent Adelaide men including Charles Cameron Kingston, the future premier of the state and founding father of Australian federation, formed an intention to establish a new South Adelaide Football Club. A meeting was convened for this purpose at the Draper Memorial Schoolroom, which was connected to the Drapier Memorial Church on Gilbert Street, later known as the Apostolic Church until its demolition in 1971. At this meeting, held on 12 April 1876, a South Adelaide Football Club was established. Accordingly, from this date two such clubs were in existence. Within a few days, however, the 1875 group threw in their lot with the new, and the identity of South Adelaide was settled.

The Draper Memorial Church on Gilbert Street.

The 1870’s

The South Adelaide Football Club was created just in time for the upcoming 1876 season. This season, like those preceding it, appears to have been little more than a series of invitational matches played between the various teams that existed in Adelaide and parts of rural South Australia at the time. The first match South Adelaide is known to have played was against the team that called themselves Victorian, a local Adelaide team that drew inspiration, seemingly, from those playing the game in the south-east of the country. [2] This match was played at the base of Montefiore Hill on the field now known as Adelaide Oval No. 2, on Saturday 20 May 1876. A further eight games are known to have been played by South Adelaide throughout 1876, all under the captaincy of former Carlton player, George Kennedy, for a record of four wins, four losses and one draw. Trevor Gyss suggests that South Adelaide was the champion team this year. [3] How this was possible with a 4-4-1 record is not clear. Maybe more matches were played than the nine for which there is surviving evidence. Either way, the method used for deciding the season winner in 1876 is not known.

The following season, however, saw the creation of a governing body. Established on 30 April 1877, the South Australian Football Association appears to have been created in an effort to impose some kind of order upon the season that was soon to start. It published a ‘season fixture’ but teams were free to arrange further matches between themselves, with these extra matches counting towards the season’s competition provided the teams concerned gave the Association one week’s notice of their intended match. For that reason, South Adelaide played thirteen games for the season despite the fixture scheduling them for only eight. Accounts vary on how many teams took part in the competition (it was at least nine). Nor did all teams play anywhere near an equal number of games. Nonetheless, in this first season conducted under the auspices of the SAFA, South Adelaide took the honours. There was no finals series. The title was awarded to the team that finished the season on top. South Adelaide finished equal top on wins with Victorian, but South, with only one goal kicked against it for the season, was awarded the title on goal average. [4]

End of season ladder, 1877.

From the beginning the team wore blue and white. In 1876 the players wore a plain dark blue guernsey with white knicker bottoms and blue and white striped socks and caps, then from the early 1880’s through to the World War 1 Interregnum, the guernsey was one of blue and white hoops, with the thickness of the hoops varying in the guernseys of some years. [5] Partly because of its training and playing locations on the outskirts of the city, South Adelaide became known as the ‘city club’. [6] Between 1876 and 1881 the team trained and played in the south parklands towards the corner of South Terrace and Hutt Street, with the Arab Steed Hotel doubling as a ‘clubroom’. For a few years from 1880 the team also used the south parkland area between Hutt Road and Beaumont Road, where the South Terrace Croquet Club is now situated. [7] South’s long tenure at Adelaide, which was to last for more than a century, began in 1882. The ‘city club’ tag might also have been partly attributable to William Light’s Survey for the city, which consisted of two districts. ‘North Adelaide’ was designated as everything north of Barton Terrace and ‘South Adelaide’ was everything south of North Terrace. This area labelled ‘South Adelaide’ by Light, was now the city.

Football in the 1870’s was a fast-growing Saturday entertainment in Adelaide and surrounds. These were the days when admission into the ground for adults, with horse and carriage left outside, was a sixpence; umpires were appointed by the home team; boundary umpires signalled their decision with a white hanky; behinds were counted but did not register a point towards the score (not until 1898); players wore caps; and when a players took a mark they threw their cap on the ground to mark the spot (‘marking’ the spot in this way, whether with a cap or otherwise, is sure to have been the origins of the word ‘mark’ for a catch). It was a rugged, manly game and the presence of South Adelaide was vital to its early success. During these early years the list of teams that competed was rarely the same from one season to the next. Clubs merged or folded, new ones were created, or clubs that had folded returned. South Adelaide was a constant through it all and, as historian John Devaney observed, ‘would play a highly significant, but surprisingly little feted, role in helping create an enduring identity for football both in Adelaide, and in the colony as a whole’. [8] This was due in no small part to the role of South Adelaide Secretary, Charles Cameron Kingston. If not for Kingston, as Devaney observes, South Australia would probably have been a rugby state. [9]

