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24 September 2014

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Whitaker Wright

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Poison bottle and the Royal High Courts in London

Bakerloo and cyanide

Whitaker Wright was one of of six millionaires who were described by the Financial Times as "Men of Millions" in 1897. Yet two were imprisoned, one murdered and one committed suicide.... so where did it all go wrong for Witley's Lord of the Manor?

He was born in Cheshire in 1845, the son of a Methodist minister and a tailor's daughter. Although he lived for a long time in the USA, he kept his North Country accent throughout his life.

As a student he learned chemistry and assaying and in 1866, at the age of 21, he emigrated to America to take up a position as a mining assayer. By 1876 he had gained US citizenship and a wife and three children. 

He first made his fortune in mining, but lost it all at the age of 31 and so returned penniless to England in 1889. Undaunted, he set to work building up his companies again and by 1897 was a millionaire for a second time! 

He bought a country estate, Lea Park as well as the Manor of Witley, with his newly acquired wealth.

London Underground sign

He financed the Bakerloo Line in London

After investing in more real estate Whitaker founded the British America Corporation and turned his attention to the new London Underground, in particular the Bakerloo line. He was one of a group of private financiers who funded the building of new lines, tunnels and stations, at the turn of the century.

Unfortunately, his holding company, the London and Globe Finance Corporation, ran into difficulties and in December 1900 he was accused of misusing invested funds.

The collapse of his business empire caused shockwaves through the international mining industry, and his illicit attempts to fix share prices proved even more damaging.

Questions regarding his business practices were asked in the House of Commons and insolvency followed. In March 1902 it was decided that he had a case to answer. 


The London and Globe Finance Corporation

Having hidden himself in the icehouse at Witley Park for a week, Wright fled to Paris, then to New York via boat from Le Havre, travelling under a false name. Unluckily for him, the technology of the day meant that the warrant for his arrest was ready and waiting when he landed!

He did manage to delay being extradited for several months, but in early September 1902 he was brought back to London using the new extradition laws, to face trial at the Royal Courts of Justice.

And so, in 1904, Whitaker's luck finally ran out as he faced an unsympathetic judge and jury.

It was revealed that he had rid himself of the bulk of his shares and had managed to turn the wealth into substantial property holdings in and around London. This made him even less popular with the people who had trusted their hard earned cash to him.


Whitaker's business dealings caught up with him

The Times newspaper noted "Though it would not be true to say that counsel had not the opportunity of saying all that was possible for the prisoner, it was a matter of common observation that Bigham (the Judge) showed hostility to the accused from the outset, and he drew from Lawson Walton, who was leading for the defence, an unusual protest on the ground that the judge had raised the laughter of the gallery against his client."

On the 25th January, Wright was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

He left the court protesting his innocence and is said to have consulted with his solicitor, then handed him his watch, commenting "that 'I will not need this where I am going".

Supposedly after asking for a glass of whisky and a cigar, he proclaimed "So this is British justice!"  before swallowing a cyanide capsule, that he'd smuggled into court, collapsing and dying! Later the police also found a loaded revolver on him.

He is buried beneath an imposing marble slab in the graveyard of All Saints Church, Witley.

The Witley estate was split up into lots and sold off. Some of the land such as the Devil's Punchbowl and Hindhead Common now belongs to the National Trust.

last updated: 27/06/07

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