A Talk by Pamela Sullivan

Given at the 2009 Burke and Wills Historical Society Convention,
Royal Society of Vic. Melbourne.
Saturday 2nd May 2009.

I am a fourth cousin four times removed of William John Wills - the Wills of the Burke and Wills expedition team. I have been asked here today to talk about his family.

Family History is extremely addictive. I don't know how many of you have this addiction, or have dabbled into it at some stage. It can be a process that makes you a recluse - spending hours at a home or library computer - however it broadens the world for you as well. I know of one gentleman who wrote to everyone in Victoria with a certain surname and found his ancestry that way!

By beginning with what you know - perhaps a death of a grandparent or great. grandparent, you can, these days, easily put a skeleton of a family tree together. Whilst this is a good starting point giving you emotional highs when you latch onto a trail that is very rewarding with lots of information and lows, when frustration takes over - a birth records the father as being a person who died at least a year before the birth of the child, or you find your family is probably amongst the 34 steerage passengers for whom there is no record of names and you will never know for certain when they emigrated.

The real work, which can take years, is putting meat on the skeleton's bones - finding newspaper articles or lists of a town's tradespeople, so you find that your g grandfather moved houses great distances by horse and dray or bullock wagon. Such gems are far harder to find, so it is important to talk to the older generations of your family before it is too late and they are no longer here to consult.

In 1996, after many, many years of wanting to know about my mother's family, I was taken by a friend to the East Gippsland Family History Rooms. Within half an hour I knew more about the family than I had thought possible and I WAS HOOKED! Little did I know the hours and hours I would spend researching....not only my mother's family, but all branches of my family, my husband's family, friends' families, stranger's families......

I was so happy to discover the world of genealogy is a "sharing and caring" one.

I started with my Mum's family; however, I eventually came to a dead stop. I knew my GG grandfather Charles Wills had married my GG grandmother on 1st January 1856 (the day that Van Diemen's Land was renamed Tasmania), but I could not find his arrival in Australia. I posted a plea for assistance on the Wills Family Web site and one week later, after being put in touch with Max Parsons (a cousin of my mother), I had the family tree way back to about 1535. Max also informed me of our relationship to William John, the explorer, and that the reason I could not find the shipping record for Charles' arrival was that "Wills" had been transcribed as "Wells". I will always be grateful to him for his unselfish sharing of his years of research.

The origin of the surname Wills is from the Anglo-Saxon "atte wille" meaning living by the water and in the 1332 tax returns there were 28 listed in Devon each a potential source of a different Wills lineage.

Most of our Wills' ancestors were born and lived near a cluster of small towns a few kilometres apart from each other in South East Devon - Ilsington, Lustleigh, Bovey Tracey and Bickington or at Totnes about 14 kms distant. They chose spouses from these neighbouring areas and settled thereabouts. Sometimes a cousin married a cousin to merge their landholdings. Eventually there were too many "Wills" and too few farms, so some adopted other occupations or migrated to America, Canada or Australia. In 1851, when news of the Australian gold strike reached Devon, Australia became a popular destination.

Well, most of you probably know the history of William John Wills. Born in Totnes, Devon on 5th January, 1834, his Parents were Doctor William Wills and Sarah Mary Elizabeth Calley. His grandparents were John Wills and Sally Rendell.

William was educated at Ashburton (Devon) Grammar School until 1850 under Mr. Paige, Headmaster. (The Museum of Ashburton will happily show you a bench seat with his initials carved into it). The 1851 Census records him as living with his maiden aunt, Elizabeth Wills, as housekeeper and with his younger brother Thomas James; living in the Vicarage House, Ipplepen, Devon, some four miles from Totnes. His occupation is given as apprentice surgeon.

In 1852 William, his brother Thomas, and his father Dr William were planning to migrate to Australia. You may not know that Sarah was adamant that they should not all go on the same boat in case of a disaster. That's why William and Thomas came out on the Janet Mitchell, leaving England on 1st October, and arriving in Melbourne on 3rd. January, 1853 and their father followed a few months later.

William and Thomas hated Melbourne, so by the time their father arrived he found them employed as shepherds in NSW. It is believed that Dr William had shares in a gold mining company so the three of them took off for Ballarat so Dr William could set up practice near the gold fields, and young William resumed his apprenticeship. There is a mention of Dr. Wills being at the Eureka Stockade.

