Florid page description here

Walter Watts

Interior of the Royal Olympic Theatre

Interior of Walter Watts' re-model of the Royal Olympic Theatre circa 1850


Walter Watts (1817-1850)

Although he was not literally the first employee of an international corporation to figure out a way to defraud his employers, because of the unusual manner he chose to spend the money he obtained and because his happened to be the first of a series of spectacular frauds that rocked London’s financial establishment in the 1850’s, Victorian journalists credited Walter Watts with having invented what we today call “white collar” crime.

Both Watts and his father worked as clerks for the Globe Insurance Company. Testimony given at Watt’s trial indicated that Watts’ father had worked for the company almost since its establishment in 1826.  No testimony was given as to exactly how long Watts’ himself had been employed, but in 1833, he appears as a witness in the forgery trial of Robert Byers and identifies himself as a Globe Insurance company clerk.1 Although he never rose higher than the rank of assistant clerk and was paid a modest salary of around £200, Watts was in charge of what was, in hindsight, the ridiculously under-supervised task of keeping the company’s passbook.  When the bank would return checks made on payments to the company, it was Watts’ job to match the cancelled checks against the company’s accounts and then store them for record-keeping purposes.

At some point in time, Watts noticed that there was no one in the company auditing his work. Patiently and methodically, he began to erase and alter the amounts on the cancelled checks, balance the difference with accounts payable from fire and life insurance claims that he had access to in the passbook and then write checks to himself for the difference.

According to David Moirer Evans’ 1859 account of the scandal in Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations Financial, Mercantile and Criminal, J.E. Coleman, the accountant brought in by the Globe to investigate Watts’ wrongdoing, estimated that he took somewhere around £70,000 from the company.2  However because it is unclear how long Watts was removing funds, how carefully he maintained a balance between accounts, and what an embarrassing public relations disaster the crime was for Globe Insurance, the full extent of his fraud is unknown.

In hopes of covering himself against prosecution should his pilfering be discovered, Watts purchased two shares of Globe Insurance stock. His reasoning seems to have been that under British law, shareholders in a company cannot be charged with stealing from that company.  Court records show that his lawyer, Sir Alexander Cockburn , (who would go on to become England’s Lord Chief Justice) made this argument rather forcefully in a motion to dismiss at his trial.3 The prosecution was limited in charges they could bring against Watts because he was a shareholder.  In the end, instead of prosecuting an embezzlement case against him, Watts was charged with forging a check for £1400 and stealing the piece of paper (the check) it was written on.

There is a tradition in the theatrical community that Watts bought the two shares in the Globe Insurance Company from Maddison Morton.4 Morton was the author of popular farce titled Box and Cox. A version of this comedy would be set to music by composer Arthur Sullivan and is still sometimes performed as part of Gilbert and SVictorian Dandiesullivan celebrations to this day. Although this makes for an interesting bit of name-dropping, it’s more likely Watts simply purchased the shares on his own.

Watts’ involvement in the London theatre scene, however, was no myth. In stark contrast to the quiet, methodical, unassumingly anonymous manner he had adopted to acquire his funding, Walter Watts spent the money he obtained in a fashion that was gob-smackingly spectacular. In Crimes and Criminals of Our Century, Sir Willoughby Maycock describes the figure that Watts cut as follows:

It was in the year 1844, and at a time when Walter Watts was about in his twenty-seventh year, that he became associated with fashionable life in London. He had a fine house in St. John’s Wood, and another at Brighton, at both of which he dispensed unbounded hospitality. He was a connoisseur in wine, and stocked his cellars with the best vintages, regardless of cost. Among the fair sex, and the frailer too, he spent a deal of time and money. His equipage was faultless, and his horses and “Tiger” the object of envy in Rotten Row. 5

Most extravagantly, he bought the lease for not one, but two West End theaters – the Marylebone and the Royal Olympic. Watts was no absentee landlord or mere spend-thrift dilettante, but took the job of theater manager quite seriously and enjoyed a certain measure of popularity among his employees as this frequently quoted passage from dramatist and journalist Edmond Yates attests:

Who was Mr. Walter Watts? Personally, a cheery light-whiskered, pleasant little man, of convivial and champagne-supper-giving tendencies. What was he? Actors in those days were, as a rule, not very clear about business matters: they knew he was not an actor; they thought he was “something in the City.” He was an excellent paymaster, very hospitable to all authors and critics, drove in a handsome brougham, and made elegant presents to the “leading ladies,” whom he admired.  “Something in the City,” it was opined, must be a good berth.6

