Tom Wills
Tom Wills

So what are we to make of Tom Wills’ often quoted declaration that, at the founding of Australian rules football [AFL], he responded to the suggestion of adopting Rugby laws by saying, “No, we shall have a game of our own”?

Would a young man who had played five football seasons at Rugby School shun the game in favour of inventing a new code?

At a time when the rapidly growing city of Melbourne was embracing all-things British, to stake its place and credentials in the Empire, it seems unlikely that a Rugby School old-boy would contemplate leading a movement to devise a new football code, and that Victorians (just eight years after separating from the NSW colony) felt a compelling need under a previously unheard of spirit of Australian nationalism to re-invent football, but not anything else.

Then again, did Wills’ familiarity of Rugby’s school game for boys, while knowing that football in Melbourne needed an unambiguous set of safe rules for working men to play on the city’s harder grounds, give him an insight no one else had to reject Rugby?

How Wills and his role are remembered.

Any internet search shows any number of writers, commentators, football clubs, towns and monuments across Australia endeavouring to lay claim to Tom Wills ‘the father of football’, from the statue outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, to Moyston, Gundagai, Canberra, Geelong, Parramatta and Sydney Olympic Park. Round 19 of the 2008 AFL Season was named Tom Wills Round. 

Martin Flanagan, writer/journalist (The Sports Factor – ABC radio, November 1998):

“People presumed because he’d [Tom Wills] been to Rugby [School] that Rugby would be the game that would be introduced, and he famously declared ‘No, we shall have a game of our own’.”

ABC radio Western Victoria (March 2012):

“Tom Wills: a name that should be as iconic as Matilda, Ned Kelly or Bradman … he invented AFL.”

Jon Anderson, Herald Sun:

“Quiet by nature but born for big occasions, someone who played the game in the spirit Tom Wills designed it for.”

Amelia Harris, Herald Sun:

“It is 150 years since Tom Wills created Australian rules football, but the home town of its creator is feeling forgotten.”

Stephen Samuelson, The Sydney Morning Herald:

“Popular history has it that Tom Wills invented Australian Rules football in 1858 to keep cricketers fit during the winter months. It’s a pecking order worth admiring but long since ignored.”


“Tom Wills invented the game of Aussie Rules. His story and that of the game he created go to the heart of Australian history.”

Tim Morrissey, The Daily Telegraph:

“… Australian football’s founding father Tom Wills saw a game of Marngrook and thought it would be a good way for Australian cricketers to stay fit in the off-season.”

Dwayne Russell, Sunday Mail (SA):

“But the fact is Tom Wills invented our game based on the various forms of football he saw while at Rugby School in England.”

Gideon Haigh, The Monthly:

“… there’s Australian Rules, conceived by the convict’s grandson Tom Wills…”

Graham Cornes, The Advertiser (Adelaide):

“The founder of our great game, Tom Wills, played for several different clubs…”

Malcolm Knox, The Sydney Morning Herald:

“… the first Test captain Dave Gregory and the inventor of Australian football and supreme cricketer Tom Wills, were both no-balled for chucking.”

‘Australia’s Heritage – National Treasures with Chris Taylor’ (National Film & Sound Archive / ABC tv):

“If Australian Rules football was a religion, these rules would be its bible. Driven by champion sportsman and sporting administrator Tom Wills in 1859, the rules established a football code to help cricketers keep fit in the off-season.”

GWS Giants coach Kevin Sheedy has on numerous occasions pushed the position that NSW-born Tom Wills was the creator of the code’s founding rules (e.g. ABC Local Radio, February 2012), and the NSW government followed by naming the team’s training fields as ‘Tom Wills Oval’:

“And the great thing about is Tom Wills and Henry Harrison who wrote the rules of AFL came from West Sydney and I think that’s the best story.”

The University of Sydney website:

“Tom Wills, the man who – more than any other – created the game of Australian Rules, learnt his football at Rugby School in England.”

The University of Melbourne website:

“Tom Wills created the game of Australian Rules football … the game of Australian Rules football was created by a New South Welshman. Never let a Melburnian tell you otherwise.”

The University of Western Sydney quotes Will’s biographer, Greg de Moore:

“In 1823, Tom Will’s mother Elizabeth entered the Female Orphan School on the banks of the Parramatta River at the age of six, and stayed there for a decade,” he says. “Two years after leaving she gave birth to Tom Wills, the inventor of Australian Rules Football. So for me, some people think the birth of Australian Rules Football belongs to Victoria, but I would argue the genesis began here, in Western Sydney.”

The conclusion to draw from the way the Wills story is told is he alone began with the proposition that “we shall have a game of our own” and that he led the way – that he used his experience of playing Rugby under its complex rules, combined with his understanding of local conditions (harder grounds and higher risk of injuries), to warn Melbourne’s footballers against adopting rugby, while leading them on the radical path of devising an egalitarian, simple and safe football code of their own invention.

