Select Willis Miscellany

Here are some Wills/Willis stories and accounts over the years:

Wills and Willis Today

The Wills and Willis numbers are about 113,000 today.  Willis outnumbers Wills by almost three to one.

Numbers (000's)

The Wills of Wreyland Manor House

In 1577 Henry Wyll of Christow purchased part of the manor of Wreyland from Lord Compton.  This was inherited in 1599 by his son Thomas Willes of Bridford who also purchased an additional share.  However, that additional share had been lost by the time of his death in 1619.  It is interesting to speculate how Henry Wyll gained his wealth.  Was it from mining activity in Christow?

In his will, proved at Totnes in 1710, Benjamin Wills, clothier of Wreyland, left five shillings to the poor people living in the manor of Wrayland and a one fourth part of a messuage in Wreyland to his brother Christopher's grandson Benjamin Wills.  He also left two weaving looms to Richard Willmead who was an apprentice to his deceased brother John.  To John Wills, son of his deceased brother Christopher, he left two cows and a tenement that was named Eastawray.

Dr. Francis Willis, A Commemorative Monument

There is a monument to Dr. Willis in the transept of his local Church of Thomas Becket at Greatford in Lincolnshire.  The commemorative inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of
The Rev’d. Francis Willis MD
Who died on 5 December 1807
In the 90th year of his age.
He was the third son of the Revd. John Willis of Lincoln
A descendant of an ancient family of the same name
That resided formerly at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire.

He studied at Oxford; was Fellow and sometime Vice-Principal of Brazen Nose College: Where in obedience to his father, he entered into holy orders. But pursuing the bent of his natural taste and inclination he took the degree of Doctor of Physic in the same University and continued the practice of the profession to the last hour of his life.

By his first wife Mary, the youngest daughter of the Rev’d. John Curtois of Branston in this county, he had five sons who survived him.  By his second wife he had no issue.

Initiated early into habits of observation and research, he attained the highest eminence in his profession and was happily the chief agent in removing the malady which affected his present majesty in the year 1789.  On that occasion he displayed an energy and acuteness of mind which excited the admiration and procured for him the esteem of the nation. The kindness and benevolence of his disposition were testified by the tears and lamentations which followed him to the grave.

Browne Willis of Buckingham

Browne Willis was an important presence in the local politics in Buckingham in the early 1700’s, not least because he chose to spend much of his income on local projects.  In 1702 he had been instrumental in reviving the Fenny Stratford market and from 1704 to 1709 he had spent nearly £800 on beautifying Bletchley church.  However, his constant building projects, antiquarian research and coin collecting, and the demands of his large family saw him severely depreciate his estate.

By 1728 his estate was reported to be worth only £935 per annum compared to the £1,500 or more at the beginning of the century.  Perhaps declining income partly explained his famously dilapidated appearance.

A lady meeting him for the first time in 1740 found him still wearing the greatcoat tailored for his election at Buckingham in 1705 and now so dirty as to be ‘quite disagreeable to sit by him at table.’  Her opinion of him on further acquaintance was that ‘with one of the honest hearts in the world, he has one of the oddest heads that ever dropped out of the moon.  Extremely well versed in coins, he knows hardly anything of mankind.'

Willis Hill in Fredericksburg

The Willis cemetery lies on Willis Hill, one mile west of the town of Fredericksburg in Virginia.  Colonel Henry Willis was one of the founders of Fredericksburg in 1727 and many of his descendants are buried there.

One historian has it that Colonel Henry Willis, “the Top Man of the Town” as he was called, buried his last wife, Mildred Washington Gregory who was George Washington’s aunt godmother, there.  Henry’s son Lewis Willis was probably buried there, although there is no marker for his grave.  His grandson Byrd C. Willis was definitely buried there, with the stone reading:

"Colonel Byrd C. Willis  
Born August 29, 1781
Died October 1st, 1846."

But Colonel Willis had paid little attention to the management of the Willis Hill estate, instead spending his time fox hunting, racing, and attending parties.  He ran through his money and in 1825 sold out and moved to Florida.  

The family’s prior connections to George Washington eventually paid dividends, however.  At Tallahassee in Florida, his daughter Catherine attracted the attentions of Achilles Murat, the ex-Prince of Naples and a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because of this Washington connection, his family approved the match.  She became Princess Murat and Napoleon III, when Emperor of France, placed her at the head of the nobility of France and honored her with a seat on his right.

Death or Canada

Death or Canada, broadcast in Ireland in 2008, was a mini-series that followed the fate of the Protestant Willis family as, at the height of the Famine in 1847, they abandoned their home in SW Ireland and gambled everything on finding new lives for themselves in North America.  

They fled Ireland on a coffin ship and terror followed in their wake.  John and Mary Willis lost four of their five children during the voyage to typhus.  The remnants of their family eventually made it to Toronto which, like other Canadian ports, had been overwhelmed by typhus-infested refugees and had begun erecting temporary fever sheds.

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