Remembering the Past Australia

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794–1847)

As published in the Truth (Brisbane), 23 October 1927.



The artist was Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, portrait painter of note, journalist, forger, poisoner, and convict, who rotted under the “model” penal system of Port Arthur, and whose body decayed under the ravages of drugs taken in a vain endeavor to sweeten the bitterness of a broken soul.


Portrait of a Young Man (Self-portrait), Thomas Wainewright (1794-1847)

Wainewright was born in Chiswick, England, in October, 1794. Having lost both his parents in infancy, he was adopted by his grandfather and brought up at Linden House in London. On leaving school, where he had quickly shown remarkable skill as a draughtsman, his position at Linden House served him as an introduction to literary and artistic circles — his grandfather was the publisher of the famous Monthly Review. He adopted the affected tone of the youthful dilettante and for some time studied in the studio of a prominent portrait painter and an Associate of the Royal Academy, but, tiring of his apprenticeship, he decided to enter — of all contrasts— the army.

After a brief experience there in which he distinguished himself for little other than his taste for whisky punch, he resigned his commission and adopted journalism. He wrote with fluency on such fulsome topics as “Sentimentalities on the Fine Arts,” “Dogmas for Dilettantes,” and froth of that fashionable nature. He was a frequent contributor to the original London Magazine and his connection with the “London” brought him into contact with literary lights of the age in the persons’ of Hood, Cunningham. Hazlitt, De Quincy, Charles, Lamb, and, later, Dickens.

His insinuating manner gave some of these giants of literature a genuine regard for the young trifler with brush and pen, but the verdict of the majority of his contemporaries resigned him to his fate.

Wine and Women

He is described about this time as an overdressed young man, “his white hands bespangled with regal rings, with an undress military air and the conversation of a smart, lively, heartless, voluptuous coxcomb.” He has attributed to him from other directions an effeminate manner, thick sensual lips, and a wavering voice which seldom arose above a whisper. 

Soon after he began writing for the “London” (1820-23) Wainewright took unto himself a little more balance and sobriety of thought; and, renewing his patience with the studio, he was successful in being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, 1822, 1824, and 1825.

He excelled not in oils, but in crayon drawing. Treasured in the British Museum print room today (1927) is one of his random sepia drawings.

By means of occasional work with his pen and pencil and now and again, a smart piece of what today would be called “urging,” in the art business, Wainewright managed to drag together the necessities of his life. Also assisting him was an annuity of £200 drawn from a legacy from his grandfather.

His normal expenses were increased in 1821, when he married the daughter of a widow of Mortlake. Later, at Great Marlborough-street he begun to entertain in no mean manner the literary and artistic luminaries of his acquaintance.

His cellar was a town topic.

Financial pressure became serious, and in 1826, in the names of the trustees of his grandfather’s estates he forged an order upon the Bank of England to pay him a part of the capital sum, to the interest of which he was alone entitled. Next year he made a final venture as an author by the publication of a little volume of 47 pages or so on literary topics, at least 40 of which are religiously devoted to sneers at rival authors.

Strange Death

Naturally, that did nothing for him financially, and in 1825 it was with alacrity that he accepted an invitation from his uncle, George Edward Griffiths, to return, with his wife, to his childhood home of Linden House. 

Within a year of their going there Griffiths died “suddenly” and the house and property passed to Wainewright who, by this time, was head over ears in debt.

He then arranged for his wife’s mother and her two half-sisters. Helen and Madeleine Abercromby, to make their home at Linden House. In 1830 he insured Helen’s life for sums of £2000 and £2000 respectively in the Palladium and Eagle insurance offices, the insurance in both cases covering only a short period of from two to three years.

Other negotiations of a similar kind were “obstructed” by a suspicion in the mind of Helen’s mother, but she conveniently died, also very suddenly, shortly after the first insurance schemes were set afloat.

Wainewright then quadrupled the amount insured and moved temporarily from Linden House to lodgings.

There on December 21, the day on which a bill of sale on his effects had been allowed to stand over, Helen Abercomby died in frightful agony, the symptoms of a brief illness being described by her nurse as identical with those of her mother and Griffiths.

The poison was administered to her in a jelly.

Wainewright’s foresight failed him in only one respect — and that one, as is usual, was fatal. Owing to the many suspicious circumstances attending the proposals made in the name of Miss Abercromby the insurance offices refused to meet the policies, and it was with the utmost difficulty that Wainwright was able to raise a loan of £1000 on the security of his claims.


The refusal of the companies to pay the £18,000 for which he had eventually managed to insure Helen, placed him in an extremely embarrassed position, despite the £1000, and he accordingly went to Boulogne on a visit to a Norfolk gentleman who was a great friend of his.

While he was there, wishing to revenge himself on the insurance companies, he induced his friend to insure his life with the Palladium office for £3000. As soon as the necessary formalities had been gone through and the policy executed, he poisoned his friend by dropping some crystals of strychnine into his coffee as they were sitting together one evening after dinner. 

He himself did not gain any monetary advantage by doing so, but he revenged himself on one of the offices.

There is no doubt either that strychnine was the poison he used in his other crimes, and he wan known to carry another type of poison in one of the rich rings adorning his beautiful hands.

His friend died the next day before Wainewright’s eyes, and for the next six years his career is a blank, although he is known to have spent a considerable time in prison in Boulogne.

In June and again in December, 1835, Wainewright’s case against the insurance companies for non-payment was tried before Lord Abinger in the Court of the Exchequer, and at the conclusion of the second trial the jury (who had previously disagreed) found promptly for the companies on the grounds of misrepresentation, and of Helen Abercomby having no real interest in the insurance.

In 1837 he returned to London as quietly as he could for he knew that recognition would mean trouble with the police. Memories of a woman him back.

He stayed , at one of the hotels at Convent Gardens and an essential secrecy made him keep to his room and see that the window blinds were well drawn. But he was unmasked by the merest twinkle of fate.

A sudden noise in the street one afternoon attracted his attention, and, forgetful for the moment, he pulled one of the blinds aside. Some one outside called out: “That’s Wainewright the bank forger.”

At the Old Bailey in July, 1837, he pleaded guilty to the forgery and he was sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for life.

He was taken first to grim Newgate Prison, and , there, from the rest of a study of Oscar Wilde, entitled “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” we find the ridiculous affectation of his youth in an even increased degree, though tinged a little with an older bitterness.

“While he was in Newgate,” writes Wilde, “Dickens, Macready, and Hablot Browne came across him by chance. They had been going over the prisons of London, and In Newgate they suddenly caught sight of him. He met them with a defiant stare, Forster tells us, but Macready was horrified to recognise a man familiarly known to him in former years, and at whose table he had dined.”

“His cell was for some time, a kind of fashionable lounge. Many men of letters went down to visit their old literary comrade.”

“To the agent of an insurance company who was visiting him one afternoon, and who thought he would improve the occasion by pointing out that, after all, crime was a bad speculation, he replied: ‘Sir, you city men enter on your speculations and take the chances of them. Some of your speculations succeed, some fall. Mine happen, to have failed, yours happened to have succeeded.”

“That is the only difference, sir, between my visitor an me. But, sir. I will tell you one thing in which I have succeeded to the last. I have been determined through life to hold the position of a gentleman. I have always done so. I do still.”

“It is the custom of this place that, each of the inmates of a cell shall take his morning’s turn of sweeping it out. I occupy a cell with a bricklayer and a sweep, but they never offer me the broom.”

When a friend reproached him with the murder of Helen Abercomby, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very ugly ankles.”

The super poseur!


“From Newgate,” continues Wilde, “he was brought to the hulks at Portsmouth, and sent from there to Van Diemen’s Land with 300 other convicts. He described the ship in a letter to a friend as “a moral sepulchre,” and spoke bitterly about the ignominy of “the companion of poets and artists being put in irons,” and being compelled to associate with “country bumpkins.””

Crime is a great leveller.

But worse than association with country bumpkins was awaiting the exotic aesthete of English culture. The chain gangs, the treadmills, the blood-bespattered “triangle,” and the coffin-like punishment cells of eternal night of Port Arthur Gaol on Tasman’s Peninsula were waiting to receive him.

The Peninsula was a place especially adapted by nature, plus the more cruel efforts of man, to be the site of a convict establishment. Its only communication with the mainland is by narrow Eaglehawk Neck which was closely guarded by soldiers, constables, and kennelled watchdogs of ferocious nature, whose chains reached from one to another, affording additional security against the escape of the suffering wretches against whom they acted as a fierce wall between a living death and existence 

To the south of the Neck, stretches the open ocean, a place of tremendous surf leading nowhere to the escapee of those days, and to the north an arm of Storm Bay, bounded on one side by the inhospitable and tangled forests of Fraycinet Peninsula, and on the other by the old road leading to the penal settlement, was infested by schools of sharks bred in abnormal numbers by a charitable authority.

