Lucy Wills (née Walters) was born in 1828 in Shoreditch, London, the daughter of a well-established and wealthy London silk manufacturer. Her father, Daniel Walters’ silk mill was based in Spitalfields and Braintree, Essex. He specialised in weaving silks and velvets for the furnishing trade, exhibited in many national  Exhibitions and supplied the silks for the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. By 1860 they were employing 300 people and their silks and velvets were considered to be equal in quality to those of the French.

Lucy married George Wills in 1854 and left for Adelaide, Australia where she had three children before returning to London around 1859 to have 5 more children here. They had one daughter Ada who died in 1863 aged 9. They lived in various large stylish houses after they returned from Australia, one in St Leonards on Sea and the others in London with always at least 4 servants. Their last house in London was No 3, Hyde Park Gate. Lucy died in 1898 aged 70 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London.

George Wills’s family came from Chagford at what is now called Lincombe Farm, previously Venn Farm, before moving to Smithacott Farm in Bridford parish around 1815 and then to Moor Barton Farm in Moreton parish as tenants. His mother and his brother continued farming at Moor Barton, the largest farm in Moretonhampstead parish, after his father died and George bought it for them.

No. 3 Hyde Park Gate London today

George left for Australia in 1840, when he was only 16, as a pioneering entrepreneur, taking with him drapery and textiles to set up business in Adelaide. Australia was only just beginning to open up from being a penal colony and apparently, he unpacked his drapery goods on an allotment still covered in scrub. He came back to England only to return to Australia with three brothers in 1849. Two brothers died early on but George and his brother, Richard, who had been apprenticed to a draper in Exeter, developed the business rapidly and they founded a partnership together called G & R Wills & Co. They became importers and warehousemen expanding their business from drapery and textiles to include clothing and footwear. Richard returned to England in 1858 to set up a purchasing house in London for all the goods they needed to export to Australia. He returned to Australia, where he died in 1862, and George came back in his place to London around 1859 to take charge for good. He was well supported In Australia by Lucy’s brother-in-law Robert Tarlton who had joined them there. The company continued to expand across Australia, playing a significant role in the commercial development of South Australia and then opened branches across the world. It is still a large national company in Australia now called G & R Wills Wholesalers.

After his brother died, George also set up a shipping company, George Wills & Co which became one of Australia’s most important shipping agencies. It expanded and thrived in Australia and then worldwide, being mostly involved with importing, exporting and shipping. He eventually retired in 1902. The family continued to be involved with the Company until at least 1948 when it became a Public Company. George Wills died suddenly in 1906 aged 82 in his house at Hyde Park Gate and is buried at Highgate Cemetery with Lucy.

Adelaide office of G & R Wills & Co. in 1878

George began to buy the Pepperdon estate in 1859 with his brother Richard but he was only able to buy a quarter of it due to complicated family legal reasons but gradually he was able to buy the rest of it, owning it completely at last by 1874, He had also bought Moor Barton from the owner for his mother and brother who were tenants there. He immediately started planning to build Pepperdon Hall with its farm buildings and cottages and he built another wing in 1886 for a billiard room, more bedrooms and offices which have since been knocked down along with the chapel. The family have said that though he was very wealthy he was also very mean and did not have an architect to design the house but built it as he thought it should be. Just before it was finished, he remembered the bathroom. which had to be squeezed into the middle of the building!

He farmed Pepperdon successfully with the help of an agent cultivating what he called ‘a mountain waste’. He had a large flock of sheep of about 600 and a herd of bullocks of about 100. In his will he did not give the Pepperdon estate to his children but stated that if they wanted it, they would have to buy it at the market price. His son George Tarlton Wills spent a lot of time at Pepperdon with his family and is written about in a delightful book by his daughter Peggy called ‘Oliver’. It is about her brother, Lieutenant Oliver Byerley Walters MC RAF, who died on the penultimate day of World War One and reflects their love of Pepperdon and the countryside around it. In 1945 Peggy Hamilton, who had moved to New Zealand, hearing that Pepperdon was in a bad condition, sold it. It was eventually bought by the Keep family who still own and farm the estate today.

