By Peter Hammond
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal No 7 (1998)
Chiswick has had many famous residents and some who were considered infamous, the most notable of the latter being Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, ‘poisoner and art critic’, as he has been called. Several biographers have claimed that he poisoned three of his relatives, an uncle, his mother-in-law and a sister-in-law. However, although he ended his days in Tasmania deported there for forgery, he was never formally accused of murder in his lifetime and recently discovered evidence makes such an accusation much less likely.
Wainewright lived for a large part of his life in Linden House, a large house on the south side of Chiswick High Road, the site of which is now covered by Linden Gardens. He was an art critic, an artist and an author and his career was certainly interesting even if he was not a murderer.
Wainewright was born on 4 October 1794, probably in Linden House, the house of his grandfather, where his parents were living. His mother died aged 21 at his birth or soon after he was born, and was buried in Chiswick Churchyard on 11 October. Wainewright’s later convict record says that he was baptised in Richmond, which could be the case since there is no record of his baptism in Chiswick. His father was also Thomas, probably a solicitor, from a long line of legal gentlemen, and his mother was Ann Griffiths, only daughter of Ralph Griffiths, the owner of Linden House. Griffiths was a self-made man, a bookseller, founder of the successful Monthly Review, a literary magazine, and publisher of the even more successful Fanny Hill, that classic of pornography. Thomas’ father did not long survive his wife, he was dead, by 1803. His son was brought up by his grandfather and then his uncle George Griffiths. He received a good education at the school in Greenwich run by Charles Burney, a noted classicist, brother of the well known Fanny Burney, Madame D’Arbley and a distant relative of Wainewright.
At the age of 19, in l813, he was apprenticed to Thomas Phillips, the portrait painter. He left after a few months and in April 1814 purchased a commission as Ensign in the 16th Foot. He only stayed with them for just over a year, selling his commission in May 1815, just before the regiment was sent to Ostend where they arrived too late for the Battle of Waterloo. Mr Wainewright’s taste for soldiering obviously did not extend to actual fighting.
Wainewright then seems to have suffered some kind of illness, possibly a nervous breakdown. In a very brief description of this event he says that he recovered partly through the nursing of ‘a most delicately affectionate and unwearied (though young and fragile) Nurse’. This was almost certainly his wife whom he married on 13 November 1817 at St Martin-in-the Fields, although we do not know if he married her before or after his breakdown. She was Eliza Frances Ward, eldest daughter of a Mrs Abercromby of Mortlake and probably previously of Turnham Green. It is possible that Eliza and Thomas had known each other from their youth.
What kind of man was this ex-soldier, what did he look like? Fortunately we do not have to rely on conjectures because there exists a self-portrait complete with Wainewright’s inscription Head of a Convict, very characteristic of low cunning and revenge. This was drawn in Tasmania when he was in his mid 40s and at least shows evidence of a sense of humour. According to the official record made when he arrived in Tasmania he was 5 feet 5 and a half inches tall, with brown hair and whiskers and grey eyes. When young he seems to have been amiable, rather plump, with a nervous fidgety manner. Charles Lamb who knew him well and liked him, described him as ‘the light, and warm-as-light hearted Janus’ (one of his noms de plume). He was also a man who took great pains with his dress, took snuff and carried a quizzing glass – that is, he was rather a dandy.
Man about town
Mr Thomas Wainewright, an artist and an intelligent, well educated man, was now free to do whatever he wished, within the limits of a fairly modest income. His grandfather, Ralph Griffiths, had died in 1803 and had left his grandson £5,000 in the Navy 5% annuities. This gave young Thomas an income of £250 a year for life, which was quite sufficient for a comfortable life in the 1820s. His wife quite possibly came with no dowry, so that the couple were dependant on Thomas’ income.
The newly married couple went to live in Great Marlborough Street, where they were for the next ten years. Their apartment, once occupied by Mrs Siddons, appears to have been fairly large. In one of his essays Thomas describes his own rooms in this apartment and they sound luxurious. They contained expensive furniture, objets d’art, many pictures and prints (of which he gives an inventory and cost – nearly £20, quite a lot on an income of £250 a year), and a collection of luxuriously-bound books. The couple also kept at least one man servant, and probably others. They gave frequent dinner parties, to which were invited many well known men, artists such as Sir David Wilkie, writers including Charles Lamb, John Clare and John Forster, the future biographer of Charles Dickens and actors such as William Macready. It sees obvious that Thomas was living well above his means, even if (as is possible) his uncle paid the rent of the apartment.