The scene was frowned upon by the peak to be known to history as Brady’s Lookout from its use by the bushranger Brady as a scene for laying out his plan of escape from Port Arthur’s horrors.

Brady and three others eventually seized a boat and reached the Derwent through Storm Bay’s mighty surge. Well-mounted on horses and armed with muskets, they scoured the colony. Murder, pillage, and arson rendered every homestead a scene of dismay. Many settlers abandoned their farms and others perforated their farmhouses with loopholes. All the precautions of a state of war were adopted.

One of Brady’s most during exploits was the taking of the town of Sorell, now a prosperous farming centre, and the taking of the local gaol. He released all the prisoners, many of whom joined his gang.

He continued his plundering through the bush homes into the North, until, driven to concerted action by his crimes, settlers and soldiers scattered over the entire colony in one huge man-hunt, the Governor himself taking the field. After, a month’s hunt Brady, wounded in the leg, was over taken by soldiers and captured with out a struggle.

During the two following years 103 people, suffered death, and Brady was one of them.

At one sitting of the court at Hobart Town 37 were sentenced to death, and of these 23 were executed in the course of a fortnight, nine one morning being hanged at a spot where stands today a peaceable ship-chandler’s on the Hobart waterfront.

Now, in the place of grisly corpses swinging on creaking gibbets, partly-made sails swing in a high loft for the yachts that skim the holiday waters of the Derwent.

The conduct of Hobart Town itself, although the dread of the chain gang had a trifle improved the convicts, was not much better than ten years or so before, when the Governor used to attend divine service on Sunday mornings with a kept woman on his arm.


The Western Australian (Perth), 24 November 1934

The illustration is from a self-portrait of Wainewright, the only likeness of him to existence. He drew it on the back of a hospital report to 1843, when he was a warder to the public hospital at Hobart: he gave it to one of the doctors, after having entitled it, “Head of a convict, very characteristic of ‘low cunning and revenge.” 

Cat as Friend

The moral state of the convict population was very bad. Drunkenness was common. The management of the Hobart Town Gaol, was faulty, largely because the superintendent himself was frequently in a state of intoxication. In the prison the moral condition of the prisoners, men, and women, was in the worst possible state

Such was the result of the earlier practice of selecting the worst and the most profligate convicts from Sydney for transfer to Tasmania. The lash was the panacea for all minor offences. “It mends their morals, never mind the pain.” was the maxim, but apparently it was one of those maxims that do not work in practice. 

It was to such a land and to such conditions of life that the gentleman, and pleasure-loving Wainewright, who objected to associating with country bumkins, found himself compelled to live for the rest of his life, and, fortunately, for him the story of his early personal sufferings together with those of his hundreds of companions, are lost to history.

He is last heard of living in a condition of assigned freedom and executing a number of pastels and water colors at Hobart after a transfer from the Peninsula.

As well as all his love for art Wainewright’s prison sufferings did not seem to have lost for him his love for poisoning. Two cases of death among people who offended him in his confinement are attributed to his hand.

In 1852 he died of apoplexy attributed to opium eating, with which he is said to have consoled himself after having been refused a ticket-of-leave. 

His sole living friend at the time was a cat.

Wainewright’s case has attracted an immense amount of notice from the modern criminologists of the psychological schools, and, his life, too, has inspired some well-known fiction. In Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lucretia” he appears as Varney, and Lucretia Clavering is considered to be his wife. The sight of him in Newgate Gaol and what he subsequently learned of his life is assigned as a suggestion to Charles Dickens for his melodramatic novelette, “Hunted Down.”

Mystery Painting

A few years ago on three walls of the oldest inn in Hobart, the Old Bell, were found under several layers of wallpaper a series of pictures in oils from a brush obviously skilled.

Perhaps, in the light of the fact that the Old Bell was at its most flourishing period during the time of his life in Hobart Town, those works by an unknown might he attributed to him. However, the old building has since been completely wrecked and in its place now stands suites of modern business offices.

As published in The Courier (Brisbane), 17 November 1856.

It is a copy of the memorial he forwarded to the then Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, praying the indulgence of a ticket-of-leave, and may form a valuable note to any forthcoming edition of the famous novel which is founded upon Wainewright’s career. We have preserved his capitals, spelling, and pointing.


To His Excellency Sir John Eardly Wilmot,
Bart., Lieut-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land
&c. &c. &c.

The humble petition of F. Griffiths Wainewright praying the indulgence of a Ticket-of-Leave. 

To palliate the boldness of this application he offers the statement ensuing. That seven years past he was arrested on a charge of Forging and Acting on a power of attorney to sell stock 13 years previous. Of which (though looking for little credence) he avers his entire Innocence. He admits knowledge of the actual Committer, gained tho’ some years after the fact. Such however were their respective positions that to have disclosed it would have made him infamous where any human feeling is manifest. Nevertheless by his Counsels’ direction He entered tho plea of NOT Guilty to allow him to adduce the “circonstance attenuante” vzt.: That the money (£5,200) appropriated was, without quibble, his own, derived from his parents. An hour before his appearing to plead he was trepanned (thro’ the just, but deluded, Govr. of Newgate) into withdrawing his plea, by a promise, in such case, of a punishment merely nominal. The Same purporting to issue from ye Bank Parlour, but, in fact, from the Agents of certain  Insurance Compies., interested to a heavy amount (1£6,000) in compassing his legal non-existence. He pleaded “Guilty” and was forthwith hurried, stunned with such ruthless perfidy, to the Hulks at Portsmouth, and thence, in 5 days, aboard the “Susan,” sentenced to LIFE in a land (to him) a moral sepulchre. As a ground for your mercy he submits with great diffidence his foregone condition of Life during 43 years of Freedom. A Descent, deduced, thro’ Family Tradition and Edmonstone’s Heraldry, from a Stock not the least honoured in Cambria. Nurtured with all appliances of ease and comfort. School’d by his relative the well-known Philologer and Biblomaniæ Chas. Burney D.D., brother to Mde. D. Arblay, and the companion of COOKE. Lastly such a modest competence as afforded mental necessaries of Literature, Archæology, Music and the Plastic Arts; while his pen and brush introduced him to the notice and friendship of Men whose fame is European. The Catalogues of Somerset House Exhibns., the Literary Pocket Book, indicate his earlier pursuits, and the M.S.. left behind in Paris, attest, at least, his industry. Their titles imply the objects to which he has, to this date, directed all his energies, “a Philosophical Theory of Design, as concerned with the Loftier Emotions, showing its deep action on Society, drawn from the PhideanGreek and early Florentine Schools,” (the result of 17 years Study) illustrated with numerous plates executed with conscientious accuracy in one vol. Atlas folio. “An Æsthetick and Psychological Treatise on the Beautiful, or the Analogies of Immagination and Fancy, as existed in Poesy, Verse, Painting, Sculpture, Music, or Architecture;” to form four vols, folio; with a profusion of engravings by the best Artists of Paris, Munich, Berlin, Dresden and Wien; “an Art Novel” in three vols.; and a collection of Fantastics, Critical Sketches, &c, selected partly from Blackwood, The Foreign Review, and the London Mage. All these were ready for, one actually at the Press. Deign, Your Excellency! to figure to yourself my actual condition during 7 years; without friends, good name (the breath of Life) or Art (the fuel to it with me.) Tormented at once by Memory, and Ideas struggling for outward form and realization; barred up from increase of Knowledge, and deprived of the exercise of profitable or even decorous speech! Take pity. Your Excellency! and grant me the power to shelter my eyes from Vice in her most revolting and Sordid Phase; and my ears from a Jargon of filth and blasphemy that would outrage the cynam. of Parney himself. Perhaps this clinging to the lees of a vapid life may seem as base, unmanly — arguing rather plebian than a liberal descent: — but, Your Excellency! the wretched Exile has a child! and vanity (sprung from the praise of Flaxman, Coleridge, Chs. Lamb, Stothard, Rd. Westhall, De La Roche, Cornelius, Lawrence, and the God of his Worship FUSELLI) whispers that the follower of the Ideal might, even yet, achieve another reputation than that of a Faussaire. Seven years of steady demeanour may in Some degree promise that no indulgence shall ever be abused by

Your Excellency’s miserable Petitioner,

F. G. Wainewright.
18th Apl., 1844.

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