Biography reveals historical Western Sydney link to the AFL

Dr Greg de Moore speaks about Tom Wills' impact on the AFL MP3 mp3 available - copyright details

Date: 09/11/2009

A biography of the man most credited with creating the rules for Australian Rules Football has revealed deep family links to Western Sydney, an area previously thought to lack a cultural connection to Australia's national sporting code.

Psychiatrist and author Greg de Moore spent ten years exhuming old records and letters to write the biography "Tom Wills, His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall".

Dr de Moore, who is part of the AFL's Community Advisory Group for a Western Sydney team, which also includes the University of Western Sydney, says Tom Wills' family had extensive links to Parramatta.

"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 comments come as the AFL makes preparations to propel a Western Sydney team into the competition by 2012. The league has launched the campaign Team GWS to engage businesses and communities in Greater Western Sydney, and has recently announced the appointment of AFL coaching legend, Kevin Sheedy, as Inaugural Head Coach of Team GWS.

However despite the preparation and community activism, some critics still maintain the region lacks a natural link to the nation's indigenous sporting code.

But Dr de Moore says the region was home to many members of the Wills family, themselves sporting heroes. Wills' first cousin Colden Harrison, one of the first captains of the Melbourne Football Club, was born in nearby Picton, and Tom Wills' wealthy uncle Thomas was a horse racing pioneer who lived in Campbelltown, also in Western Sydney.

"The family used to spend a lot of time in Picton, Parramatta and Campbelltown, three areas in Western Sydney that can all be traced to Tom Wills. There's this historical view of Australian rules football, that it has little to do with Sydney and even less to do with Western Sydney, but here we have it, the heart of the game and the heart of the man's family is here where we stand," he says.

Tom Wills is one of Australia's most incredible sportsmen, but his achievements are virtually unknown. Born in 1835, Wills was sent to England to learn rugby as a teenager, and he returned to Australia to compose the rules of what is now known as AFL. Added to this, he captained the Victorian cricket side, coached Australia's first Aboriginal cricket squad, and became involved in the country's first recorded sporting riot. Wills also witnessed his father's vicious outback murder firsthand, before descending into alcoholism and stabbing himself in the heart three times with a pair of scissors. He died that day at the age of 44.

"In my mind Tom Wills belongs with people like Don Bradman, Ned Kelly, an image very much like Phar Lap, all the amazingly important iconic figures in Australian culture, and I hope in the months and the years to come he will be seen in the same light as these Australian icons," Dr de Moore says.

University of Western Sydney's Professor David Rowe, from the Centre for Cultural Research, says for a fledgling AFL outfit that is trying to establish roots in Western Sydney, Tom Wills is the kind of figure that can be brandished to give a new club a sense of history.

"Sport is all about bragging rights, so people can turn the historic Tom Wills family connection to their advantage," Professor Rowe says.

"Sometimes being fresh and new can be used to advantage as well- but that can only get you so far."

Below is an excerpt of an address by Dr Greg de Moore to representatives of the University of Western Sydney and the AFL.

The first question I am asked is: How does a psychiatrist get to write a book about an Australian sporting figure? Well, for me the story is one that has been intensely personal and a wonderful voyage.

My biography on Tom Wills really started in Manhattan where I spent nearly one year on sabbatical working as a psychiatrist at Cornell University Medical Centre. It was a place that enthralled me. Towards the end of my stay in Manhattan I took a good look around. The previous year had convinced me that much of Australian culture was a 'hand-me-down', a clone of what I had seen in North America and Europe. That may not bother most people but it did me.

One day, as I walked back to my office at Cornell University Medical Centre on the Upper East Side, I asked myself what was truly unique about Australia? As soon as I entered my office I sat down and jotted three points:

1/ Indigenous history and culture
2/ Australia's flora and fauna, and
3/ Australian Rules football. Because I knew it was played just about nowhere else.

I thought no more of this.

I returned to Sydney, and my work at Westmead Hospital. Soon afterwards, I came across a short article on the history of Australian sport. Towards the end of the article I read that a man by the name of Tom Wills had been our first great cricketer and the man who created the game of Australian Rules football. But what caught my eye, was that at the age of 44 years, he had committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart with a pair of scissors. Why did that attract me? Well, firstly I am a psychiatrist and suicide was part of my research interests. I wondered what it would be like to interview Tom Wills the day before his death. At the suggestion of my wife, we went in to the Mitchell Library to find his obituary from 1880. The obituary told me that Tom Wills had been taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital the day before his death. If I was to find out what happened there I would need to travel to Melbourne. There, I was led by the hospital archivist into a room at the back of the hospital filled with unopened cardboard boxes in which were the leather bound handwritten medical notes of the nineteenth century doctors. I found the medical notes of Tom Wills.

The story of Tom Wills begins here, in New South Wales. He was born near Queanbeyan. His parents - both descended from convicts - had made good and mingled with some of the most influential colonists in the land.

His parents married in Parramatta. His mother living in Parramatta for years, attending two different schools here.

His father was the defining figure and influence in Tom's life.

Other family members owned land and were influential in Campbelltown, Minto, Picton and elsewhere spreading down close to modern day Canberra.

At the age of 4, Tom and his parents overlanded from their abode near Queanbeyan to the newly opening lands in the Grampians of western Victoria. There Tom grew up with the Djab wurrung aborigines.

At the age of 14 years, Tom was sent alone, on a voyage to London. For the next 5 years he was a student at Rugby School and then briefly flirted with the notion of attending Cambridge University to become a lawyer. This was at his father's insistence. Tom Wills' middle name was 'Wentworth' in homage to the famous Sydney lawyer.

At Rugby Tom learnt the nascent rules of the school football, the skills to become a brilliant cricketer; and the capacity to drink beer. Drinking beer, in set amounts was allowed at the school because of the concerns of drinking unprepared water which was sometimes putrid. Boys did contract cholera in English public schools.

When Tom Wills returned to Australia, he stepped upon the Melbourne Cricket Ground as the most exquisite looking sportsman in the colony. Women swooned; men envied. He was the finest cricketer in all the colonies.

Then in 1858 he wrote a letter, proclaiming to the entire colony, that a foot-ball club be formed. This public letter was defiant and uncompromising - a style that reveals the influence of his father. The beginnings of football in the colony had already stirred before this letter but this letter was a public declaration to the colony. The following year, in 1859, Tom Wills and three other men sat in a pub near the Melbourne Cricket Ground and drafted one of the most famous sporting documents in our history. For me, a defining moment of what it means to be Australian. The ten rules they wrote that day owed a great deal to English Public School football games - Tom's game from Rugby School was the most influential. But from the beginning there were changes as the rules started to evolve into a distinctive Australian game.

Many years later, Tom's cousin - HCA Harrison - one of the first captains of the Melbourne Football Club and a man born in Picton, NSW, wrote:
' 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 but to work out a game of our own.'

Tom Wills was the most significant figure in those first 2-3 years of the new code of football.

Then, in 1861 an event was to changed Tom Wills life forever.

Horatio Wills, took Tom and about 20 other Victorian settlers into the heart of Queensland to settle a new property. On the 17 October 1861, nineteen men, women and children were murdered on Kairi aboriginal land in central Queensland. One of those men was Horatio Wills. Tom survived the massacre as he had left the camp to collect supplies left en route.

When I researched this section of the book and my PhD, I knew that I needed to visit the site of the massacre and see if further information could be unearthed.

I soon found out that the land near the massacre site was owned by one of the Wills descendants.

I arrived in Queensland and met Mr Wills. It was about 11 am, and I asked if we could have a drink. We walked past the huge Queensland homestead where his mother lived. Mr. Wills was living in a bungalow out the back. When I went into his small dwelling he walked over to his fridge to reveal lines of cans of XXXX beer. Mr. Wills took me to another bungalow and sat me at a table from beneath which he pulled out a trunk of letters. He poured them on to the table before me. One of the things that these letters revealed were the wild dreams that Tom Wills suffered after the attack, similar to the features of post traumatic stress disorder we see in soldiers who return from war.

The following morning after only a few hours sleep Mr. Wills took me to meet his mother in the homestead. After five minutes I noticed an old bookcase covered with a curtain. I walked over to the case, lifted the curtain and the dust of Queensland filled my nostrils. From the bottom shelf I pulled on the spine and opened the book. On the inside of the cover were the words: 'T. W. Wills, Rugby School'. I had found the textbooks Tom Wills had used at Rugby over 150 years ago.

