THE WRIGHT FAMILY
Born in 1722, Thomas Wright started work in a warehouse on London Bridge, built a hugely successful business, became Lord Mayor of London and built Bell House.
Thomas Wright was born on 26 April 1722 and christened at St Andrew, Holborn, a fine Wren church near his family’s home in Red-Lion Square. John Wesley preached at this church in 1737-8, when Thomas was in his teens. He was the son of Edward Wright, a pastrycook and scavenger (employed by the parish to collect the rubbish and keep the streets clean). Keeping the streets clean was a constant problem in 18th century London and in 1718, two years before Thomas was born, Edward was indicted with other scavengers because they: ‘take no Care to clean ye Streets in the said parish of St Andrew Holborn wch: now lyes in such Condicon that Passengers cannot cross any part of Holborn without being almost to ye Knees in Dirt’.
Thomas’s father was from Aldington in Kent but moved to London and married Elizabeth Turvin at St Olave’s, Southwark in 1712. Edward and Elizabeth had a large family, at least eight children of whom five survived to adulthood and they lived in Red Lion Square, a smart, newly-built suburb between Holborn and Bloomsbury. Edward died in 1726 when Thomas was just four years old.
Thomas Wright started work as a servant in Walkden’s paper and ink warehouse ‘at the Bell on London Bridge, near St Magnus church’. At the beginning of the 18th century servants, both domestic and business, and apprentices had a close relationship with the family they served and they often all lived together in one social group, as merchants often lived ‘above the shop’. Merchants’ children often served the families of friends but we do not know if that was the case here. In 1738, on Thomas’s sixteenth birthday, his boss, Richard Walkden, citizen and stationer, made him an apprentice. We know Thomas must have been literate as, unlike printer apprentices, stationer apprentices had to be able to read. Thomas’s father is described as deceased on the indenture and a bond of £40 was paid; Walkden charged up to £100 for an apprenticeship as it was the route to a lucrative career. Walkden himself had lost his father at an early age and had been apprenticed to his mother, from whom he took over the family business. The stationers, with the booksellers, were the wealthiest members of the book trade due to the huge increase in printing at this time and the foundations of the modern book trade were laid with many firms such as Blackwells and Boosey & Hawkes still surviving today.
Thomas’s apprenticeship lasted for seven years, coinciding with war with Spain and Austria but England was at peace in 1745 when he finished his apprenticeship, became a freeman of the City of London and was ‘clothed’ as a liveryman of the Stationers’ Company, meaning he had the right to wear the company’s livery and to stand for office. A year later, Thomas married Ann Gill on 15 November 1746, at the same church as his parents, St Olave’s, Southwark.
Like Thomas, Ann’s family was from Kent. Her grandmother, Susan Cox, was from Dartford and her grandfather George Gill was from Bexley. Her father, William, was born in Bexley and like Thomas’s father had moved to London where he married his wife, Elizabeth Lawrence, at St Olave’s. One wonders whether the two families knew each other, or were even related, as they both originated in Kent and both had the surname Brooke as a first name in their family. Thomas’s grandmother was Mary Brooke and it was her brother James Brooke to whom Ann’s brother was apprenticed. Thomas went on to name one of his sons James Brooke, while Ann had a brother called Brooke, who died when she was 17 years old.
Thomas Wright’s father is described as both a pastry cook and a scavenger (road cleaner) but he also left Thomas £230 in his will so must have been quite wealthy. Thomas is described as both a ‘warehouse worker’ and he also seems to come from a long lineage published in a book about the gentry in 1818. To modern eyes these two might seem mutually exclusive but it would have been more understandable to people in the eighteenth century. The Wrights might have been members of the landed gentry but the arms were only designated after Thomas’s death when his son-in-law, John Willes, asked for them. If these were his ancestors he would have been descended from ‘second sons’ and from a distant branch of the family, so not inheriting any tangible resources because primogeniture passed all the wealth and land to the eldest son in the main family line. His father Edward was a pastry cook but at the time this was a specialisation that was much in demand so he could have made a lot of money from this trade. A guide to London in 1802 talks of ‘a pastry cook having been known to leave £100,000 to his heirs’ and while this is not Edward Wright it shows that it was not unknown for people to make large sums from what we would consider relatively mundane jobs. So Edward could have made a very good living, certainly enough for him to ‘sub-contract’ out his parish scavenging duty to others, though the responsibility and thus the censure for not discharging it properly would still have rested with him. Similarly, Thomas could have started work in a warehouse with an understanding that he would take an apprenticeship from the master of the firm and thus get his feet on the first rung of the book trade ladder. Thomas does not appear in the registers of any London schools of the time, unlike his brother-in-law who was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School. This does not mean he was uneducated of course, but he may not have been in that ‘middling sort’ strata which sent their sons to London schools like Merchant Taylors or Christs’ Hospital.
