John Willis

1758 - 1825


London merchant, whose firm John Willis & Co. (which failed in 1805) was ostensibly separate from his partnership with Benjamin Waterhouse in Waterhouse and Willis of Kingston Jamaica, a major prize agent. The Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital counterclaimed for the compensation for many of his estates and enslaved people in pursuit of unpaid prize money: the compensation was paid into the Chancery suit of Pratt versus Willis. His clerk Henry Devis testified in 1803 that Willis had not been in Jamaica since 1784.

  1. Waterhouse and Willis were the dominant Prize Agents in the Caribbean at the turn of the 19th century, reported in 1803 to have accounted for 9/10ths of the prizes carried to Jamaica in the 'late war' against France, worth £2,143,000. By law, prize money unclaimed after three years was to be paid by the Prize Agent to the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital. It appears that some 10 per cent of prize money flowed to Greenwich Hospital in this manner. Prize Agents were generally mercantile firms charging 5% commission, but it is clear that some, perhaps most, also deployed prize money in their own businesses prior to payment. The firm of Waterhouse and Willis was subject of a suit by the Commissioners of the Greenwich Hospital, to whom they were 'greatly in arrear' to recover unpaid prize money. The business of Waterhouse and Willis was investigated by the Commissioners of Naval Inquiry as part of a wider Report in 1803, when the firm was said to be under 'pecuniary embarrassment'; at the time it reportedly held £197,000 'depending on appeals, besides the proceeds of prizes undistributed, amounting to £95,000.' Their clerk Henry Devis (who had worked for the firm in Jamaica May/June 1800- November 1801) gave detailed evidence, in which he put the undistributed prizes as £129,285 gross, with £34,285 already advanced to officers, and acknowledged that Waterhouse and Willis had stopped payment on the 3rd March [1803] 'but I expect they will resume payments in a few days.'

  2. Administration of the will of John Willis of Devonshire Place Marlyebone [made in 1805 with codicils of 1810 and 1815] was granted to Browne Willis his son and one of the residuary heirs 02/03/1825. The initial terms of his will mirror those of his partner Benjamin Waterhouse, for whom he was an executor: an annuity of £1000 p.a. to his wife Mary, and £5000 each to his children John, William, Browne, Edward, Mary, Ann, Sarah and Eliza. He left an annuity of £125 p.a. to Mrs Ann Bates, widow, mother of his wife, and a further annuity of £125 p.a. to Ann Bates spinster, sister of his wife. He left his business to his partner Daniel Patrick Molony, former partner in Willis, Waterhouse, Molony and Griffiths of Jamaica, and to his former assistant Henry Devis, on the proviso that they took into partnership any son of his and of his former partner Benjamin Waterhouse proposed to join the firm. He requested that his estate and that of Benjamin Waterhouse have equal shares in the assets of their partnerships, and made his children his residuary legatees. In codicils of 1810 and 1815 he changed his executors, removing Daniel Patrick Molony and adding Robert Smart of Kingston Jamaica.

  3. John Willis of Mecklenburgh Square was buried at St Mary Islington aged 67 20/01/1825.


London Gazette 19487 25/04/1837 pp. 1056-1057.

  1. 'The Fourth Report of the Commissioners [of Naval Inquiry]', The Naval Chronicle Volume the Eleventh Part I (Jan-July 1804), pp. 31-41, 124-137, 217-226, 295-304, 457-464; Volume the Twelfth (July-December 1805) pp. 21-30, 212-221. John Jackson, a prize agent unconnected with Waterhouse and Willis, said in evidence in March 1803 that he was about to pay over to Greenwich Hospital £5500 of the £50,000 he had distributed to Lord Keith's squadron for the capture of the Dutch squadron in Saldanha Bay, p.131. Henry Devis' evidence is at pp. 298-304 and pp. 457 et seq. The scope of Waterhouse and Willis's business was given by the Report at p. 298, drawing on Devis' evidence, and the amounts held by the firm are given at pp. 299-300.

  2. PROB 11/1697/18.

  3., London, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1980 [database online].

Further Information

Mary Bates
John, William, Browne, Edward, Mary, Ann, Sarah, Eliza

Associated Claims (1)

£1,690 19s 10d
Previous owner (not making a claim)

Associated Estates (15)

The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:

  • SD - Association Start Date
  • SY - Association Start Year
  • EA - Earliest Known Association
  • ED - Association End Date
  • EY - Association End Year
  • LA - Latest Known Association
1823 [EA] - → Owner
1825 [EA] - → Owner
1817 [EA] - 1820 [LA] → Owner
1817 [EA] - → Other

Owner of sequestrated estate

1820 [EA] - → Owner
1817 [EA] - → Trust beneficiary
1820 [EA] - 1823 [LA] → Owner

Possibly still trust beneficiary rather than owner

1817 [EA] - 1820 [LA] → Not known

Attorneys for John Willis of the City of London registered the enslaved people on the estate in 1817 and 1820; possibly he was mortgagee in possession.

1815 [EA] - 1823 [LA] → Not known

The estate was held by the sequestrator of John Willis in 1817.

1820 [EA] - → Mortgagee-in-Possession
1815 [EA] - 1823 [LA] → Owner
1825 [EA] - 1828 [LA] → Previous owner
1817 [EA] - 1826 [LA] → Owner
1820 [EA] - → Owner
1817 [EA] - 1834 [LA] → Mortgage Holder

John Willis & Co. were shown as mortgagees 1820-1834. John Willis himself had died c. 1807.

Relationships (4)

Business partners
Deceased → Heir-at-law
Notes →
Also father and...
Business partners
Notes →
Partners in Waterhouse and Willis, prize agents....
Testator → Executor

Addresses (2)

Devonshire Place, London, Middlesex, London, England
Mecklenburgh Square, St Pancras, London, Middlesex, London, England