WILKS, John I (c.1776-1854), of 3 Finsbury Square, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1830 - 1837

Family and Education

b. c. 1776, s. of Rev. Matthew Wilks (d. 1829), wholesale stationer and pastor, of Old Street Road, London and Elizabeth, da. of John Shenstone of Halesowen, Staffs. m. (1) Mary (d. 26 Feb. 1814), 2s. 3da.1; (2) 2 Sept. 1829, Isabella Sarah Stubbs (d. 18 Jan. 1846), s.p.2 d. 25 Aug. 1854.

Offices Held


A cradle radical and Dissenter raised in Hoxton, where he later became a trustee of the academy, Wilks was one of seven children (probably the eldest) born to ‘the eccentric but useful minister of Whitfield’s Tabernacle in Moorfields’ Matthew Wilks and his wife, a cousin of the poet William Shenstone.3 He became a founder member with his father in 1798 of the Missionary Society, drafted and published their Apology in 1799, and qualified as an attorney in 1800 after being articled to Philip Morshead of Biliter Square, London. He acquired political prominence and employment through his father’s sponsorship of the Village Itinerancy Society and the Royal Institution for the Education of the Poor, and by establishing the Protestant Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty (1811) to lobby for Test Acts repeal and Dissenters’ rights. As their secretary for the next 25 years, he corresponded regularly with ministers, the Whig hierarchy and the Dissenting deputies.4 In 1809, at the third attempt, he became vestry clerk and acquired for his legal practice the business of the populous Middlesex parish of St. Luke, Old Street, where his tenure remained unchallenged until 1826, despite complaints about St. Luke’s strong support for the Protestant Society’s petitioning campaigns and unease at the conduct of Wilks’s sons by his first marriage, John Wilks II* and Rowland Wilks, who had been articled to him.5 Assisted by Rowland and the Dissenters, whose opposition to Henry Brougham’s 1820 education bill and support for the 1823-6 anti-slavery campaign and the Spanish Liberals he had orchestrated, Wilks belatedly contested Boston, where he polled a good third on the ‘Blue’ or radical interest at the general election of 1826.6 He deliberately held aloof from the ‘bubble’ ventures and candidature for Sudbury of John Wilks II and devoted the summer to drafting and depositing Crynhodeb o’r Weithred, the administrative conventions of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, but failed to escape suspicion that ‘they were both rogues alike’ when the ‘bubble’ burst in October 1826.7 His ‘discrediting’ in 1829 by the vestry of St. Luke’s, who thwarted his attempt to transfer the clerkship to Rowland, had him prosecuted for malpractice and embezzlement (Whitmore and another v. John Wilks) and encouraged the government ‘spy’ Richmond to sue him for libel, coincided with invitations to Wilks to contest Queenborough and Colchester on the anti-corporation interests.8 However, it was Boston, where he financed trial borings for water in the market place in 1826 and 1828 at an estimated cost of £2,000, which returned him in 1830, when he succeeded the Norwich Member William Smith as the parliamentary spokesman of Dissent.9 He made slavery, civil and religious liberty, reform and the corruption of the corporation the election issues and was arraigned as ‘an old vestry clerk of canting notoriety’, dependent on St. Luke’s and the London Alderman Matthew Wood* for character references.10 Brougham, with whom he had liaised on behalf of the Protestant Society to secure Test Acts repeal in 1828 and Catholic emancipation in 1829, and whose return for Yorkshire he now applauded, predicted that Wilks, who promised ‘at least by my votes to maintain the principles which certainly promote the honour and happiness of man’, would divide regularly with opposition.11 Though ‘defective in pronouncing the letter "R"’, he proved to be a fluent, frequent and effective parliamentary speaker, described by a commentator in 1837 as ‘of middle size ... slenderly formed ... [and] venerable appearance. His face is angular. His nose is prominent and his eyes are large. His complexion is florid and his hair a dark brown. The crown ... partially bald’.12

The Wellington ministry counted Wilks among their ‘foes’, and he divided against them when they were brought down on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He commended the Dissenters on bringing up their numerous anti-slavery petitions, 4, 10, 11, 12 Nov., and urged Robert Grant to reintroduce his Jewish emancipation bill on their behalf, 11 Nov., but he had to concede that day that the Wesleyan Methodists remained reluctant to entrust petitions to him. He presented over 75 anti-slavery petitions on eight further occasions between 17 Nov. 1830 and 29 Mar. 1831. During the same period he ordered returns, 23 Nov., and promised legislation to reduce Dissenters’ liabilities for church rates, 25 Nov., which neither the new Grey ministry nor the anti-reformers in opposition were prepared to support, and endorsed petitions and pressed the case for civil registration, 22 Nov., 16 Dec., open vestries, 16 Dec. 1830, and tithe reform, 29 Mar. 1831. East India Company interests ensured that his calls for the abolition of the pilgrim tax, 30 Dec. 1830, 3 Feb., 29 Mar. 1831, and Hindoo immolation, 23 Dec. 1830, 3 Feb. 1831, were rejected. He raised objections on behalf of the Middlesex parishes opposed to the metropolitan police levy, 18, 30 Nov., 7, 8, 21 Dec. 1830, and ordered returns with a view to securing its reduction, 30 Mar. 1831, presented petitions and endorsed Boston’s opposition to the tax on the coastal coal trade, 8 Dec. 1830, and made representations on behalf of the 8,000 or so small friendly societies, representing two million ‘of the industrious population’, that remained unregistered under the 1829 Act, 8 Feb. 1831.

