James Wilson (businessman)

The Right Honourable
James Wilson

A portrait of James Wilson by Sir John Wilson Gordon, published in The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. The portrait was presented to Mrs Wilson in 1859, by the Royal Scottish Academy.
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
In office
5 January 1853  21 February 1858
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister The Earl of Aberdeen
The Viscount Palmerston
Preceded by George Alexander Hamilton
Succeeded by George Alexander Hamilton
Paymaster-General and
Vice-President of the Board of Trade
In office
18 June 1859  12 August 1859
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister The Viscount Palmerston
Preceded by Lord Lovaine
Succeeded by Hon. William Cowper
Personal details
Born 3 June 1805 (1805-06-03)
Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland
Died 11 August 1860 (1860-08-12) (aged 55)
Calcutta, India
Citizenship United Kingdom
Nationality Scottish
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Preston
Alma mater None

James Wilson (3 June 1805 – 11 August 1860) was a Scottish businessman, economist, and Liberal politician who founded The Economist weekly and the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which merged with Standard Bank in 1969 to form Standard Chartered.[1][2][3][4]

Early life

Wilson was born in Hawick in the Borders. His wealthy father William Wilson owned a textile mill, and his ancestors were local sheep farmers. He was the fourth of 15 children, of whom 10 reached adulthood. His mother died when James was young.[5]

A successful disciplined autodidact scholar from a Quaker family, he was destined to be a schoolmaster but hated it so much that he "would rather to be the most menial servant in [his] father's mill". After considering studying for election to the Faculty of Advocates, against his family religion, he decided to be schooled in economics. So at the age of 16, he became an apprentice in a hat factory. Later, his father then bought the business for him and his elder brother, William. They left Scotland and moved to London, England, when James was 19, with a gift of £2,000 each (£130,000 in 2005 pounds).



The brothers established a manufacturing factory—Wilson, Irwin & Wilson—that they dissolved in 1831. Wilson continued in the same line of business with much success (his net worth was £25,000 in 1837, or £1,630,000 in 2005 pounds). During the economic crisis of 1837, he lost most of his wealth when the price of indigo fell. By 1839 he sold most of his property and avoided bankruptcy. However, in 1853 he founded The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which later merged with the Standard Bank to form Standard Chartered Bank in 1969.


Wilson was generally opposed to privileging the Church of England, the secret ballot when it was proposed in 1853, and the Corn Laws. He wrote a pamphlet titled Influences of the Corn Laws, as affection all classes of the community, and particularly the landed interests. It slowly received positive feedback and Wilson's fame had grown. He then went on writing on currency, and especially The Revenue; or, What should the Chancellor do?. He started to write for newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian. In 1843 he established The Economist as a newspaper to campaign for free trade, and acted as Chief editor and sole proprietor for sixteen years. His over-arching goal to end vested interests in The Empire's parliament wherever these promoted poverty or starvation as the Corn Laws most notably had done. An article[6] Wilson wrote in opposition to the Ten Hours Bill was criticised by Karl Marx[7] for misunderstanding profit and the working day. The Economist is still published today, now with a weekly circulation of over 1.6 million globally.[8] Wilson was the most respected statistician of his times and saw economics as an optimistic and rational way of mediating socially sustainable futures drawing on the Scottish School of Adam Smith and the French "Entrepreneur" School of JB Say.


Wilson entered the House of Commons as Liberal Member of Parliament for Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1847.[9] Because of his economic experience, prime minister Lord John Russell appointed him Secretary of the Board of Control (which ran the affairs of India) in 1848, a post he held until the government fell in 1852. He then served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury between 1853 and 1858, firstly in Lord Aberdeen's coalition government and secondly in Lord Palmerston's first administration. In 1857 he was returned to Parliament for Devonport.[10] He again briefly held office under Palmerston as Paymaster-General and Vice-President of the Board of Trade between June and August 1859 and was sworn of the Privy Council the same year.[11]

In August 1859 Wilson resigned these offices and his seat in parliament to sit as the financial member of the Council of India. He was sent by Queen Victoria to India to establish the tax structure, a new paper currency, and remodel India's finance system after the Rebellion of 1857. However, he was in office only a year before he died. In 1860 he refused to leave the stifling summer heat of Calcutta, contracted dysentery, and died in August of that year at age 55.

Despite his prominent public role, Wilson was buried unknown at a cemetery at Mullick Bazar in Kolkata. His grave was discovered in 2007 by CP Bhatia, an assistant commissioner of Income Tax, while researching a book on India's tax history. Due to the efforts of CP Bhatia the tombstone was restored by the Christian Burial Board.[12][13]


Wilson married Elizabeth Preston of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in January 1832. They had six daughters, of whom Eliza, the eldest, married Walter Bagehot. Walter continued his father-in-law's reformation of The English Constitution towards Commonwealth values. Female dominance among shareholders of The Economist stood its editorial values - championing family savings as the main engine of any civilised economy - in good stead as the 20th century rolled out. With world wars, Britain increasingly lost its leading role in the world but the moral leadership of the Queens English echoes to this day.



  1. "A Scotchman inside every man. (James Wilson, founder of The Economist)". The Economist. 11 September 1993.
  2. James Wilson by Ruth Dudley Edwards in Oxford DNB
  3. Ruth Dudley Edwards (1993). The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press. ISBN 9780875846088.
  4. Michael Stenton, Who's Who of British MPs (Harvester, Sussex, 1976) ISBN 0-85527-219-8
  5. Bagehot, Walter. "Memoir of Right Hon. James Wilson". In Forrest Morgan. The collected works of Walter Bagehot. 4. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-13154-4.
  6. The Economist 15th April 1848
  7. Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin. p. 338.
  8. The Economist circulation statistics
  9. leighrayment.com "House of Commons: Waterloo to West Looe"
  10. leighrayment.com "House of Commons: Devizes to Dorset West"
  11. The London Gazette: no. 22276. p. 2401. 18 June 1859.
  12. Ishita Ayan Dutt, business-standard.com "In British times, the opium trade protected people from taxes", Business Standard, 4 September 2009.
  13. Soumitra Das, "Taxman rediscovers father of taxation – Mullickbazar grave of Economist founder James Wilson gets facelift ahead of 150th death anniversary", Telegraph India, 11 August 2009.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Ralph Lopes, Bt
Member of Parliament for Westbury
Succeeded by
Sir Massey Lopes, Bt
Preceded by
Sir George Berkeley
Thomas Erskine Perry
Member of Parliament for Devonport
With: Thomas Erskine Perry 1857–1859
Sir Michael Seymour 1859
Succeeded by
Sir Michael Seymour
Sir Arthur William Buller
Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Wyse
George Cornewall Lewis
Joint Secretary of the Board of Control
With: Thomas Wyse 1848–1849
Hon. John Elliot 1849–1852
Succeeded by
Henry Baillie
Charles Bruce
Preceded by
George Alexander Hamilton
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
George Alexander Hamilton
Preceded by
Lord Lovaine
Succeeded by
Hon. William Cowper
Vice-President of the Board of Trade
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