The Wigram name was famous in the mercantile and political world of the early nineteenth century. Robert Wigram, when a young man, had come from his native Wexford to London to study medicine, and after qualifying he served as a Surgeon on board ships of the East India Company. On leaving the sea he became a licensed importer of drugs under Government licence and went on to acquire an enormous fortune from diverse business interests. He was a ship-owner, an initial subscriber to the East India Dock Company in London, and had interests in ship-building at Blackwall on the Thames where the famous wooden sailing vessels known as Blackwall frigates were built. He entered Parliament in 1802 as a Tory supporter of William Pitt the Younger and was created a baronet in 1805. Sir Robert had a rather large family of six children by his first wife Catherine, and seventeen by his second wife Eleanor. A very generous man, he made a practice, when each of his children was born, of arranging the release of a prisoner confined for debt by paying up for him. Some of his large brood made their mark in shipping, finance, law and in the Church as a Bishop of Rochester. One, however, trod an altogether different path in life.
George Vicesimus Wigram was born at Walthamstow on 28th March, 1805 and his father marked the birth of his twentieth child by bestowing his unusual middle name, the Latin for twentieth. George had a conventional childhood, and when a young man he obtained a Commission in the Army. He was carefree and bent on the pursuit of worldly pleasure and ambition, but while in Brussels God dealt with him in wondrous grace. One day in June, 1824 with a comrade he spent a long and tiring day on the field of Waterloo (just nine years after the battle) after which he returned to his lodging. His experience is best told in his own words.
I soon went to my own bedroom. It struck me, 'I will say my prayers'. It was the habit of childhood, neglected in youth. I fell down by my bedside, but I had forgotten what to say. I looked up as if trying to remember, when suddenly there came on my soul a something I had never known before. It was as if some One, Infinite and Almighty, knowing everything, full of the deepest tenderest interest in myself, though thoroughly abhorring everything in, and connected with me, made known to me that He pitied and loved myself. My eye saw no one; but I knew assuredly that the One whom I knew not, and never had met, had met me for the first time, and made me to know that we were together. I wept for a while on my knees, said nothing, then got into bed. The next morning's thought was, 'Get a Bible'. I got one, and it was thenceforward my handbook.
The reality of that experience altered the course of his life. He resigned his commission, and in 1826 entered Queen's College, Oxford with a view to taking "Holy Orders" in the Church of England. There he met B W Newton, J L Harris and J N Darby with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. These associations brought him to another major change of course. He was active in the beginning of the assembly at Plymouth and it is probable that he financed the purchase of Providence Chapel in Raleigh Street in December, 1831. Some years later he moved to London where, through his labours, a similar gathering was formed at Rawstorne Street. A number of other meetings commenced in the city, and in 1838 Wigram wrote a letter to J N Darby in which he raised this significant question. How are meetings for communion of saints in those parts to be regulated? Would it be for the glory of the Lord and the increase of testimony to have one central meeting, the common responsibility of all within reach, and as many meetings subordinate to it as grace might vouchsafe? Or to hold it better to allow the meetings to grow up as they may without connexion and dependant on the energy of individuals only. The course followed was no doubt well-intentioned, as a means of promoting fellowship and unity between the various gatherings in the rapidly expanding metropolis. The result was rather different when in later years circumstances arose in which the London central meeting became an instrument in the hands of those whose ecclesiastical pretensions led to disaster.
G V Wigram's enduring legacy to Bible students is The Englishman's Greek Concordance to the New Testament published in 1839, followed by The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance to the Old Testament in 1843. The concept of this excellent work arose out of Wigram's writing of Essays on Terms conventional to the Scriptures e.g. Righteousness, Sanctification, Justification, etc. During a visit to Powerscourt House in March, 1831 he met Revd W Burgh who had similar thoughts about How to elucidate Scripture. They discussed their desires and plans for a Concordance, and Revd Burgh consented to the adoption of his design which Wigram felt to be better than his own. In his Introduction to the Concordance Wigram generously acknowledged Mr Burgh's role, and the learning and talent of many who had laboured in the project. He was modest regarding his own contribution in directing it. He probably financed the work, but only referred to money having passed through my hands for the prosecution of it.
It is likely that in their earliest gatherings existing collections of hymn were used by brethren, but in 1836 The Christian Hymn Book was published in Plymouth. This was followed two years later by Wigram's first compilation, Hymns for the Poor of the Flock, published in London. In 1856 Wigram was asked to examine carefully some hymn books which were in common use. The outcome was A Few Hymns and some Spiritual Songs for the little flock, successive revisions of which have been used mainly by "exclusive" assemblies. In selecting hymns for his new compilation Wigram's rules were few and simple. I. Retouch as little as possible, and with as light a hand as possible. II. Allow to remain (1) no false, no faulty, no defective doctrine – cost what it might; (2) no dispensational incongruities; (3) no want of keeping in the truth or truths stated; (4) no ambiguities between that which is and that which is not true; and III. Add as many new hymns as the Lord might enable me. His own compositions were not numerous but a hymn still sung and enjoyed is "What raised the wondrous thought / Or who did it suggest? His daughter Fanny penned a lovely hymn of praise:
Worthy of homage and of praise;
Worthy by all to be adored;
Exhaustless theme of heavenly lays;
Thou, Thou art worthy, Jesus Lord.
Another responsibility undertaken by Wigram was to edit for many years The Present Testimony. The magazine contained his own studies on the Psalms in which he distinguished the Divine Names in the text.
Mr Wigram's marriages provide examples of the interconnected family relationships between some of the early brethren. His first wife Frances (Fanny) Bligh was a first cousin of Theodosia Anne Howard who on her marriage had become Lady Powerscourt. They married on 23rd March, 1830 and had two daughters, Fanny Theodora, and Elizabeth Frances who died in infancy. Frances died in 1834 leaving her husband with the care of a young girl only four years of age. His second wife Catherine Parnell was a first cousin of Lord Congleton. In 1867 he travelled to Canada where Catherine joined him two months later. During the visit she took ill and passed away after a very short time. Only four years later Wigram was again bereaved when his daughter Fanny died. His remaining years were lonely but in them he visited British Guiana, the West Indies, New Zealand and Australia to minister to the saints.
He was called home on 1st February, 1879. At his burial in Paddington Cemetery the large company sang a hymn written by him:
Nothing but mercy will do for me
Nothing but mercy – full and free,
Of sinners chief – what but the blood
Could calm my soul, before my God.
His wish had been that all should know that he owed everything to the sovereign mercy of God.
In all of the difficulties that had arisen between brethren he had exhibited unwavering loyalty to J N Darby, and his actions in that respect had attracted, and perhaps warranted, criticism. Nonetheless, he was loved for the simple dignity of his character, and he left behind him a high reputation for personal sanctity.