WILKINS, John (1661-1726), of Ravenstone, Leics.
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Family and Education
bap. 13 May 1661, s. of William Wilkins, yeoman, of Coleorton, Leics. by Katherine Bowyer. m. 1688 Rebecca (d. 1718), da. of William Wollaston, sheriff, Leics. 1672–3, of Shenton, Leics., 1s. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1668.1
Sheriff, Leics. 1693–4.
By the standards of his time John Wilkins, an early Midlands coal magnate, was a self-made man. Of humble origin, a fortunate combination of shrewd business acumen, technical expertise and marriage into the mine-owning Wollaston family set him firmly on the road to wealth and gentility. Several generations of the Wilkins family had worked on the Sheldon estate at Coleorton, and it was probably there after 1661, when his father was made responsible for the coal pits, that the young John Wilkins first became involved in mining operations. Precisely when his connexion with the Wollaston family began remains unclear, but after his marriage to the heiress Rebecca Wollaston he was soon directing their mines at Swannington and Measham, Leicestershire. The availability of capital enabled him to lease mineral rights elsewhere in the county, most notably from Viscount Beaumont whose own coal-mining activities Wilkins gradually outstripped. He purchased Ravenstone Hall in 1687 and by the later 1690s dominated the Leicestershire coal-trade, owning the two most extensive collieries in the county, Swannington and Measham, and mined other areas which took his influence into north Warwickshire and parts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. In 1692 he was said to employ 300 men. His relations with Lord Beaumont became increasingly ensnared in a series of clashes at law, but in 1702 the Beaumont mines passed to Sir George Beaumont, 4th Bt.*, who acknowledged Wilkins’ coal-mining monopoly in Leicestershire by confining his own mining activities to Warwickshire.2
In 1698 Wilkins was put up for election as knight of the shire with John Verney*, a Tory. His own political outlook had evidently undergone a recent transformation as the Earl of Huntingdon indicated to Verney: ‘I suppose your joining with Mr Wilkins (who used to vote against you) is grounded upon a good assurance that he will likewise join his votes with yours when he comes into the House of Commons for hitherto we have accounted him no other than a creature of my Lord of Stamford.’ Wilkins was returned in 1698, although some time elapsed before he was acknowledged as a thoroughgoing Tory. Indeed his political reputation in the county was still such that Huntingdon had warned Verney during the campaign, ‘if there should be competitors you will find the fanatical party will be for Wilkins against you’. He was soon afterwards identified as belonging to the ‘Country party’, and was forecast as likely to oppose the government on the standing army question. On 6 Apr. 1699 he was granted leave of absence for an indefinite period. In the final months of 1700 Wilkins went to extreme lengths to preserve his position when the Earl of Rutland (John Manners†) announced an intention of offering his son Lord Roos (John Manners*) for one of the Leicestershire seats in the election expected early in 1701. He adroitly forewarned the Earl that such a move at so late a stage would be quite inadvisable, ‘for the country is all made, the gentlemen mostly for Mr Verney and myself’. To ensure Roos did not put up in Leicestershire, he manoeuvred the Earl into endorsing Roos’s candidature for one of the Derbyshire seats. Wilkins none the less exceeded himself in these elaborate machinations, for while Roos was indeed elected for Derbyshire, Wilkins incurred Rutland’s severe displeasure in having made extravagant promises of support which did not materialize.3
Returning to the new Parliament, Wilkins was listed in February 1701 as likely to support the Court in agreeing with the supply committee’s resolution to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’, but he was later blacklisted as having opposed preparations for the war with France. At the December election, the force of Rutland’s hostility in Leicestershire deprived Wilkins of his seat, but a well-prepared campaign begun immediately after the death of William III enabled him to recapture it in the summer of 1702. Rutland still vengefully excluded him from the Leicestershire lieutenancy, however, and it was not until June 1703 under a new Tory lord lieutenant, the Earl of Denbigh, that he was finally appointed. In the Commons, Wilkins paid scant attention to secondary business, and his own commitments may have prevented anything more than his sporadic attendance. He is almost certain to have contributed at the committee appointed on 27 Oct. 1702 to discuss the causes of escalating coal prices, and at another to which he was added, possibly at his own request, on 13 Jan. 1703, concerning the rivers Stower and Salwerp navigation bill with its implications for coal transport. Politically he behaved as a moderate Tory. The Earl of Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) listed him as a possible supporter in the event of a Commons attack in mid-March 1704 concerning the Scotch Plot; the following session he voted against ‘the Tack’ in the decisive 28 Nov. division and in consequence was rated in a post-electoral list of 1705 as ‘Low Church’. He was returned unopposed to the 1705 Parliament at the beginning of which (25 Oct.) he voted against the Court candidate for the Speakership, and in a further listing of early 1708 was again noted as a Tory.4
Wilkins stood down at the 1708 election. He played an important part in the by-election early in 1711, by now a senior and authoritative figure among the county Tories and esteemed for the kind of effective organization which had played a key part in humbling the Rutland interest at the beginning of the Queen’s reign. Having previously agreed with Lord Denbigh that the young Tory Sir Thomas Cave, 3rd Bt.*, should stand for the county at the next opportunity, Wilkins briskly supervised practically every detail of Cave’s campaign when such a vacancy occurred in January 1711, despite suffering the recent death of his son and sole heir, Francis. The preparations for the difficult 1715 contest likewise made claims on his experience. By the 1720s Wilkins’ mining ventures had ceased to function successfully. Even though he had adopted some of the most advanced engineering of the day at his pits, including the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine, and skilled miners recruited from as far afield as Shropshire, sales fell and he was forced to scale down his output. Personal loss struck home in July 1718 with the death of his wife, the key figure in his rise to fortune. Wilkins himself died without an heir on 19 Feb. 1726, and in accordance with his will his estates and collieries were vested in trustees for disposal towards the foundation of a hospital, in memory of his son, at Ravenstone ‘for 32 widows’ of the neighbourhood of his Leicestershire mines.5
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
- 1. IGI, Leics.; C. C. Owen, Leics. and S. Derbys. Coalfield 1200–1900, p. 97.
- 2. Owen, 97–99; VCH Leics. iii. 34–35.
- 3. Huntington Lib. Hastings mss HA6107 (letterbk.), Huntingdon to Verney, 18 Apr. 1698; HMC Cowper, iii. 160, 161; BL, Lothan mss, Wilkins to Coke, n.d. ‘concerning Ld. Roos’s standing’, Hardinge to same, n.d. ‘Saturday night’, same to same, n.d. ‘1 o’clock, Friday’, same to same, n.d. ‘Wednesday night’, same to same, 1 Jan. 1700[–1].
- 4. HMC Cowper, iii. 3, 6, 9, 13; CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 339; 1703–4, p. 279.
- 5. Nichols, Leics. iii. 934; Leics. RO, Braye mss 23D57/2843, Wilkins to Cave, 5 Feb. 1711; 2852, same to same, [7–9 Feb. 1711]; 2867, Margaret Cave to same, 16 Feb. 1711; 2890, Beaumont to Cave, Oct. 1714; Owen, 100, 109; Nichols, iii. 936.