Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


The money-lender—His style of living—His victims—The regular course of events— “The — Bank of Deposit”—Its rules and manner of conducting its business—An illegal act connived at—A case in point— The jury stops the case—Discounting tailors—Experiences of a comrade—Leviathan money-lenders—A good-natured act.
   ALTHOUGH conducted on slightly altered lines, the trade of the usurer is carried on as extensively to-day as it was half a century ago. The possibilities of profit being great, the supply continues to keep well abreast of the demand, which is, always has been, and probably always will be, very con­siderable.
   The modern borrower is not asked to take half the pro­ceeds of his bills in coal or paving-stones, and the other half in cash; but I do not think that his experiences are, on the whole, much more pleasant than were those of his predecessor.
   As a rule the young heir to property, be he nobleman or commoner, passes through the hands of the small bill-dis­counter before he has recourse to the money-lender. His bills have been met at maturity by the discounting of others for larger amounts, and the latter have subsequently been dis­honoured. That is the history of events in the generality of cases; and, matters being thus brought to a crisis, the un­happy debtor, acting on the advice of a friend—who is not always a disinterested party—goes for accommodation to the financier. “Put yourself entirely in his hands,” says the friend, “and give him the whole control of your affairs, and he’ll be sure to. pull you through, don’t you know.” This course it agreed to, and an introduction is at once arranged.
   [-210-] It may be interesting to pause for a moment to enquire what manner of man this financier is. To begin with, he occupies fine offices in a fashionable quarter of London ; he has an attractive place in the country, with good shooting; he drives a four-in-hand; and, in a word, he keeps up rather imposing appearances. He has been engaged in his usurious calling during the best part of his life, and from time to time has embarked in speculations that have not always turned out well, as his appearance more than once in the Bankruptcy Court, for very large amounts of debt, has testified.
   The financier’s victims are for the most part young gentlemen possessed of large reversionary properties, or noblemen whose estates are much encumbered. They are informed that there is somebody in the background possessed of considerable resources, and they are told of schemes or companies in course of developement which are represented as being sure in the end to yield magnificent returns. They are financed partly in cash and partly in shares, and the roseate prospect is held out to them, not only of their being freed from temporary embarrassment, but also of their debts and other encumbrances being eventually spirited away. The flies look upon the spider as their best friend. In other words, the young gentlemen invite the financier to their rooms or houses, take him to their clubs, and generally introduce him into society, thereby, of course, bringing fresh victims within his reach.
   It is almost unnecessary to indicate the course that events take. The reversions having become mortgaged up to the hilt, the properties are ultimately brought to the hammer and dis­posed of at the most ruinous sacrifice. Like the three-card trick, this sort of thing is continually going on, though it has been exposed times out of mind.
   I have been engaged as counsel in many money-lending cases of which the facts were of a kind to come within the purview of a criminal court. The prosecution, however, rarely succeeded, the parties defrauded being content to recover a portion of their money, and the defendants, fearing the verdict of the jury, being equally content to avoid penal servitude by disgorging a portion of their ill-gotten gains.
   There is perhaps even a worse blood-sucker than the financier just described. I allude to the money-lender who finds his victims in the middle and poorer classes. As a rule he opens, in some busy part of the town, an establishment on which he causes to be inscribed, in large gilt letters: “The —— [-211-] Bank of Deposit.” On a brass-plate or board appears the following announcement: “Money lent on bills of sale, notes of hand, etc., on the easiest terms. Enquire within.”
   Those members of the British public who act upon the invitation conveyed in the last two words of the above an­nouncement, are furnished with a book of rules, questioned as to the nature of the securities they have to offer, requested to pay a small sum to cover the cost of preliminary enquiries, and finally informed that their business will be promptly attended to. On subsequently reading the book of rules they will learn that the money can be advanced on a bill of sale on all their worldly goods, the loan being repayable by monthly instalments of principal and interest ; and if they will make a little independent calculation for themselves, they will find that the latter comes out at something over one hundred per cent. The rules also set forth the fines that will be imposed if the instalments are not paid on the day they fall due.
   On the premises are needy solicitors, or parties practising as solicitors, who, in most cases, are paid by salary. When the bill of sale is put in force, and the wretched debtors are deprived of all their goods, the worthy banker receives, not only the amount of his loan, but also a considerable sum for costs, which are charged on the most exorbitant scale. As a rule, too, a broker is attached to the offices, and a similarly heavy charge is made for his services.
   When a person of the better class falls into the clutches of these worthies, they bind him hand and foot. Very frequently. they get him completely-into their power by causing hini, almost unconsciously, to commit an illegal act. Let us suppose that there is a reversion payable at the death of the borrowers father or mother, of say, ten thousand pounds. In the first place the usurer makes an advance thereon of a few hundred pounds, charging interest at the rate of from sixty to a hundred per cent., and he then sets himself to find out some­thing about the antecedents of his client. It may be that the latter has already mortgaged his reversion for a small sum, and, it so, the fact js likely to be promptly discovered by the usurer by means of a sort of freemasonry that exists between men of his calling.
   In due time the borrower, having spent the money that has been advanced to him, will apply for a second loan, where­upon the man of finance will casually remark:
   “Before lending you any further sums, of course I under-[-212-]stand that you have never raised money on this security before-from anybody else?”
   Anxious above all things to secure the loan, the borrower will reply
   “Oh, that’s all right; you may be quite easy on that score.”
   “Very well,” says the money-lender, smiling complacently, “then the matter can be very easily arranged. I shall, how­ever, want you to make a statutory declaration to that effect. It is a mere matter of form. Just step with me next door, where there is a commissioner for taking oaths and declara­tions. It can all be arranged in five minutes, and then you shall have the money. They have, I know, printed forms on the premises for this purpose. One of these can be filled up while we are smoking a couple of cigarettes in the private office ; and then all you’ve got to do is to sign your name.”
   The borrower overcomes any scruples that may trouble him, the office is entered, the signature is duly appended, and a few minutes afterwards the second loan is advanced.
   What has happened is this: the borrower, by attaching his signature to this document, has placed himself within the grasp of the criminal law, for an Act of Parliament has been passed which enacts that any person making a false statutory declara­tion is guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable, upon conviction, to a long term of imprisonment.
   Further advances are made, and for some little while every­thing goes quite smoothly. At length, however, comes a time of friction. It may be that the wretched man attempts to break the chains which bind him, either by borrowing money elsewhere or by refusing to pay the enormous interest he is charged; or, again, it may be that the money-lender, consider­ing the security already sufficiently mortgaged, refuses to make some further loan that is desired. The crisis having arrived, the usurer’s course of action is simplicity itself. Pretending to be extremely indignant, he accuses his victim of fraud, and threatens to take him before a magistrate on a charge of obtaining money by false pretences—a course which, having regard to the untruth contained in the statutory declaration, is quite open to him. This threat, however, is very rarely carried into effect, for the borrower usually has wealthy relatives, who, in order to avoid the disgrace of a public exposure, will, in nine cases out of ten, come forward and pecuniarily assist him.
   [-213-] Some few people, of course, when they have landed them­selves into the embarrassing position I have indicated, have the courage to stand their ground and face the worst.
   In my professional career at the Bar I was connected with many cases in which the usurer and his debtor figured, and though in the majority of instances a settlement was arrived at between the committal for trial and the preferring of the indictment, it did occasionally happen that the case went to a Jury.
   The prosecution of R—, a lieutenant in a regiment of Dragoons, was a case in point. He had fallen into the hands of one of the pseudo-bankers, and had gone through precisely the experiences I have described. The reversion was a large one, and the advances had been considerable. A rupture having taken place between the parties, an application was made at Marlborough Street, before the late Mr. Knox, who committed the defendant for trial, but, on my application, admitted him to bail on his own recognisances.
   During the interval before the date fixed for the trial at the Central Criminal Court, the prosecution made repeated overtures with a view to bring about a private settlement. In each case the purport of these negotiations was reported to me, but my invariable answer was that, the matter having been treated as a crime, it should not be trifled with ; that I would be no party to a compromise; and that if anything of the kind were contemplated, I must insist upon the brief being taken elsewhere.
   The accused was the heir of his grandfather, an elderly Baronet, and, a few -days before the Sessions - commenced, the solicitor instructing me asked whether I had any objection to the old gentleman attending the consultation, he being, I was informed, very desirous of doing so. I raised no oppo­sition, and accordingly, when the conference took place, the Baronet was present.
   The old ground was gone over again, and once more suggestions for a settlement were considered. Upon my giving my experiences of the particular individual we had to deal with, and reiterating my determination to be no party to a compromise, the old gentleman suddenly jumped up, and, seizing me by the hand, energetically exclaimed:
   “You are right, sir, you are right. We will fight the rascal to the death.”
   “Not quite that, sir, I think,” remarked the solicitor, a [-214-] quiet, bland, gentlemanly little man. “Having regard to the information I have prepared for Mr. Williams respecting the prosecutor, and bearing in mind that Mr. Williams already knows a good deal about him, I doubt very much, when it comes to the point, whether we shall see him in the box at all.”
   “You are wrong there, for once in your life,” said I. “I know this man, and his assurance is his strong point. I shall be much obliged to you for any materials you may have for cross-examination, though they will be scarcely necessary, for this man and I have met before in courts of justice.”
   Other matters having been discussed, and I having given the solicitor particular instructions to give the prosecutor the necessary notices to produce all his books, the conference came to an end.
