Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall
by Greg de Moore
(Allen & Unwin, 2008, 336 pages)
The 150th anniversary of the first game of Australian Football in 1858 has not passed without acrimony.
Some historical pedants have argued that because the first set of rules was not formalised until 1859, we should be celebrating the anniversary next year. More substantially, there has been debate about which individuals should share the credit for the start of the game and, in particular, whether the form of the game was influenced by Aboriginal sources.
These debates posed a conundrum for Greg de Moore, the biographer of the individual most associated with the game's commencement, Tom Wills. It is the sort of dilemma that often confronts biographers who have to weigh the amount of space they give to the aspects of the life that are of greatest interest to the modern reader versus what was important to the individual and his contemporaries. Wills is almost a classic case of the conundrum. While he is now remembered as the founder of Australian football, and has become something of a cause célèbre for those interested in Aboriginal issues, to contemporaries he was the best cricketer of his generation.
De Moore gets the balance right. One is given a strong hint when one reads that the PhD thesis from which the book arose was called "Tom Wills: A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero". However, he helpfully provides an afterword for those wanting answers to the two major modern-day questions about Wills -- was he the major contributor to the foundation of the game and were the rules he devised for the game influenced by his childhood contact with Aboriginals and their game of Marngrook? De Moore's answers are yes to the role in foundation, and no to the Aboriginal influence.
De Moore does not have a background as a historian or biographer, nor has he come to the topic with an obvious agenda from previous work. He is a consulting psychiatrist at Sydney's Westmead Hospital and it was the nature of Wills' suicide that originally piqued his interest in the topic. He could not understand how someone clearly in a psychotic state had been allowed to leave hospital the day before he ended up taking his life in May 1880.
De Moore's research began by unearthing the medical records that explained what had happened in the days leading up to Wills' particularly violent death. The research was painstaking, but also blessed with a strong element of good luck as he found not only the relevant medical records, but also buried away in outback Queensland, a treasure-trove of letters, and even school books from Wills' time at Rugby School.
While born in New South Wales, and forever associated with Victoria, Queensland played a crucial part in Wills' life. It was only by chance that Wills himself did not become a victim of the largest massacre of white settlers by Aborigines in the history of frontier violence in Australia. In 1861, Tom accompanied his father, Horatio, in establishing a property at Cullin-la-Ringo, two hundred miles inland from Rockhampton. Shortly after arrival on the property, Tom led a small party on a journey to acquire provisions; when they returned a week later his father and 18 other settlers were dead. Retribution soon followed with an estimated sixty or seventy local Aboriginals being massacred.
Being a psychiatrist, de Moore can explain "how the human mind and body responded to a traumatic experience was poorly appreciated in 1861" and how it was during the American Civil War, later in that decade, that the first studies of how to handle survivors of trauma were completed.
Unsurprisingly, given the focus on "history wars" type issues, newspaper reviewers have tended to focus on Aboriginal issues, with one commenting that Wills' "complex relationship with Aborigines" is "the central fascination of the book". There is certainly a complexity that often eludes simplistic debates on these topics, because just a handful of years after the massacre, Wills captained an Aboriginal team against the Melbourne Cricket Club. It is pleasing to read how the white colonists reacted to this contest. De Moore writes that it was clear that "the sympathy of the colony was with the Aboriginal team" as they shared with them "a common grievance against what the Melbourne Cricket Club symbolised".
Wills himself had a love-hate relationship with the MCC, the club being one of many for whom he played in that less regulated era. While always playing officially as an amateur himself (even when he was payed), Wills hated the discrimination against professional players -- discrimination that remained commonplace in the game for many decades of the twentieth century. On a cricket visit to Launceston in 1858, the Victorian team were not welcomed in the homes of their hosts because the hosts could not distinguish between amateur and professional and thus did not know who to exclude. As de Moore comments, if it were not possible to distinguish between them, either by looks or behaviour, why not admit them all? Wills also insisted that Victorian teams be chosen on merit and he encouraged players from lesser Melbourne and country clubs.
There is no doubt that Wills was a sporting champion and what de Moore makes very clear is that he was performing on a big srage. Inter-colonial cricket matches between New South Wales and Victoria were huge events. For instance, the match against NSW at the MCG in early I860 was attended by 25,000 people (out of a population of approximately 125,000), while the 1863 encounter in Sydney produced a serious riot. In the 1860 game, Wills not only top-scored for Victoria, but also bowled unchanged through both NSW innings.
A central theme of the book is that sporting genius and flawed character often go together. Indeed, the link between cricket and suicide throughout history is so strong that a book has been published on the subject. Wills's private life included a broken engagement and a long-term relationship with a woman to whom he was not married. Even within the sporting environment, his erratic behaviour earned him many critics with whom he regularly conducted spirited debates in the letters' pages of contemporary publications. De Moore observes that "those most critical of Wills still admired his sporting abilities, even if it was the colder admiration reserved for those with excessive talent and confidence ... his forthright tactics, which might have worked on the field had limited value in life".
It is perhaps his role as a nineteenth century flawed sporting genius that provides Wills's ongoing significance after all. In a wonderful piece of sports writing in 2006, The Times' Simon Barnes observed of Shane Warne's single-handled mental destruction of England in the Adelaide Ashes Test that what was remarkable was Warne's unique ability to impose his will on the contest. Having listed a long list of sporting greats, Barnes argued that:
alone among this collection of greats, Warne is possessed of that touch of devil. In his real life -- an area in which Warne has proved himself consistently inept -- the devil led him into trouble again and again. But in sport it was the making of him.
De Moore's biography makes it clear that Wills also had "that touch of devil". He provides an authoritative account of Wills' role as an outstanding footballer in the code he helped to found, and of his involvement in important aspects of Australian race relations. However, he also makes it clear that to Wills and his contemporaries he was a cricketing great:
Tom may not have understood how a cricket ball obeyed the laws of physics but he was able to instinctively shift to that other world of the divine, where the few with true genius play sport. When he played cricket, it was not merely a game amongst mortals -- Tom Wills bowled with the Gods.