William John Wills

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William John Wills : biography

5 January 1834 – 28 June 1861

William John Wills (5 January 1834 – c.June/July 1861) was a British surveyor who also trained for a while as a surgeon. He achieved fame as the second-in-command of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, which was the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north, finding a route across the continent from the settled areas of Victoria to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Early years

Wills was born in Totnes in Devon, the second child to Dr William Wills (1800 – 28 September 1889) and Sarah Mary Elizabeth Wills (née Calley, 23 December 1800 – 19 February 1880). He was one of seven children;

  • Elizabeth Rose Wills (August 1831–23 May 1832).
  • William John Wills (5 January 1834–June/July 1861).
  • Thomas Wills (July 1835–October 1836).
  • Thomas James Wills (b. 1837, came to Australia in 1853, married Anne McDonald in 1860, d. Ballarat, 20 May 1909).
  • Charles Henry Wills (1839–1864).
  • Elizabeth Margaret Wills (b. 1843, married Humphrey Joseph Hare (b. 1835) in 1867, d. ?).
  • Hannah Wills (b. 24 March 1845, unmarried, d. London, 15 April 1914).

He lived at the family home at Ipplepen and as a young child he contracted a fever which left him with "slow and hesitating speech". He was home-tutored by his father until the age of 11 and then from 1845 to 1850 he attended St Andrew’s Grammar School, Ashburton. He was then articled to Wills’ surgical practice. In 1852 he studied practical chemistry under John Stenhouse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.


Dr Wills bought a share in the Melbourne Gold Mining Company in 1852 and planned to migrate to Australia with William and Thomas. However Sarah Wills objected to him leaving so Dr Wills delayed his departure and the two boys went alone. Eighteen-year-old William and fifteen-year-old Thomas left Dartmouth on 1 October 1852 aboard the Janet Mitchell. They arrived in Melbourne on 3 January 1853 with 197 fellow unassisted passengers. William and Thomas found accommodation at the Immigrants Home in South Melbourne.

In February 1853 the Wills brothers found work as shepherds at a property owned by the Royal Bank Company on the Edward River near Deniliquin. They were paid £30 p.a. plus rations and were in charge of a flock of 1300 rams at the Ram Station. Dr Wills followed his sons out to Australia, arriving in August 1853, and the three returned to Melbourne before moving to Ballarat where William took up work as a digger on the goldfields. In 1854 he worked as assistant surgeon in his father’s practice and later he opened his own gold office.

In early 1855, William worked on William Skene’s Kanawalla Station (Hensley Park) on the Wannon River near Hamilton. He returned to Ballarat in April 1855 and towards the end of the year he began to study surveying. He was appointed as an amateur to the office of John Hamlet Taylor, Acting District Surveyor in the Ballarat Survey Office on Sturt Street. William spent several months learning trigonometry, Euclid drawing and geometry and then in 1856 he went on to learn field-surveying. He started his practical experience at Glendaruel, near Tourello, where he worked under the supervision of Frederick John Byerly, Assistant Surveyor, on ₤150 p.a. plus board. In February 1857 he was working at Bullarook Creek Camp and in March 1857 he was surveying at Kingower near Inglewood. In the middle of 1857 he was promoted to foreman and placed in charge of a field party and his salary increased to ₤185 p.a. From April to June 1858 he was surveying at St Arnaud. His field party contract was terminated in June and he returned to Ballarat in July and took occasional contracts surveying for Clement Hodgkinson, the Deputy Surveyor General.

Wills moved to Melbourne in August 1858 and from August to December he lodged with Mrs E Henderson at 1 Dorcas Street, South Melbourne. In November 1858 he received a temporary appointment on the recommendation of Charles Whybrow Ligar, Surveyor-General, as a supernumerary at the recently established Magnetic Observatory which was then at Flagstaff Hill. In February 1859 one of the Observatory assistants, John Walter Osborne (1828-1902), transferred from the observatory to become a photolithographer in the Survey Department of the Office of Crown Lands and Survey. Wills’ replaced him, and in March 1859 when his permanent appointment was confirmed, he moved into a room at the Observatory. Wills studied under Government Meteorologist and Observatory Director, Georg von Neumayer, and his work companions were Jacob Bauer, Charles E Pickering, Charles Moerlin and supernumeries John O Rose and Edwin James Welch.