There must always have been some semblance of doubt when households employed a new member of the domestic staff, especially one as critical for the running of the house as a butler. The butler was the most senior male servant in the Victorian period and would be responsible for the conduct of all of those below him. It was imperative, therefore, that the butler had the confidence of his master and mistress and was above suspicion in terms of his honesty.
For whatever reason William Clarke no longer enjoyed his employer’s confidence or affection yet there was no suggestion that he was anything other than completely honest. The reality was though, that in late April 1881 he found himself surplus to requirements and as he worked out his notice he had the task of showing the new butler around his home.
Charles Reeve had, by his own admission, been out of position for a period of several moths. Presumably however, he came with a set of verifiable references because his master lived at a prestigious address, 35 Hans Place, Sloane Street, Chelsea and was a commander in the Royal Navy.
On the day Reeve joined the household (and Clarke showed him his duties) a tradesman called to deliver an envelope containing a £5 note and two sovereigns. This was the balanced (the ‘change’) from an invoice Captain (Commander*) Francis Lowther had paid by cheque. Clarke placed the envelope, unopened, on a marble slab in the hallway and thought no more of it. He left in the evening leaving the new man in charge.
Sadly though Reeve, perhaps thinking his new employers would be late back and not needing him, chose to celebrate his new position with a few glasses of alcohol. When the commander and his wife returned not only had the envelope mysteriously disappeared, the new butler was also dead drunk.
At first it was thought that Clarke must have run off with the missing money but then the finger was pointed at Reeve, since he had protested his lack of money when he arrived. How had he suddenly been able to afford to drink himself into an inebriated state?
In court at Westminster Reeve’s lawyer posted his client’s innocence. He’d come by his own money honestly and would hardly have jeopardised his position on the very first day. He had previously served the Duke of Argyll and another ‘noble lord’ and his credentials as an honest man were unquestionable.
Captain Lowther said he had no real suspicions over any of his established staff, believing them all to be honest. Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, had nothing which justified indicting Reeve as a thief however, so he simply required him to enter into his own recognizances in case he was obliged to return to court in the future should more evidence arise. Did he remain in position at Hans Place? That would seem awkward for all concerned since if he hadn’t stolen the money, who had?
[from The Morning Post , Monday, May 02, 1881]
*as a Commander in the Royal Navy Lowther was either shore bound waiting for a commission (either as a captain of a smaller vessel, or second in command on a larger one) or was part of the Admiralty staff in the capital. He may also have been retired from the Navy and living on his pension. If there is another alternative explanation I’m sure someone will tell me!