CFHS code : AG448
Parish : St Andrew the Great
Monument : not described
Above information from Cambridge Family History Society Survey
This headstone, in the parish area of St Andrew the Great, has fallen face down. Close to the centre circle in the north sector We have identified the monument using the grave register. A note in the register says there are two other people buried in this grave. This may be a sexton’s error. Or they may be unrelated.
We have not found an inscription even though the headstone was lifted in 2018 the stone was too eroded.
Robert Willis (27 February 1800 – 28 February 1875)
Robert was the illegitimate child of Robert Darling Willis (1760-1821). He was born in London and baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Marylebone. His father was a Cambridge Fellow and was therefore not allowed to marry, but had two children with a woman who went by the name of Mary Willis. Mary died in 1850 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery. His father is best known as being the doctor to George III and was a pioneer in mental health treatments. As a young boy Robert was in poor health and was therefore educated at home but his supreme intelligence was said to be evident at a young age. Aged 19 he took out a patent for an improvement to the pedal harp.
He went to Caius College in 1822 and was awarded a B.A in 1826 (9th Wrangler) and his M.A in 1829. He was ordained as a priest in 1827 and admitted as a Fellow in 1826. Robert was particularly interested in Applied Mechanics and in 1827 he was appointed Jacksonian Professor at the University a post he held until his death. He was able to combine a knowledge of maths, construction and architecture to become an expert in his field. In 1837 his paper ‘On the Teeth of Wheels’ laid out the basis of an ‘odonograph’ which helped draughtsmen and subsequently was widely used in construction.
He was part of the Royal commission in 1849 to look at the use of iron in railway stations. In 1851 he was one of the judges of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and vice-president of the Paris Exhibition in 1855. His work spanned across machinery for textiles to mines.
As well as mechanics however he also had a great passion for architecture and archaeology. He was said to be brilliant at being able to forensically dissect medieval buildings. As part of this work he learned medieval handwriting and studied ancient manuscripts. In 1841 he was asked to provide a condition report on Hereford Cathedral and also invented a device to copy ancient moldings. He was one of the founder members of the Archaeological Institute and President of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Robert designed the West Window in St. Botolph’s Church and the wooden ceiling of the Great Gate in Trinity College. He wrote a book with his nephew John Willis Clark called ‘The Architectural History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge’.
He married Mary Ann Humphrey (1804-1871) at St. Andrew the Great on 26 July 1832. The honeymoon was a tour though Germany, France and Italy which was said to have driven his interest in architecture. The couple had nine children: Emily (1833-1836), Robert Francis (1834-1901), Charles Whewell (1835-1917), Frederick (1837-1917), Edward Romilly (1838-1890), Margaret Elizabeth (1839-1911), Arthur (1840-1881), Henry (1842-1842) and Alan (1843-1919). They lived at Petersfield House in Cambridge (1851), 23 York Terrace in London (1861) and then 5 Park Terrace (1871). Mary died in September 1871 in London and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
He was said to be a wonderful lecturer and his lectures at the university were apparently always crowded. ‘He used neither manuscript nor notes, but whether he was describing a machine or a building an uninterrupted stream of lucid exposition flowed from his lips, carrying his hearers without weariness through the most intricate details and making them grasp the most complex history or construction’. He did the annual Royal Institute lecture on three occasions, but also gave a series of lectures to working men between 1854 and 1867 in London.
He died at Park Terrace on 28 February 1875 of bronchitis, he was said to have been in poor health for some years before. He was buried at Mill Road Cemetery on 5 March. His obituary in the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal declared he was ‘the last of those great men who by their brilliant reputation in studies the most diverse – theology, mathematics, classics, science – made the first half of the present century the golden age of Cambridge…Professor Willis was not only thoroughly proficient in the science and practice of applied mechanics, but he was an historian, an antiquarian, a musician, an architect, a draughtsman, a painter; and so skillful in each of these subjects that he might have risen to supreme eminence in any one of them had he chosen to do so’.
The contents of his house were auctioned in April 1875 and included china and glass in variety, carpets, window curtains, fenders and irons, a few dozens of wine, 120oz of silver and large quantities of carpenter’s tools of the best description’.
Grave register for St Andrew the Great P23/1/19 held at Cambridgeshire Archives
A Cambridge Alumni Database
Dictionary of National Biography
by Mary Naylor and Claire Martinsen
Alex Buchanan has written a biography of his life.
More information about the Willis family can be had here