Loughborough workhouse-master from Quorn sent for trial, January 1939
Loughborough Monitor, January 19th 1939
Former Loughborough Workhouse-Master Sent For Trial
Alleged Embezzlement and Falsification of Accounts at the Institution
A former master of Loughborough Public Institution Albert Vernon Smith (65), The Bungalow, Castledine Street, Quorn, was committed for trial at Loughborough Police Court on Monday, for alleged embezzlement and falsification of accounts which it was said, he committed two years ago.
The sum involved was £22 insurance money, said to have been paid on the death of an old women in the institution, and which, it was added, should have been paid to the County Council towards her maintenance and funeral expenses.
The woman was actually buried in a pauper’s grave, and it was suggested that Smith kept the money and made no mention of it in his books.
He was legally represented, and he pleaded “not guilty” to the charges.
In his defence, Mr J A Grieves, of Leicester, said it was not disputed that Smith owed a debt to the County Council. Smith, however, was entitled to be asked for an explanation and to be given the opportunity to put matters right if an error had been made, especially as the book-keeping of a master was very involved. This privilege, however, was not allowed.
Smith was allowed bail on his own surety of £20, the hearing having lasted nearly five hours.
He will appear at Leicester Assizes for his trial.
Mr C Knight, solicitor to the Leicestershire County Council, who prosecuted, referred to a Mr and Mrs George Wain, who lived at Ibstock. They were both pensioners of advanced ages, and Mr Wain himself was practically blind. As a blind person, he was subject to the interest of the Leicestershire and Rutland Institution for the Blind. Apart from their old age, they were both sick, and the time came when they were unable to look after themselves and keep their home going as they should have done. The Blind Institution, who had already been supplementing the couples income, through its county secretary, persuaded Mr and Mrs Wain that they should go into the public assistance institution.
Ultimately Mr Wain agreed and they were both admitted to the Loughborough Institution on November 20th 1936, not on the grounds of destitution, but because of sickness. In point of fact, at the time that she was admitted, Mrs Wain had two insurance policies on her life, which had been declared by the insurance company.
Mr Knight said Mrs Wain died on February 8 1937. “She was buried in a pauper’s grave, which in my submission, is a very improper thing to have happened, in view of the fact that she had money which came to her at her death,” he commented.
“The first charge on that money should have been her funeral expenses.”
The amount due in respect of Mrs Wain’s insurance policies, he said, was £22 15s 10d, which was the sum mentioned in the charges. On hearing of her death the Blind Institution took up the matter with the insurance company, and arranged for the amount due to be paid to Mr Wain at the Institution. The money was in fact, paid to Mr Wain on February 22nd 1937.
Mr Knight explained that if an inmate of the institution became entitled to any money it was the duty of the master to take possession of it, either for safe keeping on behalf of the inmate or to apply towards the inmate’s maintenance. Any balance which remained, in the latter event, should then be saved for the inmate. Any sums so received should be paid into the account of the County Council. In addition it was the master’s duty to keep a cash account and make a return to the central office.
“This sum of £22 15s 10d should have been included in Smith’s cash account for the month of February, but there was no entry of that sum made,” he went on. “The master quite rightly told Wain, when he received the money, that he would have to take it and apply it towards Mrs Wain’s maintenance and funeral expenses. Wain agreed, and handed over the money to the master.
“There,” Mr Knight said, “you have money coming into the hands of the master, who is the servant of the County Council, and his failing, first to make any entry in the accounts, which is the charge of falsification, and secondly his failing to account for the money to the County Council, which is the charge of embezzlement.
“It is difficult to see,” Mr Knight remarked, “how it could have been done in any manner other than wilfully.” Mr Knight said it might occur to the magistrates to ask why, the incident having occurred in 1937, it was not discovered until two years later. “The master was the only official of the County Council who knew anything of the payment or receipt of this money on behalf of the Council. He made no entry in any of his reports where it could have been found by the auditors; there was nobody but Smith who knew of it, and that is the reason why it was not found.
“The reason it was found is this. In connection with the insurance claim, the company naturally wanted a death certificate. They procured one, and, having paid for it themselves, naturally expected reimbursement.
“When they found that Smith had taken the policy money, they expected the cost of the certificate to be paid by him. They repeatedly asked for the small sum involved, but, unfortunately for him, Smith refused to pay.
“The time came when Smith ceased to be master and then the insurance company made application for payment to another official of the Council. That put the official on inquiry and as a result of which started from that small beginning, these charges have resulted.”
Not Allowed Money
Reginal Bake, of 36 Colgrove Road, Loughborough, and assistant superintendent, employed by an insurance company, said that on Mrs Wain’s death her policies were worth £25 10s. The money was eventually paid to her husband, who was an inmate of Loughborough Public Assistance Institution.
In the presence of the master and Sister Rockley, Wain, who was blind, put his cross on the receipt.
“The Master,” continued Baker, “pointed out to Wain that he could not keep the money because inmates were not allowed to have money. Smith further explain that the authorities would require the money for the funeral expenses of his wife. Wain replied ‘Yes Sir’.
