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 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 cricket matches for Kent and the Marylebone Cricket Club. At this stage, he was described as one of the finest young cricketers in England by Bell's Sporting Life.
Wills returned to Victoria in 1856, where he captained the Victorian cricket team to repeated victories in intercolonial matches against New South Wales and Tasmania, and was made secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. In 1858 he called for the development of a football code to keep cricketers fit during the off-season. After founding the Melbourne Football Club the following year, Wills and three other club members codified the first laws of Australian Football. He and his cousin H. C. A. Harrison were the dominant players during the game's early years.
In 1861, Wills was summoned by his father to Central Queensland to establish a family property. Two weeks after their arrival, Wills' father and 18 others were murdered in the Cullin-La-Ringo massacre, the largest massacre of European settlers by aborigines in Australian history. Wills survived and returned to Melbourne in 1864. He continued to play football and cricket, and, in 1866–67, coached and captained the first Aboriginal cricket team. In a career marked by controversy, Wills engaged in regular spats with his peers, and became the first cricketer in 1872 to be no balled for throwing in a major Australian match. He played his last first-class match in 1876, at the age of 40. Psychological trauma from the massacre was worsened by his alcoholism. Wills was admitted to the Melbourne Hospital in May 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' role in early Australian sporting life, particularly in regard to the establishment of Australian rules football, was generally not recognised until the latter half of the 20th century. A statue of Wills was erected outside of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2001, and he was an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. Wills has been characterised in modern times as an archetype of the fallen sportsman, and as a symbol of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. 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 Time in 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 Plotting Wills' 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 present day Canberra, in what was the British colony of New South Wales, as the elder child of Horatio Spencer Howe Wills, and his wife, Elizabeth (née McGuire). 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. Horatio was serving as the newspaper's editor when he 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 William Wentworth. Wentworth and the emancipist cause fostered in Horatio a strident nationalism which he set forth in his Sydney journal The Currency Lad, the first to call for an Australian republic.
In the late 1830s, Horatio took up pastoral pursuits and the family moved 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 a mountain that Horatio named Mount Ararat, "for, 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 implored Tom to base their lives upon the New Testament.
Horatio built a homestead on a 120,000-acre (490 km2) property named Lexington (present day Moyston) in an area that served as a meeting place for clans of the Djab wurrung language group. 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[b] 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 early settlers in the area, he was implicated in deadly conflict with the Djab wurrung.
Tom's first sibling, Emily, was born on Christmas Day 1842. In 1846 Wills began attendance at William Brickwood's School in Melbourne. He was looked after by Horatio's brother Thomas (Tom's namesake), a prominent figure in Melbourne and advocate for Victoria's separation from New South Wales. Tom played in his first cricket matches at school, and he was introduced to 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.
Time in England
In February 1850, aged fourteen, Wills was sent by his father to England to attend Rugby School, the most prestigious school in the country. After a voyage of five months, he arrived in London, where, during school holidays, he was to stay with his paternal aunt Sarah Alexander, who left Sydney after the death of her first husband, the emancipated convict surgeon William Redfern.
At school he played rugby football and cricket, excelling at both sports. He was noted as an attacking rugby 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 tested the strict interpretation of rugby rules using "slimy tricks". He was also the team's dedicated kicker, noted for his long and accurate shots at goal.
Wills decorated his study with objects to remind him of home, including rocks, native birds from Lexington, and Australian Aboriginal artifacts. 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 tall teenager and grew quickly. By age 16 at 5'8" he was already taller than his father. In Lillywhite's Guide his adult height was recorded 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 listed in Bell's Sporting Life as one of the most promising young cricketers in England. He was offered a spot on William Clarke's touring cricket team, the All-England Eleven, but chose to remain at Rugby for a further year.
