News that a defendant cut his throat in the dock while awaiting sentence reminded me of a case at the law courts in the Strand where a fraudster was on trial defended by Sir Richard Muir. The courts, built in 1882, sometimes housed criminal cases. In 1904 one of these was the trial of James Whitaker Wright (pictured), heard by a special jury to lessen prejudice an ordinary jury might have held against the alleged fraudsman.
Whitaker Wright was a man who made, spent and (perhaps unluckily) lost fortunes. He started his career as an assayer in America and profited by the money to be made from West Australian gold mines. He ploughed cash into building what is now the Bakerloo line and, strapped when his shares in Australian mines collapsed, began to inflate the balance sheets of other companies he owned. He had also ploughed money into his estate at Lea Park near Godalming, creating lakes, hills and an underwater ballroom. At one time 500 workmen were rushed in to turn a whim into reality.
In 1900 his companies failed, bankrupting investors, but the attorney general declined to bring charges. It was three years before research by the journalist Arnold White laid bare the extent of the fraud, and warrants were issued.
Using a false name, Wright fled to America with a young Frenchwoman and was not retrieved until 1904. Muir may have hoped that a Chancery jury would be more sympathetic but the judge was not, disregarding Wright’s explanations that the default would have corrected itself.
The jury returned a guilty verdict inside an hour and, before sentencing, Wright pencilled the Roman numeral VII on a note passed to his solicitor Sir George Lewis. He was correct.
He was allowed a conference before being taken to prison and, after smoking a cigar and drinking whisky thoughtfully supplied by Sir George, went to the lavatory where he swallowed cyanide. He was found to have a loaded revolver in his coat.
It seems Muir always thought Wright was innocent and certainly public opinion turned sharply in his favour. A generous verdict of suicide while of unsound mind was returned at the coroner’s court. He appears in H G Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay as George Ponderevo. Much of Lea Park, now Witley Park, burned down in 1952.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor