On Saturday 13 August 2011, Greg de Moore spoke passionately to COSHA about his research into one of Australia’s least known sporting heroes, Tom Wills.
Greg de Moore is a consulting psychiatrist at Westmead and Blacktown hospitals and his biography Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall (Allen and Unwin) was short-listed for the National Biography Award.
Wills was born in NSW, near Queanbeyan. The year was 1835. His father was editor of the Sydney Gazette; his mother raised and schooled in western Sydney. At the age of four, Wills and his family travelled to Victoria. There, growing up with the Djabwurrung Aborigines in the Grampians, he played their games and learnt their language. A lone white boy within Aboriginal clans, he earned their affection. Wills' father wished his son to become a lawyer, a statesman. With ambitious designs, he packed his 14-year-old son off to Rugby School in England. At Rugby, Tom absorbed the rules of the school's winter game: hundreds of boys shoving and kicking a football towards H-shaped goals. It was also whispered that in Wills, England was seeing the emergence of a brilliant young cricketer.
At the age of 21, Wills returned to Australia. If you can imagine a young man with the looks of Errol Flynn and skills of Ricky Ponting, then you'll understand his impact.
Wills dashingly strode on to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, handsome to a fault and with a physique that made women swoon. This was the man the colonies had heard about. The man who could bowl and bat like no other; who quoted Hamlet in his letters to the press. He and other young Turks wrote the first rules of what would become Australian Rules football. But it was on the cricket field that he was best known. Everyone wanted Wills.
But one event was to crush his spirit. In 1861, Wills' father left Victoria and bought a new property in central Queensland, not far from modern-day Springsure. Wills travelled with his father, along with more than 20 Victorian settlers, to this new land. Then, on the afternoon of October 17,1861, local Aborigines on Kairi land attacked and killed 19 white settlers. Among them was Wills' father. Fortuitously, Wills was away from the campsite. When he returned, several days later, the dead were already buried. It was the single biggest killing of white settlers in this country's history. The retribution, murky in details, surely killed hundreds of Aborigines.
In the shadow of his father's death, Wills undertook what I regard as the most significant act in Australian sporting history. He captained and coached an Aboriginal cricket team from western Victoria. This troupe, with Wills as its visible figurehead, travelled around Victoria and NSW. In Sydney, their base was Manly Beach. The team travelled to Newcastle, Wollongong, Campbelltown and stopped to played a team from Parramatta. The locals won by four runs. This tour was one of the first great acts of reconciliation between black and white.
But the life of a cricketer was not easy. It was a time when cricketers openly drank alcohol for breakfast and dashed from the field for a splash of liquor. In Australia the favourite drink was iced claret under the hot sun of Melbourne and Sydney. Sadly, almost predictably, Wills' life ended violently. In 1880, at the relatively young age of 44, Wills, now an alcoholic, stabbed himself in the heart.