Tom Wills grave restoration: one of the fathers of football needs our help


Australia’s first sporting legend and the father of Australian football lies in a crumbling grave in a Melbourne cemetery.

With a largely unknown but extraordinary life story, Tom Wills deserves a final resting place in better condition.

With the blessing of the Wills family, The Footy Almanac is now raising funds to renovate the gravesite of our first cricketing hero who also gave Australians our own spectacular game.

The project will cost about $15,000 and with millions of AFL supporters and cricket lovers, the Australian public should be able to do the right thing by this man and restore his gravesite to its former glory.

In doing so we wish to draw attention to his remarkable life that started within a pioneering farming family before becoming a young cricketing hero in England, colonial star for Victoria then outback Queensland station manager. After personal tragedy he formed, mentored and coached the first aboriginal cricket team that later became the first Australian team to tour England.

Enigmatic, controversial and egalitarian are words used to describe a man whose immense sporting foresight lives on today.

His strong personal relationships with the aboriginal people of western Victoria were cemented in sport and provide inspiration for modern day reconciliation.



Please donate what you can to a remarkable man who gave Australian sport so much via



The Tom Wills project is an initiative of Marius Cuming, Phil Dimitriadis and John Harms of

More on the project:

Anastasios (Tom) Dimitriadis and the Tom Wills grave restoration project



Tom Wills

Tom Wills




  1. Citrus Bob says

    I greatly applaud the initiative of the three amigos from The Footy Almanac.

    Having spent some time in Repton repairing the grave of perhaps England’s greatest all-round sportsmen C.B.Fry I can appreciate the cause.

    Sports lovers around Australia should look at other graves, perhaps in their area, of their outstanding sporting people who gave us so much pleasure over the years.

  2. Bravo!

  3. Dave Nadel says

    I remember walking through Heidelberg Cemetery as a teenager in the early sixties and was appalled then by the state of decay of most of the graves. I haven’t been back since but I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole cemetery is still in poor condition. I am happy to help in fund raising but I think that you should also approach Banyule Council for a significant contribution. As the heirs of Heidelberg City Council they must have some responsibility for Wills’ grave site.

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says

    While kudos to the head honchos of the knackery,Why in the he’ll isn’t the afl doing this project absolutely staggering

  5. bernard whimpress says

    If Tom Wills’ story is unkown it is because people have not bothered to read the best biography of an Australian sportsman – Greg de Moore’s ‘Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall’. Nor have they read Martin Flanagan’s dramatic treatment of Wills in ‘The Call’. I prefer to think of Wills as perhaps the principal founder rather than the father of Australian Football. The AFL, Cricket Australia and the Melbourne Cricket Club could all chip in but perhaps it’s a better idea to stand as an FA project. And let it be a restoration of the headstone and railing without grandiose additions.

  6. Fantastic initiative that deserves broader coverage in the media.

  7. Greg de Moore says

    Thank you. Time to bring Tom in from the cold.

  8. Chris Rees says

    Done. The comment I left on the site wasn’t quite what I intended! Good on you Phil, JTH and Mac.

  9. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    A terrific initiative with many thanks to Marius for putting the project in motion and to JTH for giving it a forum that TW would be proud of.
    The People for Tom Wills.

  10. I’d be happy to be involved in activities relating to this sterling work.’

    If any body frequents the Northerly parts of Melbourne they can access the April edition of the Town Crier’, featuring a short article I wrote on another of the games pioneers, Henry Harrison.


  11. My two cents worth. Great initiative.

    /Users/244259k/Desktop/Tom Wills /A whispering Sean.pdf

  12. Neil Kimpton says

    A fine initiative
    Having read Greg de Moore’s superb book on Tom Wills some years ago it is astounding that the AFL and the MCC have not taken it upon themselves to look after Tom’s grave
    Hopefully they will rectify this oversight by contributing!

  13. great work, like to see this more often

  14. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    And today is the anniversary of Tom Wills’ tragic death. Why not a Tom Wills Memorial Round at this time of year to celebrate his contribution and raise awareness for people battling addiction and or mental illness?

