Wills, c. 1857
|Born||Thomas Wentworth Wills
19 August 1835
Molonglo Plain, New South Wales, Australia
|Died||2 May 1880
Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia
|Known for||One of the key inventors of Australian rules football|
Thomas Wentworth "Tom" Wills (19 August 1835 – 2 May 1880) was a 19th-century sportsman who is credited with being Australia's first cricketer of significance and a pioneer of the sport of Australian rules football.
Born into a wealthy family descended from convicts in the British colony of New South Wales, Wills grew up on properties owned by his father, the pastoralist and nationalist Horatio Wills, in what is now the Australian state of Victoria. He befriended local Aborigines, learning many aspects of their culture. At the age of 14, Wills was sent to England to attend Rugby School, where he became captain of Rugby's cricket team, and played an early version of rugby football. After Rugby, Wills represented the Cambridge University Cricket Club in the annual match against Oxford, and played in first-class matches for Kent and the Marylebone Cricket Club. An athletic all-rounder with devastating bowling analyses, he was regarded as one of the finest young cricketers in England.
Returning to Victoria in 1856, Wills achieved Australia-wide stardom as a cricketer, captaining the Victorian team to repeated victories in intercolonial matches. He played for many clubs, most prominently the Melbourne Cricket Club, for which he served as honorary secretary. In 1858 he called for the formation of a "foot-ball club" with a "code of laws" to keep cricketers fit during the off-season. After founding the Melbourne Football Club the following year, Wills and three other members codified the first laws of Australian rules football. He and his cousin H. C. A. Harrison spearheaded the new sport as players and administrators.
In 1861, at the height of his fame, Wills joined his father on a trek to Queensland to establish a family property. Two weeks after their arrival, Wills' father and 18 others were murdered in the largest massacre of European settlers by Aborigines in Australian history. Wills survived and returned to Victoria in 1864. He continued to play football and cricket, and, in 1866–67, coached and captained an Aboriginal cricket team—the first Australian XI to tour England. In a career marked by controversy, Wills straddled the divide between amateur and professional cricketers, and became the first cricketer in 1872 to be no-balled for throwing in a major Australian match. He mounted a failed comeback 1876, one year before the birth of Test cricket, by which time his sporting glory belonged to a colonial past that "seemed like a distant land, quaint and old fashioned". Psychological trauma from the massacre was worsened by his alcoholism. Now destitute, Wills was admitted to the Melbourne Hospital in 1880, suffering from delirium tremens, but shortly afterwards escaped and returned to his home in Heidelberg, where he committed suicide by stabbing a pair of scissors through his heart.
Wills' imprint on Australian culture was little known for much of the 20th century. He was an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, and is commemorated with a statue outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Wills has been characterised in modern times as an archetype of the fallen sports hero, and as a symbol of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The claim of an Aboriginal influence on Wills' conception of Australian football has been a subject of debate among historians. According to biographer Greg de Moore, Wills "stands alone in all his absurdity, his cracked egalitarian heroism and his fatal self-destructiveness—the finest cricketer and footballer of the age."
- 1 Family and early years
- 2 England
- 3 Colonial hero
- 4 "A game of our own"
- 5 Victoria reigns and football evolves
- 6 Queensland
- 7 Return to Melbourne
- 8 Aboriginal cricket team
- 9 No-ball plot and downfall
- 10 Later life
- 11 Personality
- 12 Legacy
- 13 See also
- 14 Footnotes
- 15 References
- 16 Bibliography
- 17 External links
Family and early years
Tom Wills was born on 19 August 1835 on the Molonglo Plains[a] near modern-day Canberra, in what was the British penal colony of New South Wales, as the elder child[b] of Horatio and Elizabeth (née McGuire) Wills. Tom was a third-generation Australian descended from convicts: his mother was born to convicts transported from Ireland, and his paternal grandfather was Surrey labourer Edward Wills, whose death sentence for highway robbery was commuted to transportation, arriving in Botany Bay aboard the "hell ship" Hillsborough in 1799. Edward received a conditional pardon in 1803 and amassed considerable wealth through mercantile activity in Sydney with his free wife Sarah (née Harding). Horatio was born the youngest of six children in 1811, five months after his father's death, and Sarah remarried to George Howe, emancipist owner of the Sydney Gazette. During his tenure as the newspaper's editor, Horatio met Elizabeth, an orphan from Parramatta. They married in December 1833. Seventeen months after his birth, Tom was baptised Thomas Wentworth Wills in the parish of St Andrew's, Sydney, after statesman William Charles Wentworth. Influenced by Wentworth's pro-Currency[c] writings and the emancipist cause, Horatio set forth a strident nationalist agenda in his 1832–33 journal The Currency Lad, the first publication to call for an Australian republic.
Seeking to translate his rhetoric into action, Horatio took up pastoral pursuits in the mid-1830s and moved with his family to the sheep run "Burra Burra" on the Molonglo River. Although athletic from an early age, Tom was prone to illness and at one stage in 1839 his parents "almost despaired of his recovery". In November 1840, encouraged by Thomas Mitchell's description of "Australia Felix", they overlanded south to the Grampians in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (now the state of Victoria). At the end of 1842 they left their run on Mount William and settled a few miles north in the foothills of Mount Ararat, named so by Horatio because "like the Ark, we rested there". Horatio went through a period of intense religiosity while in the Grampians; despite his struggle with scepticism, he implored himself and Tom to base their lives upon the New Testament.
