OK, let me try this one out on you. I am an enormously rich but lonely chap and I am looking for a companion to share my easy path through life, to exchange wry anecdotes whilst smoking Havana cigars and sipping vintage port, and to see the world from the balconies of fine Edwardian hotels. However, I have had a bad experience in the past - a companion who promised to be a faithful acolyte immediately ran off with Auntie Florrie's pearl and diamond necklace. Thus, in order to act as a guarantee of fidelity, I would require the successful applicant to deposit a sum of £5,000 with me in cash. In return, I promise to change my will in favour of my new companion. Please send the cash in advance to my address.
If this smells a teeny-weeny little bit fishy, then you are wrong. It's more than a teeny-weeny bit; it's about as fishy as a Grimsby trawler on a wet Tuesday afternoon off Dogger Bank. No doubt you will file my advert away in that bulging file entitled "Scammers", along with the request from the widow of the Chief Clerk of that Nigerian Bank and the intimate plea from that young lady in the Ukraine who has fallen on difficult times. You will shake your head and say that the curse of the modern age is work-shy criminals trying to take advantage of hard-working folk like you or me.
Earlier this week I was in the local library searching through old record books to try and discover how old my local pub is. Before too long I fell victim to that curse which afflicts all serious researchers seeking to unfold the borders of knowledge: I got sidetracked. I came across a press cutting from 115 years ago concerning a local "cause celebre" - the Lancaster case.
A certain William Thomas Lancaster placed an advert in The Times asking for a companion to share his life of luxury. Having received a response from a certain Henry Kremnitz of Leeds, Lancaster had some posh headed notepaper printed with "Firthus, Brighouse" and wrote back asking for the sum of £5,000 as a guarantee of fidelity. As it turned out, Lancaster was a poverty-stricken con-man living in a back room of this fathers' cottage - Firth House which is just a few hundred yards from where I now live. He eventually met up with Kreminitz and spun some fabulous tale of houses in Birmingham and a considerable fortune just waiting to be spent. Young Mr Kremnitz must have eventually sniffed a wet fish and informed the local constabulary. William Thomas Lancaster found himself up in front of the judge at Leeds Assizes on a charge of attempting to gain money by false pretenses and was sent down for eighteen months with hard labour.
Having read the story, I couldn't help but have a sneaking respect for the dramatic skills of William Thomas Lancaster and I hoped that his term inside taught him a harsh lesson, and that he went on to live a useful and fulfilled life. Later I did a quick check through the National Newspaper Archives to see if anything further could be discovered about him. And there he was again .... and again .... and again. In Bradford in 1904 for trying out the same trick (another eighteen months inside); and in Oldham in 1906 (where he did managed to actually con some money from someone and for which he got a longer spell inside). The last time he crops up is in 1914 when he was part of a large scam to acquire property for a fake charity called "The First Land Settlement Of The New Order".
He was never actually caught for this last scam (although his co-conspirators were all sent down). Perhaps he fled the country. I like to think he made it to Nigeria where he became the Chief Clerk to a Nigerian Bank.