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Wills, William Henry (1810–1880), journalist and journal editor, was born on 13 January 1810, in Plymouth, Devon, the son of a wealthy shipowner and prize agent, and his wife, Jane (d. 1854). Wills had one sister and one brother. Because his father lost the greater part of his money, in 1819 (or 1820) the family moved to London, an experience described in Wills's ‘Forty years in London’ (All the Year Round, 8 April 1865). He began as a wood-engraver in the office of J. H. Vizetelly, and after his father's death was his family's chief support. He never attended university, but made up for his limited education with a wide and varied course of reading. Wills embarked on a career in journalism, contributing to such periodicals as the Penny Magazine, the Saturday Magazine, and the Monthly Magazine, of which he was sub-editor in 1835. In 1837 Wills's play, The Law of the Land, was produced at the Surrey Theatre, and in the same year he published ‘A Lyric for Lovers’ in Bentley's Miscellany, then being edited by Charles Dickens, who wrote to Wills, encouraging him to submit further pieces.

More importantly, however, Wills was a member of the original staff of Punch, contributing satiric verse to its first number on 17 July 1841, and continuing regularly until 1846. For Punch he also wrote prose and dramatic notices, which were described, more than a century later, as very professional, sardonic in style, and modern in tone (R. G. G. Price, 24–5).

In 1842 Wills was appointed assistant editor for Chambers's Journal (Edinburgh) at a salary of £300 a year. He remained in Edinburgh until 1845, and on 23 April 1846 married Janet Chambers (1812–1892), William and Robert Chambers's youngest sister. ‘Bless you, my children, go make your Wills’, Mark Lemon, editor of Punch, told the bride and groom. They had no children, however, but R. C. Lehmann, Wills's great-nephew, described him as the most popular uncle conceivable. Wills adored his witty, delightful wife, a singer of Scottish songs and teller of Scottish anecdotes, one of whose poems, set to music, became a favourite of Queen Victoria. Dickens, too, admired her and wrote the part of Nurse Esther in The Frozen Deep (1857) with Janet Wills in mind; she played it ‘to much acclaim’ (Lohrli, ‘Wife to Mr Wills’, 24), in one of Dickens's amateur theatricals.

Wills returned to London in 1845, although he continued to contribute articles to Chambers's, eventually collected in Light and Dark. His association with Dickens began in 1846 when John Forster recommended him as assistant editor for the Daily News, which Dickens had just founded. Dickens left the News almost immediately, but Wills continued under Forster, the new editor, until Dickens began Household Words in March 1850. Wills joined him as secretary, sub-editor, and proprietor, holding an interest of one-eighth share, which was increased to three-sixteenths in 1856. Wills and Dickens collaborated on ‘Valentine's day at the post-office’ for the first issue and continued thereafter, both also writing independently and with others. Altogether, Wills wrote some fifty full-length pieces, as well as short ones, some of which he collected in Old Leaves Gathered from Household Words (1860).

For this periodical, Wills performed the multitudinous tasks of a working editor, from proof-reading and dealing with an enormous amount of correspondence, to frequently settling both the contents and order of each number. He kept the office book (now in the Parrish collection of Princeton University Library), listing each contributor, his work, and payment (which he had a tendency to pare down). For all of this, Wills was paid £8 per week, his contributions included. And yet his role was pivotal—although Dickens was not an easy editor, he relied on Wills's understanding of the tone and aim of Household Words as consonant with his own. To Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens wrote that ‘Wills has no genius, and is, in literary matters, sufficiently commonplace to represent a very large proportion of our readers’ (15 May 1861; Letters of Charles Dickens, 9.415), yet he could not have conducted Household Words without his ‘boundless energy’. ‘If there were only another Wills, my fortune would be made!’ (Priestley, 143), exclaimed Thackeray when he himself became editor of the Cornhill Magazine and was looking for an assistant.

In 1855 Wills was asked to edit the Civil Service Gazette in addition to Household Words, but Dickens refused him the option of holding both posts, and so Wills turned the Gazette down. Realizing, however, that Wills had had economic motives for desiring the second position, Dickens suggested that, in addition to his salary, Wills should be paid separately for the articles that he wrote for Household Words. He also procured for Wills a part-time secretaryship with Angela Burdett-Coutts at a salary of £200, and Wills was also made honorary secretary of the Guild of Literature and Art. When Dickens abandoned Household Words to found All the Year Round in 1859, he took Wills with him as partner at the increased rate of £420 a year and a quarter share. In addition to this increasingly close business relationship, Wills and Dickens became good friends, with Wills serving as a highly trusted confidant. Dickens went so far as to entrust Wills with the transmission of his letters to Ellen Ternan during Dickens's 1867–8 American reading tour. As Dickens had put it on 2 January 1862: ‘I think we can say that we doubt whether any two men can have gone on more happily and smoothly, or with greater trust or confidence in one another’ (Letters, 10.2). It is significant that his friendship with Wills was ‘one of the few unbroken relationships Dickens experienced in his lifetime’ (Spencer, 145).

As well as his two collections of articles, Wills published an edition of Sir Roger de Coverley (1850) and Poets' Wit and Humour (1861), which began with Chaucer and contained two of his own poems. In 1868 Wills, who was passionately fond of hunting, was thrown from his horse and suffered a brain concussion. He was unable to continue full-time work and left All the Year Round in 1869. He and his wife bought Sherrards, a small but charming house near Welwyn in Hertfordshire. There Wills became a country magistrate and worked on a book, which was unfinished when he died at Sherrards on 1 September 1880. He was buried on 6 September, and although he had hoped a friend, Eliza Lynn Linton, would finish his manuscript, it was never completed. Janet Wills died on 24 October 1892.

Jane W. Stedman

Sources  

The letters of Charles Dickens, ed. M. House, G. Storey, and others, 1–11 (1965–99) · A. Lohrli, ed., Household Words: a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens (1973) · A. Lohrli, ‘Wife to Mr Wills’, The Dickensian, 81 (1985), 23–5 · A. Lohrli, ‘Household Words: its editor and subeditor’, The Dickensian, 74 (1978), 30–32 · E. Priestley, The story of a lifetime (1904) · R. C. Lehmann, ed., Charles Dickens as editor (1912) · A. Nisbet, Dickens to Ellen Ternan (1952) · S. Spencer, ‘The indispensable Mr. Wills’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 21 (1988), 145–51 · R. G. G. Price, A history of Punch (1957) · H. Stone, ed., Charles Dickens' uncollected writings from Household Words, 1850–1859, 2 vols. (1968) · C. Tomalin, The invisible woman (1990) · P. A. W. Collins, ‘W. H. Wills' plans for Household Words’, Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, 3/2 (1970), 33–46 · E. Oppenlander, Dickens' All the Year Round: descriptive index and contributor list (1984)

Archives  

U. Cal. Los Angeles, corresp. |  BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96 · U. Edin. L., corresp. with James Halliwell-Phillips · U. Sussex Library, letters to Henry Morley


Likenesses  

D. O. Hill, oils, priv. coll. · photograph, V&A

Wealth at death  

under £40,000: probate, 1880