The Crickhowell Sensation 1912 – 1913
The Tale of Irvine Blennerhassett
Irvine Rowland Blennerhassett.
The secret world of Irvine Rowland Blennerhassett, clerk to Crickhowell Rural District Council and Board of Guardians, came tumbling down around his ears in March 1912 and set in motion an extraordinary sequence of events which made national news and involved an international police hunt.
Irvine Blennerhassett was born 9th December,1863, the son of a doctor. Irvine arrived in Wales from Valentia Island, County Kerry, and became fluent in both Welsh & English. in 1881 he was a teacher of classics, living with his widowed mother and brother in Llanfairfechan. He arrived in Crickhowell sometime later. He lived at 1, Llanbedr Road and soon became a well-known and well-liked personality in Crickhowell in the years that followed.
He married a local girl, Sarah Elizabeth Williams (whose parents lived next door at 2, Llanbedr Road in 1891) and together they had four children. He was, in turn,vice-chairman, treasurer and secretary of the newly-formed Rugby Club in1886. He played at least twice and officiated as umpire at several of their matches. (It was reported that Irvine was to receive 5% of the club’s receipts for his trouble).
Quite what an influential figure he was in rugby circles is not clear but at their annual dinner on April 20th 1887 he said, “It is my aim not only to see football reach perfection in Crickhowell but throughout Breconshire, and I propose starting next season a county club, which, I am rejoiced to say, will be ably supported by the Brecon College and the town club, which will enable us to play against such teams as Newport and Cardiff, or, if it can be arranged, Monmouthshire.”
Later in the evening he asserted, “…. I maintain that, if a thing is to be done at all, it should be done with all one’s will and not by halves and I consider that, as your secretary, I have only done what was expected of me, and also what every conscientious man in a similar position would have done.”
Those words would return to haunt him.
Irvine loved sport, in particular, billiards, and apart from the rugby club he was also an important figure in setting up association football in the town and played for the Cricket Club. In 1902 he also qualified as a Welsh Rugby Union referee. He was something of an expert on horses and was a judge at local horse shows. He started business as an auctioneer and accountant and became a familiar figure in both Newport and Cardiff and in 1901 was hotel manager at the Greyhound Hotel, Abergavenny.
The Greyhound 1903
(from The Pubs of Abergavenny by Frank Olding)
Irvine was a member of the Debating Society where, in December 1893, he successfully moved the following resolution “That the English Drama of the present day has a beneficial influence upon the general public.” He was a member of the Agricultural society, and secretary of the Abergavenny Laundry Company
The trust and confidence that Irvine inspired in the townsfolk of late Victorian Crickhowell resulted in him being appointed in 1888 as Clerk to the Board of Guardians at the “Spike” workhouse in Llangattock and Clerk to the Rural District Council. His duties involved handling the accounts of both public bodies. This task he carried out for 24 years – until March 1912 and the unexpected arrival of Mr. Robert Parr, Local
Government Board Auditor.
Irvine’s business speculations had not gone as well as he had hoped and for several years had been secretly abusing his position of trust. Initially, his scheme was a simple one. Once cheques had been signed (and presumably made out to “cash” with no written amount) he would enter another “1”. For example, a cheque for £2 7s 6d was altered to £12 7 6d and the extra £10 went into his pocket (the equivalent today of around £500). As he had sole access to the accounting system of both organizations, it was relatively easy for him to cover his tracks.
Mr. Parr turned up unannounced to audit the books of these public bodies. Irvine had not had time to manipulate the figures and “serious discrepancies were discovered”. Irvine was sent for to explain the anomalies and immediately knew that the game was up. He handed in his resignation in separate letters to the Rural District Council and the Board of Guardians. He also resigned the clerkship to the Pensions Committee, and the secretaryship of the Abergavenny Laundry Co.
Alarmed at the revelations, The Board of Guardians and Rural District Council held meetings from which the press was excluded.
Finding the accusations hard to believe, they decided to wait for a fortnight pending further investigations before proceeding with prosecution.
