In which the rumor mill, over decades, inserts many a wild fancy into the Watts scandal

     

The Whisper Game:

Re-Tellings of the Watts Scandal

I have decided to create a collection of these short re-tellings of the Watts scandal that I have found. Some of them have come from rather obscure and unexpected sources such as insurance company journals.  They are full of conjecture, opinion, unsourced assertions of fact, errors, name-dropping of Victorian celebrities probably completely unconnected to events, slanderous slights, and pure catty speculation. They are, in short, the stuff of rumor that you would expect to accompany a scandal.  I present these narratives here for the benefit of any other scholars who might wish to re-trace my footsteps at some future time.

There are other versions of the scandal available.  However these are either much longer, more easily accessed, or have already been referenced by multiple authors writing about Watts.

The stories here are presented in chronological order of publication so the reader can get some idea of how much the events of the Watts scandal were/were not distorted by the passing of time.

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The Forgeries of Walter Watts

It is an old adage that nothing is ever done for the last time without exciting a feeling of melancholy. It potently possessed a man, who, on a wild blowing March afternoon in 1850, sat in the dim-lighted green room of the Olympic, which, as its lessee, he had opened scarely three months before.  He was gazing on a locket containing the portrait of a pretty, black-eyed woman.  The roar of the wind, now and again, stirred him from reverie. Everything around was dismal and funereal, like the spirits of the solitary inmate of the chamber.  Tumbled playbills, papers and books in confusion, dusty mirrors and settees, rows of empty champagne bottles, vases of faded flowers, silence and solitude, all gruesomely contrasted with the bouquets, bright eyes, alluring lips, picturesque costumes, rippling laughter, and light from soft refulgent lamps, such as nightly fed and flattered his voluptuous heart not so long before.  The man’s fortunes had collapsed like a house of cards.  Moreover, he speculated whether Nemesis in the shape of a policeman might not be waiting for him on the footway in Wych street.

Suddenly Mr. Walter Watts drew a scented cambric from his superfine, blue paletot, touched it here and there with dainty fingers as he used it for the glossy Lincoln and Bennett, and then softly summoned someone by name.  It was a graceful, aristocratic youth who bowed with an engaging air.  “You were right about the locket. It was in the secret drawer. We must say farewell to each other. I’m glad all is going well with you. Your letter yesterday was gentlemanly and kind in every way. Anything I ever did for you has been well repaid by your attention. On no account send to me unless I write. Just call me a cab, and say I want to be taken to Skinner-street, Snow-hill.”

As Mr. Watts, fair-haired and dapper, genial and courteous, and drawing on an exquisite lavender glove, was whirled away, the youth could not help recalling the origin of their acquaintance. It had begun not far from the spot where the ex-lessee of the Olympic had tendered a pleasant valedictory nod. Twelve months previous, the youth, having quarreled with a relation and a private tutor, took himself off, and became almost penniless.  One evening, by the Olympic (the theatre, burned down in 1849), a gentleman dropped a pocketbook, and, unconscious of the loss, was walking hastily away.  It was Mr. Walter Watts, who, profuse of thanks to the youth for restoring the property, entered into conversation, and became a very generous friend.  Although the youth saw him several times after parting on the March afternoon, stern despotic circumstances forbade any further communication between them.

It was in the year 1848 that the name of Walter Watts began to circulate in theatrical circles. It became known that he had advanced a thousand pounds for Mrs. Warner to open the Marylebone Theatre, where she produced plays of Shakespeare and those of writers of his school with the efficiency and elegance that had distinguished her co-management at Sadler’s Wells with Phelps.  George Vining was introduced to the Portman Market playgoers as Claude Melnotte and revivals given of Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Scornful Lady” and “Double Marriage.”  But even with the attraction later of the celebrated Macready in a round of characters, the speculation proved a failure.

Yet Mr. Watts was not to be daunted.  A few months subsequently his name appeared on the bills as lessee and he seemed desirous of emulating the taste and enterprise of Webster at Adephi, and Maddox at the Princess’s.  Despite the theatre being situated in a plebian locality and a building of somewhat mean construction, the fresh manager determined to go ahead. Prices were raised, and a host of star engagements secured.  Amongst others appearing were the Keelys, Buckstone and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, and T.P. Cooke.  Afterwards the Americans, Mrs. Mowatt and E. L. Davenport, acted in a number of tragedies and comedies, and in the ladies own romantic play of “Armand, or the Peer and the Peasant.”

Those connected with theatrical circles began to rub their eyes and ask in an undertone, “Who was Mr. Walter Watts?” It was a difficult question to answer. Detractors replied that he was only a junior clerk in the Globe Insurance Office. Quidnuncs looked mysterious, and whispered that the Marylebone lessee was a turfite of the most spirited and brilliant quality and had made glorious winnings at Epsom and the other great historic races.

Two things were certain about Watts’ doings. He had the purse of a prince and the temper of a prodigal. If he entertained dramatic authors and the leading performers of his establishment, the spread came from Gunter’s. His turnout for the Derby in 1849 was a marvel for drag, steeds, viands and liquors.  Watts, too, was an especial favorite with the fair sex, and lavishly showered his bounties on them.  He had an elegant residence, Neville Lodge, St. John’s-wood, that, under its gay and liberal-handed host, became famous for Sunday night re-unions.  He also had apartments in Tavistock-street, and a tale got afloat about him that a message having been sent there, a servant girl by mistake announced Mr. Watts not his messenger, who on entering found himself embraced by a lady attired as a Bacchante to give éclat to her lover’s visit.

Mrs. Mowatt, an accomplished authoress as well as actress, petite, with luxurious hair and speaking eyes, quite the perfection of the American belle, and who could “twang the lyre” with the same grace and sentiment that she represented Viola and Rosalind, won great esteem from Watts.  He sent the lady’s husband, an invalid, on a voyage to Trinadad; and on the occasion of Mrs. Mowatt’s benefit in January of 1849, presented her with a silver vase lined with gold, surmounted by a statuette of Shakespeare.  On the complaint, too, that star actresses had not elegant accommodation behind the scenes, Watts declared to Mrs. Mowatt that he would speedily arrange such a desideratum, and with enough taste and luxurious comfort for it to become the talk of theatrical London.  Decorator and upholsterer went to work in a small apartment partitioned off from the green room.  The carpet represented roses reposing on a bed of moss, and the walls panels of wreaths and bouquets, while from the ceiling hung ornaments in the form of lilies for lighting purposes.  Flower pieces by Bartholomew were among the pictorial adornments, and four mirrors reflected the furniture of pale blue satin and gold.  Watts was greatly delighted when one evening, after conducting a visitor behind the scenes, the journalist remarked, “you are quite the Sardanapalus of theatrical administrators.”  It was true in more senses than one.

But the lessee of the Marylebone was contemplating fresh and even more splendid achievements.  In March 1849, the Olympic in Wych street, reared by the pluck and enterprise of Philip Astley, was totally destroyed by fire.  It was not long before it became known that a new theatre would rise on the ashes of its predecessor, while at the same time it grew an open secret of Watts being its lessee and manager.  Engagements were mad with some of the most able histrions of the period.  Mr. and Mrs. Wigan, Mrs. Seymour, Messrs. Marston, Ryder, G.V. Brooke, E.L. Davenport, and, of course, Mrs. Mowat, and a  host of other most capable actors and actresses.  Watts also arranged with Jerrold for the “Spendthrift,” Westand Marstand for his “Philip of France,” and “Leigh Hunt for “Lover’s Amazements,” pieces never before acted, while commissions were given to other well-known playwrights.  Indeed, it was bruited that Watts intended to monopolize al the talent he could, both literary and histrionic, and by such a scale of remuneration that some thought the most prosperous playhouse could ill-support.

A dark event marked the end of Watts’ managerial reign at Paddington.  He gave a splendid banquet on the Marylebone boards on taking leave of the theatre. The stage, decorated with banners and flowers, was set out as a ball-room.  A number of journalists and other invited guests joined the staff on the occasion and “all went merry as a marriage bell.”  There were quadrilles and waltzes before supper, and a cotillion, and a country dance afterwards.  Albert Smith told comic stories galore, Herbert and Penson sang, and murmurs of joviality and enjoyment arose on every side.  Suddenly however, a loud shriek rent the air, and cloud of flame sped from the footlights towards the dais at the back.  Above the fiery cloud rose the arms of a terror-stricken ballerina, whose muslin skirts had ignited at the jets of gas. A panic ensued.  Some rushed towards the stage door; the men who remained uttered sounds of confusion and horror, while women went into hysterics or coma.  Amidst the tragic tumult, making itself audible above everything was the voice of the fire-enveloped girl calling in agonized tones for help.  Mrs. Renfrew, a wardrobe woman, at the risk of her own life, and with rare presence of mind, caught the pitiable object in her arms, threw the poor creature on the stage, and smothered the fire, after being fearfully burnt on the face and arms.  It was a sorry finale to such a gala.

The second Olympic Theatre opened on Boxing Night, 1849.  During the time it remained under Watts’ management, the same kind of entertainment was given as had been presented at the Marylebone. There were Shakespearean revivals –G.V. Brooke playing Othello and Shylock. Early in January Mrs. Mowatt’s “Fashion,” first played in New York, underwent a London ordeal, and towards the end of the month Oxenford’s translation of Thomas Corneille’s “Ariadne” had representation, the American actress playing the title part.  The tragedy was not attractive, no more than G.H. Lewes’s “Noble Heart,” played for the first time on February 18th.  Brooke sustained the principal character.  Early in March, the theatre closed its doors without warning or explanation.  There was but a single interrogation – “Where was Mr. Walter Watts?”