Although as it is frequently pointed out, Watts had no background or training in the dramatic arts, he was a real theatre aficionado who used his unlimited funds to experiment and innovate in his theaters. He wrote and produced several of his own plays during his tenure at the Marylebone and the Olympic. These included “The Irish Engagement,” (Marylebone, 1848), “Dream of Life” (Marylebone 1848), and “Harlequin Fairy-land” (Marylebone, 1850).  “The Irish Engagement” is a one-act farce that features a rather feckless and unrepentant servant assuming the identity of a nobleman and comically abusing an obnoxious blustery patrician father to win the hand of his master’s and his own lady love. The work is in public domain and is available online . There is even a student production of the farce on YouTube.  Even in the hands of amateur performers, a viewer can see how the audience responds to the play’s broad slapstick comedy and role-reversal as the wily servant out-foxes and humiliates the lord of the manor and even manages to steal kisses from his master’s fiancée under his very nose. The audience roars with laughter, never realizing this comedy was composed by an insurance clerk who was living a second life as a millionaire theater manager.

cabriolet“Dream of Life” was a temperance play in which an alcoholic was shocked back to sobriety by a vivid dream. “Harlequin Fairy-Land” was a Christmas pantomime co-written with Richard Nelson Lee who went on to become the manager of the City of London Theater.  Lee is estimated to have written over two hundred such Christmas pantomime plays over the course of his prolific career.  Both of these were primarily “special effects” productions and were meant to show off technically challenging lighting and staging transformations that Watts and his crew could achieve on the Marylebone’s extra deep gas-lit stage.

Watts himself might not have had a great deal of expertise, but he was willing and able to pay to surround himself with people who were experts.  This approach was especially true for his company of actors. He used his unlimited funding to attract a group of stars like young tragedian Gustavus Brooke, comedians  Robert  and Mary Anne Keeley, and perennial audience favorite T.P. Cooke.  Watts’ favorite “catch,” though, were the  two popular young American actors he lured away from the successful run they were having at the Princess Theater – E.L. Davenport and Anna Cora Mowatt.

There were persistent rumors both before and after Watts’ death that he was attracted to Mowatt. She was a beautiful, spirited, intelligent young womMowatt as Luciaan with an older, sickly husband. Given that she was a novice performer with limited experience, Watts was extraordinarily generous and supportive of her career. Then again, money was no object with him.  Before he took over management of the Olympic Theater, he lent Mrs. Warner £1000 for its renovation. He also kept Gustavus Brooke out of prison by paying off a substantial debt to a costumer the tragedian had incurred. Those examples of generosity did not lead to either of them being linked romantically to Watts. The manager signed Mowatt to a long-term contract and produced sumptuous productions of two of her plays – “Fashion” and “Armand.”  This decision, however, seems to be in keeping with his policy of attracting new playwrights to the Marylebone as part of what seems to be a long-term strategy for building an audience for the struggling theater in a decidedly unfashionable part of town – Get the audience in by offering limited runs of clever productions of favorites like Shakespeare and popular shows such as “The Black-Eyed Susan” with an ensemble cast of beloved actors, then lure them back to see spectacular stagings of new shows they couldn’t see anywhere else in town with that same cast of stars.  It wasn’t a bad tactic.  If Watts had had a couple decades to implement his ideas instead of a couple years and if he had been millionaire’s son instead of an insurance cashier’s son, theatre history might remember him very differently.

Mowatt, in sentimental Victorian style, was sweetly effusive in her public expressions of appreciation for Watts’ grand gestures as she is in this dedication to him of this 1849 publication of the play “Armand:”

My acknowledgements are due and cheerfully paid to Mr. Watts, the Manager of the Marylebone Theatre, for the liberality evinced in putting the play upon the stage, and in all his other arrangements…7

Her gracious public acknowledgements of Watts’ beneficence did nothing to squelch the rumors that there might be something excessive about the manager’s attachment to Mrs. Mowatt. Although rumors say that he was “fond of the ladies” and gave expensive gifts to women, Watts’ name is never linked to any other specific woman other than Anna Cora Mowatt. I have written a great deal about how she became entangled in the scandal that ensued after his crime was discovered both on this website http://alphacentauri2.info/AnnaCoraMowatt/ATouchofScandal.html  and on my blog https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/ .

