WILSON, James (d. 1830), of Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorks. and 3 Brunswick Place, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1826 - 1830

Family and Education

m. 1da. d. 7 Sept. 1830.

Offices Held


Wilson is an enigmatic figure: according to George Strickland* of Boynton, Yorkshire, he was ‘a man risen from nothing, partly by a relation leaving him a West India property’,1 and he himself told the House, 23 Mar. 1830, that ‘at the age of 15 I began to serve my country with brown bess on my shoulder as a common soldier’. Throughout the brief documented period of his life he was referred to as ‘Colonel Wilson’, but no reliable record has been found to confirm his entitlement to this, or any other rank. It seems certain, given his military background, that the identification of him as the only son of James Wilson of Horton, Buckinghamshire and Jamaica, who was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, 1797-1806, is erroneous.2 He is known to have been the proprietor of the Cane Grove estate on St. Vincent, which employed 231 negroes in 1827, and he may have been, at one time, a member of the legislative council of that island.3 There is no other known trace of his life before 1820, when he purchased Sneaton Manor, which he subsequently rebuilt as Sneaton Castle, a castellated mansion house with a commanding view over Whitby. In 1823 he completely rebuilt the church of St. Hilda at Sneaton.4 John Beckett*, who visited Wilson in October 1825, noted that his wife, like him, was ‘as orange as her own locks’.5 Early in 1826 he agreed to offer for York at the forthcoming general election on behalf of the Tories, or Blues, who were informed that he was ‘a gentleman of great respectability, property and influence’ and ‘decidedly opposed to any further concessions to Catholics’. Sensitive to Whig attacks on him as a plantation owner, he declared that ‘long experience has fully convinced my mind that a gradual improvement of the slave population of the colonies, both in mind and morals, is best calculated to promote the true interests of all parties’, and that he would work towards this object ‘whenever it can be effected with safety and without infringing upon the vested rights and acknowledged claims of the West Indian proprietors’. In the event, divisions amongst the Whigs meant that he and the sitting Whig Member were returned unopposed at the election that summer.6

In the House, whether because of his accent or his manner, Wilson appears to have become a figure of fun; an obituarist recalled how he ‘attracted some notice by the bluntness and singularity of his speeches on the Catholic question’.7 He presented anti-Catholic petitions from York and Boston, 5 Mar. 1827, and divided against relief the next day. He voted in the minorities against the spring guns bill, 2 Apr., and the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June. 1827. That day he presented a petition from a resident of St. Vincent complaining of the loss of slaves and the deterioration of his lands as a result of the existing law. He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. In his first known speech, 6 Mar., he complained of the ‘foul aspersions and groundless insinuations’ made against West Indian proprietors, and accused his ‘compassionate brethren’ the Whigs of ‘seeking to bestow their benevolence everywhere but in those places where it is most wanted’; he suggested they turn their attention to Ireland and Scotland. He advised that emancipation be allowed to ‘grow up from the seedling, like an oak from an acorn’, and dismissed calls for the immediate liberation of slaves, arguing that ‘subordination is necessary’ and warning that ‘property would be destroyed’ and ‘bloodshed and murder ... take place’ if the process was hurried. He presented 16 petitions from various places in the North Riding calling for greater protection for agricultural producers, 22 Apr., and concurred in their request for restrictions to the bonding system. On 23 May, claiming to have 12 similar petitions in his possession, he moved an amendment to the corn bill to enforce the payment of import duty, in order to ‘do away with that system of speculation in corn’, that ‘fatal monopoly’ which ‘the opulent importer and corn factor keep up between them’. However, in the face of opposition, he withdrew the amendment. He voiced his approval of the alehouses licensing bill, 25 June. He voted with the duke of Wellington’s ministry against reduction of the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 7 July. On behalf of the residents of Whitby he appealed to the chancellor of the exchequer, Goulburn, to delay the savings banks bill, 10 July 1828, and when this was refused he moved a hostile amendment, which was negatived. That day he objected to the ‘unjust’ and ‘unnecessary’ corporate funds bill, ‘an unauthorized and unconstitutional interference with the rights and property of others’, and insisted that the means to punish corporations for the misapplication of funds already existed in common law. His condemnation was greeted with hoots of derision, and his hostile amendment was defeated by 35-10. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, listed him among those who were ‘opposed to the principle’ of Catholic emancipation. When presenting a hostile petition from Hull, 26 Feb., he expressed regret at being forced to ‘differ on any subject from the government of my royal master’, but believed that ‘I should act as a traitor to my constituents ... my country ... [and] my own conscience if I did not oppose them on this’. Amidst whoops of laughter, he reiterated his loyalty to the king and said he cared not who were ministers as long as they acted for the welfare of the country. He pressed on, maintaining that he had no personal animosity to Catholics, and he predicted that emancipation would prove useless in curing the ills of Ireland. He brought the House down with his statement that Daniel O’Connell*, who ‘acts as I like ... plainly, openly and manfully’, was ‘one of the finest fellows I met in my life’ and that ‘I wish to God we had some O’Connells on this side’ of the chamber. This was too much for the Whigs, and to a chorus of derision he thundered that he was ‘glad to find that my ... opponents, who call themselves the friends of liberal principles, are obliged to resort to such baseness of opposition as this’. After praising George Canning* as a ‘great Protestant leader’, he concluded with the couplet

          Whilst I can handle stick or stone,
          I will support the church and throne.

One junior minister described this as ‘a most laughable speech ... full of repetitions and mispronunciations appearing like those of a drunken man’.8 He presented further petitions from Stockton-on-Tees and York, 2, 4 Mar., and voted against the government’s emancipation bill, 6, 18, 23, 30 Mar. On 11 Mar. he gave the House the benefit of his thoughts on how to solve the problems of Ireland, declaring that he would ‘give the colony of Sierra Leone to the Pope ... send there all the mischievous Popish priests of Ireland ... and ... make all the discontented agitators follow them’. He also favoured compelling Irish landowners to be resident for six months of each year and providing all labouring families with half-an-acre of land. He presented a petition from the Whitby Oil and Gas Light Company against the bill to extend Crosley’s patent on gas apparatus, which he said he would oppose ‘inch by inch’, 10 Apr. He repeated his opposition to the bill when presenting a petition from the York Gas Light Company, 1 May. He seconded a motion for continuation of the fishery bounties, 2 June, and warned the House that their withdrawal, at a time of distress, would be ‘unwise’ and might put an end to fishing on the east coast. In August 1829 he was mentioned as one of those who had offered to help bail out the troubled Protestant newspaper, the Morning Journal.9 That autumn the Ultra Tory leader, Sir Richard Vyvyan*, listed him among ‘Tories’ who were ‘strongly opposed’ to the present government.

He voted against the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. 1830. Speaking in support of the Whitby petition complaining of distress in the shipping industry, 5 Mar., he condemned the system of free trade, which had been ‘the ruin’ of both the shipping and the agricultural interests. He again encountered a volley of guffaws, which provoked him into declaring that if he could have his way, ‘I would have a call of the House every week’. The laughter did not subside, but he was undeterred, remarking that the only class who were exempt from distress were ‘that privileged class [who] enjoy the protection of the justice of the country ... who share the dividends and who never pay sixpence to the general expenses, but let the whole weight of it fall on the land’. He accused the House of ‘dilly-dally’ in endless debate over ‘a few men more or less in the army’, while ignoring the real problem of distress. On 23 Mar. he offered his own remedy, declaring that if he was prime minister he would ‘without consultation have thrown the assessed taxes overboard’ and introduced an ‘equitable and well regulated property tax framed in such a way as to bring in all absentees’. He attacked the Reciprocity Act as harmful to the shipping interest and a cause of distress, 6 May. He attended the London meeting of West India proprietors, 2 June, which resolved to support the government’s proposals regarding the duty on rum but to seek a large reduction in the duty on sugar imported into Ireland.10 He divided against Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., and paired against it, 17 May. However, he introduced his own relief bill, 17 June, which proposed to ‘enable British and Irish born Jews to inherit property of every description’ and ‘render them eligible to the corporate and elective franchise’. He believed that the Jews had been ‘unfairly and unjustly treated’, but qualified the liberality of his measure by explaining that they would still be prevented from sitting in Parliament or holding any ministerial or judicial office. He hoped that his bill would ‘open the door to the Jews and encourage them to emigrate towards the Christian religion’, but finally agreed to withdraw it because of opposition. In presenting a petition from the brewers and publicans of York against the sale of beer bill, 6 May, he expressed concern about its potential impact on the lower orders. His attempt to move an amendment, 3 June, was ruled out of order, but he explained that its aim was to prevent the entire country from becoming a ‘tippling shop’ and warned that without some such restriction, ‘every pickpocket in the country will become a beer seller’. He moved his amendment the next day but withdrew it, on the understanding that Sir Edward Knatchbull would move a similar one at the report stage. He duly voted for Knatchbull’s proposed clause to prohibit on-consumption in beer houses, 21 June, and to postpone on-consumption for two years, 1 July. He divided in the minority against amendments to the Galway franchise bill, 24 May. On the second reading of the northern roads bill, 3 June, he said that unless it was withdrawn he would move a wrecking amendment. Yet he presented and endorsed a York petition in favour of the bill, 2 July, and explained that his previous opposition had been based on a misunderstanding that the new road would not pass through York. He paired against abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June. He presented a Whitby petition against compulsory contributions by seamen for the upkeep of Greenwich Hospital, 10 June. In response to a petition objecting to soldiers being required to attend Greek and Catholic church services while on duty in the Mediterranean, 17 June, he observed that it was ‘part of their duty only’ and ‘on no account [did it] bind them in a conscientious view’. He voted with government against a reduction in judges’ salaries, 7 July 1830. That summer he delayed the announcement of his intention to offer again for York until after George IV’s death and put off his election canvass until after the funeral. When he finally entered the contest, he realized that he had late it too late and withdrew before the poll.11

Wilson died in September 1830 and was buried at St. Hilda’s, Sneaton; his coffin was enclosed in ‘a mahogany case ornamented with 32 guns ... made some time ago in pursuance of the Colonel’s own orders’.12 He left Sneaton Castle to his daughter Mary, who married Joseph Barker Richardson of Fieldhouse Whitby in 1849, but such was the scale of his debts that the Cane Grove estate and his personalty, which was sworn under £4,000, were absorbed in repayments.13

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Martin Casey


  • 1. Brougham mss, Strickland to James Brougham [1826].
  • 2. Gerrit P. Judd, Members of Parl. 1734-1832, p. 379.
  • 3. C. Shepherd, Hist. St. Vincent, pp. xvi, lxi; Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 283.
  • 4. VCH Yorks. (N. Riding), ii. 513; N. Pevsner, Buildings of England: Yorks. (N. Riding), 399.
  • 5. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 15 Oct. 1825.
  • 6. Yorks. Gazette, 18, 25 Mar., 15 Apr.; The Times, 8 June 1826.
  • 7. Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 283.
  • 8. Add. 36465, f. 80.
  • 9. Hatfield House mss, 1829-30 bundle, Rev. John Litton Crosby to Salisbury, 6 Aug. 1829.
  • 10. Institute of Commonwealth Stud. M915/11.
  • 11. W.W. Bean, Parl. Rep. Six Northern Counties, 117.
  • 12. Yorks. Gazette, 25 Sept. 1830.
  • 13. PROB 11/1781/53; IR26/1275/31; VCH Yorks. (N. Riding), ii. 513.