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Horatio Spencer Howe Wills (1811–1861)

by C. E. Sayers

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Horatio Spencer Howe Wills (1811-1861), pastoralist and politician, was born on 5 October 1811 in Sydney, the sixth child of Edward Spencer Wills and his wife Sarah, née Harding. His father was transported for life for highway robbery and arrived in Sydney in the Hillsborough in July 1799 accompanied by his wife and eldest child, Sarah. He appears to have been assigned to his wife and they were soon in business as general merchants and ship-chandlers at 96 George Street North, their premises abutting on Sydney Cove. He also owned several small trading vessels in partnership with Thomas Reibey, merchant. Wills was given an unconditional pardon in 1803 and a full pardon on 30 May 1809. He died on 14 May 1811.

On Horatio Wills's first birthday his mother married George Howe, printer-editor of the Sydney Gazette, then being published at 96 George Street. Howe's fortunes were greatly changed by the trading and ship-owning business that Sarah Howe continued to conduct after her first husband's death. Social prestige came to her from the marriage of her eldest child Sarah to Dr William Redfern, and of Elizabeth, her fourth child, to Major Henry Colden Antill.

Wills's youth was spent on Sydney's waterfront. He had little formal education, and at 12 was employed in the Gazette office. His mother died on 8 July 1823, two years after George Howe. Soon afterwards young Wills was apprenticed to Robert Howe, who inherited the Gazette and the George Street premises from his father. Wills never liked the trade and quarrelled often with his stepbrother-master. A legend has him running away to sea, shipwrecked in the South Seas and rescued dramatically after living with islanders for two years; none of the dates mentioned accord with actual happenings in his early youth, although he did abscond from his apprenticeship at least three times for short periods. Once he shipped in a sealing vessel, the other times he was at the homes of his sisters, Mrs Redfern and Mrs Antill. Brought to court by Howe in 1827, Wills was defended by William Charles Wentworth and agreed to return to his master's service. His apprenticeship ended about the time of Robert Howe's death on 29 January 1829.

Although printer and publisher of the Gazette in 1832 Wills also edited, published and printed the Currency Lad from 25 August 1832. This four-page weekly journal, whose motto was 'Rise Australia', ceased after eight months. Wills's connexion with the Gazette ended in June 1833.

Wills married Elizabeth McGuire, aged 16, at Parramatta on 2 December 1833. At first they lived at Varroville in the Minto district, then owned by his brother Thomas. From 1834 he held a pastoral lease in the Molonglo district. It was from this holding that Wills overlanded to the Port Phillip District with 5000 sheep and 500 cattle. The journey began on 29 December 1839 and lasted four months. His wife and first child, Thomas Wills, aged 4, were in the party, which included drovers, shepherds and Aboriginal stockmen. Wills's party wintered in 1840 near Mount William in the Grampians district; he noted in his diary some years later that he named a near-by hill, Mount Ararat, 'for here, like the Ark, we rested'. In December 1842 he took over a run of 120,000 acres (48,563 ha), which he named Lexington. There he lived for ten years greatly improving the holding, experimenting with wheat, fencing some paddocks with netting that he ordered from England, importing Saxon sheep, and building a fine homestead. He sold Lexington with 28,000 sheep and 3000 cattle for £35,000 in November 1852, and for the next eight years lived on Belle Vue, at Point Henry near Geelong. He made this small property a model farm, and himself something of a country squire, taking active interest in church, agricultural, immigration and charitable movements.

Wills was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council on 10 January 1855, succeeding William Haines who had become colonial secretary. Next year with Haines he was elected for South Grant to the first Legislative Assembly of Victoria, one of its three native-born members. He made no mark in its deliberations, but actively canvassed land reform, exclusion of Chinese from the goldfields, defence and penal reform. When parliament was dissolved on 24 February 1859 he was in Germany where he placed his three younger sons at school. He did not seek re-election.

In 1860 Wills twice visited central Queensland seeking land. He took over the lease of four blocks, each of twenty-five sq. miles (65 km²), from Peter Fitzalan Macdonald on the Nogoa River, 25 miles (40 km) south-west of the later town of Emerald. The run was named Cullin-la-ringo. In January 1861 Wills, his son Thomas, and a party of stockmen, shepherds, other servants and their families departed from Geelong by ship for Brisbane. The twenty-five men, women and children left Brisbane on 5 February 1861 in bullock wagons and drays with stores for a new station. Some stud rams had been brought from Geelong. Sheep, horses and cattle were bought along the track, mainly in the Darling Downs and Burnett districts. Sixteen weeks later the party reached Rockhampton with 10,500 sheep. Thence they moved slowly to Cullin-la-ringo, some two hundred miles (320 km) west, arriving early in October 1861. Immediately the building of stock yards, huts and store-rooms was started. At daybreak on 17 October a group of approximately one hundred Aboriginal people arrived at the site and sat down about fifty yards (46 m) away.  Wills invited them to camp, as usual, anywhere on the run but asked them to keep clear of his encampment.  In the early afternoon they launched a surprise attack on the whites, killing nineteen men, women, and children, including Wills. A man who hid and two shepherds out with their flocks survived and raised the alarm. Thomas Wills and two other men also escaped death, being away from the station at the time. Settlers buried the victims at the scene. Reprisals against the assailants and their people were swift and ruthless. A party of vigilantes shot dead about thirty and a contingent of Native Police slaughtered between sixty and seventy more.

Tom Wills joined locals in criticising his father’s over-confident and incautious belief that he could live in harmony with the original owners of the lands he was occupying. There was speculation in Sydney that the killing of the whites was retribution for the actions of three men from New South Wales who had earlier visited the region and abducted two Aboriginal boys. Some years after the massacre an Aboriginal stockman told Tom Wills and his brother Cedric that the killings had been organised retaliation for a murderous assault on his people. In July 1861 a squatter, Jesse Gregson—of Rainworth station, twenty miles (32 km) south of Cullin-la-ringo—and a contingent of Native Police had fired on a group whom Gregson believed had stolen some of his sheep. The stockman’s account of his people’s planning and execution of the revenge attack on Wills’s party is consistent with Aboriginal law.

Ironically, transfer of the Cullin-la-ringo leases was dated 18 October 1861, the day after the massacre. The leases remained with Wills's sons until 1877. Cedric, the second son, worked the property after his father's death and remained in the Peak Downs district all his life. Descendants are still there. Cullin-la-ringo was sold for £49,000 to the British Food Corporation in 1949 for grain-sorghum growing. The venture failed; later the property was cut up for closer settlement.

The eldest son, Thomas Wentworth Wills, was a noted cricketer at Rugby School, England, and in intercolonial matches for Victoria in the 1860s also assisted in the codification of Australian Rules football. Elizabeth Wills died in 1908. Amongst her memorials to her husband is a cottage in the Old Colonists' Homes, Melbourne.


Select Bibliography

  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • J. T. S. Bird, The Early History of Rockhampton (Rockhampton, 1904)
  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip (Melb, 1932)
  • W. R. Brownhill, History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • L. L. Banfield, Like the Ark: The Story of Ararat (Melb, 1955)
  • Wills family papers (privately held).

Citation details

C. E. Sayers, 'Wills, Horatio Spencer Howe (1811–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 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

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