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Michael Wickes

The Extraordinary Story of Michael Wickes of Malmesbury 1633-1708

Most people from Malmesbury are familiar with the ancient inscription that can be seen on St John’s Almshouses close to the town bridge. It commemorates the generosity of a man called Michael Wickes who gave money to both the almshouses at St John’s and to the school for local boys that was held in the nearby old Courthouse. The inscription states that Wickes made his gift to the town on 24 March 1694, but who was Michael Wickes? 

The almshouse at St John’s with the Wickes inscription

A close up of the inscription

A bewildering range of occupations

Michael Wickes was born in Malmesbury in 1633. His grandfather, Giles Wickes, was Alderman or mayor of the town 1642-1643. He grew up in the town and witnessed the dramatic events of the Civil War but as a young man in the 1650s he left Malmesbury to seek his fortune in London. Once in the capital, he undertook a bewildering range of occupations: laboratory assistant, customs officer, clerk to a learned society, property speculator and money-lender. He became very wealthy as a result of his banking activities. We know that he came into contact with some of the leading figures of the age, including Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys. Wickes had a lively mind. He was a pioneering collector of fossils. He was clearly fascinated by the history of Malmesbury and provided the writer, John Aubrey, with vital historical detail about the history of the town. Amazingly, he was one of the first people in England to have tried underwater diving. Sadly, the extraordinary career of Wickes ended unhappily. He was accused by the government of involvement in a massive financial scandal and when he died, fifteen years later, he was effectively bankrupt.

Some sensational revelations

During one of many extraordinary episodes in his life, Wickes was briefly MP for Malmesbury and one major source of information about Wickes is the official History of Parliament. This is online and provides a brief biography which you can find at: 

The History of Parliament provides only a partial view of his life but it does contain some sensational information. It reveals that Wickes worked for many years as a customs officer at the port of London where he was responsible for collecting all the tobacco and sugar duties on ships coming in from the American and Caribbean.  In 1693 he was dismissed from this job, accused of withholding duties that he had collected. He was initially charged with failing to hand over £186,000. That translates into about £24 million in modern money! 

Moving in the highest intellectual and scientific circles

As well as working as a collector of customs duty, Wickes also worked with some top scientists. The Wiltshire writer, John Aubrey, quotes Wickes as a source of information about the import of tobacco into England in the 17th century and mentions in passing that as a young man Wickes was a laboratory assistant to Dr Jonathan Goddard, who was a scientist and a physician. Goddard was one of Oliver Cromwell’s personal doctors. After the Restoration of 1660 Wickes got a job for the new Royal Society. This was an elite club for the most distinguished scientists and intellectuals of Restoration England. Wickes appears to have worked for the Royal Society as an ‘amanuensis’ or clerical assistant from 1661. He was formally appointed as Clerk in 1663 and was the first paid employee of the Society. As Clerk Wickes was responsible for the Society’s paperwork and was obliged to be present at every meeting. This brought him into weekly contact with the leading intellectuals of the age, people such as Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Samuel Pepys.

A pioneering underwater diver!

Wickes also helped out with the experiments that the members of the Royal Society carried out. One of the most dangerous of these was the trial of a diving bell at the dock at Deptford on 19 July 1661. John Evelyn in his diary describes how Wickes was placed inside a large lead ‘bell’ and lowered to the underwater surface of the dock where he stayed for half an hour. This was an immensely dangerous undertaking and Wickes only survived by breathing the small pocket of air that was trapped in the ‘bell’.

We tried our Diving Bell in ye. Water Dock at Deptford, in which our Curator continued half-an- hour: it was made of cast lead, let down by a strong cable

John Evelyn’s Diary  

A lively mind and an interest in fossils

We know that Wickes contributed to the Royal Society’s collection of scientific curiosities. As a Customs Officer, Wickes was fascinated by any unusual objects brought from the Americas on the boats that imported tobacco and sugar. He was particularly interested in fossilised shells that were found in Virginia in rocks many miles from the coast. The catalogue of the Royal Society museum describes one item as follows:

A great petrify'd SCALLOP…Given with several more of the same bigness, by Mr. Wicks. 'Tis half a foot over. Many of the same kind were taken out of a great Rock in Virginia, forty miles from Sea or River

An expert on the history of Malmesbury

One of the early members of the Royal Society was the Wiltshire writer, John Aubrey. He was fascinated by the history of Wiltshire and it is clear from his writings that he saw Wickes as an expert on the history of Malmesbury and particularly its churches. The two men clearly met in London to compare notes about the history of Malmesbury. Aubrey learned from Wickes how the stained glass windows in the Abbey had been vandalised by parliamentary soldiers during the 1640s. Wickes also provided Aubrey with information about the smaller chapels and churches of the town and its suburbs.