Horatio built a homestead on a 120,000-acre (490 km2) property named "Lexington" (near present-day Moyston) in an area that served as a meeting place for Djab wurrung Aboriginal clans. Tom, as an only child, "was thrown much into the companionship of aborigines", and "became a thorough linguist in the native dialects". In an account of corroborees from childhood, H. C. A. Harrison[d] remembered his cousin Tom's ability to learn Aboriginal songs, mimic their voice and gestures, and "speak their language as fluently as they did themselves, much to their delight." It is speculated that Tom may have also played Aboriginal sports. Horatio wrote fondly of his son's kinship with Aborigines, and allowed local clans to have "free range" on Lexington. However, like many frontiersmen in the area, he was implicated in deadly conflict with the Djab wurrung.[e]
Tom's first sibling, Emily, was born on Christmas Day 1842. In 1846 Wills began attendance at William Brickwood's School in Melbourne. There he was looked after by Horatio's brother Thomas (Tom's namesake), a campaigner for Victoria's independence from New South Wales and son-in-law of Sarah Howe's partner in the shipping trade, convict Mary Reibey. Tom played in his first cricket matches at school, and he came in contact with the Melbourne Cricket Club through Brickwood, the club's vice-president. Wills returned to Lexington in 1849 where the family had grown to include siblings Cedric, Horace and Egbert. Mainly self-educated, Horatio had ambitious plans for the education of his children, especially Tom:
I now deeply vainly deplore my want of a mathematical and classical education. Vain regret! ... But my son! May he prove worthy of my experience! May I be spared for him—that he may be useful to his country—I never knew a father's care.
In February 1850, aged fourteen, Wills was sent to England to attend Rugby School, the most prestigious school in the country. He arrived in London after a five month voyage. There, during school holidays, he stayed with his paternal aunt Sarah Alexander, who left Sydney after the death of her first husband, the emancipated convict William Redfern.
Wills entered Evans House and soon topped all of the Evans House XI's cricket statistics. His aggregate of 839 runs in 1851 was five times that of Rugby's next best batsman. In April 1852, when he was sixteen, Wills joined the Rugby School XI, and on his debut at Lord's a few months later, against the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), he took a match-high 12 wickets. That year he formed one half of an opening bowling attack that made Rugby the greatest public school cricket team in England. Some critics in the national media claimed that Wills threw the ball. John Lillywhite, professional cricketer and coach at Rugby, rallied in defence of his protégé. Wills survived the scandal. His cricketing feats gained him fame and saw him play for the MCC, Kent and the Gentlemen of Kent, for whom in his first-class debut in 1854 against the Gentlemen of England, he built a partnership with the "Lion of Kent", Alfred Mynn.
He was noted as an attacking rugby football player who would dodge and weave opponents, and his reputation for theatrics endeared him to the viewing public: "Wills, to the admiration of the spectators ... displayed an eel-like agility which baffled all the efforts of his opponents to retain him in their grasp." Another journalist hinted that Wills undermined the rugby rules using "slimy tricks". He was Evans House's dedicated kicker, noted for his long and accurate shots at goal. Wills also shone in the school's annual athletics carnival and his running ability in 'Hare and Hounds' was unparalleled.
Wills decorated his study with objects to remind him of home, including rocks, native birds from Lexington, and Aboriginal weapons. In 1853, Horatio wrote to Tom that a Djab wurrung male visiting from Mount William asked of his whereabouts. Horatio showed the boy Tom's daguerreotype: "He gazed upon it a long time. The old blacks, your friends, were fond of seeing it. They told me to send you up to them as soon as you came back."
Wills was a dashing youth with "impossibly wavy" hair and blue, almond-shaped eyes that "[burnt] with a pale light". He grew quickly and by age 16 at 5'8" was already taller than his father. A few years later his height was recorded in Lillywhite's Guide as 5'10" and it was written that "few athletes can boast of a more muscular and well-developed frame".
|Bowling style||Right-arm slow|
|Domestic team information|
|1854||Gentlemen of Kent|
|1855||Gentlemen of Kent and Surrey|
|1855–56||Marylebone Cricket Club|
|1856||Kent and Sussex|
|1856||Gentlemen of Kent and Sussex|
|1864||G. Anderson's XI|
|Source: CricketArchive, 24 April 2012|
Wills was considered "one of the most promising cricketers in the kingdom". He was offered a spot on William Clarke's touring cricket team, the All-England Eleven, but remained at Rugby for a further year. In a farewell note from his fellow students he was simply called "the school bowler".
After leaving Rugby, and with a steady supply of money, Wills wandered throughout Great Britain in pursuit of cricketing pleasure. He made first-class appearances for a number of Gentlemen sides and fell in with the I Zingari—"the gypsy lords of English cricket"—an amateur club renowned for its exotic costumes and hedonistic partying. Against Horatio's wishes, Tom did not continue his studies at Cambridge, but did play cricket for the university's team (as well as Magdalene College), most notably when rules were passed over to allow him to compete against Oxford in the 1856 University Match, Cambridge being "one man short". In June, Wills played cricket at Rugby School for the last time, representing the MCC alongside Lord Guernsey, the Earl of Winterton, and Charles du Cane, governor-to-be of Tasmania. Wills spent a month playing for various clubs in Ireland, after which he returned to England in early September to prepare for his journey home to Australia.
