Shortly after midnight on Monday the 21st February 1814 a man purporting to be a Lieutenant-Colonel R. du Bourg, aide-de-camp to Lord Cathcart, the ambassador to the Court of Russia, appeared at the Ship Inn in Dover on the south coast of England. He claimed that he had just arrived from France and bore the important news that the allied forces had gained a great victory, had now entered Paris, and that Napoleon Bonaparte had been cut to pieces by a detachment of Cossacks. The Lieutenant-Colonel called for pen, ink and paper and sat down to compose a message to the commander of the naval garrisson at Deal before setting off in a post-chaise for London. On his way du Bourg took great care to repeat his story at every available point on his journey before his arrival in London at about 9 a.m. when he disappeared in the direction of Grosvenor Square.

News of the end of the war soon spread and was widely believed. Any doubts that might have arisen appeared to be dispelled when at around noon three French officers appeared wearing white cockades, and drove around the City of London distributing leaflets inscribed with the slogans "Vive le Roi! Vivent les Bourbons!"

Of course Napoleon Bonaparte was alive and well and continued to make trouble for the next year or so. The whole affair had been nothing more than an elaborate if somewhat puzzling hoax.

The Fraud Revealed

When the London Stock Exchange opened at 10 a.m. that morning, prices soon rose on the strength of the exciting news from Dover, fell back, and then rose once more on the news of the appearance of the three French officers. However, once a messenger had returned from the government that afternoon with the official word that the whole affair was a hoax, prices soon sank back to their previous level.

Trading on the exchange that day had been heavy, although not excessively so; nevertheless the Committee of the Stock Exchange decided to launch an enquiry into the day's trading. They soon established that just three men were responsible for the sale of over £1.1 million of Consols and Omnium stocks, most of which had been acquired during the previous week. These three men were Thomas Cochrane, known at the time as the Lord Cochrane, a naval hero and Radical MP for Westminster, his uncle and fellow MP Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone and Richard Gathorn Butt, a well known speculator and financial advisor to the Lord Cochrane.

Further enquiries revealed that Lieutenant-Colonel du Bourg was in fact a Captain Random de Berenger who, on his arrival in London, had called at Lord Cochrane's home at 13 Green Street, Grosvenor Square, where he had changed into civilian clothes before making himself scarce, whilst the three French officers were identified as Ralph Sandom, Alexander M'Rae, and Henry Lyte all of whom were jobbers in the aforementioned funds. It seemed therefore that the whole affair was simply a conspiracy to artificially boost the price of government securities in order to enable the conspirators to offload their holdings at a profit.

The creation and manipulation of rumours in order to move stock prices was nothing new, but such a blatant and theatrical attempt to profit at the expense of others was all too much for the Stock Exchange who decided to prosecute. The accused were therefore brought before the Court of the King's Bench at the Guildhall, on the 8th June 1814, and charged with conspiracy to defraud the Stock Exchange "by circulating false news of Bonaparte's defeat, of his being killed by the Cossacks, etc, in order to raise the funds to a higher price than they would otherwise have borne, to the injury of the public, and the benefit of the conspirators."

The Trial of the Lord Cochrane

The trial attracted a great deal of interest since it involved the celebrated and well-known naval hero Thomas Cochrane who assembled a particularly capable defence team featuring Henry Brougham (a future Lord Chancellor), William Best (a future Chief Justice of Common Pleas and James Scarlett (a future attorney-general). But despite this array of legal talent, in the end the question of Thomas Cochrane's guilt turned on the seemingly trivial point as to whether Berenger had turned up Grosvenor Square that day wearing a red or a green uniform. Thomas came up with a reasonably plausible explanation as to why Captain Berenger had turned up at his home and changed into civilian clothes, but this relied entirely on his assertion that Berenger was wearing the green uniform of the Duke of Cumberland's Regiment of Sharpshooters to which Berenger belonged, as opposed to the red uniform which he wore when playing the part of Lieutenant-Colonel du Bourg. Thomas Cochrane swore that it was the former, but there were witnesses who tesitified to the latter and thus as Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough pointed out in his summing up the Lord Cochrane had lied, and the fact that he lied was a clear indication that he had something to hide.

