Wilson Pasha – Chief Engineer to the Egyptian Government


A few lines written by my Great Aunt led me to investigate her husband’s father Wilson Pasha, engineer for the Egyptian Government from 1857 – 1901.

“I married in 1944 Daniel Ellis Wilson, O. B. E., he was the eldest son of Wilson Pasha who was Engineer in Chief to the Egyptian Government for 40 years, and, as his eldest son, my husband had the courtesy title of Bey.”

I started checking to see if I could find any information Pasha Wilson and a quick Google search brought back mentions of his tomb in Hampstead Cemetery, described as a ‘beautiful little Ptolemaic temple commemorating James Wilson (1831 – 1906) in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road, London: Wilson Pasha, engineer, was in the service of the Egyptian government for forty three years.’ The tomb is a Grade II listed building, of pink granite with a winged scarab above the inscribed panel end. More substantial information came from an obituary in the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineering (ICE) held in their virtual library on the ICE website.

Tracing his ancestry

His obituary told me that he was born on the 17th December 1831 at Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire in Scotland, and that he served his apprenticeship as an engineer in Glasgow with R. Napier and sons. Looking up the 1851 census I found him living in Bridge of Weir (Kilbarchan parish) with his widowed mother Elizabeth, a 40 year old cotton mill worker, his brother Alexander and sister Eliza, also cotton mill workers, James himself is described as an Engineer’s Apprentice. Though I could find James, his mother, brothers and sisters on the 1841 census, there was no trace of his father. A further search at Scotland’s People turned up a likely marriage between Alexander Wilson and Elizabeth Pinkerton in 1828, James’ mother’s 1889 death certificate shows her maiden name as Pinkerton and confirms she was the widow of Alexander Wilson, a joiner.

I was fairly confident I had found the right person, and began building his family tree. The only census entry I had been able to find for my great uncle Daniel Ellis Wilson was for 1881 where he was a 14 year old boarder at school in Everton, Liverpool. His place of birth is given as Liverpool, Lancashire, but further down the page, are his two younger brothers James, aged 12 and George Francis aged 11 both born Egypt. A check on ancestry.co.uk confirmed Daniel was born in Liverpool in 1866, his parents were James and Annie Wilson. From James’ obituary I knew he had worked in Egypt from 1857 and can probably assume that they were visiting family in Liverpool at the time of Daniel’s birth. A search at of the overseas births index at findmypast.co.uk found the births of James and George registered at the consulate in Alexandria. There was also an entry in the marriage index for a James Wilson at Alexandria, I sent for the certificate and found that James Wilson, a 32 year old bachelor married Annie Ellis a 24 year old spinster on the 12th December 1866 in Alexandria, Egypt. It confirmed his father was Alexander Wilson, but gave his occupation as architect, not joiner, Annie’s father was given as Daniel Ellis a Merchant. At the time of his marriage in 1864, James was already in the service of the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha and was a member of the Bulwer Lodge of Freemasons in Cairo.

The Egyptian years

After serving his apprenticeship in Glasgow, James went to sea as an engineer, spending some time in the Crimea with the Cunard company during the war, before accepting an appointment in 1857 to become Chief Engineer of the Nile Steam Towing Company, he was to spend the next 43 years in the service of the Egyptian government. His obituary gives details of his career and achievements, he was for many years in the direct employ of the Khedive of Egypt, where he was responsible for the technical control of the sugar and other estates of the Daira Sanieh administration. As well as his work for the Daira Sanieh, James also undertook other engineering work and was responsible for the design and erection of iron roofs at Abdeen and Ghiza palaces, as well as the construction of the first iron dahabeeyah, the first of its class built in Egypt.

James was a Freemason and was associated with the Bulwer Lodge in Cairo, where he was at one point a Grand Master, a list of past Worshipful Masters of the Lodge, includes J. Wilson in 1873. In 1889 James appears to have resigned from the Lodge, a letter acknowledging his resignation is dated at Cairo on the 8th June 1890, a Clearance certificate was also issued on this date. The article on the Bulwer Lodge that this information is from also states that James became Past District Senior Warden (E&S) in 1895 and that he served as the first District Grand Master for Egypt and the Sudan from 1899 to 1901; but, it has incorrect information on his death and I have not been able to verify this information elsewhere as yet.

Still trying to find documentary evidence of James’ life in Egypt, I did a search in the National Archives catalogue and came up with the following, a court case brought by James against Edward Williams in 1866 in the Consular court of Cairo in the Foreign Office records, FO841/23. A digital copy of the relevant pages from the National Archives gave further information.

On the 9th January 1866, James entered a plaint in the Consular court of Cairo against Edward Williams for £530 (worth about £35,000 in today’s money) due to him as the payee of a bill of exchange which Edward Williams had on the 5th October 1865 agreed to pay to James within three months. As Williams did not attend the court as ordered, James was awarded costs of £11 18s 0d and the entitlement to recover the money from Williams including the costs and interest. Williams obviously didn’t have the money, as on the 18th April 1866, the court ruled that a Cotton ginning factory situated near Qalioub (about 12 miles north of Cairo) would be sold by public auction on the 4th May 1866. From the notice of the sale, it appears that James had originally sublet the cotton ginning factory from the tenant a Mr William Whitehead, and had then transferred this to Edward Williams in 1864, and for which he was receiving rent from Williams. The papers give a description of what is to be sold in the factory to pay the debt. Unfortunately, that is as far as the papers go, so I don’t know if James ever received his money, but this document opened up a fascinating window into James’ life and times. During the Egyptian unrest, James and his family, like all Europeans left the country until the situation settled down, on his return, James continued working for the Egyptian government, now under British Occupation. In 1888, James was awarded the Medjieh Third Class by the Khedive, a notice in the London Gazette of 17th January 1888 states that he may accept and wear the insignia by permission of the Queen.

Reward for long service

In 1895, James received the greatest recognition of all by being raised by the Khedive Tewfik from the rank of Bey to that of Meermiram and was to be known as Wilson Pasha. A notice in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal for June 1895, states that it was an ‘honour rarely conferred on a civilian, but is confined chiefly to military officers of the rank of Lieutenant-General’. James had given a lifetime’s service to the Egyptian government which was recognised by this honour.

He retired in 1901, returning with his wife Annie and daughter Leila to live in Hampstead, where he died on the 24th February 1906, leaving his entire estate worth £19,872.4.7 (about £1.5m in today’s money) to his wife. Annie died at Worthing in 1910.


  1. Egypt’s Belle Eqoque: Cairo and the age of the Hedonists, Trevor Mostyn, 2006, Tauris Parke Paperbacks
  2. A Thousand Miles up the Nile, Amelia Edwards, 1878