The Fleecing of Hugh Woolner

Titanica!

Thomas Woolner
courtesy British Library

29 Welbeck Street

HUGH Woolner was born on September 28, 1866, the son of a famous British sculptor.

But just when he was carving himself his own grand career it would all fall apart at the point of a chisel. And the tribulations that followed would help to etch his own character.

Hugh’s father, Thomas Woolner R. A. (Royal Academy), wrought busts and even life-size statues of the great men of his day, often in declamatory bronze. He modelled Tennyson, Gladstone, Darwin, Dickens, Macaulay, Palmerston, Captain Cook… and grew rich on the pickings. His works began to litter London. They also graced the outposts of Empire.

The sculptor’s son, one of six offspring, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Hugh Woolner, later a Titanic passenger, was educated at Marlborough College, a prestigious boarding school in Wiltshire, going on to Cambridge University in 1885.

He grew to six feet, three inches in height, becoming, like his father, an imposing figure.

His build made him an ideal varsity blue, and his sporting prowess would leave him with a souvenir scar below his left knee. He represented Cambridge at the hammer throw, achieving a distance of 93ft 10in against the rival dark blues of Oxford, which someone uncharitably noted was the shortest throw since 1866, or nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

The same year, 1888, the autumn of Jack the Ripper, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA). His brown hair and hazel eyes made him attractive to women, no less than his height, bearing and suavity of manner.

Woolner was elected a member of the London Stock Exchange in 1892 at age 26, the same year that saw the death of his father, aged of 66. Three years later, in 1895, Hugh founded the brokerage of Woolner & Co. with capital of £6,000, the bulk of which arose from his inheritance.

Business was at first carried on at 5 Draper’s Gardens. Loan funding was brought in by Woolner’s relatives “from time to time,” in respect of £25,000 of which they would eventually be left to whistle…

HUGH Woolner’s first marriage was to an American woman, Mary Simpson. They had one child, Katharine Amy, born on August 7, 1898, in Atlanta, Georgia. Hugh was just shy of his 32nd birthday, and at the time of her birth, the couple were living at Ford's Grove in Winchmore Hill.

The couple returned to Britain and Hugh appears on the 1901 census as a 34-year-old family man, living in his late father’s home at 29 Welbeck Street, Marylebone, London. He had also joined the Middlesex Volunteer Artillery in 1900, as a second Lieutenant.

It was at this time that Woolner and his partner, Nick Sumner-Jones, “incurred heavy losses through the default of clients, falling markets and the stagnation of business due to the South African war.” The firm became mired in deep trouble.

By the end of 1904 the firm was wholly insolvent - but it continued trading, which was naturally illegal. In 1905 it became involved with a concern called Great Cobar Ltd, offering shares in a mining conglomerate that was chiefly involved in extracting copper and coal from New South Wales.

It was through this association, and the separate promotion of an entity known as the Bohemian Corporation Ltd, that the company regained solvency.

Those troubles had been negotiated through a mixture of luck, skill and lawbreaking. But Woolner’s woes were not behind him. Tragedy struck at the end of 1906.

His wife Mary died suddenly, of a suspected brain aneurysm. It happened at home on Sunday December 16, the couple having moved to Fellows Road in Hampstead. Mary was buried in Hampstead cemetery on Friday, December 21, 1906.


Fellows Road, Hampstead

Woolner, now a widower, had already been to the United States frequently. His family looked after Katharine as he continued to cross the Atlantic on business. But the new year of 1907 was to herald professional disaster.

ON APRIL 18, 1907, five years before the Titanic disaster, Hugh Woolner accepted an order from a Mr Nassif, representing himself as a principal of the New York firm Montmorency & Co., for the purchase of 50,000 Great Cobar shares for the end of the May account.

A few days later came an order from the same source for the purchase of a further 61,000 shares. Woolner’s partner, whom the New York buyer claimed to know, was out of the country at the time, so Hugh himself went ahead with the new order. He bought shares to the total combined sum of an enormous £122,473, eight shillings and ninepence.

This was an extraordinary gamble on account, with the money promised to the stock exchange vendors by Woolner & Co. and precisely nothing advanced by Mr Nassif or Montmorency & Co. There was the suspicion that in reality it was a desperate “ramping” effort, aimed at boosting the value of the shares for later dumping.

Nassif never came through with the money. Woolner and Co. rolled over the settlement date for a few months, but there was no recovery in the position – and no money available with which to make good. Instead of climbing, Great Cobar shares fell heavily.

It was later claimed in court that Woolner’s partner, Sumner-Jones, knew Nassif to be an undischarged bankrupt – but that Sumner-Jones happened to be in Paris when the monster orders came through from New York.

The principal promoter of Great Cobar was one George Earle Baker – who later obtained a judgement for £11,702 in a separate legal battle with Woolner & Co. Meanwhile Woolner and Sumner-Jones were declared in default and ‘hammered’ on the Stock Exchange, meaning they could no longer trade.

Woolner’s stockbroking firm was thereafter made bankrupt. In 1907 the firm was found to have made a loss of over £70,000 in connection with Great Cobar. On November 16 that year, the partners were stripped of Stock Exchange membership, their accounts showing assets of just £2,000.

In 1909, by the time of the holding of a meeting of creditors, the unsecured liabilities were put at £45,000-£50,000, against assets of just £12. The black sheep officially had no wool.

A Mr Schwabe, on behalf of a particular creditor, said the bankrupts Woolner and Sumner-Jones had continued to trade [a second time] after knowing themselves to be insolvent. They had brought on and contributed to their bankruptcy “by rash and hazardous speculations.”