After deliberating the matter for two and a half hours the jury returned with verdicts of guily against all the accused. Ellenborough duly passed sentence and ruled,

That the defendants, Lord Cochrane and Butt, should each pay a fine of £1,000; the defendant, Holloway, a fine of £500; all the defendants to be imprisoned for one year in the custody of the Marshal of the Marshalsea; and that the defendants - Lord Cochrane, Butt, and De Berenger - should once, during that period, stand in and upon the pillory for one hour, between the hours of twelve and two at noon, in the open space facing the Royal Exchange, in the city of London.

Later that same month Thomas Cochrane appeared before the House of Commons to face a motion for his expulsion. There he asserted his innocence, blaming his conviction on the bias of Lord Ellenborough, the incompetence of his lawyers, the perjury of witnesses etc, in a speech that was so abusive that the official record is peppered with deleted expletives. But despite the passion of Cochrane's speech, the House voted by a majority of 140 to 44 to expel him, although they also resolved to remit that part of the sentence which condemned him to stand in the pillory. Neither did this quite end Cochrane's humiliation as he was also struck off the navy list, and formally ejected from the Order of the Bath.

The Rehabilitation of the Lord Cochrane

Despite his conviction Thomas Cochrane continued to maintain that the verdict against him was politically motivated, and conducted a long-running campaign to have his sentence quashed. Eventually with the accession of William IV and the election of an unequivocally Whig government, he was eventually granted a pardon in 1832, by which time he had succeeded his father as the Earl of Dundonald. He was also restored to the navy list, reinstated to his former rank of rear admiral and placed on half pay. In 1847 he was restored to the Order of the Bath and later returned to active service and served as commander of the North American and West Indian station between 1848 and 1851. Despite all this he continued to campaign for the repayment of the £1,000 fine he'd been forced to pay and the payment of the naval back pay that he'd missed out on between 1814 and 1832. Even after his death in 1860 his heirs were still pursuing this claim years later, until his grandson received an ex-gratia payment of £5,000 in 1878.

Thomas Cochrane has thus often been characterised as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Thanks largely to his own efforts at rewriting his life to suit his own purposes, it afterwards became common to state that he was "falsely accused" and that he was "wrongly jailed for fraud". Many later accounts of his life have tended to uncritically accept Thomas's own account of events and it is only in more recent times that historians have re-examined the case and concluded that the "evidence of Cochrane's intimate knowledge of the 'hoax' was overwhelming" and that the jury got it right first time round. Therefore whilst the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica refers to the affair as "a notorious fraud ... perpetrated on the Stock Exchange by an uncle of his and by other persons with whom he habitually acted in his speculations", clearly implying his innocence, the modern version simply states that he was "involved in a plot to make money on the stock exchange by spreading false rumours".


The details of the fraud

The facts were that Thomas Cochrane, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone and Richard Gathorn Butt built up a bullish position in government stocks, taking advantage of the fortnightly Stock Exchange accounting period to acquire stock on credit. In the account period which begun on the 8th February and was due to close on the 23rd they had acquired in excess of £1m worth of stock in the belief that prices would rise. But prices had remained flat and then fallen on the 18th February with news of Napoleon's victory over Blucher. Thus the three men stood to lose a total of £160,000 (in excess of £20m in today's money), an immense sum which would have probably bankrupted all three. Thus the fraud was perpetrated to avoid ruin rather than make profits. (Although the profit of some £10,000 that they did make was seized by the Stock Exchange Committee and later distributed to various charities.)


SOURCES

  • Paul Johnson, Civilising Mammon: Fraud and Profit in Nineteenth-Century London http://www.fathom.com/feature/121984/
  • The Gallant Admiral Lord Dundonald http://www.bigenealogy.com/familychests/page63.htm
  • The biographies of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald in both the 1911 and modern Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Memoirs of a Fighting Captain (Folio, 2005) Introduction and editoral matter by Brian Vale

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