by David Lemmings
© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved
Wilson, Sir John (1741-1793), judge, was born on 6 August 1741 at The How, Applethwaite, Westmorland, the home of his father, John Wilson. He was educated at Staveley, near Kendal, and entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, on 29 June 1757; there he graduated BA in 1761 as senior wrangler, proceeded MA in 1764, and was elected to a fellowship on 7 July 1764. Wilson's interests at Cambridge included mathematics. John Nichols, in his Literary Anecdotes, said that while an undergraduate Wilson made an able reply to the attack made by William Samuel Powell on Edward Waring's Miscellanea analytica (1762). Waring later included Wilson's theorem on the theory of numbers in his Meditationes algebraicae (1770). Wilson's pupils in Cambridge included the philosopher William Paley, whom he coached for the mathematical tripos.
The university was not to provide Wilson's career. On 22 January 1763 he was admitted to the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar there on 7 February 1766, and built up a large practice on the northern circuit. His patrons included John Dunning, a successful barrister and, later, first Baron Ashburton. Wilson's interest in mathematics probably continued, as he was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 13 March 1782. He was appointed king's counsel on 24 April 1782, and was a bencher of the Middle Temple from 10 May of that year. Following the death of Sir George Nares, the lord chancellor, Edward Thurlow, first Baron Thurlow, appointed Wilson to the vacant justiceship in the court of common pleas. He took office on 6 November 1786, the same day that he was called as a serjeant-at-law, and was knighted on 15 November. On 7 April 1788 he married Mary Ann, daughter of James Adair, serjeant-at-law; they had a son and two daughters. A contemporary character said of him, 'no man of the profession is held in superior estimation, either on account of his professional abilities, amiableness of manners, or benevolence of heart' (Rede, 155). Following Thurlow's retirement Wilson was appointed a commissioner of the great seal on 15 June 1792, alongside Sir James Eyre and Sir William Ashhurst, and held office until 28 January 1793, when Alexander Wedderburn, first Baron Loughborough, became lord chancellor. After attempting to recover his health at Lisbon, Wilson died at Kendal, Westmorland, on 18 October 1793, 'of a paralytic affection', and was buried in the parish church there. A fulsome obituary said his life was shortened by 'his too scrupulous attention to the laborious duties of his office' (GM). His memorial inscription at Kendal was written by his friend Richard Watson, bishop of Llandaff.
E. Foss, Biographia juridica: a biographical dictionary of the judges of England ... 1066-1870 (1870)
Strictures on the lives and characters of the most eminent lawyers of the present day (1790)
GM, 1st ser., 63/2 (1793), 965
Sainty, King's counsel
monument, church, Kendal, Westmorland
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