The Honorary Curator
George Willis was still at school when he found a fossil in a chalk pit at Old Basing, and had its significance explained by Mr Gilkes, the town baker, who had ‘a wonderful collection’ of fossils and minerals. A few years later he found prehistoric flints at Ellisfield and soon after added botany to his interests. From this point on he spent nearly all his leisure time combing the countryside around Basingstoke searching for flints, fossils and wild flowers.
The death of his father in 1902, when George was 25, brought a halt to these activities as he found himself in charge of the family business. Ten years later he rekindled his interest in fieldwalking, in the company of John Ellaway, and they were joined by Harry Rainbow. From 1916 they began publishing their discoveries in the Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society and in 1920, Willis became local secretary for the organisation.
It was via the Field Club that Willis met Dr J P Williams-Freeman, OGS Crawford and Reginald Hooley. In 1921 Hooley wrote to Willis relating his dismay at not meeting up with the Basingstoke trio at Butser
‘I was hoping to see you and your friends at the Butser Hill excavation of the Field Club…I want to draw deductions as to the geological aspect of your finds for my paper on the ‘History of the Drainage of the Hampshire Basin’. You are indeed fortunate in having two such enthusiastic colleagues in your researchers’
As well as collecting specimens and running a business, George Willis was at the heart of Basingstoke civic life, becoming Mayor in 1923. His influence stood him in good stead seven years later when a museum was proposed for the town. He became the Honorary Curator, responsible for setting out the displays and defining the ethos of the museum that today bears his name.