While Yallambie can be rightly regarded as the geographic heart of the City of Banyule, it is the Warringal Cemetery at Heidelberg that is its absolute dead centre. People have been dying to get in there for years, but it seems to me that when they do, they usually don’t have that much to say about it. “Carpe diem,” said Mr Keating, Oh Captain My Captain, but when all’s done and dusted, all that’s left is the dust. The unspoken whispers and forgotten memories of lives once lived.
If you’re lucky, sometimes the epitaphs in a cemetery will offer up an indication of what lies beneath your feet – from Martin Luther King’s “Free at Last” to Spike Milligan’s famous, “I told you I was ill,” but likely as not the stories must remain forever anonymous. At the Warringal Cemetery, the inscription to Thomas Wragge on the Wragge family monument states rather matter-of-factly, “Died at Yallambie, Heidelberg” but nearby is another, rather more intriguing stone with an altogether different inscription.
“Thomas Wentworth Wills, Founder of Australian Football”.
So who was Tom Wentworth Wills, “founder of football”, and what’s he doing at Heidelberg? Not much now I hear you say, but in the middle years of the 19th Century on sporting fields across the Colonies, it was an altogether different story.
Tom Wentworth Wills was the son of Horatio Wills and nephew and namesake of Thomas, the brother of Horatio. Uncle Thomas Wills has been mentioned before in these pages. He was a prominent early owner of land in Port Phillip, first owner of the Crown land that now forms the Yallambie estate and the owner of Lucerne, one of the finest homes of the early Heidelberg district.
Brothers Thomas and Horatio were the sons of a former Sydney convict, transported to Sydney for highway robbery in 1799. Relocating to Melbourne in the late 1830s the two men were soon involved in a range of commercial and pastoral activities, owning property in and around Melbourne, left right and centre.
In April, 1840 Horatio took his wife and their four year old son, Tom up country to a large pastoral run he had acquired at Mount William on the edge of the Grampians (Gariwerd) in the western part of the Port Phillip District. Horatio’s son, Tom Wentworth had been born in 1835 on the Molonglo Plains near present day Canberra and at Mount William it’s said the boy was soon mixing freely with the Indigenous tribes who were still numerous in the area, playing their games and learning their languages. Interestingly, considering what came later, it’s said Tom was introduced at this stage to an Indigenous ball game known as Marngrook.
After a rudimentary education in Melbourne, young Tom Wills was sent to school at Rugby in Old Blighty where from age 15 he displayed a spectacular disinterest in his studies while excelling at school sports. Tom was soon captaining the School and playing First Class cricket up and down the length and breadth of the land and, in the winter months, the school ball game of Rugby.
On his return to Australia in 1856, Tom Wills continued to display a disproportionate interest in sports. He achieved fame playing cricket for Victoria against New South Wales but it was the letter he wrote to a newspaper in July, 1858, calling for cricketers to take up winter sport for which he is now best remembered. The letter resulted in the first ever scratch match of Australian football, played on Saturday, 7 August 1858 between 40 Scotch College boys and a similar number from the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. One team wore pink, the other blue. The ball was a “huge sewn many seamed round ball” provided by Tom for the occasion and played across a roughly surfaced, half mile pitch. After a fierce contest lasting three hours and without recourse to anything sounding like a set of rules, both teams had scored a single goal.
“Our football-game had no rules at all. Tripping, elbowing, tackling, or anything else, was practiced with impunity.”
The game continued the following week, and the week after that but without further addition to the score and the match was ultimately declared a draw. Possibly by that time there were not enough uninjured players left to continue risking life and limb. Looking at all the black eyes and crocked shins, Tom Wills must have thought on reflection it would be better to have something that at least sounded like some rules, so he retired with three others to the local pub to jot something down on a table napkin. It’s unclear now how many drinks the sportsmen had sunk by the time they began writing, but it’s said the rules when decided were based on Wills’ own memories of his Rugby playing days and that “nobody understood them except himself…”
From such beginnings was a game created.
Known simply in this country ever since as, “The Footy”, it is a game that even the best informed spectators sometimes have trouble understanding. It requires the endurance of the half marathon runner, the athleticism of the basketball court and at least, in its historic form, the sheer physicality of a combat arena. “Quidditch,” without pads and brooms is how one wag recently put it, but it goes without saying that the early game played by Wills and his contemporaries would hardly be recognisable from what is played across Australia now.
As conceived in that pub, the game initially had recourse to a mere ten rules, with rules soon being added and others altered as time went by. In the words of Geoffrey Blainey, the game was not born ready-made, “The rules just grew, spreading more like a climbing vine than a tree.”
Tom Wills’ early notion of putting a Rugby style cross bar between the goal posts was never adopted but initially goals could be either rushed across the line or kicked through. Minor scores when the ball went either side of the posts were not counted. Play began not with a bounce or basketball style throw of the ball into the air, but with a rugby style kick off, the players lining up on opposite sides of the field and attacking the ball in a phalanx. The high mark or overhead catch of the ball was a spectacular feature of the sport right from the start, but when it was caught the catcher was required to call out, “Mark” and the game would stop for the player to take the resulting place kick. For decades a mark could also be claimed even if the ball had travelled only the length of a player’s foot, the so called “little mark”, and while throwing the ball has never been allowed, palming the ball with an open hand as a variation on handball, the flick pass, was used almost into the modern era.
