The Wrights had never seen anything like it before and will never see it again
His father was a Methodist minister. His mother was a domestic servant. One grandfather was a brickmaker. The other was a tailor. And what did his uncle do? He wove silk.
Whitaker Wright’s family past gives few signs to predict a life of extreme wealth, deception and drama. True, as the eldest of five children, WW grew up in the role of leader. As the first son, he nodded to tradition by following his father James into the Methodist ministry. Yet after two years, aged 22, he quit his role as a junior preacher, supposedly due to ill health. What followed was a brief spell more characteristic of what WW got involved in later on. He set up as a printer and stationer with his brother John (known as “JJ”) but their business gamble ended ignominiously when they went bankrupt.
This episode appears to have finished their father off. James Wright died in April 1870 leaving his widow Matilda to finish bringing up their children. For WW, there was no safe retreat back to the ministry. He and JJ (my great-grandfather) were off in a cloud of dust. Before the year was out, they had wound up in Toronto, Canada.
WW's father James Wright (1815-1870) in an engraving probably dating from the early 1860s
This in itself was a first. Now in their mid-twenties, the two brothers, with working-class roots in Cheshire, had been swept away on a wave of emigration to North America. The duo had evidently gone ahead on a recce before reporting back to their mother and three younger siblings, who followed them across the pond later.
Bursting with energy and ambition, WW and JJ built lives for themselves in Toronto and Philadelphia. Perhaps they were in competition with each other, perhaps they spurred each other on. After their mother Matilda died in 1881, the brothers drifted apart. JJ had been married early (1874) and, with a growing family ultimately consisting of eight children, settled in Toronto where he made a name for himself as an electrical pioneer. Unlike WW, JJ was apparently never all that interested in money. WW meanwhile was leaving his Wright origins ever further behind. In 1879, he branched out from Philadelphia in search of mining opportunities in Idaho, Colorado and beyond.
WW's mother Matilda Whittaker (1813-1881)
It’s as if WW’s marriage to Anna Weightman in 1878 was a step on the path to re-inventing himself. Aged only 16, compared with WW at 32, and born in Illinois, the impressionable Anna represented a blank canvas. She served as a conduit for all manner of tall stories emanating from WW. For one thing, WW’s gravestone in Witley, presumably commissioned by Anna, indicates that he was born in Prestbury as compared with his real birthplace of Stafford. In addition, their daughter Gladys, the only one of six children to outlive both parents, had the erroneous idea that WW had studied mining engineering at the University of Heidelberg. What’s more, she believed that WW’s father James had served as the rather august-sounding Vicar of Prestbury and not a poor itinerant Methodist minister. WW's descendants also entertained the mistruth that he came from a well-to-do family called Wright residing at Mottram Hall in Cheshire.
If WW’s true origins, not to mention his dubious business practices, remained hidden from his family, who knew the real WW? Possibly his young niece Florence whom he escaped with to Paris and then New York. Or possibly his French mistress called Rosalie. At the height of his powers, WW operated from the City (he built a secret staircase at his offices in Lothbury so that Rosalie could visit him). Anna meanwhile was tucked away at Lea Park (now Witley Park) in Surrey. WW’s London residence in Park Lane was decorated in the French style. Lea Park was decorated in the Italian style. Anna apparently never made an appearance at WW’s trial at the Royal Courts of Justice in January 1904.
WW taking refuge in his underwater room
WW’s suicide came as a shock to his family. His three children were approaching the end of their teens and would never enjoy their father’s company as adults. Even in death, WW lies apart in Witley cemetery. His grave is quickly discovered as it is a solid marble affair. It’s almost as if it was made armour-plated against anyone who tried to get too close.