To commit a fraud… leave your hat off!

August 1750

The breathless but smartly dressed clerk had clearly left the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street in a hurry, not even bothering to stop and put his hat on in his haste, nor to remove the pen which was stuck clumsily in his wig. When, on Leadenhall Street, a short distance away, he caught up with the lady who had just received a 50l. note from the bank, she had no reason to doubt the clerk’s words: that he had been sent to chase after her as it was thought there had been a mistake made in issuing the note. Could he, the clerk asked, see it?

South view of the church of St Andrew Undershaft, on Leadenhall Street.
South view of the church of St Andrew Undershaft, on Leadenhall Street. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The absence of a hat as well as the pen stuck in his wig clearly backed up his story. What else could he be but a bank clerk who had been dispatched post haste after the bank’s customer? The lady had no hesitation in handing over the note which the clerk checked and, with a look of relief, confirmed it was all correct and in order; the clerk handed the note back to the grateful woman before hurrying back to his desk.

By the time the lady opened the note, and found herself staring at a piece of white paper with a few handwritten lines on it, the conman and her 50l. note had both vanished into thin air.

The Bank of England (on the left) and the Royal Exchange.
The Bank of England (on the left) and the Royal Exchange. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

January 1761

A naval gentleman was preparing to travel from London to Portsmouth, and a trunk containing his clothes, a set of silver spoons and eight guineas was to be sent separately; the night before his intended departure, a porter was sent with the trunk from the naval officer’s lodgings in Aldersgate Street to Leadenhall Street’s Black Bull Inn, to get it on the next coach.

At the gate of the inn the porter was met by a man who introduced himself as a book-keeper employed at the inn; the book-keeper asked the porter what his business was.

The porter had no reason to doubt the book-keeper, for the man appeared to be exactly that, right down to the pen stuck in his wig (the book-keeper wasn’t wearing a hat).

A later depiction of the Bull Inn on Leadenhall Street by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.
A later depiction of the Bull Inn on Leadenhall Street by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“You came too late, Friend,” said the book-keeper, “the coach is just set out, but I’ll take care of [the trunk]; it shall remain safe in the warehouse, and go by Monday’s coach”. The book-keeper patted his pockets before exclaiming in annoyance, “Ha! That foolish blockhead, our porter, has taken the key with him”. He asked the porter to “step over to that alehouse over the way” and ask the inn’s porter to give him the key to the warehouse, while he, the book-keeper, kept guard over the trunk.

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that when the naval gentleman’s porter returned with the key, both the book-keeper and the trunk had disappeared into London’s dark streets.

Both frauds occurred in Leadenhall Street and, even though there is almost eleven years between the two, it’s tempting to think that it was the same brazen and perhaps opportunistic conman who committed both crimes, his disguise merely the lack of a hat and a pen, stuck carelessly in his wig.

Sources:

Derby Mercury, 17 August 1750

Newcastle Courant, 18 August 1750

Sussex Advertiser, 12 January 1761

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