Thursday 13 November 2008

Scandal of Lewisham's first mayor

The closure of the Sydenham branch of Barclays Bank and its reopening as the ACTS Credit Union, opposite the Greyhound, set me thinking about the colourful career of one of its former employees. During the 1880s the bank was known as the London & South Western Bank (it was taken over by Barclays in 1918) and its manager was Theophilus William Williams, a man described (perhaps with some exaggeration) as "the biggest crook the borough has ever known". He was also, for many years, the most powerful political figure in Lewisham (one account describes him as "virtually dictator").

Williams came from humble origins. He was born in a workhouse in East London in 1846. By March 1871 he was lodging in a house in Longton Grove and working as a bank clerk.

In December 1871 he married Jane Dexter, a wealthy heiress, at the Church in the Grove, Jews Walk (now the Grove Centre). Although only a bank clerk his marriage certificate describes him as a "gentleman". Probably from the time of his marriage (he has, after all, married into money) he was living at Shirley House, 133 High Street (now Dartmouth Road, on the site of Sydenham School). By 1876 he had risen to become the manager of the L&SW bank. He had also moved house, to Borrowdale, 13 Westwood Hill (this still survives, on the corner of Lawrie Park Gardens).

Williams was a lay preacher at the Church in the Grove during the 1870s and, apparently, could draw large crowds. However, it was in local politics that he used his oratorical skills to best effect, and through which he pursued his ambitions. In 1876 he was elected to the Lewisham Vestry, and was elected to the Lewisham Board of Works the following year. In 1882 he became Chairman of the Board of Works, a position he held until the board was dissolved in 1900, when the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham was formed. He was then elected Mayor of Lewisham and, in 1901-1902, served a second term in that office. During this time he represented Sydenham on the council. For twenty years, between 1882-1902, he was the most powerful politician in Lewisham. He was also a magistrate, and he represented Lewisham on the LCC.

During the mid 1880s Williams retired from the bank and became proprietor of the Kentish Mail, a small chain of local newspapers. A sympathetic newspaper is perhaps the most useful aid an ambitious politician can have.

It is clear that Williams was a persuasive public speaker, and a person of some charm and charisma. Many years later a former employee described him as "a dominating personality … (with) tremendous charm and forcefulness". He was a veritable model of the Victorian self-made man, with a seemingly selfless devotion to public service. It was during his second term as Mayor, however, that "unwholesome rumours" began to circulate about his private life.

In fact, Williams was not self-made. Other people paid for his respectability and extravagant lifestyle. Through fraud and embezzlement he persuaded them to part with their money. He had, after all, been a bank manager, and people trusted him. He spent both his wife and sister-in-law’s inheritance, under the guise of managing it. He was the trustee of a widow, and lost her money; he embezzled his employees out of their savings (it was claimed he forced them to invest in his companies as a test of loyalty).

It was not until 1908 that matters finally came to a head. He was summoned to appear at Lambeth County Court to face bankruptcy proceedings. The investigation was impeded because Williams had burnt most of his business records. It is clear that his business affairs were highly irregular, involving his use of false names; business colleagues who had died, gone missing, or whom he simply couldn’t remember; loans to himself from trusts he was managing and gifts to people whom he "didn’t know". During the proceedings Williams attempted to flee to France, but was recognised and arrested at Liverpool Street Station.

As a consequence of his bankruptcy examination he was summoned to appear at the Greenwich Magistrates’ Court (where he himself had been a magistrate) to answer charges of obtaining money under false pretences.

However, the case never came to court. On the day of his trial, 11 Nov 1908, the magistrate was informed that Williams was dead. The inquest was held a few days later. Williams had taken an overdose of morphia (it seems that he was a regular user of this drug, at least during the last weeks of his life) and the jury returned a verdict of "suicide during temporary insanity". The coroner quibbled with this and the agreed verdict was "death from an overdose of morphia, self-administered". This avoided the stigma of suicide – clearly an attempt by the coroner to save something of the reputation of the former mayor and magistrate.

This was not the end of Theophilus William Williams. His name lives on, particularly in Sydenham and Forest Hill. It is to be found on the foundation stones of Forest Hill Library, Forest Hill Swimming Baths, and the Jews Walk fountain. Elsewhere in the borough it is on the foundation stones of the old Lewisham Central Library and Ladywell Swimming Baths. It is ironic that a man so corrupt should leave behind such a worthy legacy.

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