The mystery found solution in the newspapers.  On the morning after we saw him in the Olympic green room, Watts, in the custody of Daniel Forester, was brought us before Alderman Gibbs, at the Mansion House, charged with having stolen and carried away an order for the payment of 1400, and a piece of paper of the value of a penny, the property of the Globe Insurance Company.  Freshfield prosecuted, and Bodkin, instructed by Wontner, attorney of Skinner Street, Snow-Hill, appeared for the prisoner.  It transpired that Watts was a clerk in the Globe office, and that he had been long tampering with orders and cheques passing through his hands. All his papers had been sealed up by order of the deputy chairman, and it came out that Watts had been away from his duties since March 5th. Bodkin stated his client courted enquiry, and had never even thought of keeping away, as proved by his voluntarily meeting Forester the preceding afternoon at Mr. Wontner’s.

The accused man underwent remand serval times.  On each of these occasions the evidence put in explained several points in Watts’ history, and likewise brought facts into prominence, leaving no doubt, that he had been guilty of a series of gigantic and cleverly-devised frauds.  A painful circumstance in connection with the case was the position of the defendant’s father, a cashier in the employ of the company, but who was wholly exonerated from the slightest knowledge of his son’s defalcations.  They probably extended over a lengthy period amounting as the embezzlement did to quite £80000. Watts had held his clerkship about ten years, and it was never ascertained that he had accomplices.  Tite, the deputy chairman, had remonstrated with him for getting mixed up with theatrical speculations.

On Friday, May 10th, 1850, Watts was tried at the Old Bailey before Baron Alderson and Justice Cresswell.  The indictments had numerous counts and it appeared the prisoner had never been in any higher capacity in connection with the company than that of an assistant clerk in the accountant’s office.  But Watts’ had two shares in the company, one of which he purchased from Maddison Morton, who wrote two or three pieces for the prisoner when lessee of the Marylebone.  Watts labored under the impression that being a shareholder, would greatly influence the verdict in his favor.  Alexander Cockburn, retained for the defense, also made a striking feature of this fact.  In a singularly spirited address, Cockburn contended that inasmuch as the prisoner held those shares he was a partner in the company, and therefore could not steal his own property.  There was even a note of uncertainty in the summing up of the judge and the jury, after deliberating for an hour returned a verdict of guilty on the count of stealing the piece of paper.  Yet the sentence was deferred.

A point of law was raised and argued before a Court of Criminal Appeal.  It was contended that Watts should not only be found guilty for having stolen the piece of paper, but for all his dishonesty.  The Attorney-General had several other counts ready at hand; so on Saturday morning July 13, Watts was put in the dock to receive his sentence.  Baron Alderson, Justice Patterson, and Justice Talfourd were on the Bench.  The prisoner’s confinement had told terribly on him physically, and he looked the ghost merely of Walter Watts who had figuratively floated in champagne six months before, and often in the most jaunty style had tossed a yellow-boy to a cabby for a ten minutes ride in the Strand.  His fair locks were no longer trim and glossy from the artistic irons and brush of Mr. Wilson, and the culprit wore an air of collapse and weariness.  He was sentenced to ten years’ transportation.  His deportment in the dock was quiet and firm, but his eyes closed for a moment on hearing the sentence.

It was Sunday morning. It might have been half-past three or a quarter to four o’clock.  Not a foot-fall echoed through the white-washed walls and corridors of Newgate.  Even the death-like silence of the prison appeared intensified by the twitter of sparrows in the yards.  Summer light, grey blue in colour, streamed through narrow windows and loop-holes.  The shadow of iron bars fell on the pavement of one of the long passages.  A door opened noiselessly, and a man’s face peered out with caution.  It grew ashey pale, and the eyes waxed, wild with terror as they fixed themselves on a ghastly spectacle.  It was the body of Walter Watts, stark and stiff, with staring eyes, hanging by the neck from a cord obtained from the sacking of his bed which he had left hours before.

The suicide’s feet were tied together with a silk handkerchief, and a locket was suspended from his neck.  The late forger’s fellow-prisoner sounded an alarm. When the doctor knelt by the corpse stretched on the stone flags, that medical worthy declared life to have been extinct some time.

The laxity and stupidity of those under whom Watts worked, alone made his voluptuous and roguish career possible.  Rascals, like heroes, cannot flourish without opportunity, and the lessee of the Marylebone and Olympic found his in an easy-going board of assurance directors.  Penal servitude not holding out the faintest prospect of Clicquot and the caresses of syerns in dainty book muslin, luxuries for which Watts chiefly lived, the next best thing was oblivion, which he found by a short if gruesome road.

--  L.V. Gazette

“The Forgeries of Walter Watts,” The Press, Volume XLIX, Issue 8322, November 1892

cliquot champagne

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Respecting Mr. Walter Watts, there is a tragical story which bears its own lesson. Mr. Watts was a clerk in the Globe Insurance Office, and filled up his leisure hours by running a theatre. He kept a choice villa in Alpha Road, St. John’s Wood, and had a lady actress to assist him in running that. One day a cheque with a forged signatures was discovered in his temporary absence at the office, and in a short time he was standing at the Old Bailey, in that terrible iron spiked compartment with subterranean stairs in its floor, where many unhappy wretches have stood before and since. Mr. Alexander Cockburn was his counsel, and did his best to clear him from the imputation that he had stolen and forged away £80,000, but it was unavailing. Twelve gentlemen, sitting in another and more comfortable compartment, declined to believe the story of the future Lord Chief Justice of England, and Mr. Walter Watts was sentenced to 10 years’ transportation. He was passing the time in Newgate waiting for a ship to convey himself and other involuntary emigrants to Tasmania, when one beautiful day in July the warder went into his small apartment and found Mr. Walter Watts suspended from the iron work of his window, dead, dead. Mr. Walter Watts had resigned the management of the unlucky Marylebone to take the management of a theatre more unlucky and ill-starred still – the unfortunate, the doomed Olympic. Unfortunate as the managers generally of these houses have been, Mr. Walter Watts’ career was the most unfortunate, tragical and dramatic.

--Tawse, Geo. 

“Mrs. Kendal’s First Appearance on the London Stage.” The Theatre, January 2, 1888, page 35.

(in a footnote)

Set design for Andromache

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The author of Box and Cox was Maddison Morton, who unintentionally was connected with as tragic asn as curious a story as is to be found in the history of the English stage.  Morton mad a good deal of money out of Box and Cox and invested some of it in the purchase of two £50 shares in the Globe Insurance Company.  Sometime after, being pressed for money,  he determined to  sell the shares, and chancing to meet in the street Walter Watts, a dandified, dressy little man with theatrical tastes, who, Morton knew, was a clerk in the Globe, he suggested that Watts should purchase the shares, which Watts did. Whatever may have been in Watts mind at the time, it is clear that Morton had not the slightest idea of the extraordinary legal issue to which the sale of these two shares led.

locketWatts at the time was lessee of the Marylebone Theatre, and fired by the example of Madame Vestris, or by some personal ambition, was transforming this dingy and inconvenient theatre into a luxurious home of the drama.  It was a rash undertaking, for Marylebone as a locality for theatrical enterprises was, as it is today, out of the beaten track. But Watts was smitten by the charms of the “beautiful Mrs. Mowatt,” an American actress who came here with a reputation for talent which she hardly sustained. Watts’ ambitious schemes knew no bounds. He went one better than Vestris in providing sumptuous saloons for the refreshment of the audience and equally sumptuous dressing-rooms for the company numbering some forty actors and actresses, all leading members of the profession.

Neither the campaign nor the “beautiful Mrs. Mowatt” was a success.  Watts relinquished the Marylebone and took the Olympic, in which he spent a small fortune.  Suddenly the sword of Damocles which had been hanging over the dressy and genial little man fell.  He was arrested on a charge of having robbed the Insurance Company with which he was connected for 80,000! How he contrived to make use of his position to do this does not here matter.  What is of consequence is the two shares he bought of Maddison Morton. He contended that as he was a shareholder he was also a partner, and therefore he could not be proceeded against, and this contention was upheld.  But the intricacies of the law are manifold.  Watts had misappropriated cheques, and he was indicted on a charge of stealing a piece of paper (i.e. a cheque).  This cheque was a blank one, which he had filled up and cashed, and his conviction was based on the theft of the paper.  The trumpery nature of the legal offence made the difference in the sentence passed, which was ten years’ penal servitude.

Tragedy lay in the sequel.  That night he hanged himself in his cell in Newgate, and it was said that when his clothing was removed around his neck was found a miniature portrait – that of the beautiful Mrs. Mowatt.

--Pearce, Charles E.

Madame Vestris and her Times. London: Stanley Paul & Co. 1900. Page 294-295

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An Insurance Romance

[Communicated]

An interesting account of the vicissitudes of the old Marylebone or West London Theatre in an evening contemporary, there appears the following: --

“Then a Walter Woods became lessee and re-opened it in July 1848, magnificently decorated. He engaged a number of very well-known players, including Mrs. Mowatt (a lady he is said to have been very fond of), Mr. E.L. Davenport (an American like Mrs. Mowatt), and Miss Fanny Vining.

“I’ve got an old bill here, and you will see he announces that his ‘performances consist of the highest class of domestic drama, farce, and burlesque emanating from the pens of the most popular authors.’

“The new manager, who lived in style in St. John’s Wood, was only thirty-one years old, and this was his first connection with a theatre. He was, so rumors said, ‘something’ in the Globe Insurance Office.

The Final Drama

“The theatre, especially behind the scenes, was crowded with young loungers, and was personally run by Mr. Watts for about eighteen months. Then he took the Olympic, in Wych Street, keeping in touch with the Marylebone by means of a deputy manager he appointed.

“Watts opened the Olympic in ’49 with ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’ The pantomime by Nelson Lee was ‘Laugh and Grow Fat.’ Cormack was harlequin, and Tom Matthews was the clown.

“Later both theatres were closed, and stranger rumours began to circulate about Watts, until he appeared at the Mansion House on a charge of defrauding the Globe Insurance Office of large sums of money.

“He took his trial at the Central Criminal Court for stealing an order for the payment of £1400 and a piece of paper. He was found guilty on the second charge only, and to his amazement was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude.

“He committed suicide in prison.”

The story was an old one thirty years ago, and, as recounted at that time, ran as follows: --

The directors of a great insurance company heard with grave concern of the fast living and extravagance of one of their employees, a senior clerk in the life department. This gay and debonair clerk was thereupon summoned to the Board-room and invited to give an explanation of the talk of the town.  With considerable confidence, the clerk pleaded that what he did in his private moments was a matter entirely for his private concern and quite outside the purview of the Office, so long as his work inside the office hours was not prejudiced thereby!

The management made no complaint on that score, so the plea held good. But Nemesis overtook this confident clerk in a singular way.  A country clergyman, on business bent, called at the Office to pay his life premium.  Then ensued a colloquy between the clerk at the counter (taking duty temporarily in the absence of the clerk first referred to). Says the counter clerk: “Sir, this policy became a claim some years ago!”

“What!” gasped the clergyman, “you assert seriously that this policy has become the subject of a payment by reason of a claim?”

“Quite so,” responded the counter clerk, “the Rev. Mr. Blank died years ago.”

Unconvinced, the clergyman put the query – “You mean to say that I am dead?”

The counter clerk could only reiterate his remarks and thereupon, of course, there ensued an interview with the management and an investigation.  In the result, there was a prosecution of the senior clerk, regarding whom the complaint had been made of notorious extravagance, on charges of falsification and embezzlement.  Singularly enough, there arose technical difficulties in carrying the case to a conclusion and it was only on the absurd and minor charge of stealing a sheet of official letter paper that a conviction was ultimately obtained.  The newspaper says, naively enough, the prisoner was amazed at the sentence of ten years penal servitude.  The closing chapter came in the secret conveyance to the prisoner immediately after conviction, of a dose of poison with which he destroyed himself.

--An Insurance Romance.

Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor. Vol. 70. Oct. 1909. P. 851

cabriolet---

Romances of Crime: For the Sake of a Woman

The amazing story of Walter Watts, the insurance clerk who wrote plays, ran theaters, and was the pioneer of modern theatrical enterprise, would in itself form an admirable subject for dramatic treatment.

None of the elements of drama are wanting.  There is a popular man of fashion who spends money lavishly, money which he obtains in some mysterious way, for his modest clerkship yields him but three pounds a week – the beautiful woman with whom he falls desperately in love – the inevitable crash when the truth becomes known – the tragedy on which the curtain descends.

Coupled with all this is the unexpected – the essential factor in all dramatic situations – and the unexpected came about in the opening scene.

Two friends met one summer’s afternoon in the Strand.  The contrast between them, both in dress and appearance, was sharp.  One was Mr. Maddison Morton, the popular author of the evergreen farce, “Box and Cox;” tall, thin, somewhat provincial in look, with his ruddy face and not particularly well cut clothes carelessly worn.  The other somewhat shorter, was well set up and in every way irreproachably groomed.  His coat fitted without a crease, his hat perfectly glossy, his boots and gloves were perfect, his whiskers and hair most carefully trimmed.  This little dandy with the affable manner and pleasant smile was Walter Watts, checking clerk in the Globe Insurance office.

Maddison Morton, like most dramatic authors of the mid-Victorian days, was at the moment somewhat hard up, and over a glass of wine he consulted his friend Watts as to the best method of raising the wind.

“I’m glad I met you, Watts, for there’s no one in the world better able to help me than yourself. No, no, I don’t want to borrow,” he added, seeing the dressy little man dive his hand into his pocket.  “I only want to you to tell me how to convert two shares in your own company into money.”

“All you’ve got to do is to sell them,” rejoined Watts laughingly.

“Yes, but how am I to set about doing it?”

Watts thought a moment.

“I’ll buy them myself at present market value.”

Maddison Morton was delighted at the speedy settlement of the difficulty and within a few days the two £50 shares changed hands and Walter Watts thus became one of the proprietors, though only in a small way, of the company which employed him.

Whether Walter Watts in doing this had any eye to his future proceedings may be doubted, but certain it is that this apparently trifling transaction assumed gigantic proportion when the time came for it to be revived.

At the time when Walter Watts met Maddison Morton, all London was going mad over a beautiful American actress, Mrs. Mowatt, who had come from across the Atlantic without any of the preliminary puffs which would now be the fashion, and had captured the theatrical world at once.  It was no that she was an actress of any exceptional power, but her charming figure, her bewitching smile, her sparkling eyes, and her grace of movement disarmed criticism.  Scores of men fell in love with her, and among them Walter Watts.

Watts had, sometime previously, plunged into theatrical speculation, and when the beautiful Mrs. Mowatt took the town by storm at the Princess Theatre he was running the Marylebone Theatre in partnership with Mrs. Warner, a very popular and clever actress.

The partnership, not proving successful, was dissolved, and Watts, in his infactuation for the charming American lady, determined to run the Marylebone Theatre alone, and make Mrs. Mowatt its bright particular star.