From the start, football became a hugely popular spectator sport in Victoria. Long before soccer and rugby became popularly established in the big English cities, The Footy gripped the imagination of Melbourne from where it was exported to practically every Victorian country town and across the land into the other Colonies. The big Australian sporting grounds used for cricket were in plentiful supply and found to be ideally suited to the long kicking which was a feature of the game.
Australian Footy developed into a sport able to cross social barriers and unlike cricket, it wasn’t a game with a distinction between gentlemen and players. In Melbourne the home grounds of the most important teams were all located near to each other across the inner suburbs with the ground at Geelong accessible by paddle steamer across the Bay. The spectators, the so called barrackers – a word that originated in Melbourne around 1880 – came from every walk of life, an appeal that has continued into the modern era. It wasn’t so long ago when it seems to me a football crowd was dominated by the mums and dads with their Thermos flasks, grandmothers with their knitting and kids with footballs under arm, waiting for a chance to get onto the ground for a kick after the siren.
What Tom Wills would have thought of sport in the modern era we will never know, but in his day Wills stood alone as the pre-eminent athlete of the Australian colonies. In addition to his endeavours in colonial cricket, which including helping to form a team of Indigenous cricketers that later toured England, Tom Wills went on to play over 200 games of Australian football. He captained both the Melbourne and Geelong Football Clubs which were formed in Victoria in 1858 and 1859 respectively and which are today considered the oldest, continuously existing clubs at an elite sporting level of any code in the world.
To follow any football team through thick and thin isn’t easy, especially when the thin seems to be lying so thickly across the playing field. I’ve been a tragic Geelong Cats supporter all my life but those who look at the later day successes of the Geelong Football Club forget now how long that success was in coming. Those who remember Gary Sidebottom left standing on the side of the Geelong road with his kit bag under arm before a Preliminary Final or were with me in the outer at the ’G in ’89 and saw Ablett Snr kick 9 goals in a losing Grand Final side will know what I mean. I don’t believe that ‘Digger’ has really “been following Collingwood for 137 years,” but sometimes when you have a favourite team and follow their travails for long enough, it can feel like that. Perhaps only present day supporters of the Melbourne FC, a team without success within the living memory of most people, can relate.
With a Preliminary Final about to be staged next week between these two famous old clubs, Melbourne and Geelong, the first since 1954, the Cats to start as underdogs, I come back in a roundabout sort of way to my story and what it means to me to find Tom Wills mouldering away in the dust at Warringal.
After retiring from football in 1874 and inter-colonial cricket in 1876, Tom came to live at Heidelberg where the Wills name had once been so widely recognized. From early 1879, Tom lived in a rented house in Jika Street opposite the police station, near the Presbyterian chapel with a cheese factory at the end of the street. In the trees behind the house stood the tower of Wragge’s favourite church, the St John’s Church of England, and beyond that the Heidelberg Cricket Ground and racecourse.
Tom is known to have played with and coached the local cricket club at Heidelberg but by then his stature as a sportsman was largely diminished. Tom Will’s bowling action had become suspect but on the rough, unflattened country wicket at Heidelberg in a team made up of yokel farmers, local gentry, and occasional cow herders, no one seems to have noticed. Probably the last recorded outing of Wills on a sporting field was at Heidelberg in March, 1880 when playing cricket for Heidelberg against the “Bohemians” aged 45, he took five wickets, sharing the bowling honours that day with Charles Nuttall, a farmer from Banyule.
Wills was ostensibly a rather complicated character, to put it mildly. At one moment charming and at another offensive, he had been a drinker since his Rugby days, but by 1880 the truth was he had become an inveterate alcoholic. On 2 May that year, less than two months after the Bohemians game, in a fit of depression he took a pair of scissors and stabbed himself through the heart.
The jurors at the inquest that followed included such Heidelberg luminaries as Thomas Davey the butcher, Edward Studley the baker and I’m guessing the candlestick maker but the burial of Wills at the Warringal Cemetery after an Anglican service went largely unnoticed, attended by only a half dozen members of his immediate family.
It was an inglorious end for someone who had been a sporting legend in his own life time. Greg de Moore in his invaluable biography of Wills said he “stands alone in all his absurdity, his cracked egalitarian heroism and his fatal self-destructiveness – the finest cricketer and footballer of the age.”
So there it is. What happens on the sporting field might seem like life and death, but if you want to get some perspective, look around the graveyard and tell me what you see. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If you had looked in at the gates here at Yallambie on three occasions in the early Noughties, you might have seen some lunatics waving blue and white scarves and charging madly around the garden in celebration of victory. That’s what The Footy can do to otherwise sane people.
Carpe diem, Cats, but come what may next week, this is one for the history books.