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Tom Wills
, c.1857 or c.1864 (printed c.1905-1910)

by an unknown artist

gelatin silver photograph on grey paper support on card (support: 11.0 cm x 9.0 cm, image: 9.6 cm x 7.4 cm)

More images of this artwork

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 his father, Horatio Spencer Wills, relocated from New South Wales to the Port Phillip district in 1839. Tom received some of his schooling in Melbourne before, at fourteen, being sent ‘home’ to be educated at 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 New South Wales, scoring a total of 319 runs and taking 72 wickets at the impressive average of ten for 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 became known as Victorian or Australian Rules football – elements of which, some historians have argued, 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 and played as a boy.

In 1861, Tom along with at least 25 of his father’s employees (and 10,500 sheep), overlanded from Brisbane to Cullin-la-ringo, a property Horatio Wills had leased near Emerald in Queensland. Sent on an errand to another station soon after the party had arrived, Tom was absent from Cullin-la-ringo when a group of Aboriginal people camped nearby mounted a violent raid on the property, killing nineteen people, his father included. Tom remained at Cullin-la-ringo 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.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of T S Wills Cooke 2014
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2014.60