What Wainewright apparently wanted was to be recognised as an artist and as a writer. He realised both ambitions. In 1821 he began to show work at the Royal Academy and thereafter, until 1825, he regularly had pictures in the Summer Exhibition. These were all paintings of subjects from literature or classical legend and one of them, called The Milkmaid’s Song, apparently taken from the Complete Angler by Isaak Walton, was praised by William Blake, whose own work Thomas valued highly. Wainewright wrote regular and well regarded criticisms of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions and his judgement in art was praised by de Quincy. In 1825 he was put up for election as Associate of the Royal Academy, but he was unsuccessful. This may be why he never exhibited at the Academy again.
Wainewright probably started his literary career earlier than his artistic one, contributing to a short-lived literary journal, the Literary Pocket Book, in 1819, and he may have compiled some of the Somerset House Exhibition catalogues at this time. However Thomas chiefly favoured a new journal, the London Magazine, founded in 1820, with his contributions. His articles included literary and art criticism and light essays and poetry. He wrote under rather eccentric pseudonyms, Janus Weathercock, Cornelius van Winckboom and Egomet Bonmot and was very successful, attracting praise from his fellow writers, including William Hazlitt and Thomas Hood as well as Charles Lamb and de Quincy. His first contribution to the magazine was in 1820 and the last in 1823, and it seems possible that the editor (now Thomas Hood) refused to publish any more of his work – the last piece published has the rather “forlorn” title as one of his biographers puts it, of ‘Janus weatherbound, or the Weather-cock steadfast for lack of oil’.
Two years later, in 1825, Thomas’s only book and his last published piece of work appeared. This was a very modest piece called – and it is worth recording the title in full since it gives much of the flavour of all his work – Some Passages in the Life, etc., of Egomet Bonmot, Esq., Edited by Mr Mwaughmaim, and now first published by ME. This has been described as a study in egotism (which it is) but it is also a description of his career up to his ‘death’, written as if it were a posthumous work. There is a lengthy introduction and the work itself is a long poem giving more or less the same information as the Introduction. It is fairly unreadable, but also rather sad because in effect it is his farewell to the literary and artistic world which he had inhabited for the past five or six years. He speaks of a disillusionment with the things that he had previously admired, literary success and popularity, with the ‘romantic yearnings of youth’ and says further that friends who would have delighted in his success were dead and that ‘when a man arrives at thirty, there is a crowd of bitters behind him;. . .Thus it was with Bonmot. .’
Wainewright was nearly thirty (actually 29) in the year the work was published – so there is no doubt that he was speaking of himself. We may wonder what had caused such disillusionment? Certainly his idol, the artist Fuseli, had died and he himself had been refused election to the Royal Academy, both in 1825, but these were hardly events to cause a complete withdrawal from public life.
The reason could have been money. The Wainewrights were probably living well above their real means and by 1825 had been doing so for about eight years. In 1822 Thomas had a bright idea to solve his finances, an idea which, as it turned out, was to bring his entire life down in ruins. His income, apart from anything he earned by his writing which must have been small, was from the £5000 left to him in trust by his grandfather. The trustees for this sum were his paternal uncle Robert Wainewright, a solicitor, and two of his paternal cousins, Edward Foss and his son Edward.
In mid 1822 Thomas forged the names of these three to a power of attorney and obtained £2250 of his capital. Two years later he did the same thing again and came into possession of the rest. He thereby committed what was then a capital offence and put off the evil hour when he would run out of money, albeit at the expense of his regular income which stopped, of course. It was also prejudicial to his wife, since when they married he had settled the capital of his annuity on her after his death.
This sum obviously did not last long because in 1826 Wainewright agreed to pay one John Atkinson and various relatives of Atkinson’s the sum of £150 per year, for their lives and the life of the last survivor. This was in repayment of a loan of £3000 previously made to Wainewright by Atkinson, who at the same time agreed to lend to him a further £1500. The security for this annuity and further loan was some unspecified books, engravings and pictures which had to be insured at Wainewright’s expense for £1,500 and kept in boxes by Robert Frank Acheson, a solicitor and associate of Atkinson. Besides lending Thomas the further £1500, Atkinson agreed not to pursue a judgement entered against Thomas in the High Court for debt. Perhaps some of the money spent by Thomas went on these books, engravings and pictures. Certainly he had spent at least £8000 in about five years, a considerable sum – at that time a well paid professional man would earn only about £400 pa and live quite well. Wainewright was obviously not in such desperate straits as has been said by previous biographers since as heir to the Linden House estate he would be a reasonable risk for money lenders.
Deaths in the family
By September 1827 Thomas and his wife had gone to live with uncle George Griffiths in Linden House. The reason for this may have been that Mrs Wainewright was pregnant. The couple had not been long in Linden House when George Griffiths, a bachelor of about 58, died suddenly on February 5th 1828. It was said later that he died in convulsions and in terrible agony, but there is no evidence for this, only later servants’ gossip. All biographers are sure that this was Wainewright’s first murder, but there is no reason to suppose that the death was not due to natural causes. Griffiths apparently left very little money. The Monthly Review, which he had continued to edit after his father’s death, had been losing value for several years and he had sold it in 1825. He died intestate but the house and its contents came to his nephew Thomas, his heir at law. Soon after George Griffiths’ death the Wainewrights’ only child was born and christened Griffiths on 4 June 1828 in honour of his dead uncle.
The Wainewrights continued to live in Linden House in some style. One biographer estimated that it cost about £1000 per year to run Linden House. This figure may be much too high, only about 6 or 7 staff seem to have been needed, but costs would not be negligible and Thomas continued his habits of frequent entertaining. Such a life was expensive, and 15 months after his uncle died Thomas went to his friend John Atkinson again. This time he mortgaged Linden House and its estate as further security for the annuity of £150 (which it is difficult to believe he had actually been paying), and for a further £2000 which had been lent to him by Atkinson. Once again Wainewright received a further £1500 loan as part of this transaction. Despite all this he apparently owed large sums to local tradesmen – £200 to his butcher for example.
Not long after the death of George Griffiths Thomas’s mother-in-law, Mrs Abercromby, sold her small property in Mortlake, worth it seems about £300. In or about 1830 she and her two other daughters, Helen and Madeleine, the half sisters of Mrs Wainewright, came to live with the Wainewrights in Linden House. In August Mrs Abercromby made her will, in which she left her personal estate, now apparently worth only £100, and a small amount of property to her eldest daughter Eliza, Mrs Wainewright. Six days later she died, in agonising convulsions according to most biographers, again basing their remarks on later gossip. Since Mrs Abercromby was not a young woman, there seems no reason why she too should not have died of natural causes. This death has also been laid at Thomas Wainewright’s door, but a man needing to borrow as much as Wainewright seemingly did, seems unlikely to have committed such a serious crime for the sake of so little, especially as it left him with the responsibility for two young sisters-in-law.
Insurance fraud or murder?
It seems far from obvious that Thomas Wainewright had committed any murders and there is no evidence that he was a habitual criminal. However the next actions of both him and his wife were certainly suspicious. Beginning in March 1830, before the death of Mrs Abercromby, they escorted Helen, the elder of Thomas’s two sisters-in-law, around various insurance offices, insuring her life for very short periods of two to three years, for large sums of money. The final total was £16000. The reasons the Wainewrights gave for taking out these insurances varied, none of them true, and the people appearing in the offices varied too. Sometimes it was Wainewright and Helen Abercromby, or Mrs Wainewright and Helen, sometimes Helen and her other sister Madeleine, and on one occasion apparently Madeleine impersonated Helen.
There was obviously something not very honest going on, costing £220 in premiums, and this from a family which was already living on borrowed money. It seems probable that both Wainewright and his wife knew what it was and quite possibly both Abercromby sisters too.
Despite the mortgage and loan in 1829 Wainewright’s dire need for money is shown by the fact that, in July 1830, Thomas granted a bill of sale on the entire contents of Linden House, furniture and effects, to one Sharpus, (who sounds like a character from Trollope), nominally a crockery merchant but in fact a money lender to whom Thomas owed £610. A Sheriff’s Officer took up residence in Linden House to see that the contents were not removed. Thomas also owed £200 to a friend, as well as money to his local tradesmen. The bill for £610 was allowed to stand over until 21 December, and by 12 December the family had moved to lodgings in Conduit Street, which was then quite fashionable. By now Helen had drawn up two wills, one in favour of her sister Madeleine and one in favour of her sister Eliza and Thomas Wainewright. She had also assigned two of the insurance policies, totalling £5000, to Thomas and another of £3000 to John Atkinson. To the solicitor who helped Helen make the first will she remarked that she needed to do this because she was going abroad.
On 21 December Helen Abercromby died. She fell ill on 15 December, and was seen daily by two doctors and dosed with a number of medicines. The final medicine she received was from the hands of Mrs Wainewright, after which she and her husband went out for a long walk. When they got back they were, it was said, astonished to be told that Helen was dead. Because of the symptoms there was an autopsy and the contents of the stomach were examined. Nothing untoward was discovered and the doctors allowed burial to take place.
This sounds damning to both Thomas and his wife and it seems that both of them must have been involved, as they were with the insurances. The obvious conclusion is that Helen was poisoned, and the symptoms are very similar indeed to those caused by strychnine poisoning, possibly preceded by antimony poisoning, which would have been in the form of tartar emetic, (although the doctor had prescribed this). Wainewright was never in fact accused of murdering Helen, although in the two subsequent insurance trials his wife was indirectly accused of it. Mrs Wainewright had been more openly involved with the insurance offices than her husband and two important documents were in her hand rather than his as they should have been.
It is interesting that many years later Thomas wrote that he was innocent of the forgery of which he had been accused (and perhaps by implication of other actions) because these had been committed, as he had discovered years after the event, by someone else very close to him, whom he could not accuse, because, ‘such were their relative positions that to have disclosed it would have made him infamous where any human feeling is manifest’. The only person who could be meant here is Mrs Wainewright. This supposition is naturally unprovable but it would explain the fact that he and his wife parted for good soon after Helen’s death.
Of course it is quite likely that what was being planned in 1830 was not a murder but an insurance fraud. When the Wainewrights finally realised that they could not stay in Linden House they may have thought of a plan whereby they would insure Helen’s life for a great deal of money and then go abroad – as Helen told the insurance clerk. Here she would “die” and the rest of the family claim the money.
Understandably, after the sudden death of Helen Abercromby the insurance offices resisted the claims for the policies to be paid out and Thomas as executor of the dead woman entered an action for recovery. The solicitor acting for Thomas was Robert Acheson, John Atkinson’s colleague. Atkinson agreed at this time, January 1831, to advance more money to Wainewright on the security of the £3000 policy mentioned above. This enabled him to pay off his debt to Mr Sharpus. Nine months later Wainewright sold Linden House and its contents for £3400 to John Atkinson, less what he already owed him. Thomas received £554.16.3 in cash for the sale. At this point, and before the insurance case could be heard, Thomas went to France, towards the end of October 1831. An early biographer says that Mrs Wainewright went to Putney with her remaining sister and her son.
Thomas presumably went abroad to avoid arrest for debt, until the insurance companies could be forced to pay up. The case was not heard until 1835, but by this time the Bank of England had discovered the forgery of the power of attorney, which complicated the trial. There were two insurance trials; in the first the prosecution tried to show that Helen Abercromby had been murdered (this at least connived at by Mrs Wainewright) and that the insurances were thus void. Much evidence was brought as to the different stories the various visitors to the insurance offices had told but even so the jury could not agree on a verdict. Wainewright’s solicitor, Acheson, entered another action against the insurance companies. At this trial the jury found against Wainewright on the grounds that Miss Abercromby had made an insurance in her name for the benefit of another, an illegal act.
Wainewright was now in a very precarious position, without the insurance money and with a warrant out for his arrest on the grounds of the forgery to obtain the capital of his annuity. He was safe as long as he stayed out of the jurisdiction of the British courts and he stayed abroad for another 18 months after the end of the insurance case in December 1835. By May 1837 he was back in this country, and he was arrested a few days later in June. The result of his trial on the charge of forgery was a forgone conclusion.
Due to a plea bargain he pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of ‘feloniously’ transferring money to himself by means of a forged power of attorney, on the understanding that no evidence would be given on the greater charges of feloniously forging and using a power of attorney, which were capital offences. He was found guilty on 5 July and the sentence, which he had been given to understand would be nominal if he accepted the bargain, was transportation for life. Five days later Wainewright was in the prison hulks at Portsmouth and by the end of July he was on the high seas on the way to Tasmania.
The last act
Wainewright arrived in Tasmania on 21 November 1837 after a long voyage of 129 days. He was 43 years old and had only eight years to live, dying on 17 August 1847. At first his life was difficult, working on the chain gang, as did all convicts, but he appears soon to have made himself trusted and died virtually a free man.
For the last few years of his life he made a probably meagre living as a portrait painter. More than 40 of his paintings still exist, of officers of the colony, their wives and sometimes their children. It was not often that Tasmanian society had a chance to commission an artist who had exhibited in the Royal Academy. The portraits are excellent and it seems possible that if he had persevered he could have become a successful portrait painter in England.
Thomas Wainewright, it would appear, was a great deal more than the ‘poisoner and art critic’ he has been called. He was certainly the latter, but he was also a man of letters, and an excellent artist. He may not even have been a poisoner at all.
Sources used: Gentleman’s Magazine; Chiswick Parish Registers; Linden House deeds nos 16 (29 Sept 1826), 17 (18 May 1829), 18 (20 May 1829), 21 (7 Oct 1831); Thomas Griffiths Wainewright Essays and Criticisms ed W Carew Hazlitt (1880); Janus Weathercock by Jonathan Curling (1938); Suburban Gentleman: The Life of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Poet, Painter & Poisoner by John Lindsey (1942); Wainewright in Tasmania by Robert Grassland (1954).
Peter Hammond is the editor of The Complete Peerage, author/editor of books on medieval history and co-author of Chiswick and Brentford in the Old Photographs Series published by Chalford Press in 1994 and 1996.