I will not bore you by going into the story of William - you will all know, probably better than I do, the story of William's involvement in a survey firm resulting in his selection for the expedition, and ending in his death.

Do you also know that Alfred William Howitt, the geologist entrusted with looking for Burke, Wills and King, died in Bairnsdale in 1908? A few years ago his gravestone in Bairnsdale Cemetery was restored.

I want to step back to William John's Grandparents.

John and Sally had nine children:

  1. Sarah married Cmdr Henry Le Vesconte. Their son Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte was a cousin of Wm John and was in the navy sailing around China. His diaries with are with Bill Wills in Canada. He died on the Franklin Expedition to find the North West Passage and his remains are at Greenwich. (Some interesting discussions are going on re the source of the lead, which apparently contributed to the deaths; it seems it was probably from a distillation plant put on the ship to get fresh water.) William Wills mentions Henry in the last letter he wrote to his father, which was brought out by King - he states "Our position, although more provoking, is probably not near so disagreeable as that of poor Harry and his companions".
  2. Elizabeth, did not marry and went to Canada.
  3. Joseph, a ship-owner, married and also went to Canada.
  4. John went to Ontario Canada and then to IOWA, where he became a farmer.
  5. George had a practice at Aylesbury in England, probably a doctor (there is still work to be done on George and his family).
  6. Thomas, another ship-owner, went to Newfoundland. His grandson John became the Mayor of Belleville Ontario and one of his brothers, Henry Thomas, was a bank manager at the Klondike gold rush. (Bill Wills descended from this line and lives in Belleville).
  7. Charlotte, married John Ellis NOSWORTHY and stayed in England.
  8. Next came Dr William, father of William John. Dr William published a book in 1863 on his return from Australia, a copy of which was signed and sent to Sarah Le Vesconte and has been inherited by Bill Wills - I have a copy of the front page -written on it is " To Sarah Le Vesconte with her Brother's (the Author's) Kind love Wm Wills ". A full copy of this book is available on the internet. The simple way to locate the book is to open Google, enter William John Wills and then in inverted commas enter "poor Harry". The first item on the Google list will be "Successful Exploration Through the Interior of Australia". The book contains a full transcript of William John's last letter to his father.
  9. Anna married Capt Richard NANTES, but I do not know any more than this at this stage.

This completes the Aunts and Uncles of our William John.

William John himself had five brothers and sisters;-

  1. Elizabeth Rose who died young.
  2. Thomas James who went out to Australia with him and became a station Master at Ballarat. There are descendants in Australia today, still living in the Western District of Victoria.
  3. Charles Henry was a bank clerk in Totnes and did not marry.
  4. Elizabeth Margaret who married Humphrey Joseph HARE.
  5. Hannah was the youngest and remained unmarried.

Now I would like to talk about the family of Thomas James Wills (brother of William John) - 1837 to 1909.

In the late 1850's a railway was constructed from the city of Melbourne, with its population of approx 140,000, to Ballarat. I am about to quote from an article in a book "Ballarat and Vicinity" which was published in 1894 and again in 1992. The article is entitled THOMAS JAMES WILLS.

"In 1862, Ballarat was connected with Melbourne by railway and the conditions of the district rapidly changed from that year. Previously there had been an uncertainty introduced into everyday life in a thousand and one ways, but the uncertainty was now reduced. There was more romantic incident in the previous conditions, but no-one was disappointed when steam brought him closer to the metropolis.

Every industry had enhanced value, and communication in every sense became a simpler matter. With the growth of the district, the railway assumed larger proportions, and with the railway, the man who arranged it at this end. Mr Thomas James Wills, of whom we now write, was one of the first officials to be appointed here, but though he came as a clerk, he returned in the course of years to be stationmaster - the principal outside the metropolitan area. The master of a railway station, like that of Ballarat influences to no ordinary extent the general welfare. He has some power in the district and it is important that he should be a man whom all respect and trust."

The article continues with a report on the career of Thomas James, stating that "Mr Wills managed railway matters at Ballarat with conspicuous success, and won the esteem of all residents, both rich and poor."

Thomas James married Anne McDonald. They had one child, William John, born 1868 in Gisborne, and died in 1946 in Narrandera, NSW.

William married Martha Alice Smith in 1889 in Carrathool, NSW. Their grandson Brian remembers that they did not get on very well living together, and William lived around the corner from Martha. William was a drover. They had 6 children, naming them Thomas James, Martha A, William John, Nathaniel Charles, Robert O'Hara Burke and Alice Daphne.

