Formed in 1883 at the Brunswick Hotel (now trading as the Old Colonial Inn), Fitzroy Football Club (FFC) joined the Victorian Football Association (VFA) and competed in its first game on 26 April 1884. Fitzroy won its only VFA premiership in 1895, the year before the more professional Victorian Football League (VFL) was formed. A powerhouse in the early years of the VFL, Fitzroy had premiership success in 1898, 1899, 1904, 1905, 1913, 1916 and 1922. This period produced such champions as P.G. McShane, John Worrall, Percy Trotter and goal kickers Jimmy Freake and Jack Moriarty.
Despite only one more premiership in the 20th century (in 1944), Fitzroy continued to field some of the league's best players. Standouts included, from the 1930s, Wilfred 'Chicken' Smallhorn, who ran a grocery cart in the local area, legendary 1944 captain and coach Fred Hughson, and from the 1950s, Alan 'the Baron' Ruthven, so called because of his flamboyant suits. Kevin 'Bulldog' Murray, a rugged back man and 1969 Brownlow Medallist, was Fitzroy's best player in a decade of little team success and became the club's spiritual leader. Fitzroy's later legends included Gary Wilson, Paul Roos and Bernie Quinlan, who in 1981 became the sixth Fitzroy player to win the Brownlow, and in 1983 the first to kick 100 goals in a season.
Fitzroy's most celebrated player was Haydn Bunton, three-time Brownlow Medallist (1931, 1932, 1935) and football's first ruck-rover. A graceful and athletic player, Bunton was renowned as a suave gentleman and fair-minded sportsman. When young Aboriginal star Doug Nicholls joined the club, Bunton made a point of doing away with the segregation Nicholls had previously experienced in the change rooms at Carlton Football Club.
FFC played at the Brunswick Street Oval until 1967, after which it had various tenancies at Princes Park, the Junction Oval, Victoria Park and Whitten Oval. After a number of finals campaigns in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Fitzroy Lions (as they became known in 1957, after being called the Maroons and the Gorillas) were unable to overcome growing financial difficulties. By the mid-1990s the club was unable to pay the high price for recruits or to retain its home-grown champions. The Australian Football League, governing body of the recently expanded national competition, stepped in to merge Fitzroy with the Brisbane Bears, forming the Brisbane Lions after the 1996 season.