James Wilson
A portrait of James Wilson by Sir John Wilson Gordon, published in The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. The portrait was presented to Mrs Wilson in 1859, by the Royal Scottish Academy.
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
In office
5 January 1853 – 21 February 1858
Prime MinisterThe Earl of Aberdeen
The Viscount Palmerston
Preceded byGeorge Alexander Hamilton
Succeeded byGeorge Alexander Hamilton
Paymaster General and
Vice-President of the Board of Trade
In office
18 June 1859 – 12 August 1859
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Palmerston
Preceded byLord Lovaine
Succeeded byHon. William Cowper
Finance Member, Viceroy's Executive Council
In office
December 1859 – 11 August 1860
Governor‑GeneralCharles Canning, 1st Earl Canning
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Palmerston
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded bySir Samuel Laing
Personal details
Born3 June 1805 (1805-06-03)
Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland
Died11 August 1860 (1860-08-12) (aged 55)
Calcutta, India
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Political partyWhig
SpouseElizabeth Preston

James Wilson (3 June 1805 – 11 August 1860) was a Scottish businessman, economist, and Liberal politician who founded The Economist weekly and the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which merged with Standard Bank in 1969 to form Standard Chartered.[1][2][3][4] He was the first Finance Member of the Viceroy's Executive Council from December 1859 until his death in August 1860. Sent there to put order into the chaos that followed the "Sepoy Mutiny" of 1857, he presented India's first budget, and was responsible for the government accounting system, Pay Office, and audit, apart from government paper currency, Indian Police, a Military Finance Commission, and a Civil Finance Commission.[5]

Early life

Wilson was born in Hawick in the Scottish Borders. His Quaker father William Wilson owned a hat manufactury, and his ancestors were local sheep farmers. He was the fourth of fifteen children, of whom ten reached adulthood. His mother died when James was young.[6]

A successful disciplined autodidact scholar from a Quaker family, he was destined to be a schoolmaster but hated it so much that he "would rather to be the most menial servant in [his] father's mill". After considering studying law with a view to becoming an advocate, a profession which would have meant abandoning his family religion, Wilson decided instead to learn business, and at the age of sixteen became an apprentice in a hat factory. Later, his father bought the business for him and his elder brother, William. When James Wilson was nineteen, the brothers left Scotland and migrated to London, with a gift of £2,000 each,[7] equivalent to £222,306 in 2023.



The brothers established a manufacturing factory—Wilson, Irwin & Wilson—that they dissolved in 1831. Wilson continued in the same line of business with much success (his net worth was £25,000 in 1837, equivalent to £2,869,419 in 2023. During the economic crisis of 1837, he lost most of his wealth when the price of indigo fell. By 1839, he had sold most of his property and avoided bankruptcy. However, in 1853 he founded the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which later merged with the Standard Bank to form Standard Chartered Bank in 1969.[5]


Wilson was generally opposed to privileging the Church of England, the secret ballot when it was proposed in 1853, and the Corn Laws. He wrote a pamphlet titled Influences of the Corn Laws, as affecting all classes of the community, and particularly the landed interests. It slowly received positive feedback and Wilson's fame had grown. He then went on writing on currency, and especially The Revenue; or, What should the Chancellor do?. He started to write for newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian. In 1843 he established The Economist as a newspaper to campaign for free trade, and acted as Chief editor and sole proprietor for sixteen years. His overarching goal to end vested interests in the Westminster parliament wherever these led to poverty or starvation, as the Corn Laws most notably had done. An article Wilson published in April 1848 in opposition to the Ten Hours Bill[8] was criticised by Karl Marx[9] for misunderstanding profit and the working day. The Economist is still published today, now with a weekly circulation of over 1.6 million globally.[10] Wilson was the most respected statistician of his times and saw economics as an optimistic and rational way of mediating socially sustainable futures drawing on the Scottish School of Adam Smith and the French "Entrepreneur" School of Jean-Baptiste Say.[citation needed]


Wilson entered the House of Commons as Liberal Member of Parliament for Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1847.[11] Due to his economic experience, in 1848, prime minister Lord John Russell appointed Wilson as Secretary of the Board of Control, which supervised the East India Company's control of British India, a post he held until the government fell in 1852. He then served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury between 1853 and 1858, firstly in Lord Aberdeen's coalition government and secondly in Lord Palmerston's first administration.[citation needed] In 1857, he was returned to Parliament for Devonport.[12] He again briefly held office under Palmerston as Paymaster General and Vice-President of the Board of Trade between June and August 1859, and was sworn of the Privy Council the same year.[13]

In August 1859, Wilson resigned these offices and his seat in parliament to sit as the financial member of the Council of India. He was sent by Queen Victoria to India to establish the tax structure, a new paper currency, and remodel India's finance system after the Rebellion of 1857. However, he was in office only a year before he died. In 1860, he refused to leave the stifling summer heat of Calcutta, contracted dysentery, and died in August of that year at age 55.[2]

Despite his prominent public role, Wilson was buried unknown at a cemetery at Mullick Bazar in Kolkata. His grave was discovered in 2007 by CP Bhatia, a joint commissioner of Income Tax, while researching a book on India's tax history. Due to the efforts of CP Bhatia the tombstone was restored by the Christian Burial Board.[14][15]


Wilson married Elizabeth Preston of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in January 1832. They had six daughters, of whom Eliza, the eldest, married Walter Bagehot.[16]



  1. ^ "A Scotchman inside every man. (James Wilson, founder of The Economist)". The Economist. 11 September 1993.
  2. ^ a b James Wilson by Ruth Dudley Edwards in Oxford DNB
  3. ^ Ruth Dudley Edwards (1993). The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press. ISBN 978-0-87584-608-8.
  4. ^ Michael Stenton, Who's Who of British MPs (Harvester, Sussex, 1976) ISBN 0-85527-219-8
  5. ^ a b Sreekumar, G. (20 January 2021). "From Hawick to Hawick: The story of The Economist founder James Wilson". Business Standard India. Retrieved 8 September 2021.
  6. ^ Bagehot, Walter. "Memoir of Right Hon. James Wilson". In Forrest Morgan (ed.). The collected works of Walter Bagehot. Vol. 4. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-13154-4.
  7. ^ "Inflation and the 2% target". bankofengland.co.uk. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  8. ^ The Economist 15 April 1848
  9. ^ Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin. p. 338.
  10. ^ "The Economist circulation statistics". Archived from the original on 3 January 2013.
  11. ^ "leighrayment.com "House of Commons: Waterloo to West Looe"". Archived from the original on 1 May 2009. Retrieved 5 September 2009.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  12. ^ "leighrayment.com "House of Commons: Devizes to Dorset West"". Archived from the original on 11 October 2017. Retrieved 5 September 2009.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  13. ^ "No. 22276". The London Gazette. 18 June 1859. p. 2401.
  14. ^ Ishita Ayan Dutt, business-standard.com "In British times, the opium trade protected people from taxes", Business Standard, 4 September 2009.
  15. ^ Soumitra Das, "Taxman rediscovers father of taxation – Mullickbazar grave of Economist founder James Wilson gets facelift ahead of 150th death anniversary", Telegraph India, 11 August 2009.
  16. ^ Hamburger, Joseph (2004). "Walter Bagehot". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/1029. Retrieved 25 January 2017. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)