Registrar Linklater, noting from the books the firm’s earlier insolvency and fortuitous escape through illicit trading, gave judgement that the bankruptcy order should record and specify exactly these egregious offences. It was a total humiliation.

Memorial Plaque to Alice Gertrude Woolner at St Mary's Church, Hendon.
In the midst of all this decay and destruction, Woolner had been busily trying to come good in the United States – where his child was now being cared for by her maternal grandparents.

In September 1908 he took a trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and in1909 he looked into mining interests in Denver, Colorado. Previously he had been in Georgia, where the Atlanta Constitution reported him as the buyer of a mine, although he was acting in trust for others.

Back in England things were as bad as ever. A British army colonel named H. F. Bowles had taken court proceedings in relation to a ‘debt of honour’ as a result of a promissory note issued by Hugh Woolner but never made good upon.

That separate episode ended on January 18, 1909, with Colonel Bowles being awarded the sum of £619. As a piece of distasteful society imbroglio it all made the papers.

In April 1910, the London High Court discharged the personal bankruptcy of Woolner – on the payment of just £1,000. He was now free to act as a company principal again, and would be listed on the Titanic two years later as a ‘company director.’

On February 10, 1912, Woolner arrived in New York aboard the Baltic, from Liverpool. Just one month earlier, at the beginning of this Titanic year, he was involved in drawing up the will of a nonagenarian woman… of which more anon.

But on the Saturday, March 9, 1912, his mother, Alice Gertrude Woolner (née Waugh), widow of the late sculptor Thomas Woolner, died aged 67. Hugh rushed home for the funeral service, to be held at St Mary’s parish church in Hendon, where there is a tablet to her memory.

He booked a return to the United States the next month, aboard a brand new steamer of the White Star Line. He was issued with first class ticket No. 19947, costing £35. 10s. On board the Titanic he would occupy cabin 52 on B deck.

Woolner pictured at the bow of Collapsible D approaching the Carpathia, 15th April 1912

(Identified by family. Consonant with other Woolner pictures. From a first-generation photograph in the possession of the contributor.)

Hugh Woolner’s Titanic tales can be read in his US evidence.

That summer, Woolner returned to England.

On Tuesday August 13, 1912, he married Mary Alaia Dowson, eldest daughter of Luke A. Ionides, a fellow stockbroker.

She, incidentally, had also suffered the heartbreak of an early end to a first marriage, being the widow of an American named Ben Dowson.

The marriage to Dowson took place in Dartford parish church on October 8, 1895. The couple had one child, named Mary after her mother, who would die tragically. It happened on January 14, 1908, when Mary fell victim to every parent’s dread – meningitis. She was just eleven.

Maisie with her first husband in 1897
Hugh and Mary Snr, whom he called Maisie, were now living in somewhat come-down circumstances at 23 Stanley Crescent in Notting Hill. But their lives brightened on 23 October 1914 when a son, Alexander, was born. They would go on to have five daughters.

Hugh Woolner was later accused of exerting undue influence in the drawing up of the will of the late Mrs Elizabeth Josephine Forster, of Palace Green, Kensington, whose property was worth more than £500,000.

Woolner was cited in a case brought to contest the will by Forster relatives to the Admiralty, Divorce and Probate Division of the High Court in London.

The claimants alleged that the will, dated January 30, 1912, and another dated October 6, 1913, were not duly executed, that the testatrix was not of sound mind, and that she did not know or approve of the contents of either.

The will of January 1912 was said to have been “obtained by the undue influence of Hugh Woolner” and that of October 1913 “through the undue influence of Mr Woolner and Mr William Sparks.”

Sir John Simon - late of the British Titanic Inquiry – told the court the difficulty with the case was that the testatrix was “greatly advanced in years” and had at one time suffered from senile decay, such that her property had to be protected by the Lunacy Commissioners.

The will of 1913 was drawn up when Ms Forster was outside the jurisdiction in Austria. Mr Sparks had paid a “hurried visit to her,” saying he could only remain a short time. The case, before Judge Sir Samuel Evans, was eventually settled on March 1, 1917.

Hugh Woolner had been represented by Holman Gregory, K.C., instructed by solicitors Wainwright, Pollock & Co.

This litany of unfortunate mentions in the press had made life difficult for Hugh Woolner. The London stock exchange had actually been suspended for part of the Great War, which didn’t help, and saturnine market sentiment set in thereafter.

Hugh and Maisie eventually decided to divide their time between England and Hungary, for reasons now unclear. They took over a home in Budapest belonging to a relative of Hugh’s mother – one Percival Waugh, believed to be his uncle. Hugh Woolner died there on February 13, 1925, of respiratory failure, at the relatively young age of 58.

A death notice inserted in the London Times of February 21, 1925, said he had died “of influenza” (an earlier one specified pneumonia), and gave a last London address for Woolner of 60 Crooms Hill, Greenwich.

Ironically, in light of his Titanic involvement, this was originally the home of Henry Vansittart, the Governor of Bengal, who was lost at sea when the Aurora sailed from Cape Town for India and disappeared forever in 1769.

The end of Hugh Woolner’s life was thus marked as his birth had been – with press mention that he was the “son of Thomas Woolner R.A.” Despite the fact that he had turned out to be anything but a chip off the old block.

  • His wife, Mary Aglaia Woolner, lived another twenty years and died on December 26, 1945 at Newton Abbot, Devon.

  • Katharine Amy Woolner died on October 9, 1981 in Kent, England.

Related Biographies:

Hugh Woolner

Acknowledgements

Text and Images Courtesy of and © Senan Molony 2007

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Senan Molony

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