Victorian London - Crime - Con-men - 'Long firms'


The police reports give us occasional glimpses of what are called "long firms," but glimpses which are for the most part deceptive. They show us small bands of disreputable people taking premises in busy quarters, starting sham businesses, and obtaining goods from manufacturers for which they never intend to pay and which they dipose of as quickly as possible at any price they will fetch. The reports go on to show us how this kind of thing lasts until one or other of the victimized manufacturers sets the police upon the track of the swindlers, who are invariably hunted up and arrested, when the business collapses. The swindlers are tried, convicted and sent to punishment; and the public, seeing no more of the "long firm" in question, thinks that nothing more is to be known concerning it. This may be correct now and then; but in most cases that part of the long firm which appears in the criminal courts bears about the same relation to the body as the severed feeler of an octopus bears to the rest of the animal.
    Once on a time - it is unnecessary to particularize the when and the where - I had an opportunity of observing a long firm, body and feelers, in full action. A sketch fo what I saw will convey a tolerable idea of what these things are. This firm was founded years ago in one of the central counties by a village tradesman, One after another, he took into partnership a number of fellow-tradesmen, nearly all related to him in some way, and dwelling in adjoining hamlets. When fully developed the association formed a network extending over a third of the county. This fraternity continued to deal in the usual way with wholesale houses for a portion of their stock; but a still larger portion was procured in quite another manner. The originator of the confederacy had noticed that in London young men well acquainted with the ways of business are continually forfeiting their position. Such people contract habits which lead through extravagance to embezzlement, and thence to punishment for felony. They leave prison ruined and desperate, and too often ready for anything by which money may be made. Persons of this kind our organizer determined to enlist and utilize. Accordingly his firm made it a portion of its system to watch the trials at the Old Bailey with a view of selecting the most suitable material. When the persons fixed on were released some member of the firm was always at hand to meet them, and seldom found much difficulty in bringing them to terms. The recruits were supplied with the funds necessary to commence swindling with effect, by taking offices, emplyoing clerks, and making all the show of real business. Then they set to work ordering goods from all quarters. Nothing came amiss to them, from a consignment of coals to a cottage piano. Such of these goods as the members of the firm could dispose of was sent down to the country. There was seldom much for which they could not find a market; since among them were watchmakers, tailors, upholsterers - tradesmen, indeed, who dealt in nearly everything that a country population can require. The refuse was got rid of for ready money and in the readiest way : pawned, packed off to auction-rooms, or sold at his own price to the first customer that offered. In the course of time this commercial octopus threw out a number of feelers to the principal commercial centres - as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, &c. Of course no particular feeler could continue its depradations for any length of time undetected. When detection came it was cast off, and always with such completeness as to leave nothing to indicate the body with which it had been joined. The ostensible swindlers too their fate as a matter of course. So far as they were concerned the principals were safe, for the latter could be relied upon to re-establish them in some way when restored to liberty. It is hardly necessary to remark that when one feeler was cut off it was immediately replaced by another. Thus the firm went on moulding and multiplying rascals. Little by little the system became more refined. It was found that swindling could be done much more effectually by agents who still retained character and position. In consequence suitable means were adopted for getting at the employés of great mercantile houses and for bending them when got at to the purposes of the firm. Decoys were employed for this purpose, some being gentlemen who went about as commercial travellers, and who made themselves acquainted with the peculiarities, and especially the vices of the intended victims. Other agents were found amongst pretty women ...

Pall Mall Gazette, April 29, 1878