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Thomas Wentworth Wills

1836 – 1880

Thomas Wentworth (Tom) Wills (1836–1880), is popularly thought of as the ‘inventor ‘ of Australian Rules football. Born in Sydney and named for his father’s good friend (and lawyer), William Charles Wentworth, Tom was not yet four when he took part in the journey by which Horatio relocated from New South Wales to Port Phillip in 1839. He received some of his school education in Melbourne before, at fourteen, being sent ‘home’ to Rugby, where he proved an adept sportsman but not much of a scholar. He then attended Cambridge but did not matriculate, once again earning greater distinction for his on-field prowess, particularly in cricket. He later played for Kent and the Marylebone Cricket Club, continuing his cricket career on returning to Victoria in late 1856. In all, between 1857 and 1876, in addition to playing for Richmond, the Melbourne Cricket Club, and several other teams, he represented Victoria in twelve matches against NSW, scoring a total of 319 runs and taking 72 wickets at the impressive average of 10.23. His significance to Australian sporting history, however, arguably resides primarily in his instigating a local code of football as a means of keeping cricketers fit during winter. In 1858, Wills helped establish the Melbourne Football Club; in 1859, he led the group that set down the code of laws for what later became known as Victorian or Australian Rules football – elements of which, some historians argue, may have their origins in marngrook, a traditional game involving a possum-skin ball played by the Aboriginal people of the Western District, and which Wills may have witnessed as a boy. Tom was among those who accompanied Horatio Wills to Cullinlaringo in 1861. Sent by his father to collect a dray from another station soon after the party had arrived, Tom was absent from Cullinlaringo when the attack against the settlers was carried out, and was thus one of only six survivors of the tragedy. He remained at Cullinlaringo nevertheless, initially making an attempt to run it while resorting increasingly to alcohol as a method of quelling the demons occasioned by the circumstances of his father’s death. Back in Victoria permanently by 1864, he returned to sport, playing football for both Melbourne and Geelong, representing his state again in inter-colonial cricket, and serving in administrative capacities in both sports. In 1866, he was engaged as the captain-coach of a team of Aboriginal players that subsequently played a number of fixtures in Victoria and New South Wales but which disbanded prior to a planned tour to England in 1867. By the mid-1870s, however, the career of the so-called ‘Grace of Australia’ was unravelling, his performances routinely blighted by drunkenness. In his final years, he lived at Heidelberg with his partner, Sarah Barber (whom his family never recognised). Fearful that he would harm himself, in April 1880 Sarah had Tom admitted to the Melbourne Hospital for restraint. He absconded and died soon afterwards, having stabbed himself with a pair of scissors while in a state of delirium tremens.

Updated 2018