Wilson the Good
Wirral village birthplace of the most famous of all
is reputed to be one of the Wirral Peninsula’s prettiest villages.
Its immaculately-maintained historic cottages and delightful gardens
make it an immense pleasure to visit whatever the season but the
superlatives don't end there. It is the birthplace of the most famous
of all Manx bishops.
Thomas Wilson was born here in 1663, the fifth son of yeoman farmer,
Nathaniel Wilson and Alice Sherlock, and nephew of Dr Sherlock,
Rector of Winwick, near Warrington. It was this family connection
that ultimately was to lead to a life long bishopric, one that lasted
for 57 years.
The clue that led to my delving into this history was the singularity
of the name of the village school - Bishop Wilson Church of England
Primary School - which because of past ties with the Isle of Man
made me curious and gave added incentive to look into this apparently
Initial inquiries pointed to the picturesque thatched sandstone
cottage opposite the fine entrance gates of Burton Manor, the cottage
in which Thomas Wilson was born, and a justifiably popular subject
for artists and photographers.
From there it was only a short walk to an early 18th century schoolhouse,
founded by Bishop Wilson in 1724. The church of St. Nicholas, an
undistinguished building dominated by its square tower, houses two
important relics relating to the Wilson family; a small prayer book,
hand written in the meticulous script of the bishop, one of many
that he wrote in his long lifetime, and the other, his father's
The inscription reads: '”Nathaniel Wilson died 29th May 1700, ma
Alice Sherlock, had issue Samuel, Joseph, Benjamin, Mary, Thomas,
James, Sarah. And alongside, Thomas-Bp of Sodor and Mann”.
His work in the Isle of Man had far reaching effects, being as he
was, an able forceful man. One of his first achievements was the
restoration of Bishop's Court from its ruinous condition. He beautified
the grounds planting improvement from a seriously degenerated clergy
as well as from the laity.
Many of the strict presentments and stern punishments imposed for
infringements of ecclesiastical law, for drunkenness, fornication,
adultery, lying and slander, caused him to be extremely unpopular
with the Lord of Mann's entourage. Things were finally brought to
a head between the Lord and the Church by one Archdeacon Horrobin
who refused communion to a widow on the grounds of slander by the
Governor's wife. The Archdeacon was suspended by ecclesiastical
court upon which he appealed to the Governor who demanded that the
suspension should be withdrawn.
However, the bishop stuck to his guns and as a result was fined
£50, and his vicars-general each £20. They refused to pay and were
then imprisoned in Castle Rushen. This almost caused a rebellion
for despite his severity he was dearly loved by the majority of
the people who gathered every day outside his window to ask for
his blessing. After nine weeks, appeals to the Privy Council procured
the bishop's release and he was escorted by great crowds in a triumphal
procession to Bishop's Court, the like of which had never been witnessed
before on the island.
He played a very active part in gaining the Act of Settlement (1704)
a great land security law ensuring hereditary descent of tenancy.
He also introduced parochial registers requiring all vicars to keep
records of every family in the parish.
His Zeal in advancing the cause of education began with fund raising
for the improvement of parochial schools first introduced by Bishop
Barrow in 1663. Vicars were required to visit and teach in these
schools being strictly enjoined to “Take special care to make the
children sensible of the end of learning which is that they may
be better able to read the Holy Scripture and therein learn their
duty”. He was responsible for the restoration of the Academic School
in Castletown and went on to found a Grammar School in Douglas.
Although his income scarcely exceeded £400 per annum he gave away
half of this in charitable donations. There is no doubt that his
influence spread far and wide as 'His holy, wise, charitable and
God-fearing life became a shining light in his age' and his scholarship
was such that it influenced the men who later inspired John Henry
Newman. He was a prodigious writer, no book collector was satisfied
unless he possessed a paper copy of Wilson's bible.
The yoeman's son from Burton, in spite of the poverty of the poverty
of his see, acquired such a reputation for piety that his fame even
spread abroad where he was greatly respected by his peers.
The French cleric, Cardinal Fleury, thought so highly of him that
he obtained an order from the Court of France to the effect that
no French privateers should harry any shipping in Manx waters. Add
to this his innate compassion as demonstrated when he put an end
to the persecution of groups of the Society of Friends, fugitives
from England who had been similarly persecuted on their arrival
in the Isle of Man until the good bishop came to their aid.
It is pretty obvious why he has since been referred to as Bishop
Wilson the Good. He died in 1755 at the great age of 93 and is buried
in Kirk Michael churchyard on the west coast of the island. He had
frequently been offered translation but declined with the comment,
“I will not leave my wife (the diocese) in my old age, because she
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