Australian Wills Families

Wills Family History Gatherings

An Australian "Wills Pedigree Get-to-gether"
was held in Melbourne, Vic. on Sunday, 9 March 2003.
This site was the official web site for the planning of the Get-together. It is now used to provide a record of the event and to assist other to plan their family reunion. Pam Sullivan was the organiser.
This function was designed to bring together families with a "Wills" somewhere in their background. There were about fifteen separate families represented. Therefore it was actually several Wills Family Reunions all held on the one day at the same place.
In the planning of this function Pam Sullivan issued regular email advices of what has been organised to the date of the email. Each email contained a profile of one of the first arrivals in Australia with the final email profiling William John Wills, the explorer of Burke and Wills fame.
Attendance report
Pam Sullivan reports that registrations totalled 86 with another ten that she heard from in the last few days before the event, but that had not registered. As people arrived they were asked to sign the Visitors Book to provide a record of those attending and as a register of people interested in researching Wills family histories. The total people in the visitors book is 146 and Pam reports that she is sure there were a couple of very late comers that missed out on signing it!
Promoting the Get-together
Beverley Elenius rang 3AW and mentioned the Wills Gathering.
'Dr Sally Feelgood' [her media name] was very interested & said that if we emailed her our website...she would put a link to it from her Website, which she did.
Bev also spoke on her local Community Radio giving a forty five minute talk about the Get-together, interspersed with music.
One Sunday morning Tom Wills spoke on the ABC - Australia All Over program, regarding the Get-together and invited others to join us on the day.
A Record of the Get-together
Get together
Pam Sullivan (right) and Lucy Roe (visiting from the UK.) address the gathering while standing in front of the Wills banner.
Get together
Mountain Buggy Australia (who import three wheel strollers for babies - 5 y.o.), sponsored the Get-together and provided this large cake with appropriate decoration.
Get together
Get together
Views of the gathering as those present meet relatives and others.
Listings of known family trees were displayed on tables
arranged through the center of the hall and along two walls.
The important hot water urns for the tea and coffee
can be seen on the right of the second photo.

In summary People kept asking either "How often do you hold these events" or "When is the next one". Thus establishing the success of the event.

The main reason that the Get-together was a success was the work the Pam Sullivan put into organising it.

The other is the fact that family history research is a lonely occupation. You sit in a library or family history center looking through old books and records, while being very quiet. Or you sit at you computer typing and using the mouse while you search the web.

These are both solo occupations and to have the opportunity to talk to people, who have similar interests as yourself, about your research and search methods makes for an enjoyable break from the grind.

An email received in mid March 2003, in part, reads :- Thank you for organising a very successful get-together. Our "line" left for the Old Melbourne Cemetery after lunch and eventually found the grave of our John Wills (1826-1873) and laid a wreath. We also paid our respects to Burke and Wills.
To see the research of others go to " An Index of Australian Wills Families - Family Trees" section and study the family trees of several Australian Wills families.
Also of interest is "How our ancestors came to Australia" which at the time of writing lists the arrival of 14 families during the 1800's.
Copy of the Email issued :- 23 Feb 2003

Hello to all you wonderful people who have decided to join in the event and make all the work worth while. We now have over 80 registrations. You are coming from England, N.Z. and many states of Australia, and it makes me very humble to have so much interest. We also have Richard Legge, who is descended from the "Burke" side of Burke and Wills joining us for a little while in the afternoon - it's great that he is so interested in our gathering, whilst not actually a Wills himself. We have connections to other members of the Burke family who have married "Wills" descendents as well.

Now, I am going to risk boring you by repeating some of the information from the last newsletter, but first, just in case you decide to skip over this part of the newsletter I want to remind you to bring your CAMERAS and also NOTE BOOKS and PENS - there will be a wealth of information available through family trees and you may want to write some of it down!! Other things to bring are:

FOOD - picnic lunch. If the weather is nice we will be eating outside in the park. If not, the hall will be used.

UTENSILS - unfortunately the hall is not equipped with crockery and cutlery, so please bring your own glasses, plates, cutlery. I am hiring coffee mugs for the hot drinks.

COLD DRINKS if required. Alcohol to be kept to a minimum please.

GAMES for your children - balls, frisbees, etc. I am sure your children will be bored by all our gossip, so please make sure you bring enough to keep them amused. There are only half a dozen or so that I know of to this stage. NO skateboards, etc., as we will be sharing the park with other members of the public.

Other details:

PLACE: The event is to be held at Murrumbeena Hall, Gerald Street, Murrumbeena. Melways reference is Map 69 B7. For those coming by car, there is off street parking by coming in off Bute Street. Please car pool where you can to minimise the number of parking spots required.

TIME: We will welcome you from 10.00 a.m. and envisage most having left by 4.00 pm to allow us to clean up afterwards. A bond has been given by Tom, and we definitely need for him to get all of it back!!