There were various explanations for how Watts’ crime was detected. Some versions have savvy actors spotting suspicious checks in the manager’s office and somehow extrapolating the existence of Watts’ double life as a clerk and his manipulation of the company’s passbook intuitively. Another version has a country parson come into the Globe office to try to pay his life insurance bill only to discover that Watts’ creative tampering with accounts paid and accounts receivable has rendered him legally deceased. In my favorite unlikely scenario, an author has William Makepeace Thackeray and his friend Matthew James Higgins decide that they don’t like the look of Watts and tail the manager’s carriage all over London until it winds up at the doorstep of the Globe Insurance Agency. 8

Interior of OlypicFrom court records, it’s clear that the obvious thing happened. Someone at the Globe Company finally noticed that Walter Watts had too much money. He owned two mansions. He travelled in two of the most expensive type of vehicles of the day. He dressed to kill.  The check that he was prosecuted for was written for £1400. That amount is seven times his yearly salary. He had been warned by his supervisor that his theatrical pursuits seemed inappropriate for someone with his sort of job. Watts was no longer flying quietly under the radar. He was under suspicion. In the fall of 1849 he was being watched. Almost inevitably, he wrote a very big check to himself and got caught.

On March 6, 1850, Watts was arrested. The Marylebone and Olympic Theaters were closed. Their companies were dispersed.  Despite the sensational nature of the case, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the press.  Most of the stories are short, blunt, and strictly factual as this brief notice from”The Examiner”:

Mr. Walter Watts, charged with stealing a check for £1400, the property of the Globe Insurance Company, has again remanded, till next Tuesday.9

This brevity and lack of coverage could have been due to confusion in the press over the facts of the case.  In addition to Watts’ dual identity taking everyone by surprise, the Globe Insurance Company was having unforeseen difficulty ascertaining just how much of their funds had disappeared. Because of Watts’ gambit of buying shares in the company, they found themselves having to take an unusually circuitous and weak-looking route to prosecution.  It all added up to a public relations nightmare for the company.  As a result, it’s possible that the Globe might have been actively lobbying any friends they had in the press to squelch the story.

The story did not escape all notice however. The actor William Macready noted in his diary:

Newcastle, March 10th. – After dinner looked at the Times, and saw noticed the defalcation of a clerk in the Globe Assurance Office connected with some theatres which closed in consequence. I looked to the advertisement for the Olympic and Marylebone. They were not there! This is a sad business, as Mrs. Mowatt sinks inevitably in the wreck.10

Legal maneuverings dragged on behind the scenes for four months. For a time, it looked like Watts’ shareholder strategy might prevail and he might get off with a slap on the wrist for the weak charge of stealing a piece of paper that the prosecution had been able to mount.   However the Judge decided that sentencing should be in accordance with the crimes that it was probable that Watts had committed not just what the jury actually found him guilty of and sentenced him to ten years transportation.

Watts, stunned by this unexpectedly harsh outcome, committed suicide by hanging himself in the prison’s infirmary that night. “The Leader” wrote on their front page of his death:

At home the suicide of Walter Watts will have brought more pain than that of the ordinary criminal. His turpitude, indeed, was not of a very deep dye, though very necessary to be checked in a commercial country: many a man gets through life with impunity who commits far blacker acts; and Watts had qualities which made him liked. His summary escape from final disgrace and exile provoked rather a needless surprise. He was “cheerful” to the last, and some say that they should have thought him “the last man to do such a thing.” He had, however, unnerved himself by the lavish resort to stimulants. Besides, these “last men” to do a thing hypothetically are often the first men to do it practically. Your vivid enjoyment of life is mostly accompanied by vehement revolt from its reverses, if not by a spirit that will rather meet adversities with resistance than with submission, -- “and by opposing, end them.”11

People personally and professionally connected to Watts did what they could to restore order to their lives, careers and finances. Nearly a decade passed. During this time, other “gentleman fraudsters” such as Leopold Redpath, William Robson, and William Pullinger screamed into the headlines of Victorian London.  It began to seem that Watts’ misdeeds were the beginning of a stunning new crime wave. This impression solidified in 1859 with the publication of financial journalist David Moirer Evans’ book Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal that put Walter Watts’ name at the top of the list of a new breed of miscreant –what today we would call the “white collar” criminal -- who attacked the system from within.  John Hollingshead, writing in Charles DickensAll the Year Round cements Watts’ position as unknowing patriarch of this new genealogy of crime in his article June 6, 1860 article, “Convict Capitalists,” writing,