Nothing was too good or too expensive to render the Marylebone, once the home of lurid melodrama, worthy of the beautiful Mrs. Mowatt.

Watts’ plans included the re-arrangement and improvement of the actors’ and actresses’ dressing-rooms and the construction of saloons were to be gorgeously fitted up.  Mirrors were to adorn the walls; costly carpets were to cover the floors; the furniture, upholstered in satin, was to be purchased regardless of cost.  In a word, Mr. Watts was anticipating the theatrical luxury of to-day.

In the first performance given in the newly-decorated Marylebone Theatre Mrs. Mowatt had no share. Her time was to come.  Mr. Watts opened the house with farce, and romantic and domestic drama, engaging Mr. and Mrs. Keeley as special attractions.

A little more than two months went over, during which the Keeleys drew crowded houses, one of the new plays being an adaptation of Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit.”  Then came the announcement that “Mrs. Mowatt, the popular authoress and actress from the United States, and Mr. Davenport from the Park Theatre, New York” would appear for “twelve nights only.”

Mrs. Mowatt made her first appearance at the Marylebone in “As You Like It,” which was succeeded by a dramatic version of “The Bride of Lammermoor.” The papers were enthusiastic in her praise and also complimented Mr. Watts on his “spirited management” and on the “bright” and “prosperous career” of the pretty little theatre.

Apparently all was going swimmingly, so much so that when Mr. Tite, the deputy-chairman of the Globe Insurance Company spoke very seriously to Watts as to the danger of embarking in theatrical speculations, the check-clerk, in his blithe and engaging manner, was able to point to the glowing press notices, and to persuade, if not convince, his superior that everything was going on satisfactorily.

“Well,” said the grave city magnate,  “I hope it is; but I am still of the opinion that theatres are things in which a young man of business ought not to mix himself up.”

But, there was nothing against Watts in the carrying out of his official duties.  He was punctual,  correct; everybody liked and not a few of his colleagues envied him.

Mrs. Mowatt’s twelve nights’ engagement came to an end, and Walter Watts pursued his policy of a “spirited engagement” by engaging Mr. T.P. Cooke, and producing “Black-Eyed Susan,” and afterwards securing Mr. Buckstone and Mrs. Fitzwillam; winding up the year at Christmastime with the production of a “grand comic pantomime, replete with elaborate machinery and gorgeous effects, entitled,  ‘One O’Clock: or Harlequin and Hardyknute, the Knight and the Wooden Demon.’”

Then for nearly a year, Mrs. Mowatt was the leading star, to the exclusion of all others.

Watts was singularly infatuated with the beautiful actress, and his judgement was overcome by his passion. Mrs. Mowatt was a dramatist as well as an actress, and Watts produced two of her plays, lavishing money over them.  Both met with an indifferent success. One critic, while admitting that Mrs. Mowatt exhibited “in her writings warm and womanly feelings,” was of the opinion that, on the whole, the lady’s efforts belonged “to the washy school of sentimental poetry.”

Watts also tried his hand at dramatic writing, and produced a play from his own pen called, “A Dream of Life.” The moral was temperance, and in the last scene the gallows was introduced, an experiment which was not successful, and after the first night the scene was expunged.

The end of the year approached and Watts, more than ever fascinated by Mrs. Mowatt, aspired to greater things.  His term at the Marylebone expiring, he took the Olympic Theatre, which having been burnt down some time before, was now rebuilt.  Watts stopped at nothing to secure all the stars he could get hold of.  The list, as advertised, is headed by Mrs. Mowatt, then follows Mr. G.V. Brooke; the celebrated tragedian, and altogether over forty leading actors and actresses were in the company.  Probably so lengthy and so complete a list of names has never since been put before the public.

Watts was now determined to launch out, and he opened with Shakespearean drama, which he produced on a scale of splendor that in those days was quite a novelty.  Here, also, Mrs. Mowatt’s second play, called “Fashion: or Life in New York” was performed.

For two months play after play was presented and put upon the stage in a style to which London had not been accustomed.  Watts himself kept open house at his villa in St. John’s Wood, and lived as though he were a millionaire.

No one was more generous in his dealings towards the members of his company.  All the leading actors and actresses had understudies to take their places in case of accident or illness, and they received high salaries.  Mrs. Marston, a well-known actress, was one of the understudies.

“Oh, Mr. Watts,” said she one day, when he was paying her. “I don’t like taking this.  It is bad money.”

“Bad money? What do you mean?” said he.

“Why, I’m doing nothing, and you’re paying me far too well for doing it.”

“Oh, is that all?” And he laughed carelessly.

Little did Mrs. Marston imagine how true, in a certain sense, her words were.

Meanwhile, a cloud was gathering in the city.  Probably the incongruity of Walter Watts retaining his situation in the Globe Insurance Company while apparently he was making thousands by his theatrical enterprise, struck the directors as curious; but whatever may have been the cause, the secretary became a little uneasy, and after some conversation with Mr. Tite, he was directed to make an investigation.

