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James Whitaker Wright
Whitaker Wright Drawing Feb 1904.jpg
Drawing of Whitaker Wright, 1904
Born (1846-02-09)9 February 1846
Stafford, England
Died 26 January 1904(1904-01-26) (aged 57)
Cause of death Suicide
Criminal charge Fraud
Criminal penalty seven years imprisonment
Criminal status convicted
Spouse(s) Anna Edith Weightman
Parent(s) James Wright, Matilda Whitaker
Conviction(s) 26 January 1904

James Whitaker Wright (9 February 1846–26 January 1904) was a company promoter and swindler, who committed suicide at the Royal Courts of Justice in London immediately following his conviction for fraud.

Early life[edit]

The eldest of five children, he was the son of James Wright, a Methodist Minister, and Matilda Whitaker, a tailor's daughter. He was born in Stafford, and spent his early years in various parts of England with his father. In 1861, according to the census of that year, he was a printer in Ripon. Between 1866 and 1868, he was a Methodist preacher himself, but retired due to ill health. He was also the elder brother of John Joseph Wright, who invented the reversible trolley pole, transmitting electricity from an overhead wire to the motors of a tram or trolleybus.

Emigration, marriage and fortune[edit]

On the death of his father in 1870, the family emigrated to Toronto, Canada. Wright then travelled to Philadelphia, US where he met and married Anna Edith Weightman in 1878. Wright made a fortune by promoting silver-mining companies in Leadville, Colorado, and Lake Valley, New Mexico, although none of the companies made money for the shareholders.[1]

Wright returned to England, and promoted a multitude of Australian and Canadian mining companies on the London market.

Sharp practices[edit]

Wright's career as a swindler peaked in the 1890s, when he formed the London and Globe Company which floated a variety of stock and bond issues dealing with mining. Wright called some of these stocks "consols", the term used by the British government for state bond issues that were solid and reliable. He loaded the directorships of his companies with Peers of the Realm; for instance, the Chairman of the London and Globe Company was the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, a former Viceroy of India. This served the purpose both of impressing the public and attracting wealthy investors. Wright also sought to make a place for himself in late Victorian English Society. Besides a mansion at Lea Park, Surrey, where he had a smoking room built beneath a roof aquarium,[2] Wright also owned the yacht Sybarita which beat the yacht Meteor (which belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) before the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Wright became a friend and financial adviser to Sir James Reid, the personal physician to Queen Victoria. In fact Reid became the trustee for Mrs. Wright in the financier's will; later this would lead to financial difficulties for the physician for neglecting her interests in the events connected to Wright's fall. Reid eventually had to pay Mrs. Wright £5,000.

Everything was apparently working well in Wright's empire, when in 1900 he sought to float a bond issue for the building of the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (now the London Underground's Bakerloo line). The line had been difficult and costly to construct. Why Wright sought to get involved in the company is contentious; he was a mining engineer, not a construction or railroad engineer. It is likely that Wright believed he would be able to cap his career in City finance if he were knighted for his public spirited activity. In any case the bond issue was a disaster—Wright found it strained his resources, and few people were willing to subscribe. It started the collapse of the entire Wright group.

At this point Wright made his criminal error. To maintain an image of solvency and success, Wright kept pushing thousands of pounds from one of his companies to another in a series of "loans". This led to some misrepresentations on balance sheets. But when he announced that, despite the apparent prosperity of his group, there would be no dividends, people became suspicious. In December 1900, the companies collapsed. Wright fled, but was brought back to stand trial.

The shock waves led to a panic in London's exchange. There were other losses. The humiliated Marquess of Dufferin and Ava died in 1902 in the midst of the investigation.

Trial and death[edit]

The trial took place in January 1904, before Mr. Justice Bigham; the prosecution was led by one of the best barristers of the day Rufus Isaacs. Bigham was one of the most astute corporate law experts in England, and Isaacs was an expert in stock market procedure having previously worked as a broker. The government (when studying the confusion of Wright's paper trail) could not see a successful government prosecution; instead the prosecution was brought by the stockholders. With a prosecutor exposing the various financial tricks that Wright pulled for the jury, and a jurist patiently explaining points about finance, Wright's attempts at obfuscation were defeated.

On 26 January 1904, Wright was convicted of fraud at the Royal Courts of Justice and given a seven-year prison sentence. He committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in a court anteroom immediately afterward. The inquest also revealed that he had been carrying a revolver in his pocket, presumably as a backup: He was never searched as the security was weaker at the Royal Courts, which were Civil Courts, the trial being held there as it was deemed likelier that the special jury required would be less prejudiced against the accused than a normal jury at the Old Bailey criminal court, which was in the City.[3] In spite of his financial errors, there was a great outburst of grief at his funeral at Witley, where he is buried.

