WIGRAM, Robert I (1744-1830), of Walthamstow House, Essex.
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Family and Education
b. 30 Jan. 1744, o.s. of John Wigram, master of the privateer Boyne, of Wexford by his cos. Mary, da. of Robert Clifford of Wexford.1 m. (1) 19 Dec. 1772, Catherine (d. 22 Jan. 1786), da. of John Brodhurst of Mansfield, Notts., 4s. 2da.; (2) 23 June 1787, Eleanor, da. of John Watts, sec. to the victualling office, of Southampton, wid. of Capt. Agnew, 13s. 4da. suc. fa. 1746; cr. Bt. 30 Oct. 1805.
Sheriff, Essex 1812-13.
Capt. 6 Loyal London vols. 1798, 2nd maj. 1799, lt.-col. 1803; dir. E.I. Dock Co. 1805, chairman 1810; auditor, British Fire Office from 1805.
Wigram’s was one of the sagas of business success in his day. His father was lost at sea when he was two. He was brought up at Wexford by his maternal uncle, a doctor. His mother apprenticed him to Dr Allen of Dulwich when he was eighteen. He arrived with about £200 and knew ‘not a single person’; at 20 he was a qualified surgeon like his grandfather. As such he engaged in the East India service, sailing as surgeon’s mate to India 1764-6 and as surgeon 1768-9 and 1770-72. He contracted ophthalmia while in China. Of this period he reminisced in 1822:
Although my accumulations were but small, I lived genteelly, made good connections and many friends, and gained a perfect knowledge of the trade of India and China, so that in 1772 I had great advantages as a drug merchant, the weakness of my eyes making me unfit for a surgeon. The Dutch and Germans being furnished with most of their wholesale drugs from London, my great knowledge turned my small capital to very great advantage, and ... afterwards I was a general merchant over the whole world, a brewer, shipbuilder, India husband, and a great promoter of Huddart’s patent for cables, etc.
His capital when he married in 1772 did not exceed £3,000, but his business at 4 White Lion Court, Cornhill from 1774 was that of ‘one of the greatest importers of drugs in England’. His first wife’s family were staunch unitarians and he was drawn into their religious orbit. About 1782 he bought Walthamstow House and moved his business to 3 Crosby Square where he subsequently took in Williams and Holder as partners.2
On his remarriage in 1787, Wigram took up residence at Notts Green, Low Layton, though he later returned to Walthamstow House. A year later he turned ship’s husband, buying the General Goddard from his trusted friend William Money; he built the True Briton in 1790. Subsequently he acquired 14 other ships. On 6 May 1803 he was appointed a member of the committee for constructing the East India docks. ‘He made his great fortune by obtaining shares of Indiamen and by degrees became ship’s husband to several ships’ and in due course ‘one of the most eminent ship’s husbands in the port of London: as well as sole or principal owner of several vessels trading to Bengal, Madras and Bombay’.3
Wigram was much talked of for his having ‘by his activity in business ... raised himself from a low situation to his present rank and a great fortune’, to quote the admiring diarist Farington, who reported him to be worth half a million in 1809. ‘He now has vast concerns—a large proportion of shares in Meux’s brewery, and paid £60,000 for the greater part of the property of the Blackwall Dock of Perry and Wells [in 1805].’ Elsewhere, Farington added that Wigram had
...£100,000 in Meux’s brewery concern and £130,000 in the Blackwall Dock ... a large business in drugs ... [and] above £100,000 in East India shipping and all this business he superintends ... He says occupation is to him necessary. Every morning he considers what he has to do that day, and having formed his plan of proceeding goes about it without seeming effort.
Farington further reported Wigram as saying of himself ‘that he should be miserable if in a morning he should not awake with his head full of ideas of business for the day, and that before he arises he forms his plan of proceeding throughout the day’, and added: ‘As he is now advanced in years  ... he every day at 2 o’clock puts on his night cap and lays down an hour, after which he eats a mutton chop and dines between six and seven o’clock’. He realized that he would not live to see his many children brought up, ‘but he has given opportunities for the older sons to bring forward the younger part’.4 In fact, although he desired his heir Robert Wigram II* to retire from the business partnership, three of his sons, William Wigram*, his favourite, John and Money became eminent in the business world and others flourished in the professions. Wigram himself retired from active control at Blackwell Yard in 1819. William took over his business interests.
