Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.
The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?
Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather Edward Wills was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.
Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.
Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom eventually moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwood’s School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.
By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.
Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before Christmas 1856.
Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.
At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.
During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills and sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.
Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket-related matters, penning numerous letters to the local press, many of which were often contentious in nature. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a Melbourne sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:
Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….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 may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.
On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.
The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked what he viewed as the complex and violent nature of rugby. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:
1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.
While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — primarily kicking goals, marking the ball, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.
While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.
Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his dad, Wills moved to found a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River. Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.
Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.
Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching footy in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.
By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures.”
Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).
By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.
Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop footy’s popularity. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy in 1877.
Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills lived with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.
Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.
In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had hidden mental health issues, often confiding in friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.
Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream of consciousness style of writing that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.
Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”
“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.
Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous sports.