Thomas Willis was born in Holybourne, Alton, Hampshire. The Resolution muster in 1772 recorded him as being 17 years old and born in Holywell though which one in England was not given.
These facts are probably incorrect as he was baptised in 1756 by his father, Richard Willis, who was the rector of nearby Hartley Mauditt and also of West Thorney at Chichester Harbour in Sussex. The Reverend Richard Willis had married Ann Hawkins on 11 January 1748. They had at least ten children, including Thomas. The Alton connection is borne out as in Thomas’s will, in which he mentions a sister, Ann Dowdon. An Ann Willis had married John Dowdon, a brewer in Alton, in 1778.
Thomas Willis began his Royal Navy career in early 1769 in HMS Dunkirk as servant to Commodore Arthur Forrest. They sailed to Jamaica in June 1769, where Forrest was commander in chief. Forrest died on 26 May 1770. Willis transferred to HMS Renown and returned to Britain as surgeon’s servant under Captain George Murray. Willis then joined HMS Ajax in early 1770 under Captain John Carter Allen, and spent nine months as a midshipman on the guardship at Portsmouth. A month as captain’s servant to Captain Richard Hughes in HMS Worcester, another guardship, followed in 1771 in Portsmouth. Later that year, Willis served as midshipman in HMS Glory under Captain John Ruthven.
Thomas Willis then joined HMS Resolution for Cook’s Second Voyage on 3 January 1772 as a midshipman. During the voyage, Willis kept a log and a journal.1
John Elliott described him as “wild and drinking” and being amongst a group on board: “There was likewise a Mess which Cook called his Black Sheep, who were at time apt to get too much grog and Quarrel in their Cups… Those were Willis, Logie, Price, Cogland, Maxwell.”
Willis is said to have been the first man to sight the small island to the west of South Georgia. Cook named it after him.2
After the voyage, Willis sat and passed his lieutenant’s examination in August 1775, but did not receive his commission until 11 February 1778. Later that year he joined HMS Sultan as 5th lieutenant under Captain John Wheelock (one of Cook’s old captains). They sailed for North America in June. Wheelock died in 1779 and was replaced as captain by Charles Feilding. They returned to Britain from Jamaica in 1780. Willis then joined HMS Mercury as first lieutenant under Captain Isaac Prescott. They sailed in April 1780 to Newfoundland. In 1781 Willis was on board HMS Bienfaissant, commanded by Captain Richard Brathwaite, when she sailed to Gibraltar.
In September 1782, a Willis was serving as second lieutenant in Royal William, which was part of a large convoy under Admiral Richard Howe sailing to relieve Gibraltar. During some skirmishes with French and Spanish forces off the Spanish coast, Lieutenant Willis lost his right thigh.3 I believe Thomas Willis was that lieutenant. It would explain why Willis was never again mentioned in actions and was never promoted further. There was only one other Lieutenant Willis in the Royal Navy in the early 1780s. He was Richard Willis, who would eventually retire as a superannuated admiral, a career most unlikely if a man had lost his leg. Richard Willis may have been the brother of Thomas Willis.
Thomas Willis married Mary Kirkham on 15 December 1781 at Canterbury, Kent. She was the daughter of Anthony and Mary Kirkham of Deal in Kent. Together, they had a son, Richard Willis. Thomas Willis died in Pagham near Bognor in Sussex on 15 July 1797 and was buried there three days later. He left a will proven on 30 August 1797.4 He left everything to his wife, Mary, and son, Richard. His sister, Ann Dowdon, was also mentioned.
- One portion of his log runs from 23 November 1772 to 18 October 1774. Adm 51/4554/201-2.
Another portion runs from 7 February 1775 to 13 March 1775. Adm 55/106.
His journal runs from 3 January 1772 to 13 March 1775. Adm 51/4554/199-200.
- Cooks’ Log, page 1715, vol. 23, no. 1 (2000).
- Annual Register. 1782. pp. 263-264.
- PROB 11/1295.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 35, number 2 (2012).