Wilson, George Fergusson (DNB12)

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WILSON, GEORGE FERGUSSON (1822–1902), inventor, born at Wandsworth Common on 25 March 1822, was the sixth son in a family of thirteen children of William Wilson, at one time a merchant in Russia and subsequently founder at Battersea of the candle-making firm known as ‘E. Price & Son.’ His mother was Margaret Nimmo Dickson of Kilbucho and Cultur in Scotland.

After education at Wandsworth, and a short time in a solicitor's office, Wilson in 1840 entered his father's business. Though without training as a chemist, he showed keen interest in the firm's experimental work, and in 1842 patented, in conjunction with W. C. Jones, a process by which cheap malodorous fats could be utilised in the place of tallow for candle-making. The original features of the process were the use of sulphuric acid as a decoloriser and deodoriser of strongly-smelling fats, and their subsequent distillation, when acidified, by the aid of super-heated steam. The invention added materially to the firm's profits, and in 1847, in the midst of a commercial panic, the business was sold for 250,000l.

A new concern, called Price's Patent Candle Company, with a capital of 500,000l., was then formed, George Wilson and an elder brother, James, being appointed managing directors. Both engaged continually in research work which effected repeated changes in the firm's processes of manufacture. George in 1853 introduced moulded coco-stearin lights as ‘New Patent Night Lights,’ and the two together made improvements on a French patent which led to the wide adoption by English manufacturers of the company's ‘oleine’ or ‘cloth oil.’ In 1854 George made a discovery of first-class importance, namely a process of manufacturing pure glycerine, the glycerine being first separated from fats and oils at high temperature and then purified in an atmosphere of steam. Previously even glycerine sold at a high price was so impure as to be comparatively useless for most purposes. He retired from the position of managing director in 1863.

In 1845 Wilson was made a member of the Society of Arts. He contributed frequently to its ‘Journal,’ read a paper before it in 1852 on ‘Stearic Candle Manufacture,’ was a member of its council from 1854 to 1859 and again from 1864 to 1867, and its treasurer from 1861 to 1863. In 1854 he read before the Royal Society a paper on ‘The Value of Steam in the Decomposition of Neutral Fatty Bodies,’ and was elected a fellow in 1855. In that year, too, he was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society, and read at the meeting of the British Association at Glasgow a paper on ‘A New Mode of obtaining Pure Glycerine.’

In later life Wilson lived at Wisley, Surrey, where he devoted himself to experimental gardening on a wide scale. The garden formed by him at Wisley now belongs to the Royal Horticultural Society. He was particularly successful as a cultivator of lilies, gaining between 1867 and 1883 twenty-five first-class certificates for species exhibited. Elected a fellow of the Horticultural Society, he served on various of its committees, and was at one time vice-president. At his suggestion the society introduced guinea subscriptions, and in 1876 he published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Royal Horticultural Society: as it is and as it might be.’ He was Victorian Medallist of Horticulture in 1897. In 1875 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society. He died at Weybridge Heath on 28 March 1902.

Wilson married on 13 Aug. 1862 Ellen, eldest daughter of R. W. Barchard, of East Hill, Wandsworth, who survived him with two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Scott Barchard, was author of ‘Aves Hawaiienses: the Birds of the Sandwich Islands,’ a handsomely illustrated work, which was issued in eight parts (large 4to, 1890–9).

[Proc. Roy. Soc., vol. lxxv.; Who's Who, 1902; Men and Women of the Time, 1899; Soc. of Arts Journal, 1902; The Garden, 1 Jan. 1900 (portrait) and 5 April 1902; Journal of Horticulture, 5 and 10 April 1902; Gardeners' Chronicle, 5 April 1902; Price's Patent Candle Company's Calendar, 1908; Pamphlets by Price's Patent Candle Company, 1853.]

S. E. F.