Edward John Willey was born in Ystradyfodwg, Glamorgan, Wales in the latter half of 18911.
He was the eldest child of English parents, Richard Willey (b. 1865) and Rhoda Gilman (b. 1868). His father, a mine pit haulier, hailed from Curry Rivell in Drayton, Somerset and his mother from Marshfield, Gloucestershire. They were shown together on the 1891 census, just months before his birth, living at an unspecified address in Ystradyfodwg and had only married in Cardiff a few weeks previous.
Edward had eight siblings: Archibald James (1893-1965), Eva Priscilla (1895-1930), Melinda May (1897-1926), Ada Mathilda (1899-1934), Edna Lucy (1901-1907), Walter Ewart (1904-1974), Ivy Lillian (1907-1925) and Horace Wilfred (1910-1988).
His large family lived in Ystradyfodwg before moving to nearby Rhondda where they appeared on the 1911 census living at 29 Mill Street. Edward was not listed with them, nor on the previous census and he appears instead to have been raised primarily by his paternal grandparents in Drayton, Somerset.
His grandfather, Edward Willey (b. 1840), a farmer, had been married to Edward’s grandmother, the former Martha Ann Gooding (b. 1839), on 13 April 1865 and his father Richard was the eldest of their eight children. Edward and his grandparents were listed on the 1901 living at Corn Street and on the 1911 census at an unspecified address in Drayton. By the time of the latter record a 19-year-old Edward was described as an unmarried farm labourer.
Several of Edward’s extended family belonged to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a nontrinitarian and egalitarian Christian sect, more commonly known as Shakers on account of their ecstatic behaviour during their worship services. His paternal uncles Francis “Frank” (b. 1867) and Hubert (b. 1873) had emigrated in the 1890s and settled in Schenectady, New York, both marrying American women and raising families in their new home. They encouraged their family back in England and Wales to join them in the US, with career opportunities much more favourable, and with uncle Frank living in a thriving Shaker community in Schenectady.
Edward was the first to go, uncle Frank having sent him the funds for his journey, and he would make his home with Frank at a Shaker settlement on Loudonville Road in Schenectady. It remains unclear if Edward was himself a Shaker or if he intended to become one.
The last message Frank received from his nephew was one telling him that he had arranged passage on the Philadelphia; however, the coal strikes meant the cancellation of that voyage and Willey’s passage was switched to Titanic. Frank Willey remained unaware of the change of plans.
Edward boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a third-class passenger (ticket number S.O./P.P. 751 which cost £7, 11s) and was seemingly travelling alone. Next to nothing is known about his activities whilst aboard.
Edward Willey died in the sinking and his body, if recovered, was never identified.
Edward Willey, twenty years old, of Drayton, Wales, a second cabin passenger on the wrecked vessel, is believed by his uncle. Frank R. Willey of Schenectady, to have perished. The boy was on his way to Schenectady. - The Knickerbocker Press, 19 April 1912
His family waiting for him on the other side of the Atlantic became concerned about whether he had been aboard Titanic as the name of a third-class passenger “Edward Willard” was circulating and who did not appear on the list of the surviving passengers. Frank Willey hastened to Manhattan in the chance that his nephew might be aboard the rescue ship Carpathia but he was met with disappointment. He said:
"Although I inquired from officials of the White Star line." Mr. Willey said last night, 'I could not get any definite information regarding my nephew. I don't like to believe the Edward Willard listed in the number of third class passengers on the Titanic is really my nephew, but it seems to me all too certain. 'The officials promise to do all that lies in their power to relieve the uncertainty in the case: and will notify me of the result of their inquiries as soon as possible. No cablegram has been received from Edward since the disaster. This makes it seem probable he was on the ship." - The Knickerbocker Press, 23 April 1912
His uncles' allegedly lived with the guilt of Edward's death for the rest of their lives. Frank remained in Schenectady where he died in 1947. Hubert later moved with his family to Colonie, Albany and died in 1946.
Edward’s grandmother died in 1916 and his grandfather in 1922, both in their native Somerset. His parents continued to reside in Rhondda and his father died in 1936 and his mother in 1943. They are both buried in Penrhys Cemetery in Rhondda. None of his surviving sisters ever married and all died before they reached their 40th birthdays. In contrast, all his brothers were married and raised families. His last surviving sibling was his younger brother Horace (who was born on 16 April 1910) who was the only one of his family to leave Wales, living in Essex with his family until his death in Colchester in 1988 aged 78.