Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard Willis (1777–1855)

by P. R. Eldershaw

This article was published:

Richard Willis (1777-1855), settler, was the second son of Joseph and Mary Willis of Kirkoswald, Cumberland, England. In 1800 he married Anne, who was born at St Kitts, West Indies, in 1780, the daughter of Thomas Harper of London. Said to have been a shoemaker, Willis lived in London before he migrated with his wife and eleven children. They arrived at Hobart Town in the Courier on 2 December 1823. Five children died in childhood (one during the voyage), and ten survived in 1836.

Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell felt that Willis's unusually cordial letter from the Colonial Office, as well as his considerable assets and the size of his family, justified his ordering a reserve of 1000 acres (405 ha) in addition to the maximum grant of 2000 acres (809 ha). Friends in England took some pains to acquaint the new lieutenant-governor, (Sir) George Arthur, with Willis's virtues; he had taken to the colony, they said, property worth between £5000 and £7000, and had an independent English income of £300 a year and the promise of a further £10,000 from friends, if needed. His other imports included a hundred pure merinos 'bred from the late King's stock', and stud horses and cattle. His connexions were of the highest respectability, his elder children well educated, he had 'prudence, enterprise, probity and talents', and the friendship of the Duke of York.

Willis located his land north of Campbell Town, named it Wanstead after a village in Essex and in 1826 cited extensive improvements and the importation of breeding stock in his application for an extension of his grant. Arthur, taking into consideration also 'his extensive family, & his conduct respecting Priest the bushranger', whom Willis had captured after his horse had been shot under him and his neck wounded by gunshot, gave him another 1000 acres (405 ha). Two years later Willis applied for more land claiming that he was 'without a competitor in these districts' in improvements, having enclosed more than 1000 acres (405 ha), put 150 acres (61 ha) into cultivation, just completed 'one of the best houses in the Colony, at an expense of upwards of £1000', and having more than 3000 sheep, 150 cattle and 'one of the most beautiful Stallions ever imported'; he had also purchased another 1800 acres (728 ha). The Land Board remembered that 5000 acres (2024 ha) had already been freely granted to him and considered that he should pay for any more, but they recommended that 1000 acres (405 ha) be given to his second son, Richard, now nearing 18.

In 1832 Willis had the services of thirty-five convicts. Of their uselessness he often complained and at the same time dwelt on his great contribution to the colony; he had been a magistrate since 1825. There is some evidence to suggest that Willis's assumptions of importance did not endear him to his fellow colonists; in 1826 there was a quarrel with Samuel Hill who, Willis asserted, insulted him on the bench. Ten years later, in a long correspondence arising from Frederick Forth's claim that Willis had insulted him as a magistrate, it was revealed that Willis had quarrelled with most of his neighbours. But he remained on excellent terms with Arthur, who appointed him to the Legislative Council, and with Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, who unsuccessfully recommended him to the Colonial Office for compensation for an alleged loss of land to one of his estranged neighbours, John Leake. Unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England, though the immediate reason was to present his case personally to the Colonial Office. He and his wife sailed in February 1839, leaving five sons in the colonies; Willis never returned. He died at Southsea on 4 March 1855.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under R. Willis (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

P. R. Eldershaw, 'Willis, Richard (1777–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




4 March, 1855 (aged ~ 78)
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

Cultural Heritage

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