These six children produced many offspring and there are descendants of Thomas living in the Ballarat district today. It is interesting to note the names used, with their connection to their famous ancestor. I have some of the tree with me if anyone would like to look at it later.

Other relatives of William John who came to Australia were:

  1. My gg grandfather Charles, arrived 13th February, 1855 - fourth cousin. Charles sponsored his brother.
  2. Thomas, arrived 27th January, 1857 and also
  3. His sister and brother-in-law, Sarah (fourth cousin) and William Williams and family.
  4. John Thomas Brock Wills, arrived 1853 - fourth cousin.
  5. Thomas Charles Harvey Wills - arrived about 1900 - 2nd cousin twice removed.
  6. Charles Wills plus children - arrived about 1822/23 - 3rd cousin once removed.
  7. George Kerslake Wills - arrived about 1900 - fourth cousin twice removed.

Of these I want to tell you about John Thomas Brock Wills.

JTB Wills was christened at Kingsteignton, Devon in May 1830.

His father was a farmer who farmed Whiteway Barton Farm and died when John was only 16. His will stated that the house and farm with all contents and other property were to be sold when John attained his 21st Birthday. Consequently the family; mother Mary, sister Mary and John were left without a home. The women moved to Bovey Tracey.

Why on earth a man would do this to his family!!!

John worked for a while at Smithfield Markets near London before deciding to migrate.

His descendents believe that he was persuaded to go to the colony by William John's father, who knew the family. However, John also had an uncle who had migrated to Van D's Land in 1822.

John arrived in Victoria in 1853, travelling to Australia on the "Great Britain" which set sail from Liverpool and called in at Plymouth, Devon, on the way. On the passenger manifest his occupation is listed as "Gentleman".

John didn't go in for gold mining. He had the common sense to work to provide the miners with essential food. On his marriage certificate in 1861 he listed his occupation, as 'baker' but the family knew him as a farmer and butcher. He owned what is today known as 'Wills Slaughterhouse Paddocks', a block of land opposite the road to the cemetery at Moonambel. He bred his own animals then slaughtered them to provide meat to the miners. Baking and butchering were skills he would have had to learn on the farm in Devon. He also owned blocks of land at Redbank and Mountain Creek as well as the two properties at Moonambel, and in the 1865 Rate books he is listed as owning a residence and bakery at Moonambel, Vic.

An anecdote which the family finds interesting and which others have confirmed, was that he used the offal to fertilise the river-flats he owned. He would leave the offal in piles in the yard until it was well rotted (he was taken to court at least once because the stench was too much for his neighbours) then when enough offal had accumulated, his sons would be given the job of shovelling it onto a cart. He would then scatter a Capstan tobacco tin full of red clover seed over the offal and the boys would spread it over the river-flats. People would come from as far away as Stawell and Beaufort to look at the resulting pasture on which he fattened his cattle and sheep.

John was granted a government contract in May 1870 to supply oats, bran, hay and straw at Moonambel. During his lifetime, he served as a shire councillor, President of the Avoca Shire, served as a juror at inquests, and was a signatory to a petition to establish a school at Moonambel. Records show he applied for a mining lease in 1871, and was Manager of the Homeward Bound Mining Company in 1871 and 1872.

John Thomas Brock is of interest as he is reputed to have received an invitation from his fourth cousin, William John, to attend the send off of the expedition in Royal Park, which he did. In due course, William repaid the kindness of his attendance by visiting John at Moonambel as a short deviation from the expedition. Old timers of the district showed descendants two places in the town where this meeting was reputed to have taken place. Family folk-lore from two different directions state also that John Thomas met his future wife at the send-off.

Skeletons in the cupboard

Now in every family tree there's a skeleton. William's was no different. There are claims of three illegitimate children, fathered by Dr William during his time in Australia with his housekeeper, May McDonald, as the mother. The children were reputed to be raised by Mr & Mrs Luckhurst in Tasmania. The birth certificates give the surname as McDonald to avoid a scandal. These claims have been made by emails to Mike Wills in the U.K. in 2000 by descendants of the three children. There were some unfruitful efforts at the time to verify the truth of the claims, but it is an on-going project as there is now DNA on file for proved descendants of the family of William John, and we will be endeavouring to trace a male line from the claimants. If we can convince this person to have a DNA test, we would be able to prove or disprove the validity of this "skeleton".

