|In 2008 on the 150th anniversary of Australian Rules football, we remembered the man with his cousin H.C.A. Harrison, drafted the first rules for a new form of football in 1858.|
This young man was an all round sportsman, Secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club at twenty years of age, an excellent cricketer, a great coach and a sports administrator at a
time when amateurism was the norm.
He also took the first Aboriginal (and thus Australian) Cricketing Team to England.
The following is largely drawn from "The Paddock That Grew" (The Story of the Melbourne Cricket Club), by Keith Dunstan .
"His father, Horace Spencer Wills, settled at Ararat in 1839". This was some three years
after the first settlement in what became the Colony of Victoria. " In 1852 he sent his young son Tommy home home to England to be educated at Rugby. Tommy was a sporting natural. He was Captain of both cricket and football at Rugby, and at Cambridge he was considered one of the most promising cricketers in England. He returned to Australia in 1856".
Tom Wills accompanied his father to Queensland in 1860 and remained there for some
years, returning to Victoria in 1864 in time to play against Parr's English XII that year. "It is
hard even to guess at his value to cricket in Australia. For years he was the "Grace" of the
Colony, and there's no question that his coaching of young players helped put Australia on
equal terms with England."
But it was prior to this that Tom's attention turned to developing an "off-season" activity to
keep cricketers fit during the winter months.
"During 1858 he wrote his famous letter to "Bell's Life", suggesting that the MCC should
form a football club to keep the players fit during the winter. The grounds were too hard for
Rugby tackling, therefore new rules were necessary. With his cousin, H.C.A. Harrison, he
worked on the rules of a new football game that was to have quite an effect on the MCG."
As has been recorded elsewhere, and immortalised in bronze at the MCG, Tom Wills umpired
the first game of football in the parkland adjoining the present site of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, between students from two Melbourne private schools. The new game caught on and clubs were formed, requiring further revision of the rules to enable a game to be completed in a reasonable time. Umpires came later. Initially the opposing Captains
awarded free kicks.
So we come to the grave at Warringal Cemetery. For a life that was lived to the full, for a person who achieved so much, Tom met a tragic end. "In later years he became an alcoholic, and in 1880 he committed suicide with a bayonet".
Tom Wills cousin, H.C.A. Harrison, died in 1929 aged 92. "He had been a member of the MCC for 68 years and he was vicepresident since 1892". Whether it was Harrison's passing or, for some other reason, the MCC members recognised that the grave of Thomas Wentworth Wills at Warringal Cemetery was without a suitable monument. Through subscriptions, they raised sufficient money to provide a monument for his grave. Bearing in mind that these were the years of the Great Depression, when many families starved and men wandered the countryside looking for work, it is remarkable to now look upon that simple monument to Wills, the founder of Australian Football.
Thomas Wentworth Wills is buried in Warringal Cemetery, adjoining Upper Heidelberg
Road in Heidelberg.