Peter Burns
125 games
Premiership Player 1885, 1888, 1889, 1890
Vice-captain 1888-1891
Leading Goalkicker 1885, 1887
Champion of the Colony 1885, 1891
AFL Hall of Fame


Nighttime is when most worries and fears consume the mind. For children, this is when they seek safety and comfort. In the late 1880s, young South Melbourne supporters echoed a short bedtime prayer to ease their minds: 'God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy and God bless Peter Burns.'

Peter ‘The Great’ Burns was born in Steiglitz, a small gold-mining settlement in Victoria's Brisbane Ranges, in 1866. One of five footballing brothers, they learned the fundamentals of the game at the Ballarat Imperial club. When Burns was 19, his reputation was such that many metropolitan clubs had been in touch.

In The Australasian, Reg 'Old Boy' Wilmott explained the circumstances surrounding the scouting of Burns. "In 1885, Peter Burns came to Melbourne. It is said that he had already been secured by Essendon, whose scouts were waiting at Spencer Street station to welcome him."

"Unfortunately for Essendon, so the story goes, South Melbourne knew that the Ballarat youth was on the train, and when it reached North Melbourne, the door of the carriage opened, and a voice from out the dark said, ‘Come on, Peter, out you get!’ Peter got out and was being driven to South Melbourne while the unsuspecting Essendon scouts waited in vain at Spencer Street. Next day, Peter played for South against Essendon."

Burns then took his place in South Melbourne's side for the upcoming tour of Adelaide and commenced his club-arranged employment as a boilermaker.

Author and football historian Mark Pennings says that by 1885, "No winter sport was more popular than football. The administrators of the game and many of its supporters had no doubt that Victorians had invented the world's best football and that it represented a progressive step in the history of physical exercise."

One of the game's first superstars was, without question, Peter Burns. Predominantly a follower/ruck rover but equally adept forward or back, his physical prowess complimented his courage and thirst for the contest. His tremendous high mark, and capacity to accurately deliver long drop-kicks and place-kicks to a teammate or send them sailing through the goals won him instant admiration from the growing crowds of football followers.

Not everyone was so enamoured, though. In their first meeting, North Melbourne's rugged follower Joey Tankard asked his captain to play on Burns, claiming, “I'll take the country bumpkin conceit out of him, and I'll monkey bear him in the bargain.” Tankard toiled hard but couldn't stop South's new star from producing another best-on-ground performance.

The South team Burns joined in June went through the 1885 season undefeated, winning the season's final match and the premiership at the South Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of an adoring crowd of 8,000 Red and Whites. The Australasian named Burns one of the year's five best players.

In The Sportsman, they declared that "South Melbourne had earned a record that stamps them as one of, if not the best team that we have had yet in Victoria."

The game's popularity soared. Late in the 1886 season, 34,121 flocked to the South Melbourne Cricket Ground to see the much-anticipated showdown between South and arch-rival Geelong that would decide the premiership. Several mounted police patrolled the area where the crowd crammed behind new fencing. That fence crumbled along with South's dream of retaining the premiership.

By 1888, Burns won acclaim as a champion of the game. South Melbourne fanatic Robert Phillips even bestowed the honour of naming one of his racehorses after the country's supreme footballer. "If Peter the quadruped is as good on the racing track as Peter the biped is on the football ground, his master should never want for cash," quipped the Ballarat Courier.

That was also the year Burns won his second premiership with South. A man of great humility and sportsmanship, he reflected briefly upon his time in red and white in 1942 for The Weekly Times.

"After my first three years with Imperial, I went in 1885 to the South Melbourne club for seven years", Burns said. "We won the triple premiership in 1888, 1889 and 1890. I was vice-captain, and H.S Barnicoat, an artist of the day, painted my portrait for the South Melbourne Art Union. I bought it for a 'fiver' from the winner, and I still have it."

The triple-premiership-winning South Melbourne team played like a precision machine. They were a well-built and well-conditioned side that generally overpowered their opposition. According to Pennings, "The red and white was the benchmark in football, and its constellation of talented footballers that combined strength, power, skill and unrivalled team play left most rivals in their wake. This brilliant side had it all."

It's been said that Burns was indeed the envy of all footballers and sportsmen Australia-wide. In truth, he was also in awe of his team. He later told The Sporting Globe, "It was the best team of footballers I ever saw together. A big, strong, active and fast team, the majority of them were splendid long kicks and exceptionally good in the air."

Following their third consecutive flag in 1890, unrest engulfed the all-conquering Southerners. Despite the unsettled nature of the 1891 season, Burns again excelled, named 'The Champion of the Colony' for the second time. It was the last time he wore the red and white, though, moving to Geelong and working as a groundsman ahead of the 1892 season.

In 1902, Burns became the first footballer ever to play 300 games. Fittingly, he celebrated the milestone on the day South Melbourne travelled to Geelong. Just weeks later, at 36, a severe leg injury forced ‘Peter the Great’ into retirement. He became Geelong's timekeeper and remained in that role until 1941.

In May 1941, esteemed football writer Hec de Lacy entered the South Melbourne training rooms on a wintry Thursday night. He asked three 'old timers' if they'd played with Peter Burns when he was there. The room—a hive of activity when he arrived—came to a standstill.

Those three gents were Burns' former teammates, Billy Windley, Jim O'Meara and 'Joker' Hall. All those years later, the mere mention of his name sharpened their attention and brought the memories flooding back. Hall remarked with sparkling enthusiasm, "Peter—he was the grandest of them all. Remember him? How could I forget him?”

Fellow Swans' Hall of Famer Windley said, "I can't remember a better player as they come. He was a gentleman, too. They could skyrocket him over the pickets, and he took it without a growl." O'Meara beamed, "Few of them are made in the same mould as old Peter. I've never seen better."

Burns passed away on October 11, 1952, after a brief illness, aged 86. Universally admired as one of the greatest ever, Mark Pennings described Burns as "arguably the best player of the (19th) century".