Another point of view

On 4th June 2002, the following email arrived in the inbox of Mike Wills in the U.K. I thought you may find it interesting.

" My name is Aaron Paterson and I came across your email address on the Burke and Wills Website belonging to the State Library of Victoria.

I am writing to let you know that my maternal great-grandfather Kimi, was on Cooper Creek with his clan when Burke and Wills were suffering from starvation, and I feel that if you are a descendant of William John Wills, then I as a descendant of the "blacks" of Cooper Creek should tell you some of the things that have been passed down through five generations of the Yandruwandha people. We were known as the Thayipilthirringuda people of Innamincka, that is, the Yandruwandha dialect group in whose country Poor William John Wills died which was west of the present township of Innamincka in South Australia.

It has been passed down that William Wills, (Wiltja) to us, was a good fellow, he attempted to make gestures of friendship towards my ancestors and as you would have read in his field books (21April-31June 1861) he was made welcome by them. He, and John King were apparently decent men by Yandruwandha accounts, and may very well have survived had Robert O'Hara Burke not discouraged them from being too friendly, until they became desperate.

I know from being told that our people intentionally stayed away from Burke, Wills and King after Burke resorted to violence on two occasions. Our people kept their distance and watched from afar, until such time as John King was seen alone. John King was thought by us to be like a woman, because he was always seen to be doing things for the others. More or less waiting on them.

Our people were saddened when they saw Burke and Wills' bodies, but they showed great compassion when it came to King. Wills was thought to be a friendly person, and if Burke had just listened to him, when asked to maintain good relations with "the blacks" then it would have been quite reasonable to assume that they could have lived long enough to be found by Alfred Howitt's party on the 15 September, 1861, (about twelve weeks after their deaths.)

Lastly, I know that my ancestors were kind-hearted people and history may have told a different story had Burke went against William John Wills' suggestions (when asked.)

Cheers to you and your family, from Me and Mine!

A further email from Aaron said.

"History lost a great opportunity, when my Great grandfather Benny Kerwin (Kirwan) a half-caste Yandruwandha man was recorded speaking his language to a salvage linguist named Gavan Breen. Benny was asked if he wanted to talk about anything in general and he said " I can tell you what my grandad said about Burke and Wills when he seen them on the creek?" but the reel to reel tape ran out and he was not recorded talking about what he knew about these men. A lost opportunity....eh?"

Wills Family 2003 Get-together

In 2002 I was energised by my thirst to meet my mother's relatives to begin planning a re-union. At Tom Wills' suggestion, we threw this open to any-one who was researching Wills ancestry, to use the function as a further means of proving claims to relationships to William John. It was amazing how many different claims we were getting from people who had been told they were related (and also interesting to note that in some families that actually were related, it was never spoken of).

On a very wet March day in 2003 over 150 people arrived, and by the end of the day had been separated into 15 different families. We discovered that one branch of the family which had been included in the tree was actually inaccurate and we were able to adjust this to the correct entries for Thomas James. A report of the planning and results of this get-together can be found on the Wills Family History Website, of which Tom Wills is web-master.

Wills Family 2010 Get-together

From the end of the day of the 2003 get-together, we have been requested on numerous occasions to hold another, and thus planning has commenced for the convention in March of next year. 2010 has been chosen for its obvious connection to the Burke and Wills expedition, being held in March instead of August in the hope for better weather conditions and for its longer daylight hours. The aims of this conference are two fold - to honour William John Wills and also to assist any-one with Wills ancestry. To do this, as well as the format from the first get-together, with displays of memorabilia and family trees, we are including guest speakers, at least one from amongst your members, and from various organisations that assist with family history, such as the Public Record Office and the Genealogical Society of Victoria. This will be open to any-one who is interested in the ancestry of William John, as well as those who have their own Wills ancestry and I would like to take this opportunity to invite all of you here to attend. We already have acceptances from Qld, NSW, SA and Vic, with interest from NZ, America and the UK. We are aiming to attract at least 200 to the convention and to this aim are keeping registration fees to $10.00.

The posters here will give you the information you need, and if you would like to email me I would be delighted to add your email address to the newsletter list so that you can be kept informed of developments. There is also a folder, which includes some items that you may find of interest.

Thank you for your patience - I hope you have not been too bored. Similar to your own endeavours, family history is a non-ending slow occupation for those who take the trouble to verify the accuracy of all information, and the information I have given today has received the necessary verification.

Are there any questions?