The remainder of the 1870’s proved to be a controversial period for South Adelaide. In 1878, the second SAFA season, Norwood joined the competition and won the flag at their first attempt. They seemed especially pleased at having conquered second-placed South, a fact they referred to more than once in the lyrics of a celebratory song they wrote, and maybe these lyrics added some fire to South the following year. Throughout the 1879 season, opposition teams began complaining to the Association about South’s rough play, eventually prompting the SAFA to rule that any club could forfeit their game against South and the premiership points would be split. Five teams took up this offer, which kept South from earning maximum points and essentially gifted Norwood a second straight premiership, with South finishing third. This 1879 season was not exactly South Adelaide’s finest hour although, in the club’s defence, it should be said that the rules were in a state of flux at this time, with players offered no clear guidance on what did or did not constitute an on-field offence. There is also evidence to suggest that the Association was adopting an overly soft approach to the game. This is seen early the following year when he SAFA saw fit to appoint a patron of the game. They were expected to ask the governor, Sir William Jervois, to fill this role. Instead, it chose the state’s paragon of piety and virtue, Augustus Short, Bishop of Adelaide.

The 1879 team with CC Kingston back right.

The 1880’s

Throughout the 1880’s, South Adelaide was an influential club in South Australia and, to an extent, nationally, yet secured only the one premiership. The premiership year was 1885, with the club finishing second in 1882 and 1886, and third in each of 1880, 1881, and 1884. But the stature of the South Adelaide Football Club during the 1880’s is seen in other events. In 1884, South became the first SAFA club to beat a VFA club when it defeated Melbourne by one goal at Adelaide Oval, 4.11 to 3.9. [10] That same year, the South Adelaide team toured New South Wales to promote the game, playing two matches against representative teams in Sydney. South won one of these matches by 8 goals and drew the other. [11] The following year, 1885, South Adelaide participated in the first ever night match known to have been played in South Australia. Floodlights were erected around Adelaide Oval for this match between South Adelaide and Adelaide, which drew a crowd of 8,000. [12] Then, in 1889, an English rugby team visited Australia. Two matches of the Australian game were played against this English team whilst they were in Adelaide, one against South and the other against Port. South beat the Poms. Port lost to them. [13]  

The 1885 Premiership team.

The 1890’s

The 1890’s was the decade when South Adelaide saw real return on investment for its work in the development of the game. South Adelaide won six premierships during this decade, taking its tally to eight at the turn of the century. The on-field success was due principally to the leadership of Jack ‘Dinnie’ Reedman, one of South Australia’s all-time great players. Reedman captained South Adelaide for eleven successive years and, although this was before the time of formally appointed coaches, he was for all intents and purposes South’s captain-coach. He introduced playing methods that bewildered opposition teams time and time again, including, no less, the concept of the loose man. [14] Other leading players of the era included Alf Bushby, one of the most skilful players in the country; Jack Kay, who is known to have been the club’s leading goal kicker on at least three occasions; Ernie Jones, the backman; [15] Alf Marlow, a high-marking, long-kicking defender; Clem Hill, the rover; Sid Reedman and Jack McGaffin, both ruckmen; and Bobby Grierson and Charlie McGavisk, who were known to tap the ball over opponents’ heads and gather it on the side before it bounced. [16] South Adelaide even boasted four players who also represented Australia in Test cricket during the 1890’s. Jack ‘Dinnie’ Reedman played one Test against England in Sydney in 1894-5. [17] Others who played Test cricket were George Giffen, as an all-rounder, Clem Hill, as Australia’s left-handed opening batsman, and Ernie Jones, the fast bowler. Legend has it that in a match against England Jones sent one whistling straight through the wiry beard of W.G. Grace ‒ on the fly to the keeper. [18]

Jack ‘Dinnie’ Reedman.