  15. E.regnans says

    P Dimitriadis – that’s an excellent idea.
    All of this is excellent.

    Shout it from the rooftops.

  16. Robert Bucknall says

    This is a great project. I was born and grew up in the Ararat Shire where the Wills family originally settled and Tom Wills was very much a part of the folklore of the district.

  17. Ron Palenski says

    I mentioned Wills visiting New Zealand as part of an English cricket team in 1864. It’s on page 27 of Rugby – A New Zealand History. Available online through Google books or through the publisher, Auckland University Press.

  18. This project represents loose change found between the cushions for the AFL. Given all the peripheral causes that the League contribute to, surely respecting the person so integral to the sport’s formation warrants their support?

  19. DBalassone says

    Great initiative, but agree with JD. Surely the AFL will support this project once they are (fully) aware of it?

  20. It is very hard to swim against this tide of hagiography. Do we really need a founding father for football? The explanations why we got ‘a code of our own’ are much wider and deeper than Tom Wills’ contribution, significant though it was. Other codes have done similar things with the lionisation of William Webb Ellis and Walter Camp. But it is distortion of history to have Wills as a one-man show at the centre of the local football story. There was a whole generation of players and officials involved in the foundation and early development of what became Australian rules football. When the game was codified in the late 1850s, there were at least three sets of rules extant and the Melbourne one only became dominant thanks to favourable economic and demographic conditions. If Tom Wills had had his way we would have been playing by the rules of Rugby School in England or something close to them, but nobody could understand them when he tried to explain them. He wasn’t even present when our founders banned ‘tripping, hacking and holding’.

    I have no objection to and will support a decent headstone for Tom Wills’ grave but only if some of the wilder claims for his role in the origins of the game can be moderated. The background to this intervention in Phil and John’s project can be found in:

    Collins, Tony. “The Invention of Sporting Traditions: National Myths, Imperial Pasts and the Origins of Australian Rules Football.” In Myth and Milestones in the History of Sport, edited by Stephen Wagg, pp. 8–31. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
    Roy Hay, ‘A Tale of Two Footballs: The Origins of Association Football and Australian Rules Revisited’, Sport in Society 13, no. 6 (2010), pp. 952–69.
    Tony Ward, ‘The Start of Australian Rules: Creation of a Dominant Sport’, Sporting Traditions 31, no. 1 (2014), 17–34
    Roy Hay, ‘Football’s First Free Kick: Demography and the Media – How and Why Australia Got a Game of Its Own’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, published on line 9 March 2016.
    Trevor Ruddell, ‘Engraved in Stone? The Story of an Origin Myth: Scotch College, Melbourne Grammar and Australian Football’, Sporting Traditions (forthcoming).

  21. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Hi Roy,
    The issues you raise about the tendency towards hagiography and misappropriation of historical fact are valid and instructive.
    The main thing that upset me when I found the grave was the inscription which reads “The Father of Australian Football” . In my original piece I was highly critical of the MCC for putting this inscription on the stone and then neglecting it for 30 years. Why do that if history tells us otherwise.

    The VFL/AFL have chosen to indulge in their own form of hagiography by distancing themselves from Wills’ contributions and propagating Harrison as the major founding because he upheld the Apollonian myth/ideal in a way that Tom couldn’t because of his alcoholism and the tragic and brutal way he died. Can’t have that associated with this ‘Game of Our Own’ now could we?

    Wills’ story is complex and multi-layered and in my view deserves to be told from diverse and discrete perspectives.

    My question is:
    Why are we so interested in Tom Wills compared to the others that helped set up and develop the game? Footy history is but one portal into an intriguing character who let’s face it should be lionised more for his contributions to cricket rather than footy. Yet somehow he stirs the imagination of many footy romantics, tragics and dare I say it hagiographers.
    Besides Roy, isn’t it the romantics and hagiographers that keep historians gainfully employed?

  22. Some responses to points made by Roy Hay:

    “There was a whole generation of players and officials involved in the foundation and early development of what became Australian rules football.” Some individuals deserve more credit than others. These statements are obvious to the point of banality.