Wills returned to Australia[f] aboard the Oneida steamship, arriving in Melbourne on 23 December 1856. The minor port city of Wills' youth had risen to world renown as the booming financial centre of the Victorian gold rush. Horatio, now a member of the Legislative Assembly in the Victorian Parliament, was living on "Belle Vue", a farm at Point Henry near Geelong, the Wills' family home since 1853. In his first summer back in Melbourne, Wills stayed with his extended family, the Harrisons, at their home on Victoria Parade, and entered a Collins Street law firm to appease his father, but he seems never to have practised. Indeed the few comments he made about law suggest it was of little consequence to him. "Tom was no dunce," writes Greg de Moore. "He was simply negotiating a path to greatness."
The Australian colonies were described as "cricket mad" in the 1850s, and Victorians, in particular, were said to "live, move, and have their being in an atmosphere of cricket". With his reputation preceding him, Wills participated in a trial match at the end of 1856 to select players for Victoria's second intercolonial cricket match against New South Wales. Victorian captain William Hammersley recalled the moment when Wills first graced the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG):
... the observed of all observers, with his Zingari stripe and somewhat flashy get up, fresh from Rugby and college, with the polish of the old country upon him. He was then a model of muscular Christianity.
Wills made the top score of 13 wickets and 57 not out, winning the trial for his team. He went on to captain Victoria in matches against New South Wales and Tasmania. After Wills led Victoria to its first victory over New South Wales in 1858, The Argus proclaimed that "the Victorian eleven has passed the Rubicon".
Although Wills enjoyed his lofty amateur status, he liked to socialise with, and had sympathy with, lower class professional cricketers—an egalitarian attitude that sometimes led to conflict with sporting officialdom but endeared him to the common man. Wills' allegiance to professionals was highlighted by an incident in Tasmania in February 1858 when the Launceston Cricket Club protested the visiting Victorian team's inclusion of three professionals—Jerry Bryant, George Marshall and Gid Elliot—and, unable to distinguish amateur from professional, shunned the Victorians. "We have been in a strange land, and forsaken" a furious Wills wrote to the press. One week later, during a match in Hobart, Wills earned the ire of locals as he "jumped about exultantly" after incapacitating one of the Tasmanian batsmen with a hostile spell of fast bowling.
During the 1857–58 season, Wills succeeded Hammersley as secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC), a role in which he proved to be utterly chaotic and disorganised. It is perhaps a measure of his poor administrative skills that the only minute book that cannot be found within the MCC is from his time as secretary. Wills subsequently had a falling out with the club and joined Richmond, serving as a vice president and raising the standard of its play to make it the premier Victorian club. He was also elected as president of the Collingwood Cricket Club. The result was a lasting tension between Wills and the MCC.
"A game of our own"
Wills was a compulsive writer to the sporting press and his output of public letters in the late 1850s exceeded that of all other cricketers combined. An agitator like his father, he used language "in the manner of a speaker declaiming forcefully from a platform". On 10 July 1858, the Melbourne-based Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle published a now-famous letter by Wills that is regarded as a catalyst for a new style of football, known today as Australian rules football. It begins:
Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only 'tis true), but at length will again burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpor to creep over them, and stifle their new supple limbs, why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?
Wills was bringing the Rugby School template of cricket in summer and football in winter to the colonies. While the letter drew no immediate response, it was alluded to three weeks later in an advertisement for a "scratch match" held adjacent to the MCG at the Richmond Paddock. Wills' friend, the professional cricketer and publican Jerry Bryant, made available a leather football. It was suggested that the players would draw up "a short code of rules" after the match, however this didn't occur until the following year.
Soon after Wills' return to Australia, author Thomas Hughes released the highly influential novel Tom Brown's School Days[g] (1857), an account of life at Rugby School under the headship of Thomas Arnold. The book extolled Arnold's creed of muscular Christianity and possibly did as much as Wills to popularise football in Melbourne.
On 7 August 1858, Wills and medical teacher John Macadam co-umpired a football match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar at the Richmond Paddock. It is possible that Tom's thirteen-year-old brother Cedric, a pupil at Scotch College, played in the match. The 40 per side contest had no fixed rules, and continued on two subsequent Saturdays, ending in a draw. Wills organised several more informal matches in Melbourne's parklands during the winter of 1858. The last recorded match of 1858 is the subject of the first known Australian football poem. Wills, the only player mentioned by name, is reified as "the Melbourne chief", leading a phalanx of his men to kick the winning goal.
On 17 May 1859, Wills, William Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and Thomas H. Smith met at Jerry Bryant's Parade Hotel in East Melbourne to write down the Melbourne Football Club's rules (later the laws of Australian football) for the first time. Wills' name heads the list of signatories. They consulted the rules of Rugby and three other English schools before outlawing common features such as "hacking" (shin-kicking) and tripping as unsuited to grown men and Australian conditions. Even Wills, who favoured Rugby School football, saw the need for compromise. He wrote to his brother Horace: "Rugby was not a game for us, we wanted a winter pastime but men could be harmed if thrown on the ground so we thought differently." The club's ten simple rules were the first to be codified outside the English public-school system. J. B. Thompson used his journalistic position at The Argus to promote the Melbourne rules, and by 1860, new clubs had formed in Melbourne and in the major provincial centres of Geelong, Ballarat and Castlemaine.
Victoria reigns and football evolves
The January 1859 intercolonial cricket match was played on the Domain in Sydney. Wills was elected captain and, despite dislocating his right middle finger on the first day while attempting a catch, top scored in the first innings with 15 not out and took 5/24 and 6/25, carrying Victoria to an upset win.
