William Nanson (1792-1868)

William Nanson

Written by Adrian Allan (1943-2022)

Occupations: Solicitor and Town Clerk

The son of John Nanson [1765-99] and his wife, Elizabeth Hodgson [b. c. 1769], William Nanson was born on 9 November 1791 in the parish of St Clement Danes, Westminster, and baptised at the parish church on 17 November 1791.  A member of a very old family of Carlisle freemen, William Nanson trained as a solicitor. With a home in Fisher Street, Carlisle, he was one of the ‘Capital Citizens’ of Carlisle, who formed a component of the pre-1836 Corporation of Carlisle. Upon Alderman William Hodgson (1773 – 1850), a fellow solicitor who held the office of ‘Common or Town Clerk’ of Carlisle, being elected Mayor of Carlisle in October 1818, William Nanson was elected to succeed him . William Hodgson retained the position of Clerk of the Peace for Cumberland, to which he had been appointed in 1809. Hodgson and Nanson were in fact in partnership as solicitors, with Nanson taking a prominent role in securing the passage through Parliament in 1819 of the Acts providing for the gas lighting of Carlisle and its suburbs and for the making and maintaining of a navigable canal from the outskirts of Carlisle to the Solway Firth. The Carlisle Canal, whose western end was at Port Carlisle, opened in 1823 and closed in 1853, on the advent of railways; the first chairman of the Carlisle Canal Company was Dr John Heysham [1753 – 1834; ODNB], the eminent physician and demographer; Nanson served as an energetic Secretary to the Company. (The distinguished Carlisle-born artist, Sam Bough, RSA (1822 – 78), began working in the offices of Hodgson and Nanson when he was aged about 14 years; though his office career was short-lived, he later painted a view of ‘Carlisle from Etterby Scaur’ for Nanson’s son, said to be his first commissioned painting.)

In 1829 William Nanson was appointed as Secretary of the Carlisle Committee of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, a post he held until 1843. Meanwhile, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the unreformed Corporation of Carlisle was replaced in December 1835 by the election of a new Borough  Council, comprising Aldermen and Councillors, who at their meeting on 1 January 1836 appointed William Nanson as Town Clerk. At a time when, as the new Council stated in its loyal Address to King William IV, ‘this large and increasing Borough’ was enjoying a ‘rising prosperity’, it was fortunate that Nanson, as Town Clerk from 1818 onwards, was able to ensure the orderly transition of business from the old Corporation to the new Council. In response to the new Council’s request, he enumerated the duties which he considered to pertain to his office : his attendance at all meetings of the Council, and recording the proceedings and also the preparation of the annual rental for the Council’s Treasurer; also, and not subject to any professional charge, any advice or assistance he may give to committees or individual members of the Council upon corporate affairs. Not regarded as part of the duties of the post was the prosecution of the Council’s legal cases.

It was with deep regret that in November 1846 a letter from William Nanson to the Mayor, James Steel [1797 – 1851], was received by the Council, resigning, on grounds of ill health, the office of Town Clerk; he was aged just 55 years. (Serving his second term as Mayor of Carlisle, James Steel,  a Liberal, was very prominent in the reform movement in Carlisle, including his editorship of the Carlisle Journal ; commemorated by a public statue erected in 1859, following a public subscription.) The Council put on record its best thanks for the able and efficient manner in which Nanson had filled the office for so many years. In his place as Town Clerk, the Council elected his 26 year old son, John, who, shortly after being admitted a solicitor in 1843, had been taken into partnership by his father, the firm carrying on business as Messrs William and John Nanson, latterly at 9 Castle Street.

The post of Town Clerk of Carlisle remained part-time until 1889, following  the resignation, regrettably under pressure from members of the Council, of William Nanson’s son, John Nanson (1820 – 91), whereby they were able to undertake a great deal of legal business for a large number of clients. Prominent amongst the clients of William and John Nanson were Thomas and William Parker of Warwick Hall, the extensive archives of Messrs Hodgson, solicitors and Clerks of the Peace, and of the Parker family [Carlisle Archive Centre], being drawn upon in Professor Peter Roebuck’s study of the Parker family [Roebuck]. Whereas John Nanson was not succeeded as Town Clerk by a family member, William Hodgson (1773 – 1850) was succeeded as Clerk of the Peace for Cumberland in 1839 by successive members of the Hodgson family until 1942.     

On 30 September 1815 at St Mary’s, Carlisle, William Nanson married Elizabeth, daughter of John Ferguson of Carlisle, a prominent cotton manufacturer; they had a son, John (born in 1820) and three daughters (Elizabeth, born in 1816, Jane, born in 1825, and Louise, born in 1831). Elizabeth Nanson died at Great Malvern, where she had gone for her health, in 1834, aged 43 years, and on 18 August 1837, at St Cuthbert’s, Carlisle, William married Frances Wilson [b.1792] and had further children. Though he retired as Town Clerk in 1846 and in the 1851 census was described as a retired solicitor, he continued to undertake a certain amount of legal work, including that for the Parker family. From 1849 until 1853 his home was at Camden Lodge, Cranbrook, Kent, and then he moved to London, occupying in succession a number of properties in the Russell Square area of the city. What is believed to be his portrait dates from 1852 and is thought  to be by the distinguished artist, Frederick Daniel Hardy (1827 – 1911), who was an eminent member of the Colony of Cranbrook artists; what appear to be his initials can be seen in the bottom left hand corner of the portrait. In the online edition of its catalogue of oil paintings in public ownership, the Public Catalogue Foundation records this portrait as by Frederick Yeates Hurlstone (1800 – 69).

In his will of 1863, William Nanson describes himself as ‘formerly of the City of Carlisle and now of Bedford Place, Russell Square in the County of Middlesex’. He evidently made the occasional return to Carlisle and it was while staying at a house in Victoria Place (possibly that of a relative) that he died on 10 September 1868, aged 76 years; he was buried in the family plot in Stanwix churchyard.  Probate of his will was granted on 30 January 1869, his estate being valued as under £40,000.  His wife, Frances, who was left an annuity of £250 besides all his plate, linen and china, died in her mid-80s in September 1876, being buried alongside her husband.

Though no obituary of William Nanson appeared in the local press, a correspondent wrote to the editor  of The Carlisle Patriot , in praise of his exemplary life and public career as Town Clerk while the Corporation in 1836 was ‘much indebted to his ability for tiding them over a period of considerable difficulty’.  He was a strong supporter of  ‘Evangelical religion at a time when it was at a very low ebb in Carlisle’ , proving one of the most zealous supporters of the Revd John Fawcett (d. 1851), Perpetual Curate of St Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle, 1801 – 51, and at his own expense he had maintained a Sunday School in Fisher Street.( The Revd John Fawcett was the father of John Fawcett, who in 1829-30 erected what is now known as Lady Gillford’s House, its extension forming Carlisle Archive Centre.) To each of his grandchildren, he left £20 and  ‘an octavo Bible with marginal references, bound in Morocco, with the earnest hope and prayer that they may by God’s grace make it the guide of their earthly pilgrimage under the teaching of the Holy Spirit and I commend them to God and the word of His grace.’


  • Ancestry :  entries for William Nanson, his parents, his successive wives and their children.
  • Carlisle Archive Centre : Minutes of Carlisle City Council; archives of Messrs Hodgson, solicitors and Clerks of the Peace, including William Nanson’s correspondence with Thomas and William Parker of Warwick Hall.
  • Liverpool District Probate Registry : will of William Nanson, 29 October 1863, proved at London, 30 January 1869.
  • Peter Roebuck, Cattle Droving, Cotton and Landownership : a Cumbrian Family Saga  (CWAAS, 2014).
  • The local press (Denis Perriam generously drawing my attention to references to William Nanson).
  • Paul Donovan, Cranbrook Colony Study Centre at Cranbrook Museum, for information on William Nanson and Frederick Daniele Hardy.
  • Likeness   Oil portrait, 1852, attributed to Frederick Daniel Hardy or (by the online edition of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Cumbria, The Public Catalogue Foundation, 2012) Frederick Yeates Hurlstone; held by Carlisle City Council, Civic Centre, Carlisle.