John Leonard Wilson (23 November 1897 – 22 July 1970) was an Anglican bishop. He was Bishop of Singapore from 1941 to 1949 during the time of Japanese occupation and subsequently Dean of Manchester and Bishop of Birmingham.


Wilson was born in Gateshead, County Durham and educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, St John's School, Leatherhead, Knutsford Training School,[1] The Queen's College, Oxford (shortened degree, Bachelor of Arts in theology 1922) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.[2]

Marriage and family

In 1930 Wilson married Mary Phillips.[3] They had a daughter and four sons.

Service in Singapore

After serving as Dean of Hong Kong, Wilson became Bishop of Singapore in 1941.

At the time of the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Wilson, assisted by the Reverend Reginald Keith Sorby Adams of Saint Andrew's School, Singapore and John Hayter, ministered unstintingly to the people of Singapore. Subsequently, they were able to continue their ministry for a year, thanks mainly to the help of a Christian Japanese officer Andrew Ogawa.[4] However the growing popularity of the cathedral and the use of English was regarded by the Japanese authorities as a threat and in 1943 they were interned in Changi prison.

The discovery of some notes by Wilson about T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) raised suspicions of plans to stir up the local population to revolt.[5] In the prison they worked hard to maintain morale. Wilson was then one of 57 civilians who were tortured by the Japanese authorities in the "Double Tenth Incident", so-called because it started with a raid on the Changi internment facility on 10 October 1943. The Japanese were seeking evidence that the internees had assisted in Operation Jaywick, in which Australian and British commandos operating from Australia sank several Japanese warships in Singapore's Keppel Harbour on 26 September 1943. Wilson was one of those who gave evidence of the nature of the torture to the investigation commission set up by the authorities of the Sime Road Internment Camp following the Japanese surrender in August 1945. By the end of the war he had made several conversions to Christianity, including some of the Japanese captors.[6][7][8]

Later career

From 1949 to 1953, Wilson was Dean of Manchester and, from 1953[9] to 1969,[10] Bishop of Birmingham in succession to the controversial Ernest William Barnes. In his time as a bishop, Wilson was frequently called on to give a Christian perspective on issues of peace and war, his wartime experiences giving him a moral platform from which to do so.[11] He was an early supporter of the ordination of women.[12] He was opposed to the death penalty[13] and for the reform of the law on homosexual acts.[14]

As president of the Modern Churchmen's Union, from 1958 to 1966,[15] he was strongly involved in the controversies following the publication of Honest to God in 1964.[16]

In 1966 Wilson gave the address at the memorial service for the wartime General Officer Commanding (Malaya), Arthur Ernest Percival, which was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

Wilson was appointed CMG in 1946 and KCMG in 1963.

The author of his ODNB article says that Wilson's "episcopate in Birmingham cemented a divided diocese, and strengthened the influence of the church on civic and social life".[17]


Wilson retired to Yorkshire in 1969. He died of a stroke on the way home after conducting the annual service of the Order of St Michael and St George at St Paul's Cathedral on 22 July 1970.[18]

Personal life

Wilson's daughter, Susan Cole-King (23 April 1934 – 8 February 2001), was ordained as an Anglican priest. On 6 August 1998 (Hiroshima Day) at the Lambeth Conference she gave the homily on her father's wartime experience and the need for peace.[8][19] His son, Martin, was also an Anglican priest.[20]


  • A Bishop Broadcasts. [With a portrait.] 11 pages, published by Singapore Auxiliary Diocesan Association [1947] (found in British Library catalogue).
  • Contribution to Marriage, Sex and the Family. A Christian symposium. Edited by E. P. Smith. Wales Publishing Co.: London, 1959. (Referred to in ODNB article and found in the BL catalogue).

