William Wilton – Mathematical, Philosophical & Optical Instrument Maker

william wilton

The growth of the mining industry in Cornwall transformed not only the economy and countryside but also the lives of the people living and working in and around it. A population explosion saw villages become towns and towns become tent cities. There was also an amazing burgeoning of enterprise and invention which rippled out from this small corner of Britain and across the globe. Many found new ways to make name for themselves and earn a good living during this exhilarating time of growth. William Wilton is not a name that many today would recognise but in his time his work would have been well known to the ordinary miner, to the thousands of men working underground in the 19th century.

Early Life & Family

William Wilton was born in the fishing village of Mevagissey in December 1801. His parents John Wilton and Ann Hodge had married in 1796 and had four sons, William was the second youngest. Unfortunately I haven’t had much luck finding out the details of William’s early life. It isn’t clear what his father’s occupation was, where William went to school, or when and how he became so interested in science and mechanics. But in November 1826 he married a watchmaker’s daughter from St Day.

William Wilton and Elizabeth Barrett married in the bride’s parish church at St Day on 2nd November 1826, an announcement of the nuptials appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette. Elizabeth was the only child of Peter Barrett, a watchmaker and Mary Richards, something that she and William would certainly make up for. The couple went on to have eleven children – nine girls and two boys! All of the children were born and baptised in St Day and sometime before 1841 the growing family moved into a large house on Church Street.

William Wilton
St Day

Today their house has been converted into two separate homes but when William renewed their lease in February 1847 it was one rather grand building containing “a dwelling house, shop and premises”. Business was obviously going well for William.

The rent was 18 shillings paid to a Rev. Richard Champernowne of Gloucester. The family’s neighbour Joseph Grenfell ran the Market Inn public house next door.

Mathematical, Philosophical and Optical Instrument Maker

William Wilton went into business for himself in 1825 at the age of 24. He advertised himself first as a watch and clock maker, a highly skilled profession. His business began appearing in directories such as Pigot’s from about 1830, at that time he was just one of ten watch and clock makers in the Redruth area. But William cleverly saw an opportunity given his new circumstances. In St Day he was surrounded by some of the richest mining grounds in Cornwall and so he began producing instruments for specifically miners from his garden shed. He advertised himself as a Mathematical, Philosophical and Optical Instrument Maker.

Pigot’s Directory 1830

William began making quadrants, thermometers, levels and protractors as well as theodolites and miners dials. One of his first real successes was as the maker of ‘The Dipping Needle’. which had been invented by Robert Were Fox, discussed by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1835 and then was made for the first time by William Wilton in 1836.

Also known as Dip Circles, the Dipping Needles are used to measure the angle between the horizon and the Earth’s Magnetic Field. It is basically a magnetic compass, but instead of the needle sitting horizontally, it oscillates vertically, so as to measure the angle and intensity of the magnetic field. They were commonly used in surveying and mining and although early versions had been unreliable, Fox’s invention was a vast improvement and was subsequently used all over the world.

william wilton
Original label on display at Royal Cornwall Museum

William also made Miner’s Dials, a compass like instrument, a kind of forerunner to the theodolite, used for measuring the angle of underground passages and ore seams. By 1851 the business was doing well enough to employ four more members of staff and his wife, Elizabeth, had a live-in servant, Miss Whitford, to help her with the ever expanding family.

A William Wilton Theodolite sold at Bonhams Auction House in 2007 for £420

Wilton’s relationship with the Fox family, the successful Cornish Quakers, was to be a long and profitable one. It is likely that their far-reaching connections enabled him to improve and expand his business. There are mentions of him later having an office in Chile but I haven’t been able to confirm this. Wilton’s instruments were being sold to mining communities all over the world and he also won a contact with the British Admiralty. He seems to have formed a special bond with Robert Were Fox who employed him to bring to his new inventions to reality. William was also a regular exhibitor at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society’s annual exhibitions, a society formed by the Fox family, for more than 20 years, winning numerous medals for his instruments.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

In May 1848 William and Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Mary, married Edward Tippet Newton, who was also a mathematical instrument maker and had joined his father-in-law’s business. Then three years later the family took an momentous trip across the Tamar to London.

