John Skirrow Wright

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Bust of John Skirrow Wright in Birmingham's Council House

John Skirrow Wright (1822 – 15 April 1880(1880-04-15)) was one of the prominent pioneers and social improvers of the 19th century in Birmingham, England; and inventor of the Postal Order. He was involved in many aspects of Birmingham's mid-Victorian life that were for the benefit of its citizens including the General Hospital, the Chamber of Commerce, The School of Art, the Children's Hospital and the early Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund and the Blue Coat School.

Biography[edit]

Born in 1822, he came to Birmingham in 1838 where he was employed at the button manufactory of Smith and Kemp, where his talents marked him for a swift ascendancy from traveller to partner in 1850. As with many of Birmingham's great patrons, he was a non-conformist and whilst sharing the profits of his enterprise, he nonetheless opposed factory legislation, arguing that it interfered with the individual employer.

Whilst President of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce he came up with the idea of Postal Orders, to enable the poorer people to have the same facility to buy goods and services by post. The rich had bank accounts and could write cheques. A delegation of the Birmingham Chamber went to the annual meeting of Chambers of Commerce in London and John Skirrow Wright presented the idea, complete with all the details on how it would work including all the Postal Order values proposed. At first London bankers were against the idea, thinking it would affect their businesses, and the idea was rejected. However, eventually the bankers realised that the people who would use postal orders were not their customers and therefore no threat to their business. Consequently, at the Annual Meeting a year later John Skirrow Wright presented the idea again and this time it was accepted and the Postal Order system was started exactly as Skirrow Wright and Birmingham Chamber had proposed.[1]

He became the first chairman of the Birmingham Liberal Association; and at the 1880 general election he stood for parliament as a Liberal in Nottingham. At the same time he had been helping the Liberal cause in re-elections at Birmingham. However, on the evening of his success, at a dinner held in his honour at the Council House, he died.

Burial[edit]

Skirrow Wright was subsequently interred at Key Hill Cemetery. The funeral took place on a hot spring day, 19 April 1880. Thousands of people lined the procession route, requiring over 300 policemen to keep the route clear. The funeral had been arranged by the Metallic Airtight Coffin Co Ltd of Great Charles Street and whilst the coffin was indeed metal lined, it was nevertheless created in oak with brass furniture. The inscription on it read "John Skirrow Wright, died April 15th 1880, aged 58 years". On the lid of the coffin were placed a number of wreaths made from white camellias, hyacinths, primulas, lily of the valley and maidenhair fern.

Following the open hearse were over 20 carriages in the cortege, which, as they set off were accompanied by the bell of Handsworth Old Church. Along the route curtains and blinds of houses were closed and shops had closed for the day out of respect. At the Recreation Ground in Burbury Street, a procession of representatives from the public bodies of Birmingham formed and walking four abreast also processed to the cemetery at Key Hill until it arrived at the gates, when it split into two so that the hearse passed through the throng. The first part of the funeral service was conducted at The People's Chapel, which was arrived at by 3.00 pm. After the service, the congregation left to the strains of "The Dead March" from Saul and from there onwards, the procession wended its way on foot to the last resting place of Wright. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the assembled people sang "Rock of Ages".

Memorial[edit]

After Skirrow Wright's death, the Mayor of Birmingham, Richard Chamberlain, convened a memorial committee. Many of the town's politicians favoured a portrait to hang in the new Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, or a bust to be placed in the Council House. Others, however, felt that the most appropriate memorial would be a public statue. A Mr Apperley wrote to the Birmingham Daily Post to argue that a bust in the Council House would rarely be seen except on special occasions. He stated: "We will have a statue if we buy it ourselves"; and made it clear that the people wanted "something whereby we can show our children the form of one we love so well and instil in them the good qualities he possessed. If ever a man deserved a statue Mr Wright does and if ever the working men want a statue to anyone they want one to him."

Eventually it was decided that a statue would be erected, and Francis Williamson was given the commission. It was wrought in marble and sited in front of the Council House, in Council House Square; and was unveiled by John Bright MP on 15 June 1883. The Birmingham Daily Mail reported that the pose was admirable, with Wright standing in a bold upright attitude, as was his wont when addressing an audience. The statue stood close to that to Joseph Priestley, and was joined by the statue to Queen Victoria in 1901. However the death of Edward VII saw Priestley and Wright moved to Chamberlain Place, so that the new memorial to Edward by Albert Toft could be placed next to his mother.

Inscription on the bust of John Skirrow Wright in Birmingham's Council House

In 1914 the architectural journal The Builder published a disparaging review of Birmingham's public monuments, criticising their execution and settings. It called the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain miserable, and Chamberlain Place "squirt square"; but it found the Skirrow Wright statue the least unsatisfactory example. Despite the use of such adjectives as "cold", "stiff" and "provincial", it conceded that, of all Birmingham's statues, this one displayed a simple and refined design, and found that the figure and the base displayed a certain amount of cohesion.

The statue remained in Chamberlain Place until 1951, when, as no suitable place for it could be found, it was moved to a storage depot, and eventually scrapped. However, in 1956 a bronze copy of the bust was made by William Bloye, Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Birmingham Civic Society. This was unveiled in a niche in the Council House on 13 September 1957, where it remains.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Birmingham Chamber of Commerce record books (1879/1880/1881)
  • Birmingham Daily Post Obituary April 1880

External links[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Saul Isaac
William Evelyn Denison
Member of Parliament for Nottingham
April 1880April 1880
With: Charles Seely
Succeeded by
Charles Seely
Arnold Morley