Wilson, Walter (DNB00)

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WILSON, WALTER (1781–1847), nonconformist biographer, was born about 1781. Originally intended for the law, he became a bookseller, with Maxwell of Bell Yard, Temple Bar, London. In 1806 he took the bookshop at the Mewsgate, Charing Cross, vacated by Thomas Payne the younger [q. v.] The perusal of the ‘Memoirs’ of Daniel Neal [q. v.], prefixed by Joshua Toulmin [q. v.] to his edition (1793–7) of Neal's ‘History of the Puritans,’ had led Wilson to collect notices of dissenting divines, and examine manuscript sources of information. He projected a biographical account of the dissenting congregations of London and the vicinity. Soon after beginning the work he became possessed of a considerable income, and entered at the Inner Temple, but does not appear to have practised at the bar. For his projected work he obtained scarcely three hundred subscribers. He published an instalment of ‘The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses in London, Westminster, and Southwark: including the Lives of their Ministers,’ 1808, 2 vols. 8vo. He was then living at Camden Town, from which he removed to Dorset, and again to Burnet, near Bath, where he did some farming. Here he had a congenial neighbour in Joseph Hunter [q. v.]; they exchanged copies of collections relative to dissenting antiquities. A third volume of his ‘Dissenting Churches’ appeared in 1810; a fourth in 1814, with a preface (1 May 1814) showing his personal interest in the older types of nonconformity. The later volumes of his work exhibit a more softened attitude towards the free-thinkers of dissent than is apparent in the earlier ones; his facts are always given with scrupulous fairness. By 1818 he was ready to publish a fifth and completing volume if five hundred subscribers could have been obtained; but it never appeared.

In 1822 he announced a life of Daniel Defoe [q. v.], of whose publications he had made a much larger collection than had previously been brought together. His ‘Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel Defoe,’ 1830, 3 vols. 8vo, is heavy, but allowed by Macaulay to be ‘excellent’ (Edinb. Rev. October 1845). He had projected a supplementary work dealing with Defoe's literary antagonists. About 1834 he moved from Burnet to Pulteney Street, Bath. During the progress of the Hewley suit [see Hewley, Sarah], Wilson's judgment went entirely with the defendants, and his religious views, probably under Hunter's influence, underwent a considerable change in the unitarian direction.

Wilson died on 21 Feb. 1847. At the time of his death he was one of the eight registered proprietors of the ‘Times.’ He was twice married, and left a son, Henry Walter Wilson of the Inner Temple, and a daughter, married to Norman Garstin, colonial chaplain at Ceylon. His library was sold (5–17 July) by Leigh, Sotheby, & Wilkinson; the 3,438 lots realising 1,993l. 3s. 6d., the Defoe collection going to America for 50l. His coins and prints (sold 26 July) produced 270l. 15s. and 19l. 14s. 6d. respectively. He bequeathed his manuscript collections for the history of dissent to Dr. Williams's Library (now in Gordon Square, London). A complete list of these, by the then librarian, Richard Cogan, is printed in the ‘Christian Reformer’ (1847, p. 758). The most important articles are the notes in an interleaved copy of his ‘Dissenting Churches,’ and (separately) a complete topographical index to the same; five folios relating to dissenting churches; a folio of dissenting records; two folios and six quartos of biographical collections. Several of his manuscripts are transcripts from originals also preserved in Dr. Williams's Library.

[Gent. Mag. 1847, ii. 438; Christian Reformer, 1847, pp. 371, 506, 758.]

A. G.