The Family of

John Wilkinson


John Wilkinson and his Family

By Michael Berthoud

J. Wilk Soc. No 17 (1995),  pp. 3-7

Isaac Wilkinson was born about the year 1705, at Clifton near Workington, in what was then Cumberland but is now Cumbria. Little is known of his early years. He has variously been described as a farmer, a part-time shepherd and an ironfounder and may well have made a living by combining all three occupations.  

Isaac’s eldest son, John, was born in 1727 or 1728 also at Clifton. Legend has it that he was born in a farm cart on the way to market and that this unconventional entry into the world marked him out for future greatness. At that time, Isaac was working as an overlooker at one of the haematite iron ore furnaces and also working a small farm at Little Clifton. Two years later Isaac’s second son Henry was born. No details of his brief life are recorded. He played little part in the history of the family and died at Plas Grono, Wrexham, in 1756 aged twenty-six. In 1736 Isaac’s third son, William, was born. Had he not been overshadowed by his more famous older brother he would no doubt have made his mark independently as a famous ironmaster in his own right. On the continent his reputation exceeds that of John.  

At about this time, 1736, Isaac Wilkinson moved to Backbarrow, a small industrial centre where iron smelting by charcoal had been carried on for the previous twenty-five years. There he took a house called Bare Syke, a few yards from the Backbarrow Furnace. He set up as a ‘potfounder’ and began making smoothing irons for laundresses, flat or ‘sad’ irons and the more difficult box irons.

  In matters of religion Isaac Wilkinson was free-thinker. In 1742 he sent his son John to be educated at a dissenters’ academy at Kendal, run by the Reverend Caleb Rotherham. Isaac had two daughters while John was at Kendal. Mary, born in 1744, was later to marry Joseph Priestley. Sarah, born the following year, grew up to marry Thomas Jones, a surgeon of Leeds. Their son Thomas was destined to play a major role in the last act of the tragical farce that unfolded in the years following his uncle John’s death. When John returned from Kendal in 1745 he was again sent off, this time to be apprenticed to a Liverpool ironmonger for five years. Here he no doubt received his grounding in commercial practice that was to ensure the success in business that eventually eluded his father.

  In 1755 John married his first wife, Ann, the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Mawdesley of Mawdesley Hall, Croston in Lancashire. She died in childbirth the following year and her memorial, by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, may be seen in Wrexham church. She left a daughter, Mary, who was brought up in Shrewsbury by a Mr and Mrs John Flint. Ann, who was only twenty-six at the time of her death, seems to have been a wealthy young woman and left John with an ‘ample fortune’ which he very quickly set about putting to good use. John’s brother Henry died, aged twenty-six, in the same year.

  In 1757 John helped to form the New Willey Company. In the following year Isaac entered into partnership with Edward Blakeway and others to install his new iron bellows at Merthyr Furnace, Dowlais, where they were apparently a great success. Isaac’s Bersham venture collapsed in 1761. His predecessors at Bersham had all experienced financial difficulties. Although the works had changed over from charcoal to coke as early as 1821, the quality of the iron was poor, ruined by impurities. The forests that had supplied the charcoal had by then been largely cut down and there was no going back to charcoal.

  Isaac moved to Bristol and continued trying to make a living as an ironfounder but was, for the rest of his life, dependent on his two Sons. He was recorded as being in business as an ironfounder in 1775 and died in 1784. In the last years of his life he signed himself ‘Isaac Wilkinson Esq.’.

  In 1763 John married Edward Blakeway’s sister-in-law, Mary Lee of Wroxeter, a lady of forty who brought him another ample fortune. In the same year he acquired the ‘New House’, now called ‘The Lawns’, at Broseley. Mary Lee may also have financed the final take-over of the New Willey Company. Mary had no children.

  John’s daughter Mary, by his first wife, had been brought up in Shrewsbury. She may have lived with her father and stepmother for a time at The Lawns as in May 1780 he took her to Coalbrookdale to meet Samuel Darby (Abraham Darby’s brother and a shareholder in the iron bridge) and his wife Deborah and to drink tea in the garden at Sunniside. Deborah thought Mary Wilkinson an ‘amiable, accomplished young woman’.

