Saturday, 14 September 2013

Isles of Scilly - Part 2 - family history

I wrote recently about some of our experiences on our recent short holiday in the Isles of Scilly.

Hughtown, St.Mary's

Today I want to tell you about some family connections with these islands. My Dad was born on the island of St.Mary's, on 16th December 1911. Here's a picture of his Birth Certificate:

For this reason, I always consider myself to be a Cornishman, even though I myself was born elsewhere (Malaya, actually!). Until this year though, I had never been to Scilly, except once on a brief day-trip from Penzance, accompanied by my Mother, when I must have been either 6 or 7 years old. All I really remember is how seasick everyone was on that very rough crossing! It was very exciting therefore when Jane won a competition sponsored by Woman's Weekly magazine, and the prize was a four-day trip to Scilly for two people, with half-board hotel accommodation and flights from Exeter airport.

One of my first priorities for this trip was to find out more about my family's time in Scilly. I had heard that my paternal grandmother had run a shop there for a while (possibly a millinery shop?), and I thought I might be able to find someone who remembered it. On our first full day there, we visited the Hughtown museum, where as luck would have it one of the displays was about shops Then and Now, amongst which we spotted a photograph of a shop in the main street which was owned at one point by H.E.Willis who apparently sold drapery, clothing, haberdashery, and shoes (and maybe millinery too). Surely this had to be it!

The dates fitted, that's for sure, but I didn't know who H.E.Willis was. My Dad's name was Percy Clement Willis, and his father had been Clement Percy Willis. Could H.E.Willis perhaps have been my great-grandfather?

One of the staff in the museum was an expert on local shops and businesses, and she kindly offered to do a bit of research for me. She said that no-one else had ever asked her or been able to tell her anything much about Willis's shop, so she was nearly as excited as I was at the prospect of finding out something new! Her research revealed that H.E.W was the elder brother of C.P.Willis (Their parents Thomas and Eliza Willis also had two other sons and two daughters, so 6 children in total). The census records of 1891 showed this family as living in the Camborne area, where Thomas Willis ran a draper's business. By 1901, the family had moved to the St.Ives area, and the supposition is that they moved to Scilly shortly thereafter.

The business presumably passed down within the family to the eldest son, Horace. Whether or not my grandfather Clement was ever actively involved in the drapery business with his brother is not clear, though I do remember my Dad saying that his Mum (my Granny) ran the shop on her own for a while after Clement died, so presumbaly he was. I shall have to investigate further.  Meanwhile, here's a photo of me standing outside "our" shop, which is now the Co-op. It is recognisably the same building - look at the 3 tall narrow windows at top right...

Our visit to Scilly was full of happy coincidences. For instance, in our hotel room there was a picture of a gig with the name Emma Louise. "Emma" is our eldest daughter's first name, and "Louise" is our younger daughter's second name. On the boat trip to the Eastern Islands the boatman brought his dog with him. It was called Percy. As you have read, "Percy" was my father's first name, and my grandfather's second name.

We loved Scilly, and I wouldn't be surprised if we were to go back there again soon!


  1. Once you start going down the family history route it becomes addictive. My winter hobby is genealogy, I find it fascinating to unearth facts about my ancestors. Perhaps this trip will start up a new hobby for you.

  2. Marl just like a episode of BBC who do you think you are but more interesting in my view

  3. Ahhh :-) You'll go back again of course for the unanswered questions. What a lovely win it has turned out to be! Loving the pictures of Percy too :-)

  4. Fascinating! I've been doing our trees for 30 odd years and still coming up with new things. What a great win!

  5. How interesting to find out where your family came from and worked! My mother's family is much easier to track than my father's family. My mother always said she was half English, 1/4 Irish and 1/4 Scottish. My father is a pure Irish catholic. I know my both families came over here to Canada first (passage to Canada was cheaper) and that my grandfather on my mother's side was just 3 years old. On my father's side I only know that my great grandmother came with them and that she spoke only Gaelic or Gaeilge. That is basically all I know about them and I think it is a shame and I hope my children and grandchildren know more about me. Makes me want to keep a journal though I haven't had a diary since I was a kid.

  6. A do-it-yourself who do you think you are. My sister and I had a go at this but with two grandmas with the maiden name of Smith it wasn't easy. That and no living relatives to provide clues!

  7. Really interesting, and a beautiful top photo.

  8. That is so interesting! Particularly for someone like me whose ancestors are spread out within a certain short radius so the thought of not knowing does not even arise. Found your post fascinating. Hope you find out more details in your next visit!

  9. Very interesting and made me tingle to read of the coincidences.

  10. Fascinating stuff - you don't hear of many Percy's these days (although I did once have a pig called Percy).

  11. Hi Mark.
    I was born in Scilly in 1939 and have lived here all my life I can remember a Jack Willis who came too Scilly every year around the 40s 50s and 60, He would bring a suitcase with sample goods. and would also hold a display in the town hall just before Chritmas where you could order goods for Christmas then after the flower season when you had made a bit of money he would come back to Scilly and you would then pay him for the Christmas goods i believe he had a shop in Penzance, would he be a member of your family perhaps?

  12. Hi Phill; Thanks for this. I don't know whether Jack was one of my family members. My Dad was Percy (born 1911) and he had two brothers - one older (Kelso) and one younger (Leslie). Maybe Jack was a cousin? My Dad and his siblings travelled far afield (I was born in Malaya) and it was this that caused us to "lose the thread" of the family history.


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