Whitaker Wright bigraphy, stories - English fraudster and businessman

Whitaker Wright : biography

9 February 1846 - 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.

Trial and death

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 of course 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.Dornford Yates "As Berry and I Were Saying" 1952 pp47-49 In spite of his financial errors, there was a great outburst of grief at his funeral at Witley where he is buried.

Early life

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 in Toronto, Canada.

Sharp practices

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 purposely 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,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. ( 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 advisor 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 by getting 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.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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