Book Review: Tom Wills

Title: Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall

Author: Greg de Moore

Publisher:  Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2008 $32.95 (pb)

At the Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2006, an event internationally famous as part of Australia’s oldest Festival of Arts, I attended a literary dinner with around a dozen people of mixed sexes. The Modern Novel was being dissected but some of us were on the periphery. During a pause for no special reason I mentioned Tom Wills to the male author sitting next to me. Ears pricked, the name ‘Wills’ created a murmur and within minutes males were swapping places to get to my end of the table. Wills was not so much a conversation stopper as a conversation starter. In olden days, of course, the gentlemen withdrew from the drawing room for port, cigars and billiards, to discuss business (and sport), leaving the ladies to themselves to talk about – The Modern Novel. Later at parties the blokes simply clustered down one end of the room to talk football, leaving the women at the other. What was it about Wills that prompted male intellectual interest?

More than a decade ago the Melbourne Age journalist Martin Flanagan wrote a fictional biography, The Call, classified at the time as a post-modern novel, which took Wills as its hero. Flanagan subsequently turned the novel into a play. Tom Wills, the best cricketer in Australia before Test cricket; the most influential founder of Australian Rules football; the first captain of the Aboriginal cricket team in 1866-67; the first bowler to be no-balled for throwing in first-class cricket in Australia; and a man who ended his life when things went wrong; was undoubtedly a suitable case for dramatic treatment.

Sydney psychiatrist Greg de Moore’s biography, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, has been ten years in the making – okay, so he picked up a history PhD on the way – but it was worth the wait. What is presented?

  • Tom the star sportsman – cricketer and footballer.
  • Tom the eternal boy, irresponsible and hopeless with money.
  • Tom who straddles the amateur/professional sports world and for whom a new title ‘tutor’ is devised by the Melbourne Cricket Club.
  • Tom the innovator – versatile bowler and shrewd thrower in cricket, master kicker and tactician in football.
  • Tom the gentleman who continues to style himself that way when his stocks have well and truly plummeted.
  • Tom the voluminous correspondent to the press, ever ready to argue and defend a position.
  • Tom the black sheep who is progressively disowned by the women of his family but who retains the loyalty of his younger brothers and cousin, Colden Harrison.
  • Tom the drifter who has opportunities to right his course and set himself up with a comfortable living after failing at farm management.
  • Tom the drunk who imbibes copious amounts of hard liquor before, during and after play.
  • Tom the ‘husband’ of Sarah with whom he lives in a de facto relationship for sixteen years and who, it seems likely, is a partner in drink.

The book is sensibly organised in a chronological manner. The first phase is Tom as the son of the father, Horatio, the newspaper editor, pastoralist and Member of Parliament, who aims to give his sons the formal education he never had. Tom, the first-born, grows up in western Victoria, undergoes schooling in Melbourne, and then is dispatched to Rugby School with the intention of continued training at Oxford or Cambridge universities and a career in the law. However, Tom’s five years at Rugby produce a laggard, such that by age twenty he has not even reached the senior school. Instead, sporting excellence is his mark of achievement.

When he returns home at the age of 22, Tom is employed in a legal office but it is obvious that cricket and football come first. Tom luxuriates in the adoration of the crowd and the fellowship of team-mates. Horatio attempts to engage Tom’s interest in farm management and he accompanies his father on the ill-fated expedition to farm sheep at Cullinlaringo at the other end of the continent. Queensland might have been the chance for father and son to work together in a productive enterprise. However, when Horatio and eighteen of his party are murdered by Aborigines in the biggest atrocity on white settlers in Australian history, Tom is away obtaining provisions. In today’s terminology Tom may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder – de Moore certainly hints that this may be so – but there is no counselling service available. It is likely that he drowns his demons in drink.

Tom attempts to direct operations at Cullinlaringo but he is a poor manager. He dips into station accounts for personal expenses, and takes off for considerable amounts of time to pursue his sporting endeavours. His mother, Elizabeth, hopes he will make a respectable marriage and settle down but it is obvious that his fiancée, Julie Anderson, while possibly a suitable helpmeet is also a domestic drone, ‘more virtuous than desirable’, and of little use to someone who prefers the social company of men.

Tom comes back to Melbourne. He is still the finest cricketer in Victoria and his title of ‘tutor’ at the Melbourne Cricket Club and being addressed as ‘Mr Wills’ enables him to preserve the illusion of being a gentleman.

