Wednesday, 30 March 2022

23 Albert Grant, the Victorian
fraudster born in poverty
in Dublin’s slums

Baron Albert Grant was born Abraham Zachariah Gotheimer in poverty in Dublin on 18 November 1831

Patrick Comerford

When Abraham Zachariah Gotheimer was born on 18 November 1831, his parents were living in abject poverty in a lane off Fleet Street, Dublin. Yet he grew up to become one of the richest men in England, a public benefactor, a Conservative MP, an Italian baron – and one of the greatest political and banking fraudsters of the Victorian era.

How did this poor-born babe from inner city Dublin become so wealthy and such a fraud?

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, as Albert Grant, he was engaged in banking and business frauds on a global scale. Although the scale of his frauds was extraordinary in his day, he was born into conditions of stark poverty and the respectable politician he defeated by bribery and buying votes was also born in Dublin.

Abraham’s father, Berton Gottheimer, was born Dov Behr ben Moshe in 1796 in Pozna, then in Prussia and now in Poland. In his teens, he was a Jewish refugee, first living in Liverpool. Abraham’s mother, Julia Zachariah, was born in Portsmouth, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Germany. The couple moved to Dublin by 1829, where Berton eked out a precarious living as a poor pedlar.

When Julia gave birth to Abraham in a lane off Fleet Street in Dublin, the family was so poor they had to beg their neighbours to provide swaddling clothes for the baby.

The child was circumcised by Alexander Lazarus Benmohel, president of the synagogue in Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street), Dublin, and his ‘sandak’ or godfather was Joseph Wolfe Cohen, also from Pozna and a later president of the synagogue in Dublin. Abraham began his working life in Dublin as a humble clerk and then worked for a retailer who sold imported French musical boxes, clock parts and other pieces. The family moved to London, where Berton became a partner in a business importing fancy goods and a commission agent.

But Abraham soon denied his humble origins in the slums of Dublin, his lowly birth and his refugee parents. He claimed he was educated in London and Paris, and by 1851, he was working as a merchant’s clerk and then a travelling salesman of fine wines. He was baptised into the Church of England and changed his name to Albert Grant before marrying Emily Isabella Robinson in 1856. Emily was the daughter of Skeffington Robinson from Antrim, a slave-owning sugar planter in Dominica.

As Albert Grant, he was admitted as a freeman of the city of London, and by 1858, he had established himself as a banker and discount agent in Lombard Street. He set up the Mercantile Discount Company in 1859. Concerns were aired about the large salaries and beneficial financial guarantees Grant paid himself and his partners.

When the company failed in 1861 with liabilities of £1.5 million, Grant escaped any personal loss. He was soon financing railway schemes in Yorkshire, Essex and Wales, and in 1863, he set up Crédit Foncier and Mobilier of England to launch ventures for which he found investors by using directories and targeting financially naïve groups, including Anglican clergy and widows.

Soon Grant had built an opulent house at Cooper’s Hill near Egham, Surrey, designed in the Gothic revival style by F & H Francis in 1865. He was selected that year as the Conservative candidate in Kidderminster, standing against the sitting Liberal MP, Dublin-born Colonel Luke White (1829–1888) of Luttrellstown Castle. White was a Junior Lord of the Treasury and had previously been MP for County Clare (1859–60) and County Longford (1861–2). During the campaign, Grant was denounced as ‘a fraudulent adventurer’, but he was elected and held the seat for three years.

Victor Emmanuel II of Italy gave Grant the hereditary title of baron in May 1868. Supposedly this was in recognition of Grant’s role in raising finances to build the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, one of the largest and earliest fashionable shopping centres in Europe. However, even then, it was alleged that Grant had bought the title. Later, when he was made a Commander of the Portuguese Order of Christ, it was alleged once again that he had bought the honour.

Each of the companies Grant set up in 1864–72 collapsed amid controversy and allegations of fraud. Crédit Foncier fell in July 1868 when Grant left the company, amidst allegations that large commissions had been improperly pocketed by the directors. As the scandals gathered steam, he decided not to contest the general election that year, and Thomas Lea regained Kidderminster for the Liberals.

Between 1871 and 1874, Grant floated many British and foreign companies, including the Belgian Public Works, Cadiz Waterworks, Central Uruguay Railway, Labuan Coal Company, Imperial Bank of China, Imperial Land Company of Marseilles, Lima Railways, Odessa Waterworks and Russian Copper Company. Most of these ventures later proved to be fraudulent.

Grant financed the construction of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (Moel Tryfan Undertaking) in 1872. By then, he was immensely wealthy and that year, he bought Horstead Hall, near Norwich. A year later, he acquired a large slum area south of Kensington Gardens and built Kensington House, a ninety-room Italianate palace, at a cost of almost £350,000.

When a general election was called in early 1874, Grant stood again as the Conservative candidate in Kidderminster and was returned with a majority of 111.This was the only modern British election when a party has been defeated despite winning an absolute majority of the popular vote. The Liberals, with 1,281,159 votes, received 242 seats, while the Conservatives with 1,091,708 votes, received 350 seats. The Conservatives were a minority party in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but still formed a majority, mainly because so many English seats were not contested.

Grant boosted his public image that year when he presented Leicester Square to the people of London on 3 July 1874.The square, then known as Leicester Fields, had long been in a dilapidated state and had become a dumping ground for dead cats and dogs. Grant bought out the rights of the many, individual owners, planted an ornamental garden, erected a statue of Shakespeare and busts of Isaac Newton, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and John Hunter, and transferred ownership of the site to the Metropolitan Board of Works at a personal cost of £28,000. On the plinth of Shakespeare’s statue, he is described as ‘Albert Grant, Esq, MP’ and not as Baron Albert Grant.

Meanwhile, however, Grant and his election agents were accused of bribery and of buying votes with drinks and food. His declared election expenses were only £300, but he had spent over £1,200 during the campaign. In a ruling in July 1874, Grant was unseated and ordered to pay costs.

Grant was constantly pursued by creditors from 1876 and was declared bankrupt in 1877. He tried to put a railway company in Wales that he had helped finance into receivership over a loan of £7,000, although he had made a clear profit of £8,800 from the project. The company appealed and secured a ruling that it was not liable for the debt and Grant lost the £7,000. He was also involved in the fraudulent sale of shares in an exhausted silver mine in Utah after making a profit of £200,000 from the flotation.

He stood again in Kidderminster in 1880, but was defeated by the Liberal candidate, John Brinton. Brinton’s first wife, who died in 1863, Ann Oldham, was from Dublin; his second wife, Mary Chaytor, was from Limerick.

Grant became the model for the corrupt Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. The large house he had built in Kensington was demolished in 1883, the site sold and the marble staircase bought by Madame Tussaud’s. His last bank failed with liabilities of £800,000 and he was back in the bankruptcy court in 1885.

Once one of the richest men in Britain, Grant spent his last years in poverty, and another order was made against him just days before he died in Bognor on 30 August 1899 at the age of 67.As his coffin was carried to his grave, a rainstorm began and half the mourners decided to stay inside the church. The burial rites at his graveside were very brief.

Further Reading:

Louis Hyman, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972).
Paul H. Emden, Money Powers of Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 1937).
Thomas Secombe, ‘Grant, Albert’, DNB, 1901 Supplement, Vol 2, 338–9.

‘Albert Grant, the Victorian Fraudster, Born in Poverty in Dublin’s Slums’ is Chapter 23 in Salvador Ryan (ed), Birth, Marriage and Death among the Irish, Dublin: Wordwell, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-1-913934-61-3, €25, pp 104-107.

Birth and the Irish … a new book edited by Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth

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