Now the principal duty of Watts, who was the assistant clerk in the accountant’s office, was to check the payments at the bank and the bankers’ pass-books, and every Wednesday morning he had to give a statement to the directors of the balance in hand at the bankers, in order that they might see the state of the funds of the company and provide accordingly.

When the cheques that were returned from the bank were verified, it was Watts’ duty to tie them up in a bundle in a regular order, so that they might always be referred to as vouchers both for the bank and the company.

It is necessary to not this in order to understand what followed.

One morning early in March, just when the Olympic and its lease, Walter Watts were apparently in the heyday of their prosperity, the secretary entered the room of the deputy-chairman.

The latter looked at the subordinate’s face and saw that was unusably serious.

“Well,” he said, after a pause, “have you done anything?”

“Yes, I have gone thoroughly into the matter, sir, and I regret to say my suspicions are confirmed.  I find great irregularities in the pass-books, but to save trouble I have taken one particular item and endeavored to trace it.  The voucher for a cheque of £1400 drawn by the directors on February 26 cannot be found and there is an erasure in the pass-book where it should appear.  Over that erasure appears to have been written another amount of  £417 which, however, is correct.”

“In whose writing?” asked Mr. Tite.

“In that of Mr. Walter Watts.  I have also mad another discovery.  On the 26th of February, the day on which the cheque was drawn, Mr. Walter Watts paid into his account at the London and Westminster Bank a cheque for £1400.”

Mr. Tite’s face clouded.  He was a kindly man.  Walter Watts had been a clerk in the Globe Insurance Company for ten years.  Watts’ father was cashier to the company and a respected and valued servant.

“This cheque paid to the London and Westminster,” said he after a pause, “was it a Globe Insurance cheque?”

“Yes.”

“This is a bad business and must not go on. We must seal up Mr. Walter Watts’ papers.”

This was done, and during the operation, Watts came in.  Watts’ father, the cashier, was sent for, and Mr. Tite, in the presence of both said great irregularities had been discovered and before he took any step in the matter he thought it right to call them both before him as he thought they must both be involved.

The father protested his innocence, and said he could account for every shilling.

“I believe that,” said Mr. Tite. “Can you say the same thing, Walter Watts?”

“I decline to say anything. You have disgraced me by sealing up the papers, and as I have done nothing of which I need to be ashamed, I shall not stop here. You forget that I am a proprietor as well as you.”

In this expression, “I am a proprietor,” lies a hidden meaning, and the explanation will be found in the purchase already mentioned from Mr. Maddison Morton of the two shares in the Globe Insurance Company.  In other words, Watts, being a shareholder, was in the position of a partner, and therefore could not be proceeded against criminally.

Walter Watts had robbed the company of upwards of £80000.

After the interview with the deputy-chairman, Watts went away, and that evening sent a letter to Mr. Tite tendering his resignation and stating that if he was wanted, he would be found at the Olympic Theatre.

The following night a notice was posted up in the theatre that it would be closed until Easter.  Walter Watts had run his race.

Two more days went over, and yet the directors did nothing.  They were in a great difficulty.  Although it was absolutely true that Watts had robbed them, they could not bring evidence – legal evidence – that is – to prove the theft.

Watts’ method was highly ingenious.  He first appropriated cheques drawn by the company and instead of paying them in to the company’s bankers, he paid them to his own account.  He then mad erasures in the pass-book, so that the theft would not be discovered, and destroyed the vouchers when they came into his possession which would be the case from the position he occupied in the company’s office.

Therefore, though he had had the cheque, there was no proof that the money had come into his possession, and all that the directors could do was to charge him with stealing a piece of paper – that is, the printed cheque-slip – valued at a penny.

No wonder they hesitated in proceeding.  But they had other reasons.  They were reluctant to prosecute Walter Watts for the sake of his father and they were anxious to avoid the exposure and the damage to the company which would result if it were known how lax their management had been.

So Walter Watts had three clear days in which he could have fled, and had he done so, the pursuit would not have been swift.  The directors would rather that he had disappeared.

But, with a strange fatuity, he stayed and when he heard the matter had been placed in the hands of Daniel Forrester, the most expert detective of the day, he wrote to Forrester, and expressed his willingness to meet him at his solicitor’s office as he could explain everything.

Knowing he was guilty of gigantic frauds, it is extraordinary that Watts did not creep through the loophole of escape proffered to him by the kindly directors.  The key to the mystery is the extraordinary hold which the fascinating, emotional woman had over him.  She believed in spiritualism and clairvoyance – she persuaded him he had nothing to fear, and he believed her.  Possibly too, he thought that to fly would make him appear a coward in her eyes.

His counsel, Sir A. Cockburn, fought the prosecution entirely on the point of law that Watts, being a partner in the concern, count not be proceeded against criminally.  Mr. Justice Creswell, who tried the case, was in great doubt as to the proof of the robbery, but allowed the jury to decide.  They found him guilty of stealing a piece of paper.

But the difficulty was not over. Sentence was deferred and the Court of Criminal Investigation met four times to consider the point raised by Sir A. Cockburn.  It was adverse to Watts and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Now came the tragedy.  On the evening of the day which he was sentenced, the unhappy man committed suicide in Newgate.  Cutting the rope from the sacking of his bed, he hanged himself.

