WILSON, Richard I (?1755-1815), of Datchworth, Herts. and Owna Lodge, co. Tyrone.
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Family and Education
In 1803 Farington was told the story of an Irishman who had ‘gained a fortune by being mistaken for another man’:
Bob [sic] Wilson ... had a property of about £400 a year, which being gay and a man of show, he was supposed rather to have diminished. He came to England, and went to Brighton, with a view to find what confidence and dressing well would do. A short time before ... there had been a Mr Wilson, an Irishman, there whose person was remarkably handsome ... The reports of him reached other places and Miss Townshend ... had heard his praises ... On her arrival there she went to the rooms, at the very time that Bob Wilson first made his appearance there, and after the much talked of Mr Wilson had left the place. Bob was the best dressed man in the room, and his air and manner easy and confident, but his face remarkably plain. It happened however that Miss Townshend heard his name, and her imagination doing the rest, she fancied she saw in Bob all that she had heard in praise of Mr Wilson. Bob saw the attention with which she regarded him, was introduced to her ... and in ten days or a fortnight ran away with and married her and got £10,000.2
The ‘Bob Wilson’ of the anecdote was clearly this Member, but his origins and early life remain obscure. His marriage to Anne Townshend, granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Argyll and half-sister to the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, in fact brought him £2,000, but the money was soon dissipated. Both he and his wife were incorrigible spendthrifts and of a neurotic tendency verging on insanity. Lady Greenwich gave them about £300 a year and a further £2,500 was raised for them by Mrs Wilson’s relatives, but early in 1785, having alienated Lady Greenwich by their constant demands for money and their ingratitude, they were living in Dublin in a ‘very distressed situation’. Wilson turned to his wife’s half-sister, Lady Frances Scott, who promised and provided assistance in the form of a pension for Mrs Wilson obtained through Henry Dundas, on condition that, if they insisted on leaving Ireland, they must ‘relinquish the idea of coming to London’, settle ‘in a cheap part of England’ and live within their income. To the disgust of Lady Frances, the Wilsons broke their word. In the summer of 1785 they were at Cheltenham, ostensibly for the sake of Mrs Wilson’s health, and they subsequently moved to lodgings at Epsom, evidently in the hope of overcoming Lady Greenwich’s resistance. She was furious, declaiming that ‘the Wilsons would wear out the patience of a Job’, but met their demands for £100 to take them to Wales, where they rented Llandough Castle, near Cowbridge in Glamorgan. Wilson, railing against his wife’s relatives, bombarded Lady Greenwich’s man of business with requests for money to tide them over:
I thought it would please Mrs W’s friends and laid down our carriage and curtailed Mrs Wilson of every little luxury which might make the country bearable to her ... her health and spirits from her neglected and solitary situation and our miserable circumstances are hourly declining ... were it not for her and my children I would rid myself of my existence, and also from the consideration that I should, thereby, give some plea of justice to those who cruelly have taxed me with meanness and dishonour.3
The Wilsons’ situation probably improved with the death in 1788 of Mrs Wilson’s grandmother, the dowager Viscountess Townshend, whose will directed that Datchworth Lodge in Hertfordshire should be sold to provide an annuity for Anne. Instead they retained the property for themselves and were in possession of it by 1791.4 Wilson contested Barnstaple, an open and expensive borough, at the general election of 1790, but finished bottom of the poll. His subsequent petition was deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’ and, typically, he denounced the decision in a public address.