  In October 1787 young Mary, then aged thirty, married the Reverend Theophilus Holbrook at Market Drayton. The marriage took place against John’s wishes and without his consent and he never forgave her. Whether they might ever have been reconciled is open to question; she died in childbirth eight months later, the child being buried in the churchyard at Moreton Say in Shropshire. Randall states that Wilkinson buried his daughter in his garden at Bradley, had the body moved five times and planted a gooseberry bush over it as a substitute for a headstone. This assertion is impossible to verify.

  John Took on his nephew Joseph Priestley junior as an apprentice. Had young Joseph proved satisfactory John might well have appointed him as his heir. Despite remaining loyal and generous to Joseph senior throughout his life, John was not satisfied with Joseph junior and dismissed him in 1791. The almost simultaneous death of his daughter and granddaughter had brought his hopes of a direct heir to an abrupt close. His second wife Mary, already forty when he married her, was now in her sixties and childless. His business interests and his estates were growing in value from year to year and the question of an heir must have weighed heavily on his mind. It was probably at this time that he made his rash promise to another nephew Thomas Jones, a promise that was to have such devastating repercussions in later years.

In 1794 William married the daughter of James Stockdale, a wealthy mill owner of Cark in Lancashire. Isaac and John had made bricks for James Stockdale’s cotton mill where John, with James Watt, was later to install one of the early steam engines. Stockdale also had mining interests in Cornwall, Wales and Lindale, furnaces at Leighton and Halon and forges at Cark, Caton and Liverpool from where he supplied James Watt with iron.

  William had two daughters. Mary Ann (born 1795) grew up to marry Matthew Robinson Boulton the son of Matthew Boulton and lived in great splendour at Great Tew near Chipping Norton. The younger daughter, Elizabeth Stockdale (born 1799) fared less well. She remained a spinster and in her later years became housekeeper at Aston Hall in Birmingham to James Watt of the steam engine. Her portrait still hangs in the housekeeper’s attic at Aston.  

In 1802 John’s housekeeper Ann Lewis presented him with an illegitimate daughter, christened Mary Ann. Two years later they had another daughter, christened Johnina - suggesting that John was by then desperate for a son to carry his name and inherit his fortune. In 1806 Ann Lewis finally had a son, duly christened John. John senior’s second wife, Mary, died at Castle Head in the same year at the age of eighty-three. No doubt deeply affected by the death of his wife and the birth, at long last, of a son, John Wilkinson made his will. He died at Hadley on July 14th, 1808, at the age of eighty. Two other members of the family died in 1808, John’s brother and old enemy William and their sister Sarah (mother of Thomas Jones Wilkinson).  

The will left Ann Lewis a life tenancy at Castle Head and an annuity of £200 so long as she remained unmarried. All the residue of his land, securities, ready money, stock, debts etc., were left to Ann Lewis, James Adam of Runcom, William Vaughan on London, William Smith of Birmingham, and Samuel Fereday of Sedgley, in trust for twenty-one years. At the end of that period, in 1829, the estate was to go to ‘the children I might have by Ann Lewis and, living at my decrease or born within six months afterwards, to be divided equally between such children and their heirs, where they share and share alike, provided they take the name of Wilkinson’. This they duly did by Royal Licence and received a grant of arms in the same year.  

John must have felt that he had not only sired an heir in the very nick of time and established a Wilkinson dynasty but had made his empire stand safe for generations to come. In fact he had sown the wind and his wretched children were about to reap the whirlwind.  

John’s sister Sarah, who had married Thomas, a surgeon from Leeds, also died in 1808. Their son Thomas had been appointed by John as his heir many years before, probably after he had been disappointed by another nephew, Joseph Priestley the younger. This was, no doubt, a verbal promise only - soon forgotten by John but not by Thomas Jones who assumed the name of Wilkinson and claimed the entire estate.

