Fraud and Deceit
A Great Linford Author Accused
Every community suffers its share of rogues, and Great Linford had Alfred Ernest Druce, an aspiring author with a side-line it seems in petty fraud. Alfred was born in 1871 in Deanshanger, in the south of Northamptonshire. His father was a farmer of no great wealth, but as the tale is told, his son had had the good fortune to come under the patronage of Lord Penrhyn of Wales, who paid for Alfred to attend Pembroke College in Oxford, where he matriculated (graduated) aged 21 years on October 28th 1892. It should have been the stepping stone to a good respectable career, and in 1901 we find him apparently achieving just that, making a living as a private tutor.
At this time he is boarding with his married sister Nellie Knight in Wolverton, which seems likely was the place he co-wrote a book called “Ray Farley” under the pen name of Ernest Druce, having dropped the Alfred. His co-author was John Moffat (his name actually is listed first on the cover), who appears to have been something of a man about town with political ambitions; indeed Druce was his political agent during an unsuccessful run for the parliamentary seat of Paisley in 1905. Both men fell out with the local association of the Liberal Unionist party in somewhat opaque circumstance and were obliged to resign that same year.
Their novel was published with some fanfare toward the end of 1901 with large advertisements placed in newspapers by the publisher. The novel was called after it’s eponymous hero and to give an idea of its merits, a review appeared in a number of newspapers talked positively of a book, “bristling with amusing realistic incidents” and gives it the ultimate accolade of comparing it favourably to Dickens.
There were alas also negative reviews, and it seems the illustrator was not so keen either. Hugh Thomson was a well-known artist who had illustrated books by the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and J. M. Barrie, so it must be considered something of a coup that his services were retained, but it was said of the commission that it was, “a somewhat old-fashioned and melodramatic romance, in which the artist found but little inspiration.” Unfortunately the book has slipped into obscurity and copies are now extremely rare, so I can offer no personal opinion as to the quality of the writing, Dickensian or otherwise.
While working with Moffat, Druce was continuing to pursue his writing, turning his hand to sonnets, some of which were published in the Paisley Daily Express newspaper in 1904. A new book followed in 1908 called “Sonnet’s to a Lady”, but by 1909 his life appears to be unravelling. Here we learn from Newspaper reports that he has been living in Great Linford with his sister Kathleen Baker and her husband in a house rented by Druce. It seems possible that “Sonnet’s to a Lady” was conceived and written in Great Linford, but had not sold well. It was perhaps this failure that drove Druce to attempt a new money making scheme that was to see him brought before a London court accused of attempted fraud.
The story that unfolds in a pre-trial hearing is that Druce had represented himself to “The Goldsmiths; and Silvesmiths’ Company” of Regent Street, London as the friend of an old customer, and it must be said, somewhat credulously, they had agreed on this basis to send him £410 worth of jewellery on credit. Druce had claimed in his letter to the jewellers that he was looking for a diamond pendant for a lady and duly returned 15 of 18 items he had received, but of the remaining items no payment was forthcoming, and when the jewellers sent a representative to Great Linford to pursue payment, discovered that Druce was in no position to pay. They demanded the return of their property, but here the story takes a doubtful turn for the accused, as testimony is given by a “Doctor Whickham of Great Linford” (a Doctor Henry Whickham had a practice at about this time in Newport Pagnell) to the effect that Druce had approached him during a rain storm, and there beneath a tree had offered him an item of jewellery at a considerable discount, claiming for its providence that he had friends in the South African diamond trade.
The prosecution then makes the claim that Druce had tried a similar subterfuge on other firms, and express their outrage that his sister had travelled to London and attempted to convince the court that she was able to cover bail of £100 when, “she lived in a 4 shilling a week cottage.” Adding spice to the story, we hear from his brother-in-law, Alfred Baker, a lamp lighter, that Druce had been keeping the company of a lady from, “a well to do family” in the district, but he “could not say that they were engaged”, which caused some amusement in the court. Was she perhaps the eponymous lady of the “sonnets” and lacking the financial ability to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed, had Druce succumbed to temptation.
Whatever the case, the court ordered that Druce be tried, and here somehow came a stroke of good fortune. At a brief appearance on Thursday September 23rd 1909, the prosecution declined to present any evidence and the judge effectively instructed the jury to find Druce not guilty. And there, presuming that Druce had simply made an innocent mistake, might his trouble with the law have ended, but unfortunately that first verdict is cast into serious doubt by future events.
Barely a year later, Druce is back in court, charged with a crime that seems all too similar to his first brush with the law, and this time he would not be so lucky. Now a resident of Silver Street in Newport Pagnell, his target this time was hotels, to which he wrote letters extolling the qualities of a cigar he had enjoyed there, and could they send him fifty for which he would then pay by return. Druce was a con man, and the prosecution had the letters (numbering over twenty) to prove it. He was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment.
And that was not the end of it! In 1912 he was back in court again, charged yet again with receiving goods without intent to pay, this time Harris Tweed and a litany of additional charges running to “seven yards long”. In his testimony, described as an “extraordinary tale”, the jury heard a story involving an alleged meeting on the yacht of a millionaire with the “principle Harris Tween manufacturer in the Kingdom” and a vial of poison. He and two accomplices were sentenced to nine months hard labour each. Perhaps in hindsight he should have turned his hand to crime fiction, though as a redemptive postscript to this story, it seems that Druce reformed in later years and returned quietly to teaching. He was never seen again in Great Linford.
The coming of the railway created the opportunity for a new kind of crime, dodging fares, hence we find a number of such cases reported, such as David Riley, a labourer of Great Linford, who was successfully prosecuted for travelling without a ticket on July 6th, 1901. Admitting his offence, he was fined 10 shillings with 14 shillings costs, plus the 3p cost of the fare. He also found himself fined for using foul language when challenged at Great Linford railway station. Unable to pay the fines, he was committed to a total of 14 days hard labour, a heavy sentence for the sake of avoiding 3p.
However, it seems that not only the common man felt it a burden to pay the allotted fare, though William Francis Uthwatt of Great Linford Manor protested that it had simply slipped his mind to buy a ticket upon alighting at Bletchley station. Uthwatt was travelling on a season ticket which allowed him to travel as far north as Weedon in Northamptonshire, but on the night of March 28th, 1906, was observed alighting from a train further north at Rugby , which had itself arrived from Leamington. He neither gave up a ticket nor attempted to buy one and continued on to Bletchley. Here he was challenged and replied “season”, but on being asked to present his ticket and it being suggested that he had in fact travelled from north of Weedon, he admitted to travelling from Rugby, but omitted the leg from Leamington. The court took a dim view of his excuse of having got used to saying “season” and that he had forgotten the need to buy tickets. He was duly fined £2 and costs of £2, 2 shillings. Interestingly other reported cases of fare dodging give a clue as to how Uthwatt was shadowed on his journey, as it seems to was the practice of the railways to send telegrams on to connecting stations asking that suspected fare dodgers be watched for.