Robert Willis

Boatman Yarmouth

Short Version


It would appear that Robert Willis was born in Niton on the Isle of Wight in 1750, son of Robert and Mary Willis and Baptised at St John the Baptist Church, Niton on the 15th July 1750. He married Sarah Whitwood at the same Church on the 23rd February 1773.


He was appointed a Customs Boatman at Yarmouth on the 7th June 1785, the method by which he was nominated is not known, but he was stated to be ‘a Seafaring Man and qualified for the Management of a Boat’. His fellow Officer at Yarmouth was Charles Leigh, Coastwaiter and Boatman, appointed in 1782 and technically his superior officer, although as will be seen later appears to be less well thought of by the Collector.


It became clear that at an early date he was well thought of by the Collector, as in October 1787 he was asked by the Collector William Arnold to Officiate for the Tide Surveyor John Miller during his illness.This was a very responsible post, among the duties being control of incoming Vessels and supervising Tide Waiters, but it unfortunately did not last long, John Miller died on the 14th October and was replaced on the 24th November 1787, following which Willis returned to his post as Boatman Yarmouth. It appears to have been unusual for promotions to be made within stations at this time.


In February 1788, Willis was stated to have six children and to receive a annual salary of £30, In the same year he was drawn to serve in the Isle of Wight Militia, the Collector pleaded for an exemption as he was considered a ‘poor man’. There is no result shown for the letter, but it appears that he was not required to serve and continued his role a Boatman at Yarmouth.


In 1792 he was appointed as temporary Sitter (Captain) of the Six Oared Boat, based at Bembridge following the resignation of the then Sitter. This Boat had a wide range and appears to have covered the whole of the Island coast. (Although described as a Six Oared Boat it had a sail).


He was Sitter from 3rd November 1792 until 30th April 1793, when he was stated to have been ‘taken ill and unable to continue the Charge of the Boat’, the nature of the illness is not specified. The Boat was nine years old and was discontinued, broken up and sold in early 1794.


In May 1794 he put in a request for payment of an additional Salary as Sitter in addition to that of Boatman, the normal procedure was to apply for the difference between the Salaries, this was rejected, payment of £5 – 0 – 6 agreed by the Board on 6th June 1794, the basis of which is not detailed, but appears to be the difference between his two salaries.          


In October the Cutter (Swan) based at Cowes was captured by the French and it appears that a Vessel seized in 1794, the Nancy (Berthen 34 Tons), was put into Service as a Temporary Cruizer on 3rd November 1795 with Robert Willis as Commander, initially on a trial basis.


Early success seems to have been limited, in March 1796 it was stated that ‘he only Seizures hitherto made by this Cutter are Six small Casks of Spirit & one Cask of Snuff’ but this was put down to the season of the year, rather than the Commander. There was an improvement over the summer and in August 1796 it was reported that ‘the Cutter has kept a diligent look out, and has seized  upwards of 400 casks of Spirit & Tobacco with a large Lugsail Boat. A continuation of the trial was requested from the Board and subsequently accepted.         


This trial appears to have continued indefinitely, probably as the replacement for the Swan had also been captured by the French in December 1796.


In April 1797 Robert Willis’s actions were recognised in the London Gazette, which printed a letter from the Collector to the Secretary of the Board:

I have the Honor to inform you, that a French Privateer the Daphne of Cherbourg, Bar Corpa, Master, of the Burthen of 33 Tons, with 25 Men, Two Carriage Guns and Two Swivels, has been taken and brought in here Yesterday by the Nancy Cutter, a small Revenue Cruizer belonging to this Port, Robert Willis Commander, 32 Ton Admeasurement, with Ten Men and One Swivel Gun only. The Privateer is marked on the Stern, Vigilant, of Guernsey, a Deception often made use of, I am informed, to decoy English Trading Vessels within Reach of the Guns of the Enemy's Cruizer.


 As Commander of the Nancy he was responsible for keeping the Accounts and other paperwork. Problems were encountered with the Victualling of the Nancy (there was in addition to Willis a made and eight mariners and lost £34 10s 6d during the 1796, this was seemingly common with Cutters at this time as the allowance was below the rising cost of Stores), and he requested that he received payment from the Board for this. The outcome is not known, but such requests appear to normally have been accepted by the Board.


