Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Thomas Wilson (?–?)

by A. F. Pike

This article was published:

John Thomas Wilson (flourished 1834-1840), confidence man, was said to have been born in Birmingham, England, with the name of James Abbot, the son of a journeyman sailmaker. Legend has it that when young he eloped with and married a rich young noblewoman and that when her disgusted family cut her off without a penny Wilson deserted his creditors and his wife, leaving several children to her care, and taking all the money he had earned as an auctioneer in an English country town. He is next supposed to have appeared under the name of John Thomas Soanes as an auctioneer in Boston, America, where he 'succeeded in fleecing the Yankees to a considerable amount'. At the Cape of Good Hope he was recognized and forced to flee to Hobart Town under another name, ostentatiously taking several suitcases which were packed only with stones. According to one account he was a barman in Hobart for several months and then went to Sydney where, as Wilson, he was employed by Lancelot Iredale, ironmonger. However, his behaviour towards one of Iredale's daughters caused his dismissal and he next appeared as a clerk to C. & F. Wilson, merchants of George Street, Sydney, where he reputedly ruined the life and fortune of another rich damsel. He then formed a partnership with John S. Uther and bought a large ironmongery in Sydney but soon dissolved the partnership and took sole possession. Wilson now entered a period of great prosperity: business flourished, he was prominent in many religious, philanthropic and literary organizations in Sydney, and among the managers of joint-stock companies. From February 1834 he owned the steamer Tamar which traded on the Hunter River, and another steamer on the run to Parramatta. He was also secretary and then treasurer of the Australian Steam Conveyance Co.; in 1835 he was elected treasurer of the Australian Union Benefit Society, and stood as a candidate for the board of the Bank of Australia. In April 1836 he was elected a director of the Australian Gaslight Co., but in August he sold his business to Thomas Burdekin and on 11 November bolted from Sydney in the Lord Goderich. His flight was prompted by John Dunmore Lang's attack in the Colonist on him and Mrs Taylor, the actress-wife of a Customs officer. His creditors suffered heavy losses, one alone being reputed to have lost £36,000. Wilson was also said to have talked his way out of paying his fare to England.

On arrival in England Wilson was met by a bailiff and given the choice of gaol or returning to Sydney, and so in January 1838 he sailed in the Duchess of Kent for Sydney. There A. Polack, an auctioneer, employed him and went security for him for six months. Under Wilson business began to flourish. In October 1839 he bought the Nereus and refitted her on credit, then bolted again leaving pregnant the wife of a convict and debts of over £25,000. His creditors formed a committee which with remarkable inefficiency brought the matter before the Supreme Court and hired the Rover's Bride to search for him. Wilson was never seen again in New South Wales and reports placed him variously in New Zealand, America, Valparaiso and the Solomon Islands. He was also said to have caused the suicide of the captain of the Nereus by seducing his wife. In October 1840 it was reported that he was 'cut by all hands' at Manila and had escaped to Singapore in a Hamburg brig.

Wilson's activities aroused wide public interest and long articles appeared in the Sydney press, most of which were in a light vein with no sympathy for Wilson's gullible dupes or for the stupid actions of the self-constituted committee of his creditors who wasted money in useless searches for the swindler.

Select Bibliography

  • newspaper indexes under J. T. Wilson (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. F. Pike, 'Wilson, John Thomas (?–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Abbott, James
  • Soames, John Thomas