Then a pathetic discovery was made.  Round his neck was a chain pressed into the flesh by the rope, and suspended to the chain was a locket containing the miniature portrait of the beautiful Mrs. Mowatt!

“For the Sake of a Woman.” The Advertiser, Saturday May 7, 1910 page 19.

Niblo'sTheatre Interior---

A Bogus Financier

Eight years before the Victorian era forgery ceased to be a capital offence. The cynical seers of the period detected in that event the sure forerunner of a progressive increase in commercial frauds and City crimes.  The colossal speculations personified in the nineteenth-century Napoleon of the steam locomotive system, whose end and fall became him better than his beginnings and triumphs stand by themselves. The soil in which they flourished proved productive also of financial adventures on a much less gigantic scale, but amid circumstance more tragic or disgraceful, leading to the same disastrous end.

During the period of Peel’s bank legislation, the City knew no more stylish equipage than a cabriolet driven by a gentleman in the prime of early manhood, with the most diminutive, agile, smartly-dressed “tiger” ever seen in Cornhill hold the strap on the outside perch behind his master. A regularly as the Bank opened, the charioteer came in sight, jumped from his vehicle, gave the reins to “Tiger Tim,” who then vanished, only to reappear at another spot beyond Temple Bar about the time when business gentlemen found themselves, like Tennyson’s Orion, “sloping slowly to the west.”

Occasionally the drive to and fro between the City and the West End was performed in a brougham, of appearance as decorous and chaste as if it belonged to the President of the College of Physicians or the pattern of political proprieties, Sir Robert Peel himself.  Mr. Walter Watts, to celebrate the hero of this episode by his full name, was then usually accompanied by a lady, not of the red satin order then often compassionating the loneliness of single gentlemen, but by a fair companion of another kind attired with the quiet grace of a Quakeress, or who might have served as a model for one of Miss Jane Austen’s heroines in Mr. Hugh Thomson’s charming illustrations to Messrs. Macmillan’s edition.

By daylight a patron of the prize-ring, he passed part at least of every evening in his opera-box, where he liked to pose as the cynosure of the house.  Here, of course, he had become the pet of the ballet, was at home behind the scenes, and had the privilege of paying a fancy price for exchanging with the coryphées the professional epithet of “dear.” Prima donnas themselves were known to grace his banquets after the performance, served in Fancatelli’s best style at the St. James Hotel, then about the only place in the Piccadilly district where smart company and high-class cookery went together. Had all this display of gorgeous spendthriftness come ten or twelve years later, its anonymous hero would have been put down as the Antipodean finder of a nugget or shearer of a thousand flocks.

Some said he wormed himself into Sir Robert Peel’s confidence and knew enough of State secrets for safe and successful gambling in funds. Others though the leviathan of bookmakers, Davis, had taken him by the hand and initiated him into all the mysteries of fortune-making on the Turf.  He seldom, however, if at all, showed himself at Tattersalls, was certainly never known to come with full pockets out of the innumerable betting-houses he might have frequented, and did not apparently live among a sporting set.  Equally little, on the other hand, in theatre, park, the King’s Road, Brighton, where he had a country house under the shadow of the Pavilion, or at race-course enclosure, did he ever appear in the aristocratic or fashionable society to which his style, tastes, and wealth might have justified his pretensions.

Two physical and literary giants of the time, as the story runs, the novelist of “The Newcomes” and his former schoolfellow and future Cornhill Magazine contributor “Jacob Omnium,” came upon him one day in a dark corner of Mayfair.

“Know who he is?” said one to the other.  “Know nothing about him” was the reply, “except that he is in training for the Old Bailey.”  “Big Higgins,” as London then knew Thackeray’s friend, liked nothing better than a little amateur detective business, which, however, he generally kept as dark as if it were a professional lay.  The next time Mr. Walter Watts alighted from his carriage in the Leadenhall vicinity, who should be watching him do so by Mr. Higgins.  Following him some 200 yards, he saw his quarry enter the Globe Assurance Office.  Here, as a fact, Watts had a clerkship, lately increased in salary to some £200 a year, scarcely enough to support the state in which he lived, and the two theatres, the Marylebone and the Olympic, whose proprietor this artistic and literary Maecenas had become.

The nineteenth century had scarcely entered upon its second half when the mystery which had so long exercised the town was solved, the bubble burst, and the gaff blown. False entries in the office records, forgeries in the pass-book, had confirmed the suspicions long since thrown upon this particular employee of the company. Though bluffing to the last with consummate coolness and audacity, Mr. Watts was committed for trail at the next sessions of the Criminal Court.  There and then it came out that between August 1844, and February, 1850, when the discovery came, Watts had contrived to appropriate a little more than £70,000.

--Escott, T.H.S.,

City Characters Under Several Reigns. London: Effinham Wilson: 1922. Pages 54-57

 

 

Cover for "The Lady Actress"

For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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