University of Melbourne Magazine

Footy flourished as work week cut

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    DRAWING A CROWD: South Melbourne great Roy Cazaly takes one of his iconic one-handed marks.

    AFL probably wouldn’t be Melbourne’s dominant sporting code today had city workers not won Saturday afternoons off in the 1860s.

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

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

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

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

    In the 1860s and ’70s, Melbourne workers became the first in the world to win Saturday afternoons off. “Workers wanted entertainment and to let off steam when they clocked off on Saturday afternoon. A trip to the footy was the ideal outlet,” says Ward.