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Many thanks to Michael O'Loghlin for permission to use this article and who adds that it "uses some information from the tribute read at Geoff's graveside by Keith Rice"
Geoff Wills, instrument maker
10/7/1919 - 14/9/2000
The early music movement in Australia has lost one of its pioneers with the death of Geoff Wills on 14 September at the age of 81.
Geoff will be well known to many who participated in the formative years, the time of boundless enthusiasm and exploration in the early music movement in Australia. We had a need for inexpensive viols, lots of them, and Geoff provided them to us. I knew Geoff well, and I knew of course that he was far more than just an instrument maker; but it was not until his funeral that I realized how many different life-stories will contain his name, how many different people celebrate the breadth of his achievement.
Geoff was a communist and a trade union man. He never wavered from his commitment to the dignity and enrichment of the lives of his fellow working people. He was born in Maryborough, Victoria, on a sheep property. When the property went bad in the depression, the family moved to St Kilda, where they ran a boarding house. Geoff suffered from asthma, and began his lifelong love of swimming and sailing to help overcome this problem. He began his working life as a trainee accountant with G. J. Coles, but that didn't last long; he went off to sea in Bass Strait, and remained a seaman until retiring at 65. While on the sailing ships, he was introduced to communism and trade unionism, to which he devoted much of his life. He served on the Australian merchant ships during the Second World War, joining the Seaman's Union at this time.
On May Day, 1948 he married Nancy, and in 1950 moved to the Brisbane bayside suburb of Lota. From here he worked as a seaman for 40 years. For as long as I have known him, he spent Monday to Friday on Moreton Bay on the dredge "Coral," a converted WW2 tank carrier. He built a workshop in a disused hold on the ship, and one said of Geoff that he would disappear at 5 o'clock on Monday morning with a sack of wood, and reappear on Friday evening with a viol.
Geoff's introduction to music and instrument making was through the union movement. He started off with Don Henderson and others as a member of the Union Singers singing folk and political songs, and playing guitar and banjo. He made both those instruments and other folk instruments, progressing on to viols, probably in the early seventies. His mentor was Fabrizio Reginato, the Italian master craftsman who was then resident in Brisbane. Geoff held a party some years ago for his 200th instrument, and his son Rocky estimates that he completed over 250. All three tertiary music institutions in Brisbane have viols by Geoff, including a 5-part consort at the Conservatorium. He also made modern and baroque violin family instruments, and donated a full string quartet to Bonalbo High School in northern NSW, in recognition of the talent of some of its students.
Every second Sunday for 22 years, Geoff provided with the help of Doug Eaton and others an open workshop under his house for instrument makers, who could use the equipment and obtain free advice from Geoff and Doug. Free exchange of information was central to his way of working, and he was always as keen to learn as he was to help others. He was committed to the use of Australian timbers, but he was also keen to have the results of his experiments critically assessed. Unfortunately Geoff did not in the early days have the benefit of a competent and experienced gambist with a clear concept of sound: we were all fumbling in the dark together, but it was a lot of fun.
Geoff Wills with the beginner class (all using his viols)
at the Brisbane Easter Viol School, 1996
Geoff and Nancy's house at 229 Whites Road, Lota became a renowned meeting-place. Here every visitor was treated with respect and honour, and greeted with a "bamboo", a home-made bamboo mug full of the finest home brew. Inexpensive home brewing on a large scale was an important part of Geoff's philosophy: it was the only way he could afford to extend appropriate hospitality to the large number of guests who appeared there. In 1968 Geoff was actually busted for home brewing, which was still illegal at that time. He was so outraged at this unjust law that he rang leftwing Labor senator George Georges, but they had to wait until the election of the Whitlam government to see it reversed.
Many stories about Geoff were told at the funeral. In order to support the Collinsville miners strike and picket, he took his two children, Rocky and Jo, out of school and travelled to the strikers' camp, where he entertained everybody with music and song. On his return he sent the kids back to school with a note saying that he'd been furthering their education in trade unionism! On another occasion he even welcomed a "Joh man" - a supporter of the extreme right-wing former premier - for political dialogue at Whites Road. When asked in his old age how long he would continue writing, the poet John Manifold replied, "As long as Geoff Wills keeps encouraging me!"
Geoff was a born leader, who could encourage and motivate people. He was a founding member of many organizations, including the Early Music Society of Queensland, where he was known as President Geoff for many years; the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers; the Communist Arts Group; and the Bayside Environmental Network, whose members will plant a row of trees in his honour in a bayside environmental park. He was a big, powerful man with a strong, craggy face, who shaved his head long before it became fashionable. He could appear intimidating and had a rich vocabulary, but he possessed an enormous natural charm, warmth and love. His name now takes its place on the Music Wall in the garden at Whites Road, along with those of John Manifold, Ewan MacColl and many other working-class heroes. He has done great service in many fields, and he will be missed.
First published by Australian Viola da Gamba Society
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory