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




The company promoter—The gullible British public—Leopold Stiff—His office—I visit him there— He is ‘‘so busy “—A remarkable sight—. An invitation to dinner—Mixed company—Excellent entertainment— The Gull Gold Mine, Limited— Wound up—Stiff arrested—Committed for trial—The Old Bailey—A great crowd—The trial—Sentence —From the West End to Millbank.

    THERE is no more remarkable being in the city of London, with its many curious trades and vocations, than the company promoter. He has existed there, and flourished like a green
   bay-tree, for many years past. Though everybody knows him, either personally or by reputation, there is in all quarters much uncertainty as to his origin and antecedents. The successful company promoters are enormously wealthy, they have palaces at Kensington or mansions in Grosvenor Square, besides charming places in the country, and they are usually aspirants—and, it may be, not unsuccessful aspirants— for Parliamentary honours. They are, as a rule, Conserva­tives in politics, and have a large circle of titled acquaintances —impecunious lords, baronets, generals, admirals, and the like. The latter, who are termed “guinea pigs,” figure as directors of the companies launched by their City friends.
   The promoters drive to their business in well-appointed broughams, drawn by high-stepping horses. They are re­markably particular in their dress, and wear a good deal of jewellery, their massive rings being particularly conspicuous. Altogether their appearance, both in the City and in the West End, is calculated to impress the casual observer.
   [-164-] Quick at figures, cool-headed, and gifted with a retentive memory, the company promoter is an excellent business man. There is a good deal of variety in his work. He transforms all manner of going concerns from private enterprises into share investments for the public. One day it is soap; the next, candles; then an hotel or a theatre, and so on. He also finds capital for, and works—by syndicate, or as a company —mines, valuable and valueless. His ability in placing an undertaking before the public in an alluring form is marvellous. What prophetic visions of wealth for those who are wise enough to subscribe What dividends await the investor—if he will only walk into the parlour! How eagerly the public rushes to secure shares in the Brobdingnagian Diamond Mine, the South African Auriferous Dust Company, and the Borneo Sea Salt Company!
   There is no one so gullible as an ordinary member of the British public. He will invest his last penny in an undertaking of which he knows absolutely nothing, although if he reads his newspaper, he must be perfectly well aware that kindred enter­prises have, times without number, been exposed as out-and-out swindles. This starting of bogus companies is very like the confidence trick, the ring dropping, and the painted sparrow.
   Of course, the “fat,” as it is termed, goes in a great measure to the promoter, and between him and the poor investor there are usually several individuals with their mouths very wide open.
   Many a company promoter, when he has amassed con­siderable riches, retires from business, and, as one of the moneyocracy, gives sumptuous dinners and splendid receptions, and, by these and other means, gradually elbows his way into fashionable society. With some of these individuals, however, things take a very different turn, as the history I am about to relate will show.
   At the time when I was reading for the Bar, and eating my dinners at the hospitable board of the Inner Temple, no man was better known as a financier and company pro­moter than Leopold Stiff. Scarcely a new venture was launched but he manipulated the ropes. He had a finger in every pie.
   Mr. Stiff’s office, which was not a hundred miles from the Old Jewry, was more like an enormous bank than a private establishment. The bustle and commotion that went on there [-165-] were astonishing. All day long people passed in and out, upstairs and downstairs, dozens of clerks hurried hither and thither, doors slammed, bells rang, and everywhere were noise and movement.
   The premises themselves were built in the most costly style, and were an ornament to the thoroughfare. Several broughams and hansom cabs were usually to be seen waiting in the road­way outside.
   On entering the building the visitor passed up a broad marble staircase, and his progress was likely to be impeded by the. number of persons ascending and descending. In the throng were noblemen, officers in the Army, clergy­men, fashionably-attired ladies, mothers and wives of the middle class, and, in fact, all sorts and conditions of men and women.
   At the head of the stairs stood a page in livery, who was available for taking the visitor’s card into Mr. Stiff’s private office.
   On the ground-floor were any number of little rooms, each of which contained a chair, a writing-table, and a sofa or small settee. Anybody who wished to nave an interview with Mr. Stiff was shown into one of these apartments, where he had to wait until the great man was able to come to him.
   One day I paid him a visit, to enquire as to the value of certain securities. He saw me in one of the rooms I have described, and I must confess that his manner was the per­fection of politeness and affability.
   He explained that he was so busy he scarcely had time to breathe, but that be would make a note of my enquiry, and got his head clerk to write to me on the subject.
   “Good-bye,” said he, shaking me by the hand. - “You must excuse my running away. I have a board meeting going on in room A., and in my large room there are specimens of the gold ore taken from the great Gull Mine, the prospectus of ­which you may have seen. People from all parts of the country have come up to see it. I wish you had been older, for I would have put you on the directorate. I’ve put your friend Colonel S. on. He dined with us at home last night.”
   As we passed out into the corridor a clerk came up and whispered something to him. The next minute he was shaking hands with an elderly gentleman, who was about to be ushered into the little apartment we were leaving.
   [-166-] “I’ll be with you in ten minutes,” said Mr. Stiff to the new corner; “ can’t spare a moment now.”
   He disappeared down the corridor, and the page shut the old gentleman in.
   Before leaving the premises I thought I, would pay a visit to the large room, being rather curious to inspect the speci­mens of the Gull Mine ore. Happening to see one of the livened servants of the establishment I asked him the way thither, and he very graciously volunteered to be my guide.
   A remarkable sight met my eyes as I entered the room. It was crowded with men and women of all classes, inclu­ding country gentlemen, widows, City merchants, and clergymen. Every one was closely inspecting the ore, which lay on tables placed about the apartment, or scrutinising the charts and maps that hung upon the walls.
   Standing in the middle of the throng, chatting very affably with those about him, was Mr. Stiff, whom I was surprised to see, as I had fancied he had left me to return to the board­room. lie was admirably dressed for office purposes, wearing a well-cut black velvet jacket and a double-breasted white waistcoat, across which hung a gold and turquoise watch-chain. He had a ruddy complexion and iron-grey hair, and I do not think I ever saw a man more calculated to inspire persons with confidence. He looked a philanthropist every inch of him. For my part, however, I confess that I had no consuming desire to take shares in the Gull Mine.
   That evening, as I was about to leave the chambers where I was reading, I received a letter answering the enquiry I had made in the morning, and enclosing an invitation to dinner from Mr. and Mrs. Leopold Stiff. I had never been to their house, and as I had a curiosity to go there, I accepted the invitation.
   The house, which was situated in a fashionable quarter of London, was magnificently appointed—in fact, a little too magnificently appointed. As you entered, you were literally mobbed by footmen, who were ablaze with yellow and crimson. The drawing-room was hung with exquisite water­colours, which must have cost any amount of money. It called up a smile to my lips to see the host pointing them out to Lady H., one of the reigning beauties, and  discoursing to her on Art.
   The company was a little mixed. There were one or two [-167-] City magnates and their wives pompously marching about the room, the Marquis and Marchioness of A., Lord H. L., whose name, at that time, figured on many boards of directors, and several others ejusdem generis.
   The dinner was excellent, the wine beyond reproach, and the flowers among the choicest I have ever seen. After dinner there was a concert. It was arranged by Signor P., who was the conductor of the Italian Opera at the time, and among the performers were several of the leading lights of the musical world. In fact, I am bound to say that, could one have only forgotten how the money which procured the en­tertainment was acquired, it would have been possible to pass a most enjoyable evening.
   Years rolled by, and it came about that dark clouds gathered over the London money market. A disastrous drought crippled the finances of a foreign land, two large English houses were reported to be hopelessly involved, a panic spread through the City, and half-a-dozen bubble companies burst in a single day. Several directors were prosecuted, and our friend Leopold Stiff was in an extremely bad way.
   It was rumoured that, though apparently ruined, the well-known promoter, having executed some timely settlements, and having, in days gone by, sent large sums of money out of the country, was still a wealthy man. Whether this was so or not I am unable to say. One thing is certain—if he had escaped ruin, a large percentage of those who had placed money in his concerns were less fortunate.
   Of all the companies that had gone to grief, the Gull Gold Mine, Limited, proved to be the greatest swindle. Remark­able as it seems, though some pieces of very rich ore were found on the estate before the company was floated, not another solitary speck was discovered there after the capital had been subscribed.
   Unfortunate individuals in all parts of the country had placed their savings—in some cases to the extent of the last shilling they could scrape together—in the Gull Mine, and the consequence was that when calls were made, prior to the winding up, thousands of persons of all grades were involved in absolute ruin.
   It was rumoured one day in the City that Leopold Stiff had sought an asylum in a foreign land; but this, strangely enough, proved not to be the case. Within forty-eight hours [-168-] a vigilant press informed the country that a warrant had been issued for his apprehension, and that, it having been duly executed, he had made his appearance before the Alderman at the Mansion House.
   It would have been an odd coincidence had the presiding Justice been one of those City magnates who were guests at the sumptuous entertainment I have described as having been —given some years before at the company promoter’s magnificent West End house. This was, I am happy to say, not so; but —which comes to very much the same thing—one of these very individuals, actuated, it may be, by a not unnatural curiosity, was seated throughout the proceedings on the bench beside the Alderman.
   The proceedings, as is usual in this Court, were of a quiet and businesslike nature. Sufficient evidence was tendered to enable the accused to be sent for trial, and the very able counsel who represented him asked but a few questions. Leopold Stiff was committed to take his trial at the next sessions of the Central Criminal Court.
   Bail was applied for and tendered to a very considerable amount, but refused, and the prisoner was conveyed to Newgate in the prison van. An application was afterwards made to the Court of Queen’s Bench for the removal to that—the highest criminal court in the kingdom—of any indictment that might be found against the prisoner at the Old Bailey. This application, as might have been expected, was at once refused. I may remark in passing, that so far as these applications are concerned, things have very much changed since that time.
   The late Lord Chief Justice Cockburn had the greatest objection to sanction such removals, and only did so on rare occasions and under very exceptional circumstances; but now, provided the defendant be a man of means, the application is seldom refused.
   The day for delivering the gaol of Newgate soon arrived, and the date was fixed for the trial of Mr. Leopold Stiff.
   This was, of course, a cause celebre, and the rush of persons seeking to obtain admission to the Court was almost unprece­dented. The number of witnesses, too, was unusually large.
   Has the reader ever visited the Old Bailey while the sessions are on? Possibly not, and he may therefore like me to give some description of the locus in quo.
   Turning to the left from Ludgate Hill you find yourself in a narrow unimportant thoroughfare, with less than its fair share [-169-] of pavement. The roadway is pretty sure to be choked with vans, either lumbering along with Smithfield or some City warehouse as their destination, or hovering about the railway and steamboat goods depot.
   On the right-hand side is the Court-house. What an interesting medley of human beings you find inside the lobby and on the pavement !—weeping women in black shawls, a couple of well-drilled, compassionate policemen, shabby Jews with anxious faces, Bill Sikes and his young woman, a few            detectives, and any number of nondescript males consorting in groups and talking in a whimper.
   Of course there are a few public-houses hard by. You always find them in the immediate vicinity of criminal courts. During the sessions these places do a roaring trade. Witnesses, prisoners’ friends, prosecutors, and solicitors’ clerks mingle together in a heterogeneous mass, all eager for drink, a few for food. The public-house immediately opposite the Court­house is always so full as to be scarcely approachable. I wonder how many alibis have been concocted on those premises, how many prosecutions have been, as they term it, “squared,” and how much false swearing planned!
   Of course, when executions were public the proprietors of these houses, in addition to their ordinary profits, received large sums of money from persons who came from the West End and elsewhere to witness those terrible spectacles. The culprits were hanged early in the morning, and it was no uncommon thing for parties of men and women to proceed to these public-houses overnight, provided with hampers of food and champagne, with which, by way of killing time until the “show” took place, they kept up the most disgraceful orgies throughout the small hours. I was told by the late Mr Jonas, who for a great many years was governor of the gaol, that the scenes which used to be enacted on those premises were a disgrace to civilisation. Happily executions are no longer public.
   There are two entrances to the Old Bailey, one approached from the public thoroughfare, and the other approached from the court-yard of the prison. You reach the latter by passing up some stone steps which are on the right-hand side as you enter through the broad gateway. This entrance is used by the Judges, Aldermen, Sheriffs, and other officers of the Court, by counsel, and, on occasions such as the one to which I am referring, by the few privileged members of the public who [-170-] have been furnished with tickets of admission. In order to prevent a crush, wooden barriers are erected at the bottom and top of the stone steps, and they were certainly needed on the day of Mr. Leopold Stiff’s trial.
   On the occasion in question the roadway outside the Old Bailey was blocked with carriages and hansoms, and from half-past nine to ten o’clock in the morning the pavement and lobby were crowded with people, many of them ladies. The moment the doors of the Court were opened every inch of available space was seized upon, and the Sheriff ordered the outer gates of Newgate to be closed.
   It was a pouring wet morning, and on a rainy or foggy day I don’t think there is a more depressing place in the world than the Old Court of the Old Bailey. There are two doors leading into the Court from the corridor. One is used by the Judges, the Aldermen and Sheriffs, and the few selected visitors, who either take their seats upon the bench or in a contiguous enclosure that looks like a huge private box. The second entrance from the corridor is used by barristers and their clerks, solicitors, and other persons having business in the Court. The centre of the chamber is occupied with seats for the members of the Bar, and below them is the solicitors’ bench. Between the Judge and the jury — both of whom command a fine view of the dock—is the witness-box.
   Underneath the jury-box sits the usher, an individual who must enjoy very little sleep in a natural way at night, for while the trials are on he is rarely to be seen with his eyes open. Once or twice during the day, however, he rouses himself by a great effort and, in stentorian tones, shouts “Silence !“ and this, generally, at a time when everything is so still that you could almost hear a pin drop.
   Over the jury-box are three large windows furnished with reflectors, in front of which hang huge lamps for use in foggy weather.
   Just over the dock is one of the most interesting places in the Court. I refer to a little gallery that is principally used by the friends of the prisoners. Most of the celebrated mur­derers of the century, including Lamson, the Stauntons, the Mannings, and Catherine Wilson—to take a few names at haphazard—were tried in this Court. What scenes those walls have witnessed! What terrible agony have I seen suffered there myself! The cries of despair that have issued from that little gallery from time to time when a verdict has been pro-[-171-]nounced, or a sentence passed, will never be forgotten by those who heard them.
   At length there are the two knocks, and the Judge, the Lord Mayor, and the Sheriffs, preceded by the mace bearer, enter the crowded Court. The prisoner ascends from below into the dock, steps up to the rail, and is called upon by the Clerk of Arraigns to plead to the indictment. “Not guilty,” he replies in a firm voice.
   Leopold Stiff has very little changed in appearance. His hair has grown a shade or two greyer, that is all. The same scrupulous care is observable in his dress, and the same snide plays upon his face.
   The dramatis personae in this most interesting act in a remarkable drama have a peculiar interest for me. At the back of the Court I catch sight of two ladies who were among the guests at the dinner-party I attended at Mr. and Mrs. Stiffs house several years before, and there, ready to ascend the witness-box, is one of the very clergymen whom I had seen handling the gold ore of the Gull Mine.
   Very distinguished counsel appeared for the prisoner, but the result of the trial, which occupied the whole day, was a foregone conclusion. Mr. Leopold Stiff was found guilty, and sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.
   From a West End mansion to Millbank is truly a curious transition!

[---nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.---]