’sWillis.htm                  Latest edit 9 Oct 2009.   

Interactive version ©2007 R.J.PENHEY

The Bourne Archive

An Extract Concerning Doctor Willis from Marrat’s History of Lincolnshire.

Health and Social Welfare

On pp.38 – 42 of Vol. III. Marrat includes the following story in his article on Greatford.

The Magician, a tale.

The following most extraordinary event happened, in the autumn of 1807, and may be relied upon as an absolute fact.

The violence of a fall deprived Sir Henry F. of his faculties, and he lay entranced several hours; at length his recollection returned—he faintly exclaimed, “where am I?” and looking up found himself in the arms of a venerable old man to whose kind offices Sir H. was probably indebted for his life. “You revive,” said the venerable old man: “Fear not, yonder house is mine; I will support you to it; there you shall be comforted.” Sir H. expressed his gratitude: they walked gently to the house. The friendly assistance of the venerable old man and his servants restored Sir H. to his reason; his bewildered faculties were re-organized; at length he suffered no inconvenience, except that occasioned by the bruize he received in the fall. Dinner was announced, and the good old man entreated Sir H. to join the party; he accepted the invitation, and was shewn into a large hall, where he found sixteen covers; the party consisted of as many persons—no ladies were present. The old man took the head of the table: an excellent dinner was served, and rational conversation gave zest to the repast.

The gentleman on the left hand of Sir H. asked him to drink a glass of wine, when the old man in dignified and authoritative tone, at the same time extending his hand, said, “No!” Sir H. was astonished at the singularity of the check, yet unwilling to offend, remained silent. The instant dinner was over, the old man left the room, when one of the company addressed him in the following words; “By what misfortune, Sir, have you been unhappily trepanned by that unfeeling man who has quited the room? O Sir! you will have ample cause to curse the fatal hour that put you in his power, for you have no prospect in this world but misery and oppression; perpetually subject to the capricious humor of the old man, you will remain in this mansion for the rest of your days; your life, as mine is, will become burdensome; and, driven to despair your days will glide on, with regret and melancholy, in one cold and miserable meanness. This alas! has been my lot for fifteen years; and not mine only, but the lot of every one you see here, since their arrival at this cursed abode!” The pathetic manner that accompanied this cheerless narrative, and the singular behaviour of the old man at dinner, awoke in Sir H.s breast sentiments of horror, and he was lost in stupor some minutes; when recovering, he said, “By what authority can any man detain me against my will? I will not submit; I will oppose him by force, if necessary.”—“Ah, Sir!” exclaimed a second gentleman, “your argument is just, but your threats are vain; the old man, sir is a magician; we know it by fatal experience; do not be rash, Sir; your attempt would prove futile, and your punishment would be dreadful.”—“I will endeavour to escape,” said Sir H. “Your hopes are groundless,” rejoined a third gentleman; “For it was but six months ago, that, in an attempt to escape I broke my leg.” Another said he had broken his arm, and that many had been killed by falls in their endeavours to escape; others had suddenly disappeared and never been heard of. Sir H. was about to reply, when a servant entered the room and said his master wished to see him: “Do not go,” said one. “Take my advice,” said another: “for God’s sake do not go.” The servant told Sir H. he had nothing to fear, and begged he would follow him to his master: he did, and found the old man seated at a table covered with a dessert and wine; he arose when Sir H. entered the room, and asked pardon for the apparent rudeness he was under necessity of committing at dinner; “for,” said he, “I am Dr. Willis; you must have heard of me; I confine my practice entirely to cases of insanity; and as I board and lodge insane patients, mine is vulgarly called a madhouse. The persons you dined with are madmen; I was unwilling to tell you of this before dinner, fearing it would make you uneasy; for although I know them to be perfectly harmless, you very naturally might have had apprehensions.” The surprise of Sir H. on hearing this was great; but his fears subsiding, the Doctor and he passed the evening rationally and agreeably together.


The event is dated in the autumn of 1807 and Marrat published the story in 1816 so there is a good chance that it is not garbled by multiple re-telling, though it could be an invention. It occurred very shortly before Willis died, in December 1807. He was 89 years old, so the description as a ‘venerable old man’ is not out of place. Our story testifies to Willis’ retention of his wits and capacity to manage the hospital, late in life so perhaps he applied his skill to himself as well as to King George. However, the story hangs together better if Willis was managing Greatford Hall as an asylum, while the king was visiting Shillingthorpe Hall where Sir Henry had met only the younger Willis generation.

