Why Tom Wills is an Australian legend like Ned Kelly
2011 JOHN BUTTON ORATION
This is an edited transcript of the inaugural 2011 John Button Oration, delivered by Martin Flanagan at the Geelong Football Club in March, 2011.
For many years - in fact, from childhood – I have been interested in the story of Ned Kelly and, for a period in my adult life, I made a serious study of it. By education, I am a lawyer. By profession and habit of mind, a journalist. What I found when I really examined the available evidence concerning Ned Kelly was that at key moments – indeed, at almost every moment – there was more than one plausible explanation for what had occurred. For me, the end result was that I couldn’t “see” Ned as a man. I couldn’t visualize him in clear or concrete terms. Around this time, I suddenly realized that in Sidney Nolan’s famous paintings of Ned, you never see his face. What you see is a mask which somehow resonates with the dry featureless landscape in which it appears.
To me, Tom Wills is similar. At any number of key moments in the Tom Wills story, there is more than one plausible explanation for his actions with the result that I can’t “see” him, can’t visualize him in an exact or thorough way. But what I can say with certainty about Tom Wills’s life is that it acted as a conduit for an amazing range of historical forces.
The case I wish to make is that Tom Wills is an Australian legend no less than Ned Kelly or the explorers Burke and Wills. Legends to me are like natural phenomena. They don’t happen because we want them to happen. They happen because they do and, in their aftermath, we are left to wonder at the forces which made them. Can I make it clear from the outset that in saying Tom Wills is an Australian legend, I am not suggesting that we all see Tom Wills in the same way. The point about legends is not that we all see them the same way but, rather, that we can all see them. In the case of Ned Kelly, there will never be a unity of view about him or the meaning of his story. Ned’s story falls on a universal fault line in the human psyche. To some, he is a freedom fighter. To others, an outlaw who deserved to be hunted down and destroyed. Tom Wills’ story falls on another fault line in the human psyche which, expressed in purely Australian terms, is the divide between black and white Australia or, as it is now more accurately expressed, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. I predict there will never be a unity of opinion about Tom Wills. Tom was controversial in life, he is controversial in death.
The first thing to be noted about Tom Wills is his full name – Thomas Wentworth Wills. The Wentworth in his name commemorates W.C. Wentworth, the New South Wales emancipist politician. Tom Wills’s father, Horatio, was from the New South Wales emancipist class. That is, he was the son of a convict. That single fact would have major consequences for both Horatio and his son Tom. The New South Wales emancipist class was wealthy, confident and unashamed and these three factors shaped the early character of Horatio Wills who was, in many respects, a larger and more interesting character than his son. Indeed, Horatio Wills can be seen as a prototypal Australian nationalist. His property at Moyston, outside Ararat, was called “Lexington”, Lexington being the site of one of the early battles in the American War of Independence. Horatio’s uncle was the convict surgeon Dr Redfern, after whom the Sydney inner-city suburb was named. His step-father was George Howe, the government printer. Horatio’s early life was colorful. After time aboard a whaler, he published a journal which exalted in the status of his class – it was called “The Currency Lad”. In a romantically inclined account of his early life published in The Currency Lad, Horatio claimed to have had a relationship with a native woman - an island princess, no less. This story is repeated in Wills family histories. This, too, can be seen as having later ramifications on the lives of both Horatio and Tom.
My book about the life of Tom Wills, The Call, was published in 1996.¹ I was subsequently attacked publicly by a member of the Wills family on two grounds. One was for saying there was a story in the Wills family that the convict Edward Wills – that is, Horatio’s father – was an illegitimate offspring of the Churchills. My critic said he had never heard the story. Well others had and it is to be found in a family history written – I think, around the 1920s – by a gentleman called Pockley who married into the family. Whatever, it is not a difficult story to believe as both Horatio and Tom, in their own ways, behaved like Churchills. In the case of Horatio, he was the first white settler in the Ararat area which he, in fact, named. He was also said to have been the first man in the colony to import barbed wire, the first to import a wool press, the first to eliminate dingoes from his property through the use of strychnine. Horatio was a dynamo but one who was acutely aware that he lacked a formal education. He sent Tom, his eldest son, to school at Rugby in England. He sent his second son Cedric to complete his education in Germany because he admired the sheep from Saxony, while he sent Horace, his third son, to school in Germany to become a vigneron because he predicted the Moyston area would have a wine industry. This was in the 1850s.
The story recorded in Wills family histories is that during his time at Moyston, outside Ararat, Horatio had good relations with the local Aboriginal people – the Tjapwurrung. A much repeated tale is how he would amuse the old women of the tribe with a dance he had in which he bowed to the sun and the moon and told them he was a “jump-up whitefeller” like the escaped convict William Buckley – that is, he was an Aboriginal person re-born in a white skin. But the truth of Horatio Wills’s relationship with the local Aboriginal people is much more complex. In 1841, the Protector of Aborigines in the Colony of Port Phillip, George Augustus Robinson, a major figure in the history of Tasmania, or as it was then called Van Diemen’s Land, made a trip through the western districts of what is now Victoria. Robinson’s diaries record Aboriginal people naming Horatio Wills as having been involved in the shooting of Aboriginal people and, in one case, in the shooting of an Aboriginal woman while she had an infant at her breast. Horatio Wills was a man who, by his own admission, had had a relationship with a native woman. I mention this because there are two other facts which needed to be accommodated if we are to attempt an understanding of Horatio Wills. One is that during his time at Moyston, he went through a period of intense religiosity. The other is that when he later went to Queensland he refused to abide by the common practice of whites in those parts – at what was then the frontier – of carrying firearms. By the time he reached Queensland in 1861, Horatio Wills wanted no more shooting of blacks.
But to return to his son Tom. Tom was born in 1835 at Molonglo Plains outside what is now Canberra. He was three when his father settled at Ararat. What has to be understood about Tom Wills is that he grew up during that unique moment of Australian history known as “first contact” – that is, first contact between whites and blacks. To state the obvious, nothing like it exists today. Tom Wills knew Tjapwurrung dances, he could sing Tjapwurrung songs. He spoke the Tjapwurrung language – that is, the language native to the place he was from. As I said to a predominantly Jewish audience at the Melbourne writers’ festival a couple of years ago, that’s like the difference between speaking Hebrew or English in Israel. The Tjapwurrung are recorded attending big corroborees at Terang where Aboriginal football was played.
It is at this point that I need to digress and tell you about a meeting I had several years ago at the Melbourne Club with an elderly gentleman named Lawton Wills Cooke. Lawton’s grandfather, Horace Wills, was one of Tom Wills’ younger brothers. After Tom committed suicide in 1880, Horace Wills was one of the few people to be recorded saying anything sympathetic or loving about him. Horace said Tom was a wild reckless individual but one of the best people he’d ever met and that it was not in his nature to disappoint people. Horace Wills’s daughter was Lawton Wills Cooke’s mother. She told Lawton, he told me, and I'm telling you, that Horace Wills said that when his brother Tom was a boy at Moyston, outside Ararat, he played Aboriginal football with the local blacks. He also said they used a possum skin stuffed with charcoal and wrapped with sinew. With Lawton by my side I addressed a meeting of the Melbourne Club and told them as much. With Lawton by my side I also said as much to the AGM of the Old Melburnians Football Club, calling upon them to bear witness to Lawton’s testimony. The Old Melburnians were established by Tom Wills’ cousin H.C.A (Colden) Harrison who was also a champion athlete and the Registrar of Titles in Victoria. Unlike his cousin Tom, he didn’t drink or smoke. He is a key witness in the story and those who seek to eliminate the memory of Tom Wills either ignore him or call him a liar. It is Harrison who records Tom Wills as saying, in relation to setting up a code of football in Victoria upon his return from Rugby in 1856, that we should have “a game of our own”.
There’s a Paul Kelly song that starts with the line – “Don’t start me talking, I’ll tell you everything I know”. Don’t start me talking about Tom Wills, I won’t stop. I find him endlessly fascinating. I can’t think of anyone else who grabs me in the same way, except figures like Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, the diggers at Galipolli. And that is also, roughly, the order in which Sidney Nolan painted them. Nolan knew an Australian legend when he saw one. Sidney Nolan would have gone for the Tom Wills story like a rat up a drainpipe.
“The Call”, my book about Tom Wills, was called a novel but really it was imaginative journalism in that I bent my imagining of Tom Wills to every fact as I discovered it. But I did make a couple of assumptions. One has to do with the nature of games. To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to tell you a story former Collingwood champion Nathan Buckley told me. One of the critical years in Buckley’s career, the period when he began to discover himself as a player, was spent with the Port Adelaide under 19s. When that season ended, he went up to Darwin, where his parents lived, and continued playing in a competition strongly influenced by Aboriginal players. When he returned to Port Adelaide the following season – or, to put it another way, when he returned to playing it the whitefeller way – he suddenly found it much easier, because the whitefeller game was so much more predictable. I’m saying Nathan Buckley was, to some extent, influenced by Aboriginal football, by the Aboriginal game. I believe Tom Wills was influenced by the Aboriginal game – indeed, by Aboriginal culture in general.
He went to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of 10 and, at the age of 15, was sent to the Rugby school in England. Again, it is necessary to pause and contemplate the powerful historical currents surging through Rugby at that time. Twenty years earlier, a very famous book had been written about Rugby and its then headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold. The book, called Tom Brown’s Schooldays, had influenced educators throughout the English speaking world and possibly beyond. Dr Arnold believed in a creed called muscular Christianity. He believed it was no good producing pious individuals who lived like monks and had no effect on the public life of the nation. Arnold took it upon himself to produce leaders for the new age that was revealing itself around him – the England that emerged in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution with new industrial cities and epidemics of disease and crime, one solution for which was the transportation of the criminal class to Australia.
Games that included what was called “manly violence” were integral to inculcating the values of muscular Christianity. At Rugby, Tom excelled at games but he also had a guilty secret. His grandfather – indeed, in all likelihood, both his grandfathers – were convicts. This is the period of Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations” which tells of the terrible shame felt by a boy of lowly origins who progresses through the world with the help of a convict transported to Australia. If Tom Wills didn’t have a secret life before Rugby – and perhaps, given his exposure to Aboriginal culture, he did – then he certainly did afterwards. In a letter from London during his time at Rugby, his aunt noted that his accent had changed and he was becoming a gentleman in manner. I imagine him speaking a bit like Malcolm Fraser. Indeed, we can take that imagining a few steps further. Imagine Malcolm Fraser if he could spin a ball and gamble like Shane Warne and kick a footy and get into trouble like Gary Ablett and you have a sort of picture of Tom Wills.
The other side of football as played at the Rugby school in Tom’s time was that it was – nakedly – a war game. What we now call the forwards in rugby union were then called the Heavy Brigade. What we now call the backs were then called the Light Brigade. In 1854, Tom Wills was captain of the Rugby First XI. The following year saw the Charge of the Light Brigade; among those who galloped into immortality were four Rugby old boys. This was the era of the dandy when army officers were young men of fashion who had exaggerated habits of speech, saying “weally” for “really” and “wun” for “run”. When Tom Wills re-appeared in Victoria in 1856 it was in the uniform of the I Zingari Cricket Club. I Zingari were the aristocratic gypsy lords of English cricket, touring the country, playing cricket by day and partying by night. Tommy was a dandy; he also had the reputation of being one of the best young cricketers in England.
Tom’s principal sporting interest, I have always felt, was cricket and, for a young man with his drive and ambition, the obvious goal upon his return to Victoria was to knock off the elder colony, New South Wales, for the first time ever. Tom’s ambition coincided with that of Victorians in general who were adamant that they represented something altogether different from the residents of the former penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Victorians saw themselves as part of the new age then dawning – the Victorian age. And who fitted better into that narrative than Mr. T.W. Wills who, like the fictional hero of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, had captained the Rugby First XI. Tommy would finish his life with a public image like Brendan Fevola’s, but for a brief period after he led Victoria to victory over New South Wales in Sydney he was like James Hird in his Brownlow year. In that period, he was appointed secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club and, in that capacity he presided over the sub-committee which drew up the first rules of the game.
The debate over the early history of the game centres on who wrote the first rules. Tom Wills was there, no-one disputes that. What is disputed is who said what and there is conflicting evidence over Tom Wills’s contribution. In this respect, I would make a couple of points.
I once read that the survivors of the Eureka Stockade met in Ballarat 15 years after the event and couldn’t agree where the stockade had actually been located. We are talking more than 150 years after the event. What we do know that in 1876 one of those present, Irishman Red Smith, was disputing the history of the event as it was then being recorded.
We know that Tommy fell out soon enough with the Melbourne club, even coming to blows with a few of their members. Two of those he fell out with, William Hammersley and J.B. Thompson, were on the rules committee. They were Englishmen and, no less significantly, they were journalists. Writing a history of Tom Wills based on newspaper reports is a bit like writing a biography of Eddie McGuire based on the columns of Caroline Wilson.
Ron Barassi is said to have changed the game in the 1970 grand final. No-one suggests he changed the rules to do so. The first rules of the game were utterly minimal. What we don’t know in any detail is how Tom Wills played. What we do know is that he was the dominant player. Tommy was a brilliant kick of the oval-shaped ball, better than anyone else in the new boom colony of Victoria. And, indeed, the fact that he kicked the oval-shaped ball better than anyone else may have been exactly the reason that he introduced it into the local game which was originally played with a round ball. Tommy stretched the rules to his own advantage in every sport he played. In cricket in his day, bowling was done round-arm. Tommy was always being called for bowling “high”. Perhaps he thought it made for a better game. That was his argument for the oval-shaped football. It was, he argued, technologically superior to the round ball, would travel further in the air and had been on display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1850. I think Tommy was a bit like Ted Whitten. One story about Ted when he coached Williamstown in the VFA was that he hosed down his opponent’s concrete rooms before they arrived so they had to emerge from a cold dripping tomb to take the field of play. I think Tommy had a bit of that in him.
What else do I know about him as a sportsman? He’d play with anyone. He even played cricket with the slum boys of Collingwood. He was the first gentleman sportsman on first name terms with what was then called “the mob”. They called him Tommy Wills and knew him as a character, one who had gambling debts, liked a drink and was relentlessly successful on the sports field. Richmond great Jack Dyer said Australian football was created by wild, rugged, undisciplined men. Tom Wills was certainly one of those, except he had a plummy accent.
Meanwhile, as Tom was becoming a leading if controversial figure in Melbourne sporting circles, Horatio Wills had finally met an obstacle even his dynamic nature could not overcome. In the new colony of Victoria, there was no emancipist class. Indeed, the opposite principle now applied – to be of convict descent was to be seen as carrying “the convict stain”. Horatio’s political career faltered. So what did the “old pioneer”, as he was known in Victoria, do? He headed off on an epic trek to where the new frontier now lay – in faraway Queensland – taking Tom with him under the threat of being disinherited. Horatio had sent Tom to Rugby to equip him to become the great political leader Horatio could never be. What he got back was a young man who excelled on the sports field and nowhere else. Arriving in Queensland, the party of about 25 walked into the middle of a land war but Horatio resolutely refused to carry guns. He would deal with the blacks. He would give the men tobacco, the women colored handkerchiefs, the children boiled sweets. He would do the Sun and Moon dance and tell the old women he was a “jump-up whitefeller”. Tom, who had a much deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture, tried to warn his father. “Father,” he said, “they are not friendly”. There is a diary entry in which Horatio looks out of his tent and sees Tom trying to teach one of the women in the party how to use a pistol. One night soon thereafter, Horatio had a premonition of death. When he awoke, he sent Tom and 15-year-old James Baker back down the track, a journey taking three days by foot, to recover a dray. The pair returned to two mass graves and the aftermath of the biggest massacre of whites by blacks in Australian history. In the retributive raids that followed, maybe three times as many blacks were killed. I visited the area in the 1990s at the same time as the Kosovo war was being conducted and was told by a local landowner that there were still people in the district who said they should have “cleaned the blacks out totally while they had the chance”.
Tom Wills swore on his father’s grave to make the property, called Cullin-la-ringo, the best in Queensland and to shoot any black who ventured back on it. Within two years, he was accused of having let the blacks back on. By then he had started going mad and was drinking a lot. When Tom Wills re-appeared in Melbourne two years later, he was like a Vietnam veteran. During the 1960s and ‘70s, everyone in Australia knew there was a war in Vietnam but to the Australians who fought in Vietnam they knew ‘stuff-all’. That’s what Tommy was like, I believe, when he got back to Melbourne. By then he had basically been sacked by his family as manager of the family property. He had been replaced, first by an elderly relative sent up from Geelong, and then by his younger brother Cedric. Tom Wills had failed to keep the vow he made over his father’s grave.
Six years after the massacre, Tom Wills captained the Aboriginal cricket team that became the first Australian cricket team to tour England. Some people saw him doing so as absurd good-heartedness, as muscular Christianity taken to extremes. Some saw it as the act of a hardened professional and Tom Wills may have been of the latter mindset. Or maybe he saw it the Aboriginal way. To blame an Aboriginal person in Victoria for a murder committed by an Aboriginal person in Queensland is, to the Aboriginal mind, like blaming an Italian for a murder committed in Norway. Most of the Aboriginal cricketers were Jardwadjali men from western Victoria. Their language was almost the same as Tjapwurrung which Wills spoke. On Boxing Day 1866, Tom Wills captained the Australian Native XI at the MCG. Melburnians turned out in large numbers to see what was thought to be the representatives of a dying race. The team then toured the east coast, improving greatly as they did. By the time they passed through Melbourne on their way back to the western districts, Tommy was described as being the team’s “old chieftain”. Then, passing through Geelong, something happened which is quite wonderful to me.