See also

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  1. ^ According to Genuki/Theological Colleges attended by Welsh ministers and priests Archived 8 March 2013 at the Wayback Machine: "Knutsford Ordination Test School, Hawarden (formerly Ordination Test School, Knutsford): established 1919 by the Reverend "Tubby" Clayton, the founder of TocH, in a disused gaol at Knutsford, Cheshire. Intended primarily for Church of England ordinands who had served in the First World War. Reconstituted in 1922 and moved to Hawarden 1925".
  2. ^ J. C. H. Tompkins, Wilson, (John) Leonard (1897–1970), rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed 15 March 2008
  3. ^ The Times, 25 April 1968, "Ecclesiastical Merger: Letter from Mary Wilson about her husband's war experiences"
  4. ^ John Hayter; Priest in Prison: Four years of Life in Japanese-occupied Singapore, 1991, Tynron Press ISBN 1-85646-051-7
  5. ^ A broadcast sermon by the Rt. Rev. J. L. Wilson, Bishop of Singapore A Prisoner of the Japanese, The Listener, 24 October 1946 Archived 7 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ records relating to his appointment as Bishop of Singapore, 1941 – 1945, are in the Imperial War Museum, Department of Documents.
  7. ^ J. L. Wilson Obituary in The Times, Wednesday, 19 August 1970; pg. 10; Issue 57948; col F "The Rt Rev J L Wilson Bishop who was tortured and later confirmed his captors"
  8. ^ a b "An account of her father's imprisonment and torture by Rev Canon Susan Cole-King, at the Lambeth Conference 1998 in The Lambeth Daily, 7 August 1998, page 2, "My father's witness"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
  9. ^ The Times, Wednesday, 28 October 1953; pg. 5; Issue 52764; col B "Bishop Of Birmingham Enthroned – Service Relayed"
  10. ^ The Times, 17 September 1969; p. 10; Issue 57667; col A: "Church News Bishop-Elect Of Birmingham"
  11. ^ Lambeth Palace Library and the Church of England Record Centre have records of his service as a bishop, after 1945.
  12. ^ The Times, 20 April 1959; p. 6; Issue 54439; col F: "Case For Ordination Of Women "Strong" Bishop Of Birmingham"
  13. ^ The Times, 15 February 1956; p. 9; Issue 53455; col E: Letter to the Editor from Leonard Birmingham+ "Death Penalty For Murder", giving biblical grounds for opposition
  14. ^ One of many signatories to a letter to the editor of The Times, 7 March 1958; p. 11; Issue 54093; col E: "Homosexual Acts Call To Reform Law" and The Times, 11 May 1965; p. 13; Issue 56318; col D: "Law On Homosexuals".
  15. ^ [The Rise and Decline of English Modernism. By Alan M. G. Stephenson. (The Hulsean Lectures 1979–80.) p272. SPCK, 1984 ]About/History/Leadership.htm Modern Churchpeople's Union Website]: History: Leadership
  16. ^ The Times, 12 August 1964; p. 9; Issue 56088; col D: "Honest Or Not Views Of Modern Churchmen"
  17. ^ Oxford Dictionary of national Biography article by J. C. H. Tompkins, 'Wilson, (John) Leonard (1897–1970)', rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 3 August 2008
  18. ^ The Times, 22 August 1970; pg. 12; Issue 57951; col G: "Bishop Wilson – Sir Kenneth Roberts-Wray writes (in addition to the Times Obituary).
  19. ^ Warner, Alison (2 March 2001). "Obituary: Canon Susan Cole-King". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 August 2021.
  20. ^ National Memorial Arboretum newsletter, Autumn 2006 "An unexpected parcel". Archived 21 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography J. C. H. Tompkins, ‘Wilson, (John) Leonard (1897–1970)’, rev., first published September 2004
  • Roy McKay, John Leonard Wilson: Confessor for the Faith, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1973 ISBN 0-340-15488-8, paperback edition, 1974: ISBN 0-340-18570-8
  • J. L. Wilson, Only Look on us as Found in Him (Cambridge: Mass: 1961).
Church of England titles
Preceded by Bishop of Birmingham
Succeeded by
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by President of the Modern Churchmen's Union
1958 – c. 1966
Succeeded by