DOB: 19 August 1835
Died: 2 May 1880
MFC Hall of Fame - 2001
By the time he wrote a famous letter which altered the course of Australian sporting history, Thomas Wentworth Wills was already one of the famous sportsmen of the colony of Victoria.
Originally born in today's New South Wales as the grandson of a transported convict, Wills was also the older cousin of Henry Harrison, and son of a Victorian MP. He returned to England as a 14-year-old and was enrolled at Rugby School. He captained their school football side and cricket XI, also playing for a number of other cricket sides around the country.
After his return to the Port Phillip Colony in 1856 Wills played for Victoria in inter-colonial cricket matches, and in January 1858 was part of the first team from the south to ever beat their northern neighbours.
In September 1857, Wills was elected as honorary secretary of the MCC, replacing William Hammersley but also played for other local clubs when the MCC didn't have a Saturday fixture. Late in 1858 he left Melbourne Cricket Club and joined Richmond.
On 10 July, 1858 he wrote the letter to Bell's Life magazine which would help formalise a game which had been played in various forms since the 1840's. Wills wrote:
Now that cricket has been put aside for some months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature (for the time being only, it is 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 cannot they, I say, form a football club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?
If a club of this sort was got up, it would be of vast benefit to any cricket ground to be trampled on, and would make the turf firm and durable, besides which it would help those who are inclined to become stout and having their joints encased in useless superabundant flesh.
If it were not possible to form a football club, why should these young men who have adopted this new country for their motherland - why, I say, do not they form themselves into a rifle club, so at any date they may be some day called upon to aid their adopted land against a tyrant who may some time pop upon us when we least expect a foe at our very own doors. Surely our young cricketers are not afraid of a crack of a rifle when they face so courageously the leather sphere, and it would disgrace no one to learn in time 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 someone will take up this matter and form either of the above clubs, or at any rate some athletic games.
On Saturday 7 August 1858 Wills acted as one of the honorary referees for the Scotch College vs Melbourne Grammar match which is often cited as the birth of the modern game of Australian Football despite evidence that other games had already been played. The two sides drew under Wills' eye after approximately four hours of play, and two subsequent games ended goalless.
A series of scratch matches were also played in the grounds adjacent to the MCG, organised by Wills' contemporary Jerry Bryant but the Melbourne club itself did not come together until 1859 - with Wills as their inaugural captain.
Footballers played with loose affiliations in the early days, and at various times Wills also turned out for Richmond - where he was captain and secretary in 1860 until resigning from the latter job in July - and a combined Richmond/Geelong team. A true dual-sport superstar, the master bowler was also a skilled footballer and dominated early games with his tactics and long kicking.
At the end of the 1860 season Wills was exiled from the MCC after failing to produce the financial records at the AGM and he moved to Geelong. The MCC had him back as a cricketer, he was too good to lose, but he never again played football for Melbourne. In 1860 as captain of Richmond in a game against Melbourne he demanded the Rugby school oval ball be used, much to the consternation of his former teammate James Thompson. The two later fell out over cricketing matters.
In 1861 Wills left for Queensland with his father, but Horatio and all on the station were killed by natives while Wills was away. By 1863 he was back playing football as captain in Geelong, and at the end of that year was elected captain of the Victorian cricket team to take on the touring English side. In 1864 he split his time between playing football in Melbourne and Geelong before moving to Geelong for good at the end of 1865 after his football career had come to an end. That year he had attempted to alter the rules to put a cross-bar on the goalposts which players would have to kick over to score. The proposal went to a vote of the football club but was defeated on the casting vote of the chairman after a tie.
He continued to contribute on-field as an umpire and later later served as an administrator at Geelong. He was elected vice president in 1873, serving in the role until the end of 1876. In 1877 Wills was initially chosen as one of the club's delegates to the newly formed VFA but was soon dropped without explanation. Nevertheless Wills served as a field umpire in the first three months of the inaugural VFA season.
Gripped by alcoholism, Wills became delusional and on 1 May 1880 was committed to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He escaped from the hospital at 5pm that afternoon and returned home, arriving at his residence in Heidelberg exhibiting signs of madness and talking to his 'wife' (though the two were never officially wed) Sara about killing both of them.
At 1pm the next day he seized a pair of scissors and stabbed himself to death through the heart. He was pronounced dead half an hour later.
In September 1998 a monument to Wills was unveiled at Moyston Oval near Mount Ararat, and a statue to Wills also stands in the grounds outside the MCG.
Wills played a total of 32 first class cricket matches in England and Australia between 1854 and 1875/76.
Some sources show him as having played 31 games with Melbourne.
Bendigo Advertiser - 04/05/1880
"Tom Wills - His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall" by Greg de Moore. Allen & Unwin Publishing: 2008