Beecroft-Cheltenham History Group

George Frederick Willis

George Frederick Willis was born in Dapto in 1851, the son of English-born Lewis Willis, a farm labourer who came to Australia in 1848. Lewis married Irish-born Mary Patterson and they had a family of ten children, George being the eldest and one of twin boys. In 1875, at Goulburn, George married Delilah Haines and they had eight children, two of whom were twins boys named Jacob and Job but known as Isaac and Abraham.

George worked as a labourer and quarryman in the Boorowa district until about 1891 when he took a job on the construction of the Rose Hill to Carlingford railway line. About 1894 George Willis and his family moved to Beecroft, no doubt to take advantage of the opportunity of ample work on the unmade roads in this new suburb. In the original survey of the village, trees had been cut down to form rough roads but the stumps often remained. Roads in the area were initially made of clay, without metal and the surface became impassable in wet weather. There were no gutters and after rain creeks flowed across the dips in Hannah Street and Copeland Road. George Willis was an experienced construction worker and found work in Beecroft for many years.

The Willis family lived in Welham Street near the bush in a simple hut made of slabs and with a stone chimney. Possibly George leased this land at first but in 1906 he purchased 3¼ acres of land around the house, from Welham to Mary Streets and down to the creek. In 1911 he sold it to Cyril Byles who in 1913 built a modern house in front of the slab hut.[1]

Soon after his arrival in Beecroft, George Willis became ill and was unable to work for a short time. The parishioners of St John's Church put on a benefit concert raising £2/4/- for his family who were members of the church.[2]

George, an outspoken and energetic man, plunged into civic affairs with complaints about the lack of a public school nearby for his four children aged between 7 and 11 years. The Beecroft Progress Association had asked three years previously that a school be built in the village, but with no result. In December 1894 George Willis wrote to the Minister for Public Instruction, asking for a school and his plea brought results. The unlettered Willis was named co-promoter of the school with Charles Tucker and William Chorley, both wealthy city merchants.[3]

In a variety of other places George appears in the Beecroft records. In 1895 at a public meeting he proposed that a branch of the Oddfellows Lodge be formed in Beecroft. In the same year at a Progress Association meeting he spoke strongly against the hiring of day labourers from outside the district when he ‘knew instances of local men who had children starving’. In 1897 he reported to the Inspector-General of Police that Senior Constable Ross of Ryde had used bad language at Beecroft. The following year Willis organised a concert in the Thornleigh School of Arts, coaching a troupe of 15 performers called the ‘Beecroft Amateurs’, in aid of Mr P. Stanton and family of Thornleigh, who were in financial need. In 1902 George Willis and a ‘reverend gentleman’ were speakers at a prize-giving at Beecroft Public School.[4]

In 1898 George constructed the new tennis courts on the Village Green and in 1904 quarried from his own land a block of sandstone for the foundation stone of the School of Arts building.[5]

David John, George’s son, was killed a day before his twentieth birthday whilst serving with the Australian contingent in South Africa, and a memorial in the Village Green to his memory kept the Willis name alive in Beecroft. George Alfred Willis, older brother to David, moved to an orchard in Chapman Ave. after his marriage. He worked as a carter in the district and owned a Clydesdale horse. His first son, born in 1902, was named Alfred David John in memory of the Boer War hero. George Alfred soon moved to the Coffs Harbour district and with others of his brothers went timber cutting on the Clarence River. In 1924 at the age of 46 years, George Alfred was drowned off the rocks at Coffs Harbour.[6]

In 1905 Delilah Willis died from influenza. George gradually became a recluse, although grandchildren remembered him as a virile man and at the same time a ‘toff’, who went to his labouring jobs attired in a bowler hat and shirt cuffs and collar stiffly starched. George died in 1921 in tragic circumstances, ‘accidentally burned to death when probably reading in bed whilst under the influence of liquor’. At the time of his death he possessed no cash or property.[7]

 

 

                 


[1] Land Titles Office 983/158.

[2] T. McCaskill, op. cit. p. 15. £2/4/-. Two pounds and four shillings – more than week’s wage for a labouring man. Its purchasing power in the early 21st century would be approximately $550.

[3] State Records New South Wales, Beecroft Public School, 5/14843.2; Cumberland Argus, 12 January 1895, 13 July 1895.

[4] Cumberland Argus, 11 May 1895, 3 July 1897, 27 August 1898, 27 December 1902.

[5] Cumberland Argus, 1 October 1898, 10 September 1904.

[6] Cumberland Argus, 13 October 1900.

[7] Cumberland Argus, 16 September 1905. State Records New South Wales, Inquests 1921 to 1924, Reel 2766, 1921/1184. Information from Mrs Margaret Burton of Culburra and Eric Willis of Ashfield.

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