Tommy’s mother was then living on the outskirts of Geelong. Tommy took the team home to meet her. In the wake of her husband’s death, Elizabeth Wills had been through a terrible ordeal. The feeling in her early utterances towards Aboriginal people after the massacre was one of bitterness and hate. It is most likely that these would have been the first Aboriginal people she had seen, or met, since the massacre. How you interpret that act of Tom’s, taking his team-mates home to meet his mother, will largely define how you see Tom Wills. In his biography of Tom Wills, Greg de Moore sees it as evidence of Tommy’s “thoughtlessness”.² I see it as the action of a man in a tragically divided country trying – consciously or otherwise – to heal the division within himself.
Tommy didn’t go to England with the Native XI. The team led the M.C.C. on the first innings and would almost certainly have won if Tommy had played which would have made him the first Australian captain to win at Lord’s. But Tommy didn’t go on the tour. He lost the battle for political control of the team as he lost every political battle he ever fought. Tommy’s approach seems to have been that as he was the best he knew best and, if you had any sense, you’d agree. But he was also, by then, a drunk. Four of the team he captained died in the course of their 1866 tour. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia but in each case alcohol was involved. Who was buying the alcohol for the blacks? You have to ask if it was Tommy. Dick-a-Dick, the senior Aboriginal man in the team, used the nulla nulla to keep alcohol out. What view did Dick-a-Dick have of Tom Wills, I wonder. When I told former Essendon footballer Michael Long this part of the story, he immediately replied, “There would have been payback for those four deaths. Maybe that’s why he killed himself”. That’s an Aboriginal perspective on Tom Wills. Mostly, what Aboriginal people ask about Tom Wills was where he stood in relation to Aboriginal law. I have to say I don’t know. What I do know is that he knew more about Aboriginal culture than I do.
Tommy kept drinking. Billed as the W.G. Grace of Australian cricket, he had a showdown with the real Grace in South Australia in 1873. In his written account of the match, Grace mocked Tommy, saying the locals didn’t want to know him after he scored a pair of ducks. What he didn’t say was that Tommy, then aged 37, took six English wickets in the second innings, including that of Grace. Tommy kept drinking, people dropped off, and his family didn’t bother to consult him when making big decisions about Cullin-la-ringo, although his brothers did continued to lend him money. His drinking led to DTs. In 1880, the same year as Ned Kelly was hanged, Tommy stabbed himself in the heart and was buried in an unmarked grave at Heidelberg. On his death certificate, beside ‘Parents’ was written: Unknown. Afterwards, his mother would say, “Thomas, I never had a son called Thomas”. Tommy Wills was all but totally forgotten although in a letter to a Rockhampton newspaper thirty years after his death, his brother Cedric revealed Tom never accepted the white version of the Cullin-la-ringo massacre. Tom Wills said the trouble was started by a neighboring squatter, an Englishman called Gregson, shooting the local Aboriginal people on his land shortly before the Wills party arrived.
Tommy was forgotten, but he’s back in a big way now. There are books about him, documentaries, some terrific songs – there’s constant talk of doing a movie. In 2004, my book, “The Call”, was made into a play by director Bruce Myles with a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous actors, and an indigenous choreographer. For 21 nights, an Aboriginal dancer named Earle Rosas danced the spirit of Tom Wills back into the land. Four years later, the AFL Official History in its 150th year can be read as an attempt to write Tommy and what he represents in relation to Aboriginal Australia out of the history of the game – there was more controversy. [footnote – cite OH and GH article]
Why is he suddenly a potent figure? I think the answer lies in the fact that his story contains such a broad range of factors from our collective past. The historical forces at play can be listed as follows – the phenomenon of convictism with which the modern history of Australia begins; the rise of the emancipist class in New South Wales; the period of Australian history remembered as “first contact”; Aboriginal culture generally and, in particular, of the Tjapwurrung people of western Victoria; the English socio-religious philosophy of muscular Christianity; the attitudes surrounding the creation of the new colony of Victoria in 1850; the origins of Australian football; the biggest massacre of whites by blacks in Australian history; the less-mentioned reprisal raids in which three times as many blacks are said to have died; the story of the first Australian cricket team to tour England. Add to this an archetypal sporting figure – the old champion left with nothing at the end but despair – and you have a wave, uniquely Australian in its origins and character, moving with a fair amount of force. Tom Wills is an Australian ghost like the one who camps by the billabong remembering the shearers’ strike of the 1890s. Some people wish Tommy would go away. I’m here to tell you he’s not going to.
- Martin Flanagan - The Call, published by Allen and Unwin, 1998.
- Greg De Moore - Tom Wills - His spectacular rise and tragic fall, published by Allen and Unwin, 2008.
- Gillian Hibbins - A Seductive Myth, p.45, The Australian Game Of Football (edited by James Weston), GSP Books, 2008.