The Swindler Detected : Embezzlement, lies and merchant adventurers in the late 1700s

Ben Saunders

July 14, 2015




Thomas Wooldridge (d. 1794/5) was an Alderman, a merchant, hanger-on to the Earl of Dartmouth and one time resident of 11 The Crescent, Minories.Click here to see the 100 Minories excavations of the Crescent, click here to read about other occupiers of the Crescent, or click here to find out about the ‘Thomas Wooldridge Biography Project‘, the research project for which this article has been produced.

 

Wooldridge is described in The City Biography of 1799 in the following terms:

“Impudence made him and caused him to be unmade an Alderman… if he had possessed capacity equal to his effrontery, it is probable he would have made a considerable figure”1.

The note on him also points out that he was the only Alderman in the history of London (up to 1799 at least) to be forcibly removed from his office- usually the honourific Alderman title is for life. Yet he clearly had some ability. One does not acquire large landholdings in Staffordshire or 5000 acres of the colony of East Florida 2 without at least some effort, although admittedly the latter appears to have been only the matter of knowing the right individuals. During his zenith, he exchanged letters with the Commander in Chief of the Forces, Lord Amherst and even wrote a particularly obsequious open letter to the King through the London Gazette. However this outwardly confident and exuberant exterior, covered a fraud, embezzler and a cheat.

 

From Tottenham to East Florida

 

In 1767, when living near Tottenham, he used his influence with Rockingham (the Prime Minister) and the Earl of Dartmouth to buy 5000 acres of the new colony of East Florida (now just Florida). He also persuaded the Ministry for Trade and Colonies to appoint him Surveyor General, Provost Marshall of St Augustine (the capital) and Collector of the Quit Rents3. With these colonial administration positions under his belt, Wooldridge sailed for St Augustine in late 1767, with around 30 servants and if he is to be believed, all the necessary tools for colonizing his land. Wooldridge spent enough time in East Florida to marry a local woman and to swop his land with his neighbour for a piece of equal size4. However it is clear from both his own accounts and from those of the other members of the administration that he spent little time in East Florida and was not well liked- the governor Grant described his as “A mean low poor creature, despised by everybody.” He appears to have spent much time in New York, presumably trying to extend his trading network. It is at this point that he and his then associate William Kelly (the father of Henry, who died in 1776) are listed as tobacco merchants of New York and London5. He also meets an escaped slave woman who has astounded New York society with her untutored but extremely nuanced poetry. Due to his near complete absence from East Florida, the new governor Moultrie removed Wooldridge from all of his positions during 1772. At this point Wooldridge returned to London from New York and complained to his patrons, who forced his re-instatement. Wooldridge never returned to East Florida after this, although he continued to gain the salary for Collector of the Quit Rents until 17846.

 

Pulling the Wooldridge over their eyes

 

Having fallen into large scale debts, partly due to the American Revolution removing a large amount of his trading base in North America (although his holdings in East Florida survived until that region was returned to the Spanish in 1783) Wooldridge came up with a series of schemes to pay these off. Having declared himself and his trading partner Henry Kelly bankrupt in 1777, he first attempted to glean money from HM Treasury, claiming just over £15000 for a ship and its cargo which had been commandeered from the Carolinas during the initial revolt in the Colonies. This sum was unsurprisingly refused by the Treasury7. It appears that it was at this point that Wooldridge turned to using his Aldermanship to make small but numerous fraudulent claims- receipts for legal advice of a few pounds that was never actually given, the embezzlement of funds for wounded sailors and soldiers, and many other small expenses. There were also claims of deliberately affecting the outcome of trials (one recorded on Old Bailey Online8) so that the defendant was forced to join the local militia- for which Wooldridge was paid a recruitment fee. He was also active during the Gordon Religious Riots of 1780, during which he was in repeated correspondence with Lord Amherst, the Chief of the Army in charge of national defense who was coordinating the military response. These series of letters illustrate Wooldridge’s toadying nature, with long passages of flowery language praising Amherst, returned by single sentence notes from Amherst. The final exchange contains a letter from Wooldridge asking in the fullest terms whether he should write a letter of thanks to the King. Amherst sent back a terse reply telling Wooldridge not to9. A week later Wooldridge’s open letter thanking the King for preserving Tower Ward appeared in the London Gazette10.

 

Charged: Fraud, Embezzlement and Misappropriation

 

It is not hard to see why he built up such a range of detractors, even without the petty embezzlement recorded in his hearing by the Court of Aldermen in 1783, at which point he was already in Clerkenwell debtors prison. The charges of fraud, embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds brought against him were all proven, despite his rather pathetic pleading of ignorance11. Clearly at this point he had lost nearly all chance to clear his debt- but gambled on a final throw of the dice. His second wife, Susannah -Kelly’s sister- sent in claims on the Treasury for the land lost by Wooldridge when East Florida was returned to Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The claim listed £5000 for the 5000 acres he owned along with £900 for the cost of transporting and paying 30 servants and all the tools needed for colonization12. As the whole colony was based on speculation, with no official government financial backing, this request was again refused. With this Wooldridge appears to have had no other options. No records exist of him after this point. It is highly likely that he ended his days in a debtors prison in 1794 or 1795.

 

Footnotes

1. City Biography of London 1800 (2nd Edition) p115-6.

2. East Florida as a British Province 1763-1784: Mowat, p60.

 3. East Florida as a British Province 1763-1784: Mowat, p60, 163, 165.

4. Letters and documents between Wooldridge and HM Treastury, National Archives.

5. Joshua Johnson’s Letterbook 1771-1774 Letters From A Merchant in London To His Partners in Maryland, London Record Society 1979.

6. Journal of the Ministry of Trade and Plantations 1778-9.

7. Letters and documents between Wooldridge and HM Treasury, National Archives.

8. Old Bailey Online record: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17810912-77&div=t17810912-77&terms=wooldridge#highlight

9. Letters between Wooldridge and Amherst, London Metropolitan Archive.

10. London Gazette 1780.

11. Court of Aldermen Repertory Roll 186, London Metropolitan Archive.

12. Wooldridge letters to Treasury, National Archives.

 

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