Wills/Willis Surname Genealogy

Wills and Willis are patronymic forms of Will, a pet name for William. The Wills spelling appeared in Devon as early as 1321. The first Willis record was a Walter Wilys in the 1327 poll tax records of
Staffordshire. The early spelling here was Wyllys or Wyllis. Willis is now more common than Wills, except in the west country. 
Select Willis/Willis Resources on The Internet

Wills/Willis Ancestry

had emerged as a surname in Devon by the early 14th century and the
Wills has
remained a west country name. However,
the Willis spelling ended up having a wider spread and being the more

Wills. In the tax
returns of 1321 there were
28 men by the name of Wills living in SE Devon in or near the towns and
villages of Totnes, Ilsington, Lustleigh, Bowey Tracey and Bickington. Wills was recorded in Lustleigh in 1439 and
Henry Wyll of Christow purchased part of Wreyland
Manor House
in 1577. George Wills,
born in nearby Bovey Tracey in 1586, was the first of a long line of

Wills, born around 1510, owned property in Saltash in Cornwall and
fathered at
least 22 children, 19 of them by his first wife.”

Wills family of Saltash was
recorded in the 1620 visitation as having been resident there for the
previous generations.

Wills from this area included:

  • Henry
    Overton Wills,
    descended from the Saltash Wills, who opened a tobacco shop in Bristol
    1786. This business later expanded to
    cigarette manufacturing and to the company Imperial Tobacco in 1901.
  • and
    Wills, from a farming family in Totnes, who emigrated to Australia but
    died in
    1861 in the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia
    from south
    to north.

Wills name did exist elsewhere in
the country. One Wills family has been
traced back to the towns of Orford and Iken in Suffolk in the 1300’s,
some of
whom later moved to London.

Willis. Willis seems to have started out as a name in
the Midlands of England. Richard Wyllys, who died in 1531, held
the manor of Fenny
Compton, about eight miles north of Banbury in Warwickshire. This gentry family became increasingly
Puritan as the 17th century proceeded.
Their numbers included:

  • George
    Wyllys and his family who departed for New
    England in the 1630’s. They settled in
    Hartford, Connecticut and George was an early Governor of the colony.
  • and,
    later, Dr. Francis Willis,
    born in
    Lincoln, who was the physician who attended to the madness of George
    III when
    the symptoms first appeared in 1789. When
    the King had a second attack in 1801 he was attended by
    two sons, John and Robert. Francis’s
    grandson was the Rev. Robert Willis, the distinguished Cambridge

Thomas Willys of uncertain origins acquired the manor of Eyhall in
Cambridgeshire in 1535 at the time of the dissolution of the
monasteries. From him came the
Willys baronetcy of Fen
Ditton in the next century and Sir Richard Willys, a Royalist during
the Civil
War who then turned double agent for the Parliamentarians. This line
ran out in
1732. However, a line had settled
by this time at Wakefield in Yorkshire.

Another Willis line began with
Oxfordshire yeomen who died fighting on the Royalist side at the siege
Oxford in 1643. They were apparently
kinsmen to the Willys of Fen Ditton.
Thomas Willis of this family became a renowned physician and was
able to
purchase the Bletchley estate in Buckinghamshire in 1675.
His grandson Browne Willis
was MP for Buckingham and a noted antiquarian of his
day. The family name later became Fleming.

was soon found outside the Midlands. A
Willis family from Dover in Kent began with the birth there of Thomas
around the year 1640. As Whillis or
Whillins, the name extended north to Eyemouth on the Scottish borders. John Whillis was born there in 1791. He ran away from home at the age of 14 and
later founded of the Jock Willis Shipping Line in London.
They owned several tea clippers, including
the famous Cutty Sark. Son
John took over the business on Jock’s
death in 1862; while cousin George was lost at
sea in the Indian Ocean in 1867.

Ireland. The
Willis name in Fermanagh dates from the 1580’s when Humphrey Willis
there from Devon as a soldier of fortune.
A later Willis was killed there with five of his sons while
against the Jacobites in 1689. Robert
Willis of Wheathill in Fermanagh died in 1843, aged 36, and his wife
and their family emigrated to Australia.

A Willis family fleeing the Famine for Canada in 1847 was the subject
an Irish mini-series Death
or Canada
. Another Willis
family departed Leitrim for Australia
in 1865.

Wills family of Willsgrove in Roscommon were said to have come from
Cornwall. Casper Wills was the High
Sheriff in 1708 and Godfrey Wills in 1755.
James Wills moved to Dublin in the 1820’s where he made a living
as a
writer. His son W.G. Wills was a popular
playwright in his time, although his reputation has since declined.

America. Thomas
Willis might have been the first Willis in America, having been
aged 19, from London to Virginia on the Speedwell
in 1635. A Richard Willis was
transported to the colony in 1699. It is
thought that it was the latter’s descendants who migrated around 1710
to North Carolina,
where Joseph Willis was pastor of the Swift Creek Baptist church, and
then much
later to Lawrence county, Tennessee.

Other early arrivals were:

  • Colonel
    Willis from Oxfordshire who came to Virginia around 1640 and settled in
    Gloucester county. His grandson Henry
    founded Fredericksburg in 1727 and lived at Willis Hill just outside of town.
  • John
    Willis, possibly from Berkshire,
    who arrived in Dorchester county, Maryland around 1660.
    His son John was the Crier for the county
  • and
    Henry Willis, persecuted as a Quaker in Wiltshire, who came to Long
    Island in 1674. His descendants spread

As a young man Nathaniel
Willis, recorded then as a housewright, was a watch at the Boston Tea
Party of
1773. Three years later he started
publishing newspapers in Boston. After
the War was over, he headed west, first to Virginia and then to what
Ohio in order to introduce newspapers there.
His son Nathaniel based himself in Maine and began a newspaper
specifically targeted at children. He had two sons, the writer
N.P. Willis and the composer Richard Storrs Willis.

. Joseph
Willis was sentenced in London for petty larceny in 1812 and was
two years later to Australia on the Surrey.
It was to be a dreadful voyage.
master of the
ship, many of the crew, and 36 convicts
of typhus
while the survivors had to be quarantined on Sydney’s North Shore. Joseph survived and later was moderately
successful as a carrier. On his death in
1855 he could leave his wife
cattle, drays, carts and two houses in Parramatta

Among the free settlers
who came to Australia were:

  • Timothy
    Willis and his sister Eliza who left
    Gravesend in Kent for Sydney in 1839 on the Cornwall. They were among the last to emigrate under a
    scheme financed by the British Government.
  • William
    Willis and his family from
    Ely in Cambridgeshire who came to Victoria in 1855, attracted by the
    opportunities. They also came in search
    of a brother John who had been transported to Australia in 1837.
  • while Henry Wills, who
    had come to Australia from Devon in 1841, also went gold-hunting in
    Victoria in
    the 1850’s. His descendants are to be
    found in central Victoria.

Wills/Willis Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:

Wills/Willis Names

Sir Richard Willys was a Royalist officer
during the English Civil War and later a double agent for the
Francis Willis
was the physician made famous for his treatment of
madness of George III.
Henry Overton
was the founder of the British tobacco importer and cigarette
manufacturer that became Imperial Tobacco.
John Willys
was an American
automobile pioneer with his Willys jeep.
Ted Willis
was a prolific
British playwright, novelist, and screenwriter on TV.  
Bruce Willis is a well-known American

Select Wills/Willises Today

  • 47,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Essex)
  • 54,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 21,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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