Just before he boarded the Titanic to sail home, George Wright rewrote his will, giving away his grand Halifax mansion to a group of women.
No one knows why.
It’s simply part of the mystery surrounding the last few days of the millionaire bachelor, who had spent the winter in the south of France and is said to have purchased a ticket on the Titanic at the last moment.
He was never seen on the ship deck. A shy man, he is believed to have stayed in his cabin. His name did not appear on a passenger list, although he is known to have boarded in Southampton. There are theories that he was such a heavy sleeper he slept through the disaster. Why else would the accomplished yachtsman not have helped out on the lifeboats?
No one knows. And although everyone seems to know something about the Titanic, given the countless books, movies and documentaries on the disaster, few Haligonians know about their native son who was among the 1,500 who perished. Meanwhile, his most distinctive legacy, his enormous Queen Anne revival-style house, is in disrepair, its owners struggling to keep it from crumbling.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster. Foreign news crews, journalists, cruise ship passengers and other tourists are descending on the city that buried 150 Titanic victims.
George Wright, who was 63, was not among them. His body was never recovered.
A simple tombstone in a Dartmouth cemetery marks his death. The date reads April 14 – the night the Titanic struck the iceberg. The next day the grand luxury ocean liner, thought to be unsinkable and just five days into its maiden voyage, sank.
Mr. Wright left his mark on Halifax as a businessman who used his wealth to put up office buildings and homes for the middle class.
“I can identify with his love of the city,” says Garry Shutlak, senior reference archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives. “I can identify with his shyness. I am basically the same way.”
Mr. Shutlak – who had been researching George Wright since the 1970s – now rents the third-floor attic of Mr. Wright’s house. And several years ago he discovered through another historian he was distantly related to Mr. Wright.
The George Wright he’s come to know was a moral man who was against profanity and immorality on stage. But he was no teetotaler and may have enjoyed the occasional cigar.
“He’s one of those people who is an anomaly,” Mr. Shutlak says. “He was a very friendly person if he knew you, but very timid or shy with people he didn’t know.”
Mr. Shutlak says that may account for the fact that no one recalled seeing him on deck.
The farmer’s son from Nova Scotia had made his fortune in Boston, founding Wright’s Business Directory, a massive volume that connected businesses around the world. In 1896, he returned to Halifax and reinvested in the city. One of its largest landowners, he was also considered progressive because of his support for the poor and underprivileged. And that perhaps partly explains the mystery around his will.
Just before departing from England, Mr. Wright rewrote his will, leaving his home, built in 1903 and located on one the toniest corners in the city’s south end, to the Halifax Local Council of Women.
At that time, it was very common for world travellers to “do this on a regular basis,” Mr. Shutlak says about changing wills.
However, he cannot pinpoint the exact day Mr. Wright made the change because the records of his London lawyers were destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War.
And why he left it to the council of women is not clear, although there were rumours that Mr. Wright may have been in love with the council president or one of the executive members, the archivist notes.
“I have always been told that the love of his life married someone else but I don’t know who that love is,” Mr. Shutlak says.
Sandra MacLennan, president of the Halifax Local Council of Women, doesn’t buy that. She says the council and Mr. Wright shared similar values of social justice. Even today the council gives back to the community with monthly donations to groups in need. There are also plans for a scholarship to a deserving student.
Meant as a generous gift, however, the house is a challenge to keep up. It is not insulated and costs $17,000 a year to heat. The back wall is crumbling and is shored up with scaffolding.
About $3,000 a month comes in from rent. Income from other events and meetings helps, and fingers are crossed that a provincial grant will come through. But much more is needed, Mr. Shutlak says.
“In reality very little was done to the house … over the years,” he says.
He should know. He’s lived in George Wright’s home longer now than Mr. Wright had. The same age now as Mr. Wright was when he died, Mr. Shutlak doesn’t romanticize any of these connections – he has seen no ghosts and does not hear “George whisper” at night.
But he does pay tribute – there’s a Titanic deck chair in his flat.
“A reproduction,” he says.