Sir Henry F. may have communicated the story directly to Marrat. The publisher was primarily a printer. It is fairly clear from reading the book that he augmented his own research with material from correspondents. The use of initials was fairly common at that time, so that people in the know could recognise themselves and their acquaintances while others, like us, had to guess. People in Lincolnshire, of the class likely to buy the book, would have been fairly confident in their guess. Though if it were a fiction, the author might have been happy to let them guess.

Though Sir Henry F. might have been any baronet or knight of such a name, the most likely candidate was Sir Henry Fane. He was born in 1778, an eldest son of the well-known family from Fulbeck. He followed an army career but seems to have seen little active service until just after the time of the story. From 1805 he was an aide de camp of the king, with the rank of colonel so even were the course of the king’s illness less widely known than it is now, Fane could hardly not have known about Dr Willis. It looks therefore, as though the story has been adjusted a little in the telling, to make it a more intriguing anecdote. The fall is likely to have been from his horse. This would not be surprising, as a 29 year-old cavalry officer would feel obliged to do on a horse, things which might readily lead to a fall.

From 1808 Fane took part in the Peninsular War during which his career prospered and it was in 1815, in the month of Waterloo, that he was made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath. Thus, by the time Marrat was preparing his book for publication in 1816, the Colonel Henry Fane of 1807 had become Sir Henry Fane KCB1.

It remains to be explained what Henry was doing within sight of Greatford Hall, in the Autumn of 1807. It was in a quiet corner of south Lincolnshire, not particularly on the way to anywhere and though the family home of Fulbeck Hall was in the same county, it was more than forty kilometres away.

The Wikipedia article on Willis asserts without stating its grounds, that after 1801, the king remained a frequent visitor of Francis Willis at Shillingthorpe Hall, for several years after his treatment was concluded2. If true, this would fit the circumstances of the story. Shillingthorpe Hall was a purpose-built asylum some 1.5 kilometres from Greatford Hall. It was built to meet the additional demand for Willis’ services following his success with the king in 1789.

It would seem that either King George found Willis’ company congenial, or he felt a need for treatment to maintain his sanity. One might have thought that a man of the king’s social seniority would have been entertained at Greatford, Willis’ own residence, rather than at the asylum, Shillingthorpe but the story implies that Fane did not know Greatford Hall. As an aide de camp of the king, Fane will have been lodged near him. At the time of his fall, he will have been either patrolling to ensure the king’s security or taking the air, outside the inevitably somewhat strange atmosphere in the hall.

While it is clear that the story has been adapted, to describe an innocent discovery of the lunatics at Greatford and the meeting of the stranger, Dr. Willis, this could be to avoid mention of the king’s private business more than as a protection for ‘Sir Henry F.’. In 1816, George III was still the king, though by that time, Prince George was conducting his official business and everyone had pretty well given up hope of a restoration of the king’s health.

The 1807 events occurred in the atmosphere of the turbulent politics of the Napoleonic Wars. The French Empire had begun in 1804 and was making strenuous efforts to expand in the direction of Russia, Prussia and Denmark. The Russians and Prussians had signed their respective Treaties of Tilsit in the previous July and the Danes were under pressure to join an alliance against Britain. In early September, this last danger to Britain was reduced by the Second Battle of Copenhagen. Perhaps the visit arose from the king’s need of help in keeping a level head.

1. ^    H. M. Stephens, ‘Fane, Sir Henry (1778–1840)’, rev. James Lunt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 27 Sept 2008]. Other details of Fane’s career come from the same DNB source. (Enter ‘Henry Fane’ then follow ‘(1778–1840), army officer’.)

2. ^     Wikipedia contributors. Francis Willis. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. September 26, 2008, 08:58 UTC. [, accessed 28 Sep 2008]

Link to National Portrait Gallery pictures of Dr. Willis.

Link to Dictionary of National Biography (enter ‘Henry Fane’ in the search box and select ‘Fane, Sir Henry (1778–1840), army officer’.)

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