Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Scaife Willis (1808–1897)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Joseph Scaife Willis (1808-1897), merchant and businessman, was born in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 10 May 1808, son of Thomas Willis and his wife Nancy, née Lumley. He arrived in Sydney on 7 January 1840 in the Alfred on work for an uncle, and decided to remain. He and William L. Merry began business as merchants and shipping agents under the style of Willis, Merry & Co., with offices in Pitt Street and a wharf at Woolloomooloo. George Lloyd later joined the firm and after Merry retired on 30 June 1870 it became Willis, Lloyd & Co.

Prominent in Sydney commercial circles, Willis was a committee-man and in 1853-54 and 1858 president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, a founding director of the Sydney Exchange Co. in 1851-71, and a director of the local branch of the Liverpool & London Fire & Life Insurance Co., the Australian General Assurance Co., the Southern Insurance Co., the Waratah Coal Co., the Trust & Agency Co. of Australia and the Northern Rivers' Sugar Co. Among other shipping agencies, he was Sydney agent for the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Co. A director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1852-56, 1858-62 and 1865, he was chairman in 1861-62. In 1864 he was a member of the general purposes committee of the New South Wales Free Trade Association. In the 1860s he lived at Greycliffe, Shark Bay (Vaucluse).

In 1874 Willis, Lloyd & Co. became insolvent with liabilities of £39,293 and assets of £10,947, and Willis retired. He died at his residence, Kirkoswald, Middle Harbour, on 15 July 1897 and was buried in St Jude's churchyard, Randwick.

At Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, he had married Janet Speir (d.1863), who followed him to Sydney in the Stratheden on 5 June 1843. His eldest son Robert was one of the first graduates of the University of Sydney and became a clergyman; his other surviving sons Thomas and William established the firm of T. and W. Willis, merchants and insurance agents. His daughters Mary, Annette and Edith married respectively Archdeacon William Gunther, F. C. Griffiths and Edward Knox.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1852, 1, 867
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16, 23 Feb 1875
  • insolvency file, 12102/5 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Willis, Joseph Scaife (1808–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 July 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]


10 May, 1808
Kirkoswald, Ayrshire, Scotland


15 July, 1897 (aged 89)
Middle Harbour, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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