Almanac Footy: Tom Wills – A bit of care is necessary


This piece is a response to Andrew Starkie’s piece on Tom Wills – “Tom Wills – what happens now”that responded in turn to an article by Russell Jackson. Jackson’s original article, published on Saturday, 18 September for the ABC, covered a research discovery suggesting that Wills took part in massacres of Indigenous people.  You can read his piece here, and a follow-up piece also by Jackson here.


This week the discovery or rediscovery of an article in the Chicago Herald Tribune in 1895 has sparked a debate about whether the legend of Tom Wills, popularly regarded as one of the key founders of the unique Australian game of football, should be cancelled. In the story an un-named person reported that Tom Wills had told him about his part in a reprisal raid in which he had shot and killed an Indigenous man. To add verisimilitude to his account Wills is said to have mentioned that the victim was wearing Wills’ I Zingari blazer, a proud possession of the cricketing superstar of his day. Wills had escaped death himself because he had left his father’s establishment to obtain supplies and was on his return journey when the Indigenous attack occurred in October 1861. Wills died at his own hand in May 1880.


That there were reprisal raids in which a large number of Indigenous people were killed is certain and recorded in contemporary reports. It is the participation of Wills that is not yet established. In the immediate aftermath of the killing of his father, Horatio Wills, the safety of Tom himself was a prime consideration and his neighbour Jesse Gregson ensured that he was taken to Norwood station for that reason. It was Gregson’s previous killing of Indigenous people that may have sparked the massacre of Horatio Wills and his employees.


Tom Wills was an unreliable person in his own lifetime. Several of his claims have been shown to be false or dubious. For example, he wrote that he introduced football to Geelong but close investigation by Daryl Wight of the Geelong Historical Society can find no evidence of his participation in any of the intra-club matches played in the first couple of years of the Geelong football club’s existence. His single year as secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club is legendary, in part because he threw all the exiguous material relating to it on the floor when asked to provide it to his successor. That is the only year in the storied history of the club for which a secretary’s report does not exist. Wills’ management of his own finances was chaotic in the extreme. He remained an amateur cricketer in his own mind, even though like another amateur, Dr W.G. Grace, he obtained a good income from the game over many years.


Embellishing an autobiography is very common. Albert Pompey Austin, the only Indigenous man to play top level football in Victoria in the nineteenth century, told a former policeman in the Kimberley that he had been to England with the Aboriginal cricket team in 1868 and been presented to Queen Victoria. Neither was true.


Hearsay is not allowed in a court of law and hearsay about events of 34 years earlier would be very suspect. On this evidence it is possible that Wills was involved in a subsequent reprisal raid, but I would argue strongly that this account, if tested, would meet the Scottish court verdict of ‘not proven’. Cancellers should be cautious.



More by Roy Hay here.



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  1. Well said Ray.

    Tom Wills role in Australian sporting history is established by the virtue of his name, linked to events on the cricketing/football fields. The veracity of these events is sometimes questionable, as you point out so well.

    Rather than the knee jerk response so indicative of the ‘cancel culture’ let’s analyse the evidence presented, as well as acknowledging the reality of the time. As the French philosopher alain badious says; One always divides into two.


  2. It seems nobody involved in spreading this silly story has yet to read all of the article by “G”, titled “Old Days in Australia”, which appeared on page two of the fifth section of The Chicago Sunday Tribune on January 27, 1895, more than 33 years after the death of Horatio Wills and more than 14 years after the suicide of Tom Wills.
    This article ???? ??? refer to the Cullin-la-ringo massacre of 1861 in any shape or form. Instead, “G” says the Wills family involved in his story were English and had arrived in Australia “some time in the [18]60s”. Horatio Wills was born in Sydney in 1811 and Tom Wills was born outside Canberra in 1835. “G” says the father of “Tommy Wills” had one son and three daughters. In fact Horatio Wills had four sons and five daughters, all Australian born. “G” goes on to describe an incident which he alleges occurred in Victoria late in the month of December, three years after the family was supposed to have arrived in Australia “some time in the [18]60s” . The killing of Horatio Wills occurred in October 1861 in Queensland. “G” says “Tommy Wills” found the heads of his father, mother and three sisters stuck on sticks. Tom Wills’s mother and sisters were alive and well and living in Victoria at the time of the Central Queensland killings.
    Anyone reading the article by “G” will see that it has nothing at all to do with the killings at Cullin-la-ringo on October 17, 1861.

  3. Thank you both for the incisive and informative comments. Your critique of the content deserves a much wider circulation, Robert. I hope you will share it elsewhere. I’ll draw it to the attention of my contacts.

  4. Peter Fuller says

    I was waiting to hear from you on this matter, as I knew you would have an informed observation. The bonus of Robert M’s critique of the source makes this thread doubly valuable. I also appreciate Glen’s measured comment. As I was progressing through your article, my mind turned to the “not proven” verdict, so it’s entirely appropriate with your background that was your conclusion.

  5. Thanks, Peter. I’m really appreciative of the comments from all three participants so far. Isn’t it wonderful that we can have this discussion. I hope that my emphasis on contemporary source material rather than much later observations is clear. That is the strength of Greg de Moore’s biography of Tom Wills. He sticks to the contemporary material like a leech, though he knows that there is plenty of subsequent material that may or may not have some value. The reminiscences of old stagers are often thoroughly strongly believed. I’m finding this with my attempt at my own story. There are lots of things from my early days that I firmly believe happened, but I keep getting pulled up by members of the family and others with a very different take on issues where I was certain I had privileged access to ‘the truth’. Very uncomfortable for me.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    I thoroughly enjoyed your wise, balanced, clear-sighted historian’s approach to this Tom Wills material, Roy!

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