Sir Thomas Wilson (1863-1930) was the first Mayor of Bangor after it was created a Borough in 1927, and the first Freeman of the Borough. Such was the esteem in which he was held that he was approached to stand as a Unionist for the Westminster Parliamentary seat of North Down, an offer he declined. His obituary extolled his virtues: 'for 19 years Sir Thomas was a member of Bangor local authority, and every movement for the improvement and advance of the town had in him a whole-hearted and enthusiastic supporter. He believed in the great possibilities of the Borough as one of he most attractive resorts in Ulster, and time and again his foresight and sound counsel were of invaluable assistance to his colleagues'.
Although born in Lisburn, Thomas Wilson made Bangor his home as he began to advance in life. He and his wife Euphemia and their four daughters, Gwendoline, Ruby, Yvonne and Dorothy first resided at The Beeches, 3 Downshire Road, and later at Avoca, Princetown Road. Sir Thomas grandson Tom Jamison described him as 'an eccentric on a grand scale-flamboyant, extremely impulsive, with a great sense of fun'. He had begun his business life as a message boy around Belfast docks for Messrs Tedfords, ship-owners and chandlers. This brought him into contact with the maritime life of the booming city, James Tedford's testimonial is glowing: '…the most satisfactory servant I have ever come into contact with-honest, truthful, sober, civil, good-natured, honest and obliging…'
He began to purchase shares in small coastal sailing ships, then steamers, and entered into partnership with Captain William Reid, once one of Tedford's sailing ship skippers who had commanded the barque Bluebell for nine years, rounding Cape Horn many times. (William Reid Ltd, a firm still trading today, traces its origins to him).
In 1917 the partnership was incorporated as Wilson and Reid Ltd, with offices in Waring Street, Belfast, operating as shipowners, agents and sale and purchase brokers. But Wilson as a solo venture entered into business with a Canadian shipowner Thomas Kirkwood, becoming the registered owner of the steamer Torhamvan which the Kirkwood firm was to manage on a route from the Great Lakes all the way to Vancouver via the St Lawrence and the Panama Canal. It is the Kirkwood link that led me to the strong circumstantial evidence that Wilson was involved in breaking US prohibition laws!
Grandson Tom Jamison, son of Dorothy remarked to me years ago that there had been a rumour he was involved in running alcohol. No more than a rumour. It seemed absurd! But when recently I was able to examine the career of the steamer Grey Point, it starts becoming very likely! The 'Grey Point' was boarded by the US Coastguard under officer Ensign Duke on 3 July 1926 off New York, while sailing under the false name Economy. She was an old steamer built in Stockholm in 1891 as the Olof Wijk. Aboard was a cargo of alcohol in barrels. The Coastguards took her over and beached her in ten feet of water.
Later, it was found that the barrels numbered some 30,000, each containing 50 gallons of alcohol. The fact that she had been owned by Wilson and Reid for a brief spell in 1921/1922 and given a local name, are not enough to link him to the operation. But the owner now was none other than Thomas Kirkwood, and surviving diaries of Sir Thomas' visit to the USA and Canada in the 1920s reveal that he was a personal friend, not just a business associate, and he stayed with Kirkwood at his residence near Montreal! The ship had loaded her cargo in Antwerp, giving her destination as the West Indies, but was known to have called at Halifax en route.
My feeling is that Sir Thomas was very likely involved in this venture on the European side. Rather than condemning him as a criminal, we should bear in mind that in the USA any number of normally law-abiding people were outraged by the State control displayed by Prohibition, and relished sampling bootleg booze if only for an illicit thrill!
The Newtownards Chronicle report of the death of Sir Thomas concludes the paeans of praise by remarking '…it was once said that the only fault which could be ascribed to him was allowing his heart to run away with his head'. As Tom Jamison said of the bootlegging rumour 'it sounds just like him'!