A new biography depicts Tom Wills as ‘probably the most important sporting figure in this country’s history’.
WORDS: Mr Greg De moore Photographs courtesy of the Melbourne Cricket Club Museum
The article below is by Dr Greg de Moore, an Old Wesley Collegian now living in Sydney. The article is based on Greg’s recent biography, Tom Wills – His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall published by Allen and Unwin. Greg has generously decided to donate all earnings from sales of his book to a charity for young boys and girls, designed to give underprivileged children further educational opportunities. After leaving Wesley, Greg studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, and now works as a psychiatrist at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, a teaching hospital attached to the University of Sydney. Greg says Tom Wills is ‘probably the most important sporting figure in this country’s history’, and he has links with Scotch, of which the School community should be proud.
Tom Wills is quite possibly the most important sportsman in this country’s history. He was the greatest cricketer of his generation and the first hero of Australian Rules football. The story of his life should be known by every Australian – adult and child – and should sit alongside those of other great men and women who have shaped this country. It is little known that this man had close links to Scotch College.
On 10 July 1858, Bell’s Life in Victoria published a letter written by Tom Wills in which he called for the formation of ‘a foot-ball club’ in the colony. On 7 August 1858, the famous game of football between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar commenced on the Richmond Paddock, near where the MCG now stands.
The game was umpired by Tom Wills and a Scotch College chemistry teacher – Dr John Macadam. Macadam was a remarkable man – a medical doctor, scientist and later a politician – he was well known on the lecture circuit of young intellectual Melbourne.
It was not by chance that Tom Wills umpired this match. The Wills family had close links to Scotch College. In fact, in that year of 1858, Tom’s younger brother, Cedric, was a student at Scotch, and may very well have taken part in that famous game of football. And in the coming years, Tom’s other brothers attended Scotch.
The football match on 7 August turned out to be the first of three Saturdays on which the game was played. The Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar, John Bromby, was obviously pleased with his school’s performance against the more established Scotch College. He wrote in his diary: ‘Football match with the Scotch College, 40 a side. It is the oldest educational institution in the colony; they number 187, we only 113. They had 4 masters in the field, we only 3 … game was fiercely contested for 3 hours …’
Many years afterwards, one of the Scotch boys of the time recalled that it was Tom Wills who ‘brought a huge sewn many seamed round ball to show his brothers how to play the new English game …’
Scotch masters were well known for their football prowess. One of these teachers, Thomas Smith, whom the boys nicknamed ‘Red’ Smith, was a prickly man at the best of times, and the boys in his Classics class probably had quite a time of it. Smith favoured the tactic of ‘rabbiting’ on the football fields of Scotch College. This violent technique allowed a footballer to bring down another player who was running, by dropping down in front of the running player to bring him down violently. Smith changed his mind about the suitability of this tactic when one of his students – using this tactic – tackled Smith and broke his teacher’s ribs.
Another of the early masters known for his football skills was Robert Morrison, younger brother of the Scotch Headmaster, Alexander Morrison. The younger of the Morrisons was regarded by the boys as a ‘fast runner and fair kick’.
The year after the Scotch–Grammar match, Tom Wills and a small group of men sat down in the back room of a pub next to the Richmond Paddock to pen what has become the most important and original document in Australian sporting history – the 1859 rules of the Melbourne Football Club.
Although Tom Wills is best remembered for his role in the creation of Australian Rules football, his life was an amazing chronicle of colonial adventure.
Born near modern day Canberra in 1835, he overlanded as a young boy with his parents to the Grampians where he spent time with the local Djabwurrung Aborigines, learning their language and playing with the local native children.
The blueprint for Tom’s sporting life was set down when his father, Horatio Wills, sent him to Rugby School, England, in 1850. His father wished him to attend Cambridge University and return to Melbourne as a lawyer. Rather, Tom became one of the finest young cricketers in England and learned the game of Rugby School football.
When Tom Wills returned to Melbourne he was the most beautiful of all athletes, and his appearance caught envious and admiring eyes. Tom Wills immediately became the darling of the Victorian social set and his father’s recent rise into the Victorian parliament stamped the family’s social claim. Tom Wills was the finest cricketer of his generation and he captained the Victorian team to repeated victories over NSW, a colony regarded as somewhat inferior by Melburnians.
In 1861, Tom and his father travelled to Central Queensland to take up a new family property. Days after arriving on the property, on 17 October 1861, as Tom’s father and the settlers rested on a hot afternoon, local Aborigines attacked the party. Horatio Wills and 18 other settlers were murdered. It was the largest single killing of white settlers by Aborigines in this country’s history. Fortunately, Tom Wills was away from the campsite and survived this attack. But he was marked by its memory until the end of his days.
Ironically, only five years later, in 1866, Tom Wills coached a Victorian cricket team made up from Western District Aborigines. The players spoke in the same language that Tom had learned as a child and from the start he was seen as closely allied to the team. That team was led by Tom Wills onto the MCG on Boxing Day 1866, to the applause of 8000 curious spectators.
Tom Wills continued to play football with the Melbourne Football Club and the Geelong Football Club. At his peak, he rubbed shoulders with the most eminent men in sport and society. He dominated intercolonial cricket as Victoria’s captain, finishing his intercolonial cricket career in 1876.
After his career ended his life rapidly declined. Four years later, he was an alcoholic living on the outskirts of Melbourne. In 1880, sadly, he took his life while in a state of delirium tremens. His funeral was private as his family sought to protect the name of the family.
The life of Tom Wills spanned a remarkable period of sporting development in Australia. And there are stories to tell of this man – triumphant and sad – that could fill many hours of discussion.
The Scotch College community can feel pride in its close association with the sporting legacy left by a man who is justly regarded as the most important individual in the creation of Australian Rules football, and our first great cricketer.
Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, by Greg de Moore, is published by Allen and Unwin at $32.95. Proceeds are to be donated to The Girls and Boys Brigade, to further the educational opportunities of disadvantaged children. GS
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