James Whitaker Wright

image: From The Sphere of 15th August 1903
Reproduced courtesy of Surrey Archaeological Society

 

James Whitaker Wright (1890-1904) is remembered as the financier who took his own life by swallowing potassium cyanide in his solicitor’s room just after he had been sentenced to seven years penal servitude for fraud on the 26th January 1904. He was born, not in Prestbury, Cheshire, as is stated on his tomb but in Stafford, on the 9th February 1846, according to his birth certificate. His father who was a Methodist and Connexion minister married in Prestbury.

Wright went to America c.1870 speculating in mining, oil and silver, and became a millionaire by the age of 31. He married Anna Weightman from Illinois in Philadelphia, and in the 1880 census was listed as a silver miner.  In 1881 he moved to the State of New Mexico where silver ore was discovered. He founded various companies and sold shares.

Wright returned in 1889 to England and bought the Le Ley Estate in Witley, and in 1894 Lea Park House. He spent millions in ornamenting the grounds with artificial lakes, bringing marble over from Italy for statues. He rebuilt the house pulling down sections and adding new styles with a palm house, revolving glass dome, and a room under one of the lakes with a dome reaching out of the lake.

In 1891 he promoted shareholders’ money in companies, including the London and Globe Finance Company, but false statements were made, and although Wright was a millionaire by 1897, the company went into receivership in 1899. In the 1901 census Wright was listed at Lea Park House. He was declared bankrupt on 13th January 1903. Shareholders forced a judge to proceed with prosecution. Wright fled to the France on a steamer but was recognised and arrested when he arrived at New York. After four months there he was extradited to London and charged on 5th August 1903. His trial finally closed on 26th January 1904. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. He then took his own life. He was buried in Witley churchyard in a black granite tomb, part of which is now missing but on which was inscribed “He loved the poor” - the local people had been given employment in building his house and grounds.

The accurate descriptions of the house were in the articles of the day, The Sphere, and The Gentlewoman, while later articles exaggerated. The house was unfinished when he died, and he left £148,200. Lea Park was put up for sale at £500,000 in October 1905 but did not find a buyer until 1909 when it was bought by Viscount William James Pirrie, chairman of Harland Wolff, shipbuilders, who built the Titanic.

Wright was written about both here and in America. The New York Times (1901) reported “Whitaker Wright, whose rise to wealth on the crest of the wave of ‘Westralian’ speculation is said to be the original of Stormont Thorpe, the principal figure in Harold Frederic’s novel, The Market Place.” Harold Frederic (1856-1898) an Anglo-American journalist and novelist came to England in 1884 as correspondent for The New York Times. The novel was published posthumously in 1899, the story of Joel Stormont Thorpe, who promotes a rubber syndicate, becomes a multi-millionaire, retires to his country estate, and evolves a gigantic philanthropic scheme of spending his money.

H G Wells wrote Tono-Bungay (1909), a novel about Edward Ponderevo, a chemist who made a fortune from a patent medicine or tonic (tono). He mentions, “That chap Whittaker Wright.”, and descriptions of Ponderevo and his grandiose house and gardens are based on Wright. West’s autobiography of H G Wells states that Wright’s life appears in The World of William Clissold (1926) and The Research Magnificent (1915).

Godalming Museum © 2008

 

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