In January 1860, Wills resigned from the intercolonial match committee in protest after he was assailed by J. B. Thompson for not turning up to practice ahead of the next match against New South Wales. During a follow-up practice match, players struggled in the day's heat, and ignoring calls to retire, Wills suffered from a near-fatal sunstroke. Hammersley wrote that Wills felt obliged to perform for the large crowd that had gathered to watch him. Over 25,000 people attended the Victoria and New South Wales match, held at the MCG in February. Wills captained Victoria and bowled unchanged in both innings, taking 6/23 and 3/16, and the top score of the match with 20 not out in the second innings. Victoria won by 69 runs. These successive victories over New South Wales won Wills the sobriquet "Great Gun of the Colony". The 1859–60 Victorian Cricketers' Guide described Wills thus:
... take him for all in all, the best cricketer in Australia. Is a good deceptive bowler, both fast and medium, round-arm and slow under-hand. Very soon finds a man's weak points and acts accordingly. Is a beautiful field anywhere, more especially at long slip, and throws unerringly at the top of the wicket. Hits hard and gets runs fast in all sorts of ways.
The laws of football underwent further revisions in the early 1860s, mostly to set limits on running and ball handling. In April 1860, Wills was the inaugural captain and secretary of the Richmond Football Club (no connection with the present AFL club), and advised the team on their colours: white with a red sash. The following month, a debate over the ball's shape came to a head when Wills, captaining Richmond against Melbourne, maintained his right to play with an oval ball. J. B. Thompson called it a "geometrical monstrosity" that flew further than the round ball to the detriment of accurate kicking. Wills continued to demand their use and, by the 1870s, the oval ball was customary in the sport.
Early matches were organised with little formality. After an 1860 match between University and Richmond was abandoned, University secretary G. C. Purcell accused the Richmond team of not showing. Wills retorted that University's men "must have been dodging behind the gum trees, for they were not visible."
By 1860, Wills' cousin H. C. A. Harrison had become a champion footballer in Melbourne. He looked up to Wills, once calling him "the beau-ideal of an athlete"—high praise considering that Harrison was the fastest runner of the colonies. Their presence in Geelong fuelled a local craze for football and ensured that the Geelong Football Club was the most powerful team in the early 1860s.
Of the early footballers, Wills was appraised as the greatest, most innovative captain, and it is claimed that, unbound by offside rules, he opened up the game to new tactics and skills and a more free-flowing style of play. In July 1860 he foreshadowed modern position play when he instructed his Richmond players to abandon the constant scrummages and instead form a line from defence to attack, and, by a series of short kicks to one another towards goal, "succeeded in getting the ball safely landed between the posts." In another match, captaining Melbourne, he told his men to dart with the ball in open spaces, eschewing the congested playing style typical of the era. Historian Geoffrey Blainey writes: "How many of the tricks and stratagems of the early years came from this clever tactician we will never know."
With plans underway for the England cricket team's first tour of Australia, Wills announced his retirement from cricket. At the beckoning of his father, Wills was preparing to leave Victoria to establish another family property, Cullin-La-Ringo, on the pastoral frontier in Central Queensland. He spent six months in rural Victoria learning the station crafts of a squatter, including shearing and horseshoeing.
In January 1861, Tom, Horatio and a party of employees and their families travelled by steamer from Melbourne to the northern colony of Queensland. They disembarked in Brisbane, purchased livestock and supplies, and then set out on an eight month trek inland through dense bush and across rivers. One of Horatio's men drowned in Toowoomba, and in the Darling Downs over 10,000 sheep were collected. Tom shot and ate pademelons to fend off starvation.
They had only been on the property for two weeks when, on the afternoon of 17 October, Horatio and eighteen of his party were murdered in the Cullin-La-Ringo massacre, the deadliest massacre of Europeans by Aborigines in Australian history. Tom was away from the property at the time, having been sent to Albinia Downs with two stockmen to collect supplies left en route to Cullin-la-Ringo. He returned several days later to a scene of carnage. Despairing and in shock, Wills immediately wrote to H. C. A. Harrison in Melbourne: "... all our party except I have been slaughtered by the black's on the 17th. I am in a great fix no men." In the swift retribution that followed, police, native police and vigilante groups from neighbouring stations tracked down and killed at least 70 local Aborigines; the total may have been 300. Wills took refuge near Cullin-la-Ringo and did not take part in the reprisal raids.
Prior to leaving the camp, Tom offered his revolver to Horatio, saying "You may have cause to use it". Horatio dismissed the warning: "It is only your boyish fears; there is no danger". William Hammersley recalled Horatio's lack of vigilance in a conversation about Tom many years later: "Tom Wills has frequently told me that he never trusted the natives, ... and often warned [Horatio] ... but the old man prided himself on being able to manage the blacks from his experience of them gained in Victoria, and said they would never harm him." Nonetheless on a preliminary expedition to Cullin-la-Ringo, Horatio was wary of danger and described the region's frontier war as "perpetual".
For many years after the massacre, Wills experienced flashbacks, night terrors and an irritable heart—features of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. As a consequence, he increased his already heavy drinking in an attempt to blot out memories and alleviate sleep disturbance. Wills' sister Emily wrote of him two months after the massacre: "He says he never felt so changed in the whole course of his life".
Loss of favour and expulsion
Hypervigilant, Wills slept only three hours a night with a rifle beside his bed and watched for signs of another attack. He began to rebuild the station pending the arrival of his uncle, William Roope, who took control of Cullin-la-Ringo in December 1861. They fought constantly and Roope soon left the property as a result of Wills acting "exceedingly ill" to him.
