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Thomas Wentworth Wills (1835–1880)

by W. F. Mandle

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Thomas Wentworth Wills (1835-1880), cricketer and footballer, was born on 19 December 1835 at Molonglo Plains, New South Wales, eldest son of Horatio Spencer Howe Wills and his wife Elizabeth, née McGuire. He was educated in Melbourne until 1852 when he went to Rugby School where he played football and captained the cricket XI. Intended for Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1856, he did not matriculate but he was included, by Oxford's permission, in the Cambridge XI in the inter-university match of that year. In 1853-56 he became a notable amateur cricketer in England, playing mainly for the gentlemen of Kent, but also for the Marylebone Club and on one occasion for United Ireland.

Wills returned to Melbourne late in 1856 and played twelve games for Victoria against New South Wales in 1857-76, scoring 319 runs at an average of 21.27 and taking 72 wickets at 10.23. He played for several teams, but mainly for Richmond and for the Melbourne Cricket Club, of which he was secretary in 1857-58. Although articled to a Collingwood solicitor in 1859 he seems never to have practised. In 1861 he accompanied his father and others overland to take up a property at Cullinlaringo, Queensland; in October all but Wills and two others who were absent from the camp were killed by Aboriginals. After helping his brother to run the property he returned to Melbourne in 1864.

Wills then became a cricket coach and trained the Lake Wallace region Aboriginal side that toured England in 1868. As a batsman he could be crudely effective, 'He uses a three pound bat and hits terrific' said James Lillywhite, but he was noted more as a bowler. Wills was constantly accused of throwing, especially his faster deliveries. But fast or slow, thrower or bowler, he returned some devastating analyses at all levels of cricket.

A frequent and cantankerous letter-writer to the sporting press, Wills's most famous letter was in Bell's Life in Victoria, 10 July, 1858, calling for cricketers to take up a winter sport for fitness' sake. The response to this letter enabled him, his cousin H. C. A. Harrison, and others to draw up rules for a football game later to be known as Victorian or Australian Rules. Wills played over 210 games, mainly for Geelong, until he retired in 1876.

The indulgence in drink that seemed inseparable from the cricket of those days found a too-eager practitioner in Wills. As early as 1873 there were thinly veiled public accusations that colonial beer was affecting his cricket and in later years he had to be put under restraint. On 2 May 1880 at his Heidelberg home he eluded the vigilance of a man set to watch over him and stabbed himself to death with a pair of scissors. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind caused by excessive drinking. For one who had been called 'the Grace of Australia' and 'a model of muscular Christianity' it was a sad end. He was buried in the Heidelberg (Warringal) cemetery after an Anglican service, survived by his common-law wife Sarah Teresa Barber. Only one Melbourne paper, the Argus, acknowledged her existence and she finds no mention in Henderson's chapter on the Wills family. There were no children.

In 2021 suggestions arose that Wills had admitted to participating in violent reprisals related to his father’s death, drawing on an anonymous 1895 report in the Chicago Tribune.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Lillywhite, A. Haygarth, Cricket Scores and Biographies,vols 4-5 (Lond, 1863, 1876)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • D. J. Mulvaney, Cricket Walkabout (Melb, 1967)
  • Jackson, Russell. ‘Experts Add Weight to Discovery that Sporting Hero Tom Wills Participated in Mass Murder of Indigenous People.’ Last modified 19 September 2021. Accessed 7 October 2021.  Copy held on ADB file
  • Bell's Life in Victoria, 1857-68
  • Australasian, 8 May 1869, 8 May 1880
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 May 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 May 1880
  • Leader (Melbourne), 8 May 1880.  

Citation details

W. F. Mandle, 'Wills, Thomas Wentworth (1835–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1835
Molonglo Plains, New South Wales, Australia


2 May, 1880 (aged 44)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.