WILKS, John II (c.1793-1846), of Littlesbur, Mill Hill, Mdx. and 36 New Broad Street, London
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Family and Educationb. c. 1793, 1st s. of John Wilks I* (d. 1854), attorney, of London and 1st w. Mary1. m. 1 June 1820, Cordelia, da. of Rev. George Townsend, Dissenting minister of Ramsgate, Kent, ?s.p. d.v.p. 24 Jan. 1846.
No record of Wilks’s birth has been found, but other evidence indicates that he was the eldest of five children born to the attorney (and parish clerk of St. Luke’s, Finsbury) John Wilks and his first wife.2 He was raised in Dissenting circles in Hoxton, where his paternal grandfather Matthew Wilks, a minister at Whitfield’s Tabernacle and Tottenham Court chapels, had property, and moved in 1814 to Finsbury Square, where from 1815 to 1820 he was articled to his father.3 On qualifying as an attorney, he married the daughter of a Dissenting minister who had trained with his grandfather at Trevecca. The couple had many relatives in holy orders and close connections with the Missionary Society and the Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty.4 Through them Wilks, who also assisted Matthew Wilks with the Evangelical Magazine, published his first works, A Christian Biographical Dictionary (1821) and Memoirs of Queen Caroline (1822). A novella, Bianca: A Fragment (1823) is also attributed to him.5 His legal partnership with Robert Griffith, 24 June 1822-24 Feb. 1824, meanwhile languished: Griffiths successfully prosecuted him in January 1827 for non-payment of his pension.6 After his first venture, an appeal to Protestants to found a joint-stock company to finance a campaign to enforce Tudor legislation on Sabbath observance, failed, Wilks and a new legal partner Charles Verbecke made a career of exploiting the repeal of the Bubble Act. Their London firm in Broad Street acted for the British Annuity Company and the Kentish Railway Company, and by 1825 Wilks was solicitor to the Equitable Loan Bank Company, which listed nine Members among its 11 vice-presidents and four more among its directors. The Welch Slate Company, the Welch Iron and Coal Company and the Cornwall and Devon Mining Company (founded in 1825 to exploit the duke of Cleveland’s mineral rights) were served by Wilks and had directors in common and many shareholders in the House.7 The secretary at war Lord Palmerston*, an investor in the last three, commented: ‘I am sure [Wilks] is a bit of a rogue if nature writes a legible hand; at the same time he is a clever fellow and as long as his interest goes hand in hand with ours will probably do well by us’.8
Wilks displayed his new-found wealth at entertainments at his mansions at Mill Hill and Ramsgate, but fearing his eventual bankruptcy, he canvassed the venal borough of Sudbury when a dissolution was anticipated in the autumn of 1825, with a view to securing parliamentary privilege.9 Casting a political ‘net calculated to catch all sorts of fish’ - pro-Catholics, anti-Catholics, Dissenters and Anglicans - the ‘red-hot demagogue’ professed himself to be ‘not a Tory, a Whig or a radical’ but an independent ‘constitutional Briton’ and ‘friend of the poor’. He stated that Tories regarded people as ‘mere ciphers’, all Whigs were ‘place hunters’ and radicals made ‘people everything’.10 Known as ‘plum pudding Wilks’ or ‘plum pudding Jack’ on account of his largesse, he topped the Sudbury poll at the 1826 general election at a personal cost of £3,000.11 He had recently offered a seat to the Liverpool ministry for £5,000; and refusing it, Palmerston added the private comment, a ‘thorough paced Jew’.12 The Times portrayed the collapse of the canopy at Wilks’s chairing as a portent of business failures and, taking up John Bull’s refrain, observed:
We are not surprised that John Bull should have taken him for a Methodist, and his manner and delivery are so completely those of a Methodist preacher, that we are sure the House ... will be startled if he should ever (as he has promised he will) raise his voice within the walls.13
Wilks’s Provincial Bank for England and Wales and recent promotions had attracted little investment, and with others, notably the Welch Slate Company and the Devon and Cornwall Mining Company foundering, the bubble had burst for the ‘rogue’, whose wrongdoings were widely publicized and lampooned before Parliament met.14 His ‘character was so well known that he seldom showed his face’ in the House, but he voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and for the duke of Clarence’s annuity bill, 17 Mar. 1827. He was detained by the serjeant-at-arms for non-attendance, 29 Mar., released, 5 Apr., and was present when investors in the Devon and Cornwall Mining Company petitioned blaming him and its chairmen Samuel Moulton Barratt* and Peter Moore* for its collapse, 9 Apr.15 It now emerged that Wilks’s purchase of the mines for £78,000 had been conditional on his success in floating a joint-stock company to fund it. He had apparently achieved this, but there was ‘no written agreement between the company and Wilks for