Books, Non-Fiction

Finding Tom Wills – the founder of Australian Rules Football

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Greg de Moore is a Sydney psychiatrist and author. His 2011 book Tom Wills – First Wild Man of Australian Sport (Allen and Unwin) is a biography of Tom Wills, the man most credited with creating the game now know as Australian Rules football.

“Sent to the strict British Rugby School in 1850 at 14, Tom returned as a worldly young man whose cricket prowess quickly captured the hearts of Melburnians. But away from the adoring crowds, in the desolation of the Queensland outback, he experienced first-hand the devastating effects of racial tension when his father was murdered in the biggest massacre of Europeans by Aboriginal people. Yet five years later, Tom coached the first Aboriginal cricket team.

“Tom Wills lived hard and fast, challenging authority on and off the field. But when his physical talents began to fade, the psychological demons that alcohol and adrenaline had kept at bay surged to the fore, driving him to commit the most brutal of suicides. He was 44 and destitute.”

Greg de Moore is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. His latest book (written with Anne Westmore) is Finding Sanity — John Cade, lithium and the taming of bipolar disorder (Allen and Unwin) and is the first biography of the Australian doctor who discovered the first pharmacological treatment for mental illness.

Below is an extract from Tom Wills.


I first came across the name of Tom Wills in a short article on the origins of Australian Rules football. Tom Wills had been bequeathed a lavish talent for the playing of games – he played cricket with virtuosity, challenging the constraints of that game, and was credited, more than any other, with creating the game of Australian Rules football. Towards the end of the article, my eyes settled upon a single line: Tom Wills had stabbed himself in the heart. In the early afternoon of a Melbourne day in 1880 he had committed suicide.

Curious about Wills, I wanted to know why his life ended that way – my starting point was his suicide. I went to the Mitchell Library in Sydney and searched the Melbourne newspapers for his obituaries. These gave me the first insights into his life. Wills was an alcoholic and his behaviour in the hours before his suicide suggested that he had been hallucinating. On the day before his death, 1 May 1880, Wills had been taken to the Melbourne Hospital and offered refuge, but had somehow managed to leave hospital and return home, where he took his life.

I couldn’t imagine anyone being allowed to leave hospital in that state. The only way to know how and why he left hospital was to locate his medical notes. In hope, more than belief, that such records still existed, I rang the Royal Melbourne Hospital, long since made imperial. The boxes of patient records from 1880 had, indeed, been stored at the hospital and kept in a backroom. When I arrived at the hospital, I was directed to a room overfilled with heavy, unopened cardboard boxes. Inside each box were leather bound volumes of doctors’ admission notes from the nineteenth century. The boxes were not organised in any particular manner – I would have to open each one and then each bound volume of medical notes to find Tom’s admission.

For five hours I peered silently into the lives of patients admitted to the Melbourne Hospital until, without warning, I found the notes I had travelled 1000 kilometres to discover. Hasty and to the point, they recorded the essence of Wills’ mind as it unravelled: the telltale hallucinations and delusions of alcohol withdrawal, recognisable and unchanged across the century. At 5 p.m. Tom Wills had ‘absconded’ from the Melbourne Hospital. The next day he was dead.

This single archival discovery suggested that other discoveries might be made, but before I delved further I needed to know more about my man. This did not take long. Standard texts on the history of Australian sport painted what was known of his life. Born in 1835, Wills had been despatched by his father to England in 1850 to study at Rugby School. His father, Horatio Wills, was a man of hefty girth and even heftier ambitions for his son. Tom excelled at Rugby School in sports; returning to Melbourne in 1856 he became the transcendent cricketer in the colony of Victoria. A sporting libertine, he was courted by clubs and colonies throughout Australia. It was a safe bet for the average punter to wage a shilling on any team captained by T.W. Wills and like a medieval prince swinging a cricket bat, he travelled the country holding court on fields of his choosing.

He was an unusual mix – thin-skinned and self-centred, yet generous to the less gifted in his team. Peculiar was the word for Tom Wills; just about everyone said so.

In 1859 Tom Wills, along with three other men, sat down in the back room of a Melbourne pub and penned what has become the most important and original document in Australian sporting history. The ten rules they wrote established the basis of Australian Rules football.

As I recorded what was known of Wills’ life, it became clear that there were many gaps in his history. To research these gaps, I sent out one enquiry after another to locate archives in an attempt to unlock the secrets of his life. Letters, photographs and assorted archives were collected from across five countries; items were found in unexpected places. Of all the material I unearthed, nothing was more unexpected than finding Tom’s schoolbooks from Rugby School. The mere fact that they had survived for over 150 years without any attempt at preservation was astonishing enough but it was where I found them that was most incongruous.

While searching for material on Tom Wills I visited Minerva Creek Station, a homestead near Springsure, Central Queensland. The cattle station was run and owned by another Tom Wills, a descendant of the Wills family. The Tom I met lived in a modest bungalow on a property spanning 10,000 acres; nearby stood the original homestead where his mother lived. In the early evening, about 6 p.m., I was led into an old outhouse where I started looking at priceless letters written by Tom Wills 150 years ago. My Queensland host told me that the letters had been stored under the homestead for years.

