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Willis, Henry (1860–1950)

by Peter Spearritt and Elizabeth Stewart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Henry Willis (1860-1950), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Henry Willis (1860-1950), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23515815

Henry Willis (1860-1950), politician, was born on 6 April 1860 at Port Adelaide, South Australia, son of John Willis, a mariner from England, and his wife Jane, née Emmerson. Educated at the local grammar school where he won distinction as a debater, Henry later worked in his father's tannery at Hindmarsh. A committee-member of the South Australian Literary Societies' Union, from 1884 he was a member of its first, second and fourth parliaments. By 1885 Willis had established his own tannery at Hindmarsh and 'got in early into Broken Hill silver mines'. He served on Hindmarsh Municipal Council (1884-86) and the local board of health.

Arriving in Sydney in 1888 intending to study for the Church of England ministry, Willis married Annie Louisa Moore on 20 September 1889 at St Peter's Church, Campbelltown; they were to have five children. He launched into municipal politics: he was first mayor of Cabramatta and Canley Vale (1893), served on the Camden (from 1897) and Randwick (1899-1902) councils, and strongly advocated unification at the 1900 Metropolitan Municipal Reform Conference. Meanwhile, he read the lives of famous statesmen and joined the Sydney School of Arts Debating Club.

Elected to the House of Representatives for Robertson in 1901, Willis supported (Sir) George Reid's Free-Trade government. Re-elected in 1903 and 1906, he was defeated in 1910, but was returned in October to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as a Liberal for the Upper Hunter.

In July 1911 Labor lost its majority of one in the assembly and sought an Opposition member as Speaker. Believing the position to be non-partisan, Willis was persuaded to offer himself to avert an unnecessary dissolution. He became Speaker on 24 August 1911 amid a twenty-four-hour opening sitting marked by unprecedented scenes of disorder and violence. Convinced that he had betrayed the party, his fellow Liberals vilified him as a 'Judas' and 'political leper'.

Having observed parliaments in Europe and embraced the ideals of Robert Lowe, Willis acted to protect the privileges and dignity of parliament and its members by enlarging the Speaker's powers. He claimed authority to remove members, censor their speeches and questions, and to exclude journalists from the press gallery; he also reconstructed the reporting department, established a separate department for the sergeant-at-arms, appointed a full-time secretary to the Speaker and reorganized the duties of clerical officers. His reforms, however, were ephemeral.

Such measures inflamed both Liberal and Labor members. In one incident in September 1911, when the sergeant-at-arms had failed, Willis called in the police to eject seven Liberals for continued disorder in the House. Unduly censorious on occasions, he incurred several civil actions for assault and illegal ejection (including a successful one by John Perry in 1911). Dubbed 'a putty Napoleon', Willis was repeatedly caricatured and ridiculed as a figure of folly throughout his 'reign of terror'. His overbearing presence and insensitive manner alienated support. Possessing 'audacious vanity' and supreme self-confidence, he faced increasing press and parliamentary indignation. He resigned on 22 July 1913, dispirited that the terms on which he had accepted the Speakership had still not been honoured, and was defeated at the next election.

A sturdily-built man of middle height, clean-shaven, with a dark, sunburnt face, close-cropped grey hair, a game leg and a 'child-like' smile, Willis personified one Victorian ideal of the cultivated gentleman. He was well read, and noted for his literary and satirical eloquence in parliament. An enthusiastic yachtsman, he lived in a house built in 1903-05 at Middle Harbour and named Innisfallen Castle, after a ruined abbey at Killarney, Ireland. Before retiring, he devoted time to his Queensland cattle property, Kooringa Downs, Roma, one of the four estates he owned. Survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, Willis died at his Middle Harbour home on 23 February 1950 and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £621.

Select Bibliography

  • G. N. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales, 1856-1965 (Syd, 1971)
  • State Reports, New South Wales, 11 (1911), p 479
  • Lone Hand, 1 Nov 1912
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 26 June 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 Oct 1911
  • Worker (Sydney), 24 July 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 June 1932, 24 Feb, 15 July 1950
  • R. A. Crouch memoirs, 1900-46 (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt and Elizabeth Stewart, 'Willis, Henry (1860–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/willis-henry-9124/text16093, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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