The man who nearly broke the Bank of England


In the course of my research for my third book [Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1660-1914] I used an excellent volume of prison memoirs compiled by Philip Priestley. As we might imagine few  inmates of a Victorian prison left any written memories at all; many if not most were barely literate at best and the system didn’t encourage them to keep a diary. So we are often left with the middle-class occupants of prison cells – political prisoners, the occasional better off thief, and forgers like Austin Bidwell.


BIdwell was a celebrated con-man in his day. He and his small gang of forgers and fraudsters had cheated many out of their money and almost got away with defrauding the Bank of England to the tune of nearly £10,000,000 (in today’s money). The story of this astonishing heist ranges from the UK to America and involves the famous US detective William Pinkerton. BIdwell and his chums eventually found themselves at the Old Bailey where they were convicted and sentenced to penal servitude for life. But the case also appears lower down the system as part of the pre-trial process at summary level.

In early July 1873 Austin and his brother George Bidwell, Edwin Noyes, and George MacDonnell came up before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House charged with ‘forging and uttering [distributing] bills of exchange for upwards of £100,000’. They were represented by a variety of barristers while the Bank’s prosecution was conducted by Mr Poland of Freshfield’s (still the Bank of England’s lawyers as they have been since at least the 1770s).

A handwriting expert was called to comment on the evidence gathered before the court and he deposed that the handwriting used matched that of George Bidwell. An engraver also gave evidence against the gang. Austin Bidwell complained  that  because his money had been taken from him and his assets frozen he had insufficient funds to conduct his defense properly. Bidwell was American and he needed at least £150 to bring a witness over from the USA. Mr Poland argued that the money (in bonds) that had been seized were purchased with (as the bank alleged) forged bills and so he said the court should decline Bidwell’s request.

The Lord Mayor (the City of London’s chief magistrate) said he had no power to authorize such a release of funds as they were now in possession of the police. Bidwell was instead given the £13 in cash that had been found on him when he was arrested. The Bank requested that the £400 in bills found on George should not be made available to him on the grounds that ‘in addition to  the £100,000 now missing the Bank was practically asked to furnish the means to defend the prisoners’. It was a reasonable point and the Lord Mayor agreed it.

The four men were remanded in custody to await their  trial.



[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 01, 1873]

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