Whether he was the Richard Wilson who in 1789 seduced and absconded with Lord Rodney’s 17-year-old daughter is not clear: contemporary descriptions of the miscreant as a married Irish reprobate fit him loosely, but they seem to point to an older man, though in a newspaper paragraph of 1791 the charge was specifically levelled against him.5 Certainly his marriage was heading for disaster, amid a welter of scandal. Appealing to the Duke of Buccleuch, 5 Apr. 5 1791, for his intercession on behalf of Anne in a dispute over the will of her late brother, he acknowledged that he felt himself ‘the principal cause’ of ‘the distance your Grace thinks proper to keep with Mrs Wilson’, but insisted that ‘however censurable my conduct may have been, it is criminal in a very small degree proportionable to what the world believes’.6
In 1795 Mrs Wilson committed adultery, and ran off, with one John Thomson, a failed attorney living in a cottage on the Datchworth estate. Wilson, saddled with five young children, asked Dundas for a pension of £100 for each of them, claiming that his wife’s pension, which it was proposed to apply for their benefit, had been signed away, ‘in a moment of pressing difficulties’, as ‘a security in granting an annuity of £200’. Dundas declined to do anything other than follow the instructions of Buccleuch or Lady Frances Scott (now Lady Douglas).7Wilson obtained damages of £500 in a crim. con. action against Thomson in King’s bench, and on 11 July 1797 secured a definitive sentence of divorce against his wife in the consistory court of the Bishop of London. His divorce bill was introduced into the Lords on 2 Apr. 1798, passed its second reading after the examination of witnesses, but was dropped after the committee stage for reasons which are not clear, though they must have been good ones. It was alleged that Wilson had exploited his wife financially, had habitually beaten her and had kept a mistress in or near the house.8 Wilson, who in a letter published in The Times, 27 July 1797, had claimed that his wife had left him with debts of £14,000, protested against the abandonment of the divorce bill in a public Letter to Lord Loughborough: he had been cruelly traduced and falsely accused, had suffered financially by foregoing, for the sake of his children, his ‘undisputed right’ to a ‘considerable sum’ due to him in the marriage settlement and, while his own conduct had not been ‘without reproach’, his sexual peccadilloes had been provoked by his wife’s ‘forgetfulness of what she owed to herself, her family, and her husband’.
Wilson had meanwhile become a Member of Parliament by successfully contesting Barnstaple at the general election of 1796, but almost immediately he became embroiled in a wrangle over patronage. He submitted large claims, arguing that, ‘as a new Member who was supporting government, although it had exerted all its influence’ to defeat him (he had in fact unseated a reliable government supporter), he was entitled, ‘at least in the first instance’, to a ‘most ready and complete acquiescence with my requests’. His complaints were directed to Windham, the secretary at war, with whom he claimed a friendship. On 8 Sept. 1796 he begged for an opportunity to vindicate himself, ‘if the ill fortune which from my very childhood has persecuted me’ had alienated Windham; and in a postscript to a similar whining letter, 16 Sept., he wrote:
I have received a circular letter ... from Mr Pitt to attend the House on the 27th on important business. I confess I should have liked to have heard from you somewhat of that ‘business’. I am not under even the semblance of an obligation to Mr Pitt. From Dundas injury and insult I have felt. But they shall not influence me to forget what I owe my country at this awful moment.
A reply from Windham temporarily ‘eased’ his anxiety, but by November 1796 he was again in refractory mood, ‘determined not to walk out of Barnstaple’, where ‘I consider myself entitled and will be attended to’. He was not, and on 7 Mar. 1797 he peevishly told Windham that he would ‘interfere’ no more with the patronage of his colleague John Clevland, though he pointed out (with some justice, if Clevland’s own complaints of patronage deprivation are to be believed) that it was ‘extraordinary that the merits of Mr Clevland had not been more attended to previous to my application’.9
It was probably no coincidence that six days later Wilson voted with opposition for the motions to reduce sinecures and add Fox to the public debts committee. An ‘unfortunate mistake’ had made it impossible for him ever to ask a favour of the present ministers, he told Windham, 25 Mar., but ‘whatever my political conduct may be with respect to party’, he was ready to obey Windham’s personal commands ‘upon any particular question where you may think my humble vote may aid any view of yours’.10 He voted for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 26 May, but in his last known letter to Windham, 14 Oct. 1797, sought the minister’s advice on ‘how to act in the present extraordinary conjuncture of public affairs’:
I conceive I owe a duty as well to the public as to myself. Although I have most fatally neglected the latter ... yet I feel an urgent zeal to compensate for private neglect by a public exertion of my feeble but patriotic talents. Do not mistake me. ’Tis the last thing in my thoughts to sue for or accept office. Disinterestedness has, and to the latest hour of my existence ever will govern my conduct ... I do not overrate my very moderate talents ... I possess however honesty and an incorruptible love for my country.11
If Windham troubled to reply at all, he most probably left Wilson to his own devices. He continued to vote spasmodically with the rump of opposition to Pitt, dividing against the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 14 Dec. 1797 and 4 Jan. 1798, the land tax redemption bill, 9 and 18 May 1798, and the Union, 31 Jan., 7, 11 and 14 Feb. 1799. He cast no recorded vote thereafter until 19 Feb. 1801, when he supported inquiry into the Ferrol expedition. He voted regularly with the Foxite opposition to Addington’s ministry during the remainder of the 1801 session and was in the minority in favour of the Prince of Wales’s financial claims, 31 Mar. 1802. In his only known speech, 21 May 1799, he supported Burdett’s demands for further inquiry into conditions in Coldbath Fields prison.
