Born at Port Adelaide to John Willis, an English mariner, and his wife Jane on 6 April 1860, Henry Willis had worked in his father’s tannery and then established his own saddler. He was elected to the South Australian parliament in 1884 and served on the Hindmarsh Municipal Council from 1884 to 1886. He moved to Sydney in 1888 intending to study for the Church of England priesthood. While he was working in the Camden parish, Henry met and married Annie Louisa Moore from a wealthy local family in September 1889.1
At Annie’s urging Henry left the church and went into business, but he became increasingly engaged in municipal politics instead, serving on the Cabramatta, Camden and Randwick councils.
Willis was elected to the first House of Representatives in 1901 where he supported Sir George Reid’s Free Trade government. He was re-elected in 1903 and 1906, but lost his seat in 1910. In October of that year he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the Liberal member for the Upper Hunter.
When the Labor government lost its majority in the Legislative Assembly in July 1911, Willis offered himself as speaker to avoid an unnecessary disillusion. A strong-willed man who did not defer to other’s views, Willis was dubbed a ‘traitor’ by the Liberals, Willis sought enhance the Speaker’s powers and reform parliamentary debate, but he faced increasing press and parliamentary indignation. He resigned as Speaker on 22 July 1913 and was defeated at the next election.2
Willis had acquired 52 acres of the former Haynes Alleyne land on Little Sugar Loaf Peninsular in the early 1900s and in 1903 and he erected a small weatherboard cottage there as a weekender for his family. In 1903 he commissioned an architect to design a substantial residence on his land at Castle Cove in late Gothic perpendicular style. Constructed in sandstone quarried on the site, the house was completed in 1905 and was named Innisfallen Castle after a ruined abbey at Killarney, Ireland.
Henry and Annie had five children, Henry Hastings, Urana, Calliope, Emerson and Stanley. Given the remoteness of Innisfallen, Hastings, Emerson and Stanley rode their ponies to school at Roseville, from where they took the train to school, while the girls were sent to board at the Kambalda School. Tragedy struck the family in 1915, first with the death of Stanley of typhoid at Innisfallen and then within 12 months, the news that Emerson was missing in Egypt, presumed killed. Stanley had recently broken the news to the family that he had married Holly, an attractive young milliner who was pregnant with their second child. A son, Sherbrooke, was born just before Stanley’s death.3
Following his retirement from politics, Willis devoted his time to managing his rural estates in Queensland and yachting on Middle Harbour. He moved to Meadlow Bath in the Blue Mountains in the 1930s, but Annie remained at Innisfallen where Hastings became head of the household, which included Urana and Calliope. Henry returned to Innisfallen Castle for the grand family reunion to mark his and Annie’s 60th wedding anniversary on 1 October 1949. He died there on 23 February 1950.
Dr Henry Hastings Willis also served in World War I as a medical officer with the rank of Captain and rose to that of Major. He sailed for the front on MHAT Wiltshire on 22 August 1916. Hastings served as an alderman on Willoughby Municipal Council from 1838-1953 and was elected as mayor in 1943-1944.
1 Spathpooulos, Wanda, The Crag: Castlecrag 1924-1938, Blackheath, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007, pp 123-125.
2 Spearritt, Peter, ‘Willis, Henry (1860-1950)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 12, Melbourne UP, 1990.
3 Spathpooulos, Wanda, as above, pp 125.