Sunday, 29 November 2015

The ‘Queen’ of Madagascar and the Secret Syndicate

In July 1907 the Daily Express ran a series of front page articles about a woman in West Hampstead who they dubbed the ‘Queen of Madagascar’. She was Elizabeth Horne who had lived with her husband Frederick at 18 Greencroft Gardens since the late 1880s. Elizabeth was the daughter of Alexander Cowie, a Scotsman who had opened a boys’ school in Box Villa, Marlborough Road St. John’s Wood in 1829. They were a very religious family and her brother William became the Archbishop of Auckland in New Zealand. Elizabeth was born in 1837 and she married Frederick Warlters Horne in Hampstead in 1879. Born in Norwood in 1854, Frederick worked in a merchant firm set up by his father who traded goods with Spain and Portugal.

The 1907 Exposé
The Daily Express said that, ‘As a result of an exhaustive inquiry made by a special representative of the Express, the public are now placed for the first time in possession of the full facts’. The articles revealed a ‘secret syndicate’ where Mrs Horne offered shares for land in Madagascar. The investors were told that that for each £100 they gave her, they would receive £2,000 worth of shares when the company was formed in Paris. Mrs Horne imposed two conditions; in line with her beliefs, any investor had to be a very religious God-fearing Christian and they must also agree to keep the scheme secret with a ‘sacred promise’.

The Express claimed the investors had been duped. ‘Days lengthened into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and they are still waiting for their phantom fortunes.’ The reporter had spoken to some of the investors who showed him letters from Mrs Horne, which were reproduced in the article. Most damning, when a solicitor had written to the French Colonial Office, he was told there was no grant of land in Madagascar; (the island was then a French colony).

A reporter called at 18 Greencroft Gardens, but Mrs Horne was not at home. He discovered she was staying at Richmond where he managed to get an interview with her. ‘She is a striking and impressive figure of a woman of 60, white haired and dignified in manner. When she comes into the room it is clear that the affairs of the ‘kingdom’ are troubling her for her manner is restless and she appears agitated when asked about Madagascar.’

The reporter asked to see proof of the land. Mrs Horne replied that she had proofs but for the moment refused to show him the documents, because she claimed, ‘people of the highest importance were involved’. She dismissed the statement by the French Colonial office, saying they were unlikely to admit it as, ‘there were political reasons for secrecy’. She said, ‘I know everything will come out right, for God is on my side.’ This interview took place five days before the first article was published on 1 July 1907.

After four Express articles appeared between 1 and 5 July, there were anxious meetings of the syndicate. William Burdett who lived at 69 Constantine Road in Hampstead, was a prosperous job master, hiring out horses and carriages from premises at 1 Belsize Crescent. He told the Express reporter that he had confidence in the fortune making scheme and his faith remained unshaken. Mrs Horne had told him the Express articles were full of lies and the work of a blackmailer. But when some of the investors asked for their money back she agreed to refund about £200.

The other key person named by the Express was Mrs Catherine Christie, an 86 year old lady, who had persuaded many people to invest. The Express said that about two years ago she was so confident of making her fortune that she moved from a small bed-sitting room at 10 shillings and 6 pence a week, to a mansion in Hollycroft Avenue, Hampstead. She furnished it with expensive goods and lived there for about six months, until the landlord seized the furniture for non-payment of rent. The Express reported that Mrs Christie had disappeared from her Brighton lodgings. When her landlady had shown her the article, Mrs Christie said, ‘I had better go, I must get away,’ and caught the first train to Victoria, leaving her belongings behind.   

The articles said that both Mrs Horne and Mrs Christie were believers in the British-Ephraim Church Mission. In 1897 the Rev. Robert Douglas had written a pamphlet, expressing his belief that the British, through their relation to Ephraim, were a lost tribe of Israel, and would eventually inherit the earth. Douglas had been vicar of Bredgar in Sittingbourne and Mrs Horne promised his successor a mission hall and a new peal of bells.

The 1911 court case
Public interest waned until the Madagascar scheme hit the headlines again in March 1911. Mr Burdett had waited long enough and decided to sue both Mr and Mrs Horne for the return of the £3,590 which he had invested, (worth around £330,000 today). The four-day court case was reported in the Times and many other papers. Frederick Horne said he had received no money and he wasn’t involved in the scheme. His wife did not appear in court when her name was called.

The barrister for the prosecution said Mrs Horne had told investors she had the concession to 32,000 square miles of land in the west of Madagascar. She showed investors a map, and claimed the area was rich in timber and minerals which produced radium, rubies, emeralds, gold and diamonds.

Frederick Horne being questioned by barristers

Mr Horne told the court his wife had met a man called Mr Bunn in 1899. Bunn told Mrs Horne that he had obtained the concession from the late Queen of Madagascar, Ranavolona III, who ruled from 1883 to 1897. Mr Horne said Bunn had half the concession and his wife the other half. He only heard about the scheme in 1901 and advised his wife to leave it alone. In 1906 he even took a solicitor’s advice on the documents and was told they were unconvincing. But Mr Horne said his wife ran her own life and did not listen to him, continuing to encourage people to invest. 

After the Daily Express articles appeared, he began to receive writs for the money and his solicitor advised him to seek a judicial separation. In April 1909 the couple left 18 Greencroft Gardens and he moved to a boarding house in Worthing. In the separation papers her address was given as Simla Pension, Westgate on Sea. He said that he hadn’t seen his wife since April 1909 and had no idea where she was now. His solicitors filed the papers in May 1909. On 5 July the judge ordered Elizabeth Horne to return and render conjugal rights within 14 days. When she did not comply with the ruling the judge gave a final decree to Frederick Horne on 14 October 1909.

Mr Horne said his wife was, ‘a person of very fixed ideas, pig-headed and irrational’. This produced loud laughter in court. He now thought that she was a rogue.

A witness said that Mrs Horne had used some of the money to buy a yacht for Mr Horne and they had invited some of their friends and investors on a Mediterranean cruise, but this trip never materialised.

At the time of their marriage in 1879, Frederick Horne was working as a clerk to his brother in the family firm in Rood Lane in the City, and was paid £300 per year. In 1897 he was made a partner until he resigned and left the firm in June 1908. It is not known why he left the firm and was paid £4,597 on his retirement – perhaps it was due to the scandal and publicity of the case.

The barrister for Mr Burdett said it was the duty of Mr Horne to have secured the presence of his wife in court to tell them what had become of the £30,000 she had obtained over several years (worth about £2.8 million today). The barrister pointed out that Mr Horne had lived with her in Greencroft Gardens for several years after he knew about the swindle and had only gone through the judicial separation when his solicitor told him it was the best way to avoid liability. The barrister asked the jury, ‘to put the plaintiff back in the position he would have been before he was imposed on by this crafty and wicked woman’. At this point the elderly and frail Mr Burdett burst into tears.

Lady Blount and the Mysterious Mr Bunn
An important witness was Lady Elizabeth Anne Blount who lived at 11 Gloucester Road in Kingston Hill, Surrey. She was another person with strong beliefs, in this instance, as a committed supporter of Samuel Rowbotham (1816 to 1884) who published a book saying the earth was flat. Together they had formed the Zetetic Society and after his death Lady Blount became president of the renamed Universal Zetetic Society. She said that she met Mrs Horne in 1901 through her interest in the flat earth society. They had become friends and Lady Blount had invested over a £1,000 in the Madagascar scheme. As evidence of her deeply held religious beliefs, Mrs Horne told Lady Blount that she read the bible every night to the devoted Mr Horne, who lay at her feet.

After the Daily Express articles came out in 1907 Mrs Horne had asked Lady Blount to destroy all the documents about Madagascar. Lady Blount carried out the instruction. At the time, she told the court, she greatly admired Mrs Horne and acted to protect her.

Lady Blount

Lady Blount had been introduced to Mr Bunn, described by Mrs Horne as a millionaire. In Lady Blount’s opinion, Bunn was ‘a most cadaverous, stupid looking, and nervous man’. In court the barrister said that far from being a millionaire he was a bankrupt who was now selling bootlaces! Several witnesses said that Mr Bunn had sat on the grass at a garden party in Greencroft Gardens, constantly drinking from a bottle of rum. Guests who walked around him were told he only drank for medicinal reasons.

Lady Blount became suspicious and asked Mrs Horne where Bunn lived. It turned out to be an accommodation address in Kingston and she waited nearly 12 hours before Bunn arrived, grabbing him by the collar as he seemed to want to get away. He calmed down when she said she was a friend of Mrs Horne’s. Lady Blount took Bunn back to Greencroft Gardens, where she confronted Mrs Horne and said, ‘This whole affair is a fraud, and it must be stopped.’ Mrs Horne asked Bunn to save her from such an unjust accusation. Lady Blount then told Bunn that Mrs Horne had about £15,000 from her and her friends. Bunn appeared very surprised and said, ‘Good gracious, you have made a fool of me, what have you done with all that money?’
William Burdett won the case and the judge ruled that Mr and Mrs Horne were both involved in the fraudulent scheme and ordered to pay £3,590 and costs. The judicial separation proceeding were seen as a ploy on Frederick’s part to avoid liability. There was a stay of execution if they deposited £1,000 into the court.

However, it seems that Mr Horne only paid part of the money and Burdett was forced to go to the bankruptcy court on 9 February 1912. The creditors met on the 4 April, but Mr Horne did not attend (it was believed he was in Portugal), and he had not provided a statement of his affairs. Mr Burdett said he was still owed £2,825 as the balance of the judgement. There is no other report after this so we must assume that the money was ultimately paid. Two years later William Burdett died at his home on 26 February 1914. He left his widow £4,666.

The Times editorial called this an unusual case and said: 
‘It is a long time since we have heard about the ease with which some people, provided they have a ‘queenly’ presence and, we regret to add, a good religious record, can fraudulently extract large sums of money out of their friends and neighbours.’

In the 1911 census, Frederick Horne was living with his sister at Green Hedges, Hilly Fields in Rye. In the same year Mrs Christie was a lodger at 2 Camden Place, Wyke Regis Dorset. She died there in 1918 aged 97.

There are records of a Frederick Horne on passenger lists travelling to New York in 1928, and a family tree on Ancestry says he died in the USA in 1935, but we have not been able to confirm this. We could not find out what happened to Elizabeth Horne who disappeared.

Monday, 2 November 2015

A Guy Fawkes Prank That Went Badly Wrong

What began as a prank in the run up to Guy Fawkes Night, ended in tragedy a few minutes before midnight on 4th November in 1961.
Alpha House, 1961

Thirty-seven year old Fred Burtenshaw had been the caretaker at Alpha House in Canterbury Road, South Kilburn, for over ten years. He had spent much of that evening trying to prevent youngsters from causing damage and setting off fireworks. Fred was relaxing in his armchair and watching television when suddenly there was a loud explosion and the window behind him shattered. A bomb inside an old car dynamo had been placed outside on the window sill and a piece of the casing hit Fred on the back of the head. His wife, who had been putting their son to bed, heard a terrifically loud bang and ran downstairs to see what had happened. She said:

I found the lounge in darkness. Clouds of smoke and dust filled the whole room.  At first I couldn’t see, but then I found Fred sitting still on the settee. I shouted to him, but he didn’t answer. So I ran to get help.

Sadly, Fred was pronounced dead on arrival at Paddington General Hospital.

Three local teenagers - two brothers and a friend – were arrested the next day. They had learned to mix explosive chemicals at school and the elder brother said he had bought a 2lb tin of weed killer from Boots in the Kilburn High Road to make bombs for Guy Fawkes night. In the bedroom he shared with his brother, they had made the explosive mixture and put it into metal tubes. About 8.30 on the evening of 4th November they went to Hampstead Heath, where they let off the smaller bombs. They had saved the large bomb and wanted to let it off at midnight when it would be Guy Fawkes Day. They brought it back on a bus and got off at Kilburn Park Station. In his statement the older brother described what happened:

The flats behind the station were dead quiet and we thought it would be a good place to let our big firework off so that we could run away up Canterbury Road as we didn’t want to be around when it went off.

We went to the corner of Alpha House where there is a big grass slope down to the building. The corner flat had a light on in the room and I could see the room was lit up but the curtains were drawn. We thought we would give them a jump.

I put it on the window sill. I had tested the fuse and found it took about 40 seconds for two feet of fuse so I had put in about two feet of fuse on this one. When I had lit the fuse I ran up Canterbury Road and down Kilburn High Road. I should say I really walked.

I was in the High Road by the junction with Canterbury Road and I saw a police car had stopped at the traffic lights in Cambridge Avenue. As I reached the top of the road I heard the bang. When the policemen heard the bang they reversed down Cambridge Avenue very fast so I went on to Oxford Road and met my brother. The explosion was much bigger than we expected. We didn’t go back to the flats to see what had happened. We walked down Cambridge Road and went in a chip shop and had some chips and tea. Then we walked up Cambridge Road until we nearly came to the Chippenham Public House and then turned off down Malvern Road. When we got to the junction of Malvern Road and Maida Vale we walked home through Rupert Lane into Albert Road.

I know the caretaker at Alpha House as Fred and he always stopped us playing football there. I have seen him around and I knew he lived near the corner and I thought it was his flat where I put the big firework. We don’t like Fred and wanted to give him a scare. We just thought it would pull the window down.

The next day the police searched the teenagers’ house where they found explosives and bomb-making equipment in the bedroom. The arrested the brothers who were an apprentice electrician aged 15, and a laundry hand aged 17. Soon afterwards they arrested their 16 year old friend, who was a porter.

The three youths were tried at the Old Bailey where they pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Ironically, the brothers were supporters of CND and had been fined for a sit down protest in Trafalgar Square. The two older boys were convicted and sent to a detention centre for three months.  The younger brother was given a conditional discharge and a warning from the judge who said he had been led by his older brother. 

Alpha House today, next to the Royal Mail sorting office

A teenage Guy Fawkes prank had gone terribly wrong, and as the Detective Inspector said, ‘it was a case of too little knowledge was a dangerous thing.’