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Kidnapped! Wiliam Willis of Great Barford

William Willis, son of John & Margaret, was baptised at Great Barford on the 5th January 1713. The same year King Frederick Wilhelm I ascended to the throne of Prussia, a distant event in a far off country, but one which was to have a huge impact on the life of the farmer’s son from Great Barford

King Frederick Wilhelm was determined to build up a great Prussian military force. He wanted it to be the greatest, most well-trained army in the world and decided that any great army should be made up of the largest men one could possibly find. He ruled that every man had to be at least 5ft 11inches tall, ambitious considering that people were not as tall in the early 18th Century as they are now.  In order to recruit from far and wide he despatched agents to neighbouring countries. One such man was an Irishman called Hugh Montgomery.

Hugh Montgomery arrived in Bedfordshire in 1735 and was delighted to make the acquaintance of John Willis and his son William. William Willis was 22 and had grown to a height of 6ft 6 inches, a great prize for Hugh to take to Prussia. By fair means or foul Hugh Montgomery persuaded William to go with him to mainland Europe, and once there took him to Potsdam, where he was forced to enlist in the King’s Regiment. He may have tempted him with money – for by this time William’s father John Willis was in financial trouble.

The fortunes of John Willis continued their downward spiral throughout 1735. Not only had his son disappeared, but a case brought against him at Quarter Sessions resulted in him being imprisoned on the 22nd October 1735 for accumulating debts.

Whilst he was in prison John received a letter from a Mrs Evans, whose own husband had also been pressed into service in Potsdam, telling him that William was in Prussia and had been forced to go there by Montgomery. Despite his own predicament John Willis was still able to make a complaint against Montgomery, who was captured and imprisoned by six Justices for ‘unlawfully inveigling under false pretences William Willis, son of the said Willis, beyond seas’ [ref.QSR1735/27, 28, 39].

The 1735 calendar of prisoners for Bedford gaol includes both John Willis and his nemesis Hugh Montgomery. To add insult to injury, not only had Hugh Montgomery lured William Willis into the service of the King of Prussia, he was also one of the creditors of John Willis, owing him £2.

Despite their positions William Stevens, the gaoler, and John Willis, the prisoner, became friends whilst the latter was in the gaol. This friendship may explain why Hugh Montgomery complained to the Quarter Sessions of January 1737; ‘…of severe and cruel usage from William Stevens, gaoler of the said County, as his prisoner…’ . William Stevens was ordered to enter into a recognisance for £40 to keep the peace towards his prisoners. When he died intestate in 1742 his widow applied for letters of administration and entered into the necessary bond. Her surety was from John Willis, her husband’s former prisoner.

Whilst his father was in Bedford Gaol William Willis was imprisoned in the regiment which had become known as the ‘Potsdam Giants’. Frederick Wilhelm I never actually sent his Giants into battle, but liked to watch them parade, and disciplined them severely to keep order. On the 16th March 1740 William Willis, together with Evans and seventeen other Britons pressed into service at Potsdam, sent a petition to Viscount Torrington of Southill Park stating ‘whether to sit down tamely under our cruel bondage and dwindle our lives away in chagrin and despair or boldly risk all in the noble pursuit of Liberty is the question’. The petition went on to describe the unhappy lot of the men in the regiment who suffered amongst other things ‘innumerable inhuman strips’ [whippings].

Fortunately for William and his comrades fate intervened. On the 31st May 1740 King Frederick Wilhem died and one of the first acts of his successor (who was to become known as Frederick the Great) was to disband the Giants Regiment. William made his weary way home to Great Barford, where in time he became a Churchwarden and an Overseer of the Poor.