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.
- The Wills Family Tree from 1300
- The Whyllys Family Whyllys
from Warwickshire to Connecticut.
- The Willis DNA Project
had emerged as a surname in Devon by the early 14th century and the
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
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
Wills from this area included:
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.
Wills, from a farming family in Totnes, who emigrated to Australia but
1861 in the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia
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,
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:
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.
later, Dr. Francis Willis,
Lincoln, who was the physician who attended to the madness of George
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
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
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.
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
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
writer. His son W.G. Wills was a popular
playwright in his time, although his reputation has since declined.
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
later to Lawrence county, Tennessee.
Other early arrivals were:
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.
Willis, possibly from Berkshire,
who arrived in Dorchester county, Maryland around 1660.
His son John was the Crier for the county
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
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.
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. The
master of the
ship, many of the crew, and 36 convicts all
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 horses,
cattle, drays, carts and two houses in Parramatta.
Among the free settlers
who came to Australia were:
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.
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
the 1850’s. His descendants are to be
found in central Victoria.
If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:
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.
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
Select Wills/Willises Today
- 47,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 54,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
- 21,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
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