   In due course the trial took place. As I had prophesied, the prosecutor did not shirk the ordeal of cross-examination. He was, indeed, the first witness called. With a genial smile upon his face, this young man, faultlessly attired and wearing a flower in his button-hole, leapt gaily into the witness-box, yet not so quickly as he afterwards tumbled out again, after undergoing about as bad a quarter of an hour as ever a witness experienced. Suffice it to say, without wearying the reader with details, that the jury stopped the case, and acquitted the prisoner, before my cross-examination was half concluded.
   This happened a great many years ago. The last I heard of my antagonist was that he had migrated to the West End, where he had established a large and lucrative money-lending business, and that, so far as personal management was con­cerned, he had recently retired from it. I further learnt that he had bought a large stud of race-horses, and had very nearly succeeded in getting into one of the first training establish­ments at Newmarket. It appeared, however, that, some particulars of his early career having leaked out, he had been baulked in this, among other efforts to get into smart society.
   There is another class of money-lenders, though I believe they are not nearly so numerous in the present day as they were when I was a young man and in the Army. I allude to the subalterns’ friends, the discounting tailors. They were always willing to oblige young fellows who ordered uniforms from them, and who were good customers in other ways. Of course it would never have done, in the event of a bill being dishonoured, for the tailor to sue, as he would inevitably [-215-] thereby have lost his customer and got into bad odour with the regiment; therefore the paper was always endorsed away, the discounter usually urging, as his reason for the transfer, that he was momentarily pressed for money.
   In my time there was a tailor in Jermyn Street who did a large business in this way, and who, in his financial as well as in his sartorial capacity, was greatly patronised by the officers in the regiment of which I was a member. I shall never for­get the monetary experiences of a comrade of mine named G—, who was of a very simple and trusting disposition. He had a bill discounted for a hundred and fifty pounds, and just before it reached maturity he wrote to the tailor asking for three months’ renewal, stating that he was quite unable, for the time being, to pay the money. The tailor, in reply, wrote that he had been forced to endorse the bill away, but that the present holder would probably raise no objection to a renewal.
   One morning G—— burst into my room wearing a very doleful expression of countenance. He had communicated with the holder of the bill, whose reply he now held in his hand.
   “What the deuce is to be done?” exclaimed G——. “He won’t hear about a renewal, and I can’t possibly pay at present. He says that if the money isn’t forthcoming by return of post, proceedings will at once be taken.” -
   The letter was signed by a doctor (a quack, as we afterwards found) who resided in Albemarle Street.
   We discussed the matter at considerable length, and G ultimately decided, very much against my advice, to run up to town and see his new creditor for the purpose of arranging matters. This he did with a vengeance, and his description of what took place was very amusing.
   “On knocking at the door in Albemarle Street,” he said, “I was received by a footman in livery, who showed me into a gorgeously furnished drawing-room on the first floor. I was kept waiting some little time, and then a man of Jewish appear­ance and very fashionably dressed came in. I didn’t care for the job at all, as you can understand, and I felt pretty nervous and shaky. The fellow said he was Dr. —— and asked me what I was suffering from. I couldn’t imagine what in the world he meant, and began to stammer out some sort of answer, when it suddenly occurred to me that he took me for a patient, and so I did what I could in the way of a laugh, and told him [-216-] there was nothing the matter with my bodily, health, but that I was suffering from temporary impecuniosity. He put on a puzzled expression, though, ‘pon my word, I believe he knew what I was after all the time. He must have recognised my name, don’t you see, because I had sent in my card. I told him about the renewal I wanted, and then he said: ‘Oh, yes, you are Mr. G—— of the —th regiment; I remember now. But you know I never interfere with these matters myself, leaving them all to my lawyers. If you’ll get into a hansom with me, and drive round to Messrs. ——, in Bedford Row, I’ve no doubt whatever the matter can be arranged in five minutes.’”
   It appeared that the two at once got into a cab and drove to the lawyers’ office, the Doctor being excessively talkative and pleasant on the journey. When they reached their destination, G—— was accommodated with a chair in an outer office, his companion passing into an inner apartment in order to see one of the partners. Half an hour went by, and the poor subaltern was beginning to feel very unhappy and fidgety, when a clerk appeared, carrying a piece of paper, and re­quested him to be so good as to sign it. Never doubting that the document was a renewal of the bill, my ingenuous comrade, without troubling to read one single word contained therein, at once appended his signature. The clerk retook possession of the document, and, producing another from his pocket, handed it to the visitor, together with a slip of paper on which the following was written
   “My client, Dr. ——, sends his compliments, and wishes me to say that there is no necessity for detaining you any further. He has other business to transact here, and trusts therefore you will excuse him. You can peruse the accompanying paper as you drive home in the cab, which is still at the door.” -
   Delighted to be released from the stuffy office, and being overjoyed at what he believed to be so successful an outcome of his visit, my friend seized his hat, ran downstairs, and telling the Jehu to drive to the Rag, jumped into the cab and was driven off. Imagine his horror when, some five minutes later, on casually glancing at the document that had been given to him, he read these words: “Victoria, by the Grace of God.” The truth immediately flashed upon him—he had been served with a copy of a writ. What, then, was the other paper he had signed? He could not guess, and was too frightened to go back to the lawyers’ office and enquire.
