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through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)

Chapter 1

  • Birth
  • Infancy
  • Boyhood and Early Education
  • Youthful Traits of Character

William John Wills was born at Totnes, in Devonshire, on the 5th of January 1834. He had, therefore, attained the full age of twenty-seven at the time of his death. Even in infancy, his countenance was interesting and expressive. He began to speak and walk alone before he had completed his first year. His lively disposition gave ample employment to his nurses, though I cannot remember that he ever worried one, through peevishness or a fractious temper. As soon as he could talk distinctly, he evinced an aptitude to name things after his own fancy; and I may fairly say, that he was never a child in the common acceptation of the term, as he gave early indications of diligence and discretion scarcely compatible with the helplessness and simplicity of such tender years. About the time of his completing his third year, Mr Benthall, a friend and near neighbour, asked permission to take him for a walk in his garden. The boy was then in the habit of attending a school for little children, close by, kept by an old lady. In less than an hour, Mr Benthall returned to ask if he had come home. No one had seen him, and we began to be alarmed lest he might have fallen into a well in the garden; but this apprehension was speedily ascertained to be groundless. Still he returned not, and our alarm increased, until his mother thought of the school, and there he was found, book in hand, intent on his lesson. He knew it was the school hour, and while Mr Benthall was speaking to the gardener, had managed to give him the slip, passing our own door and proceeding alone to the school, on the opposite side of the square. Mr Benthall, who can have seen or heard very little of him since, was one of the first, on hearing of his recent fate, to send a subscription to his monument, about to be erected at Totnes. Perhaps he remembered the incident.

Another anecdote of the child bears upon a leading characteristic in the after life of the man. My late lamented brother, W T Wills, who has since died at Belleville, in Upper Canada, was on a visit at my house from abroad. He had occasion to go to Plymouth and Devonport, and I engaged to drive him over in a gig. A petition was made to his mother, that little Willy might accompany us. It was granted, and we put up for the night at the Royal Hotel, at Devonport, where he became quite a lion. The landlady and servants were much taken by their juvenile visitor. The next morning, my brother and I had arranged to breakfast at ten, each having early business of his own to attend to, in different directions. When we returned at the appointed time, the boy was missing. None of the household had seen him for an hour. Each supposed that someone else had taken charge of him. After a twenty minutes' search in all directions by the whole establishment, he was discovered at the window of a nautical instrument maker's shop, eight or ten doors below the inn, on the same side of the street, within the recess of the door-way, gazing in riveted attention on the attractive display before him. The owner told me that he had noticed him for more than an hour in the same place, examining the instruments with the eye of a connoisseur, as if he understood them. His thirst for knowledge had superseded his appetite for breakfast. About twelve months subsequent to this date, we had nearly lost him for ever, in a severe attack of remittent fever. At the end of a fortnight, the danger passed away and he was restored to us. As he lay in complete prostration from the consequent weakness, our old and faithful servant, Anne Winter, who seldom left him, became fearful that his intellects might be affected; and I shall never forget her heartfelt delight and thankfulness when she saw him notice and laugh at the ludicrous incident of a neighbour's tame magpie hopping upon his bed. The effect of this fever was to alter the contour of his features permanently, to a longer shape, giving him a more striking resemblance to his mother's family than to mine. His utterance, also, which had been voluble, became slow and slightly hesitating.

For some time after this he resided at home, under my own tuition. Our intercourse, even at this early age, was that of friendly companionship. Instructing him was no task; his natural diligence relieved me from all trouble in fixing his attention. We were both fond of history. From what I recollect, he took more interest in that of Rome than of Greece or England. Virgil and Pope were his favourite poets. He was very earnest with his mother in studying the principles of the Christian religion. More than once my wife remarked, 'that boy astonishes me by the shrewdness with which he puts questions on different points of doctrine.' In his readings with me he was never satisfied with bare statements unaccompanied by reasons. He was always for arguing the matter before taking either side. One question, when very young, he would again and again recur to, as a matter on which the truth should be elicited. This was a saying of our old servant, above named, when she broke either glass or earthenware: that 'it was good for trade.' His ideas of political economy would not permit him to allow that this axiom was a sound one for the benefit of the state; and on this point, I think, Adam Smith and Malthus would scarcely disagree.

The pleasure I enjoyed in my son's society when a boy, was greater than that which intercourse with many grown men contributed; for I may strictly repeat, as I have already said, that he was never a child in intellect although juvenile enough in habits and manners. He never made foolish remarks, although not in the slightest degree uncomfortably precocious or pragmatical. I had no fear of trusting him with anything, and was often reproved for allowing so young a child to handle a gun, which he was accustomed to do as early as eleven years of age. His first practice was on some young rooks which he brought down with unerring aim, from a rookery on the grounds at our country residence. He was so particular in his general demeanour that I designated him Gentleman John, and my Royal Boy. His brothers, all younger than himself, styled him, Old Jack, and Gentleman Jack. He had a wonderful power of attaching animals of all kinds. Nothing moved him to anger so readily as seeing one ill-used. Beating a horse savagely would excite his disgust, as well as his dislike to the person who did it. Not having a dog, he used to take a fine cat we had, which would accompany him to any distance in the fields, and hunt the hedges and hedgerows for him. Never feeling that I could have too much of his company, I frequently made him my companion in long country walks, during which he incessantly asked for information. For the science of astronomy he evinced an early taste. When a very little boy, I began to teach him the names and positions of the principal constellations, the revolutions of the earth on its axis, and the fixity of the polar star. I believe we were the first to notice a comet in 1845, which was only a short time visible here, having a south declination, and which we afterwards knew to have been a fine object in the Southern hemisphere.