Pepperdon Estate Sale Map in 1946

The Lucy Wills Nurses Home

Their lasting legacy was the Lucy Wills Nurses Home. It was built in 1900 by George Wills of Pepperdon. He donated it in memory of his wife Lucy who had died in 1898. It was to be a home for a nurse who was to care for the poor of Moretonhampstead parish and they could be of any religious denomination. The nurse had to be qualified and a single woman, either a spinster or a widow. She was to nurse the sick of Moreton in their own homes and not in her house and she was not to receive any payment directly from her patients.

The description of ‘poor’ meant in 1900, nearly fifty years before the national Health Service, those people who were unable to pay for the medical or nursing care they needed. The nurse, later called a District Nurse, continued to live in the Lucy Wills Nurses Home until 1963. George and Lucy Wills were from non-conformist religious backgrounds, Congregationalists, explaining perhaps why the patients could be of any religious background.

George Wills bought the land, paid for the building of the house and set up a trust fund investing £1,500 to provide an income of £52 a year for the nurse. The Trust had two other members who were prominent Moretonians; Simon Newcombe Neck, a retired draper, who lived in the Great House in the Square and Arthur Clampitt Loveys who lived in Elmfield off Station Rd and was the local auctioneer and surveyor.

Little is written about the finances until 1933 when the accounts were audited and copies are now in the Moreton Archives. In 1933 the Nurse’s annual salary was £126 with a uniform allowance of £10. In the same year as part of their income The Lucy Wills Trust received £60 from the Executors of the late George Wills, £30 from the Devon County Council, £5 from the Carnival Committee, £16 from a whist Drive, £6 from private patients’ fees, £34 from midwifery patients and £20 from individual private subscriptions mostly for 10 shillings but more from the Wills and Bowring families At this time the midwifery patients had to give the Nurse 6 months’ notice before the confinement and the Nurse’s attendance had to be approved by the Committee. The charge for a confinement was £1 and 5 shillings and could be paid in instalments. If the patient lived one mile from town the transporting of the nurse was the responsibly of the patient. In 1933 she had 28 midwifery patients, 21 surgical and 23 medical cases with 796 home visits.

Lucy Wills Nurses Home Court St Moretonhampstead

In 1934 electricity was installed in the Lucy Wills House, in 1935 the lavatory was moved to inside the house, and in1940 a ladder was attached to the building as a fire escape. By 1948 the Nurse’s annual salary had risen to £325 and by 1943 she had the use of a hire car through Devon County Council, costing in total, including petrol and insurance, just over £130 a year. In 1944 they paid £10 for her driving tuition. Before that she had been driven by Charlie Brooks.

The Wills family stopped being involved with the Lucy Wills Nurses Home in 1944 when they passed it onto the Management Committee of the Lucy Wills Nursing Association, made up of 14 Moretonians. It became a charitable trust in 1948 maintaining the house for a District Nurse to live in. In 1950 Devon County Council bought it for £1,300 from the Trustees. who invested the money to provide a fund known as the Lucy Wills’ Sick and Poor Fund with the house to be still used by a District Nurse. In 1963 the Trustees agreed to free the County Council of any restrictions on the property hoping the Council would feel morally obliged to keep it as a Nurse’s Home, but they sold it in 1964 and it became a private home as it is still today.

In the 1980s the Lucy Wills Trust, as it was now known, gave a small amount to pensioners twice a year at Christmas and in the summer and more recently only at Christmas. It amalgamated with the small Eleemosynary Trust from the Almshouses Trust and a similar Trust from Manaton. In 2022 it was decided to give the remainder of the money in these Trusts to a local charity, Wellmoor.

George & Lucy Wills