Thomas Griffiths Wainewright

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Thomas Griffiths Wainewright
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.jpg
Self-portrait, 1825
Born Thomas Griffiths Wainewright
(1794-09-00)September 1794
Richmond, Surrey, England
Died 17 August 1847(1847-08-17) (aged 52)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (October 1794 – 17 August 1847) was an English artist, author and journalist who is widely believed to have been a serial killer and multiple poisoner. He was transported to the Australian penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) for forgery, where he became a portraitist for Hobart's elite.

His life captured the imagination of renowned literary figures such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Early life[edit]

Wainewright was born into affluence and London literary society in Richmond, London, England[1] but was orphaned when he was very young. His father's identity has never been firmly established. He may have been an apothecary, although it is more likely that he was a lawyer and came from a family that practised the law over many years. His mother died giving birth to him, but of her interesting background we have a very complete picture. She was Ann, the daughter of Ralph Griffiths (1720-1803), for many years the editor of The Monthly Review. Thomas and his father lived in an extended family situation with his maternal grandfather at Linden House at Turnham Green in what was then London's rural periphery. Griffiths was well connected in the literary world and Thomas must have profited from the society that visited Griffiths' home. When Griffiths wrote his will in 1803 Thomas's father was already dead and he himself died later in that year. The child then came under the care of his maternal uncle, George Griffiths. He was educated at the expense of his distant relative, Charles Burney, the headmaster of the Greenwich academy that Wainewright attended. His background was most advantageous and his early adulthood was the evidence that he profited from it.

Wainewright subsequently served as an officer in the guards and as cornet in a yeomanry regiment.

Literary career[edit]

In 1819 he embarked on a literary career, and began to write for The Literary Pocket-Book, Blackwood's Magazine and The Foreign Quarterly Review. He is, however, most closely linked with The London Magazine, to which, from 1820 to 1823, he contributed some clever but flippant art criticism and articles under the noms-de-plume of Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot and Cornelius van Vinkbooms. His success in publication would have been assisted by his famous grandfather. Wainewright was a friend of Charles Lamb who thought well of his writing and in a letter to Bernard Barton, styles him "the kind, light-hearted Wainewright." He also practised as an artist and was trained by John Linnell and Thomas Phillips. He exhibited at the Royal Academy. He made illustrations for the poems of William Chamberlayne, and from 1821 to 1825 he exhibited narratives based on literature and music at the Royal Academy, including a Romance from Undine, Paris in the Chamber of Helen and the Milkmaid's Song. None of these works survives. In the 1960s the controversial author Donald McCormick would also discuss that Wainewright was a friend of William Corder, the murderer of Maria Marten in the Red Barn Murder in Polestead, England in 1827. The two met when Corder visited London and joined some intellectual circles.[citation needed]

Marriage and family life[edit]

On 13 November 1817, Wainewright married Eliza Frances Ward. Wainewright had inherited £5250 from his grandfather, invested in his name. He received £200 a year. Following his marriage, Wainright placed most of his inheritance in trust for Eliza. However, his extravagant lifestyle landed him in debt. On two separate occasions, Wainwright forged signatures to receive power of attorney and be able to withdraw large sums from her account, first in 1822 and then in 1824. The second time left the account empty.[1]

In 1828, the Wainewrights were in financial trouble and forced to move in with an elderly uncle, George Edward Griffiths. He soon died, leaving his house and a small monetary inheritance to his nephew Thomas. In 1830, Mrs. Abercromby was convinced to settle her will in favor of Eliza, her daughter from her first marriage, instead of her daughters from the second marriage. Wainewright's mother-in-law died days later. Helen and Madeleine Abercromby, Eliza's half-sisters, moved in with the Wainewrights. Helen died ten months later, at only 20 years old.[1]


Owing to his extravagant habits—he was somewhat of a dandy—Wainewright's affairs became deeply involved. In 1830 he insured the life of his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie with various companies for a sum of £18,000, and, when she died in the December of the same year, payment was refused by them on the ground of misrepresentation. Wainewright retired to Boulogne in July Monarchy France, where he was seized by the authorities as a suspected person and imprisoned for six months. He had in his possession a quantity of strychnine, and it was widely suspected that he had poisoned not only his sister-in-law and his uncle, but also his mother-in-law and a Norfolk friend, although this was never proved.[1] He returned to London in 1837, but was soon arrested on a charge of forgery thirteen years before and a transfer of stock. It would seem that the authorities used the tenable case of forgery to transport him for life for the unprovable murders.[2] He was sent to Hobart Town, Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) on the Susan, arriving 21 November 1837.[1] While in prison he was asked if he poisoned his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie, to which he replied: "Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles."[3]

Late life and legacy[edit]

The Cutmear Sisters, Jane and Lucy, c. 1842, National Gallery of Australia

During his ten years in the colony he did eventually enjoy a certain amount of freedom. After initially working on the road gang he became an orderly in the hospital and he was able to work as an artist and painted portraits in the homes of his subjects. Wainewright completed over one hundred portraits on paper using coloured wash, pencil and ink during his years in Hobart. They survive not only in public museums, but also in private collections throughout Australia, some having remained in the families of his sitters. They depict the officialdom, professionals and members of the elite, husbands, wives and children, of early Hobart. Many, particularly those of women and children, are in a Romantic Regency style with the sitters somewhat languidly posed if the portraits show more than heads and shoulders. Wainewright has been summarily dismissed as a mawkishly sentimental painter of women, and although the female portraits do not comprise the greater part of the body of his work, among the most distinctive of his paintings are portraits of women and children. Many of these Tasmanian portraits are of considerable importance in the documentation of the colony's historically significant figures. A self-portrait was completed in this period. Wainewright had a conditional pardon granted on 14 November 1846;[1] he died of apoplexy in the Hobart Town hospital on 17 August 1847. He is buried in an unknown grave.

The Essays and Criticisms of Wainewright were published in 1880, with an account of his life, by W. Carew Hazlitt; and the history of his crimes suggested to Charles Dickens his story "Hunted Down" and to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton his novel Lucretia. His personality, as artist and poisoner, has interested latter-day writers, notably Oscar Wilde in "Pen, Pencil and Poison" (Fortnightly Review, Jan. 1889), and A. G. Allen, in T. Seccombe's Twelve Bad Men (1894).[4] Wainewright has been the subject of three biographical studies: Janus Wethercock by Jonathan Curling (Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1938) and Robert Crossland's Wainewright in Tasmania (OUP, Melbourne, 1954), and more recently his life and writings, and that which has been written about him were the basis of the poet Andrew Motion's creative biography, Wainewright the Poisoner (2000). It is likely, as suggested by Havelock Ellis, that Wainewright was never normal after the hypochondriac period of his life when he was on the verge of insanity if not actually insane.

Arthur Conan Doyle also mentions (or possibly mentions) Wainewright in the story The Adventure of the Illustrious Client as "no mean artist", but spells his name without the middle "e".

Wainewright was the subject of the seventeenth episode of the television show Thriller, "The Poisoner" (aired 10 January 1961), with Murray Matheson playing the role of the killer (given the fictional name Thomas Edward Griffith) and featuring Sarah Marshall as his wife.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f V. W. Hodgman (1967). "Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794 - 1847)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2. MUP. pp. 558–559. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  2. ^ Katherine D. Watson (2006), Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, Continuum Publishing, p 109. ISBN 978-1-85285-503-1
  3. ^ Oscar Wilde, Pen, Pencil and Poison: A Study In Green, Kessinger Publishing (2004), p 17. ISBN 978-1-4191-4069-3
  4. ^  Seccombe, Thomas (1899). "Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 437–439. 


  • Peter Macinnis (2005). Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox and the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing. pp. 18–20. ISBN 1-55970-761-5. 
  • Ian H. Magedera (2014). Outsider Biographies; Savage, de Sade, Wainewright, Ned Kelly, Billy the Kid, Rimbaud and Genet: Base Crime and High Art in Biography and Bio-Fiction, 1744-2000. Amsterdam and New York, Rodopi. pp. 115–119 and 121–149. ISBN 978-90-420-3875-2. 
  • Donald McCormick, The Red Barn Mystery:some new evidence on an old murder (South Brunswick, New York: A.S.Barnes and Co., 1967).

Online sources[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.