Although critical of their spending on ambassadors’ salaries, Wilks declared for the Grey administration, stating that he expected them to promote freedom and reform and reduce expenditure, 13 Dec. 1830. He presented Boston’s petition for retrenchment and reform, 16 Dec., ordered detailed returns of taxable houses in all counties and franchised and unfranchised boroughs, 21 Dec. 1830 (delivered, 17 Mar. 1831) and presented and endorsed further pro-reform petitions, 28 Feb., 17, 19, 29 Mar. 1831, including one for the ballot, 28 Feb. He said that he looked to the ministerial bill as a means of reducing the influence of closed corporations, 17 Mar., endorsed the parishioners of St. Luke’s petition in its favour, 19 Mar., and voted for its second reading, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He had rallied with the London radicals and Dissenters at the Crown and Anchor in March to denounce Russian aggression in Poland, and wrote to the Lincolnshire newspapers to publicize his great activity in the House as a reformer.13 Proclaiming that ‘the churchman has not withheld his approbation from a Dissenter, and all Dissenters have united in the great cause of reform’, he polled second at Boston at the 1831 general election to his fellow reformer Heathcote.14

He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, presented a favourable Boston petition, 14 July 1831, and generally divided silently and steadily for its details. He spoke out against any which he deemed unadvisable, and refused to align with the bill’s radical detractors such as Hunt.15 He voted for the total disfranchisement of Saltash, which ministers no longer urged, 26 July, and in the minorities for the separate enfranchisement of Merthyr Tydfil, which Welsh Members advocated, 10 Aug., against the proposed division of counties, 11 Aug., and to transfer Aldborough from Schedule B to A, 14 Sept. He protested that the arrangements for appointing returning officers for the new metropolitan constituencies were ill defined, 10 Aug., 6 Sept. To Heathcote’s annoyance, he echoed the Lincolnshire Members’ opposition to dividing their county, 10, 11, 12 Aug., 14 Sept., and highlighted anomalies in the proposed urban ratepayer franchise, 19, 25, 26 Aug., 13 Sept. He presented petitions from freemen whose enfranchisement by marriage the bill abolished, 27, 30 Aug., 2 Sept., but voted with the majority against preserving all freemen’s rights, 30 Aug. He deliberately eschewed his personal preference for a longer interval between the nomination and poll, 2 Sept., and for triennial parliaments and a poor rate based franchise, 6, 13 Sept., lest by seeking amendment he should jeopardize the bill. He voted for its passage, 21 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831. His parliamentary conduct was commended by the Middlesex reform meeting at Hackney, 27 Sept., where he called for addresses to the king from every parish in the kingdom should the bill be defeated in the Lords.16 He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, its details, 20, 23 Jan., 28 Feb., and third reading, 22 Mar. 1832, intervening only to criticize its provisions for Lincolnshire, 20, 23, 24 Jan., and Stamford, 19, 23 Mar., which, with the changes to neutralize Lord Lonsdale’s influence in Whitehaven, he opposed as a minority teller against the boundary bill, 22 June. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the bill unimpaired, 10 May, for the second reading of the Irish measure, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish bill, 1 June, but was in O’Connell’s minority for extending the franchise to £5 Irish freeholders, 18 June. He reiterated his support for triennial parliaments on presenting Boston’s petition for amendment of the bribery bill, 30 July, and proposed legislating for it in the next Parliament, 6 Aug. 1832. He voted in the minority for appointing 11 of its original members to the reconstituted Dublin election committee, 29 July, with ministers against censuring the Irish government for electoral interference, 23 Aug., against Benett’s ‘time-wasting’ Liverpool franchise bill, 5 Sept. 1831, and in the government majorities on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and the navy and civil departments bill, 6 Apr. 1832.