I picked up the letters, sat down on a bench, and spread them out on the vast rough-hewn table under a lamp. My only companions were the large winged insects that spun about the lamp and a seemingly endless supply of beer. I sat for hours on a hot Queensland night, with a can of XXXX at my elbow, reading the letters. To save paper, writers of the period often completed a letter in their normal horizontal script then turned the letter 90 degrees and wrote at right angles on top of the original letter. Some of the letters were torn and dates and phrases were missing at crucial points. Deciphering the letters took time. Not all the letters were in one piece so I moved the pieces, like tectonic plates, trying to find which piece went with which letter. When I looked at my watch it was four o’clock in the morning.

Later that morning Tom took me over to the homestead where his elderly mother lived. The homestead had seen finer days. It was dark inside despite the bursting Queensland sun. Dust covered the furniture and just about everything else I could see. While chatting to Tom’s mother I noticed an old bookshelf in a corner, the kind you might see in a second-hand bookshop, draped with a torn curtain. I slowly drew back the curtain to reveal a line of books embalmed by the dust of Central Queensland. A puff of dust dispersed into the air and into my nostrils as I removed one book, A History of Greece. Written on the inside cover was:

March 14th, 1854

I could hardly believe what I was holding: I had found Tom’s schoolbooks from Rugby. The pages of the book were difficult to prise apart and in some places were corrugated and stuck fast by water damage. Managing to free one page I turned it with a hesitant touch, but small flakes of paper, like the sloughing of skin, still broke off and fluttered to the table. These textbooks had miraculously survived, connecting two alien worlds separated by 150 years and over 16000 kilometres. From the black soil plains of outback Queensland I had my first glimpse of Tom Wills as a boy in England on the playing fields of Rugby.

I travelled to Rugby School looking for evidence of Tom’s time there and amongst boxes of the boys’ letters I came across a diary in which he kept an account of his cricket matches. In 1855, captaining his cricket team, Tom wrote of an incident that told me a great deal about his single-mindedness. Batting, he required ten runs to complete a century. Bent over his bat, Tom waited for the next ball. The bowler approached. The impertinent ball dipped and clipped his bat before it safely skidded into his legs. Or, so at least thought Tom Wills. Mr. Soames, the Umpire, thought otherwise – out L.B.W. That evening, when Tom Wills sat down to write his report of the game, he underscored with some vigour his assessment of Mr. Soames. Everything that mattered to Tom was frozen in the instant that the ball had hit his legs, waiting for the umpire’s decision. Never mind that, in the previous few months, the school had been flushed with scarlet fever – a fourteen-year old boy lay near death; another lad had died. No, he never penned his private thoughts on these matters. Sport occupied each moment of his thinking. He was an unusual mix – thin-skinned and self-centred, yet generous to the less gifted in his team. Peculiar was the word for Tom Wills; just about everyone said so.

Never did a more beautiful athlete step upon the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Tom Wills was an exotic intrusion into a dull world.

As I found and read his personal letters I could only feel intense affection for Tom Wills. His thoughts were exhilarating and infectious; his punning and disregard for the conventions of sentence structure bordered on the thought disordered. It was hard not to love a man whose letters could so gloriously mock himself and who immortalised Melbourne, in one of his manic letters: ‘Everything is very dull here, but people are kept alive by people getting shot at in the streets’.

Tactless, he unerringly spoke his mind. A man of egalitarian cut, Wills always sided with the underdog. A rapscallion for the ages, he was not beholden to the conventions of the day; his antics on the field were forgiven – his ‘brain snaps’ overlooked. His taste for colonial beer needed no encouragement; alcohol was a balm for his troubled spirit.

Wills emerged from his Rugby School chrysalis and in 1856, as a 21-year-old, returned home to the harsh Australian sun. Never did a more beautiful athlete step upon the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Tom Wills was an exotic intrusion into a dull world. His life’s work was about to begin. On the afternoon I discovered the medical notes that recorded the final hours of the life of Tom Wills, I felt like I’d unearthed the remains of an Australian Titanic. Here was our great sportsman – an expansive and uncharted life – led by an unknown hand to a seemingly inevitable end.

You can buy Tom Wills – First Wild Man of Australian Sport here 

5 responses to “Finding Tom Wills – the founder of Australian Rules Football

  1. This film is overdue for the Australian community. It’s time to tell this story of how Aussie Rules was made. There should be no restriction on how to make it, no cheap short cuts. CGI old Melbourne if they have to, all the clothes and fashions, etc. This should be an all out effort to capture the world’s imagination re OUR particular game of “football”. It sounds like a fascinating story. Maybe it’s a mini series. Let’s do it. It is time.

  2. An amazing biography by Greg de Moore – I read it some years ago while researching other family involvement in a post-massacre massacre – in late 1857 at “Hornet Bank” on the Dawson River – some four years before and not so far from that of the Wills Family and household at Springsure in 1861! The difference in responses from surviving family members could not have been starker. Tom Wills was exemplary – but the PTSD which played itself out in his descent into alcoholism and suicide – as I read it – surely came from that horrifying end to his family and to his subsequent eventual loneliness….

  3. Tom Wills. Nick Kyrgios. One is my great grandfather’s big brother. The other has been trashed over and over by a fickle media peddling hate to a hating audience. Both brilliant. Both unique in their sports.

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