Thomas Wills – a history

Thomas Wentworth 'Tom' Wills (19 August 1835 – 2 May 1880) Australian all-round sportsman who is credited as one of the inventors of Australian rules football.

Thomas Wentworth ‘Tom’ Wills (19 August 1835 – 2 May 1880)
Australian all-round sportsman who is credited as one of the inventors of Australian rules football.

The following is a short speech that I presented to the Moyston-Willaura Football Club during a special evening held to honour Tom Wills in August 2008.

“The Wills family settled on Djab wurrung land in November 1840 the property we know today as Lexington. Tom Wills lived here from the age of 5 and grew up playing bush games with the local aboriginal children, learning their language fluently and also the elements of tracking & hunting along with boomerang and spear throwing.

From 1846 he attended school in Melbourne from age 11 where he played his first game of cricket, he returned to Lexington at age 14. Soon after Tom was sent to attend Rugby College in England arriving on his 15th birthday, here he studied and learnt the primitive game of Rugby and excelled in cricket.

Tom had grown strong and athletic being reared in the adventurous, pioneering, bush land atmosphere of the Grampians. His fitness and ability was noted and reported that during the annual game of rugby in 1854 played between students and old boys that ‘Wills, to the admiration of the spectators’ rose above the swarm of boys and displayed an eel-like agility which baffled all the efforts of his opponents to retain him in their grasp’.

He returned to Australia in December 1856 aged 21. The colony had changed during his absence, Melbourne had grown enormously and his family having sold Lexington had moved to Point Henry near Geelong. His sporting reputation had preceded him and his arrival had been eagerly expected by the Victorian cricketers. In the ensuring years Tom captained the Victoria team to several significant victories, had he lived in more contemporary times he would have achieved international fame.

Tom was a fine athlete and kept his body in good physical condition, his desire that cricketers maintain their fitness led him to write his famous letter to ‘Bells Life in Victoria’ July 10, 1858 regarding the possibility of another sport being played between seasons. This letter is considered to be the nuclei from which our famous game evolved. Games were organized Tom played, umpired and help form the earliest clubs. His genius and skill as a player is well documented, these attributes accompanied him throughout his great sporting life and gave him a distinct advantage over many other sporting champions of his era he was a formidable leader and played with true team spirit.

Thomas was an obstinate person, determined in his opinion and reluctant to change and to some ‘a thorn in their side’ I suppose he was a victim of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ his character was formed in the tough pioneering days and by the tragedy he experienced during his life. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and did so often. He was a fair person and a true egalitarian Australian loved and admired by the ordinary man. He earned the respect of many during a time when class division was omnipresent, his legacy today enables Australians of all ilk to mix together and enjoy a great game of footy.

Sadly, Tom’s life was too short. He was taunted by his nemesis from within the MCC and suffered from the illnesses of alcoholism leading to his tragic death; he was laid to rest in a paupers grave and after a century of neglect a headstone was erected engraving upon which simply reads Thomas Wentworth Wills Born 19 August 1835 Died 2 May 1880 ‘Founder of Australian Football and Champion Cricketer Of His Time’.

Clayfield Massif ‘Thomas Wills Shiraz’ is significant because it is produced from Shiraz grown at our Moyston vineyard, most likely some of the same ground where young Thomas ran and played with local aboriginal children and also grapes grown on Mount Ararat, named by Horatio Wills when gazing upon the rolling downs westward toward the Grampians where they settled.

The Massif Shiraz is labeled with a short story in respect of Tom Wills and to commemorate our national game, a story which is endorsed by living relatives of the great man. For years we have been greeting visitors at our winery and as conversation unfolds I tell the Thomas Wills story and Moyston’s legitimate claim to, as I like to call it ‘The Spiritual Birthplace of Australian Rules Football’ a game in which the spirit of Tom Wills shall forever dwell.”

Early life

Wills was born in 1835 at Burra Burra near present day Canberra. In 1839, he moved with his family, to Lexington, a 125,000-acre (510 km2) property near Moyston in western Victoria he was educated at Brickfields Academy in Melbourne for two years.

At the age of fourteen he was sent to England to attend the famous Rugby School, where he played both rugby football and cricket.

He excelled at both sports. By his final year in England, he was captain of the Rugby XI and he was listed in Bells Sporting Life as being one of the most promising young cricketers in England.

Cricket career

On his return to Melbourne in 1856 at the age of twenty-one he became one of Victoria’s best cricketers, representing the colony in inter-colonial cricket matches against New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania.

In 1868, Wills coached the first Australian cricket team to tour England, which was composed entirely of Indigenous Australians.

Wills was the grandson of a man sent to Sydney from England for highway robbery, and this convict heritage had a strong bearing on his life. Wills was a strong advocate for the rights of free settlers and “emancipated convicts” (those who had proven their worth to society). The Melbourne Cricket Club, like many institutions of high society, was known to discriminate against the “Convict Stain”. An achievement of his advocacy, was his own admission as a high-ranking member of the MCC, despite his convict heritage.

Wills was twice called for throwing by different umpires during cricket matches in 1872.


Some historians erroneously claim that Wills was instrumental in setting up at least six “football” clubs in Geelong before his famous letter dated 10 July 1858 to Bell’s Life in Victoria (a Melbourne-based sporting publication) in an attempt to stimulate interest in the sport of football. He participated in an early game of football, a “scratch” match that occurred in the Richmond Paddock (now Yarra Park) on 31 July 1858.

On 7 August 1858, Wills was one of the umpires at a match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School, also in the Richmond Paddock. Played as a 40 per side contest, the game is claimed by some as the first match of Australian football. A statue commemorating this event which features Wills as umpire was erected at the MCC members’ entry of the MCG.

On 17 May 1859 four key men Tom Wills, William Hammersley (secretary of the Melbourne Football Club) , James Thompson and Thomas Smith met at James Bryant’s Parade Hotel in East Melbourne to discuss and formulate the games rules for the first time. While Wills was a fan of the rugby rules, his view that Rugby as it stood was not only suitable to grown men but was also likely to cause injury as grounds here were much harder than those in England. Tom’s intentions were clear when he is recorded during this meeting to have made the famous declaration “We shall have a game of our own”.

Tom Wills was the first football captain of the Melbourne Club, the first recognised leader of men on the field and the possessor of the finest innovative tactical mind on the field. His name is the first signature on the first known set of rules penned on May 17 1859. His exposure to cricket and football being played on the same ground at Rugby School was critical in the development of both games in Melbourne. And he was the first to articulate clearly and in public, in his letter, the key requirements for the formation of a foot-ball club. He was one of the colony’s best footballer, best captain and most original thinker. And he stands alone in all his absurdity, his cracked egalitarian heroism and his fatal self-destructiveness – the finest cricketer and footballer of the age.

Tragedy and Death

In 1861 Tom’s father Horatio Wills emigrated north to Queensland where they took up a holding at Cullin-La-Ringo in the Nogoa region about two hundred miles from Rockhampton. They had only been on the holding since October 6th. the day after Horatio’s 50th. birthday. Eleven day later on October 17, 1861 they were attacked by a party of indigenous Australians who killed nineteen of the group, including Tom’s father. Tom was away having been sent back down to Albinia Downs on October 13th. to pick up a dray which had been left there, he returned the day following the massacre.

This tragedy had a significant effect on Tom’s life and before to long he no longer had the wealth to afford the lifestyle to which has was accustomed, the trustees of Cullin-La-Ringo were very frugal with Tom’s share. Tom became increasingly difficult in his later years. He had been a heavy drinker for most of his adult life, Tom’s alcoholism was the major reason that Horatio insisted Tom accompany him to Cullin-La-Ringo.

Later on May 2, 1880 at the age of 44 he stabbed himself to death with a pair of scissors in his Heidelberg home.

In Memory

In 1998, Wills was honoured by a monument in Moyston, his home town, which includes a pavilion and historical storyboard based on information supplied by historian Colin Hutchison.

Wills is honoured with a sculpture at the MCG by Louis Laumen erected in 2002. The sculpture reads that Wills: Did more than any other person – as footballer and umpire, co-writer of the rules and promoter of the game – to develop Australian Football during its first decade.

A room in the Great Southern Stand, known as the Tom Wills Room, reserved for corporate functions is also named after him.

In 2008, Round 19 of the AFL season was named Tom Wills Round to celebrate 150 years of Australian Football and featured a curtain raiser at the MCG between Scotch and Melbourne Grammar to mark the match which Wills famously umpired.

For many years, Wills role in the birth of Australian Football was played down by MCC officials and instead credited most of this to his cousin, H.C.A Harrison, and some believe this to be due Harrison’s apparently more wholesome character. As the MCC has become more liberal in its attitudes, and Australians generally embrace convict heritage, Wills contribution has been recognised and acknowledged.

Recommended further reading:

‘Tom Wills His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall’ Author: Greg de Moore (Published by Allen & Unwin)

‘Cullin – La – Ringo The Triumph and Tragedy of Tommy Wills’ Author & Publisher: Les Perrin

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