Who was Judge Willis?

Judge Willis arrived in Melbourne in March 1841 as the first Resident Supreme Court Judge for the district of Port Phillip.  The significance of him being the first residential judge should not be overlooked.   Courts of lesser jurisdiction had already been established, but the creation of a branch of the NSW Supreme Court marked a new step in the size and prominence of Port Phillip.  Until Judge Willis arrived in Melbourne,  accused prisoners would be jailed until there was a little group of them to be sent up by sea under guard to Sydney for their court hearing.

Judge Willis was born on 4th January 1793.  His mother was of Irish extraction, his father a captain of the 13th Dragoons.  He seems to have had a rather tempestuous history, blotting the two major markers of gentility- schooling and marriage. He was expelled from Charterhouse and Rugby schools and his first marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore ended in divorce.

After being called to the bar in 1816 and publishing three textbooks on equity, he commenced a judicial career with the Colonial Office.  His first appointment was to the Kings Bench in Upper Canada in 1827, a position from which he was ‘amoved’ or dismissed two years later. He returned to England to challenge his dismissal before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and after an interval was appointed to British Guiana as Vice-President of the Court of Civil and Criminal Justice in 1831.  He fell ill while in British Guiana, and returned to England for his health.  He was about to return to British Guiana when he was sent to New South Wales instead, arriving in 1838.

In Sydney, he was embroiled in a number of disputes with the press, Catholics, and more importantly his brother Judges.  In order to defuse the disputes between Willis and Chief Justice Dowling in particular, Governor Gipps offered him the position of resident Supreme Court judge for the district of Port Phillip.

Judge Willis arrived in Port Phillip in  March 1841, and set about establishing the new court in the former Works office on the corner of  King and Bourke Street, Melbourne.  Although he was second in precedence to the superintendent Charles La Trobe, he soon was embroiled in disputes with a range of Port Phillip identities including press editors, barristers, magistrates and public officials.  By mid 1843 the burden of repeated controversies became too much for La Trobe and Gipps, and after a warning in February 1843 he was ‘amoved’ for the second time in June 1843.

As he had done in Upper Canada, he returned to England to again present his case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It was found that he had been denied natural justice by not being allowed to defend himself against the charges levelled against him.  However, the Judicial Committee ruled that there were grounds for his amoval and the Colonial Office did not re-appoint him elsewhere in the empire.  He lived the rest of his life on his second wife’s estate in Worcestershire, UK.

I find John Walpole Willis fascinating as an individual who seemed to provoke controversy everywhere he went.  In many ways, it’s the response to him that appeals to me, rather than the man himself.   He was appointed to small communities that were themselves boiling over with petty scandals, all within the broader structure of the networks of the British Empire at the time.

27 responses to “Who was Judge Willis?

  1. This interesting and doubtless controversial character shares the first and last names of my late paternal grandfather, who himself was a notable figure in the NSW police force.

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  15. sorry koori cus’s, he was the bad john willis. from murri lad black jack willis.

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  26. I would like to share with those who are interested, that I have warrants from the 1841 and 1842 that say Resident Judge on them. Am happy to scan via email if anyone would like to see these.

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