He returned to Melbourne in January 1863 to captain Victoria against New South Wales on the Domain in Sydney. The match turned into a riot when the crowd invaded the field after a dispute over the Victorian umpire's dismissal of a New South Wales batsman: Wills, leading his men from the Domain, was struck in the face by a stone, and Victorian professionals George Marshall and William Greaves fled Sydney for Melbourne, reducing Wills' team to nine players. Wills took eight wickets and was the top run scorer in both innings (25* and 17*), but Victoria lost by 84 runs. The Melbourne media castigated Wills for allowing the game to continue and called him a turncoat when evidence surfaced that he agreed to play for New South Wales in the weeks leading up to the match. He denied all accusations and wrote in an angry letter to The Sydney Morning Herald: "I for one do not think that Victoria will ever send an Eleven up here again." Back in Victoria, Wills became engaged to Julie Anderson, a farm girl from Skipton, in the Western District, whose father had taught Wills the practice of shearing before the trek to Cullin-la-Ringo. Her name does not appear in any of Wills' surviving letters; he rarely mentioned the women he courted, let alone his feelings towards them. Wills stayed in Geelong for the start of the 1863 football season, blithely breaking his promise to return to Cullin-la-Ringo, much to the dismay of his mother and the holding's trustees.
Wills finally headed back to Queensland in May. He voiced his fear of dying in the Queensland outback. In 1863 he reported at least three murders of settlers to the press, including that of a shepherd on Cullin-la-Ringo. After a series of verbal confrontations with Attorney-General Ratcliffe Pring in Brisbane, Wills was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace in May 1863. He went blind in his left eye for weeks after contracting "sandy blight".
In early 1864 Wills' personal misbehavior, including possible romantic links with other women, ended his engagement to Anderson. He entered a lifelong de facto relationship with Dublin-born Sarah Barbor. She was never accepted by the Wills family. In response to mounting domestic troubles, Wills left Australia and joined George Parr's XI on a month-long tour of New Zealand, umpiring the first match in Dunedin and then strengthening various local sides. On his return to Australia the trustees dismissed Wills from Cullin-la-Ringo for his long absences and poor handling of finances. His brother Cedric took over as manager. Cedric believed that the massacre was an act of revenge for an attack made on local Aborigines by Jesse Gregson, owner of Rainworth Station (30 km south of Cullin-la-Ringo). Years later, he quoted Tom as saying, "If the truth is ever known, you will find that it was through Gregson shooting those blacks; that was the cause of the murder." Cedric was forced to retract the statement under threat of legal action.
Return to Melbourne
Wills returned to Melbourne and to the familiar routine of cricket in summer and football in winter.
When the laws of football were reviewed by the Melbourne Football Club in May 1865, Wills seconded a failed proposal to add a rugby-style crossbar to the goal posts. For the rest of the season Wills played for and often captained Melbourne and Geelong, two of the game's dominant clubs. At the end of a winter beset with public brawls over which team "owned" him, Wills moved to Geelong for the remainder of his career, prompting Bell's Life in Victoria to report that Melbourne had lost "the finest leader of men on the football field". On 8 May 1866, the rules of football were updated at a meeting of club delegates under the chairmanship of H. C. A. Harrison. The newly christened "Victorian Rules" formalised the running bounce to slow down players in possession of the ball. Wills was not present at the meeting; his move to Geelong had rendered him peripheral to the process of rule-making in Melbourne.
Intercolonial cricket contests between Victoria and New South Wales resumed at the MCG on Boxing Day 1865, nearly three years since the Sydney riot of 1863. Victoria lost some of its best players when Sam Cosstick, All-England star William Caffyn, and other professionals defected to New South Wales due to pay disputes with the MCC. Bristling with imported talent and captained by Englishman Charles Lawrence, New South Wales was tipped to win. The weakened Victorian team, led by Wills, made an unprecedented 285 runs and won in an innings, Wills taking 6 wickets and top-scoring with 58, the first half century in Australian first-class cricket.
In the popular imagination, Wills was a folk hero and "a source of eternal hope" for his colony. Adam Lindsay Gordon wrote of Wills' daring in his 1866 poem "Ye Wearie Wayfarer". Rhyming "Wills" with "spills", he goes on to say:
No game was ever yet worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishap,
Could possibly find its way.
Aboriginal cricket team
In May 1866, the minute book of the Melbourne Cricket Club featured an unusual request: Roland Newbury, the club's pavilion keeper, wanted "use of the ground for two days ... for purpose of a match with the native black eleven". It was the first intimation of a cricket match between an Aboriginal team from Victoria's Western District and the MCC. The motive behind Newbury's vision went unrecorded, though it was likely a financial one. The match was scheduled for late December, and in August, Wills agreed to coach the team. Wills' personal reasons for coaching the team remain a mystery, but his need for money was likely a factor in his accepting the role. This was to mark the beginning of his transition from amateur to professional sportsman.
Wills travelled inland in November 1866 to Edenhope and Harrow to convene the team from local pastoral properties. Most of them were Jardwadjali men; they shared common vocabulary with the neighbouring Djab wurrung people, which enabled Wills to coach the team in the Aboriginal language he learnt as a child. Wills captained the team against the MCC at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day 1866, in front of 10,000 spectators. It is unknown if Wills reflected on the broader social impact of his action. Many of his contemporaries were shocked that he would associate with Aborigines in the shadow of his father's death. Some viewed him as a villain, while others called him a hero. One onlooker wrote in a public letter to Wills:
Although you may not be fully aware of the fact, allow me to tell you that you have rendered a greater service to the aboriginal races of this country and to humanity, than any man who has hitherto attempted to uphold the title of the blacks to rank amongst men.