McNeven, J., The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition , William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), 1851, V&A

There were a total of 108 businesses at the Great Exhibition of 1851 which identified themselves as instrument makers, of which 53 were based in the UK. But there were only fifteen who hailed from outside of London – one of which was William Wilton.

In May that year the Royal Cornwall Gazette proudly listed all the Cornish businesses and individuals that were exhibiting at this prestigious event which was designed to bring together trade and commerce from across the globe. The newspaper described his work as “beautiful” and “first rate” and of “such delicate workmanship”. William won a Bronze Exhibitor’s Medal.

The Next Generation

When he was old enough the Wilton’s eldest son, William Henry, had joined the business and after his father’s death in April 1860, at just 59 years old, he and Edward Newton continued in his footsteps. William Henry also became a mineral dealer, selling unusual specimens from the mines to collectors on the side. Then in 1874 William Henry Wilton emigrated to the US and sold his share of the business to Edward, who changed the name to E. T. Newton’s & Son.

Together Edward and his son, Edward Wilton Newton, inherited a number of patents and continued to produce surveying equipment and scientific instruments as well as models of machinery at a new premises in Camborne. In 1914 Newton’s appeared in the Whitaker’s Red Book of Commerce, described as ‘one of the oldest firms in the trade’.

William Wilton

Final Thoughts

I haven’t been able to established when the firm finally closed (if anyone knows please drop me a line) but somehow I have a feeling that the wars and probably advancing technology may have been a factor. I am fully aware that this post may seem a little niche to some but I am determined to acknowledge and record as many as possible of the fascinating, innovative and unsung Cornish men and women who’s names should not be allowed to just slip into obscurity.

You can find a couple more below.

Update: Additional Information

After this post was published my plea for more information was answered, first by a descendent of William Wilton. His 3x great granddaughter through his daughter Elizabeth got in touch. She was able to confirm that William Henry Wilton did in fact live and work out in Chile, in a seaport called Valparaiso from around 1868. His wife Catherine actually died there in 1870.

Another correspondence from someone at Central Saint Martins Museum, which has one of Wilton’s Miner’s Dials, confirmed this and also wrote that local legend says that the sign on the front of the family’s shop in St Day proudly proclaimed: “William Wilton, Instrument Maker, St Day & Valparaiso”.

Further Reading

Neville Northey Burnard – Cornish Sculptor

Charles Carkeet James – Cornish Quaker & Innovator in India

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8 thoughts on “William Wilton – Mathematical, Philosophical & Optical Instrument Maker

  1. Hi. William Wilton was my g g g grandfather through his daughter Elizabeth Wilton. I was delighted to read this – I knew his connection with St Day and his status as an instrument maker, but the info about the Great Exhibition was new and very interesting. My researches show that William Henry Wilton b 1838 went to Valparaiso around 1868 and his wife, Catherine, died there in 1870, so that confirms your Chile connection, although I didn’t know that he later emigrated to the US.

    1. Hi Julia,
      How exciting, thank you so much for getting in touch! I’m so pleased you liked the post! And thank you for the extra information about William Henry, I’ll definitely add it to the blog if that’s ok with you?
      Great to hear from you!🙂

  2. from a colleague: a really interesting article: there is an absolutely stunning Miner’s Dial in the CSM museum on campus made by William Wilton. His workshop, behind the house in St Day (a bit more substantial than a garden shed!) still survives.

    Local legend (possibly apocryphal) relates that he also had a shop in Valparaiso, and that the sign above the shop in St Day proudly proclaimed “William Wilton, Instrument Maker, St Day and Valparaiso”!

  3. I’m lucky enough to own a few pieces of his work. Pride of place is his original design of miner’s dial that he made in 1835. It’s described in the third annual report of the Royal Cornwll Ploytechnic Society that he sais combines the properties of a level, dial and quadrant.I had done some research on him only for the following year to see it turn up at auction.

  4. I’m lucky enough to own a few pieces of his work. Pride of place is his original design of miner’s dial that he made in 1835. It’s described in the third annual report of the Royal Cornwll Ploytechnic Society that he sais combines the properties of a level, dial and quadrant.I had done some research on him only for the following year to see it turn up at auction.

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