Tom Wills’ place in the founding of Australian rules history has cast into deep shadow his football deeds at Rugby School, and the veneration and recognition his name ought to have today for being Australia’s first Rugby star.
“Tom Wills … both as player and general, has no rival on this side of the equator.”
– ‘The Argus’ (18 June 1860) Melbourne FC vs Richmond FC, Richmond Paddock.
Perhaps erroneously, Australian rules football lore holds that Tom Wills was the code’s primary founder, beginning with his return from Rugby School and the writing of a letter calling for Melburnians to form a football club.
Greg de Moore in his 2008 thesis for Victoria University, In from the Cold: Tom Wills – A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero, wrote:
“Tom Wills left Melbourne for England on 27 February 1850. He returned on 23 December 1856. He was fourteen years old when he left Melbourne and 21 when he returned.
“Rugby School was his centre stage until he departed as a pupil in 1855. Thereafter he played cricket with Cambridge University and was engaged by prominent [cricket] teams throughout England and Ireland.
“But of all his influences in England that were to shape his life the most critical was his time at Rugby school.”
Notwithstanding Wills’ achievements at Rugby School as a prominent cricketer and fine athlete (including in the famous ‘Hare and Hounds’ run), exploring his exploits as a Rugby footballer is our objective in this article.
In Wills’ era football, unlike cricket, was not yet played between different schools. Matches and teams were organised and played amongst the boys at each school, usually on “house” lines. The only exception was an annual game against an “old boys” team comprised of former students.
Given these circumstances matches were of little or no interest to the outside world, it is no surprise that reports of games are a decided rarity in newspapers.
Even when a report was made, it was uncommon, and considered to be a trifle unseemly, to single out any player by name for personal acclaim.
As we shall see, the fact that Wills is singled out for mention in several match reports carried in the well regarded Bell’s Life in London speaks highly for his talents as a Rugby footballer – indeed they make him the first Australian Rugby star.
Within Rugby School, in Ye Annals of Evans House it records that Wills was a “good back and forward player, and big side runner” [“big side” being the prominent matches on the School’s oval].
The same diary also noted in 1854 that Wills was called upon to take the all important kick for goal after his Evans House team ran the ball across the goal line for a try.
As de Moore notes, Wills was also a prodigious drop-kicker of the ball, and even a decade later was still winning goal kicking contests in Victoria:
“Wills competed and was successful in drop kick competitions in Australia, see, Geelong Register, 18 April 1865. The prize for the longest drop kick was 3 pounds 3 shillings; won by Tom Wills kicking 163 feet [49.6m]; H.C.A. Harrison kicked 155 feet. Geelong Advertiser, 16 and 19 September 1864, p. 2, report of carnival in which Tom Wills won the drop kicking contest, kicking 173 feet [52.3].”
The unique feature of Rugby football over others was the act of players carrying and running forward with the ball. As we have seen, he was acknowledged as a “big side runner”, and the mentions of him in the London press confirm this acclaim.
Bell’s Life in London, 12 November 1854 [Rugby School v Old Rugbeians]:
“The School, however played throughout with indomitable pluck, evidently taking pride in shewing old Rugbeians that football has not degenerated since their day…while Wills, to the admiration of the spectators, and to the great assistance to his side, displayed an eel-like agility which baffled all the efforts of his opponents to retain him in their grasp.”
Bell’s Life in London, 3 December 1854:
“A novel match was played on Monday the 20th ult, between the Debaters and the School…On the School side the play of Wills was excellent, he quite dodged the other side by his slimy tricks, which drew applause from the many spectators.”
Wills left Rugby School in June 1855 and would not return to Australia until the end of 1856. Unsurprisingly, Wills took the opportunity to play in the November 1855 match between the School and Old Rugbeians – though he seems to have preferred to play with the School boys he already well knew rather than the Old Boys team.
Bell’s Life in London, 5 November 1855:
“On the School side Messrs Wills, Bullock, Newman and Smythe proved themselves to be players of no small merit.”
Despite numerous accounts placing Wills as attending Cambridge University and playing football there as well, that is a myth, which probably originated in Wills once being a guest player in the University’s cricket XI.
Eighteen months after arriving back in Victoria, and facing his second winter with no football or other athletic exercise, Wills wrote his now famous letter. Interestingly, de Moore notes in his biographical account Tom Wills – His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall that during Wills’ time at Rugby and after, Bell’s Life in London carried numerous similar letters, including:
“In 1855…a letter that was, in tone and phrasing, almost a clone of that written by Tom in Melbourne three years later.”
From Bell’s Life in Victoria, 10 July 1858:
To the Editor of Bell’s Life in Victoria
Sir, – Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for a time only ‘tis true), but at length again will burst forth in all their varied hues, rather than allow this state of torpor to creep over them, and stifle their now supple limbs, why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws? If a club of this sort were got up, it would be of a vast benefit to any cricket-ground to be trampled upon, and would make the turf quite firm and durable; besides which it would keep those who are inclined to become stout from having their joints encased in useless superabundant flesh. If it is not possible to form a foot-ball club, why should not these young men who have adopted this new-born country for their motherland, why I say, do not they form themselves into a rifle club, so as at any-rate they may be some day called upon to aid their adopted land against a tyrant’s band, that may some day “pop” upon us when we least expect a foe at our very doors. Surely our young cricketers are not afraid of the crack of the rifle, when they face so courageously the leathern sphere, and it would disgrace no one to learn in time how to defend his country and his hearth. A firm heart, and a steady hand, and a quick eye are all that are requisite and, with practice, all these may be attained. Trusting that some one will take up the matter and form either of the above clubs, or, at any rate some athletic games, I remain, yours truly,
Wills acted as one of the two umpires in the schoolboys football match played on 7 August 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School – a contest that followed the traditional Rugby School format of playing the game over three afternoons to decide the result.
Though the football in Melbourne evolved down a different path, it’s long history can be traced back to the pen, words and actions of Australia’s first Rugby football star – Tom Wills.
© Sean Fagan
“Football was almost unknown to Australia when, in 1858, a former Rugby School team captain suggested thai a club should be formed. However, because he considered the game too rough for adults who had to earn their living, a ‘go as you please’ kind of game was at first started.”
The Sydney Morning Herald 2 June 1950
Only two boys are known to have sailed from Australia to enrol at Rugby School earlier than Tom Wills. Harry Hammond Spencer (in 1846) and Herbert George Spencer (in 1847), sons of John Henry Hammond Spencer Esq. of “Plas Newydd near Port Philip, Australia”. To date no other information has been found in reference to this family.
Greg de Moore, Tom Wills
Greg de Moore, In from the Cold: Tom Wills – A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero
Greg de Moore, The Man Who Invented AFL
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