White, Luke (c.1740–1824), bookseller, millionaire, and politician, was born about 1740 and possibly originated in Cork city, as both his wives were from there and his brother, Thomas White, was listed as a Cork bookseller. A protestant, he may have been of huguenot extraction, as were his first wife and first business partner. Early sources put his home as Belfast, where the United Irishman William Drennan (qv) recalled him as a book auctioneer. A. S. Moore in the Belfast Telegraph gave his birthplace as a slum – Bell's Lane, Belfast – but all accounts of his origins are speculative. His was a famous eighteenth-century rags-to-riches story, encapsulated by his Gentlemen's Magazine obituary: ‘He rose by slow degrees from being the poorest to the richest man in Ireland’ (1824, i, 642) and in nineteenth-century history books: ‘His spare figure glided like the ghost of Croesus through College Green . . . his amazing fortune defeating all conjecture of the means by which it could have been accumulated’ (Gilbert, 301). The countess of Hardwicke, wife of the lord lieutenant, gossiped that he began his career crying newspapers in the street; Richard Lalor Sheil (qv) wrote of him as a book peddler, hawking literature on his back around village schools. However, a recent study suggests as more likely that he built his wealth on existing family resources (Gough, ‘Book imports’).
His first Dublin shop, opened in Crampton Court in 1775, initially sold the contents of gentlemen's libraries but was soon advertising imported books from London and the Continent. He ran his own printing press, and his 1788 edition of Gibbon's Decline and fall was among the finest examples of Irish bookbinding, while his 1784 edition of Choderlos de Laclos's notorious Liaisons dangereuses evinces adventurous taste. In 1786 he issued the first complete Dublin catalogue of books; most of the several thousand volumes could be found in his shop, located since 1782 in 86 Dame St. A lucrative sideline was selling lottery tickets, a trade that made and broke the fortunes of several Dublin booksellers. However, as the countess of Hardwicke noted, ‘Good luck accompanied him in every speculation and he knew how to profit by it, but with the fairest fame’ (Cork Hist. Soc. Jn., 68).
In February 1781 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Peter de la Maziere, a Cork merchant and sugar refiner, and at that time placed his fortune at £3,000. He entered, with his wife's wealthy family, into large-scale property speculation in Dublin. Thence he moved into financial investment and in 1785 invested £2,000 in Bank of Ireland stock, which by 1788 had accumulated to £9,350. The following year he sold his retail bookselling business to William Jones and, although he continued book importing until 1803, concentrated on finance and property; his speculations included owning shares in the English Star and Evening Advertiser. By 1792 he was transacting from premises on 42 Dawson St. and was dealing in treasury bills; in 1797 he underwrote a government loan of £400,000. Drennan reports him as making £100,000 from loan and lottery in that year alone; his overall fortune was then reckoned at £500,000. He purchased in 1799, to the general dismay of the aristocracy, Lord Carhampton's sixty-eight-acre estate of Luttrelstown in Dublin for £96,000, and subsequently spent £180,000 in renovations on the house, which he renamed Woodlands.
White's next foray was into politics; he had over the previous decade made gifts and interest-free loans to Drennan, whose activities he appeared to support. In January 1800 he subscribed £3,000 to the anti-union campaign, though in April he contracted with the government for a loan of £1,500,000, whereupon a Castle official commented that White ‘notwithstanding his politics would not have bid so high if he thought the union would not be carried’ (Hist. parl., 545). White failed to pay the second instalment of the loan and so forfeited £75,000. In 1803 he was able to offer the lord lieutenant a £500,000 loan at 5 per cent interest and he continued to buy property, including Rathcline House in Longford, a house in Merrion Square, the lands of the late Lord Annaly in Teneleek, and land in Leitrim, Limerick, Down, Meath, and Hertfordshire. From these estates he mounted election campaigns for himself and his sons. These met with little initial success: he was defeated in Dublin in 1806 and in Leitrim in 1812, while his eldest son Thomas was defeated in that county in 1806, and his son Luke in Longford in 1819. He was reported to have spent £200,000 in these attempts and won Daniel O'Connell's (qv) approbation as a great reformer since he purposely contested safe seats to prevent them becoming boroughs of a single family; his son's 1819 challenge was the only opposition to the Forbes and Fetherstone candidates in Co. Longford between 1806 and 1826. He finally ousted in 1818 the sitting member for Co. Leitrim, who in an unavailing petition accused him of unbridled expenditure. White sat until his death in 1824 and was counted in opposition, voting with the minority on questions of taxation. His efforts on behalf of emancipation included calling on well disposed protestants in February 1819 to petition parliament. More significantly he succeeded in getting his fourth son Henry elected as liberal member for Co. Dublin in 1823, ousting the sitting Orange member, Sir Compton Domville (1776?–1857), to the gratification of O'Connell.
White died the following year in London on 25 February 1824 and was buried in Clonsilla, Co. Dublin. His first wife, by whom he had four sons and three daughters, had died in July 1800, leaving him to marry within six months, in January 1801, Arabella, daughter of William Fortescue, with whom he had another son. His property of £30,000 a year in real estate and £100,000 in money and securities was not divided equally. His three eldest sons received around £5,000 a year, while the fourth son, Henry, had £13,000 a year. He allegedly benefited at the expense of the eldest son, Thomas, who had refused to stand in Dublin in the O'Connellite interest. The two middle sons eventually sat in parliament; Samuel White (d. 1854) succeeded his father as liberal member for Co. Leitrim (1824–47), Luke White (d. 1854) was elected for Co. Longford in 1832 but was unseated on petition before being elected as a repealer (1836–42). Henry White (1789–1873) sat as a liberal for Co. Dublin (1823–32) and Co. Longford (1837–47, 1857–63). A lieutenant-colonel in the army, he was created Baron Annaly in 1863, resuming a title from one of his father's estates which had been extinct since 1784. He married (1828) Ellen Soper Dempster of Skibo Castle, Sunderland. His eldest son, Luke White (1829–88) became the third of his family to sit as a liberal for Co. Longford (1861–2); previously he had sat for Co. Clare (1859–60) and he subsequently sat for Kidderminster in England (1862–5). The portrait of Luke White, sen., by Gilbert Stuart is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.