Meet Walter Watts. In 1844, aged just 27, he burst onto London society with no visible means of support, but with the trappings of a lottery winner. Inquisitive souls who wanted to know where the money came from were baffled as, one after another, they ruled out gambling, an inheritance or the City.
However, if they had but followed him each weekday morning when he got out of his splendid carriage, sometimes in Cornhill or otherwise Leadenhall St, they would have discovered him sneaking through the alleys and crossing streets to reach the Globe Insurance Building. There he was employed as nothing but a lowly clerk, earning less than enough each year to pay for his gloves and cigars.
For six years he continued in the same way, getting out of his carriage, quietly doing a day’s work at the office and at nights and weekends spending like a millionaire. Watts had a house in St John’s Wood as well another in fashionable and expensive Brighton. As an enthusiastic patron of the arts, he leased, not one, but two London theatres, just so that he could watch his favourite acts. He was just 33 when he was caught – having taken some £80,000 from his employers via their astoundingly lax accounting system.
Walter was confident his defence was cast iron. He really thought that could not be charged with stealing any money as he was a shareholder of the firm (he had just two shares) and that made him a part owner. Thus, by his interpretation of the state of the law at the time – as he saw it – he would have been in effect stealing from himself.
The judges weren’t having it, though. They used another legal nicety that trumped Watts’ view of the crime. His logic may have been flawless that he took his own money, but he forgot that the paper the cheques were written on was the personal property of the partners, not the firm. And so Walter was sentenced to be transported to Australia for ten years for the crime of stealing a piece of paper worth one old penny. A little harsh you may think, but the paper represented a cheque for £1400 that he stole. Walter greeted his sentence with a “sneering expression”, it is said.
Sent back to Newgate to await a ship to take him to Australia, Walter spent his time in the hospital drying out from his life of alcoholic indulgence. His cellmates all said how cheerful he was, but at three in the morning, two months after his sentence and still waiting for his ship, he left his prison bunk, went to the toilet and there he hanged himself.
An excerpt from the new e-book about how financial fraudsters, dodgy bankers and money magicians have, like the poor, always been with us.
The Day They Hanged a Banker is available from Amazon and other fine e-book sellers from June 9.