PEOPLE IN PORTSMOUTH

 

GENERAL SIR GEORGE WILLIS - LT. GOVERNOR, PORTSMOUTH (1884-1889)

General Willis was a distinguished soldier who served with the army for 49 years. He was born on 11th November 1822 (1823 in some records) at Sopley in Hampshire where his family lived at Sopley Park. He entered the army in 1841 as a ensign in the 77th (East Middlesex) Regiment. His early career was uneventful. He served with the regiment in India, England and Ireland as ensign, lieutenant and captain. In 1854 he accompanied the regiment to the Crimea where he served with it until May 1855 when he became first Deputy-Assistant Quartermaster-General at Headquarters and afterwards Assistant Quartermaster-General of the 4th Division. Willis was present at all of the main engagements of the war and had a total of over 100 tours of duty in the trenches. He was mentioned in despatches, received brevet promotion, first to Major and later to Lieutenant-Colonel.
 
On leaving the Crimea he spent a short time in Africa and in 1857 was selected to form the 2nd Battalion of the 6th, now the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The following year he was appointed Assistant Quartermaster-General (AQG) at Gibraltar and in 1859 transferred to Malta as Assistant Adjutant-General.
 
In 1866 Colonel Willis was recalled to the staff as AQG of the Southern District. At the same time, he joined the committee overseeing the restoration of the Royal Garrison Church, Portsmouth. In 1871 he was given a CB when, according to the 1871 Census, he was living at Dovercourt in Kent Road, Southsea. This house was formerly the home of Thomas Ellis Owen who had died in 1865 having established himself as the leading architect in Southsea. As Dovercourt was one of the largest houses in Southsea, Colonel Willis must have had a considerable fortune. At the time of the census he was recorded as living alone (with his servants), his first wife Eliza, daughter of George Morgan MP, having died in 1867. In memory of her Willis erected a window in the Garrison church on which was inscribed "To the Glory of God, and in memory of Eliza Angelina, wife of Colonel George Harry Willis, C.B., Q.M.G. Southern District, who died 5th August 1867." The inscription was on the glass in a window which was lost in the bombing of the church in 1941.
 
In 1878 Willis obtained, as a major-general the command of the Northern District. He held this until March 1881, having in the meantime been promoted lieutenant-general. In 1882 General Willis accompanied the Egyptian expedition and commanded the troops at the actions of El Magfar and Tel-el-Mahuta, the capture Mahsamah, and the action of Kassassin on September 9th.
 
In May 1884, General Willis was given command of the Southern District, with headquarters at Portsmouth, which he retained until 1889, having been promoted to full general. During this time he and his second wife Ada, daughter of Sir John Neeld, lived at New Government House which was in the grounds of the modern university Frewin Library. Both Willis and his wife were active members of the community, amongst many occasions being the opening (in 1898) of the headquarters of 2nd Hampshire Volunteers in St Paul's Road by General Willis and the opening of Southsea Railway Station by Lady Willis in July 1885.
 
In November 1890 General Willis retired and in recognition of their contribution to the community Lady Willis was presented with a clock said to be worth 20,000, which gives some indication of the level of respect accorded to them.
 
The inscription read "Presented to Ada Mary, Lady Willis in supplement to public demonstration in respect accorded to herself and General Sir George Willis K.C.B. on his retirement from command of the Southern Military District by numerous friends in Portsmouth & it's vicinity as a farewell token of esteem & record and in recognition of the kind and graceful part taken by her in promoting the social enjoyment and general benefit of the community of Portsmouth during her residence of Government House from 1884 to 1889."
 
In 1892 Sir George Willis stood in the parliamentary election for the Conservative party. He polled 9135 votes, but the Liberal, Mr John Baker, won the seat with 9643.
 
The last years of his life were spent at his home, Seabank in Bournemouth where he died in November, 1900. He was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, Sopley. There is a memorial plaque to Willis in the church.
 
Tim Backhouse