Wilks’s radicalism was more pronounced in the 1831-2 Parliament and he was expected to ‘cordially unite with such men as O’Connell, Hume, Colonel Evans, Warburton ... [and] Whittle Harvey, and ... take a firmer stand in the contest for popular rights’.17 He voted in small minorities on the grant for professors’ salaries, 8 July 1831, 13 Apr. 1832, and the civil list, 18 July 1831, which he again criticized before voting against the award for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels, 25 July. He cast a hostile vote for printing the Waterford petition for disarming the Irish yeomanry, 11 Aug. He presented and endorsed petitions for inquiry into the Deacles’ case, 16, 19 Sept., and seconded, 22 Sept., and voted, 27 Sept., for motions advocating it. He voted in Hume’s minorities of 12 against expenditure on the royal palaces, 28 Sept. 1831, and of ten for receiving a petition for the repeal of Irish tithes, 2 Aug. 1832, with Hunt for inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, 15 Mar., and for inquiry into smuggling in the glove trade, 3 Apr. 1832. He presented petitions from the Protestant Society for a reduction in official oath taking, 12 July, 17 Oct. 1831, and called for toleration towards those declining to take them on grounds of ‘Christian conscience’, 4 Oct., and an end to restrictions whereby (as in Boston) borough officers could be elected only in a parish church, 20 July 1831, and Dissenting clergy denied access to capital offenders, 16 Aug. 1832. He considered Sabbath observance a matter of conscience, provided local legislation was adequately enforced, and refused to be goaded into giving indiscriminate support to all petitions on the subject, 2, 14 Sept., 12 Oct. 1831, 6, 16 Aug. 1832. He advocated a civil registration system similar to the French one, 2 Sept., condoned the locally unpopular general register bill as a consultative measure 4, 12 Oct. 1831, and seconded Lord Nugent’s motion for civil registration of baptisms, 23 Feb. 1832. He called for repeal of the newspaper duties, 12 Aug., and changes to the game laws, 3, 8 Aug., and the highways bill favourable to the agricultural poor, 3 Aug. 1831. Citing their current maladministration in England, he spoke against extending the provisions of the poor laws to Ireland, 26 Sept., and criticized and ordered returns to demonstrate the preponderance of squarson magistrates in the shires, 28 Sept. He defended the bankruptcy bill on behalf of its author lord chancellor Brougham, 17 Oct., but pointed out that chancery folios contained 90 words, not 72, as stated. He continued to press for abolition of the pilgrim tax, 14, 17 Oct., and reform of church rates, 21 July 1831, 9 Aug. 1832, and reacted swiftly to reports of maltreatment of Catholics and Nonconformists in Canada and Jamaica, when matters relating to the two colonies came before the House, 25 July, 14 Oct. 1831, 13, 18 Apr. 1832. He favoured alternatives to the death penalty in forgery cases, 14 June, and abolition of tithes in Ireland, 9 Mar., 2, 6, 16 Aug., and strenuously supported the cruelty to animals bill, 24, 30 May, 5 July 1832. His second wife Isabella was an active member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Wilks became a fellow of the London Zoological Society.18 Being anxious to restrict the poor’s consumption of ‘spiritous liquors’, he pragmatically conceded the merits of the Beer Act and presented petitions in this vein, 17, 23 Aug., 5 Sept., 13 Oct. 1831. He also sought to increase the number of societies registered under the 1829 Friendly Societies Act by simplifying procedures and extending the registration period from three to five years, 6 Oct., and presented petitions accordingly, 6, 13, 14 Oct. As Edward Berkeley Portman and Robert Slaney ascertained, 12 Dec. 1831, 2 Mar. 1832, however, progress towards the bill which he introduced, 15 Mar., trailed by further petitions, 8, 14, 15 Mar., was slow. Although favourable petitioning continued, 20 Mar., 24 May, 6 July, 2 Aug. 1832, it was timed out that Parliament. He was a majority teller for amending the Highbury Place road bill, 3 Apr., assisted with the Gravesend pier and Exeter improvement bills, 10 Apr., 30 May, 13 June, and was instrumental with George Byng in preventing the passage of the Golden Lane burial ground bill, 8 June 1832. He presented anti-slavery petitions, 15 July 1831, 18 Apr., 24 May 1832, strenuously supported Buxton’s abolition motion that day, and urged the passage of the West India relief bill unamended so that decisions concerning its implementation could be left to the commissioners, 15 Aug. 1832. He presented petitions and steadfastly opposed the bill founding Durham University on the ground that non-Anglicans would not benefit thereby, 22, 25 June 1832.

