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Henry Colden Antill Harrison (1836–1929)

by Ian Turner

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Henry Colden Antill Harrison (1836-1929), 'father' of Australian Rules football, was born on 16 October 1836 at Jarvisfield, the property of his uncle, Major Henry Colden Antill, near Picton, New South Wales, son of John Harrison and his wife Jane, née Howe, a relation of William Redfern, Thomas Reiby, George Howe and Horatio Wills. In 1850 the family settled in Melbourne where Harrison attended the new Diocesan Grammar School. His education was interrupted in 1852 by a visit to the goldfields, where he sympathized with the diggers' grievances. In 1853 he became an officer in the Customs Department and in 1888 transferred to the Titles Office where he became registrar.

Harrison's career as a public servant was worthy, but he was most distinguished as a sportsman. For nine years he was the champion 'pedestrian' of Victoria, defeating all comers in sprints and over hurdles and steeples. His contests with the Ballarat champion, L. L. Mount, aroused great interest. A Ballarat publican and race-horse-owner, Walter Craig, was said to have once held £10,000 to wager on Mount; after Harrison won, Craig offered to finance him in a foot-racing tour of England, but Harrison preferred his amateur status.

Melbourne's first football club was founded in 1858 by Harrison's cousin, Thomas Wills, a talented cricketer who was seeking a winter pastime. Harrison played in the first games, and was in succession captain of three football clubs. Wills had learned his football while at school at Rugby but considered that game 'unsuitable for grown men, engaged in making a livelihood'. The Victorian clubs evolved new rules which were consolidated in a code drafted by Harrison and adopted in 1866. It incorporated the distinctive features of the Australian game: no tripping or 'hacking', no 'off-side' rule, the 'mark' and carrying the ball. Harrison thus earned his honorific title as 'father of Australian Rules football'. He retired from playing in 1872 but maintained his interest in football. He became a vice-president of the Football Association formed in 1877; he was chairman in 1905 of the conference which formed the Australian National Football Council and was elected its first life member; he was an honoured guest at the jubilee dinner in 1908 at which Alfred Deakin proposed the toast to Australian football. He also maintained his physical fitness; in 1898 he rode a bicycle from Melbourne to Sydney in ten days to see the final Test match against Stoddart's English 11. In 1923 in Melbourne he published his autobiography, The Story of an Athlete.

Harrison was handsome, lean and well groomed, somewhat unbending and puritanical, upright and honourable. He died in Melbourne on 2 September 1929, predeceased by his wife Emily, a sister of Tom Wills, and survived by four daughters. His coffin carried a wreath of violets in the shape of a football. His Name was commemorated by Harrison House, the headquarters of the Victorian Football League, until the league moved its headquarters in 1972 to Jolimont Street, East Melbourne.  After the reconstituted VFL became the Australian Football League in1990, the AFL moved its headquarters again, to 140 Harbour Esplanade in the redeveloped Docklands precinct.

Citation details

Ian Turner, 'Harrison, Henry Colden Antill (1836–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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