After finishing third in 1890 and 1891, South Adelaide finished either first or second every year for the remainder of the decade, including 1900. In 1892, South won the premiership, the club’s third. 1892 was also a year in which the team travelled to Melbourne and played Carlton at the MCG. This was a match South would have won if behinds had registered a point towards the score. As it was, South walked off the MCG with a draw. In 1893, a season remembered for its rough play and the high number of reports, South went back-to back. In 1894, South lost the grand final to Norwood, but in 1895, when the team is said to have had a fanatical band of supporters, [19] South won the premiership and followed it up with another in 1896, when Jack Kay topped the Association goal-kicking. [20] The club had won four of the last five premierships and was unlucky not to make it five out of six. In 1897, in a match that was essentially a premiership play-off in the finals system then in place, the final scores were South 2:14 to Port 3:1, but this was the last year in which behinds did not register a point. In 1898, however, South turned the tables on Port, beating them in the grand final. This was also a year in Essendon toured South Australia, departing for home a few weeks later having lowered their colours to South Adelaide.

Jack Kay

Then, in 1889, South won what is arguably the club’s greatest premiership. The electorate (or zone) system, which directed players to play for the club to which they were zoned by their place of residence, was enforced for the first time and, in an injustice which was to prove prejudicial to the club for decades to come, South Adelaide was allocated a disproportionately small zone east of the city, prompting the club to threaten to withdraw from the Association. [21] Players the club lost as a consequence of this zoning included Dinnie Reedman and Ernie Jones to North, Barnes to Norwood, McKenzie to West Torrens, and Kekwick to Sturt, with all of these departing players serving as captains at their new clubs. [22] The only valuable player South gained in return was Bos Daly, the goal sneak from Norwood. [23] However, not only did South Adelaide persist in 1899, it triumphed, beating Norwood in the decider. A reporter for The Register afterwards wrote of the team: ‘Individually and collectively they were the best team and their exhibitions when they were playing “all out” was a real treat for their united play, long kicking and clever passages were delightful to witness and of such character as to richly deserve the final honour which rewarded them’. [24] For the third time in the decade, South Adelaide had gone back-to-back. The club had won six premierships in eight years and although in 1900 South lost the grand final to North, that North team, it is to be remembered, included Reedman and Jones, two South champions who had been forced to North courtesy of the zoning rule.  

During the course of the 1898 season, there was an unusual incident in a match between Norwood and Port. One player from each team was arrested by the police for an on-field fight. It was the first occasion in which the police had intervened in such a manner. Both players, however, appealed to a higher authority and were successful in obtaining pardons. Who issued their pardons? It was Charles Cameron Kingston,[25] the Premier of South Australia from 1893 to 1899 and the man who more than any other was pushing the agenda towards Australian federation. In more ways than one throughout this era, the power was with the South Adelaide Football Club.

Charles Cameron Kingston

[1] Trevor Gyss, 1875: Formation of the South Adelaide Football Club, Lulu Press, 2014, 166-7.

[2] Alternatively, it has been suggested that this team named itself after the South Australian electorate called ‘Victoria’ (Clint Giles, Facebook page, ‘Real Fans of SANFL’, 1 July 2021). Whilst this is possible, the Victorian club was based in North Adelaide and the electorate of Victoria encompassed parts of rural South Australia.

[3] Trevor Gyss, South Adelaide Football Club: The Colonial Seasons, Lulu Press, 2017, 11.

[4] Trevor Gyss, on the other hand, points to evidence that in his view makes it clear that South Adelaide and Victorian were the joint title winners in 1877. According to Gyss, it was only in subsequent years, and after the demise of the Victorian club, that South Adelaide was retrospectively looked upon as the premiers of 1877: South Adelaide Football Club: The Colonial Seasons, Lulu Press, 2017, 11.

[5] Jayden Bartlett, We are the Blue and White: The Complete History of the South Adelaide Football Club, 1876-2014, 2014, 128.

[6] John Devaney, Clubs of the South Australian National Football League, Great Britain, 2014, 305.

[7] Bartlett, 120.

[8] Devaney, 303.

[9] Devaney, 304.

[10] Devaney, 305; Bernard Whimpress, South Australian Football Story, 1983, 151.

[11] Devaney, 305; cf: Whimpress, who says South played 4 games in Sydney: 95.

[12] Whimpress, 21, 247.

[13] Devaney, 305; cf: Whimpress, who describes it as an English soccer team, not a rugby team: 97.

[14] Devaney, 306.

[15] Devaney, 306-7.

[16] Whimpress, 152-3.

[17] Whimpress, 207.

[18] Whimpress, 166.

[19] Whimpress, 152.

[20] Whimpress, 152.

[21] Whimpress, 25.

[22] Devaney, 307; Whimpress, 152.

[23] Devaney, 308.

[24] The Register, 11 September 1899.

[25] Whimpress, 159.

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