    “If Tom Wills had had his way we would have been playing by the rules of Rugby School in England or something close to them, but nobody could understand them when he tried to explain them.” Wills was a highly opinionated – some might justifiably say arrogant – man. If he didn’t get his way, he would let the public know in the press. The only surviving quote from Wills on rugby football and how it related to early Melbourne football was in a letter to his brother: “Rugby was not a game for us, we wanted a winter pastime but men could be harmed if thrown on the ground so we thought differently.” These aren’t the words of someone who was opposed to a new type of football. He “thought differently”, and this is evident in his tactical innovations. For example, he was the first on record to exploit the lack of offside. He was in favour of implementing a number of aspects of Rugby School football, and in this regard he also helped to shape the Australian game. He was the first to popularise the oval-shaped ball, much to the chagrin of Thompson, who argued for a game that resembled soccer. It’s worth noting that in the “official” history of the game, published in 2008, Thompson is called the game’s most influential founder.

    “He wasn’t even present when our founders banned ‘tripping, hacking and holding’.” He was present when hacking was outlawed. His name is the first to appear on the MFC’s first handwritten code, published May 1859. Rule 7 reads: “Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking)”. As far as I’m aware, bans on tripping and holding were made official two months later with the release of the Victorian Cricketers’ Guide (edited by Thompson), which contains a modified version of the first code. I’m sure Wills would have approved of these additions, and maybe even recommended them. Whenever he spoke on violence in the game, it was on how and why it should be curbed. While he may not have been present when certain rule changes were made, his impact as a player and captain (which in those days involved what we would consider coaching) is undeniable. In ‘Origins of Australian Football: Victoria’s Early History, Vol 1’ (2012), Mark Pennings writes: “football in Melbourne was unique because it evolved primarily as it was played … the rules followed events on the field rather than the other way around.” James Coventry makes a similar argument in ‘Time and Space: The Tactics That Shaped Australian Rules and the Players and Coaches Who Mastered Them’ (2015): “It wasn’t the committeemen and reporters who made the biggest impact, but the dominant players on the ground. And there were none more dominant than Wills and Harrison.”

    It is certainly true that no one individual founder should take most of the credit, but it’s clear that Wills stood out for a number of reasons, and given how he has been neglected for generations, it is understandable why some people today care passionately about him and want to see his legacy revived. Call me a hagiographer, but I think it’s difficult to overrate the power of his story. I’ve dug around and can’t find another sport or country with a figure quite like him.

  23. Thanks for all of the comments.

    I’d like to start with a point on which there is likely to be agreement: that Wills is a fascinating figure in Australian life and Australian sporting life.

    I agree that the term ‘founding father’ is an overstatement, but my understanding of evidence and commentary is that Wills did play a part in things – as did others. So I believe he has a place in it. Not the only place.

    I don’t need a single definitive end-of-specualtion foundation story or a the elevation of a saintly conjuror who whipped up the game in a beaker with the flash of a wand. However I would not understate the alchemy that is Australian football. It has something pretty special (as other games do). I have spent time trying to think through what that is (hence my essay in the red AFL 150th book).

    I still have many questions. What is that ‘something’ that makes it special? And how did it evolve that way? Probably dumb luck when you bring together influences from English public schools, Irish games, indigenous games, and local beer.

    The origins/foundations of Australian football question is one of the most interesting questions in Australian sports history.

    Perhaps we could have the second Almanac seminar. Formal seminar that is. (The first was led by Tony Birch on approaches to understanding Australian life from an indigenous perspective – which was brillliant).

    But I thank (as do Phil and Marius) people for their interest and support of the grave restoration project.

    PS Glen, have you got a copy of the Harrison article? Would we be able to publish it. Roy, you may also have something for us? Indeed, all contributions welcome.

  24. I think Bernard Whimpress’s sane suggestion is the way to go. Perhaps, as Philip points out, with an emphasis on his cricketing career which was much more important to him and lengthier than his footballing activities. I agree that he was a tactical innovator in both sports. I still can’t see any indication that any of his innovations derived from the games he played with Indigenous children.

