Willis Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Willis Surname 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.  

Willis Surname Resources on The Internet

Willis and Wills Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southwest and Midlands)
  • to Ireland, America and Australia

England.  Wills 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 numerous.

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.

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

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

Later Wills from this area included:

  • Henry Overton Wills, descended from the Saltash Wills, who opened a tobacco shop in Bristol in 1786. This business later expanded to cigarette manufacturing and to the company Imperial Tobacco in 1901.
  • and William 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.

The 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 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 Francis’s two sons, John and Robert. Francis’s grandson was the Rev. Robert Willis, the distinguished Cambridge academic.

Meanwhile 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 of 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.

Willis was soon found outside the Midlands.

A Willis family from Dover in Kent began with the birth there of Thomas Willis 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 arrived there from Devon as a soldier of fortune. A later Willis was killed there with five of his sons while fighting against the Jacobites in 1689. Robert Willis of Wheathill in Fermanagh died in 1843, aged 36, and his wife Elizabeth and their family emigrated to Australia.

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

The 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 transported, 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 Francis 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 court.
  • and Henry Willis, persecuted as a Quaker in Wiltshire, who came to Long Island in 1674. His descendants spread widely.

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 became 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.  

Australia. Joseph Willis was sentenced in London for petty larceny in 1812 and was transported 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 died 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 horses, 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 gold 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.

Willis and Wills Surname 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?

In 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 one fourth part of a messuage in Wreyland to his brother Christopher’s grandson 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 Eastawray.

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 and 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 family saw him severely depreciate his estate.

By 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.

A lady meeting him for the first time in 1740 found him still wearing the greatcoat tailored for his 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 was 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 are buried there.

One 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:

  • “Colonel Byrd C. Willis
  • Born August 29, 1781
  • Died October 1st, 1846.”

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

The 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 of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because of this Washington 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 America.

They 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.

Willis and Wills 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.

Willis and Wills 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)

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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