Their hesitation gave Irvine time and, knowing the extent of his fraudulent activities and the penalty that awaited, he decided to save his skin and at midnight on March 20th, he took to his heels. On Thursday March 22nd the police published the following description of him, in the hope of his speedy arrest :-
"Wanted,on warrant in this county, charged with a series of forgeries, whereby the Crickhowell Board of Guardians and the Rural District Council have been defrauded of about £550, Irvine Blennerhassett, late clerk to the Crickhowell Board of Guardians and the Rural District Council, aged 47 years, height 5ft. 10 in or 5ft. 11in., build proportionate, weight about 12 ½ st., hair brown, turning grey, bald on top, no whiskers, moustache brown turning upwards, complexion fair, eyes grey or blue, receding forehead, dimple in chin, walks erect, rather swaggering in gait, left foot turns a little inward, and is carried forward with a slight circular motion, has a hacking cough, and generally applies his hand to his mouth when coughing, with a gentlemanly appearance and address, has frequently officiated as judge at carriage horses and agricultural shows, is fond of billiards, generally smokes cigars, is a fluent and cultivated speaker, frequents first-class hotels, native of Ireland, wife and family reside at Llangattock, Crickhowell; usual dress white or green Trilby hat, grey breeches, black leggings, or light suit, or silk hat and black frock-coat. In all probability will be found stylishly dressed.
It is believed he left Llangattock in a motor car about midnight on the 20th. inst. He will probably try to disguise himself, and it is believed he will endeavour to leave the country. It is earnestly requested that every possible search and inquiry for the above described man will be immediately made at hotels and shipping offices, where he may have booked or may yet book his passage abroad, and have outgoing boats watched. If found arrest and communicate with the undersigned, when an escort, with warrant, will be sent for him.
H. HAND ( Deputy Chief-Constable). "
Irvine did indeed head overseas. Shortly after his disappearance, on April 12th, 1912, the White Star “Titanic” left Southampton. When the news of its fate came through it was rumoured that Irvine had been aboard and perished. This was one of the many rumours that circulated during his disappearance. Other rumours included;
He had absconded taking with him the new Clarence Hall clock,
He was variously supposed to be in France… or Chile… or Peru.
He was in Pittsburgh, USA
Months after his disappearance he made a secret visit to his family (who had relocated to Abergavenny) at four in the morning.
None of these are known to be true. Very recent evidence has been found of a “Joe Benson” travelling on the R.M.S. Tunisian bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 21st. March 1912. The passenger lists give details that “Joe Benson” was aged 48, a widower, occupation in this country “nil”, seeking employment as a farmer and his destination was Kootenay, British Columbia.. It further reveals that the amount of cash he carried was £240 (roughly £13,000 by today’s values). The emigrants on the same ship, for the most part, carried far less than £100.
(Follow the link below to view the ship on which Irvine fled).
It seems that Irvine caught a train to Liverpool and boarded the first ship out. Remember, this was in the days when radio was in its infancy and passports as we know them today had not yet been issued. The “Tunisian” docked in Halifax on 31st. March, 1912. His movements after landing are unclear but what is certain is that he ended up in the town of Field, British Columbia where, under his assumed name of Joe Benson, he took up the post of steward and accountant at the Mount Stephen Canadian Pacific Hotel near Kicking Horse Pass.
Unbeknownst to Irvine, however, the authorities were on his trail and on May 19th 1913 he was taken into custody. Rather surprisingly, he was allowed to undertake work and walk about the village. He was not under control on account of his poor health. It seems as though Irvine had had the fight knocked out of him and had resigned himself to his fate. Two local policemen, Sergeant William Williams of Brecon (but formerly of Crickhowell), and Acting-sergeant David Williams, Gilwern, were dispatched to British Columbia to aid in identification. They took Irvine into custody on Sunday morning, 28th September. Six warrants wereread out to him to which Irvine replied “ That is quite right.” From Field they accompanied Irvine to Quebec where they boarded the SS. “Empress of Britain” bound for Liverpool, where they landed at 5 p.m. on 9th October 1913.
Irvine was suffering from tuberculosis and was coughing incessantly. He had grown a beard and this added to his bedraggled appearance. The stress of his situation did nothing to improve matters and he was losing weight rapidly. Local headlines at the time proclaimed, “A Broken Man” and “Physical Wreck.”
Interest in the area was naturally high and crowds gathered at Abergavenny station, along the route he was expected to take, at the police station and the courtroom in Crickhowell when news of Irvine’s arrival was received.
Before being committed to trial at Brecon, preliminary hearings were held at Crickhowell to a packed courtroom. Details of Irvine’s fraudulent activities were read out and it was revealed that he had ordered bogus letterheads and a rubber stamp similar to the one used in the Duke of Beaufort’s estate office. The proceedings went on for several days and the Brecon County Times ran the headline “Prolonged, Wearisome Hearings”. Irvine was very weak and offered to help the prosecution in order to shorten the amount of time being taken.
