John Wills (1807-1891)
John Wills was born in the spring of 1807. His birthplace is a bit of a mystery since records indicate two different birthplaces: Ireland, 1851-1861 England Census, 1870 U.S. Census and Liverpool, England, obituary. He was the son of Francis Wills and his mother remains unknown. His father was the administrator of the Quaker Friends School in Newtown-in-Bolland, Yorkshire, where John received his early education.
John married Sarah Myers on 7 March 1831, in St. Mary's Church, Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire, England. At the time of the marriage, John was listed as a coal merchant. John and Sarah had eight children: Mary Myers Wills, Catherine M. Wills, William M. Wills, Francis Wills, Frederick Henry Wills, Oswald A. Wills, John Trenwith Wills, and Sarah F. Wills. At the time of John's death, only seven still survived; four living in England and three living in the United States. According to his obituary, “he leaves also a score of grand-children and two great-grand-children to whom, as many of his poems witness, he was most tenderly attached".
In the 1851 Census, John and his large family are living in Chester, England, and he is working as a stock broker. Ten years later, they are living in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, and John is a merchant. His obituary tells us that he was a cotton merchant with the company name “John Wills' Sons & Co." and that the company faltered due to the American Civil War, and it's implications on the cotton industry. The company went bankrupt in the fall of 1864. This appears to have spurred on a dramatic life change, as John decided to take his chances working in America.
John came to the United States around the year 1868. He started in newspaper work and in the 1870 U.S. Census, he is listed as a “newspaper reporter", living in Bridgewater, MA. He is listed as age 63 and living with Frances (female) Wills age 49, who is “keeping house". The Census does not indicate if this was a spouse or not, but she is likely his second wife. His obituary indicates that his first wife died in England before he came to America. He married again in the United States, but the second wife died many years before he did. There was a Fanny Wills (married) found, who died on 4 November 1871 in Bridgewater; she is likely the second wife of John. This loss may have spurred him on to make another dramatic life change, for it was quite late in life that John decided to become a minister.
John was ordained in 1872, at the age of 65, and held churches in Mansfield, MA, Dighton, MA, Saint John, NB, Portland, ME and finally, Barnstable, MA, where he arrived in 1883 and served as the Unitarian Minister for five years.
In his final years, he wrote a book of poetry: Dreamland Visions and Other Poems which he published for private circulation only.
John died of cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) on 15 November 1891, in Barnstable at the age of 84 years, 7 months, 14 days, which estimates his birth as 1 April 1807. His tomb reads John Wills, Unitarian Minister for 5 years pastor of the Church in this place. 1807-1891.
UPEI's Provenance copy of Dreamland Visions and Other Poems, includes a small photo of John and a beautiful inscription to “Robert C. Bililngs, Esq. With the Author's Compliments". The highly ornate writing of Robert C. Billings, in the book can be attributed to John since the Sturgis Library Archives has other, similar, decorative writing by John Wills. John was a beautiful script artist and is, to date, the most stunning example of flourished script in the UPEI BookLives Collection.
“Death of Rev. John Wills", Barnstable Patriot, 17 November 1891, pg.3.
“Liverpool Bankruptcies. Extracts from The London Gazette, Commencing 1856", The Liverpool Commercial List. 1871-1872, Sixth and Seventh Years. London: Estell & Co., 1871, p. 57.
Sturgis Library Archives: Church and Sermon Collection, Box 1, Folder 12.