In September 1797, concern was expressed at the state of the vessel, it being said to have become ‘very leaky not only in her bottom but upper Works and Deck, that the Men cannot be dry in their Cabbins, nor the Cutter kept at Sea without great hazard unless she undergoes a thorough repair’. The Collector suggested the use of the Eagle Cutter (which was at that time laid up) as a replacement (also describing Willis as an ‘active Officer, having kept a good look out against the Smuglers, and made some considerable Seizures).


The Board did not take up the suggestion of the use of the Eagle, and the Nancy continued for the next Year but in October 1798 an order was given for its discontinuance. Willis’s request to be allowed to Cruize until the end of the Quarter was granted and it was then ordered that the Cutter was then to be laid aside, broken up & the pieces sold. Willis subsequently requested the difference between his Boatmans Salary and that of Cutter Commander and was subsequently paid £64 5s 8p. It must also be bourne in mind that as being a member of a Cutter Crew he would also have received a proportion of the value of any seizure made.

In June 1799 the Collector, William Arnold again attempted to persuade the Board that another temporary Cutter was required, with the alternative of using the six Oared Boat previously belonging to the Nancy with Robert Willis as Sitter.


There does not appear to have been any specific Order from the Board to use the six Oared Boat, but it appears that the Collector put it into effect on a trail basis as the result of another Order, and then requested confirmation from the Board.


Initial results do not appear to have been good (which the Collector stated partially resulted from the mere presence of the Boat) and he put forward a further trial period. The Crew consisted of a Sitter & Six Men, and a period of six months from December was granted


This further trial was approved, but again with little success. The Collector attributed this to the worn out state of the Boat and put forward an Estimate (£43 – 15 – 10) for a replacement on 20th February 1800, which in the absence of a reply he repeated on the 7th May, Orders were clearly eventually given for its building (and the trial allowed to continue) as in August necessary supplies, Colours, Compass, Spy Glass & Arms were requested.


The Collector William Arnold died in March 1801, and was replaced by John Ward who seemingly also held Robert Willis in high esteem.


The Boat was put into service and appears to have operated with a degree of success, but in August 1801 the crew were accused of taking Spirits and Tobacco from a Prize Boat seized by a Naval Vessel, although at the time Robert Willis was not on board (being indisposed). It appears that following a report no action was taken on the complaint.


In March 1802 the Boat was moved from Yarmouth to St Hellens, a real hotbed of Smuggling, the inhabitants of which were not particularly friendly towards the Boat Crew, who could not find accommodation other than in a Public House which was not deemed suitable. The possibility of building a Watch House was investigated as was the use of a seized vessel, but neither of these appears to have been adopted. Seizure figures for the Boat between March and June were given as 252 Casks of Spirit. At this time it was stated that for believing 4/5 of the Inhabitants of St Hellens and its opposite Shore Bembridge exist from Smuggling only and the sent to Sea 20 Sloop Rigged Vessels.


As no satisfactory solution could be agreed with the Board, the Boat was moved to Yarmouth ‘pro tempora’. Even at Yarmouth there was hostility towards them as in December 1802 it was sunk by somebody who ‘took out the Plug from the bottom of the Boat’. The Boat, oars and other materials were recovered, but the suspected culprit, Thomas Broadley, escaped to Alderney. In January 1803 the Collector made another attempt to have a Watch House built at St. Hellens and also to press for a small Cutter to patrol the Back of the Wight, this was again unsuccessful, but the request for the Cutter repeated in May, together with a glowing testimony for Robert Willis, stating that he was an Intelligent active Officer and has lately taken two very good Prizes of Contraband Spirits and a Sloop.


This was again unsuccessful.


The Boat appears to have stayed at Yarmouth for the next year, although not without problems. In March 1804 a quantity of seized goods were rescued from them by a number of Soldiers based at Sandown.


The Collector, continued to press for Robert Willis to be allowed to use a small Cutter, again emphasising his previous conduct:

Robert Willis is an Isle of Wight Man, bred to the Sea and possesses accurate local knowledge of the small Bays and Shoals at the back parts of the Island where Smuglers run with their Goods and where Revenue Cruizers of any Burthen or Depth of Water cannot pursue them without risk

This again was without success.


