Janine Rizzetti grew up in Heidelberg where a neighbour recounted stories about 'mad' Judge Willis who originally lived on her property. Later, after learning that Judge John Walpole Willis was sacked from his position in the Port Phillip District, Janine began research in earnest.
Willis was born into a middle class family in 1793. He was the second son of a military man and he attended Charterhouse and Rugby Schools. He was asked to leave both these establishments. Always ambitious, he was encouraged to write a text book and marry well. He wrote 3 text books on equity law but his marriage to Mary Isabella Bowes-Lyon ended in divorce in 1833. His second marriage in 1836 was to Ann Susanna Kent.
Many judges worked on circuit of postings throughout the British Empire and Willis's first position was in Upper Canada in 1827. As early as 1828, he was dismissed from office and following his return to London he appealed to the Privy Council who overturned the judgement.
His second appointment was to British Guiana where he served successfully from 1831 to 1836, despite being at odds with his colleagues. A dose of malaria forced him to take some leave in England but on the eve of his return to South America he was redirected to Sydney, New South Wales.
In Sydney, in 1838, there were several judges, headed by Chief Justice Darling. Willis would have been the third junior judge. Again, his behaviour caused problems. In court Willis would criticize other judges or impersonate them. He made grimaces, whilst twisting his gown or twitching his wig and made unmannerly interjections of counsel. During a heated altercation with Willis, Chief Justice Darling actually collapsed.
As Darling could no longed work with Willis, Governor George Gipps chose Willis when the Port Phillip District requested a judge. Willis and his wife arrived at Melbourne, Port Phillip on 9 March 1841. They brought with them 43.5 tons of luggage, 2 horses, a goat and a dog. Willis's salary was £1,500 but he was expected to find his own accomodation. He rented a home in Heidelberg.
Willis had a heavy work load and was prepared to work six days a week if necessary. As the first resident judge he had to start from scratch in building a civil and criminal court. He regarded his court to be an arm of the Supreme Court, not a minor court and he preferred to not send people to Sydney.
Arriving in 1841 at the time of a depression many people went before the courts for bankruptcy and Willis was very critical of the entrepreneurial attitude towards land speculation. He was a friend of the 'little man' and would arrange representation for people who couldn't afford it. He was very keen to raise the standard of magistrates in Australia to that in England.
So, why was he, on 15 July 1843, a year after he had laid the foundation stone for Port Phillip's first Supreme Court building, on his way back to England having been sacked once again?
Willis was not the first judge to be sacked, although he was the first judge to be sacked twice. There was no dispute about his legal skills and his judgements were considered consistent, and good, even if a little harsh. He was a thoughtful, informed and educated judge. He was not sacked because of his administration of the law. Indeed he went out on a limb to approve Government legislation.
The first reason Gipps gave for the dismissal was Willis's 'tone and manner.' The second reason was 'excitement,' or the political problems which arose from meetings and petitions related to Judge Willis. There were streams of petitions both for and against Willis but it appears that he alienated everyone he dealt with: not only Darling, but also Gipps, La Trobe, the Attorney General, the barristers and the Town Prosecutor. He was excitable, bad tempered and a bully. He spread gossip and broke confidences. He was politically reckless and caused dissention and controversy wherever he went.
Public disorder was already a problem for La Trobe, as the local population was agitating for separation from New South Wales and eventually he wrote to Gipps and asked for Willis's removal.
Willis returned to England where, three years later, the Privy Council decided that Gipps had the right to dismiss him and that there were grounds for dismissal. However the Council overturned the judgement because Gipps had not given Willis the chance to defend himself in public. The NSW government was requested to pay Willis three years back pay.
Willis did not return to Australia and despite requesting postings in other countries, the Colonial Office never offered him another position.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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