On 2 July 1841 Isaac Newton Wigney and Captain George Brooke Pechell were declared Members of Parliament for Brighton. If this print showing their nomination at Brighton Town Hall is to be believed, the event was greeted with great popular enthusiasm.
Both men were members of the Whig party, and both had previously served as MPs. Pechell, a former naval officer, had already been elected to the seat in 1835, and would go on to hold it until his death in 1860. Wigney had previously been elected in 1832, but had been defeated in the election of 1837. His re-election in 1841 marks the only occasion in which a Brighton MP has regained his or her seat.
Whigs were often seen as the more reformist party in Parliament, and this explains why the scene is depicted as a polite popular revolution, with banners in support of ‘reform’ and the ‘people’. Yet in spite of the acclaim, Wigney’s political career was short-lived: within a year he was disgraced, declared bankrupt, and forced from office.
Born in 1795, Wigney’s family had initially made its fortunes in brewing, principally through the efforts of Isaac’s father, William Wigney. In the early 19th century, William Wigney diversified his business interests. He was one of the leading investors in the redevelopment of Shoreham harbour in the 1810s, and the Wigney family developed a proposal for an artificial harbour surrounding the Chain Pier in Brighton. The Brighton harbour was never constructed, but the proposal bears some similarities to the present day Marina.
William Wigney’s other main interest lay in banking. In 1794 he founded the Brighthelmstone Bank in partnership with another brewer, the Quaker Richard Peters Rickman. The Brighthelmstone Bank was initially successful, and one of the few local banks to survive the financial crisis of 1825.
When William Wigney died in 1836, his sons George and William seem to have taken over the brewing business, while Isaac and his brother Clement inherited the bank. This proved disastrous. At a time of no state support for failing banks, the Brighthelmstone Bank suddenly collapsed in March 1842. Visitors to the bank’s premises in East Street were greeted by a sign informing that: ‘Messrs. Wigney & Co. deeply regret the painful necessity of suspending their payments.’
Numerous local people were left in financial ruin, and the Wigneys were personally blamed for the failure. With a claim of bankruptcy made against him, Isaac Wigney was forced to resign his seat, less than a year after his election.
In the following claims made against Isaac’s estate, bank notes issued by the Brighthelmstone Bank were used as evidence against him. Two of these are now in the collection of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, and were apparently presented in proceedings made in Brighton Town Hall in November 1842. Wigney’s electoral triumph the previous year must have seemed a long time ago.
During the bankruptcy hearings, Wigney was repeatedly questioned about personal property he was suspected of having hidden away from his creditors. These allegations were never proven, but they were sufficiently serious to leave many to suspect dishonesty. This damage to his reputation was compounded by Wigney’s confessions of financial mismanagement. As recounted in Peter Jenkins’ Country Bank Failures: the Brighthelmston Bank — 1842 (2008), Wigney admitted that he already knew the bank was heading for collapse at the time of his election in 1841, and he had essentially been insolvent for the last six years.
Isaac Wigney died two years later, on 8 February 1844. His failures seem to have blighted the lives of those around him. Family historians researching the Wigney line have noted that the family seems to have left Brighton soon after the bank’s collapse, probably as a result of becoming so unpopular in the town, and many of them later emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia. The Whig party also seems to have been embarrassed by Wigney’s failures. It failed to enter a candidate in the by-election following Wigney’s resignation, and the seat was won by the Conservative Lord Alfred Hervey on 6 May 1842.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer