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Malfeasance and Misadventure!

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February 2014

The Story of Bristol’s Biggest Victorian Fraud Trial

On 9 December 1878, the West of England and South Wales District Bank, Bristol, shut its doors. In 1880, its well-known and respectable Directors were prosecuted for fraud, in a trial of national importance. On 11 February, Steve Hyndman talked to the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society about the Bank, its failure, the investigation and the trial itself.

In 1878, the Bank was one most of the most successful of Bristol’s eight banks. In 1852 it had opened its ornate building on Corn Street, based on the Library of St Mark, Venice. The building had a value exceeding that of all the other banks’ offices added together. However, in December 1878, following rumours about bad investments there was a run on the bank. £250k was handed over in a week, when the bank reserves had only been £156k. The Directors had no choice but to close to business.

When the Home Secretary, Richard Cross, heard about the case, he ordered an investigation. When the accountants, Fleet Smart, examined the books they revealed a number of assets in the balance sheet which in reality had no value at all. The most significant was an investment in the Melingriffith Tin Plate works, Cardiff, which was recorded as an asset of £670k, but for which only £135k was recoverable. When this was presented to the Magistrates at Bristol’s Guildhall in September 1879 they felt compelled to send the case to the Crown Court.

The Trial began at the Old Bailey on 27 April 1880. The major concern for the Bristol journalists was whether they would be allowed in to comment on proceedings. They were right to be worried as the sheer number of people involved in trial meant the Old Bailey was too small, so the trial was adjourned to start again at the Guildhall, London, near to the Bank of England.

The Lord Chief Justice himself, Sir Alexander Cockburn, was in charge of the trial. He had quite a reputation as a notorious womaniser and socialite. He was known on more than one occasion to have escaped through his lovers’ bedroom windows when their husbands returned home unexpectedly.

Although the Statements of Accounts clearly included assets which did not exist, he was only interested in whether that had been done intentionally, and not through incompetence, and he directed the jury to do the same. The jury took the advice to heart, and much to the relief of the Directors, returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict within just 17 minutes.

The Bank was reformed as the Bristol and West of England Bank in 1879, until it was taken over by Lloyds Bank in 1892. The building in Corn Street remained within Lloyds Banking Group as a working branch until it was closed in January this year. The Melingriffith works turned a profit and survived until 1956.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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