After Rugby, Wills attended Cambridge University in 1855, where he played cricket, notably in the Cambridge XI in the Varsity Match. In June 1856, Wills played cricket at Rugby School for the last time, representing the Marylebone Cricket Club alongside Lord Guernsey, the Earl of Winterton, and Charles du Cane, future Governor of Tasmania. Wills scored 22 in the first innings, striking the ball for 6 over the cricket pavilion in a 9-wicket victory for Marylebone. Wills spent a month playing for various clubs in Ireland, where he was remembered for his prankish behaviour as much as his cricketing ability. He returned to England in early September to prepare for his journey home to Australia.
Wills returned to Australia[c] aboard the Oneida steamship, arriving in Melbourne on 23 December 1856. The once fledgling port city had risen to world renown as the booming financial centre of the Victorian gold rush.[d] Horatio, now a member of the Legislative Assembly in the Victorian Parliament, was living near Geelong at a property named Belle Vue, 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.
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 Wills taking to the field of the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the trial:
... 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 match 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".
In February 1858, Wills led the Victorian team to Tasmania where they defeated the Launceston Cricket Club. Launceston protested Victoria's inclusion of three professionals—Jerry Bryant, George Marshall and Gid Elliot—and, unable to distinguish amateur from professional, refused to shake the Victorians' hands. "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 striking and injuring one of the Tasmanian batsmen with three fast roundarm bowls. Their treatment of professionals was a slight that Wills would not forget.
Wills regularly commuted between his father's property in Geelong and Melbourne between 1856 to 1859.
Wills succeeded William Hammersley as secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club during the 1857–58 season. However the following year he had a falling out with the club and left for a rival club, Richmond. The result was a lasting tension between both parties. The ill feeling was heightened by an incident during a match while Wills was playing for Richmond, in which he became involved in fist fights with some of its members.
"A game of our own"
On 10 July 1858, the Melbourne-based Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle published a letter by Wills that is regarded as a catalyst for a new style of football, now known 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 prompt 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[e] (1857), an account of life at Rugby School under the headship of Thomas Arnold. The book extolled Aronld'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. Wills had links to both schools: Melbourne Grammar through his employers, a law firm in Collins Street; and Scotch College through his thirteen-year-old brother Cedric, a pupil at the school who may have 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 published verse about Australian football. 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' signature headed the list of rulemakers. 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. As a journalist, J.B. Thompson disseminated the Melbourne rules across Victoria, 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 match was played on the Domain in Sydney. Wills was elected Victorian captain and, despite dislocating his right middle finger on the first day while attempting a catch, top scored in the first innings with 15 runs and took 11 wickets for 49, 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 runs in the second innings. Victoria won by 69 runs.
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 club), and advised the team on their colours: white with a red sash. The following month, the issue of the ball's shape came to a head when Wills, captaining Richmond against Melbourne, opted for an oval ball. There was an uproar over Wills "maintaining his right to the choice of 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", a high compliment given that Harrison was the fastest runner in the colony.
Of the early footballers, Wills was regarded as the most innovative tactician. 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 style of play typical of the era.
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.
At the end of January 1861, Tom, Horatio and a party of Victorian settlers commenced their journey north to Queensland where they reached the port of Rockhampton. The trek inland to Cullin-la-Ringo took eight months. They passed through Toowoomba, where one of Horatio's men drowned, and collected over 10,000 sheep in the Darling Downs. 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 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 conversation with 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.
Struggle on the station
Tom Wills stayed on at Cullin-la-Ringo to manage the station. Vigilant, he slept only three hours a night with a rifle beside his bed and looked for signs of another attack.
He briefly 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. On the third and final day of the match, Wills top scored in both innings, however it was not enough and New South Wales won 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."
Tom Wills 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 the Attorney-General 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". Cedric, Tom's brother, lived on the holding after Tom's departure in early 1864. Cedric believed that the Cullin-la-Ringo 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 winter.
