WILLIS, John Walpole (1793-1877)

WILLIS, John Walpole (1793-1877)
second son of Captain William Willis, was born on 4 January 1793, and educated at the Charterhouse and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was called to the English bar and practised as a chancery barrister. In 1820-1 he published his Pleadings in Equity, and in 1827 A Practical Treatise on the Duties and Responsibilities of Trustees. In that year he was appointed a puisne judge of the King's bench in upper Canada. Within a few months Willis fell foul of the attorney-general, J. B. Robinson, a very experienced official, and took the most unusual course of stating in court that Robinson had neglected his duty and that he would feel it necessary "to make a representation on the subject to his majesty's government". He also took a strong stand on the question of the legality of the court as then constituted, and this led in June 1828 to Willis being removed from his position by the lieutenant-governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland. He proceeded to England in July, and the question was referred to the privy council which ruled against Willis. His conduct was treated as an error of judgment and he was given another appointment as a judge in Demerara, British Guiana. He returned to England in 1836 and was soon afterwards made a judge of the supreme court of New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney on 3 November 1837. He was at first on good terms with Sir J. Dowling (q.v.) who a few months later became chief justice, but in 1839 differences arose, and on one occasion Willis in open court made observations which were taken as a reflection on the chief justice. He also brought forward the question whether the chief justice had forfeited his office by acting as judge of the admiralty court. Matters came to such a pass that in March 1840 the governor, Sir George Gipps (q.v.), arranged that Willis should be appointed resident judge at Melbourne. In Melbourne he came in conflict with the press, the legal fraternity, and members of the public. In October 1842 Gipps stated in a dispatch that "differences have again broken out between Mr J. Walpole Willis . . . and the judges of the supreme court of Sydney" and that "for many months the town of Melbourne has been kept in a state of continued excitement by the proceedings of Mr Justice Willis and the extraordinary nature of the harangues, which he is in the habit of delivering from the bench". In February 1843 Gipps recommended to Lord Stanley that Willis should be removed from his position. Willis left Melbourne for London in the same month and appealed to the English government. In August 1846 the privy council reversed the order for his dismissal on technical grounds, and he was awarded the arrears of his salary to that date. Willis then offered his resignation, but this was not accepted and his commission was revoked. This course was taken because otherwise it might not have been understood that the order was reversed not as being "unjust in itself, but only as having been made in an improper manner" (H.R. of A., ser. I, vol. XXV, p. 208.) Willis was never given any other position. He published in 1850 a volume On the Government of the British Colonies, and afterwards lived in retirement in the west of England. He died on 10 September 1877. He was married. twice, (1) to Lady Mary Isabella Lyon, and (2) to Ann Susanna Kent, daughter of Colonel Thomas Henry Bund. He was survived by a son by the first marriage, and by a son and two daughters by the second marriage.
Willis was an able man vain about his knowledge of the law, and a stickler for its dignities. He was a great fighter and had the courage of his convictions, and this made him many friends in his disagreements with his colleagues and the governors he worked under. But he had little control of his temper, and it appears to have been impossible to find any way of working in harmony with him.
W. Kingsford, The History of Canada, vol. X; The Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XIX to XXV; G. B. Vasey, The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. I; pp. 36-49; The Times, 19 September 1877; British Museum Catalogue.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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