London was in a state of flux at this time with the genesis of a consumer society. For the first time people of the middling sort had extra wealth to spend and began buying in order to display their ‘taste’, wealth and gentility. This consumption would have included things like the china needed for the new fashion of tea drinking, clothes for different occasions and would also have included books to display learning and discernment. So printing and bookselling were very much up-and-coming businesses at the time, making the Stationers’ Company a good livery for an ambitious young man to join.
By 1748 Thomas Wright was a master stationer and in business with his brother-in-law, William Gill on London Bridge in the old Chapel of St Thomas Becket which had been converted to secular use during the Reformation. It was close to the centre of the old 12th century London Bridge with a lower chapel in the cellar at (or under) water level and an upper chapel at bridge level. Wright & Gill used the lower level as a paper warehouse and the upper level as a shop. They had a crane added to hoist supplies direct from the river and used the cellar as a paper store which surprisingly was reported to be ‘as safe and dry…as a garret’.
At this time there would still have been severed heads displayed on the south side of London Bridge. By 1762 the buildings on London Bridge were being demolished or remodelled (coincidentally by Sir Robert Taylor, a possible architect of Bell House) so Wright & Gill had to move. The upper storey of the chapel was removed but the cellar remained as it was built into the structure of the bridge.
Wright & Gill moved to a ‘brick-built’ property at 30 Abchurch Lane on the north side of London Bridge. Brick-built was an important consideration after the great Fire of London and indeed fires were reported twice in Abchurch Lane, though their warehouse was only ‘lightly affected’. Insurance records for the Abchurch Lane premises show that the property was insured for £500, later increased to £2,000, not surprising as paper was very expensive. They also had another warehouse at Walnut Tree Alley in Tooley Street which was insured for £300 and a further property in Paternoster Row insured for £9,000. These amounts must have increased quickly as in 1770 Thomas Wright lost ‘over a thousand pounds worth of bibles and prayer books’ in a small fire.
He was closely involved in his livery company, the Stationers, and in 1777 he became its Master. The Stationers’ Company was unusual in that it acted both as a livery company and as a commercial entity in its own right: the ‘English Stock’ which held the monopoly to print almanacs, psalters, catechisms and ABC books. This was extremely lucrative: the ‘Stock’ sold around 400,000 almanacs each year alone and these shares paid a dividend of 12.5% p.a., an exceptional return and more than twice the interest paid on government stock at the time. Thomas was able to leave his share of the English Stock to his wife in his will.
Wright and Gill’s success in business stemmed from selling paper. Among the organisations they supplied with paper were Oxford University in the shape of the Clarendon Printing House even after they stopped printing religious works, and also the Board of Longitude, the government body set up to discover a way of measuring longitude at sea. The Gill family had an interest in paper mills in Kent which would have contributed to their profit margin since they could access paper more cheaply than their competitors. William Gill had taken an apprenticeship in papermaking at Horton Mill in Wraysbury and later owned Sandling paper mill near Maidstone.
Financial success came from the printing of bibles and prayer books, largely a cartel comprising the universities of Oxford and Cambridge who sold monopoly leases carrying the right to print books both for England and the lucrative American market. On Lady Day (25 March) 1765 Wright & Gill bought the right to print religious works for the University of Oxford, following a series of disputes between the university and the previous printers, the Baskett family. Oxford claimed Baskett produced books riddled with mistakes: one misprinted book was called the ‘vinegar bible’, because the parable of the vineyard was misprinted as the parable of the vinegar. Baskett employed ‘idle and drunken staff’ and things got so bad many Oxford colleges had to purchase their religious books from ‘Cambridge’ (their italics). Thomas Wright took charge of the negotiations and paid £850 p.a. and in addition agreed to indemnify the university against any law suits brought by the notoriously litigious Baskett. This amount was Oxford’s largest source of regular income at the time.
Wright & Gill were not printers so when they took control of the Bible press they subcontracted the work to Oxford printer William Jackson. The books were printed on the ground floor of the Clarendon Building while Wright and Gill established ‘large and elegant’ apartments on the first floor above. Their 1769 bible, the King James Authorised Version, edited by Benjamin Blaney, has become the standard Oxford text and is still printed today. Since Oxford held the ‘Bible Privilege’, that is the right to print the King James Authorised Version, Wright & Gill’s arrangement proved highly lucrative, especially as the Stationers Company, in order to protect their own monopoly of printing almanacs, agreed to pay them £550 p.a. to ‘forbear’ to print almanacs (Oxford kept the right to print Oxford almanacs). Wright & Gill produced nearly a hundred different imprints and many of their religious books survive which is unusual as they were very much ‘working copies’, used daily by families or religious institutions and read to destruction.
The bibles printed by Wright & Gill for Oxford University after 1769 are one of the forerunners of modern typographical style in their simple format and sparing use of capital letters within the text. At the time many words were capitalised, including nouns but these books ignored this custom and also had simplified spelling, so look much more modern to our eyes. The university also paid extra to have certain books within the bible starting on the right-hand pages and this resulted in extra white space, again unusual at the time but attractive to the eye. Their 1768 common prayerbook was referred to at the time as ‘beautiful and correct’. Wright and Gill also supplied paper to the university, a good quality ‘thin Royal’.
In the 1778 lease renewal negotiations Wright & Gill offered only £210 p.a., telling the University that the value of the contract was hugely diminished for two reasons. First since the Stationers’ Company had lost the monopoly to print almanacs they were disinclined to make forbearance payments to the firm not to hold back from printing other books, thus jeopardising the monopoly promised to the lease-holders. Secondly the Boston Tea Party and the outbreak of war with American colonists had affected trade with the US, where in any case the colonists were now printing their own bibles. Wright & Gill were in fact the last holders of the lease as the University took the printing back in-house, to what became the Oxford University Press. Wright & Gill continued to supply paper to the university press.
Thomas Wright was not averse to diversifying when the opportunity arose. When supplying books to America he was also happy to ship other client requests such as German flutes, bread-baskets and telescopes. One such invoice to Henry Knox, the American revolutionary and first US Secretary of War, was for £656, over £42,000 nowadays. This trade also dried up during the harbour blockades of the American Revolution.
Wright & Gill became innocently and indirectly involved in a case of attempted fraud in 1755 when Thomas Wright gave evidence in the case of William Rutherford, aka Smith, aka Wherron. Rutherford had forged a badly written and misspelt note, purporting to be from William Wilmott and addressed to William Wallis, both stationers and business associates of Thomas. Rutherford wanted to be paid £21 but Thomas testified that the handwriting was not Wilmott’s:
‘I verily believe it not to be his writing. Mr. Wilmott spells his name with a double t, but this has but one t; and here are a great many mistakes in the spelling; but Mr. Wilmott understands accounts, and spells very well; but as to the writing, it is nothing at all like his writing’. Rutherford was found guilty of intent to defraud. His sentence was death.
After their marriage, Thomas and Ann set up home near the south side of London Bridge, close to Thomas’s business. They had a son called James Brooke, who died in infancy and a daughter, Ann, born in March 1751. They decided to move further south, joining the exodus of families from the bustle of the City which was fast becoming a place of business and manufacture rather than residency. The rapid improvement in roads and the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges enabled Thomas to commute to his business much more easily and Dulwich provided an attractive alternative with its country air and spa at Dulwich Wells. The Wrights had their own coach but there was also a regular stage coach to Dulwich starting from the Pewter Platter pub in Gracechurch St, a stone’s throw from Thomas’s office in Abchurch Lane which would have set him down outside the pubs in Dulwich Village. As the middling sort became more prosperous wives were not needed in the workplace and so began to stay at home as what would be known in Victorian times as ‘the angel in the house’.
In 1766 Thomas Wright purchased John Ramsbottom's lease of what is now Bell House, which then consisted of a house in a three-acre field called Crutchmans and two ancient cottages at the south end of the property, where Pickwick Cottage is now. In 1767 he knocked down the existing house and built his own. The College granted him a new lease at £5.10s. p.a., and a year later he was given permission to demolish the two ancient cottages in view of his having spent ‘a very considerable sum on his premises’. The bell, which is 17 inches in diameter (43cm) and was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (also responsible for Big Ben and the Liberty Bell), is inscribed with the date 1775 so must have been installed a little after the house was built. In 1783 Thomas was granted three meadows (12 acres) behind Bell House and the use of the mill pond on Dulwich Common with the ‘right to take fish out...by angling and no other method’.
Having built Bell House and its accompanying coach house, the Wrights continued making improvements to their property, such as enclosing the waste ground in the front (most of these ‘wastes’ belong to the Dulwich Estate but unusually Bell House owns its own) and planting trees. On the site of the ‘two ancient cottages’ which he had been permitted to demolish, he built two new ones, now incorporated into Pickwick Cottage.
A community-minded man
The Wrights played a role in the local Dulwich community. Other members of the family lived in Dulwich, for example their nephew Francis Gill and his wife Jane later lived at Pond House. They were all very close and Thomas certainly kept an eye on his many relatives and remembered them in his will. The Wrights were sociable and entertained often. Richard Randall was the organist at Christ’s Chapel and a popular guest in Dulwich society, being seen at assemblies, plays and dances and he often mentions the Wrights in his diaries. Randall gave Mrs Wright music lessons and for more than twenty years he was invited to Bell House for meals from breakfast through to supper and he also went with the Wrights to the theatre and other entertainments. In 1772 Wright co-founded the Dulwich Quarterly Meeting of residents, which turned into a regular dining club at the Greyhound pub and in 1791 he provided the Minute Book, in which the two stewards at each feast and the members attending were recorded.
In the eighteenth century there was little organised support of the poor outside the Elizabethan poor laws but there was a definite Enlightenment trend to provide for those less well-off, though perhaps with the aim of reforming and also warding off unrest or revolution. Nevertheless, much-needed new resources were available as individuals pledged to newly-formed charities. It was very much up to individuals how much they gave and how often and the Wrights were generous; they gave on a regular and sustained basis while also making one-off donations and in addition Thomas Wright gave various institutions the benefit of his business expertise.
In Dulwich their charity was on an ad hoc basis. In 1799 Ann Wright gave £10 for the relief of relatives of soldiers wounded during ‘our war with Holland’. Thomas supported local charities, presented a Bible to the Chapel in 1782, and helped to secure a fire engine and a house ‘south of the Pound’ in which to keep it. For a hundred years the bells of the Chapel and Bell House were rung whenever a fire broke out in the Village. Thomas Morris described how, when a fire broke out at the bakers on Bonfire Night in around 1847, the ‘Fire Bell’ on top of Bell House was rung with all its might.
Thomas was also involved in charitable endeavours across London as well as giving his time as a justice of the peace. For over twenty years, he and his business partner and brother-in-law William Gill, were active in many London hospital charities which provided for the poor of London. He was a governor of St Thomas’s Hospitaland vice-president of the Middlesex Dispensary and the City Dispensary, clinics set up to bring health care to the working poorbut the hospital he was most involved in was the City of London Lying-in Hospital, one of the first maternity hospitals in London. Thomas first became involved with ‘this humane and useful institution’, which provided maternity services for the wives of poor tradesmen, in the 1770s and with William Gill he would attend the Sunday baptisms of babies born in the hospital, make donations and attend governor meetings where they would hire staff, sign off on bills and deal with the numbers of women applying for admittance which were always more than they had room for. Charity in the eighteenth century was often moralistic and the hospital was strictly for married women only, single women would not be admitted until 1912. Each governor had the right to nominate patients but all the patients had to prove they were married, were deserving of charity and agreed to their new-born being baptised in the hospital chapel.
The weekly governor meetings were held at local coffee houses until a purpose-built hospital was erected near Old Street roundabout and each week about a dozen new mothers would be brought before the board (or Court as it was known) to ‘return thanks’ for the benevolence they had been shown. Other mothers attended to be admonished for their bad conduct while staying at the hospital. There is no record of what this bad conduct entailed but the rules for patients were very strict and they were inpatients for a long time, at least six weeks according to the regulations, though this must often have been shortened as most families would not have been able to do without a mother for so long. Women were expected to produce needlework for the hospital, though not until three weeks after delivering their child. From four days after delivery they also needed matron’s permission to lie down on their beds. Labouring was done in the same ward with expectant and newly-delivered mothers: when a separate room for labour was suggested it was vetoed in case the patients suspected experiments might be performed on them.
Mortality at all hospitals was high due to the lack of hygiene. ‘Childbed fever’ as post-partum infections were known, was usually caused by the doctors themselves and during the time Thomas was involved the hospital had to be closed temporarily due to rampant infection which must have been a difficult time as there was such a need for the services the hospital offered. It would not be until the 1850s that simple precautions like handwashing would bring down the numbers of post-natal deaths. Vermin such as bedbugs were a constant issue, as was alcohol abuse, and as president Thomas had to ban the drinking of porter in the hospital due to its ‘evil effects’. Other issues he had to rule on included the lack of lighting at night and his solution of one candle per ward per night is surprising to us as it must still have been very dark. He also stopped the long-term practice of patients having to buy the nurses tea and sugar, he raised the nurses’ wages to include an allowance so that they could buy their own. Thomas was a generous benefactor, his usual donation of £20 can be seen in the benefactor lists again and again, when most people were donating around £5. Both he and William Gill were later presented with ‘staffs’, a sign of devoted service to the hospital.
At the same time Thomas was president of the hospital one of its senior physicians was Dr Lettsom of Camberwell. It is tempting to suppose they were friends, given their involvement here and that they were both active in public dispensaries. In addition they both lived in south-east London at a time when there were far fewer houses in this area. Dr Lettsom was involved with the hospital for many years, was a noted philanthropist and was also a supporter of the abolition of slaves.
The London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb
Thomas Wright was a benefactor of this, the first free school for deaf children in Britain. Until it opened in 1792, poor British deaf children had no formal education as the only school for the deaf in the whole of Europe was in Paris. Edinburgh and London had private establishments but they were only for those who could afford to pay. The Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Poor Children was founded by two friends: Rev. John Townsend, a minister at the Jamaica Row Congregation Church in Bermondsey, and Rev. Henry Cox Mason, a rector in Bermondsey. Together with Henry Thornton, a philanthropist, and a Mrs Creasy, one of Townsend’s parishioners whose deaf son, John, had benefitted from the private deaf academy in London, the money was raised to set up an asylum near Tower Bridge. Within six months the team had found premises, hired a headmaster and registered their first six pupils. The school was popular with parents of deaf children and also with benefactors and grew quickly. Children learnt to read, write and do arithmetic and unsurprisingly for a school founded by two clergymen, there were morning and evening prayers and two church services on Sunday. Classes ran seven days a week with scripture studied on Sundays and holidays were restricted to a fortnight at Christmas, later extended to a fortnight in the summer too. A letter in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1795 tells of how the children were taught to be useful to themselves, a comfort to their friends and learn ‘what might be valuable to them both here and in the hereafter’.
Thomas gave his money, his time and his business expertise to many charitable organisations. The Marine Society was formed in 1772 to take in poor boys and prepare them for a life at sea, thus solving the problem of a need for a constant supply of sailors with the issue of young men roaming the streets of London. The Candlewick Ward School (now part of Sir John Cass School) and the Magdalen Hospital for the Reception and Training of Penitent Prostitutes. He also supported the Philanthropic Society which aimed to ‘rescue from destruction the offspring of the vicious and dishonest’. In the 18th century responsibility for deserted and vagrant children lay with the parish where they were found, provided no other place of settlement could be discovered but this obligation appears to have been widely ignored. The Philanthropic Society was founded in 1788 to protect and reform the offspring of convicted felons or children who had themselves been engaged in criminal practices. The boys were taught printing, book-binding, shoe making, tailoring, rope making and twine spinning. It is tempting to think that Thomas Wright was involved in the printing or book-binding lessons. The girls were trained to be "menial servants"; they made their own clothing and shirts for the boys, and washed and mended. When Thomas was involved many of these organisations were based in an area called St George’s Fields in Southwark, a kind of charitable campus which also contained Bethlem, the Magdalen Hospital, a school for the blind and almshouses and an asylum for orphan girls. The Humane Society was also based here and Thomas often gave them donations and was made a governor for life. Originally called the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, it was founded by two doctors in a City coffee house because they were concerned about the number of people being taken for dead and even buried alive. Their aim was to train people in resuscitation techniques to rescue the many people who drowned in the Thames at a time when few people were taught to swim. The Society paid 4 guineas to the rescuer and 1 guinea to anyone who allowed the resuscitation to take place on their property, leading to a widespread fraud whereby two people would share the proceeds when one of them pretended to have drowned while the other pretended to have rescued him.
The Asylum for Orphan Girls
From 1775 onwards, Thomas was also a generous benefactor of this organisation, and he paid an annual sum of at least three guineas; he also left them £100 in his will. In 1758 John Fielding, a London magistrate, social reformer and brother of the author Henry Fielding, wrote of girls deserted on the streets of London and his fear that they would be forced into a life of prostitution. Just as the Magdalen was founded to reclaim prostitutes so the asylum was formed to prevent girls falling into prostitution in the first place. Fielding gathered wealthy patrons to fund a “reformatory” to take in these abandoned girls, raise them ‘free from the prejudices of evil habits’ and train them to work as domestic servants. The orphanages rules for entry were tough, as well as being an orphan, only girls between the ages of nine and twelve were admitted and they must be free from disease or deformity. Non-white girls were also denied entry. Once admitted, the orphans helped pay for their keep by making clothes which were then sold. These rules seem harsh to us but in a society preoccupied with moral issues charitable activity had to go hand-in-hand with a moral commitment from the beneficiary. The donors were motivated by civic spirit but also by Christian morality and Thomas took his place on the board, lending his experience.
Thomas Wright’s charity extended farther than just London. In 1762 Jean Calas, a Huguenot cloth merchant in Toulouse was found guilty of the murder of his son. He was publicly broken on a wheel, strangled then burnt to ashes. Voltaire took up the case and persuaded large parts of European public opinion that anti-Huguenot hysteria had influenced the verdict. Wright and Gill contributed to the fund Voltaire raised for Calas’s wife and family and also Voltaire’s campaign and may even have facilitated the pamphlets Voltaire circulated in London, either by supplying the paper or printing. In 1765 the conviction was reversed.
Theft at Bell House
On Saturday 2 December 1769, the Wrights were the victim of theft in their new house at Dulwich, discovered by their coachman, Rubon Cannicot. James Simpson was accused of stealing a woollen cloth coat, value twenty shillings, belonging to Thomas Wright. Rubon Cannicot gave evidence at the Old Bailey:
‘I am coachman to Thomas Wright; he lives at Dulwich; our coach was locked up, and the great coat on the coach box. The key was left in the door, on the outside; the yard gate was all fast, and the yard is walled all round; whoever got the coat must get over the wall. I know nothing of the prisoner, I never saw him to my knowledge before I saw him here at the bar; the coat was missing last Saturday morning’.
Simpson took the coat straight to Cheapside and offered it to Hugh Riley, a dealer in old clothes and rags. Riley and Simpson went to Paternoster-row, to a little court that leads to St Paul's churchyard where Riley offered Simpson fourteen shillings for the coat; but would not pay ‘till he sent for a surety’ (ie someone who could vouch that the coat was Simpson’s to sell). As well as being a clothes dealer Hugh Riley was also a member of the City of London’s police force and seems to have been suspicious of Simpson. They were in a pub at the time and Riley and the pub landlord took Simpson before the lord mayor. The coat was advertised, and Rubon Cannicot described it to the lord mayor ‘before he saw it’. The prisoner’s defence was as follows:
‘My brother was a coachman; I had this coat of him; he was coachman to Mr Hutchinson in Southampton. I offered it to this man; (I) am bricklayer; my brother has been dead some time; I am a Guernsey man’.
The verdict was guilty and the sentence was transportation to the American colonies. Mortality to the American colonies was quite low due to the economic value of the prisoners; on arrival they would be indentured for around £10 for the length of their sentence, at which time they were free. Some even returned to England though this became even harder to do after the War of Independence. When the war commenced Britain began transporting prisoners to Australia instead.
At the time the Dulwich stocks bore the motto: 'It is the sport of a fool to do mischief, to thine own wickedness shall correct thee' and never has a quotation been more true. Simpson must have reflected on his bad luck on that day in 1769 when he stole a coat from a village five or so miles distant from London and then tried to sell it in Paternoster Row, the one place it would be readily recognised, the place where London's booksellers and stationers had their shops and warehouses, and just a stone’s throw from Stationers' Hall in Ave Maria Lane where Thomas Wright made almost daily journeys. Simpson's further misfortune was to try to sell the coat to someone who, before there was an organised national police force, turned out to be an off-duty member of the City's own law enforcement body.
Thomas Wright’s involvement in the City of London
Thomas Wright took a diligent role in civic affairs in the City of London from 1764 onwards. At this time the City was developing rapidly and confidently. The Seven Years War had just ended, paving the way for Britain’s global expansion. In 1761 the City’s medieval gates were demolished in an act of symbolic and practical modernisation. Sewers and water mains were laid, streets were paved or cobbled, most for the first time. In 1764 Thomas became a member of the Court of Common Council, the City of London’s council, for Candlewick ward, where his business was situated.
In his ward he was responsible for the collection of the coal duty tax, originally levied to support children orphaned by the Great Fire of London but by then used for other municipal obligationssuch as paving the streets, a project the City began in 1765 and which by 1773 they had completed, paving from Temple Bar to Aldgate. He was made a sheriff in 1779 and crowned his public service in November 1785 by becoming Lord Mayor of London. The following is an account of his installation as Sheriff:
Yesterday morning the two new Sheriffs, viz. Aldermen Wright and Pugh, went in their carriages to Stationers’ Hall, where they breakfasted, and afterwards proceeded with the Master, wardens and Court of assistants of the said Company to Guildhall, where they were sworn into their offices, with the usual formalities. Their chariots were very elegant. The livery of Alderman Wright is a superfine orange-coloured cloth, richly trimmed with silver; Alderman Pugh's is a superfine green cloth, with a rich broad gold lace, and both make a grand appearance as any Sheriffs have for several years. The old and new Sheriffs returned from the Hall to the Paul's-Head Tavern, Cateaton Street when, according of annual custom, the keys of the different jails were delivered to the new Sheriffs, and they were regaled with walnuts and sack by the Keeper of Newgate. After the ceremony at Guildhall, the Sheriffs etc. returned to Stationers’ Hall where an elegant dinner was provided by Mr. Sheriff Wright. The whole was conducted with the utmost propriety, and was the better attended than any feast given on a similar occasion, there being sixteen Aldermen present besides the Sheriffs. A Correspondent has favoured us with the following description of the painting on the new Sheriff's chariot: Mr. Alderman Wright's - 'Liberty, in a fitting posture, with her rod in one hand, and her other on the Roman faces, while a little-winged Genius is presenting her with a code of laws.'.
Lord Mayor of London
Thomas’s Lord Mayor’s Show in November 1785 was particularly splendid; the twelve guildsmen of the Stationers’ Company insisted on accompanying the procession in their own coaches, instead of on foot (the previous practice). The coach Thomas used was the same one used by the Lord Mayor to this day. It transported him to the waterside where he stepped in to the City Barge which was accompanied by all the livery company barges blazing with streamers and pendants. The barge took him to Westminster where he took his oath before returning by barge to Blackfriars and then back in the coach to the Guildhall for ‘a magnificent entertainment’. Thomas’s coachman at this time was Thomas Berry. Berry remained the Wright’s coachman until the alderman’s death in 1798 when he stayed in Dulwich but changed course to be a plumber. His three daughters went on to run a school at Old Blew House on Dulwich Common.
Towards the end of his tenure, in October 1786, George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia, died. As Lord Mayor Thomas Wright proclaimed that for his successor Thomas Sainsbury’s Lord Mayor’s Day the following month no liverymen should ‘walk or stand in the street, or pass in their barges on the water’. The artillery company should not march or fire their guns. There should be no ringing of bells or ‘other outward show of rejoicing’ such as a feast. This decree came from the Lord Chamberlain but a contemporary print shows his colleagues do not appear to be at all happy with the lack of festivities. In 1786 on the conclusion of his mayoralty Thomas presented the Stationers’ Company with a large silver tea urn.
A possible architect of Bell House, Sir Robert Taylor, was also a City dignitary and was a sheriff in 1783, four years after Thomas; they undoubtedly knew each other both professionally and socially and are both depicted in a large oil painting that hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery showing the inauguration of the 1782 Lord Mayor.
During his time as a master stationer Thomas Wright took on many young apprentices for varying sums ranging from £20 for Thomas Jones in 1769 to £600 in the case of Thomas Kirk in 1765. His partner, William Gill, seems to have taken on only two apprentices. One was his son, Robert and in 1769 he charged Roger Pettiward £1,050. While high apprentice premiums were not unknown (Daniel Defoe talks of Levant merchants charging £1,000 in the 1720s) most apprenticeships were bought for much less. These large amounts must surely reflect the success of Wright & Gill’s business and the benefits that would accrue to anyone connected with it. Indeed after his apprenticeship Roger Pettiward became a ‘partner in the respectable firm of Wright & Gill’ and was wealthy enough to rebuild Finborough Hall in Suffolk.
Wright & Gill took on a young employee, Richard Dalton, who had come to London from Wigton, Cumberland and later made him a partner in the company. Dalton lived at Camberwell Green, not far from Thomas. They became great friends and partners and Dalton was an executor of Thomas’s will. Wright & Gill was a very successful company and Thomas made such a fortune that it attracted the notice of the press, though he had a reputation for ‘great application and frugality’ . Newspaper cuttings from 1785, the year he became mayor, talk of his:
‘property in the 3 per cents, to the amount of near £180,000. The very interest of this sum exceeds the Prince of Wales actual income! And independent of it, Mr. Wright's profits in his trade, as a stationer, are supposed to be very little short of it!’
Thomas Wright died suddenly on 8 April 1798 during a walk in the garden at Bell House. He had an epileptic fit and medical help could not be summoned in time. He was 76 years old and was described as a ‘truly humble and pious Christian, a faithful and affectionate husband, a most tender and indulgent father, a sincere and generous friend, a very good and kind master and a worthy and benevolent member of society’. He specified in his will that he was to be ‘buried without much expense’. William Gill, his close friend, brother-in-law and business partner for over fifty years died within a few weeks of him. His wife Ann died in 1809. All three, together with Ann and William’s sister, Elizabeth Kincaid, are buried at St Andrews, Wyrardisbury (now Wraysbury) Church, in Buckinghamshire where the Gills had lived. Thomas left a fortune of £400,000, the bulk of which went to his wife and daughter. His will was proved on 21 April 1798 and in it he says:
‘I give to the masters and keepers or wardens and commonalty of the mystery or art of a stationer of the city of London two thousand pounds, four per cent bank annuities upon trust to pay apply and distribute the yearly dividends and yearly produce thereof upon the first day of January in each year or as soon after as may be, in manner following, that is to say ‘the sum of fifty pounds eight shillings, part of such dividends, unto and amongst twenty poor freemen of the said company, not receiving any other pension from the company, in equal shares and proportions at two pounds two shillings each’. To the clerk of the said company for time being the sum of three pounds three shillings, other part of such dividends, for his trouble upon this occasion. And the sum of twenty-six pounds nine shillings, residue of such dividends, in and towards the providing and defraying expense of a dinner for the master, wardens and assistants of the said company upon the day of such distribution’.
He also left £500 to the Lying-In Hospital. When this legacy was announced at the governor’s meeting the board voted to make Thomas’s wife and daughter both governors of the hospital for life, an honorary post. His name was painted on a panel in the chapel. He also left £100 to the poor of Wraysbury parish. He gave the Stationers’ Company £2,000 in trust to distribute the income from it to 24 poor freemen and similarly gave £125 to divide among 20 poor households in Dulwich.
Wright & Gill the firm continued and included as partners Gill’s son, their favoured apprentice Richard Dalton and four brothers named Key who had bought into the firm after Wright’s death.
Thomas’s daughter Ann inherited everything and in 1811 a new lease of the Bell House property was granted to her at the increased rent of £128 p.a., with the right to channel water from the mill pond ‘through the pipe or plug already in the same’ into her own ponds although the College now took over responsibility for maintenance. Ann married very late in life in 1813, at the age of 64, four years after her mother died. She married John Willes, the owner of Belair House, Gallery Road, who had already had the luck to marry another heiress, Rachel Wilcocks, niece of the Bishop of Rochester, and who was himself 78 years old. He was a close family friend who had been the executor to Ann’s mother’s will. He may have known Thomas Wright via his career as a corn factor, as in 1762 Thomas had paid £2,500 for the office of corn meter, giving him the duty paid for the official measuring of corn. Willes was also on the board of the Lying-In hospital when Thomas was President. They did not live long to enjoy their joint fortunes; Ann died on 27 October 1817, aged 68 and is buried with her parents in Wraysbury. John Willes died in 1818 and has a large tomb in the burial ground in Dulwich. Thomas Wright’s sister Mary had married Nicholas Trice and they had a grandson called Thomas who, in 1818, changed his name from Trice to Wright, perhaps to secure the Wright inheritance. He married Cordelia Willes, the niece of John Willes, Thomas Wright’s son-in-law and they had two daughters. In 1827 Thomas Trice asked for a new lease of Bell House, which he said had been occupied by his relatives for a very long time. He was granted the new lease, but with Bell Cottages (now Pickwick) excluded.