Friday, 26 February 2016

The Millwall Docks Scandal: George Raymond Birt

In 1899 George Raymond Birt was living at 58 Compayne Gardens where he had recently moved from 20 Besize Grove, Belsize Park. But when Inspector Murphy and Superintendent Holmes from the City Police called at the house on 17 February with a warrant for his arrest, he was not there: he had gone on the run. Four weeks later the police received a tip-off and arrested him in Barnsbury. The officers took him by cab to the Minories Police Station where he was charged. 

George Raymond Birt was no common criminal; he was the Chairman and Managing Director of the Millwall Docks with an annual salary of £2,000 (today equivalent to about £200,000).

The New Millwall Docks, 1868

The Millwall Docks
After more than two years building and difficulties obtaining the finance, the Millwall Docks eventually opened in March 1868 on the Isle of Dogs. It was one of the largest docks in London. George Birt who had previously been the superintendent of the Victoria Docks for ten years, was appointed the general manger. He immediately tried to get foreign trade and contacted the Peruvian Government to attract the large trade in guano. But business was slow, and at the beginning the dock workers had to be paid with money from the directors' own pockets. Over time, warehouses were built and the dock gained a large proportion of the grain market. But the competition with other docks was fierce.

The Millwall Dock Company had bought 200 acres of land of which they kept 100 acres for the docks and the remainder was let on ground leases. The rental was producing between £7,000 and £8,000 a year. 

George Raymond Birt, wanted, Police Gazette, March 1899

The Trial
At the Old Bailey Birt’s assistant, John Wood, said he had also been with the company since it started. At the beginning of February 1899 Birt was unwell and not able to attend the Board meeting as usual. Wood was summoned by the Board and asked questions about the balance sheets which showed an increased income of the Docks from previous years. After the meeting Wood went to see Birt at his home in Compayne Gardens and asked him if he was worried and told him an audit would be held in a week’s time. Birt said he no concern about the figures. When the audit was held discrepancies were discovered, but Birt had disappeared. Inspector James Murphy said he received a warrant for Birt’s arrest but was not able to find him. In fact, Birt had left home and taken a room in a lodging house at 9 Thornhill Square Barnsbury, for 10s a week, which he paid for in advance. Mrs Wright the landlady, said he only left the house once and he had received a letter in the name of John Dunn. When the police arrived on the 16th March and said they believed his name was Birt, he admitted it and was arrested.

After careful scrutiny, the auditor estimated that the shareholders had received dividends of £200,000 more than they should have, due to Birt’s inflated figures over a 20 year period. In his defence Birt said that finding the dock business was not successful, he devoted his energies to making the land side a success. Renting wharf space had become very profitable, largely increasing the income of the company. His inflation of the figures was to inspire confidence in the shipping trade. He was entirely responsible and he had no intention to deceive or defraud anyone. Various people spoke in praise of Birt, who they considered a gentleman of the highest integrity who had given his whole life to the company.

The jurymen seemed uncomfortable and asked the Judge several questions. He directed them that if they found the accounts were false then Birt was guilty. After 35 minutes they returned and found him guilty. The Judge sentenced the 70 year old Birt to prison for nine months hard labour.

Birt served his sentence and in the 1901 census he had moved to Durham where he was living with his four children and two servants. His wife Constance had died the year before the trial. When Birt died in 1904, he left £13,179 (today worth about £1.3M), to his two sons. So although he was disgraced and his lifelong service to the company ended, he was still a wealthy man. Birt’s motives were not primarily for personal gain but simply to keep the company going.