“I gave the money to Wain, who handed it over to the Master, and I was given the receipt bearing Wain’s cross. I saw the Master place the money on his desk before I left the institution.”
Cross examined by Mr Grieves, Baker said he could well remember the exact words used by Smith. He did not remember Smith saying the money would also be used for maintenance as well as for funeral expenses.
Sister Rockley, Superintendent nurse, said her signature was on both the claim and the receipt. She could not remember what happened at the time.
James Sidney Brand, County Council clerk of 37 Osmaston Road, Leicester, said the Council were empowered to recover maintenance for the 12 months preceding death. In addition they were empowered to recover the cost of the funeral.
So, at the date of Mrs Wain’s death a total of £25 was due for the joint maintenance of Mr and Mrs Wain as well as for funeral expenses. That was in addition to the old-age pensions, which were claimed by the authorities.
Paid Out of County Fund
This money, however, was paid out of the County Fund, and Mrs Wain’s funeral was a pauper’s funeral. He produced a receipted account for £5 10s funeral expenses. In the event of a master being paid money by an inmate he should first issue a receipt for it and then pay it to the local branch of the county treasurer. The sum should also be entered in the cash-book, and it should be included in his report to the Guardians’ Committee.
Smith entered the Poor Law service in 1916 at Ashby, and he was promoted to the position of master the following year. For a short time he also kept the books of Market Bosworth Institution. He was transferred to Loughborough in 1934, and resigned his appointment in May 1937, on the grounds of ill health, while an inquiry into the conduct at the institution was in progress.
“there was no entry,” continued Brand, to show that money had been received from Wain, and Smith did not notify me that any such money was outstanding. “There was no counterfoil to show that Wain had paid in the money. “Because these entries were not made, we had no means of finding out that this sum was paid to Smith. None of Smith’s monthly reports included a mention of the receipt of money from Wain. “I am able to say therefore that the County Council have never received the money.”
Mr Grieves pointed out that it had not been Smith’s custom to give receipts to inmates for their property. It was only entered in the cash-book.
Mr Grieves: If Smith was a debtor to the County Council, was not he asked for any explanation? – Not to my knowledge. In any case that would have to be done by my superior.
After further questions, Brand agreed that it was a fact that Smith resigned at a time when an inquiry was pending charging him with irregularities, including irregularities affecting inmates’ money. He said he did not go to Loughborough to find out a certain omission, or any omissions, but to see that the accounts were cleared up.
Mr Grieves disclosed that the sum of £13,000 passed through the books connected with the Loughborough Institution in 1935, and asked, “There is no suggestion of dishonesty while he was handling £13,000 a year?”
Brand replied that there was no such suggestion. He said the local committee recommended that more clerical assistance should be obtained to deal with the increasing work at Loughborough.
Brand produced the Inmates’ Property Register which, he said, contained no entry of the sum received from Wain.
Harold John Tollsin, public assistance officer for the County Council, Westminster Road, Leicester, read from the regulations issued to poor-law institution masters. Mr. Grieves: Has Smith ever been asked to explain this money? - Only by the police.
Never by the County Council? - No, never.
As soon as Smith heard about this did he write you a letter in explanation? - Smith wrote me several.
Was the effect of those letters that he had made an honest omission to enter the sum ? - I cannot say; they were long letters, and I passed them on.
At no time did he deny the receipt of the money? - No, I don't think so. He was very vague.
So was Sister Rockley vague after all that time. Wasn't it your duty to clear up these matters? - It was out of my hands. So long as I passed them on I had done my duty.
"We have heard of red tape," commented Mr. Grieves.
"In a case like this," said Tollsin, "the matter would have to be referred to a sub-committee of the County Council which, in fact, was done."
Mr. Grieves: Did they come to the conclusion that the best way to obtain this money was by criminal proceedings?
Mr. Knight objected to this question, referring, as it did, to committee matters.
"The veil of official secrets can come down on such matters as this," remarked Mr. Grieves. The chairman (Mr. C. H. Nelson) considered that the defence had a right to know if Smith was given a chance to explain.
Mr. Grieves: Did the committee come to a conclusion amounting, in effect, to a decision not to give him a chance to make the debt good? - Yes, it amounted to that. The committee had their reasons.
The Clerk asked what the decisions of the committee had to do with the case, but because Mr. Grieves submitted it was material he was permitted to proceed.
Mr. Grieves: At the conclusion of the Court of Enquiry, in May, did Mr. Smith ask to go back to Loughborough to clear matters up? - That is a very difficult question to answer; Smith made so many requests.
Have you any recollection of advising Smith not to go back because it would make it awkward for all persons concerned? - If I said those words I was conveying the decision of the committee to Mr. Smith. His resignation was accepted only on the condition that he left the same night. Smith was told that if anything arose in connection with the accounts we would let him know.
Tollsin explained that the Court of Enquiry was concerned with the elaborate food stock-books and not the cash-book, which was returned complete. Detective Sergeant Roberts said that when interviewed at his home on December 13, 1938. Smith made the following statement: "I have no recollection of this case. But it is probably a case where I received some money, and the reason it did not get paid over at the time was that there would be minor things to pay out of it."
