Simplicity and cupidity
Victorian Bournemouth (142) investigates the report of a criminal long firm operating in the resort during the 1870s. A long firm, despite its creation of an image of reputation and trust, ordered goods with no intention of payment. They made money by selling the items received or by pawning them. In January 1880, the police arrested Bennett Barnes, a grocer based in Springbourne, on suspicion of his involvement in this practice.
Victorian Bournemouth (142): long firms at work
Long firms as a method of conducting fraud
During the 1870s the press contained many references to trials of men charged with operating long-firms. They relied on a supplier’s willingness to despatch goods on promise of immediate settlement. One journalist described the mechanics: ‘simplicity and cupidity combined are thus the two main props of swindlers’. The men involved often used aliases. Their companies had changeable identities, often shifting their locations. Police, raiding long firms’ offices, would find masses of paperwork as well as unsold stolen goods. The firms operated at a national level, relying on the growing rail network for deliveries. Bennett Barnes, for example, took deliveries of fish ordered from Billingsgate merchants at his premises in Springbourne. Success depended not only the cupidity of suppliers but the ability to exchange the stolen goods for cash. In 1877, Morris Cohen received ten years for acting as a fence to long-firms, ‘the friend of a hundred petty thieves’.
Examples during the 1870s
Long-firms traded in both mundane and exotic goods. Morris Cohen dealt in anvils, saddles, and sewing machines. One gang ordered over 150,000 bricks from a supplier. Barnes took deliveries of fish, another group potatoes. Charles Eagleton combined marriage with fraud, once ordering goods ‘widely and lavishly throughout the kingdom’. Taking absence in America, on return, the scale of his ‘purchasing’ attracted the police. ‘Three well-dressed Germans’ operated in the international wine trade, on one occasion ordering £1,400 worth of goods. A pair of men posed as buying agents, working on behalf of a ‘native princess’ in India. They aimed to acquire carriages of a quality to suit her station. Men involved in long firms came from all social levels. Bennett Barnes came from an artisan household. Another firm, however, combined ‘agents’, a pawnbroker, and a traveller, but also a claimed clerk in holy orders and a barrister.
Victorian Bournemouth (142): a long firm reaches into Bournemouth
Arrest of Bennett Barnes
On the 22nd of January 1880, George Harvey, a Metropolitan police detective, used the side-door to enter a shop located in Springbourne. In the course of the visit, he arrested Bennett Barnes on suspicion of acting as part of a long firm based in Southwark. Both natives of Poole, Harvey had known Barnes for twenty years, but had not seen him for the last twelve. Barnes displayed little guile. “Bless me, Mr. Harvey, if I had known you were coming for me, I would have come and met you”. Harvey confiscated several piles of papers found upstairs before handcuffing Barnes for the return rail trip to London. Once in custody, Barnes gave evidence about his connection with other members of the gang. This account of his arrest featured in a case heard at The Old Bailey, categorising in detail the activities of a long-firm in which Barnes played an important role.
The firm’s activities
The firm operated from 6, Three Crown Square, Borough, Southwark, two small, upstairs rooms. On the building’s exterior they hung the sign ‘British and Foreign Bank’. The gang proceeded to issue many purchase orders for a range of items. The first, small order they paid in full, but they did not so comply on subsequent larger consignments. They proved impervious to all attempts made by suppliers to obtain payment, once a man tried five times on one day. Sometimes, they offered discount bills larger than the amount owing, asking for (and in some cases receiving) the balance in cash. Bennett Barnes ordered and received goods. They often used an alias or, when asked for by name, offered another identity. After diligent and extensive work conducted by both the police and the Treasury’s barrister, the matter came to trial. Four, including Barnes, received five years’ imprisonment, the last only a year.
Victorian Bournemouth (142): discussion
Literacy and technology
The case has interest for the detail that permits a reconstruction of the gang’s social profiles and methods. Their methodology relied in part on paperwork, both transactional and financial. Piles of correspondence, discounted bills, and pawn tickets taken by the police illustrated the white-collar nature of their crime. Prison listings recorded the men as ‘well-educated’, even Laird, the labourer. In 1881, occupations for the men, now in prison, matched those recorded earlier: dealer, agent. An earlier census listed Wymark as a coal merchant. Thus, they perhaps belonged to the middling people. The operation also benefitted from an organised postal and railway network. A directory listing for Wymark gave one commercial address as Colchester Station. ‘All Barnes’s memoranda were addressed from Bournemouth, but he ordered the fish at about half a dozen different stations.’ These advances in the Victorian national infrastructure helped the gang to defraud people at a distance.
The participation of Bennett Barnes in the gang raises interest about the involvement of a Bournemouth residence in a London fraud syndicate. He appears to have regarded it as an established lifestyle. When asked what his girlfriend thought of his arrest, he said ‘.. she is getting pretty well used to it now; she has seen me taken four times before’. Although operating in Springbourne, at a distance from London, Bennett failed to dissuade the jury of his full involvement. They punished him to the same level as the other main conspirators. His operations suggest a network of sufficient width to reach not only his gangster colleagues, based in London, but also one of the police’s lead detectives, George Harvey. His activities, therefore, illustrate how, by the 1870s, Bournemouth’s commercial residents might operate on a national level in the pursuit of their business and sourcing of goods for resale.
Victorian Bournemouth (142) has investigated a substantial fraud perpetrated on many victims by a London long firm which had a resort resident as a member. Bennett Barnes, a well-educated member of the commercial, middling group, played an integral role in the fraud by using his grocery business as an address for ordering and receiving stolen goods. The case illustrates how national improvements in education, communication, and distributive infrastructure might encourage crime as well as commercial and social advancement.