Isaac Wigney: the fall of a Brighton banker

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.

Print showing the nominations of Isaac Wigney and George Pechell as MPs for Brighton at the Town Hall, 1841 (FA202161)
Print showing the nominations of Isaac Wigney and George Pechell as MPs for Brighton at the Town Hall, 1841 (FA202161)

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.

Print showing Wigney's proposed harbour development, early 19th century, c1820s. HA912197)
Print showing Wigney’s proposed harbour development, early 19th century, c1820s. HA912197)

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.

Bank note issued by the Brighthelmstone Bank, c1841. (HA106904)
Bank note issued by the Brighthelmstone Bank, c1841. (HA106904)

 

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

 

9 Responses

  1. You mention “the Wigney family developed a proposal for an artificial harbour surrounding the Chain Pier in Brighton”. It was in fact published on Saturday March 12th 1842 in the Mechanics’ Magazine and it was written by George Adolphus Wigney, (my great x 3 grandfather), who was not one of William Wigney the bankers children, but his nephew and cousin to Isaac Newton Wigney. George Adolphus Wigney was brought up by William Wigney when orphaned as a child, but subsequently fell out with the family when he married against their wishes. He became a brewer and wrote several books, and papers on brewing. George Adolphus Wigney died in Brighton aged 78. He had ten children, and his sons have kept the Wigney name going in various parts of the world. There is no one left called Wigney from the banking branch.

  2. Further to my previous message, William Wigney did have a son called George, who was a brewer, but George Wigney and George Adolphus Wigney also a brewer, were two different people, and cousins, and as far as we know had little to do with each other.

  3. It’s fascinating to see that financial irregularities, scams and hiding assets isn’t new. Glas he wasn’t able to get away with it but saddened it seems to have so badly affected his family.

    • Lorna Logan

      Yes it did affect his family very sadly indeed. But his children would eventually have needed to go and speak to all concerned and listen to them, in order to come to terms, eventually with their memories, and make up their own minds about the truth of what happened.

      The historical Isaac Newton was not a bad man in himself. He was misled and a bit of a fantasist. For more information about him See “Glimpses of Our Ancestors in Sussex” by Charles Fleet Second Series : 1883 chapter 5 : Sussex families: Their Ups and Downs. .

    • At least in those days they didn’t have secret family offshore trusts.

    • As the Wigney family seems to be under spotlight, I thought I would add more information about them, especially as there seems to be an assumption that the Wigney family fled Brighton after the banking disaster of 1842, and Isaac Newton Wigney was Brighton’s first Member of Parliament.

      I have discovered there is virtually no one left in Britain with the Wigney name, but many more through the female line. The only ones left from Brighton are about six, descended from George Adolphus Wigney, (including a couple who were adopted) I don’t think this was due to what happened in Brighton. The Wigney name was always rare,but quite a few male Wigneys died young, through illness or accident. They originated from Yorkshire, probably from one man who we think was Viking (Y chromosome testing on a male Wigney). Although having said that, there is a town in Belgium called Wigny and there are people in Belgium called Wigny.

      There are many more living in Australia, America, Canada etc. who are descended from George Adolphus Wigney.

      The original family from Yorkshire also seem to have disappeared. Although there may be one or two left who didn’t come from the Brighton line.

      None of Isaac Newton Wigneys children fled Brighton, instead his five daughters married ‘well’ (wealthy members of the landed gentry) Of his two sons, one died young while serving in the army in India, the other Cecil, fathered the last Wigney to live in Brighton, Clarence Robert Wigney known as Major Bob Wigney, who died in 1959 aged 68. Bob Wigney was a successful handicapper. Race course auctioneer and Clerk of the Scales. He had been Clerk of the course at Cheltenham, Folkestone, Plumpton, Pershore and Hawthorn Hill. A race known as the Bob Wigney Handicap Hurdle runs annually. Bob Wigney had one son who died aged 14 and that was the end of the Wigney name from the banking branch of the family.

      I don’t think George Adolphus Wigney would have been influenced by the banking disaster, he fell out with his Uncle William and cousins when he chose to marry Mary Ann Wilmshurst, the daughter of a local silversmith and clockmaker, who came from German refugee stock and was fiercely Evangelical. She was considered inferior to their expectations.

      The ‘Times’ archives holds much information about the collapse of the Wigney bank and the court proceedings of that time, and as a further point of interest, Isaac Newton Wigney was married to Caroline Walter, whose family founded the ‘Times’ newspaper and owned it until 1908.

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