Willis Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Wills/Willis Meaning
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

Wills and Willis Today.  The Wills and Willis numbers are about 113,000 today.  Willis outnumbers Wills by almost three to one.

Numbers (000’s) Wills Willis Total
UK    15    32    47
America     9    36    45
Elsewhere     7    14    21
Total    31    82   113

The Wills of Wreyland Manor House.  In 1577
Henry Wyll of Christow purchased part of the manor of Wreyland from Lord Compton.  This was inherited in 1599 by
his son Thomas Willes of Bridford who also purchased an additional share.  However, that additional share had
been lost by the time of his death in 1619.  It is
interesting to speculate how Henry Wyll gained his wealth.
Was it from mining activity in Christow?

his will, proved at Totnes in 1710, Benjamin Wills, clothier of
Wreyland, left
five shillings to the poor people living in the manor of Wrayland and a
fourth part of a messuage in Wreyland to his brother Christopher’s
Benjamin Wills.  He also left two weaving
looms to Richard Willmead who was an apprentice to his deceased brother
John.  To John Wills, son of his deceased
brother Christopher, he left two cows and a tenement that was named

Dr. Francis Willis, A Commemorative Monument.  There is a monument to Dr. Willis in the transept of his local Church of Thomas Becket at Greatford in Lincolnshire.  The commemorative inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of
The Rev’d. Francis Willis MD
Who died on 5 December 1807
In the 90th year of his age.
He was the third son of the Revd. John Willis of Lincoln,
A descendant of an ancient family of the same name
That resided formerly at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire.

He studied at Oxford; was Fellow and sometime
Vice-Principal of Brazen Nose College: Where in obedience to his
father, he
entered into holy orders. But pursuing the bent of his natural taste
inclination he took the degree of Doctor of Physic in the same
University and
continued the practice of the profession to the last hour of his life.

By his first wife Mary, the youngest daughter of the Rev’d. John Curtois of Branston
in this county, he had five sons who survived him.  By his second wife he had no issue.

Initiated early into habits of observation and research, he attained the
highest eminence in his profession and was happily the chief agent in removing
the malady which affected his present majesty in the year 1789.  On that
occasion he displayed an energy and acuteness of mind which excited the admiration and procured for him the esteem of the nation. The kindness and
benevolence of his disposition were testified by the tears and lamentations
which followed him to the grave.”

Browne Willis of Buckingham.  Browne Willis
was an important presence in the local politics in Buckingham in the early
1700’s, not least because he chose to spend much of his income on local
projects.  In 1702 he had been
instrumental in reviving the Fenny Stratford market and from 1704 to
1709 he
had spent nearly £800 on beautifying Bletchley church.
However, his constant building projects,
antiquarian research and coin collecting, and the demands of his large
saw him severely depreciate his estate.

1728 his estate was reported to be
worth only £935 per annum compared to the £1,500 or more at the
beginning of
the century.  Perhaps declining income
partly explained his famously dilapidated appearance.

lady meeting him for the
first time in 1740 found him still wearing the greatcoat tailored for
election at Buckingham in 1705 and now so dirty as to be ‘quite
disagreeable to
sit by him at table.’  Her opinion of him on further acquaintance
that ‘with
one of the honest hearts in the world, he has one of the oddest heads
that ever
dropped out of the moon.  Extremely well
versed in coins, he knows hardly anything of mankind.’

Willis Hill in Fredericksburg.  The Willis
cemetery lies on Willis Hill, one mile west of the town of
Fredericksburg in
Virginia.  Colonel Henry Willis was one
of the founders of Fredericksburg in 1727 and many of his descendants
buried there.

historian has it that Colonel Henry Willis, “the Top Man of the
Town” as he was called, buried his last wife, Mildred Washington
Gregory who
was George Washington’s aunt godmother, there.
Henry’s son Lewis Willis was probably buried there, although
there is no
marker for his grave.  His grandson Byrd
C. Willis was definitely buried there, with the stone reading:

Byrd C.
Born August 29, 1781
Died October
1st, 1846.”

But Colonel Willis had paid
little attention to the management of the Willis Hill estate, instead
his time fox hunting, racing, and attending parties.
He ran through his money and in 1825 sold out
and moved to Florida.

family’s prior
connections to George Washington eventually paid dividends, however.  At
Tallahassee in Florida, his
daughter Catherine attracted
the attentions of Achilles Murat, the ex-Prince of Naples and a nephew
Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because of this
connection, his family approved the match.  She
became Princess Murat and Napoleon III, when Emperor of France,
placed her at the head of the nobility
of France and honored her with a seat
on his right. 

Death or Canada.  Death or Canada, broadcast in Ireland in
2008, was a mini-series that followed the fate of the Protestant Willis family
as, at the height of the Famine in 1847, they abandoned their home in
SW Ireland
and gambled everything on finding new lives for themselves in North

fled Ireland on a coffin ship and terror
followed in their wake.  John and Mary
Willis lost four of their five children during the voyage to typhus.  The remnants of their family eventually made
it to Toronto which, like other Canadian ports, had been overwhelmed by
typhus-infested refugees and had begun erecting temporary fever sheds.



Wills/Willis Names

  • Sir Richard Willys was a Royalist officer during the English Civil War and later a double agent for the Parliamentarians. 
  • Dr. Francis Willis was the physician made famous for his treatment of the madness of George III. 
  • Henry Overton Wills 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 actor.

Select Wills/Willis Numbers 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)


Select Wills/Willis and Like Surnames   

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.




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