For eleven years he contested the will. Fereday relinquished his trusteeship and backed Thomas’s claim. He was rewarded for his treachery with bankruptcy when that claim failed. Four other trustees died and Ann Lewis and James Adam were left to fulfil the terms of the trust. The case was seized by the grasping hand of the Court of Chancery and the three children were brought up with great expectations at Brymbo Hall. The separation of Ann Lewis at Castle Head and the children at Brymbo was doubtless intended by Wilkinson as a means of ensuring that they were brought up as ‘gentry’ and not as the illegitimate offspring of a former housekeeper.  

Even as late as 1824, when the whole estate was falling into decay and confusion, the various properties were still bringing in an annual income of nearly £10,000. James Adam, Wilkinson’s ‘faithful and confidential agent’ successfully fought against Thomas Jones Wilkinson on behalf of the children and an appeal to the House of Lords in 1819 for an injunction against Adam failed.  

In 1821 Mary Ann, the eldest daughter, married at Cartmel Church William Legh, gentleman, of Hordley, Hampshire, second illegitimate son of Thomas Peter Legh Esq., of Lyme Hall, Cheshire. William Legh was for many years a Member of Parliament, first for South Lancashire and later for East Cheshire. The couple continued to live for some years at Brymbo Hall, the first two of their eight children being baptized at Wrexham Church in 1832 and 1834. Their fourth child succeeded his uncle Thomas Legh in 1857 and became the first Lord Newton of Lyme.  

Johnina, John’s second illegitimate daughter, married Alexander Murray Esq. of Polmaise, Stirlingshire. They too continued living at Brymbo Hall where Murray died in 1835. In 1824 Ann Lewis married Thomas Milson. Presumably this was a love match as she thus forfeited her annuity and the life tenancy of Castle Head, leaving her nothing but the burden of her trusteeship. Palmer records that she was ‘afterwards constantly involved in pecuniary difficulties’. In the same year the loyal and steadfast James Adam died and with him died any hope of salvaging anything from the estate.  

Young John was educated at Christ’s College Cambridge and later the sum of £700 was paid to him to purchase a commission in the army and pay his debts. Without the great John Wilkinson at the helm, the empire rapidly crumbled and fell into decay, doubtless being milked by the legal profession who kept the Thomas Jones pot boiling for as long as possible. In 1828, by a decree of Chancery, the greater part of the estate was sold off to meet spurious and inflated claims. The Rotherhithe property was knocked down for £3,400, Ffrith Farm at Brymbo for £2,500 and all the smaller estates surrounding Brymbo were sold off leaving only the initial 500 acres. At this time also Castle Head was sold, Ann Lewis having forfeited her tenancy on her marriage. With the residue of the proceeds of these sales young John and his two sisters attempted to re-start the Brymbo works but the attempt failed.

By 1829, when the entire estate was due to devolve on the three wretched children, those entrusted to its management had succeeded in reducing it to nothing. Shortly afterwards, young John was arrested in London for debt. In 1837 he went to America and never returned. He married in America and later in the century his son visited Brymbo to see the old Hall and works.  

Thomas Jones Wilkinson, having waited thirty years for John Wilkinson to die and a further eleven for the outcome of the will to be decided, died a pauper. The celebrated case of Wilkinson and Wilkinson had been milked to the last drop. In all probability Thomas Jones Wilkinson provided the inspiration for Dickens’s ‘man from Shropshire’ in Bleak House.  

To sum up, there can be very few legitimate claims of direct descent from John Wilkinson. The surname is common throughout the English speaking world and was probably Dutch in origin, indicating ‘Villiken’s son’ or ‘son of Little Willey’. John Wilkinson’s legitimate line died out with the death of his first wife and then of her daughter in childbirth, his second wife being childless. Of the legitimate line, only young John could claim any direct descent as a Wilkinson, his two sisters having changed their name by marriage. John II went to America in 1837 and John Ill visited England later in the century. It is unlikely that a British claimant will surface and no American claim will stand up if American descent can be traced back to before 1837. There is no financial advantage to be gained by proving descent. 

(c) Copyright Michael Berthoud 1994





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