FORMAT: On arrival, please sign the visitor's book and pick up your name tags. Please also avail yourself of a "cuppa" and give yourself time to meet Tom, Max and me. You are then invited to greet others, view displays, research family trees etc. to your heart's content. Around 11.30 there will be a VERY SHORT official welcome, and I would request that you be in the hall for this.

WHAT WILL BE PROVIDED: Name tags - colour coded for easy recognition of other members of your families.

Displays of family trees and photographs, separated for easy perusing and checking. I wonder how many links between families we will be able to find?

Morning tea. (Tea/Coffee and a snack.)

HOT drinks of tea or coffee (including milk and sugar) will be available all day, so no need for thermoses.

CORDIAL (orange/lemon) will be available as well.

WHAT TO BRING: FOOD - picnic lunch. If the weather is nice we will be eating outside in the park. If not, the hall will be used. The park is large, with many trees and picnic tables, so you should have no trouble in finding a spot for your picnic.

UTENSILS - unfortunately the hall is not equipped with crockery and cutlery, so please bring your own glasses, plates, cutlery. I am hiring coffee mugs for the hot drinks.

COLD DRINKS if required. Alcohol to be kept to a minimum please.

GAMES for your children - balls, frisbees, etc. I am sure your children will be bored by all our gossip, so please make sure you bring enough to keep them amused. I am trying to arrange a couple of organised games as well. There are 10 or so children that I know of to this stage. NO skateboards, etc., as we will be sharing the park with other members of the public.

REGISTRATIONS: If you have not yet registered, or have other family members who express interest in coming, it is not too late. It would be great if we could double the numbers coming in the next couple of weeks. Whilst I would prefer to know in advance so name tags can be provided and catering be a little more accurate as far as numbers of coffee mugs hired and morning tea provisions, we will be delighted to see you even if it is a last minute decision. Your registrations will be taken on the day very gladly.

CONTACT: This will be my last access to emails before the event, so snail mail to 8/13 Ormond Road, Ormond, Vic will be the only way to contact me in writing. You can also ring between the hours of 7 and 10pm on my mobile 0425 752827. I do not have a land line connected in Ormond. Alternatively, you can contact Tom and he will pass on any messages to me.

OF INTEREST to some of you may be the following:
Ian Wills has completed research of Wills's who were gold miners in the Maryborough - Timor - Chinamans Flat area of Victoria from 1854 - 1920. It can be found at

Great interest in Australia was aroused in England by the discovery of gold at Ballarat in 1851. Many decided to migrate to Australia. In the summer of 1852, Dr Wills intended to travel to Australia. He booked a passage with William John (18 years old then) and Thomas James (15 y.o.) on the first passage of the "Ballarat" but, because Mrs Wills was personally concerned at all three leaving, this arrangement was cancelled.

The two sons left Dartmouth, Devon, by the ship "Janet Mitchell" on 1st October, 1852, and arrived off Williamstown, Port Phillip, on 3rd January, 1853 just two days before William John's 19th birthday. The brothers left the ship and travelled up the River Yarra by steamer at a cost of 2 pounds. They lodged at the Immigrants' Home situated on the Government Domain at a cost of one shilling per night but shared the room with 23 other newcomers.

Mr D. Puseley, an author of 'strong respectability' spoke with horror of Melbourne. The city, he said -
"Is a modern Babel - a little hell on earth - a city of rioters, gamblers and drunkards. In 1852-53 speculation, crime, excitement and disorder in Victoria had probably attained their greatest height; the yield in gold and the price of land had touched their highest points up to that period; robbers and murderers commanded extensive trades which they prosecuted with impunity, and mostly without detection. Land jobbers, many of whom were magistrates and the millionaires of the colony, made their thousands per diem, and were too much engaged on their profitable traffic to attend to the arrest or punishment of law-breakers; merchants and shopkeepers had too many additions to make on the profit side of their ledgers either to think of, or to care about anything else; swindlers and gamblers were reaping an abundant harvest......"

William John and Thomas James Wills stayed in Melbourne for a short period only; W.J. described the city less critically than Puseley in this letter to his father in 1853.
"Melbourne is situated on the Yarra Yarra River which has not so nearly so large a bed as the Dart though more navigable. It is narrow but very deep, and so far resembles a canal rather than a river. The town, or city, as they call it, is situated low, but laid out on a good scale. The streets are very wide and I think when filled with houses it will be a fine place; but what spoils the appearance now, is the number of wooden buildings they are throwing up, as they cannot get workmen for others. The town of Melbourne is all on one side of the river, but on the opposite side is "Canvas Town" (now South Melbourne) connected with Melbourne by a good bridge of one arch. Canvas Town takes its name from being entirely constructed of tents, except for a few wooden erections such as public houses and the Immigrants' Home where we lodged. I do not like Melbourne in its present state. You are not safe out after sundown and in a short time will not be safe during the day."

