Bishop Wilson the Good
Wirral village birthplace of the most famous of all Manx clergymen

BURTON 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 strange connection.

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 gravestone.

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 is poor.”