The Richest Man in Britain
From rags to riches and back to rags again...Whitaker Wright’s biographer, Henry Macrory, looks at WW’s extraordinary life.
Whitaker Wright was born in a modest terraced house in Stafford in 1846. The son of a Methodist preacher, he was the eldest of five children and would claim in later life that he was brought up ‘in the depths of poverty.’ Always prone to exaggeration, he probably over-stated the deprivations of his youth. In an age when many children received little or no education, he was spared the horrors of factory life and attended a good school.
A certificate for shares in one of Wright’s companies, London & Globe
At the age of 18, he followed his father into the church, but resigned after two years citing ill-health. He emigrated to Canada, and worked for several years as a travelling salesman in Toronto before crossing the border to America and settling in Philadelphia.
Buying up gold and silver mines in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, he floated them on the stock market and rapidly became a dollar millionaire. He acquired a young wife, a mansion home, a beachside holiday house, and a luxury yacht.
Few of his mining properties lived up to their early promise. Most investors ended up losing money, and Wright himself came unstuck when one of his Colorado companies went bust. Fleeing angry creditors — some of whom tried to have him jailed — he returned to England in 1889 and set about rebuilding his fortune.
His big chance came with the discovery of gold in Western Australia in 1892. Wright was one of the first financiers to exploit the boom, acquiring dozens of mining leases with the intention of developing them into going concerns.
He had a commanding presence, and was identified in the public mind as a man who had taken risks, got his hands dirty and knew his way round the mining industry. Many regarded him as a genius. To give his businesses added respectability, he appointed numerous titled people to their boards, notably the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, a former Viceroy of India. Investors were electrified and poured money into his companies.
Wright’s six-storey mansion in London’s Park Lane
For a time all went well, and by 1896 Wright was one of the richest men in Britain with a life-style to match. He owned a 9,000-acre estate in Surrey and a six-storey mansion in London’s Park Lane.
His decision the following year to pour money into the Baker Street and Waterloo Underground Railway (later called the Bakerloo Line) was one of a sequence of events that led to his downfall, depriving him of cash reserves when he needed them most. Another adverse factor was the Boer War, which depressed the stock market.
Wright’s business empire collapsed at the end of 1900, costing thousands of people their savings. It transpired that he had been keeping his companies afloat by cooking the books, but it was not until 1903 that a High Court judge sanctioned a prosecution against him.
Wright’s niece Florence Brown with whom he fled to New York
Wright’s response was to flee to New York with his young niece, Florence Brown, but two Scotland Yard detectives caught up with him and brought him back to London. At the end of a twelve-day trial at the Royal Courts of Justice in January 1904 he was sentenced to seven years in jail. An hour later he was dead, having swallowed cyanide in the court precincts. As the Illustrated London News commented: ‘This sybarite, inured to luxury, could not or would not face the hardships of the prison-house.’