When he stood again for Barnstaple in 1802, Wilson was relegated to third place in the poll. He petitioned but to no avail, and as he later claimed in his pamphlet, A sketch of the calamities and persecutions of Richard Wilson (Dublin, 1813),
in consequence of my losing my seat ... (through means which I believe everyone acquainted with the facts will admit were highly disgraceful) I gave up my property in England for the advantage of my children, and to satisfy certain pecuniary demands upon it—retiring to a small estate in ... [Ireland] which devolved to me on the death of my mother.
The property, which he in fact held only as a life tenant, was Owna Lodge in county Tyrone.12 As a justice of the peace in a fiercely anti-Catholic area, Wilson cast himself in the role of protector of the Catholic minority against Orange oppression, and, in doing so, embroiled himself in a welter of trouble. He chronicled the story of his disputes with the Irish government, particularly that of the ‘Talents’ ministry, in three pamphlets: Correspondence between Richard Wilson, William Elliot and George Ponsonby (Dublin, 1806); Correspondence with the Irish government [Dublin, 1807]; and Narrative of various murders and robberies (Dublin, 1808). He complained that even under the Whigs, the law was not impartially administered, that his own life was in danger and that the Castle’s refusal to protect him had compelled him to consider fleeing the country. He had also to reply to the smears against his sexual morals which continued to provide his enemies with ammunition. He brought on himself at least two libel actions, and in July 1807 he was dismissed from the commission of the peace by the new government. Thereafter, he maintained, he suffered constant legal and physical harassment, including attacks on his person and property, which was ‘unparalleled in the history of persecution’.13
Wilson, who lost one son in the East Indies and was treated with contempt by another, was still alive on 23 Apr. 1815, but he had died, debt-ridden, by 27 Oct. 1815.14
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Mar. lic. gives his age in March 1779 as 23.
- 2. Farington, ii. 150.
- 3. This paragraph based on corresp. Dec. 1784-Dec. 1785, in Buccleuch mss (SRO GD224/31).
- 4. VCH Herts. iii. 79; Herts. Co. Recs. viii. 578.
- 5. N. and Q. (ser. 12), i. 213-14, 437; ii. 55; Morning Chron. 14 Mar. 1791.
- 6. SRO GD224/31.
- 7. SRO GD224/584, Wilson to Dundas, 5, 8 Feb., Dundas to Wilson, 8 Feb. 1796.
- 8. LJ, xli. 524, 549-51, 553.
- 9. Add. 37876, ff. 148, 152, 230, 234, 236, 247, 263, 268; 37877, f. 1.
- 10. Add. 37877, f. 7.
- 11. Ibid. f. 161.
- 12. N. and Q. (ser. 12), ii. 34-35; SRO GD224/584/2/67.
- 13. SRO GD224/584/2/14.
- 14. SRO GD224/584/2/53, 61, 64, 67.