Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Willis, William Nicholas (1858–1922)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Nicholas Willis (1858-1922), politician, newspaper proprietor, land agent and publisher, was born on 3 August 1858 at Mudgee, New South Wales, third child of native-born parents John Willis, a blacksmith who later went to California, and his wife Margaret, née Lehane. Nicholas was educated at the local denominational school and, after the family moved to Sydney, at St Mary's School. Starting work as an office-boy at the age of 9 to help to support his mother, he took sundry jobs and attended night-school. A 'singularly handsome boy with engaging manners', he was employed at the Victoria Theatre and appeared as 'W. N. Kingston' with William Creswick's Shakespearian company in 1877-78. Willis then became a shop assistant at Dubbo and soon succeeded as a hawker along the Macquarie, Darling and Bogan rivers.

In partnership (1879-88) with T. L. Richardson, Willis opened and managed stores at Girilambone, Nyngan, Mulga and Brewarrina. On 25 January 1888 he married Mary Hayes at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney. 'Restless and dynamic', Willis was a plucky—and lucky—investor: he owned the Central Australian and Bourke Telegraph and that year took up a homestead lease, Tarrion, at Brewarrina. Having unsuccessfully stood for the Legislative Assembly in 1887, he won Bourke as a Protectionist in February 1889.

Moving to Sydney, Willis established himself as a land and financial agent with George McNair and advertised that he required no 'black-tracker to show him through the land laws'. He made and lost several fortunes through his pastoral interests. Holding his seat in 1891, he represented the Barwon in 1894-1904, after surviving a petition from Donald Macdonell to unseat him in 1894. Willis was defeated for the Darling in 1904.

A rowdy, hard-drinking gad-fly and a racing crony of W. P. Crick, he repeatedly introduced bills to restrict cruelty to camels, to amend the Masters and Servants Act and to repeal the Agreement Validating Act; less determinedly, he tried to regulate hawkers, reduce the cost of litigation, amend the Sunday laws, introduce the totalizator and enfranchise women. None of his bills was enacted. A 'ready, fluent, forcible speaker', he used parliament for his own ends and 'brought off many remunerative coups', but achieved no eminence, although he did serve on the royal commission into crown tenants in 1900.

In August 1890 Willis and McNair had founded Truth, with A. G. Taylor as editor; the scurrilous newspaper rapidly achieved circulation figures of over 30,000. Struck off the roll of magistrates later that year for publishing an allegedly treasonable letter, Willis denied responsiblity and cognizance. He promptly protected himself by selling Truth to partners, among them Crick and John Norton with whom he had a full-blooded fight in King Street in 1893. Although ownership was deliberately obscured, Willis remained a major shareholder; after protracted litigation, he sold out to Norton in 1896, probably as the result of blackmail.

Having pioneered the South African market with fodder and horses for the British Army, Willis recruited Australian bushmen as scouts and sharpshooters for the South African War. He visited that country in 1902 and reputedly acquired property in Madagascar. While Crick was secretary for lands in 1901-04, Willis was profitably involved in land transactions of a shady nature involving leases that required ministerial assent; he also took up two large leases in his wife's name by 'dummying'. John Haynes in the Newsletter constantly alleged that Willis and Crick were corrupt. Soon after (Sir) William Owen's appointment in 1905 as royal commissioner into the administration of the Lands Department, Willis thought it politic to leave the country.

When Haynes failed to have him extradited from Perth, Willis fled to Natal, South Africa. Although he temporarily foiled extradition, he returned to Sydney under police escort in July 1906 to face criminal charges of obtaining money by false pretences, fraud and conspiracy (with Crick). Twice the jury disagreed and he was discharged. A picaresque character, Willis was described in Melbourne Punch as 'a stout, florid man, whose vigour seems unabated by trouble, who challenges attention by his strong individualism, who talks in the racy vernacular of the street, and who may be relied upon to put up a good fight'. In 1909 he published The Life of W. P. Crick.

Prudently removing himself to London about 1910, Willis wrote What Germany Wants (1912) and a racing romance, Bluey Grey (1912). He established the Anglo-Eastern Publishing Co. and wrote books with salacious titles, such as White Slaves in a Piccadilly Flat (1913). His son, who had served with the 6th Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, joined him in partnership after the war and probably wrote for the company as 'Bree Narran'. Marie Stopes was horrified at Willis's implication in Wedded Love or Married Misery (1920) that she was encouraging immorality. Survived by his wife and six daughters in Australia, and by his son, Willis died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 3 April 1922 at Lambeth, intestate and penniless.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Syd, 1959)
  • R. B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales, 1803-1920 (Syd, 1976)
  • R. Hall, Marie Stopes (Lond, 1978)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1890, 1, p 516, 3, p 869, 1894-95, 1, p 901
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1906, 2, p 1
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 22 Dec 1899, p 3750
  • AAA, All About Australians, 1 Sept 1905, p 446
  • Town and Country Journal, 9 Mar 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1877, 9 Mar 1878, 28 Feb 1900, 24, 26 Apr 1918, 7 Apr 1922
  • Catholic Press, 20 Apr 1905
  • West Australian, 19 July 1905
  • Australasian, 17 Feb 1906
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 July 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1906
  • case of W. N. Willis, A2 05/3530 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Willis, William Nicholas (1858–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/willis-william-nicholas-9125/text16095, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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