The man who invented AFL

By Greg de Moore

The introduction of an AFL team into western Sydney is regarded by some as an invasion. But Tom Wills might disagree. In fact one could say that, when the new AFL team takes root in western Sydney and Israel Folau kicks his first goal, the game of Australian Rules football – our great and unique contribution to world sporting culture – will simply return to the family “home” of the man who started it all.

When Rugby Union’s Karmichael Hunt and Rugby League player, Folau, pull on their boots to play Australian Rules football next year, observers might regard this as unusual. But anyone who knows a little about Australian history would disagree, for Rules football and the Rugby codes are closer than many know: Tom Wills, the man who – more than any other – created the game of Australian Rules, learnt his football at Rugby School in England.

1866 Aboriginal cricket team

Our first great cricketer, and instigator of Australian Rules football, was not a conventional man. Sometimes, however, it is the peculiar individual who tilts, ever so slightly, our view of the world, and so affords us an opportunity to see patterns and meaning where previously we had seen none. Wills was one such person.

He was a “Sydney” man, or so he sometimes boasted. His mother was a student at the Female Orphan School in Parramatta and his father, a newspaper editor – of the Sydney Gazette.

Tom Wills

Wills was born in 1835, near the township of Queanbeyan in NSW. His family overlanded to the new Colony of Port Phillip and from the age of four he grew up among the Djab wurrung people in the Grampians, northwest of Melbourne. At the age of 14 his father, Horatio, despatched him, alone, on a five month voyage to England. For the next five years he boarded at Rugby School in the English Midlands.

Wills wrote detailed notes on how he played cricket; others wrote how they saw him as a footballer. But it was as a cricketer – captain of the Rugby XI – that he attracted most attention. Reporters from The Times and various sporting papers commented on the adolescent Australian. All noted his prowess, but nevertheless, the captain of the Rugby cricket team was not a batsman of great delicacy. To the eye of the seasoned observer, his lack of grace singled him out as an unfinished product. If he was just a little freer in his actions, he might have been counted among the best gentlemen cricketers in England. But style counted for a great deal, particularly for a gentleman in Victorian England; and Mr Thomas Wills Esquire, captain of the Rugby XI and, an Australian, was in need of some polish, if he was to meet with approving eyes when he stepped on to the lush turf of Lord’s Cricket Ground, where a vulgar lift of the bat raised more eyebrows than failing to score.

It was at Rugby that Wills learnt how to feint and duck and his clever moves made him known to the English press. One had to sparkle, to entertain, to attract notice and Wills was always noticed. Sometimes he ran with the mass of forward players, shoving the football towards the goal line; but more impressively he was a “dodger” – the name given to back-players who flitted and deceived the opposition.

In 1856, at the age of 21, Wills returned to Australia bringing the rules of Rugby School football to Melbourne. This schoolboy game underwent modifications in Melbourne until a new code – Australian Rules – was born. Tom Wills was its chief architect in the first three years.

Many factors shaped the game and the period 1857-1860 were the critical years. Three major influences shaped the mind of Wills and could be argued as important in his writing of the earliest rules: one was the football rules he had learned as a schoolboy in England; the second was Victoria itself, a colony buoyed by gold, the intellectual and cultural centre of a developing land; and thirdly, the nationalistic mindset and language bequeathed to him by his father, in the letters and diary Horatio wrote in western Sydney in the years before Tom was born. Horatio wrote of his desire that men born in Australia – The Native Born – think and create for themselves, and not to consider themselves inferior to men born overseas. Tom Wills set about creating a new game; the lessons of his father were learned well.

In 1861, 26-year-old Tom Wills left Melbourne, and travelled with his father to central Queensland to take up a new family property. On the afternoon of 17 October of that year, Aborigines murdered his father and 18 other men, women and children. It was the largest killing of European settlers by Aborigines in this country’s history. Wills, who had been sent by Horatio to collect supplies, survived the attack. His father’s death had a profound impact upon Wills and three years later he told his sister of his wild dreams about “blacks” attacking the Queensland station. Today we understand this as a feature of a Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but in 1861, there was no understanding in the Queensland bush.

Football match from early days in progress

Nevertheless, five years after the attack, Wills carried out perhaps the most astonishing act in Australian sporting history, captaining a team of Aboriginal cricketers from western Victoria, and led them on to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day 1866 to the applause of some 10,000 spectators.

Tom Wills – the white captain of a black team – enchanted and confronted the colonies. The team came to Sydney and their base was Manly Beach. From there they travelled to Newcastle, Wollongong, Campbelltown and Parramatta. A year later, this team (minus Wills), left Australia to play against teams in England – more than ten years before the first white cricket team did so.

By 1870, the first blemish of alcohol dependence could be seen in Wills’ reddened cheeks. In the early afternoon of a Melbourne day in 1880, as autumn came to a close, Wills committed suicide. In the midst of delirium tremens – the consequence of withdrawing from alcohol – he stabbed himself in the heart with a pair of scissors. He was buried in an unmarked grave; the funeral was kept private. His younger brother, Horace, wrote many years later that Tom was the “sweetest” man he ever knew.

Greg de Moore, is a clinical lecturer in psychiatry at Westmead Hospital. His recent book Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall (Allen & Unwin) was shortlisted for the 2009 National Biography Award among other literary honours.

Image captions

Top: Tom Wills and the 1866 Aboriginal cricket team
Middle: Portrait of Wills as a young man
Bottom: right: a match in progress at Richmond, Victoria