Once again in August 1804 a problem were encountered by Willis and the Crew of the Six Oared Boat when an attack was made on the Boat at Chilton Chine:

‘James Dyer a Notorious Smugler who they verily believe was interested in the Contraband Goods they saw sunk & who intentionally to hinder Willis from proceeding to Sea took up a Hammer & beat a hole through the Six Oared Boat into the bilge thereby disabling her from floating’.

In this case recompence of £168 9s was obtained from James Dyer (and Abraham Bickerton).


A major report was submitted to the Board concerning Smuggling around the Island (which is reproduced in full here) giving details of how it was carried out and possible methods of reducing it, on of which was another attempt to obtain a cutter for Robert Willis. This, and the request for additional Riding Officers do not appear to have been actioned by the Board.


An unfortunate incident occurred in May 1805, when Willis had his Deputation stolen when at Lymington Market, it does not appear to have ever been recovered. No action appears to have been taken, but he was required to advertise its loss in two provincial papers for a month, presumably at his own expence.


In September 1807 Willis, who was at that time 57 wrote to the Collector requesting to give up his position as Sitter of the Six Oared Boat and return to his post at Yarmouth with Charles Leigh. Robert Willis’s request to be relieved of Duty as Sitter of the Boat was accepted and William Arnold appointed in his place as Sitter (it was moved to Sconce Point in 1818 and subsequently became the Coast guard Boat). The request did, however, resulted in a request from the Board as to whether two officers were still required at Yarmouth.


The Collectors reply emphasized Robert Willis’s attributes as ‘an experience & intelligent Officer’ and described his partner Charles Leigh, Coastwaiter, who 4 years younger as ‘an old faithful Officer but of very humble abilities’. Yarmouth at this time appears to have had a two oared boat (requiring two men) for use in the Roadsted and a punt for use in the harbour (although the breakwater was not built for some years later). The Manning of Yarmouth Station remained unchanged. From the Collectors comments in Letters to the Board it is clear that Willis was, despite being the Officer at Yarmouth with the lower grade considered the most able.


It appears that the two Officers continued their duties at Yarmouth without particular incident, occasionally requesting new equipment, a new two oared boat in December 1812, provided at the cost of £14 with two sails at £3 – 7 – 6 and new Tuck sticks (a long sword like stick which was pushed into the sand/ground to determine whether any goods were hidden) in September 1815.   


The inadequacies of other Officer at Yarmouth, Charles Leigh was again raised in 1815, when the Collector suggested that certain of his duties (particularly relating to book keeping) be assigned to Robert Wallis, who was said to write with a ‘good hand’ whilst Leigh was described as ‘an old Man and very bad scribe’. It is interesting to note that Charles Leigh’s Salary was £60 and Robert Willis’s just over £40.


Another incident occurred in early 1816 when John Miller Coastwaiter at Shalfleet and Newtown died. The Collector proposed that the Office should not be filled and that Robert Willis should perform the duties with and allowance of £10 per annum. This again raised Charles Leigh’s fitness for duty, as the Board queried why Willis rather that Leigh had been proposed. The Collector reported:

‘We have to state that Mr Leighs capacity in early life was always extremely shallow and being in the 62nd year of his age and troubled with Rheumatism he is not only incompetent to the Duties of his Office but unable we believe if a he were to hastily pass a man in the Street with a Cask of Spirit on his shoulder he could not for want of Strength and Activity take it from him, we submit he ought to be superannuated’.

Despite the feeling of the Collector about Charles Leigh he, rather than Robert Willis, was required to cover Newtown and Shalfleet, for which he received payments for the Duty, which were considerable greater than the annual allowance proposed, the Collectors Letter to the Board has a degree of ‘I told you so’.

In February 1821 he was recommended for Superannuation, and retired on the 5 April 1821. He died at Yarmouth in 1830 at the Age of 80 and was buried there on 4th May.

Full Version (This includes extracts from Cowes Customs documentation)

Customs Cowes Homepage

20 January 2008