Thursday, July 16, 2009

What'chu Talkin' 'Bout, Willis?

My mother was born Violet Joyce Willis in Chepstow, Monmouthshire. There is a long-standing controversy over whether Monmouthshire is truly part of England or Wales -- the joke being that the Welsh claim it is English and the English claim it is Welsh! She was conscripted (what Americans call "drafted") into the British Army shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War and assigned to duty with the American Army, Ordnance Division, in Ammunition Supply. That is where she met my father. Following the War she immigrated to the United States in 1946 and married my father, making her my immigrant ancestor on my maternal side.

For purposes of Michaela's school project on immigrant ancestors, that was the end of our research on the Willis side of the family. Of course, growing up I had heard stories about my English and Scottish ancestors, so I knew that her father was my namesake, Leonard John Willis, and her mother was Winnifred Violet Kerr of Clan Kerr in Midlothian, Scotland. I had also been told that my great-grandfather, William Willis, had been a barrister (we call them lawyers in the U.S.) and that William's father had been a Queens Counsel judge. On two trips to England, I had met quite a few of my Willis and Kerr aunts and uncles, as well, but for the first 57 years of my life that was all I knew of my Willis ancestry. But once aroused, my curiosity was no longer satisfied with that mere smattering of information.

When my daughter and I started our ancestral research, I was certain that tracing our British ancestry would be easy. After all, the British had been keeping meticulous records since the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Domesday Book. And to govern an empire that had spanned the entire globe since the 16th century, surely the British maintained birth, marriage, property, and death records second to none. Well, once I turned my attention to my mother's side of the family I was again reminded of what happens when you assume ...

As it turns out, the British do have meticulous records of births, marriages, property transactions, and deaths. Unfortunately, they have no workable system for searching and locating those records! None of those functions were centralized until the 20th century. So, if you want to locate the birth record of someone born before 1900, you must not only know what county and city or town they were born in, you must also know which parish it was. That's roughly equivalent to knowing the Zip Code of someone's birthplace!

When you've waited until everyone who might have remembered what parish your great-great-grandfather was born in has died, the task takes an ugly twist! If I had had the sense to ask these questions while my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles were still alive my research might have been made vastly easier. Let that be a lesson to you younger readers!

Once again, I was spending two or three hours a night a couple of nights a week, and months went by without a breakthrough in researching my Willis ancestors. It was then that my mother came to the rescue! Knowing of the new found interest my daughter and I had developed in genealogy, my mother decided that one of the best gifts she could give her son and grandchildren was her memoirs. So, she prepared a book for each of us containing the story of her life and all that she could recall of her family. And in those memoirs I found a vital clue.

As had been the case with the Jenner side of my family (see "A Tale of Two Samuels"), one of the keys to unraveling the Willis line was realizing that there had been two William Willises: William Willis the barrister, and Judge William Willis, QC. In all the years my mother had talked about her grandfather and great-grandfather I had never realized they were both William Willis. It wasn't until I saw the information written down in her memoirs that I understood this. Still, I had googled "William Willis" and "William Willis QC" countless times and never found anything helpful. But, as I read Mum's spare recollections of the two men's lives a thought occurred to me: there might be an obituary on a Queen's Counsel judge, since he would have been a man of considerable prominence. And I was right! But it was not to be found in the London Times archives or somewhere you would ordinarily expect.

When I googled "William Willis obituary" in April 2009 the first UK result that Google returned was a PDF document posted on the website of Toddington Baptist Church. I clicked it and there it was: my great-great-grandfather's obituary! Of course, I wasn't certain of it at first, but once I read the entire article and compared it to Mum's memoirs there was no doubt. The funeral notice mentioned F. H. Willis ("Uncle Frank" in Mum's memoirs) and a son-in-law named H. S. Saunders, who had married my mother's "Aunt Trissie." All of the pieces fit the puzzle perfectly! And by visiting other pages on the Toddington Baptist site I was able to trace back three more generations! A page entitled "Roots" listed Judge William's father and grandfather: another William Willis and Thomas Willis. The obituary and funeral notice also provided several other bits of information we had not previously known, including the maiden names of both Judge William's and Barrister William's wives and the fact that Judge Willis was elected to Parliament in 1880 representing Colchester.

Every bit of additional information -- dates and places of birth, names of spouses and children, vocations, titles, achievements, etc. -- allows a researcher to refine searches in the various online databases. Names like William Willis are commonplace, but there are far fewer Judge William Willises who were born in Toddington, Bedfordshire, the son of a strawhat maker named William, and married first to Annie Outhwaite, then subsequently to Marie Elizabeth Moody, served as a Queens Counsel judge under Queen Victoria and a King's Counsel judge under Edward VII, and even served as a Member of Parliament. In fact, only one that I've found so far!

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