Wills, William Henry (DNB00)

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WILLS, WILLIAM HENRY (1810–1880), miscellaneous writer, was born at Plymouth on 13 Jan. 1810. His father, at one time a wealthy shipowner and prize-agent, met with misfortunes, and at his death the chief care of supporting his family devolved upon William Henry, or Harry Wills as he was always called. Wills became a journalist, and contributed to periodical publications such as the ‘Penny’ and ‘Saturday’ magazines, and McCulloch's ‘Geographical Dictionary.’ He was one of the original literary staff of ‘Punch,’ and had some share in the composition of the draft prospectus. He contributed to the first number (17 July 1841) the mordant epigram on Lord Cardigan called ‘To the Blackballed of the United Service Club.’ He was for some time the regular dramatic critic, in which capacity he ridiculed Jullien, the introducer of the promenade concerts at Drury Lane, and severely criticised the acting of Charles Kean. Among his other contributions in prose and verse were ‘Punch's Natural History of Courtship’ (illustrated by Sir John Gilbert), ‘Punch's Comic Mythology,’ ‘Information for the People,’ and skits such as ‘The Burst Boiler and the Broken Heart,’ and ‘The Uncles of England,’ in praise of pawnbrokers. In 1846 he wrote for the ‘Almanac,’ but his contributions were thenceforth infrequent.

Wills began his lifelong association with Dickens in 1846, when he became one of the sub-editors of the ‘Daily News’ under him. Soon afterwards he went to Edinburgh to edit ‘Chambers's Journal,’ but two years later returned to London to become Dickens's secretary. In 1849, on John Forster's suggestion, Wills was made assistant editor of ‘Household Words,’ and was given the same position by Dickens when, ten years later, ‘All the Year Round’ was incorporated with it. His business capacity was invaluable to Dickens, and he was one of the most intimate friends of the novelist in later life. At the end of 1851 Wills accompanied Dickens on his theatrical tour in connection with the Guild of Literature and Art, to the temporary success of which his exertions largely contributed.

In 1868, while Dickens was in America, Wills suffered concussion of the brain from an accident in the hunting field, and was disabled from his duties as editor of ‘All the Year Round.’ He never recovered, and retired from active work. The remaining years of his life Wills spent at Welwyn, Hertfordshire, where he acted as magistrate and chairman of the board of guardians. He died there on 1 Sept. 1880.

Wills edited, in 1850, ‘Sir Roger de Coverley by the Spectator,’ illustrated by engravings from designs by Frederick Taylor (1851, 16mo; Boston, Massachusetts, 1851, 12mo; reissued in the ‘Traveller's Library,’ 1856, 8vo).

Wills also published ‘Old Leaves gathered from Household Words’ (1860, 8vo), dedicated to Dickens. The book consists of thirty-seven descriptive sketches of places and events. In 1861 he issued a quarto volume, ‘Poets' Wit and Humour,’ illustrated by a hundred engravings from drawings by C. Bennett and G. H. Thomas. Two pieces, ‘A Lyric for Lovers’ and an ‘Ode to Big Ben,’ the latter of which originally appeared in ‘Punch,’ were from his own pen. The book was republished in 1882. Wills also republished under the title ‘Light and Dark’ some of his contributions to ‘Chambers's Journal.’ He was a fluent writer both in prose and verse, with a faint tinge of pedantry, which afforded Dickens much amusement. Douglas Jerrold was fond of exercising his wit at his expense, and Wills had enough humour to enjoy the situation. The Baroness Burdett-Coutts had for many years the advantage of Wills's judgment and experience in the conduct of her philanthropic undertakings.

Wills married Janet, youngest sister of William and Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publishers. She was a woman of strong character, and a great favourite with Dickens, in whose correspondence her name frequently appears. She had an extensive knowledge of Scottish literature, and a large fund of anecdotes, and was for many years the centre of a wide literary and social circle. She died on 24 Oct. 1892. At her death the sum of 1,000l. accrued to the newspaper press fund, in which Wills had interested himself after the failure of the Guild of Literature and Art.

[Athenæum, 4 Sept. 1880, 29 Oct. 1892, and 12 Nov. 1892; Forster's Life of Dickens, ii. 422, iii. 227, 454–5; Dickens's Letters, ed. Dickens and Hogarth, passim; Spielmann's Hist. of Punch, pp. 19, 26, 218–19, 282–3; Knight's Passages of a Working Life, iii. 121; Fox-Bourne's Engl. Newspapers, ii. 143; Allibone's Dict. Engl. Lit.; P. Fitzgerald's Memoirs of an Author, chap. iii., and Recreations of a Literary Man, i. 74.]

G. Le G. N.