Mr Weekes assures me that there are in and about Malmesbury, besides Whitchurch whose steeple is I thinke now pulled down, seven chapels in Malmesbury, Westport, Burton Hill…There was a Chapell at Burnevale and old woemen talk of a Lady Abbesse there but I asked Mr Weekes about this and he replied: Here are the Ruines of a small religious house for woemen, dedicated to Our Ladie, but believes no Lady Abbesse.

Wickes gets into very big trouble

Wickes was constantly in court, particularly the Court of Chancery that dealt with civil commercial disputes. It is clear from the court papers that he ran a substantial money lending business over many years. He lent money for interest and took property deeds as security for the loans. Over time he built up a property empire with houses, farms and land all over England. It is possible to identify over 20 civil actions where he was involved 1668-1701, usually as the plaintiff. There was a spike in cases involving him 1691-1693 with 11 identifiable cases over these three years. In most cases he was suing people who owed him money. This flurry of cases suggests that his banking business was in crisis in the early 1690s. The most likely explanation is that he ‘borrowed’ money received from at the Custom House and lent it out. He was in big trouble by 1693 because some of the loans using the Customs duties had turned in to bad debts.

The extraordinary career of Michael Wickes ended badly. He was dismissed from the Royal Society in 1683, although they asked him to undertake occasional work for some years afterwards. In 1693 he was dismissed from the Custom House and the government began legal action to get back the customs duties that he owed. The legal case dragged on for years. It seems that in 1697 government officials raided his house in London, seizing goods, cash and his business papers. 

A list of the papers seized during the 1697 raid survives at the National Archive in London. They confirm that Wickes had property interests all over England:including Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Durham, Hertfordshire, Essex, London, Twickenham…The papers itemised many of his business deals and revealed that his money-lending business had been operating for well over three decades. The earliest recorded loan dated back to February 1659 when Wickes was only twenty-five years old., The seized papers also shed some light on his otherwise mysterious personal life. He was a widower and had remarried a widow called Elizabeth Griffin and was keen to ensure the financial security of his step-daughter, who was also called Elizabeth Griffin.

The years of disgrace

Wickes was fifty-nine years old in early 1693 when his world fell apart and he lost his job and his reputation. According to the History of Parliament it is no coincidence that this was the point when he decided to give money to the borough charities in Malmesbury. They describe this as a ‘ploy’ to avoid proscection for debt and stay out of prison. His plan was to curry favour with the borough and then get elected as MP for Malmesbury. As an MP he would have immunity from a crown prosecution. In fact he failed to get elected in 1695 but he succeeded in 1698 and, once MP for Malmesbury, he did indeed claim immunity. His parliamentary career was brief; he lost his seat in 1700 and the legal action against him continued and, amazingly, was still underway in 1708 when he died. Despite being effectively bankrupt he left a will appointing a man called John Burgh as his executor. This Irish man was the husband of his step-daughter, Elizabeth Griffin. Finally in 1714 Burgh agreed a settlement with the government for the debt, six years after Wickes had died and over twenty years after the legal action for the recovery of debt began in 1693. How much did Burgh pay towards the debts? Remember that the initial allegation was that Wickes owed £186,000. The government found it impossible to recover this sort of money from his estate and settled in 1714 for a relatively paltry £1000.  

So next time you walk past the old almshouses at St John’s, look up and think about this amazing man, not only a benefactor of the town but also a tax collector, a lover of Malmesbury history, an assistant to some of the greatest scientists that ever lived, and a man who spectacularly over-reached himself with his ambitious financial schemes .