the purchase’, and fraud arose through the reservation of 2,750 undeclared shares for the directors, who had advanced Wilks £20,000 prematurely and paid brokers inflated prices for shares to attract further investment.16 Making his maiden speech, Wilks proclaimed that the petition was ‘one of the most impudent attempts to deceive the legislature ... ever made’ and complained that it was deliberately presented shortly before litigation against him commenced. He stated that only £54,000 of the required £121,000 had been realized. His comments were given credence and a motion referring the petition to a select committee was withdrawn, 15 May. The Quaker banker Hudson Gurney* noted in his diary that day that Wilks was a ‘great rogue but clear, vulgar speaker’.17 He voted to remove bankruptcy cases from the court of chancery, in which, in view of recent litigation, he might be said to have had a vested interest, 22 May 1827.18 Chancery and king’s bench had rejected his pleas for compelling the directors of the Welch Iron and Coal Company to pay him £40,000.19 The Times commented that the company was ‘his Waterloo and William Clark [its secretary] ... his Wellington. His parliamentary phalanx was broken’.20 He also faced prosecution at Stafford assizes that month for conspiracy to induce ‘several of the inhabitants of Stafford to surrender their premises’; released on bail, he fled to North Wales and thence to Bruges to avoid his creditors.21 There, for £100, he provided an agent for John Norman Macleod* with a letter relinquishing the representation of Sudbury.22
In Paris, where his uncle Mark Wilks was a minister and assisted him, Wilks established himself as the correspondent of the Standard, contributed regularly to the London press under the pseudonym O.P.Q., and was ‘considered "a savoury vessel" by all the English Saints’ on account of his piety.23 His occasional letters with information for Peel and the duke of Wellington were well received, but he failed to secure employment as a confidential agent.24 His business ventures, the London and Paris Courier, La Revue Protestante and his Paris Parcel Delivery Company, all failed, and he was denounced for spreading false rumours on the Paris bourse.25 Returning to London, where his Tory Baronet (1841), a political satire, and The Boot (1842), published by Richard Bentley, were highly acclaimed,26 he failed to find a backer for the Church and State Gazette which he proposed, but established two subscription agencies, the Author’s Institute in Surrey Street and a Clerical Registry in the Strand, both of which defrauded their members without enriching Wilks. His sudden death v.p. of tonsillitis, a few days after that of his stepmother, in January 1846 left many at a financial loss. According to his death certificate, he was ‘approximately 52 years’ old. His obituarist denounced his misuse of his great abilities and wrote: ‘If there were two ways of arriving at the same point, a right and a wrong one ... Wilks was certain to choose the latter, even if it were the more difficult’.27 Probate on effects up to £1,000 was granted to his widow, 4 May 1846.28
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Margaret Escott
- 1. Oxford DNB erroneously states that Wilks’s mother was his fa.’s 2nd wife Isabella.
- 2. N and Q (ser. 5), vii. 180; Gent. Mag. (1814), i. 412.
- 3. T. Jackson, Faithful Pastor, 16-42; TNA IND1/4571/18915.
- 4. Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 562; A.J. Bevis, Rev. George Townsend; G. Collison, Pastor’s Tomb, 26-33.
- 5. Cat. of Residue Coll. of late John Wilks of Finsbury Square.
- 6. The Times, 11 Jan. 1827.
- 7. R. Harris, ‘Political economy, interest groups, legal institutions and repeal of the Bubble Act in 1825’, EcHR, l (1997), 675-96; H. English, Complete View of Joint-Stock Companies (1827).
- 8. Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 175.
- 9. Colchester Gazette, 15, 22 Oct.; Ipswich Jnl. 19, 26 Nov. 1825; The Times, 27 Mar. 1828.
- 10. The Times, 6, 9, 14, 15 June 1826; NLW, Ormathwaite mss FG/1/5, pp. 76-77.
- 11. ‘Sudbury Borough’ (ms penes A.T. Copsey in 1991).
- 12. Southampton Univ. Lib. Broadlands mss PP/GC/WI/7-8.
- 13. The Times, 19 June 1826.
- 14. Gwynedd Archives (Caernarfon) XD/8/2/210; Palmerston-Sulivan Letters, 166; Add. 40385, ff. 273-5; 51663, Bedford to Holland, 6 Oct.; The Times, 20, 27, 28 Sept. 1826.
- 15. The Times, 10 Apr. 1827.
- 16. Brougham mss, Powlett to Brougham, 2 Feb. 1827; K. Bourne, Palmerston, 263-4.
- 17. Gurney diary.
- 18. The Times, 23 Jan., 8 Mar., 28 Apr. 1827.
- 19. Ibid. 28 Apr., 1 May 1827.
- 20. Ibid. 27 Mar. 1828.
- 21. Ibid. 17, 20 Mar.; Sun, 20 Mar. 1828.
- 22. Sun, 27 Mar.; The Times, 27 Mar. 1828; Macleod mss 1062/7, 9, 10.
- 23. Weekly Dispatch, 15 Feb. 1846.
- 24. Add. 40310, f. 42b; 40404, f. 296; 40411, f. 292; 40413, f. 224; Wellington mss WP2/24/61; 27/114; 28/55-57.
- 25. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 649.
- 26. Add. 46614, f. 40; 46650, f. 220, 228.
- 27. The Times, 20 Jan.; Weekly Dispatch, 15 Feb. 1846.
- 28. PROB 6/222/290. M.M.E.