At the age of eleven he went to school at Ashburton. Although the distance was not more than six miles from the cottage of Ipplepen, my then general place of residence, it was with much reluctance that I consented to the separation. Several friends urged on me that I was not doing him justice by keeping him at home; that a public seminary where he could mix with other boys was an advantage, even though he might not learn more. It also happened that, at this time, a gentleman with whom I had been long acquainted, and of whose talents I held a high opinion, was elected to the headmastership of that school, which held its chief endowments from Gifford, the satiric poet, and Dr Ireland, the late Dean of Westminster. I remember how I returned in gloomy spirits after leaving him there. As I had four other children, it may be said that I showed undue partiality for this one, but my conscience clears me from the charge. I deeply felt the loss of his companionship. He was so suggestive that he set me thinking; and whilst I was endeavouring to teach, I acquired more knowledge than I imparted. There was nothing remarkable in his progress at school. I experienced no disappointment because he did not return home at the end of every half-year with the head prize. He merely brought his six months' bill, and a letter commending his steady diligence and uniform propriety of conduct. In viva voce examinations he had scarcely an equal chance with one of inferior intellect who might be quicker in expression; for besides the trifling hesitation of speech I have already noticed, he would have been ashamed to give a wrong answer from eagerness. A remark of Mr Page, his tutor, confirmed me in my own previous impression on this point. "It vexes me," he said, "that John does not take a top prize, for I see by his countenance that he understands as much, if not more, than any boy in my school; yet from want of readiness in answering he allows very inferior lads to win the tickets from him." On the whole, I think he derived much benefit from Ashburton; for besides his scholastic improvement he became an adept at the usual games, and a social favourite out of school hours.

At the age of sixteen he left the grammar-school, and I find the 30th of May 1850, to be the date of his articles to me as surgeon. I had at that time taken a partner, Henry Manly Esquire, now resident at Ipplepen, with a view of introducing and resigning to him my Ipplepen practice. Being in a country place, five miles from Totnes, where there was no chemist or dispensary, my son readily acquired his duties, which were to distribute the medicines and appliances directed for our patients by my partner and myself. In all cases his caution was extreme and we had no fear of his making mistakes. The ordinary operations of extracting a tooth or breathing a vein when a bumpkin presented himself as a patient, he speedily mastered. The absurd practice of going to be bled on any occasion that might strike the fancy of the party, without the advice of the doctor, was not at that time so completely obsolete as in this advanced age I hope it is, and ought to be. I remember, during the time of my own articles, that I frequently performed venesection five or six times in a day on persons who requested and fancied they required it; and I seldom indulged in the liberty of asking, wherefore.

In 1851, I took my son to London to show him the Great Exhibition. His chief attractions there, were the instruments and mechanical inventions. If, after a day or two, I chanced to deviate from the leading thoroughfares and missed my way, he would set me right in a moment. This was rather mortifying to one who fancied himself well acquainted with London from frequent visits, but he smiled when he saw I was not a true guide. I asked him how he acquired this apt knowledge. "On the second day," he replied, "when you were out, I took the map and studied it for two hours, so that now I am well versed in it." My subsequent experience made me think he had some instinctive power in matters like these, such as horses and carrier-pigeons possess, for the darkest night never baulked him. On a visit to Windsor, being told that it was considered a feat to climb the statue of King George the Third at the end of the long walk, he accomplished it in a very short time. At Hampton Court he unravelled the mystery of the Maze in ten minutes and grew quite familiar with all its ins and outs.

In the following spring, 1852, I took him again to London, at the opening of the session for medical students. As there was no anatomical class he studied that branch of science by visiting the museum at Guy's. Having myself been a student at that school, I introduced him to my late respected teacher, Charles Aston King, Esquire, through whom he obtained permission to attend. Surgical operations he witnessed at the theatres of any hospital on the regular days. The only class he entered was that of practical chemistry, under Dr John Stenhouse LLD, at Bartholomew's. When the course had nearly terminated, I saw Dr Stenhouse, and inquired whether my son evinced any particular talent in that line. Dr Stenhouse came from the lecture-room, and walked with me through Newgate-street into Cheapside, earnestly requesting me not to take from him one of the most promising pupils he had ever had. "I venture an assurance," he said, "that in two years, in practical chemistry, he will be second to few in England." Dr Stenhouse at that time was engaged in analyzing the different articles of food sold in the shops, and found my son useful and suggestive. His testimonial ran thus:

I have much pleasure in certifying that Mr W J Wills attended a course of practical chemistry at this medical school during the summer season of 1852. He obtained considerable proficiency, and invariably distinguished himself by great propriety of conduct.

John Stenhouse LLD.,
Lecturer to the Medical School of St. Bartholomew's Hospital,
September 1st, 1852.

At the house where he lodged, kept by an old couple and their servant, he was as one of themselves, and amused them greatly by the discoveries he made of the tricks practised by vendors of goods in the street; tricks they had no idea of, although they had lived in London all their lives. They used to say he would be a great genius in the detective department of the Police.

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