    Gaz, I haven’t seen that letter from which you quote. Can you let me have the source, please? Mark Pennings and Geoff Blainey are both wrong to believe that Melbourne/Victorian/Australian rules were unique, because rule changes followed events on the field. This has always been the way in Association football and is even institutionalised in the International Football Association Board, whose latest set of rule changes will be tried out when the Socceroos play England on 27 May.

    Why are we interested in Wills rather than his contemporaries? I suspect that many of us find it easier, more interesting and more convincing to attribute turning points in history and contemporary life to individuals. Amorphous things like social groups are more difficult to handle. Perhaps the individual personifies the change, takes part in the pivotal moment or moments, stands out as a representative of the complex processes of change. Wills certainly fits that notion. I tried to make sense of this in a piece I concocted some time ago, much of which got into academic articles I subsequently wrote, but it might be of interest in the current discussion. ‘Tom Wills Country or how the legend has taken over’. I’ve taken John at his word and sent it to him for possible publication on the site.

  25. Jane Dubsky says

    What a great project. Perhaps the same could be done for H.C.A. Harrisons’ grave at Kew Cemetery. He was cousin and brother-in law of Tom Wills and also one of the founders of Australian Football. I agree the AFL and MCC should be behind this initiative. Jane Harrison Dubsky. (HCA was my great-uncle).

  26. Roy, Wills’ letter to his brother Horace is quoted in Greg de Moore’s biography, page 101, and is most likely in possession of the Wills family. I seem to remember Horace’s grandson referencing the letter in an interview he did with the ABC about the Marngrook controversy (he was very dubious of any link between Marngrook and Australian rules).

  27. Thanks Gaz. The letter is undated, according to Greg, and I am wondering if this was written close to that first rules meeting or sometime afterwards. Geoff Blainey makes the point about the dry year of 1858 when the grounds were very hard and suspects this may have had an influence on the way the Melbourne rules were written or rewritten at the meeting reported by Hammersley in the Argus on 4 July 1859. It was at this one that the ban on ‘tripping, holding and hacking’ was passed on the casting vote of Alex Bruce, who famously lost an arm and played with an iron hook in its place. I discuss this and the other matters demographic in Football’s First Free Kick: Demography and the Media – How and Why Australia Got a Game of Its Own, The International Journal of the History of Sport, on line 9 March 2016. I can send you a copy if you let me have an email address or you can download it from this link free until the end of May.

  28. No worries Roy, and thanks for the link. I suspect the letter was written very soon after the first rules were penned but it’s difficult to say with any certainty, not having read it in full.

  29. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    11 days to go and we are within 15% of achieving our target Almanackers. Nice write up in the Geelong Advertiser on Tuesday:

    Please share the project with your networks as much as you can so we can get over the line for TW. With gratitude and appreciation PD.

  30. Its great work Phil, the power of the Almanackers coming together to save part of the heritage of the local game. We need to preserve these parts of the history, so we have an idea of its development We can’t forget the origins of the game, in al its contested versions.

    Like Eric Hobsbawm said, “Memory is life. It is always carried by groups of living people, and therefore it is in permanent evolution.

    Keep up the good work team.


  31. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Will be on ABC 774 tonight at 7.30 discussing the project with eminent presenter and conversationalist, Lindy Burns. Hope you can tune in and spread the word. 7 days to go and kicking with the breeze in the last quarter to paraphrase Marius.
    Cheers PD

  32. Nick Raschella says

    If the proponents of this project haven’t done so already, I think they should get in contact with Greg de Moore who wrote the book – ‘Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall’, which several others have talked about. He probably is the most knowledgeable person of Wills’ history and would be a great advocate for this project. He has written a great book. Greg de Moore is a Sydney psychiatrist who started looking at Wills by getting hold of his psychiatric records and analyse why he took his own life.

    Wills taking his own life is the reason why he was ignored for so long and Australian sports and cultural administrators.

    This 1 hour Conversation he had with Richard Fydler – on his morning program on ABC radio nation wide in late 2012, when the book was first released, and then repeated several times – is worth listening to if you haven’t read the book and I bet if you have a good listen, you will probably do like I did, and go out and purchase the book. Have a listen and/or download the podcast at

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