On Friday October 31st 1913, Irvine Blennerhassett, aged 46, was indicted on thirty-one counts of forgery, falsification and embezzlement at Brecon before an (all-male) Grand Jury presided over by Mr. Justice Bankes.
The Brecon County Times wrote ; “When the prisoner stepped into the dock a painful hush fell on the court, which was crowded to the utmost capacity, many people failing to gain admission, and it was evident that some of those present were affected by prisoner’s wasted appearance."
Mr. Ivor Bowen, K.C., and Mr. Wilfred Lewis (instructed by Messrs Lewis Morgan and Box, Cardiff), prosecuted on behalf of the Public Prosecutor, and Mr. B. Francis Williams, K.C. (instructed by Mr. D.G. Harris, Brynmawr) stood for the defence.
“The Clerk of the Assize charged the prisoner upon the 31 counts, which were set up under six heads, namely, forging and altering cheques, forging minute books, embezzlement, larceny and falsification of accounts. To all these charges prisoner replied in a weak voice, “Guilty.””
For the defence Dr. P.E. Hill, Crickhowell, was called. He stated ……….. “He may live for possibly a year, or perhaps two; on the other hand he may die at any moment.” The newspaper reported that “Prisoner at this point bowed his head in the dock and raised his hand to his
forehead as though he had been struck by an unexpected blow.”
Justice Bankes sentenced Irvine to three years imprisonment, stating, “You have done this in a systematic and impudent fashion………. and I do not think that the prison officials are so inhuman as to keep a man in prison when they find that his state of health is such that he might
immediately or very shortly die.”
Irvine was removed to Cardiff Gaol and from there to Parkhurst, Isle of Wight “that well-known convict establishment for invalids and old men.”
And what became of Irvine? Sadly, at the time of writing, it is unknown. He seems to have survived at least until 1916, as provision was made for him in his wife’s will. (Incidentally, she is buried in Crickhowell Churchyard. A white cross underneath the beech tree opposite what was until recently The Six Bells).
The final resting place of Sarah Elizabeth Blennerhassett
Did he pass away in prison?
Was he released and assumed a new life somewhere?
Did he return to his family?
Did he join his brother in South Africa?
No record has as yet been found of his death or where he is buried.
Thanks must go to Mr. Bill Jehan, whose extensive knowledge of the Blennerhassett family tree was an invaluable aid to the research and
also to Paul Foley of the Archive Centre.
Maldwyn Powell 2009
POSTSCRIPT August 2010
This article was originally published in The Crickhowell Archive Centre Newsletter No.13, December 2009. It was subsequently re-published (with permission) on the website of the Blennerhassett Family Tree.
Following its publication there, another member of the Blennerhassett family, Mr. A. Lawson, who was also undertaking research into Irvine, gleaned some previously unknown facts. Armed with this new information, he was able to uncover the following:
Irvine, under his new name of Irvine Benson, then aged 53, remarried on February 15th. 1917 at St. Peter's Church, Southampton.
His bride was Matilda Jane Thomas (nee Webber) a widow, aged 52, from Abergavenny.
They lived together at Whitecliff View, Royal Street, Sandown, Isle of Wight (not far away from Parkhurst Prison).
He died on 10th August 1919 at Dudley House Nursing Home, Sandown.
The cause of his demise was recorded as pthisis - defined as "any disease that causes wasting of the body, especially pulmonary tuberculosis".It would seem then, that the mystery has been solved.
But......., as with many aspects of Irvine's life, there still remain questions to be answered.
What was the nature of his relationship with Matilda Thomas?
She lived on Brecon Road, Abergavenny, the widow of David Francis Thomas, a draper of Golden Fleece , Abergavenny, who died on September 16th 1913 aged 52.
(A month prior to Irvine's return to the U.K.).
Irvine's first wife, Sarah, also lived on Brecon Road sometime after his incarceration.
Was Matilda a caring neighbour/friend who travelled to the Isle of Wight to assist Irvine in his delicate state of health?
She must have been a very faithful friend to leave her family behind to go to his side.
The possibility that they met by chance for the first time on the Isle of Wight stretches the bounds of credibility too far.
Had she made a promise to Sarah?
Was their relationship forged in Abergavenny prior to Irvine's flight overseas?
If so, what form did it take?
If anyone else can shed further light on this fascinating story or has any theories or evidence to offer, please get in touch.
Maldwyn Powell August 2010