J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wooldridge

Thomas Wooldridge (often called Woolridge) returned to London by September 1773, having cultivated a relationship with Secretary of State Dartmouth and made contact with merchants in multiple North American ports. Through his father-in-law, William Kelly, he already had excellent connections among the London merchants investing in the American trade.

Kelly took ill and died in 1774, and Wooldridge, still in his mid-thirties, stepped up to become a spokesman for London’s American traders. In the months when Parliament voted on its Coercive Acts, that interest group was lobbying hard for a peaceful end to the American crisis.

The merchants’ strategy seems to have been to argue that a rupture with the colonies would be bad for their nation’s economy and their own—but that they shouldn’t have to reveal how much loss they were personally exposed to, lest their creditors lose faith in them. Wooldridge met with Edmund Burke in January 1775 and with Josiah Quincy, Jr., the next month. In 1778 he testified to Parliament about losses to American privateers.

By then Wooldridge was an alderman of the City of London, elected in 1776 for the district called the Bridge Ward Within (shown above in 1720). He remained in that post until February 1783, though not always comfortably.

In 1777 Wooldridge was chosen sheriff of London and Middlesex, but that September he declined the office because of financial reverses. That same year, he declared bankruptcy. Wooldridge found a sympathetic audience in London. The same issue of the London Magazine that reported his resignation and the ensuing debate went on to say:
Last Thursday at a meeting of the creditors of a North American merchant, the state of his affairs was laid before them, by which it appeared, that his present situation could not in the least degree be imputed to any misconduct of his own, but totally owing to the present unhappy state of affairs in America. It appeared there is now due to the house 70,000l. from that quarter, and that the demand upon the house is no more than about 27,000l. It was agreed that a letter of credit be given to the said gentleman for three years; that his affairs should be put under the inspection of five trustees, and that he should assist in getting in his effects, allowing him a stipend of 500l. per ann. for his time, trouble, and the maintenance of his family, house rent, &c.
That merchant may well have been Wooldridge himself.

That same year, Wooldridge spoke out against the prosecution of the Rev. William Dodd for forgery. Later he signed one of the petitions Lord George Gordon circulated protesting the granting of political rights to Catholics. When in 1780 that movement provoked anti-Catholic riots in London, however, Alderman Wooldridge sent letters to Lord Jeffery Amherst requesting troops to keep peace in his district.

Britain lost the war, of course, and that result sunk Wooldridge’s prospects, whether because his firm’s debts became uncollectible or because the peace revealed that his finances were far worse than he’d represented. Wooldridge was imprisoned for debt in 1783 and had to declare bankruptcy again the next year.

This time, the City wasn’t forgiving. To lose one fortune was a misfortune; to lose it again looked like mere carelessness, or worse. Furthermore, according to Ben Saunders’s article “The Swindler Detected,” the city government determined that Wooldridge had been maintaining himself by submitting false expenses, skimming fines, and forcing defendants into military service, pocketing recruiting fees.

After a raucous meeting of the aldermen, Wooldridge’s voters stripped him of his post, an unprecedented step that prompted him to sue to get it back. That effort failed, though his wife Susanna continued to receive substantial sums from the aldermen’s budget for years afterward, “independent of her husband, for the support of herself and her children.”

Wooldridge’s reputation was ruined from then on. The City Biography of 1799, which was full of unabashed gossip about London politicians, stated of Wooldridge:
He was at one period regarded as a mouth-piece to the City, and if he had possessed capacity equal to his effrontery, it is probable he would have made a considerable figure. Impudence made him, and caused him to be unmade, an Alderman; but he had no talents beyond those that commonly fall to the lot of Aldermen.
In the new U.S. of A., lawsuits over the property and debts of William Kelly, his sons, and Thomas Wooldridge continued for years, such as this 1795 case in Pennsylvania. As for Wooldridge himself, at some point he went back to America. He was in Boston by late 1793, when a couple named a child after him. And he died in Boston by 4 Jan 1794, as reported in the Columbian Centinel, and was buried out of King’s Chapel. The 6 January Boston Gazette reported the death “In this town, Thomas Wooldridge, Esq. aged 54, late an Alderman of the city of London.”

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