The team, called the Australian Native XI, played throughout Victoria and New South Wales. Wills' status as a 'native' (an Australian-born European) was at times allied with his team of Aboriginal natives. This blurred distinction between Wills and the team was emphasised through their shared "lingo". In Bendigo, "the team jester" Jellico asked a gentleman "to teach him to read and write English". When referred to Wills as a good teacher, Jellico replied, "Whats usy Wills. He too much along of us. He speak nothing now but blackfellow talk."
During the tour of Sydney, Wills was arrested and gaoled after walking on to the Albert Ground in Redfern with the Aboriginal team. He was accused of financial mismanagement. Disillusioned, Wills had left the Native XI by April 1867, and Charles Lawrence usurped him as captain. Several members of the side were later included in the Aboriginal team which toured England in 1868, ten years before the first Australian cricket team classed as representative went to England. Wills' exclusion from the second incarnation of the Aboriginal team has been called the tragedy of his sporting career. After the tour, Mullagh and Cuzens joined Wills as paid bowlers with the MCC.
No-ball plot and downfall
Played on the MCG, the December 1867 intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales was interrupted by a dust storm and rain of "biblical force". In the end, Wills claimed a nine-wicket haul and Richard Wardill scored the first century in intercolonial cricket to seal another win for Victoria, this time by 7 wickets. The Victorian cricket team had elected Wills as captain for over a decade. Writing in his sports column, Hammersley claimed that, as a paid servant of the MCC, Wills lacked "moral ascendancy" over amateur players. When he lost the captaincy to Wardill, an amateur, on the eve of the March 1869 match against New South Wales, he impulsively refused to play under Wardill, or, indeed, anyone else. The Victorians resolved to go on without Wills, after which he retracted his decision. This was the last intercolonial match played on the Domain in Sydney and Victoria won by 78 runs despite Wardill's first-ball duck; Wills achieved his best first-class bowling analysis with 7/44 in the second innings.
Wills, though living in Geelong, remained in Melbourne during the 1869–70 cricket season as a tutor with the MCC. In view of his residential status, the MCC barred the Corio Cricket Club from having Wills in matches against the two teams. In February, Wills captained Victoria to a 265-run win over New South Wales at the MCG. The match was chiefly remembered for accusations of throwing against Wills and Twopenny, an Aboriginal bowler who was said to have been recruited by New South Wales captain Charles Lawrence as a foil to Wills' "chucks". Comparing the two, the Melbourne press hypocritically defended Wills: "Undoubtedly Wills throws sometimes, but there is some decency about it, some disguise." In March, under Wills' leadership, the Victorian team trounced a Tasmanian XVI in Launceston, though not without criticism of Wills' bowling action. With characteristic recklessness he admitted to throwing in his 1870–71 Australian Cricketers' Guide, and in so doing taunted his enemies to stop him.
The Victorian team unanimously elected Wills as captain for the March 1871 intercolonial match against New South Wales, held at the Albert Ground in Sydney. Wills' first innings top score of 39* was offset by his drunkenness on the field and rumours of a conspiracy to call him for throwing. Wills bowled only 9 overs, taking 1 wicket, and Victoria won by 48 runs. On 30 March 1872, Wills became the first cricketer to be called for throwing in a major Australian match. He was again no-balled when Victoria played and lost to a combined XIII from New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia late in 1872.
You are played out now, the cricketing machine is rusty and useless, all respect for it is gone. You will never be captain of a Victorian Eleven again, ... Settle down, quietly at Geelong, dear Geelong. Eschew colonial beer, and take the pledge, and in time your failings may be forgotten, and only your talents as a cricketer remembered. Farewell, Tommy Wills.
The phrase "the Grace of Australia" first appeared in Wills' obituaries and has caricatured him ever since. W. G. Grace, the most famous cricketer of the Victorian era, brought an English team to Australia in 1873–74. At the age of 39, Wills travelled with the team, representing local sides. In February he went to the remote mining town of Kadina on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula to prepare a local combined team for a match against Grace's XI. The game, played in a rock-strewn plain of baked earth, was little more than a farce. Wills made a pair and Grace later wrote derisively of the "old Rugbeian" as a has-been. Grace neglected to mention that Wills bowled him in the second innings, taking 6/28. Wills played his last first-class cricket match in 1876. By this stage, Wills' cricket "had become a series of petty disputes in petty games" of "ever-deteriorating standards."
Wills kept an interest in the development of the rules of football, suggesting at one stage that "all pushing from behind be abolished" to curb injuries. In a match between Geelong and Ballarat, Wills pioneered the Australian football tactic of flooding. Goalless and kicking against the gale, Wills and his players flooded the backline to prevent Ballarat from scoring. He then ordered his men to waste time and deliberately kick the ball out of bounds amid riotous cries from Ballarat locals. Four years later, in a rare act of diplomacy, Wills quelled on-field fighting after a rival club used his "unchivalrous tactics" against Geelong.
Wills played his last game of football in 1874. He developed a reputation for not paying debts, though he continued to financially support local cricket and football teams. He donated a silver Challenge Cup for a football competition between Geelong, Ballarat and clubs of the Western District. From 1873 to 1876 he served as Geelong's vice president, and was appointed as one of three Geelong delegates after the formation of the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1877, but was dropped the following week for reasons unstated. During the 1878 VFA season, Wills acted as central umpire. He defended his umpiring of a match between Carlton and Albert Park in what would be his last public letter. By the time Geelong won their first premiership in 1878, Wills had moved to Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) with Sarah Barbor, and his role at the club was diminished.
In the late 1870s, he convinced the South Melbourne Football Club to use the suburb's cricket ground for football. Geelong did likewise at the same time. The idea of playing both sports on one ground was well-known at Rugby School, and expounded by Wills in his famous 1858 letter to Bell's Life in Victoria: "... it would be of a vast benefit to any cricket-ground to be trampled upon, and would make the turf quite firm and durable". The gradual adoption of cricket grounds for football led to the oval-shaped Australian rules football playing field.
By 1880, the football game that Wills co-created in Melbourne's parklands had spread throughout the Australian colonies. As many as 15,000 spectators attended important matches of the season in Melbourne, the world's largest football crowds hitherto recorded.
In his final year living with Sarah Barbor in Heidelberg on the outskirts of Melbourne, Wills' alcoholism worsened. The last surviving letters of Wills, dated 15 March 1880, were written to Cedric and Horace on Cullin-la-Ringo, which was now stricken by drought. He asked for money, just "to pay off a few debts here", and fantasised about escaping to Tasmania.
Isolated and disowned by most of his family, Wills had become, in the words of cricket historian David Frith, "a complete and dangerous and apparently incurable alcoholic". Contrary to legend, Wills was never incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. He started to show signs of delirium tremens in late April, and Sarah, fearing that a calamity was at hand, admitted him to the Melbourne Hospital to be kept under restraint. Paranoid and delusional, Wills absconded on 1 May, returned home and the next day committed suicide by stabbing a pair of scissors into his heart three times. The inquest, on 3 May, presided over by the city coroner Richard Youl, found that Wills "killed himself when of unsound mind from excessive drinking". Wills was buried the following day in an unmarked grave in Heidelberg Cemetery at a private funeral attended by only six people: his brother Egbert, sister Emily and cousin H. C. A. Harrison; Harrison's sister Adela and her son Amos; and MCC cricketer Vernon Cameron. His death certificate declared that his parents were unknown. When asked by a journalist about her son's death, Elizabeth Wills is reported to have denied that such a person existed.[h]
Academic Barry Judd wrote in 2007:
Tom Wills exists as a spectral figure, a ghost inhabiting the margins of written history; ... [his] transient appearance in historical memory indicates little of whom he was, what he thought or why he did the things he did.
Wills struck his contemporaries as peculiar, laconic and at times narcissistic, with a prickly temperament, but also kind, charismatic and companionable. He was a natural born leader who emboldened the less gifted on his team with his supreme confidence. Always embroiled in controversy, he seemed to lack an understanding of how his words and behaviour could repeatedly get him into trouble. Through his research, journalist Martin Flanagan concluded that Wills was "utterly bereft of insight into himself", and football historian Gillian Hibbins described Wills as "an overbearing and undisciplined young man who tended to blame others for his troubles and was more interested in winning a game than in respecting sporting rules." While he created enemies amongst many fellow sportsmen, they generally didn't maintain their anger towards him. He was innately egalitarian and never sought to gain an administrative or monetary advantage over others. The affection felt for Wills, coupled with an understanding of his waywardness, was summed up in the public motto: "Despite all thy faults I love thee still, Tommy Wills".
In the years immediately after Rugby School, Wills developed a peculiar stream of consciousness style of writing that sometimes defied syntax and grammar. His letters are laced with pun associations, oblique classical and Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides, such as this one about Melbourne in a letter to his brother Cedric: "Everything is dull here, but people are kept alive by people getting shot at in the streets". Biographer Greg de Moore summarised Wills' letters from this period:
He could be dismissive, triumphant and brazen all within a single sentence. Whatever his inner world was, he rarely let it be known. Lines of argument or considered opinion were not developed. His stream of thought was in rapid flux and a string of defiant jabs. To give emphasis he underlined his words with a flourish. His punctuation was idiosyncratic. Language was breathless and explosive and he revelled in presenting himself and his motives as mysterious.
The language of extremes exhibited in his writing reflected aspects of his "pithy" speaking manner. In one of his borderline "thought disordered" letters, it is evident that at times he experienced degrees of depersonalisation: "I do not know what I am standing on – & when anyone speaks to me I cannot for the life of me make out what they are talking about – everything seems so curious." In 1884, William Hammersley compared Wills' incipient madness and fiery glare to that of Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. Wills' mental instability is a source for medical speculation. Epilepsy has been suggested as a possible cause of his perplexed mental state, and a variant of bipolar illness may account for his disjointed thinking and elevated mood.
In 1923, Wills' old cricket cap was found by the Melbourne Cricket Club and put on display in the Block Arcade, causing Horace to reflect on his brother: "[Tom] was the nicest man I ever met. Though his nature was care-free, amounting almost to wildness, he had the sweetest temper I have seen in a man, and was essentially a sportsman."
|“||He was buried on the hill top at Heidelberg, overlooking that green valley which, eight years later, Streeton and Roberts and the painters of the Heidelberg School would depict in summer colours. A third generation Australian—then a rarity—he had often expressed in football and cricket a version of the national feeling which these artists were to express in paint, and he had been quietly proud that the football game he did so much to shape was often called 'the national game'.||”|
Wills fell into obscurity after his death, but his profile has gradually risen since the late 20th century, with some predicting that his place in Australian culture will eventually be commensurate with that of Ned Kelly and "Waltzing Matilda". His anonymous gravesite was restored in 1980 with a headstone erected by the Melbourne Cricket Club and by public subscription. The epitaph recognises Wills as the "Founder of Australian football and champion cricketer of his time". In 1998, a monument to Wills was erected in Moyston. It features a pavilion and storyboards with information supplied by historian Col Hutchinson.
The Tom Wills Room in the Great Southern Stand of the MCG serves as a venue for corporate functions. A statue outside the MCG, sculptued by Louis Laumen and erected in 2001, depicts Wills umpiring the famous 1858 football match between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College. The plaque reads that Wills:
... did more than any other person – as a footballer and umpire, co-writer of the rules and promoter of the game – to develop Australian football during its first decade.
Round 19 of the 2008 AFL Season was named Tom Wills Round to mark the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College match. The two schools played in a curtain raiser at the MCG ahead of the round's opening game between Melbourne and Geelong. That same year, Victoria's busiest freeway interchange, the Monash-EastLink interchange in Dandenong North, was named the Tom Wills Interchange. Tom Wills Oval, inaugurated in 2013 at Sydney Olympic Park, serves as the training base for the Greater Western Sydney Football Club of the AFL.
Wills has inspired numerous works in Australian popular culture. In his 1998 historical novel The Call, Martin Flanagan characterises Wills as an "Australian Icarus". It was adapted into a stage play by Bruce Myles in 2004, and has also inspired songs, including "Tom Wills" (2001) by Mick Thomas and "Tom Wills Would" (2003) by Neil Murray. Henry F. Skerritt, frontman of The Holy Sea, assumes the role of Wills in "The Ten Rules", released on the band's 2010 album Ghosts of the Horizon. In 2011, Shane Howard wrote and performed "Tom Wills" exclusively for The Marngrook Footy Show.
There is no evidence that Wills played Marngrook, an Aboriginal game that has superficial similarities with Australian rules football; however, the connection may have had some influence. Due to his positive childhood relations with Aborigines, it is assumed that he would have at the very least seen the game being played and some believe this may have had an influence on his rules for Australian football. Lawton Wills Cooke, the grandson of Tom's brother Horace, reported that "Tom played some form of football with Aboriginal kids. We have no documents to prove this, but there is a family story that they kicked a possum skin sewn up in the shape of a ball." This claim was disputed by Wills family descendent T. S. Wills Cooke in his published history of the Wills family. The theory places Wills at the centre of what has been dubbed "football's history wars".
Flanagan addresses Wills in a 2008 essay about the controversy, arguing that he must have known Aboriginal games as it was in his nature to play: "There's two things about you everybody seems to have agreed on—you'd drink with anyone and you'd play with anyone."
- List of Australian rules football and cricket players
- List of cricketers called for throwing in major cricket matches in Australia
a. ^ There are no surviving archival documents that unequivocally state Wills' place of birth, and the exact movements of his parents are difficult to pinpoint during the years 1835 and 1836, making it unclear as to where Wills was born. Molonglo is given as his birthplace in an 1869 biography in which the author William Hammersley claims to have been furnished notes by Wills. This is not without criticism for the piece contains several biographical errors. A common alternative is Parramatta on the outskirts of Sydney, where Wills' parents spent time in the year of his birth.
b. ^ Tom had eight siblings: Emily Spencer Wills (1842–1925), Cedric Spencer Wills (1844–1914), Horace Spencer Wills (1847–1928), Egbert Spencer Wills (1849–1931), Elizabeth Spencer Wills (1852–1930), Eugenie Spencer Wills (1854–1937), Minna Spencer Wills (1856–1943) and Hortense Sarah Spencer Wills (1861–1907).
d. ^ Tom Wills and H. C. A. Harrison shared Sarah Howe as a grandmother. Harrison was born ten months after Wills in New South Wales and as a young boy overlanded to the Port Phillip District, where he often visited the Wills family at Lexington. They became brothers-in-law in 1864 when Harrison married Emily Wills.
e. ^ George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Philip District, listed Horatio as having murdered several Aboriginal men and women. The closest Horatio came to admitting that he had killed Aborigines was in a letter to Governor Charles La Trobe: "... we shall be compelled in self defence to measures that may involve us in unpleasant consequences".
f. ^ In 1898, The Meteor, the Rugby School magazine, published an anonymous letter which recalled Wills' reasons for returning to Australia: "It was intended by his father that he should go from Rugby to one of the Universities, and afterwards study for the Bar, but having led a sort of nomadic life when a youth in Australia, he could not bring himself to study for professional work, therefore returned home."
g. ^ Tom Wills has been mistaken as the basis of the fictional character Tom Brown. They were both popular students who captained the Rugby School XI and excelled at the football game described by Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days.
h. ^ This story was related in the following piece of Wills family oral history: "Elizabeth Wills refused to attend [the funeral] nor would she acknowledge Tom after his death as she was very religious and considered [suicide] a great sin. ... A reporter asked Elizabeth about her son. "Which son?" she asked. "Thomas" said the reporter. "I have no son called Thomas" was the old lady's reply".
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tom Wills.|
- Biographer Greg De Moore discusses Tom Wills on "Conversations" with Richard Fidler, ABC Local Radio
- Transcript of Martin Flanagan's 2011 John Button Oration, "On why Tom Wills is an Australian legend no less than Ned Kelly and Burke & Wills"
- Tom Wills documentary on YouTube