After the massacre, Tom Wills then undertook what I consider the most astonishing act in the history of Australian sport. Despite his father's murder - in the largest massacre of white settlers by aborigines in this country's history - Tom Wills travelled from Melbourne and helped gather and shape an aboriginal cricket team from local pastoral properties in western Victoria. He brought this team to the MCG on Boxing Day. To my mind it remains as perhaps one of the first great public acts of reconciliation in this country's history and to me it is a blight on our education that this story is not more widely known.

Tom Wills came with this team to Sydney and parts of regional NSW. They stayed at Manly Beach. As part of their tour they visited Parramatta. I imagine very few of you here tonight would be aware that you could, in less than 10 minutes, drive to the parklands of Parramatta to find where Tom Wills and his aboriginal team played a local team of Parramatta cricketers in April 1867.

Tonight we are celebrating the start of a partnership between the AFL and UWS in the most exciting venture in Australian sport - the creation of the new western Sydney AFL team.

But that partnership in some ways had, in fact, already been forged you already walk upon the same ground as the Wills family in here, in Parramatta, Campbelltown and throughout greater western Sydney.

Many influences can be said to have shaped the start of Australian football and there are many gaps in the archives. The period from 1857-1860 were the critical years. And in these years, for me, three major influences shaped the mind of Tom Wills and could be argued as important in his shaping of the earliest rules of Australian football: one was the set of football rules he had learned as a schoolboy in England and the sporting experiences he absorbed there; the second, was Victoria itself, a colony buoyed by gold, the intellectual and cultural centre of a developing land and a fertile environment for new ideas; and thirdly, was the strident nationalistic mindset and language that his father bequeathed to him.

And it is this third thread that concerns us tonight. For me, part of the genesis of this thread begins right here right where you sit and stand tonight

For in 1823, a small girl, only 6 years old, entered the Female Orphan School. Most likely she stepped from a boat on the Parramatta River and on to the stone jetty to behold this 3-storied building sitting upon the crest of a hill that little girl's name was Elizabeth. She was Tom Wills' mother.

She remained at the female orphan school for about the next 10 years.

Soon after, in 1833, she married Horatio Wills in Parramatta and then travelled from Parramatta to near Campbelltown to live.

The years 1832-1833 were important to me as a researcher and biographer trying to understand the forces that shaped the mind and life of Tom Wills.

In these years, Horatio wrote of his grand hopes for men born in Australia: to be bold; and not to bend before the will of others born overseas. In the days after his marriage to Elizabeth, having just left Parramatta with his new wife, he wrote of his hopes for his yet unborn children. These hopes and the weight of expectation he placed on his yet to be born son were repeated in his letters and diary over the next ten years.

When I read Horatio's writings from this period, of his desire for Native Born Australians to rise above others; to make their mark in a new continent, I had an insight into what shaped Tom's life. In many ways this was what I had been searching for since those first days in Manhattan. If, at the heart of the Australian game was a spirit of 'a game of our own', then this spirit was reflected in Horatio's fighting words.

Two years after they left Parramatta, Elizabeth and Horatio had their longed for first child - Tom Wills.

The story of Tom Wills, in some ways, really belongs everywhere and nowhere in particular. His family tradition and exhortations, that so charged and burdened him, can be seen to have started in Sydney, before his birth. His family then travelled and lived near modern day Canberra. Wills was also influenced profoundly by his experiences in England, his childhood in western Victoria amongst the Djab wurrung and shaped by the cultural milieu of a cocky Melbourne; and he lived most of his adult life in Melbourne and Geelong. Perhaps many places can be said to lay claim to a part of the Wills story I'm comfortable with this for it is a national story that belongs to no one particular corner of the land.

If the Tom Wills story was an American story it would be told in schools, be part of the school curriculum and his story told and retold in books and film.

The introduction of an AFL team into western Sydney is regarded by some as an intrusion. But anyone who knows Australian history would disagree. Tom Wills may have developed the game in Melbourne but members of his family lived for years in western Sydney.

When the new AFL team takes root not far from here, it won't be an invasion. Australian Rules football, for me - Tom Wills' biographer - could be said to be returning to the family home.

The partnership that the University of Western Sydney has undertaken with the AFL will take this University around Australia but, more importantly, it will take it to the heart of this nation's history.



Media Officer

Mark Smith
02 9678 7075, 0404 016 236