Wilson was born on 3 June 1805, the fourth son of the prosperous woollen manufacturer William Wilson, in Hawick, Scotland. He died of dysentery in Calcutta on 11 August 1860. He attended Quaker schools in Yorkshire and Essex for five years following his mother's death in 1815, then in 1821 was apprenticed to a local hat manufacturer. Three years later his father arranged for Wilson and his brother William to join the firm as partners; the new establishment moved to London in 1824 and continued under the name of Wilson, Irwin, & Wilson until 1831. That year Wilson bought out his other two partners; in the following year his father died of cholera, he married Elizabeth Preston, and he joined the Church of England. He continued his hat business as James Wilson & Co. until 1837 when, like many self-made entrepreneurs of his Day, he lost a decade's earnings overnight during the commercial crisis of that year. Speculating that indigo would be scarce in 1836, he spent most of his £25,000 fortune on that product, then watched its price plummet and his capital disappear in the wake of the crash. He eventually repaid his creditors and continued as a partner with his old firm (which took a new name) until he retired from business for good in 1844.
From The Biographical Dictionary of British Economists in Oxford Reference.