The downward spiral begins and gradually gains momentum: the hawking of services to a variety of clubs, the relocation to Geelong, the plying for hire throughout Victoria and beyond, the frequent changes of address, the disconnection from family, the sale of blocks of land to meet debts, and finally, the increased drinking leading the one-time champion athlete to become a pitiable wretch.

There are many reasons for reading this book but I have been disappointed to see it pigeon-holed under Australian Football – then again, I once found T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom under Video before I pointed out the error to the bookseller. Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall is more cricket history than football, more Australian History than either because of its deft forays into local history, family history and Victorian social mores; excellent Biography because of the web of connections weaved through an individual life; and finally Literature because of the quality of the writing.

As a historian Greg de Moore has the narrative flair of Manning Clark’s A History of Australia but never is style a substitute for content. Readers will find that this book shows all the evidence of the archive being well and truly dusted and the boots well worn without the academic impedimenta being crusted on. As a psychiatrist one might say de Moore wears his professional knowledge lightly, except that it is his special training and intelligence which illuminates so many aspects of a variously hued life. In describing the effects of the Cullinlaringo massacre on Tom he calls upon evidence from medical history and the experience of soldiers in the American Civil War. The soldiers’ spirit ‘buckled’. They sweated, they suffocated, their sleep was jerky, their hearts thumped. One has the feeling that, like them, Tom rarely slept peacefully again.

This book is a rich story with a grand teller, and de Moore’s prose is simply delicious. He makes glorious transitions and builds great drama. There are numerous examples, but just a couple will suffice:

The Queensland sun whittled Tom’s flesh during the day; mosquitos stabbed and sucked at night. The heat and isolation and flies ate at more than a man’s body. Fences preoccupied Tom’s mind – fences to repair, fences to build, fences that penned a man. (p.128)

‘Whittled’, ‘stabbed’, ‘sucked’, ‘penned’ – all striking verbs.

And then there is the depiction of the Yorke Peninsula mining community whose cricket team Tom coached during W.G. Grace’s tour of 1874:

Summer temperatures regularly exceeded 100 degrees F. The only relief to the unbroken line of baked soil were dozens of miners’ huts, the damp soil could be seen seeping into and rotting the walls of these huts. Littered in profusion were the mines, black holes in an alien landscape, into whose hungry mouths miners went daily digging for copper. And there were the smelters: each a fire that breathed deep within the earth and into which the rock around them was fed, to be worked upon. From the smelters rose thick black excreta high into the blue-desert sky – foul fumes of metallic smoke – an unholy mess of the earth’s crust and industrial additives. The fumes crept over the desert and out to sea; but on days when heavy air sat still above the smoke, the fumes were breathed in, settling an unnatural taste in the mouths of the people. (pp.228-229)

When the book is displayed I fear it will be discovered mainly by flannelled fools and muddied oafs albeit for some of them covered by academic gowns. It would be much better if it could get a guernsey as Biography or Literature as well so that women too would be more likely to discover it. This book demands the greater conversation of a whole room or dinner table.

About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) who has just written his 40th book. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Among his most recent books are George Giffen: A Biography, The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (with Graeme Ryan) and The MCC Official Ashes Treasures (5th edition).


  1. Bernard,

    You honeypot, you. I can imagine a crowd gathering around at the mention of Wills. It’s the complex ones who inspire the most interest.

    Top review, too. I’d heard all about Greg’s research and his medical background, but no one to my knowledge has previously mentioned the glory of his writing.

    I must read the book (but then I say that about a lot of books that continue to sit unopened on my desk).

  2. Neil Hassa Allen says

    Further to the above, Mick Thomas, formerly of Weddings Parties Anything wrote a cracking song, funnily enough called “Tom Wills”, from his Dust on My shoes album of a few years back.

    “He flew so high, up and over everyone… he almost caught the sun”

    Mick has a great interest in Australian history & Australian Rules football, so it was probably inevitable he’d crank a tune out on Mr Wills.

    Great effort.

  3. James Hothersall says

    Dr de Moore’s phd is extremely interesting as it ‘busts’ the myth’s of Tom Wills.

    It is great that early football history is being re-examined. The Mark Pennings’ project, the Hibbins’ essay in the Yorker, Trevor Ruddell’s work. Soccer academic Ian Syson is also shedding demonstrating that the ‘waters were extremely’ muddy and orderly as Mullen et al. would have us believe.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Bernard’s review of Greg de Moore’s book on Tom Wills is well worth a read. Can’t believe I missed this one. Super work BW.

  5. bernard whimpress says

    Thanks Phil, if the review leads readers to the book so much the better.

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