Standing as a Liberal, ‘a real reformer not a mere conformer’, Wilks topped the poll at Boston at the 1832 general election, pressed for municipal reform as a means of redressing religious grievances and retained his seat until 1837, when he made way for Alderman Sir James Duke.19 He continued to work for the Dissenters in an honorary and a professional capacity, campaigned strenuously against church rates and, deeming the Whig reforms inadequate, contested St. Albans as a Conservative in 1847. He died at his home in Finsbury Square in August 1854, predeceased by his wives and sons, and cared for by his only unmarried daughter Sophia.20 His estate included a ‘collection of autograph letters, manuscripts and curiosities of literature’: the Shenstone papers, original works by Southey, a collection of Queen Caroline’s correspondence and notes by many radicals.21 Reviewing his career, the Evangelical Magazine commented: ‘His greatest contribution ... was towards the cause of religious liberty, by teaching, we might almost say compelling, Nonconformists to fight their own battles’.22

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. IGI (Mdx., Staffs.); Gent. Mag. (1814), i. 412. Oxford DNB erroneously omits Wilks’s first marriage (probably to Mary Mullis at Chesham, 5 May 1797).
  • 2. LMA P76/LUK; Gent. Mag. (1846), 329; PROB 11/1752/120; 2040/552; 2198/108.
  • 3. Evangelical Mag. (1829), 89-91; (1854) 590-1; T. Jackson, Faithful Pastor; G. Collison, Pastor’s Tomb; Bunhill Memorials ed. J.A. Jones (1849), 318.
  • 4. J. Wilks, Apology for the Missionary Soc.; TNA IND1/4569/8833; 4584/175; DWL, New College Collection, mss 41/82-87; 42/23; 43/8; Recs. Protestant Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty, 38, 193-4, 196, 198, 203; Add. 38246, f. 341; 38247, ff. 50, 61, 68, 187, 201, 221; 38251, f. 245; 38253, f. 83; 38281, ff. 227, 229, 319, 322; 38286, f. 214; 38328, f. 35; 38379, f. 3; 38410, ff. 68, 240, 263; R.G. Cowherd, Politics of English Dissent (1959), 17, 29.
  • 5. Gent. Mag. (1827), i. 457; (1854), ii. 629; Morning Chron. 18 Mar. 1820; Finsbury Pub. Lib. vestry mins. St. Luke, Old Street (1808-22), pp. 4-14, 45-50, 96-97, 109, 113-18, 175, 223, 264, 367, 397, 420, 444, 464, 491, 514; (1822-31), pp. 8, 46, 66, 84-86, 105-6, 143-52; The Times, 29 Mar. 1826.
  • 6. J. Bennet, Hist. Dissenters (1839), 54-59; Add. 51832, Wilks to Holland, 28 May 1823; The Times, 27 May, 5 June; Lincs. AO, Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss, Herries to Tennyson, 31 May; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 9, 16 June 1826.
  • 7. NLW, Fronheulog mss 146-72; Add. 51663, Bedford to Holland, 6 Oct. [1826].
  • 8. Vestry mins. St. Luke, Old Street (1822-31), pp. 105-6, 203-9, 234-51; Morning Herald, 6, 7 Dec. 1827; The Times, 9, 20 Jan., 9 Feb., 7 Apr., 6 July 1829, 24 Nov. 1830, 28 June 1831.
  • 9. P. Thompson, Boston (1856), 672, 787; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, 20 June, 25 July, 22 Aug. 1828; Lincs. RO, Ancaster mss, Garfit to Heathcote, T. Hopkins to same, 10, 17, 31 July 1830; Cowherd, 76.
  • 10. Sketch of Boston Election (1830), 20, 23, 36-37, 39-42, 44, 46-47, 67 and passim.; Lincoln, Louth, Newark, Stamford and Rutland Champion, 13, 20 July, 3 Aug. 1830.
  • 11. Brougham mss, Wilks to Brougham, 19 May 1828, 25 Aug., Brougham to Denman [3 Sept. 1830].
  • 12. [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Commons (1837), 358-9.
  • 13. The Times, 10 Mar.; Stamford Champion, 22 Mar., 19, 26 Apr.; Boston Gazette, 31 Mar., 5, 19 Apr. 1831; R.W. Davis, Dissent in Politics, 1780-1830, pp. 250-1.
  • 14. Ancaster mss, T. Hopkins to Heathcote, 9 Apr.; Boston Gazette, 26 Apr., 3 May 1831.
  • 15. Cowherd, 79.
  • 16. The Times, 28 Sept.; Bury and Norwich Post, 5 Oct. 1831.
  • 17. Poor Man’s Guardian, 28 Jan. 1832.
  • 18. Gent. Mag. (1854), ii. 629; PROB 11/2040/552.
  • 19. The Times, 27 July, 15, 17 Dec.; Stamford Champion, 7, 14, 21 Dec. 1832.
  • 20. Gent. Mag. (1846), i. 329, 649; (1854), ii. 629; DWL mss 38, 194, 204; L52/3/89; Cowherd, 84, 91.
  • 21. Cat. Residue of Coll. ... formed by late John Wilks; PROB 11/2198/108; IR26/2017/505.
  • 22. Evangelical Mag. (1854), 590-1.