Witley Park[edit]

In 1890 Wright purchased an estate named Lea Park between Godalming and Haslemere, Surrey, and the adjacent South Park Farm from the Earl of Derby. Ownership of these properties granted Wright Lordship of the Manor and control of Hindhead Common and the Devil's Punch Bowl. Whitaker Wright began to develop his new properties as a single estate, creating three lakes, the largest of which covered fifty acres of farmland.[4] Wright's wide-ranging landscaping works raised local concerns of their impact on the local economy and the natural landscape. In the vastly extended house he had a subterranean smoking room built beneath a roof aquarium[5]

Following his death, Lea Park was purchased by William, Lord Pirrie; the now-notorious name was changed to Witley Park, as the estate was further extended towards Witley, Surrey. Farmsteads were cleared away to create a deer park.[6] The remainder of the estate was divided into lots for sale, and funds raised locally enabled the purchase of Hindhead Common, which was transferred to the National Trust.

In popular culture[edit]

Whitaker Wright was popularised along with his fictional great-grandson in a 2006 episode of Hustle titled "Ties That Bind Us".

H. G. Wells was fascinated by the fall of Wright, and it influenced the writer's novels Tono-Bungay and The World of William Clissold.

The Folly Under the Lake is a vintage whodunit book based on the life of Whitaker Wright and his underwater folly www.facebook.com/thefollyunderthelake

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Whitaker Wright at www.miningswindles.com
  2. ^ Lea Park, between Godalming and Haslemere, was purchased by William, Lord Pirrie, who cleared farmsteads to form a deer park; the notorious name was changed to Witley Park, as the estate was further extended towards Witley, Surrey. (Boston Evening Transcript, 13 November 1913
  3. ^ Dornford Yates "As Berry and I Were Saying" 1952 pp47-49
  4. ^ "Whittaker Wright: His Home at Lea", West Gippsland [Victoria, BC] Gazette, 11 August 1903
  5. ^ Boston Evening Transcript, 13 November 1913
  6. ^ Boston Evening Transcript, 13 November 1913
  • Edgar Lustgarten—The Illustrated Story of Crime (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1977) ISBN 0-06-465090-1 (the chapter "City Cases" deals with Wright on pp. 46–50).
  • Dan Plazak—A Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top ISBN 978-0-87480-840-7 (includes a chapter on Whitaker Wright).
  • Michaela Reid—Ask Sir James: Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria and Physician-in-Ordinary to Three Monarchs (New York, London: Viking–Penguin Books, 1987, 1989) (p. 228–230 deal with Sir James's relationship with Wright and his wife.).
  • Derek Walker-Smith—Lord Reading and his Cases, the Study of a Great Career (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1934) (Chapter X: The Fall of Whitaker Wright, p. 133–154, deals with Isaacs cross-examination and destruction of Wright on the witness stand.).

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitaker_Wright — Please support Wikipedia.
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32 news items

Jackson County Times-Journal
Thu, 08 Oct 2015 15:04:34 -0700

Whitaker Wright, with Community Development Consultants (CDC) of Ohio, who had assisted with the grant process last time, previously stated that the State of Ohio was "very impressed" with Wellston's "sterling performance" with their grant application ...

Slate Magazine (blog)

Slate Magazine (blog)
Tue, 21 Jan 2014 06:21:07 -0800

Whitaker Wright's life story is one of great wealth, greater deception, a subterranean smoking room, and a dramatic demise. Born in England in 1846, Wright travelled North America in the 1870s and amassed a fortune by promoting mining companies. In ...

Whitby Today

Whitby Today
Thu, 24 Sep 2015 23:33:45 -0700

... Lillie; Lloyd Trophy for the winner of the junior cross country (11 years and under), Seb Whitaker-Wright; Castleton Show Under-14s Cross Country Cup, Archie Lane; Michael Dee Trophy for the winner of the boys' cross country (14-18yrs), Thomas Aspin.

Visual News

Visual News
Tue, 09 Dec 2014 04:00:00 -0800

Whitaker Wright left the world as spectacularly as he'd lived in it. Minutes after being sentenced to seven years in prison for faking balance sheets, he walked out of the courtroom, smoked a cigar and then went to the bathroom. There he swallowed a ...

Daily Mail

Daily Mail
Tue, 08 Nov 2011 00:30:48 -0800

And the man who built it lies in Witley churchyard — killed by cyanide poisoning, by his own hand, after he was exposed for a mammoth financial scam that ruined him and dozens of investors. This Victorian Bernie Madoff was Whitaker Wright, born in ...

First to Know

First to Know
Tue, 09 Dec 2014 14:13:52 -0800

Whitaker Wright During the 1870s, Wright made — and lost — massive fortunes from investing in silver mines throughout New Mexico and Colorado. After returning to his home in England in 1889, along with his young American wife and three children, ...

Jackson County Times-Journal

Jackson County Times-Journal
Tue, 11 Aug 2015 13:38:24 -0700

WELLSTON— Whitaker Wright, with Community Development Consultants (CDC) of Ohio, was asked by the Wellston City Administration to give Wellston City Council a status report on the $300,000 CDBG Neighborhood Revitalization Grant thus far.

The Virginian-Pilot

The Virginian-Pilot
Sat, 11 Apr 2015 18:43:27 -0700

Since Whitaker joined the council, Meeks said, Whitaker, Wright, Cherry and Edmonds have sought to revisit the issue. "I think that they see they have the opportunity," Meeks said. "I feel like they see a window of opportunity to oust a gentleman that ...

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