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Tom Wills, Geelong and footy in Qld

Tom Wills
Tom Wills

The code of Australian Rules football has been played in Queensland for 150 years. Yes, 150 years. 

In 1866, over a decade before South Australia finally adopted what was then called the Victorian Rules, Queenslanders were playing the Australian game. Prior to the late 1870s Australian Rules football was played in only two colonies, Victoria and Queensland. 

All of the schools adopted the game and by the early 1880s the sport had spread throughout Queensland, and was played in places as far flung as Thargomindah, Normanton, Cairns, Cunnamulla and Townsville. 

Australian Rules was "the game of the colony" and Queenslanders were enamored with the skill and finesse of a sport that was gradually diverging from its rugby roots during the 1870s. 

Some of the founders of football in Queensland were from the famous Geelong Football Club, where the great Tom Wills had played a leading role in the development of the sport. 

Wills’ good friends and football teammates at Geelong, George Glencross-Smith and Thomas Board, were at the helm of the Brisbane Football Club when it formed in 1866. 

Wills travelled to Central Queensland in 1862 in an ill-fated odyssey to set up a pastoral property with his father, Horatio. His father and 18 others were brutally murdered by a hostile aboriginal tribe in reprisal for atrocities committed by previous colonists. Wills was absent from the property collecting supplies, returning to the scene of the massacre only hours after it had occurred. 

His brothers Horace and Cedric were soon summoned to Queensland to assist with the property as the distraught Wills eventually returned to his luminous cricket and football careers in Victoria. Horace and Cedric Wills were both useful players for Geelong in the early 1860s. When they visited Brisbane they would play Australian Rules football with their Geelong mates. 

Another Brisbane Football Club founder, Charles Wallen, played for Scotch College in the school matches of 1858 that were the precursor to codification of Australian Rules. The Hart brothers, Fred, Studholme and Graham, were also members of the Brisbane Football Club in its early years. They played for the Albert Park club in some of the first games of Australian Rules before they travelled to Queensland. 

Victorians kicked off Australian Rules in Queensland and they were the driving force for football in its first decade. 

By 1869 the grammar schools of Brisbane and Ipswich had adopted the code and by the mid-1870s they were beginning to provide graduates to the football clubs of southeast Queensland. In the early 1880s some of these young men were venturing to regional Queensland as accountants, schoolteachers, civil servants and lawyers. When they arrived in places like Maryborough, Gympie, Toowoomba, Warwick, Mackay and Charters Towers they commenced Australian Rules football clubs. 

By 1884 there were over 50 Australian Rules clubs throughout Queensland, and only two rugby clubs in the township of Rockhampton. 

Two of the strongest clubs were Ipswich (The Athenians) and Brisbane (Red Invincibles). The teams were, by the early 1880s, filled with the old boys of the Brisbane and Ipswich Grammar Schools. Victorian influence on the code had waned and it was local Queenslanders who were playing and administering the code. 

Crowds would flock to the Queen’s Park in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens to see the Athenians and Red Invincibles fight out matches that were almost always close and often violent. There was no love lost between Queensland’s two biggest towns. 

All of this was to change after a bitter battle of the codes erupted in 1884. This battle was to shape the course of Australian sporting history for the next 130 years. 

That story was a synopsis of the early chapters of Athenians and Red Invincibles: The Origins of Queensland Football by Murray Bird.

The book retails for $39.95 and can be purchased from the author: mbird@velocitysports.com.au

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs