Joseph Willcocks was born in Palmerston in 1773. He left Ireland on 1 Dec. 1799 for York (Toronto), Upper Canada, arriving on 20 March 1800. He worked in the Surveyor General’s Office for a time. He was appointed registrar of the probate court and marshal of assize on 9 May 1803 and sheriff of the Home District on 4 Sept. 1804. Despite his remoteness from Ireland, he retained a keen interest in events in his native land. He had not supported the rebellion by the Society of United Irishmen in 1798. He also had issues with the Act of Union of 1800.
Willcocks became friendly with justice Robert Thorpe who held similar political ideologies. Thorpe and Willcocks both had cousins back in Palmerston. They both believed that the colonial legislature in Canada should be independent and not subject to British Acts of Parliament.
Political opposition in Upper Canada increased due to government changes in land policy, implemented between 1802 and 1804, which increased the fees on land grants and tightened the rules concerning the eligibility of loyalists for free land grants.
Willcocks and Thorpe used this discontent to form an opposition group in the assembly between 1806 and 1808. The group derived its support from the Irish diaspora, small farmers and loyalists who were disgruntled with the so-called reforms in land policy.
The creation of the opposition group caused their removed from office. In Willcox's case for "general and notorious bad conduct". The dismissals only served to harden their stance on what they perceived to be the excessive powers of government.
The British American War of 1812-1815 provided the opportunity for Willcocks' notoriety to take a sinister twist following the Invasion of the Niagara Peninsula, when martial law was being used against local anti-loyalist residents. In July 1813, he committed treason by offering his services to the Americans. On 10 December 1813, US Army Major George McClure's unit of Canadian volunteer renegades, led by Willcocks, misused his new-found power by unleashed a reign of terror on his former countrymen, particularly those who had opposed him during his prewar political career. He ordered the burning of Newark (pictured right), destroying 149 houses and turning nearly 400 civilians (mostly women and children) out into the cold of winter. Only 3 buildings are left standing. This single act made him both an American hero and a Canadian and British traitor.
In 1814, Willcocks and thirteen others were charged with high treason in absentia. Eight were tried and executed. Willcocks was never captured. He was fatally wounded in the Siege of Fort Erie.
He is buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo New York.