Wigram, who fitted four ships as troop transports for government in 1795, was allegedly one of the organizers of the declaration of support for Pitt by the London merchants and bankers at Grocers’ Hall in that year,5 remaining a staunch supporter of Pitt and later a vice-president of the Pitt Club. In 1802 he entered Parliament on the interest of Lord Mount Edgcumbe for Fowey, having been disappointed in his hopes of an Irish seat and after an offer from Sir Christopher Hawkins at Tregony. He followed Pitt’s line towards the Addington administration, voting with him and against them on 3 June 1803 and in the crucial divisions of 15 Mar. and 23 and 25 Apr. 1804. He spoke on 20 May 1803 when war was imminent, according to the family historian, but no report of the speech has been found. (His only reported one, 2 July 1805, was to move the new writ for New Ross.) He afterwards complained that he came near to ruining his business ‘by Addington’s loan’: he disliked speculation. He went on to support Pitt’s second administration and opposed the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805. He was invariably listed Pittite and was rewarded later that year with a baronetcy, on which occasion ‘he wrote to Mr Pitt expressing that he returned his grateful thanks to his Majesty and so would his fifteen sons for the honour conferred upon him’. Family tradition connects the creation with Wigram’s staunch support for Pitt on one occasion, probably the censure of Melville, when Pitt, ascertaining who his friends were, asked apropos of Wigram, ‘Who was the little man in shorts?’. But Wigram himself applied to Pitt for a baronetcy on 6 May 1805, believing his political loyalty ‘well known’ to Pitt. He referred to his expense in command of a regiment of London volunteers, his nine East India ships and other business concerns, by which the navy benefited. His capital outlay was £300,000, he claimed. Subsequently he helped muster the attendance of Irish relatives and friends of government. He voted against the Grenville ministry on their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806.6
In 1806 he entered into electoral business. Lord Spencer reported that he was going to stand for his native Wexford. ‘He has also a sure seat for a borough in Cornwall for this Parliament and has put up two candidates for Leominster with some prospect of success.’ Sir Robert also assisted his kinsman the Marquess of Ely, whose cousin Charles Tottenham* had married his daughter Catherine, in his efforts to secure a seat for county Wexford, and to this end he negotiated with Lord Grenville and the Duke of Bedford. Earl Spencer introduced him to the latter as ‘a friend and connexion of the Marquess of Ely ... a very respectable man and of very extensive mercantile and commercial concerns in the City of London and ... seems extremely well disposed to support government’. Wigram had, however, been already informed by Grenville in an interview, ‘with perfect frankness’, that government was already engaged and unable to oblige Ely, and Bedford was unable to help Wigram, who went on to secure his own election at Wexford, his son’s at Fowey and that of his friends at Leominster.7
His vote of 30 Apr. 1806 was the only one recorded against the ministry—Wigram had no great inclination for politics. He was listed a staunch friend of the abolition of the slave trade. In 1807 he was engaged to return his seat for Wexford to its former Member and was prepared to come in for New Ross, but other arrangements were made. In 1810 he was Lord Ely’s intermediary with Perceval’s administration. He declined to stand for Essex, which he was invited to do. Thus he remained out of Parliament and returned to business, his chief love. As Farington reported, 6 Oct. 1811:
so much is his mind occupied in schemes for accumulation of property and such the habit of it that in conversation with Wm. Wells he has appeared to consider the latter strangely when he has expressed himself contented with that which he possessed and disinclined to further accumulation. In the night time Sir Robert has a light in his room with pen, ink and paper, and when any thought arises in his mind which he wishes to retain he immediately commits it to paper.8
He died 6 Nov. 1830.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. R. S. Wigram, Wigram Fam. on which this account is based, together with Wigram’s grandson’s memoir of him in H. Green and R. Wigram, Chrons. of Blackwall Yard, i. 50-55.
- 2. Cussans, Herts. Edwinstree, 173; Farington, v. 130, 278; Wigram, 16-17; Gent. Mag. (1787), i. 547.
- 3. Farington, vi. 98; Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 563.
- 4. Farington, v. 130, 278; vii. 42.
- 5. Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 563 claimed he was in the chair, but Samuel Bosanquet was. Nor was Wigram one of the committee.
- 6. Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ2100(8), Sandys to Hawkins, 23 June 1802; Farington, v. 278; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 6/64, 129; 7/1, 4.
- 7. Spencer mss, Spencer to Bedford, 27, 28 Oct., 10 Nov., Bedford to Spencer, 6 Nov. 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 400; Fortescue mss, Ely to Grenville, 20 Oct., reply 27 Oct. 1806.
- 8. Gent. Mag. (1830), ii. 563; Dacres Adams mss 10/10; NLI, Richmond mss 66/890; H. T. Ryall, Portraits of Eminent Conservatives (Sir R. Fitzwygram), pp. 1-2; Farington, vii. 42.