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Ernest Horatio Willis (1867–1947)

by Andrew Sloan

This article was published:

Ernest Horatio Willis (1867-1947), architect and political organizer, was born on 30 November 1867 at South Yarra, Melbourne, son of Samuel Willis, contractor and later mayor of Prahran, and his wife Cassandra Alice, née Wragge, both English born. Educated at Wesley College in 1882-85, Ernest joined the architectural firm of William Salway, completing his articles in 1887. He entered into partnership with Rupert Nicholson, mainly designing flats and public buildings in the Prahran area, and in 1922 was made a fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects.

A member of the Prahran City Council (1908-20), Willis was mayor in 1913-14 and 1918-19. On the outbreak of war, he organized a local patriotic fund, a Red Cross society, a recruiting depot and the construction of war widows' homes. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E. He had a long municipal career: a vice-president of the board of the Alfred Hospital (1925-41), he also served on the Tramways Board and the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.

In December 1916 Willis was elected secretary of the Prahran branch of the National Party. Two years later he became secretary to the National Union: it organized financial support for the National Party and later the United Australia Party, while retaining independence from them. The business of the union was carried out almost solely by Willis and its successive presidents, particularly (Sir) Robert Knox. Their influence extended to party branches in South and Western Australia. Although the National Union was often seen as a front for a coterie of Melbourne businessmen seeking to control the party, Willis was widely respected: his advice was sought by every conservative prime minister from W. M. Hughes to (Sir) Robert Menzies. Not ambitious himself, Willis preferred to work behind the scenes, playing a vital role in resolving many crises, most notably the replacement of (Sir) John Latham by Joseph Lyons as U.A.P. leader in 1931. Willis retired as secretary in June 1944.

Of middle height and lightly framed, Willis had married Richmond-born Isabella Moffat with Presbyterian forms on 20 April 1900 at Brighton Beach, Melbourne; they had three children. His chief relaxation was horse-racing and he belonged to the Victoria Racing Club and the Victoria Amateur Turf Club. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their two sons, Willis died at his Malvern home on 10 March 1947 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Cooper, The History of Prahran 1836-1924 (Melb, 1924)
  • R. Cooksey (ed), ‘The Great Depression in Australia’, Labour History, 1970, no 17
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • Age (Melbourne), 27, 28, 31 Oct 1922, 19, 21, 22 Nov 1941
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 June 1944
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1947.

Citation details

Andrew Sloan, 'Willis, Ernest Horatio (1867–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1867
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


10 March, 1947 (aged 79)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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