The Tom Wills saga
Published in the Geelong Advertiser, 20 October 2011, p. 40.
The campaign for the recognition of Tom Wills by a memorial or statue in Geelong seems to be gathering pace following Greg de Moore’s urging at a recent talk on Wills. I have no objections to the man being recognised by some piece of public art or sculpture, but I am afraid that some of the claims made for his contribution to the early game of football are very shaky. It would be an enormous pity if the legend rather than the history appeared on any monument.
There is no doubt that Tom Wills’ on-field contributions to both cricket and football were extraordinary. In those roles he seemed to combine the qualities of a David Hookes and Gary Ablett, senior, two equally mercurial figures who lit up their sports in their respective eras. So if we can celebrate that I would have no qualms. But it is the claims for his off-field influence which are less convincing.
Certainly he wrote that celebrated letter to Bell’s Life in Victoria in 1858 advocating the setting up of a football club to keep the cricketers fit during the winter, which many regard as the birth certificate of Australian Rules. But he left it almost entirely to others to do the work and though he was present when a group of people wrote down a set of rules for the Melbourne club, his advocacy of the rules of Rugby school in England did not meet with understanding or acceptance by his colleagues.
When it comes to his role in the Geelong club there is next to no contemporary evidence of his role. Everything seems to come from much later through people like George Glencross Smith and Henry Colden Antill Harrison and Wills himself. The advertisement for the formation of the Geelong club in 1859 appears over the name of A M Mason, who captained the club in several later matches, not Wills. Indeed Wills does not appear in any of the team lists for 1859, 1860 or 1861 and the one appearance of the Wills name in 1862 is of one of his brothers, since Tom was in Queensland that year.
Greg de Moore mentions the possibility of a game in Geelong before that recorded in 1859 but the only evidence of a game of football that year in Geelong was a proposal by William Stitt Jenkins, a teetotaller, who tried to set up a Saturday afternoon football club in Geelong in April 1859 in an attempt to curb the influence of alcohol on the young men of the town, and to ‘provide bracing exercise … [for] persons cramped during the week by desk or counter service’. On the other hand, there are several examples of football matches being played in Geelong as early as 1850. Those games had no input from Tom Wills.
The other piece of the legend these days is the notion that Wills was the conduit through which Aboriginal influence was brought into the early game. Despite the best efforts of Jim Poulter, Martin Flanagan, Barry Judd and a number of other researchers there is no convincing link between the games which Aborigines played and the emergence of a unique code of football among the colonists. That corresponds with what happened in most cases in connection with modern sports. Ancient cultural practices did not, on the whole, translate into sports as we know them. Again that does not mean that we should give up the search for links between Aboriginal and modern games, just that there is no convincing evidence as yet and none of Wills’ involvement.
Geoffrey Blainey insisted that football in Australia was not the work of one man and that the game changed significantly in its early years. Until we have a collective biography of that founding generation, many of whom were very significant sporting figures, like George Reynolds Rippon, another multi-sports personality, we will not be able to evaluate Wills’ contribution adequately. So I think what we write on that monument, if it is ever erected, must be carefully researched so that future generations will understand what Wills really did for the game. To me that will not diminish Tom Wills in any way, but claiming more for him than he actually contributed does not do him or history any service.