Labour Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Wilson, James (c. 1792–1859)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

This entry is from People Australia

James Wilson (c.1792-1859) tailor, radical conspirator and convict

Birth: about 1792 in London, son of Thomas Wilson, shoemaker, and his wife Mary. Marriages: (1) 10 October 1814 at St George’s church, Bloomsbury, in London, England to Betsy Waskett. They had two children. (2) 27 July 1857 at St John’s Anglican church, Glebe, Sydney, to a Dublin-born widow, Eleanor Hagan, née Hely, aged 53, whose occupation on her marriage lines was listed as "laborer". Death: aged 66, on 5 March 1859 at Sydney Infirmary. Religion: Protestant. 

  • An army veteran, by 1820 Wilson was a participant in radical, republican circles loosely associated with the ideas of Thomas Spence (1750-1814), a writer, land reformer and campaigner for political and social reform. He joined the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.
  • On 23 February 1820 he was one of Spenceans, known as the Cato Street conspirators, who were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate the British prime minister and his cabinet as part of a general uprising - ‘in the cause of liberty,’ their leader Arthur Thistlewood claimed. Five of the ringleaders, Thistlewood, James Ings, Richard Tidd, William Davidson and Thomas Brunt, were executed and beheaded on 1 May 1820.
  • Changing his plea to guilty at a late stage of his trial, Wilson escaped execution and with four other conspirators — Richard Bradburn, Charles Cooper, John Harrison and John Shaw Strange — was convicted of high treason and sentenced to transportation for life. In Mark Dunn’s words all four “ were in trades threatened by the increasing industrialisation in Britain”.
  • The five convicts sailed from Portsmouth, aboard the Guildford, on 14 May and arrived in Port Jackson on 30 September 1820. The ship’s indent described Wilson as a native of London, aged 28, 5 feet 8 inches [173 cm] in height, with blue eyes, dark flaxen hair, pale and sallow complexion. In October the conspirators were sent in the Elizabeth Henrietta to Newcastle, where he probably worked in the tailoring shop.
  • In 1822 he and Harrison petitioned the governor asking that their families be allowed a free passage to travel to the colony. Wilson wrote that his wife and two infant children then resided “at No 11 Foxes Place Lloyds Old Cricket Ground, Marylebone, London, . . . [and were] most anxious to rejoin Petitioner in the Colony, but unable to defray the expenses of their passage”. He added that he “could maintain them by his own Industry, being perfectly Master of the Tailoring Business, and having some little funds in his Possession”. Morisset supported the petitions and asserted that the conduct had been good. However, neither man was reunited with his family.
  • When the penal settlement at Newcastle was disbanded, Commandant Morisset was transferred to Bathurst in 1824 and at his specific request Wilson and three other Cato Street conspirators joined him in January to work as constables. After Morisset’s departure, in 1825 Wilson was assigned as a convict servant to William Young at O’Connell Plains. By 1828 he was a convict servant of Mr McLeod of Bathurst.
  • On 15 June 1829 he received a ticket of leave for Bathurst, where, in the words of (Sir) Roger Therry, “he became the fashionable tailor of the district. The signboard over his shop contained a correct description in announcing him as “Wilson, tailor. From London”.
  • Wilson was recommended for a conditional pardon in May 1836 and Governor Richard Bourke recorded its approval on 31 August 1837.
  • By 1857 Wilson had moved to Sydney. He described himself as a widower on his marriage that year.
  • Cause of death: disease of liver.

Sources
Roger Therry, Reminiscences of thirty years residence in NSW and Victoria (London, 1863); (Mark Dunn, The convict valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier (Sydney, 2020), p 91; Kieran Hannon, Designing and dangerous men: the story of the transported Cato Street conspirators, (Calwell, Australian Capital Territory, 2021), passim, especially pp 114-115, 207-214; Cato Street Conspiracy website: https://www.catostreetconspiracy.org.uk/the-conspirators/the-fate-of-the-transported-five

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Wilson, James (c. 1792–1859)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-james-33032/text41170, accessed 29 January 2023.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012