In Improbable Mutterings on January 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm

My grandfather, Philip Watson Willis, taken in late 2010 when he was 93.

My grandfather, Philip Watson Willis, was best known amongst his large family and circle of friends as “Favie” – the name a product of my father’s lisping toddler attempts to say “Father.” My family has always prided itself on being articulate in speech and in writing – education always at a premium! – so I find it entertaining that this was allowed to let slide. And it stuck, too – even some of his university students knew him by this name.

Underneath his gruff exterior was a man who cared deeply about family, not merely in the immediate and present, but also the very definitions and changing understandings of the term. A consummate student of history, Fave (even the diminutive “ie” got dropped after a while) was fascinated by how lineage might have had some effect on his and his family’s character. For the 33 years that I knew him, he was always ready to tell a story about his grandparents, their grandparents, and the conditions and concerns that governed their day-to-day lives. If you met the man more than once, that was what stuck with you: he was a storyteller.

The man’s life was too complex to summarize here – many attempts were made after his death in November, 2011, and the inability of his scholarly family to do so reflects his profound and meaningful journey to 94 years. But I did want to share some of that love of history, of story, and of family, that he shared with me and many others, particularly in his later years.

Fave enjoyed writing letters, and they reflected his polymathic (and -glottal) tendencies: rambling peaks and valleys of biography, narrative, and cultural critique. I received many of these in my years, and in my Philistine impatience, kept very few of them. This will forever remain a regret of mine: not preserving Fave’s testamonials to our family. His is now predominantly an oral history, preserved by the imperfect but loving minds of his large and precocious brood.

I thought I would transcribe one of these letters, written on the occasion of the restoration of a family treasure: a watercolour of a “Highland Laddie” portrait done of my great-great-great grandfather, James Willis. This letter isn’t so much a narrative as it is an attempt to record some essential genealogical facts, to which, in his characteristic way, he appended a series of “Impressions – Odds and Ends” (so titled). While its style is slightly formal and contains fewer references to personal detail than his speech might have otherwise conveyed, it nonetheless is an accurate picture of what a conversation with Fave might have been like.


 Letter, written around 2005




James Willis

Born 1800 in Leith, Scotland. He enlisted in the 42nd Highlanders (The Black Watch) and served in Ireland – paybook verification. I believe that he was posted to Europe – end of the Napoleonic Wars and married Margaret Schöneke. They emigrated to U.S.A., Pennsylvania (books verification). They had several children – John, Charles, Alexander. John spelled the name “Whyllas” – Welsh?

Alexander Willis

Born 1840. We find him in North Andover, Mass as apprentice at Davis & Ferber (?) which was the largest machine shop in America in 1860s and specialized in manufacture of textile machinery. Alex invented a continuous feed mechanism (and carding machine) and went to Wash, D.C. to patent the same; cheated by a crooked lawyer. He was sent by D&F to Mispec, N.B. to solve a problem in a local mill. Checked out the area and came back to N.B. to start a mill. Married Hannah Louise Lawton from St. John. 5 children: Alex Jr., Will, Abe, James, and Janet Elizabeth who married a Horn and moved to Woodstock. The first mill at Golden Grove burned about 1877, no insurance, so Alex moved his family to Yarmouth, N.S., where he managed a mill. He returned to near Woodstock where he had another mill. First electric lights in town. Came back to Golden Grove and set up a new mill erected by Fred Green, 1898.

James Willis

Born Oct 10 1874 to July 24, 1959. Youngest son of Alex. Grew up in Woodstock. He and his brother worked in “father’s” mill. James a spinner. Alex dies without a will and mill was sold to Golden Grove Woollen Mills Co. Ltd. They made losses 3 years and sold mill to James. He married Beatrice Conboy Green, daughter of Fred Green. Five children: Izzy, Philip, Todi, Granville, & Janet Elizabeth. We grew up in Saint John, but Izzy & I lived in Grove as kids and early youth. All born at home.

Philip Watson Willis

Born May 12, 1917, oldest son of James. Married Willa Christie Arthurs, born Feb 11, 1920. Children: Stephen, Mary, Katherine, Elizabeth, Elaine, and Margaret who died 1980. No school for P.W. until 1924 at Victoria School, corner of Sydney St. & Charlotte in Saint John; later Winter St. and St. John High. U.N.B. grad 1939 and Dal 1940. 3 yrs COTC [Canadian Officer’s Training Corp] both A &B certs of proficiency. Volunteer in RCNVR (S.B.). Service on West Coast and S.E.A.C. [South East Asia Command]. Varied career 3 yrs civil service Ottawa, 5 yrs WWII, 5 yrs business and most in academic. WANDERLUST! Christie – Fredericton High, Normal School + 2 years teaching before marriage on February 17, 1941.


The Green Connection


Fred Green

The Greens had a land grant at Wickham, N.B. But Fred Green was not a farmer. He got into construction and moved to St. John. There he met and married Isabel Conboy. They had 5 children: Bess, Harold, Beatrice, Raymond, and Rene. Fred and his crew built the first breakwater in Courtney Bay. High waves came in there and disrupted the (sailing) ships at anchor. The family rented a home on Crown St. near CHSJ (as of now). My mother thought the house was haunted. Fred and crew could row across the Bay to do construction. Fred also built the structure for the woollen mill, 1898. Fred’s mother’s name was Mary – she was very parsimonious. The Conboys lived at end of Sand Point RD. John Conboy was Irish and given to drink. A squatter on his property – name of Tucker – cheated Conboy of his property. Fred Green died unexpectedly of ruptured appendix and so Isabel Green was left destitute with 5 children. Bess married Edwin Brooks and they moved to Boston. Harold went to work as a young teen (14?) and became a locomotive engineer. Beatrice married James Willis and Raymond married Flossie Herrington. Rene was a spinster. Beatrice: born Nov 12, 1885 to Mar 3, 1948.


Impressions – Odds & Ends



Before WWI, was heavily dependent upon water courses. All roads were dirt and some merely trails – horses, oxen. However there were railroads too – trolleys in cities.


Mostly wood & coal. Kitchen stove and wall heater.


Wool, cotton, silk, canvas, leather.


Most men smoked – pipes, cigars – or took snuff. No women smoked in public.


Children were encouraged to be quiet: don’t talk around adults; don’t speak unless addressed. Play outside and make your own games. People taught to be polite – instructed in home, school, and work.


As a child and youth, I detested school for these reasons:

a) unnatural confinement

b) too many hostile teachers: but some were nice and kind

c) old, badly-ventilated buildings, i.e. they stunk.

I tolerated grade school as a sentence, was 50/50 for SJHS [Saint John High School] because of the girls and loved university which set me afire intellectually.


More impressions


Willis – tended to be conservative, polite, reliable

Green – tended to be lively, garrulous, irascible


Willis: Scots, German, possibly Welsh

Green: English, Irish

Both families moved more freely between U.S.A. and Canada. Nationalism has strengthened considerably on both sides: visas, permits, passports. Hostility, incidents, security, etc the cause. I believe that the cultural factor, if it could be expressed numerically, would be negatively sloped.

Homo sapiens moves forward on a time scale and it shows ups and downs. But time as we perceive it is an illusion. Our “five senses” are unreliable; Asian cultures grasp this better. As the Buddhists say:

All is Sorrow

All is Passing

All is Unreal.

Be of good cheer; I love all of you!!!


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