Wilkins, William Henry (DNB12)

WILKINS, WILLIAM HENRY (1860–1905), biographer, born at Compton Martin, Somerset, on 23 Dec. 1860, was son of Charles Wilkins, farmer, of Gurney Court, Somerset, and afterwards of Mann's farm, Mortimer, Berkshire, where Wilkins passed much of his youth. His mother was Mary Ann Keel. After private education, he was employed in a bank at Brighton; entering Clare College, Cambridge, in 1884 with a view to taking holy orders, he graduated B.A. in 1887, and proceeded M.A. in 1899. At the university he developed literary tastes and interested himself in politics. An ardent conservative, he spoke frequently at the Union, of which he was vice-president in 1886. After leaving Cambridge he settled down to a literary career in London. For a time he acted as private secretary to the earl of Dunraven, whose proposals for restricting the immigration of undesirable foreigners Wilkins embodied in ‘The Alien Invasion’ (1892), with introduction by Dr. R. C. Billing, Bishop of Bedford. The Aliens Act of 1905 followed many recommendations of Wilkins's book. In the same year (1892) he edited, in conjunction with Hubert Crackanthorpe, whose acquaintance he had made at Cambridge, a shortlived monthly periodical called the ‘Albemarle’ (9 nos.). He next published four novels (two alone and two in collaboration) under the pseudonym of De Winton. ‘St. Michael's Eve’ (1892; 2nd edit. 1894) was a serious society novel. Then followed ‘The Forbidden Sacrifice’ (1893); ‘John Ellicombe's Temptation,’ 1894 (with the Hon. Julia Chetwynd), and ‘The Holy Estate: a study in morals’ (with Capt. Francis Alexander Thatcher). With another Cambridge friend, Mr. Herbert Vivian, he wrote under his own name ‘The Green Bay Tree’ (1894), which boldly satirised current Cambridge and political life and passed through five editions.

Wilkins's best literary work was done in biography. He came to know intimately the widow of Sir Richard Burton [q. v. Suppl. I], and after her death wrote ‘The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton’ (1897), a sympathetic memoir founded mainly upon Lady Burton's letters and autobiography. Wilkins also edited in 1898, by Lady Burton's direction, a revised and abbreviated version of Lady Burton's ‘Life of Sir Richard Burton,’ and her ‘The Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau’ (1900), as well as Burton's unpublished ‘The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam’ (with preface and brief notes) (1898), and ‘Wanderings in Three Continents’ (1901).

Ill-health did not deter Wilkins from original work in historical biography which involved foreign travel. Patient industry, an easy style, and good judgment atoned for a limited range of historical knowledge. At Lund university in Sweden he discovered in 1897 the unpublished correspondence between Sophie Dorothea, the consort of George I, and her lover, Count Philip Christopher Königsmarck, and on that foundation, supported by research in the archives of Hanover and elsewhere he based ‘The Love of an Uncrowned Queen, Queen Sophie Dorothea, Consort of George I,’ which appeared in 2 vols. in 1900 and was well received (revised edit. 1903). Wilkins's ‘Caroline the Illustrious, Queen Consort of George II’ (2 vols. 1901; new edit. 1904), had little claim to originality. ‘A Queen of Tears’ (2 vols. 1904), a biography of Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark and sister of George III of England, embodied researches at Copenhagen and superseded the previous biography by Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall [q. v.]. For his last work, ‘Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV’ (1905, 2 vols.), Wilkins had access, by King Edward VII's permission, for the first time to the Fitzherbert papers at Windsor Castle, besides papers belonging to Mrs. Fitzherbert's family. Wilkins conclusively proved the marriage with George IV. In 1901 he edited ‘South Africa a Century ago,’ valuable letters of Lady Anne Barnard [q. v.], written (1797–1801) whilst with her husband at the Cape of Good Hope. Wilkins also published ‘Our King and Queen [Edward VII and Queen Alexandra], the Story of their Life,’ (1903, 2 vols.), a popular book, copiously illustrated, and he wrote occasionally for periodicals. He died unmarried on 22 Dec. 1905 at 3 Queen Street, Mayfair, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

[Private information; personal knowledge; The Times, 23 Dec. 1905; Brit. Mus. Cat. and Engl. Cat.; Edinb. Rev. Jan. 1901, and supplement to Allgemeine Zeitung, 1902, N. 77 (by Dr. Robert Gerds).]

G. Le G. N.