Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Willis (1816–1895)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published:

Edward Willis (1816-1895), pastoralist, was born on 12 September 1816 at Hornsby, Cumberland, England, son of Richard Willis and his wife Anne, née Harper. On 21 December 1823 he arrived in Van Diemen's Land with his parents in the Courier. Until he was 21 he worked on his father's property, Wanstead, near Campbell Town. In 1837 with his brother William he crossed to Port Phillip, taking 500 ewes and several rams from his father's pure-bred merino stud. In April the brothers took up a run at the junction of the Plenty and Yarra rivers. At the end of the decade Edward returned to Wanstead and on 12 September 1840 at Hobart Town he married Catherine, daughter of Captain Charles Swanston whose enthusiasm for Port Phillip rekindled Willis's interest. In 1844 Willis joined Swanston and, later, his son Charles Lambert in their Geelong firm, living in Barwon Terrace. They acquired Kout Narin station near Harrow in 1846 and later subdivided it; Willis and Swanston retained a part known as Koolomurt. G. A. Stephen joined the firm, which traded for many years as Swanston, Willis and Stephen. Their land in the Geelong district included a run known as Native Creek No. 3 and a freehold property in the Barrabool hills.

Of tremendous energy, Willis took an active part in Geelong's development. In the 1840s he was a member of the Geelong Literary Association, a trustee for the Savings Bank, a committee-man of the Geelong and Portland Bay Immigration Society and of the Botanical Gardens; he was a vociferous supporter of local government for Geelong and an opponent of transportation. In 1845 he became a trustee of the Port Phillip Savings Bank. He was a zealous Anglican and a trustee of St Paul's Church. Until the late 1850s he continued to be active in Geelong's development although spending much time at Koolomurt. He was a member of the provisional committee of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Co., chairman of directors of the Geelong and Western District Fire and Marine Insurance Co., a trustee in 1856-57 of the Geelong Grammar School and a promoter of the Board of Commissioners of Waterworks.

At Koolomurt Willis formed one of the finest merino studs in Victoria. In the mid-1840s he secured some of the Forlonge Saxon merinos and guided by Thomas Shaw senior he used rams from William Campbell's Camden flock. In 1860 Willis visited Germany and brought back selected rams. In later years he reflected with pride on his stud's purity of blood. He prepared diligently the clip for the London market and characteristically urged his agents to take care in selling it. In the early 1870s he made efforts to acquire the freehold of his runs, often going beyond the upset price to obtain vital lots. In August 1871 he wrote forcefully to J. G. Francis criticizing J. M. Grant's treatment of the squatters in throwing open reserves on which were homesteads, woolsheds, dams and other improvements. Willis felt the squatters were being persecuted. Despite these difficulties and a long illness in the second half of 1871, he had secure tenure of Koolomurt by 1872.

Willis extended his care to the Aboriginals, especially to the last members of the Glenelg River tribe who looked on Koolomurt as their home and Willis as their protector. He was a member of the Board of Advice for the Coleraine District under the 1870 Scab Act. His association with scab-control stemmed from charges brought against him and many others in the 1840s for selling scabby sheep. Willis was an early member of the Melbourne Club and president in 1881. On one of his trips overseas he bought Courteen Hall in Hampshire. In 1894 he returned to England and lived on his property, Seven Oaks, in Kent. He died at Goring near Reading on 9 August 1895, predeceased by his wife and survived by two sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-4 (Melb, 1952-59)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • Willis papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Willis, Edward (1816–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 April 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]


12 September, 1816
Hornsby, Cumberland, England


9 August, 1895 (aged 78)
Goring, Reading, Berkshire, England

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