A claim for expenses, the statement continued, was made by a Miss Knowles on behalf of the Institution for the Blind, and that, naturally, delayed things. In the meantime, he resigned the position of master.
"Owing to unpleasant conditions at the institution," he went on, "I never knew any day what I was doing. My mind was a blank. If I had this money, I took it without any intention of doing wrong, and I would be prepared to put things in order."
Smith added that when he was straightening up his accounts before leaving the figures got jumbled.
The day after making a statement to a police officer at his home (continued the detective) Smith visited Loughborough police station and asked to enlarge on it. He chose to write in a police note-book. Having taxed his mind all night, he began, it occurred to him that Miss Knowles, a Leicester blind visitor, had been making a claim on a sum for birth certificates which she had produced for them. I rang Mr. Tollsin and he said it was all right."
There was further delay, however, and, because of it, the whole matter was overlooked.
"There was no secret that I had the money for this case," he stated. "I am absolutely at sea whether it has been paid over or not. The account was so open that it would have been madness to have done this, as it would be found out."
Two or three years ago, he recalled, there was a mistake in the accounts at Ashby, only on that occasion it was on the other side. Months later, however, a sum of £20 was refunded to him. The mistake was due to his state of health and mind, which was revealed in a doctor's certificate.
"I asked, when I left the institution," he added, "that, should not everything be in order owing to my health, having got mixed up with the accounts, they should let me know. If they had only let me know, I should only have been too pleased to put matters right. And I still should be."
In reply to Mr. Knight, Det. Sergt. Roberts said he did not know, when he was making enquiries, if there was a decision to prosecute. Miss Edith Knowles, county secretary of the Blind Institution, said she visited Mr. and Mrs. Wain after she had persuaded them to go into Loughborough Institution. "I obtained a copy of Mrs. Wain's death certificate on November 9, 1937, and interviewed the insurance company. I then arranged, through Mr. Smith, for a representative of the insurance company to see Mr. Wain at the Institution," she said.
Miss Knowles said she paid 2s. 6d. or 3s. 6d. for the death certificate, and the insurance company repaid it to her. As far as she could remember, she said, she did not ask Mr. Smith or anyone else connected with the Institution to pay her for the death certificate, or for anything else connected with Mr. and Mrs. Wain. This closed the evidence for the prosecution.
Much Wider Significance
At this point, Smith was formally charged and in reply he said, "I have absolutely nothing to say."
No witnesses were called for the defence, but Mr. Grieves, Smith's advocate, addressed the Bench, submitting that there was no case for Smith to answer.
"This prosecution, I venture to say, is of very much wider significance, and will be of much more importance than you might have thought from the mere facts of this case," Mr. Grieves began.
"It raises the whole issue of what is going to happen to local government officers if they should resign from their service and there should be outstanding, between them and their employers, matters of account."
Mr. Grieves said that it was not disputed that, in fact, there was a debt due from Smith to the County Council. The exact amount of that debt still remained to be ascertained. It almost passed comprehension, he said, that when there was a matter of account outstanding between an officer of a well-conducted and prosperous County Council and his employers, he should be. given no opportunity to pay, or to explain the circumstances except to a police officer.
Commenting on the evidence of two officials, Mr. Tollsin and Mr. Brand, Mr. Grieves said they seemed to have mastered the niceties of language and the drawing of fine distinctions. It never, seemed to have occurred to them that because of the overwhelming amount of work which Smith had to get through, and considering the small amount of assistance he received on the clerical side, there might be matters which should have been entered but which were not.
Struck at the Very Roots
Smith, Mr. Grieves contended, was entitled to be asked for an explanation in private and entitled to have his attention drawn to those matters. Further, if they were found to be not substantially correct, he should have had opportunity to put them right. Mr. Grieves declared that public servants such as Smith, who had been 20 years without any complaint against him, should have the full and complete confidence in those who instructed them and controlled them. "I venture to say that such confidence is struck at the very roots when a criminal prosecution is set out without such an official being asked for an explanation except by a police officer," he said.
It might be wondered why the committee should not be satisfied with the explanation given to them: there was not one word to contradict the explanations given in Smith's statements. "It has been suggested that it was improper for Smith to have given a pauper's burial to Mrs. Wain," he went on. "Not a single word has been brought before the Bench in support of that. You may wonder whether somebody in authority was not under a misapprehension. It may have been thought that there were some substantial grounds for thinking it was improper of Smith to give a pauper's burial. "You may think that if Smith had any discretion in the matter he very wisely exercised it in favour of putting as little charge as possible on Mr. or Mrs. Wain's means," Mr. Grieves said.
Referring to Smith's character, Mr. Grieves said: "I think I am almost understating the character he bears when I say it is exemplary. He is a servant who deserves well, but he is a servant who has received treatment which will, I trust, be regretted by somebody."
The Bench retired only for a few minutes before reaching the decision. [ie to refer the case to Leicester Assizes]
Note: Later newspaper articles indicate that after the case was heard at Leicester Assizes, Albert Vernon Smith was found guilty and sentenced to nine months imprisonment.