Employment was quickly gained by the brothers, as shepherds on a property at Deniliquin owned by the Royal Bank Company. William John described, in the same letter, the 200-mile northward journey: -
"We started from Melbourne on a Saturday with the drays, eight bullocks to each, laden entirely with the baggage of the party, twenty-three in number. We made only five or six miles that afternoon and slept under some gum trees. Our clothes were nearly saturated with dew. The land for a few miles is dry and sandy, but improves as you proceed. The woods are extensive, sometimes without interval for two or three days march. There was no scarcity of water, except for the first fifteen miles after leaving Melbourne. We enjoyed the journey much and shot many birds which constituted our principal food."

The party spent three weeks on the road. The men had to walk and they slept in the open air. The sheep station at Deniliquin was on the Edward River, a tributary of the Murray River. William John described his new situation :-
"We have engaged as shepherds at 30 pounds per annum each, with rations. We are very comfortable, in a hut by ourselves, about fifteen miles from the station. We have between 1300 and 1400 rams, by far the smallest and easiest flock under our charge. We take the hut keeping and shepherding in turns. The hut is a very nice one, built of split wood and roofed with bark. It is close beside a pleasant creek or river where there are plenty of fish and ducks."

"One of us rises almost as soon as it is light, gets some breakfast, and starts off with the sheep, lets them feed about until ten o'clock, then brings them slowly home, where they lie down till four; after that, they go out until sunset. The other stays within to clean up the hut and prepare the meals, we can kill a sheep when we like. We have a sheep dog and two kangaroo dogs, the latter are good and keep off the native curs at night. We have an abundance of good food, plenty of mutton and we can get a duck, pigeon or cockatoos whenever we like, almost without going out of sight of our hut, besides a good supply of fish in the river."

William John Wills' correspondence provides an excellent description of life on a station property in Australia during the gold years of the 1850's. He was very interested in the animals and birds and made contact with the aborigines, of whom he expressed a low opinion as to their intellectual powers.

Dr William Wills applied for, and obtained, the position of superintending surgeon on a migrant ship, "Asia", which arrived in Melbourne in August 1853. It then took Dr Wills two months to locate his sons, after which, all three left Deniliquin, visiting the Bendigo gold diggings en-route to Melbourne.

At the and of 1853, all three moved to Ballarat where William John assisted his father in his medical practice for twelve months. He also opened a gold office next to his father's surgery (which was conducted in a tent) and perfected a system of weighing gold specimens. Ballarat held no attraction for William John, he hated the turmoil of the gold fields, the drunkenness and brawling. He wrote to his mother in 1856,
"Now the rush to the diggings is over people are beginning to live like civilised human beings"; and soon after he got himself a job at Dr Neumayer's 'Magnetic Observatory' in Melbourne. It was Dr Neumayer who later recommended William John Wills as surveyor for Robert O'Hara Burke's expedition. William John was a good-looking young man, quiet, always neatly dressed - a respectable young man. He was full of joy when offered the position of surveyor and at the age of 26,he found himself serving a leader who was in every possible way his opposite.

To Burke's untidiness, physical energy and romantic flair, William John opposed a bookish and examining mind, a love of figures rather than of visions. From the first the two men got on extremely well together. Prior to the expedition, Dr Wills told Burke -
"If you ever want my son's advice or opinion, you must ask for it, for he will not offer it unasked. No matter what course you may adopt, he will follow without remonstrance or murmur." From all reports, the young surveyor lived up to his father's statement and followed his leader without complaint.

On August 20, 1860, the expedition set off from Royal Park, Melbourne. Among those who witnessed their departure was a cousin from Canada, James Gordon Fenton Wills, who had arrived in Melbourne in the early 1850's. As a matter of interest we mention that another cousin, Lieutenant Le Vescompte, died on an expedition to the Arctic a few years before. By October 1860, the expedition reached Menindie, the second-in-command, George Landells, resigned and Burke appointed Wills to the position.

It is not intended to describe the actual journey across the continent here, as the tragic expedition is adequately covered in many books on the subject. Suffice to say that Burke end Wills died slowly near Cooper's Creek, both leaving letters. William John's last letter to his father was dated 27 June 1861 he died soon after.

Commentator and historian, Max Colwell, said -
"If there must be a hero of Copper's Creek, then the honours go to William John Wills. He chose to remain behind, insisting that his companions go in search of natives. What use was there in eight days supply of nardoo, firewood and water, when he was too weak to kindle a flame or raise a hand to his mouth?"

At the time, newspapers in Melbourne were pressing for action to send a rescue party for the survivors of the expedition. Dr Wills wrote numerous letters to the Committee, then unable to bear the suspense any longer, he walked from Ballarat to Melbourne and demanded action. The rest of the story of the expedition is well known.

Dr William Wills went back to England. By 1864 he had resigned from the appointment of Surgeon Superintendent and, in 1869, was residing at Ethelmeed, Cleveland Road, Torquay, Devon. He and his wife died in 1889 and were buried at Maldon.

Written by Max Parsons, 1989

*********   Well, that's all from me for now.   Pam   *********