John Skirrow Wright (1822 - 1880)

John Skirrow Wright was a prominent social improver and pioneer in Victorian Birmingham, best known for inventing the postal order. He was also involved in the General Hospital, the Chamber of Commerce, the School of Art, the Children's Hospital, the Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund, the Blue Coat School, and in founding building societies.

John was born in February 1822 in London, the son of Edward Fawcett Wright and his wife Ann.  His grandfather, John Fawcett, was a prominent Baptist Minister and hymn writer. The family moved to Stourbridge when John was two; when he was 14, John came to Birmingham and found a job with a military button manufacturer and rapidly progressed from being a junior clerk to becoming a partner by 1850 and eventually he became the proprietor.  

In 1848 he founded a Baptist congregation, the People’s Chapel, in Hockley and he developed a wider interest in the education of the working classes.  He was a Justice of the Peace, chair of the Prison Visiting Service and a Director of Lloyds Bank.  He also gave money to the Birmingham Art Gallery, Aston Park and several scholarship funds.

John was active in founding the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, sat on its council and was President in 1866/67 and 1875/77.  During that time, he came up with the idea of postal orders as a means for the working classes to have the opportunity to buy goods by post. The idea was originally rejected by London bankers but when they realized that it did not threaten their business they accepted it.

John was elected as a Liberal MP for Nottingham in April 1880 but he died a few weeks later, aged 58, during a meeting at the Birmingham Council House. He was buried at Key Hill Cemetery on 19 April 1880.  His Will said he preferred that none of his family wore mourning.

Thousands of people attended his funeral and over 300 policemen were on duty.  His coffin was made by the Metallic Airtight Coffin Co of Great Charles Street (a metal lined oak coffin, with brass fittings).  20 carriages followed the hearse and the bell of Handsworth Old Church was tolled.  From respect houses on the procession route drew their curtains and blinds and shops closed for the day.  The first part of the funeral was held in the People’s Chapel, Hockley.  

John’s statue was sculpted by Francis Williamson and was first in Colmore Row in front of the Council House, but later moved to Chamberlain Place before going into storage and being scrapped.  A bronze copy of the bust was made and unveiled in a niche in the Council House in 1957, where it still is.

John married Sarah Tyrer at the Cannon Street Meeting House in 1842. They had eight children, although two died young. Also on the gravestone are John’s parent’s, his sister, a son and a daughter, and a grandson.