“No, we shall have a game of our own” says not only did we consider and then reject the English games, but that the initiative to found and devise a game suited to ourselves is a pioneering example of Australian nationalism, democracy and ingenuity.

The original source of the Wills story

H.C.A. Harrison (The Story of an Athlete – written in September 1923):

“Till the year 1858, no football had been played in the colony. But when T.W. Wills arrived from England, fresh from Rugby school, full of enthusiasm for all kinds of sport, he suggested that we should make a start with it.”

“He very sensibly advised us not to take up Rugby although that had been his own game because he considered it as then played unsuitable for grown men, engaged in making a livelihood, but to work out a game of our own … a set of rules was gradually evolved …”

Harrison, a first cousin of Wills, was almost 90 years old when he wrote his biography. He had made his first appearance in Melbourne football in 1859, and was mistaken in claiming that no football matches had been held until that time.

Harrison’s 1923 account of Wills advising at the Melbourne FC rules meeting against Rugby and urging for “a game of our own”, was the first time anyone had made such a claim.

It also needs to be kept in mind that this meeting was an internal happening amongst members of the Melbourne FC. They were merely concerned with resolving the question of how to play football amongst themselves, not for clubs yet to be born, nor the nation some 40 years distant.

There are no known sources that accord with Harrison’s version of events, and certainly none that record Wills himself ever writing or saying, “No, we shall have a game of our own.”

Harrison was providing the reader with a broad overview, attempting to encapsulate the first years of Australian rules into two or three sentences – he was not at the 17 May 1859 meeting at East Melbourne’s Parade Hotel where the first rules were formulated, and states “a set of rules was gradually evolved” by playing games, not via one afternoon’s debate at a pub.

William Hammersley, who was at the rules meeting, recalled (in 1883, article in var. newspapers) that at the start of the discussion:

“Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except them himself.”

Other than admitting that the Rugby game couldn’t be imported in toto to Melbourne and still be quickly understood and safely played by grown men on the city’s hard ground, contemporary documents show that Wills persistently pushed for rules that incorporated Rugby’s most prominent features, and that at no time did he ever call for a revised or unique form of football.

Indeed, the first rules of the Melbourne FC did not include anything that restricted players haring off on Rugby-style runs with the ball tucked under their arm, and Wills continued for years to argue the case for inclusion of other features of the Rugby game that had been left out.

What many also overlook is that after the Melbourne FC’s rules were first laid down, a further meeting was held on 1 July 1859, at which Wills was not present.

In Wills’ absence the committee removed from the club’s playing rules signature traits of Rugby football that it had adopted just six weeks earlier viz., grubber-style goals hustled through the posts were now allowed, tripping (a form of open-field hacking) was banned, and, significantly, Rule VIII changed to say ‘The ball may at any time be taken in hand’ (in Rugby at that time only a ball caught on the full or on the first bounce could be handled), and ‘not carried farther than is necessary for a kick’ (unrestricted running with the ball in hand was restored in 1866, so long as the ball was bounced every 10 yards).

In 1860 Wills (then captain of Richmond FC) refused to allow a match to commence unless the opposing Melbourne FC captain agreed to play with a Rugby ball and not a round ball. Wills won out, and the Rugby ball (as it was in the mid/late 1800s) is still part of the game today, albeit of slightly reduced size.

The game also continued until the 1890s to be played on fields marked out in a rectangular layout, and commence with a kick-off from centre-field – where all of the players were required to be on-side as in Rugby, but once the game commenced they raced to all points to take up their positions.

Wills unsuccessfully argued in later seasons for the adoption of further Rugby rules, including the addition of a cross-bar between the goal posts (to eliminate fluke goals and ‘grubbers’), and even dared to suggest that each team should appoint a designated kicker to take place-kick shots at goal. The Geelong Advertiser in 1875 (Geelong s Kardinia match):

A dispute arose on the ground with reference to Mr T. W. Wills, who was acting as central umpire, allowing the Geelong captain the privilege of selecting his man to kick for a mark given for holding. The case in dispute was where Satchwell was held, and Mr Wills allowed Hall to kick the ball, thereby securing a goal. Most decidedly the central umpire was correct, on the grounds that as an injustice had been done to the Geelong team the captain had a perfect right, as a free kick was allowed, to give it to the best kicker in the team. The decision of Mr Wills should have been sufficient, as, being an old Rugby captain, he is perfectly well aware of the laws of football.

Wills’ actions and attitude confirm a stance directly opposite to the “game of our own” deed he is now generally acclaimed for.

Greg de Moore (In from the Cold: Tom Wills – A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero) wrote that:

“It is incorrect to imply that Wills stood in contrast to the other rule writers in wanting a distinct game from Rugby school football.”

“In fact, Wills, more than anyone else wished to keep aspects of the game of Rugby school football.”

“There were protests from those around him about his desire to retain features of Rugby school football. We know this because of the contemporaneous evidence of people like James Thompson and William Hammersley.”

Harrison may have attributed to Wills what in fact had been the position and words of Thompson, given the latter wrote shortly after the meeting (in The Victorian Cricketer’s Guide for 1859-60):

“Football, as played in Victoria, is now fit to run alone. I have accordingly omitted [from this publication] the Rugby and Eton rules, because we seem to have agreed to a code of our own…”

Moore adding (from the paper referred to above):

“The phrase ‘game/code of our own’ has become uniquely associated with Wills. Thompson is never recalled. It was also Thompson who has left us with a clearest impression of the importance of modifying the game to reduce the violence of some of the English schoolboy games. Feisty and abrasive, Thompson and Wills disputed aspects of the early rules with Wills preferring Rugby rules.”

Thompson was far from alone in his decrying of Wills insistence of clinging to Rugby’s features.

After the dramas of Wills demanding a Rugby ball be used in lieu of Melbourne footballers’ preferred round ball, Thompson wrote in the Argus:

“Another drawback to an otherwise almost pefect afternoon’s enjoyment was the objectionable shape of the ball” and “Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed when the game began at the Richmond captain’s [Wills] maintaining his right to the choice of ball, and a great deal more after the play was over.”

That Wills’ actions caused such a ruckus before and after the match suggests that his views on how the game should be played were at odds with a large majority of the city’s footballers.

Wills argued that the Rugby ball travelled longer distances through the air than the round ball.

Ultimately, Wills’ way gained acceptance, setting in train an evolution that would change the game from one played in compacted masses and largely close to the ground, to one played with the ball sailing through the sky to players spread to all points of the field.

The long kicking and marking of a Rugby-shaped ball in the game today are a reminder of Wills’ persistence for Rugby traditions, not of a desire for “a game of our own.”

Andrew Demetriou, AFL Chief Executive, in the introduction to The Australian Game of Football (published for the AFL in 2008):

“When the AFL Commission set this book in motion, it came with the brief to clarify the game’s beginnings, and those who were responsible for its birth.”

“From the detailed research in this book, it seems the game needs to revere more heroes than it may have thought previously.”

“Our game does not belong to an idea by Tom Wills or dedicated management by H.C.A. Harrison, but it can be safely said that it was driven by a diverse collective of two journalists (Thompson and Hammersley), a teacher from Melbourne’s Scotch College, Thomas Smith, and…the hotelier, Jerry Bryant.”

The reality is that through the late 1850s and early 1860s every school and club throughout the Empire was contemplating the rules of football, particularly those of Rugby School given the popularity and influence of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and that each was ultimately “having a game of our own”.

Sydney appears to have adopted the Rugby game as best it could, but in Brisbane, Adelaide, Launceston and Hobart each independently debated and then adopted a modified form of English football that suited them.

A Victorian rules footballer of the late 1850s wrote in the Geelong Advertiser on 5 September 1908 that:

“Australia has originated no purely national games. Those we have are but improved copies of English ones. In this order may be placed that of our Australian football game, of which Victoria has been the cradle.”

Tony Collins (A Social History of English Rugby Union) wrote that:

“As with many football clubs in England, the new club [Melbourne FC] adapted the rules, most notably by abandoning the off-side rule and restricting how the ball could be carried, but it retained the oval ball and eventually came to regard the ‘mark’ as one of the Australian game’s most prized features.”

“In a similar way to which the formation of the FA in 1863 has been retrospectively vested with an importance contemporaries would not have recognised, the rules of Melbourne’s first football club have been elevated to the status of a proto-nationalist impulse to create ‘a game of our own’.”

“In fact, the founders of football in Melbourne saw themselves as being no less British than those living in Britain. They were merely engaging in the same discussions about how football should be played that were taking place among British footballers at the same time.”

“They fully shared the belief that football of whatever rules was a mark of Britishness and of the superiority of the British race.”

This is illustrated in the words of ‘Leatherstocking’ in The Sydney Mail on 7 August 1880, when he advocated the adoption of Australian rules in the NSW capital:

“We play football as we play cricket, because as Englishmen and the descendants of Englishmen, we love the good old winter pastime, and it would be absurd to say that, by playing football somewhat after our own fashion, we relinquish one of the national [British] characteristics.”

We can have ‘our’ own local rules, but they do not invent a new game, they are merely governing how we play the English game of football.

© Sean Fagan

Greg de Moore, Tom Wills
Greg de Moore, In from the Cold: Tom Wills – A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero
Geoffrey Blainey, A Game Of Our Own: The Origins Of Australian Football
Tony Collins, A Social History of English rugby Union
Other sources as identified in the article