Archibald Dudingston Willis was born on 20 June 1842 at London, England, the son of Matilda Wills and her husband, John Willis, who died soon after Archibald's birth. At the age of 12 he was employed by a prominent firm of printers, Eyre and Spottiswoode, with whom he remained for three years. After the death of his mother he worked his passage to New Zealand on the Dinapore, arriving at Auckland on 5 August 1857.
In Auckland Willis met James Wood, sub-editor of the Southern Cross newspaper. Having tested his capabilities, Wood persuaded the young printer to accompany him to Napier, where they started the Hawke's Bay Herald. The little paper made good progress. About two years later, much to Wood's regret, Willis returned to Auckland and from there travelled to Wellington, taking a post as compositor to the New Zealand Advertiser.
The lure of gold drew him next to Otago, and for six months he tried his luck at Gabriels Gully. Leaving the goldfields, in Dunedin he met Julius Vogel, who suggested an opening on his Otago Daily Times, which was about to commence printing. Willis remained in Dunedin for only a year, however. At the urging of his Wellington employers he returned to the Advertiser, and then a year later left to take up an offer from the Christchurch Press. By this time he had decided to establish a paper of his own, and at the suggestion of friends and his former employers in Wellington turned his attention to Wanganui. Having purchased the necessary equipment, Willis arrived in Wanganui in 1864. But instead of launching his paper, he accepted an offer from J. U. Taylor to become foreman printer of the Wanganui Chronicle, and disposed of his plant.
In Wellington Willis had met Mary Dixon, and the couple were married there on 22 July 1865. They made their home in Wanganui, where they raised a family of eight sons and five daughters. While working on the Chronicle Archibald Willis made the acquaintance of John Ballance, the founder of the Evening Herald. He soon joined Ballance as a partner in the Herald, beginning a personal friendship which was to last long after Willis left the partnership. In 1872 he bought an established business and set up his own printing and stationery works. The business thrived, becoming one of the most prominent printing houses in the country. In addition to producing an extensive range of stationery items Willis became a bookseller and publisher. Titles appearing under his imprint included a number of pictorial books, including Geysers and gazers (1888), Collotype views of the Wanganui River ( c. 1895) and Edward Wakefield's New Zealand illustrated (1889). He was a pioneer of the use of chromolithography in New Zealand.
Both Archibald and Mary Willis were deeply involved in the community: Mary particularly with church affairs, and Archibald as a justice of the peace, a member of the Wanganui Borough Council, and a member of the Wanganui Harbour Board, of which he was chairman for six years between 1887 and 1904. In March 1894 he was one of a party of three that climbed Mt Ruapehu. He played an important role in pioneering the river boat era on the Wanganui River, being a founding director of the Wanganui River Steam Navigation Company. In 1893 he was elected member of the House of Representatives for Wanganui following the death of his friend John Ballance. Defeated in 1896, he was elected again in 1899 and held the seat until 1905.
In the late 1890s Willis and his family moved to a large new home, Te Mawhai, in Wanganui East. The sweeping grounds led down to a pool and fountain on the river flats. Here, with the help of a gardener, Willis was able to indulge his interest in horticulture and no doubt find time to play his favourite game of bowls.
In 1908, while travelling by sea from Auckland to Wellington, Willis fell ill and was hospitalised at Gisborne. Apparently recovering from surgery, he suffered a relapse and died on 27 August. He was buried in Wanganui. Mary Willis continued to live at Te Mawhai, where she died on 21 August 1926.