Wilson, Peter (c.1720–1802), publisher, printer, and bookseller, was probably born in Dublin and spent most of his career working in the city. During his youth he was apprenticed to the printer George Risk of Dublin. By 1739 Wilson established his own bookshop at Gay's Head, near Fownes St., Dublin. He soon prospered and had enough capital to buy up large quantities of stock from other book dealers. In common with other stationers of the period he also doubled up as a retailer of pills, potions, and artists' materials. As early as 1742 he began to print his own books such as Gay's Fables and musical scores, and by 1744 produced his own catalogue of books with prices (one of the first booksellers to do so in Ireland). In 1744 he launched a journal called The Meddler, which was offered as an alternative to the news sheets since it included general essays on self-improvement. But The Meddler was not popular and lasted just six months. Wilson soon learned that the citizens of Dublin were more interested in fiercely polemical works, and in the mid to late 1740s he printed pamphlets for both supporters and opponents of Charles Lucas (qv) at the time of the Dublin aldermanic dispute. As a printer Wilson was well placed to know the identities of the key figures in the political debate (who tended to use soubriquets such as ‘the Cork surgeon’) and he profited by encouraging the cycle of printed argument, rejoinder, and argument. In 1749 he admitted to an Irish house of commons committee that he had sold at least 900 copies of Lucas's A second address to the citizens of Dublin.
His business contacts with printers and stationers in London meant that he noticed the latest novelties that had the potential to catch on in Dublin. In 1751 he launched the Dublin Directory (the first of its type in Ireland), which was inspired by Kent's Directory in London. Wilson's first directory lists around 925 merchants and traders of the city of Dublin and their place of abode. It gives a fascinating snapshot of the diverse commercial activities which then existed in Dublin, ranging from the banking firm Kane & La Touche to Verschoyle the glue-boiler. The sale of at least 250 copies encouraged Wilson to publish a new edition each year. But the enlarged 1753 edition was a flop and Wilson decided to abandon the project; no directory was published in 1754. It was only after the intervention of several gentlemen, who undertook to take subscriptions, that the directory carried on. The 1755 edition included a number of new features including an alphabetical list of streets, a list of professional gentlemen, and a fold-out map of the city. He successfully marketed the annual directory as an essential part of any office or counting house, and perhaps 1,000 or more copies were sold each year by the 1760s (although sales were dented in 1800 by the one shilling stamp duty). In the preface to the 1761 edition he explained that the directory could be used by creditors to find out the residences of parties; by sheriffs in their search for juries; and by gentlemen who wish to find artificers in every trade. The growth in the size of the directory (from just twenty-six pages in 1751 to 169 pages in 1799) mirrored the rapid growth of Dublin. By 1798 about 5,000 merchants and traders were listed.
Wilson used unscrupulous, and indeed illegal, methods, to stay ahead of his Dublin competitors. In 1753 he printed a pirated version of Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (using plates that he had acquired through bribery) before the authorised publisher, George Faulkner (qv), had a chance to print his own copies. This led to a protracted legal dispute in which Wilson appears to have escaped punishment. In 1762–5 Wilson published the Dublin Magazine, which included a lively selection of essays on the theatre, history, architecture, politics, and family notices. The topographical essays on the counties of Ireland, accompanied by a number of attractive engraved maps and architectural elevations, were particularly popular. In 1763 the MP Arthur Brooke (qv) used his parliamentary privilege to put Wilson in prison as a result of a supposedly offensive passage printed in the Dublin Magazine. The article in question was innocuous enough; it inferred that Brooke was not endowed with any literary ability. Nevertheless, Wilson was made to beg pardon in order to obtain his release after one month. Brushes with the law did not prevent Wilson from gaining professional recognition. In 1748 he was admitted to the stationer's guild of St Luke through service and later served as warden (1756), master (1764), and member of the council (from 1764). In 1751 he was the first Dublin stationer to be admitted to the prestigious Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants. He moved to different addresses during his career; including Dame St. (1748–66, 1767–71) and Upper Blind Quay (1766–7).
From 1768 he worked in partnership with his son William Wilson (c.1745–1801), printer, publisher, and bookseller. By 1771 ‘declining years, and medical advice, induced him [Peter] to exchange the busy scenes of life for the more tranquil walks of health’ and move to the countryside (preface, Dublin Directory 1802). William worked from a number of premises in Dublin, including Dame St. (1768–95), Exchange St. (1796), Grafton St. (1799), and Cork Hill (1800–01). Like his father, William had an enterprising mind and was always on the lookout for lucrative projects. From 1774 he republished the topographical volumes of Charles Smith (qv) on Irish counties (using the manuscripts which he found in the possession of a friend) and printed Dublin editions of popular works such as Humphrey Clinker (1771) and Robinson Crusoe (1781). Sales from his bookshop were brisk (with one consignment to Marsh's Library, Dublin, worth £33 alone) and in 1783 he was appointed stationer to the Bank of Ireland. In 1784 he launched The post chaise companion or traveller's directory through Ireland. This was the first traveller's pocket book of its type to be printed in Ireland, and was inspired by a volume by ‘Mr Paterson’ on English roads. It used the detailed road maps made by George Taylor and Andrew Skinner, along with notes on how to find the most direct road to any town or village from Dublin. To gain a wider appeal Wilson also included descriptions of the country seats and plantations that could be seen from many of the roads. The work was a great success and new editions were printed in 1786 and 1803. In 1787/8 he brought a successful suit against his press-corrector, who had lifted material from the Companion in order to use it in other publications. This was a landmark case in Ireland, since it highlighted that editors had intellectual property rights. Though adept at launching new schemes, Wilson failed to keep control of his accounts and in 1787 (some sources suggest 1781) was declared bankrupt. The ownership of the Dublin Directory was about to be sold off to the highest bidder when Peter Wilson appeared out of retirement and declared that the copyright still rested with him. William died in 1801 and Peter (then aged 82) edited the 1802 edition of the directory himself. In the preface he paid tribute to his son: ‘he was possessed of a spirit beyond his income’.
Peter married (June 1743) Elizabeth (d. 1754), daughter of William Powell, Dublin printer. He seems to have married again, since in 1803 ‘Miss Wilson, youngest daughter of the late Peter Wilson esquire, formerly an eminent bookseller in Dublin’ married Mr John May of Capel St. Peter died in 1802, probably at home on Glasnevin Road, Dublin. In 1803 the copyright of the Dublin Directory was sold to William Corbett by Wilson's descendants. Both Peter and William Wilson had contemporary namesakes: Peter Wilson (d. 1771), Dublin printer and publisher, and William Wilson, printer, from Monaghan.