When the laws of football were reviewed by the Melbourne Football Club committee in May 1865, Wills "strongly advocated" that a crossbar similar to that used in the Rugby School game be added to the goal posts. Wills, the longest kick of the football in the colony, would have used this change to his advantage. The proposal was defeated by one vote. 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 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 was stripped of 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. Under the captaincy of Englishman Charles Lawrence, New South Wales was expected to win. The weakened Victorian team, led by Wills, made an unprecedented 285 runs and won in an innings, Wills scoring 58, the first half century in first-class Australian cricket.
In the popular imagination, Wills was hailed as 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 Melbourne Cricket Club. 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 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. A fellow native-born colonial was moved to write a public letter to Wills, beginning:
Sir, — 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". The Bendigo press reported that Jellico, "the team jester", 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. After the tour, Mullagh and Cuzens joined Wills as paid bowlers with the MCC.
Plotting Wills' downfall
The Victorian cricket team had elected Wills as captain for over a decade. Writing in his sports column, William Hammersley claimed that, as a paid servant of the MCC, Wills lacked "moral ascendancy" over amateur players. When he lost the captaincy to amateur Richard Wardill on the eve of the March 1869 match against New South Wales, he initially refused to play under Wardill, or, indeed, anyone else. The Victorians resolved to play without Wills, after which he retracted his impulsive decision. This was the last intercolonial match played on the Domain in Sydney and Victoria was again triumphant despite losing Wardill to the first ball of the match; Wills took 7 wickets in the second innings.
Wills, though living in Geelong, remained in Melbourne during the 1869–70 cricket season as a tutor with the MCC. He stayed with Sarah Barbor in South Yarra. 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 in a 265-run win against 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 counter 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' captaincy, the Victorian team easily defeated a Tasmanian XVI in Launceston, though not without criticism of Wills' bowling action. He proudly and recklessly admitted to sometimes throwing the ball in his 1870–71 Australian Cricketers' Guide, and in so doing taunted his enemies to stop him.
For the March 1871 intercolonial match at the Albert Ground in Sydney, Wills was unanimously elected Victorian captain. He top-scored in the first innings with 39 not out, and Victoria defeated New South Wales by 48 runs. Accusations of throwing had shadowed Wills for the last decade, and calls to have him no-balled grew more insistent. On 30 March 1872, Wills became the first cricketer to be called for throwing in a major Australian cricket match, effectively ending his first-class career.
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.
In 1874, at the age of 39, Wills travelled to the South Australian mining town of Kadina to coach the locals in preparation for a cricket match against W. G. Grace's touring English team. Wills scored a duck in both innings 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 wickets for 28. Wills played his last first-class cricket match in 1876.
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 accidents. 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 stacked 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 retired from football in 1874. He was a founding member and vice-president of the Geelong branch of the Australian Natives' Association. In 1875, following a match in Geelong, the locals listened as Wills recounted the origins of Australian football, what he called "the king of games". He served as Geelong's vice-president from 1873 to 1876, and was appointed as one of three Geelong delegates after the formation of the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1877. 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 his de facto Sarah Theresa Barbor, and his role at the club was diminished.
Wills developed a reputation for not paying debts, though he continued to financially support local cricket and football teams. 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 later years living 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.
Tom Wills was admitted to the Melbourne Hospital at the age of 44 suffering from extreme alcoholism. Delusional from alcohol withdrawal, Wills absconded from the hospital's psychiatric ward on 1 May 1880, 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".
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 unyielding 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 humorous 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, Wills mentioned to his sister Emily 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, prompting 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 since the late 20th century, he has re-emerged as a figure of cultural significance. 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 Hutchison.
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. Martin Flanagan's 1998 novel The Call has been described as a "historical imagining into the life of Wills". It was adapted into a stage play by Bruce Myles in 2004. Flanagan's portrayal of Wills 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 alleged to have 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. The theory has been called a "postmodern and postcolonial reconstruction of Australian sporting history", and the debate surrounding it "football's history wars", with Wills at its centre.
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.
- 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 Wills and H. C. A. Harrison shared Sarah Howe as a grandmother. Harirson 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.
c. ^ 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."
e. ^ 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.
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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 at YouTube.com