Brett James Wilson takes an in-depth look at a hugely influential, yet relatively unknown, son of Hawick
Very few people really know much about the life and times of James Wilson.
Some see him as simply the founder of The Economist magazine, or a businessman, banker, MP, or even a taxman – but this is really just superficial analysis that one might use to pigeon-hole any character.
James was much more complicated to be simply pigeon-holed. He was perhaps a man ahead of his time and a man who cared very much about his fellow man. A man who tirelessly strove to make the world a better place. Did he do so? You be the judge. James Wilson was born on June 3, 1805, at 11 High Street, Hawick. He was one of 15 children born to William Wilson (manufacturer and Cornet in 1786) and Elizabeth Richardson – with only ten of the 15 children surviving to adulthood.
As a young man, James furthered his studies in order that he might one day become a teacher, yet he lost the taste for this vocation very quickly and he once said that he would prefer to perform menial tasks in his father’s mill, rather than focus on such a future career.
James was far more interested in business and economics. At the age of 16 he became an apprentice hat maker, and following his father’s untimely death (due to cholera while visiting London in 1832), he then started as a partner in the family business with his brother William.
James Wilson’s family originally came from Branxholme Town, some 3.5 miles south-west of Hawick. His grandfather, Walter Wilson, was born with just one hand and was nicknamed Handless Wat. Not being much use on a farm due to his disability, Wat was sent into Hawick by his father, John Wilson, to ask a local merchant, William Oliver, for a job. Mr Oliver indulged the young man and sent him off with a box of items to sell to folk near and far.
Wat proved to be very good at his job, and he later went into business for himself and became a very successful merchant in his own right. In fact, he ended up owning three properties in Hawick at 9, 11 and 13 High Street.
James’ “Wilson family”, for those unaware, were among the pioneers of Hawick’s very proud history in the manufacturing of tweed, hosiery and other such items. Companies such as William Wilson and Sons, Walter Wilson and Sons and last, but not least, Wilson and Glenny.
Wilson and Glenny once blazed a manufacturing trail
James’ siblings and relatives in Hawick are too many to mention in this article, but to focus on just a couple: his older brother Walter (Walter Wilson and Sons) was a well-known local manufacturer and politician. Walter being the great-greatgrandfather of well-known local man Tony Wilson who still lives in Hawick.
And then there was James’ youngest brother, George Wilson (Wilson and Glenny), who was Hawick’s first provost, a position to which he was elected three times, and the list goes on.
James was a man of vision and practicalities. He saw no reason for anyone to be impoverished and he believed that no one should go hungry if things were organised correctly and fairly for all people. In short, he was a champion in his time for the people.
On the matter of currencies, James was a very outspoken advocate for bullion-backed currencies (gold and silver), and many to this day might say that he would still be correct. He suggested that any currency that was not convertible into bullion was tantamount to deception and James is well recorded for taking the likes of former prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, to task on this subject.
When crops were bad in those days, wealthy land owners would often take advantage and demand very high prices for grains and cereals (corn), which affected not only the local producers of the basic dietary staples such as bread, but that of the general populace.
If a baker had to pay ten times more for flour, then the price of a loaf of bread would be many times greater than in normal crop years. This affected everyone and, in particular, the poor. James Wilson saw this as an abomination and he played a major role in convincing the government of the day to repeal the restriction of affordable imports during such harsh times (also known as the Corn Laws).
James’ father, William, being quite successful, helped the young James Wilson to acquire the very hat manufacturing business in Hawick where James had been apprenticed. And after three years of doing good business there, James and one of his older brothers, William, decided to expand down to London, where they did extremely well.
James was said to have been worth some £25,000 in 1837 by the time he was 22 years of age, which would have been a considerable fortune then.
However, in the ensuing years, he was to suffer a most damaging change in his fortunes when he speculated on the price of indigo. His first dip into that market proved profitable and then he reinvested the majority of his capital again into this market, which backfired. James was all but bankrupt, and it was only his good name and reputation which allowed him to negotiate with his creditors and he managed over a number of years to settle all of his accounts without being made insolvent.
Having overcome such a disaster and being back on his feet and doing well again, by 1843, James had established the journal, The Economist, which ultimately became a global success story and still thrives today, alhough it has long since been out of family hands.
James also established the Chartered Bank in 1853 (now the Standard Chartered Bank after merging with the Standard bank in 1969).
Having all but retired and being very happy with how The Economist was performing, James was talked into entering politics and was elected as a Liberal (Whig) member of parliament for Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1847.
Due to his experience with economics, the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, appointed James secretary of the board of control (which ran the affairs of India) in 1848.
He then served as financial secretary to the Treasury between 1853 and 1858. In 1857, he was returned to parliament for become paymaster-general and vice-president of the Board of Trade between June and August 1859 and became a member of the Privy Council the same year. In August, 1859, James was sent by Queen Victoria to India to establish a taxation structure, a new paper currency and to remodel its finance system after the rebellion of 1857.
However, while in India, he contracted dysentery, and died in August of that year, aged 55. He was known as a man with a strong constitution and boundless energy, yet even as death was creeping up on him, he refused to give up and completed his most complicated task before he passed away.
C. P. Bhatia and his wife place a wreath on James’ restored tomb
In short, it is said that James Wilson invoked “order out of chaos” in India. He implemented much fairer tariffs and duties that helped India and Britain to progress on far better terms. He established a bank, introduced a new paper currency (backed by silver), and due to the system modifications that James put in place, India went from running a deficit to heading into surplus for some 30-orso consecutive years, which increased the quality of public infrastructure and the wealth and wellbeing of the people of India in general.
Calcutta (Kolkata) was, at the time, India’s capital. And when James Wilson died it was said that his funeral was the largest ever seen there. Thousands of people attended from all stations and classes, such was the respect he was given for what he had achieved for the country’s people.
In 2007, Chandra Prakash Bhatia (a Commissioner for the Ministry of Finance and Department of Revenue in India), managed to locate James’ tomb in a Christian burial ground in Calcutta, and along with the Christian Burial Board, had his tomb lovingly restored.
“For He That Hath Done His Best… Let Him Rest”
Brett James Wilson is a first cousin five times removed to James Wilson. His great-great-great grandfather, Walter Wilson, was Cornet in 1820, and his son, also named Walter Wilson, emigrated to Australia during the Victorian gold rush in 1852. Brett, who is an honorary life member of Hawick Archaeological Society, is an Australian. He was last in Hawick in 2014 and hopes to be back for next year’s Common-Riding.