   [-217-] My friend returned to Walmer the same night, and lost no time in seeking me out and informing me of the latest phase that his troubles had entered. In those days I was as ignorant of such matters as a man well could be, and so it was in vain that we both puzzled our brains as to the meaning of what had taken place. We were, however, not long left in doubt. Two days afterwards, as he was proceeding from the barrack square to his quarters, my friend was arrested for debt at the suit of Dr. —, of Albemarle Street. It appeared that the docu­ment he had signed at the office was a judgement by confession, and from the moment his pen had left the paper he had been liable to be taken by the Sheriff’s officer.
   The money was paid without much difficulty, and the victim released, but not before the creditor had received the hundred and fifty pounds, together with interest at the-rate of sixty per cent., and a considerable additional sum for costs.
   There have been from time immemorial, and always no doubt will be, one or two Leviathan money-lenders who transact business on a gigantic scale. Notable among these was the late Mr. P——, so well known for many years on the tort. lie employed as a sort of jackal a well-known London solicitor, who usually arranged the loans in the first instance. As soon, however, as the nobleman or landed proprietor had been well secured, the principal discovered himself, and thenceforth conducted the business in person. Some of the largest estates in the country passed into his hands, and were manipulated by him.
   Then, again, there was Mr. Leopold Sampson, a really remarkable man. It was his boast that he enjoyed every moment of his life, and denied himself none of the good things of this world. He lived in a large mansion not a hundred miles from Park Lane, and rode the best horses that money could procure. His wife’s equipages were among the very smartest to be seen in London. When enjoying good health, he would never miss his morning ride in the Row, which he seemed to enjoy very thoroughly.
   Everybody knew him, at any rate by sight, and he would often rein up to exchange a word or two with a passing acquaintance. It might be, for instance, an officer in the Life Guards, whom he would, perhaps, address in some such words as these:
   “I had a piece of luck yesterday, of which I know, Captain, [-218-] you will be glad to hear. Mr. ——, of yours, who went such a dreadful mucker over last year’s Derby and had to send in his papers, was nine thousand pounds in my debt, and I never expected to see a penny of the money again. Imagine my surprise, then, yesterday morning, when I received a cheque from him for seven thousand on account. But then, you see, usurer as I am, I pride myself on generally dealing with gentle­men, and I flatter myself that I rarely make a mistake.”
   When away from his business Mr. Sampson was a confirmed gambler. He visited Newmarket at nearly all the meetings, and was a familiar figure on nearly every racecourse in England. His bets were never small ones. A constant visitor at Spa and Monte Carlo, he once succeeded, I believe, at the latter place, in breaking the bank.
   Mr. Sampson was never ashamed of his trade, regarding which he was wont to remark:
   “I conduct it in the best and fairest way I believe it can be conducted. I don’t seek people out; it’s their own doing, and their own fault, if they come to me.”
   Few, if any, persons were ever heard to speak ill of him, and some anecdotes that were told of him reflected greatly to his credit. Here is one, the facts of which came within my own knowledge.
   A professional man, who was extremely clever in his own vocation, but little versed in the ways of the world, once got into temporary difficulties, and needed a loan of two hundred pounds. Having heard of Mr. Sampson, he called at his office, and requested him to discount a bill for that amount. The financier received him very courteously, and said:
   “I should be delighted, Mr. ——,to oblige you in this or any other way, but you have somewhat mistaken the nature of my business. I don’t touch these small matters, and if I did I should be obliged to charge you an amount of interest which in the end might place you in greater difficulties than you have to face at present. I am sure you could take the bill up at the end of three months, or, as a gentleman, you would never have called here and represented that you would be able to do so. I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll exchange cheques with you for that period. Here,” he added, taking pen in hand and writing in his cheque-book, ‘~is one for two hundred pounds. You let me have yours for a similar amount dated this day Three months. Not a word of thanks, my dear sir. Good morning”
   [-219-] Of course there are a number of money-lenders who send out circulars and advertise in the newspapers, but they have been so repeatedly shown up lately that I do not propose to treat of them here.
   After all, I think that the most straightforward members of the calling are those whose scale of interest is regulated by Act of Parliament, whose symbol is the three balls, and whose motto, appearing in large gilt letters, is “Money Lent.”

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