The fate of Walter Watts in 1850 was powerless, so it seems to deter others from following in his footsteps, and benefiting by discoveries which his keenness and industry had made. The loss of seventy thousand pounds sterling by the Globe Insurance Company was also powerless, so it seems, to improve the character of auditors, and elevate them into something less practically worthless than men of straw.12

 Hollingshead’s condemnation of the Globe, even though delayed by almost a decade, is typical of the pent-up ire unleashed in some of these re-tellings of Watts’ story. This writer reviewing David Moirer Evans’ book on the scandals captures a sense of the real indignation directed towards the Globe Insurance Company and other guardiansMr. Punch's Brigand Bank cartoon of “the City” in the wake of the full revelation of the extent of Watts’ fraud:

If the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and opium-eater, had been perpetual chairman of the Globe Insurance Company, with his friend Charles Lamb, unstinted in his favorite drink, to face him as vice chairman, with the board-room furnished, for the sake of appearance, with lay figures of eminent city merchants, and with two clowns selected from any theatre to act in their pantomimic capacity as auditors, it would not  have been surprising that Walter Watts, a young man of not particular ability, who was acting as a check-clerk in the same establishment, with a salary of less than two hundred a year should have been able, between August, 1844, and February, 1850, to defraud his employers – the Globe Insurance Company – of seven hundred thousand pounds!  When, however, we find this old, this large, and this flourishing company (flourishing it must have undoubtedly have been to be robbed of nearly three-quarters of a million sterling, without feeling any premonitory symptoms of insolvency) not under the guidance of a few poets, rhapsodists, opium-eaters, dummies, and clowns, but managed by a board of the first men in the City, we feel more inclined than ever to shake such guardians of property by the hand to welcome them in dream-land as men and brothers. During the whole of that eventful six years when their finances were being undermined, their adventurous and unscrupulous clerk was constantly under their notice. They knew his origin, and family expectations, for his father was an old and faithful servant in their office. They heard vague reports of his mansion at St. John’s Wood, and his other mansion at Brighton, and still there was nothing to arouse their suspicion, and the lotus-eaters requested to be let alone. They heard that in his over-time he had become the lessee of a suburban theatre, and that the legitimate drama was even now looking to him as to on who was to breathe into it the breath of new life, -- and still the City lotus-eaters requested to be let alone.  They heard that to the managerial cares of the Marylebone he had added the lesseeship of the Olympic Theatre, and that every rejected dramatic author in London was busy recopying his dusty manuscripts for the theatrical millennium that had come at last, -- and still the City lotus-eaters requested to be let alone.  They must have seen the well-appointed carriage or brougham that used to bring their humble check-clerk to his duties every morning, -- and yet the City lotus-eaters closed their filmy eyes, and requested to be let alone.

How the bubble burst, and the heavy dream was broken; how an investigation led to a public trial; how the trial resulted in a verdict of ten years transportation against Mr. Walter Watts; and how he committed suicide by hanging himself in Newgate, are facts that are pretty familiar to every reader of the newspaper press. How the fraud was effected by false entries, fictitious claims and other means, is tolerably well known; but how the system should so long remained undiscovered, with a banker’s book which presented a mass of erasures and alterations, is not so clearly known; and it is sufficient, in our opinion, to remove from the directors and auditors that stigma of being hard, practical men which has clung to them – and all their class – so reproachfully, and so long. 13

Other writers chose to use Watts as an illustration of what they saw as the declining moral character of their day.  Hollingshead, writing in “Convict Capitalists,” saw Watts and the others who followed him as men who had perverted his generation’s passion for self-help into an opportunistic propensity for “helping himself” to other people’s money. Moralists took the story of Watts’ downfall as a parable to be used to illustrate the spiritual and ethical vacuity of contemporary urbanites as in the following:

“Who is he?” was many times asked with surprise and a little prying curiosity, of a man whose means few could ascertain; whose meanness in due time came to light. Who is he? He has his box at the opera, and gives grand dinners and balls, and sparkling wines, champagne, pain, sham, and real, in strange mixture. He is lessee of two metropolitan theatres, has a fashionable residence at the West End, and a genteel villa at Brighton; whose horses are the admiration of Rotten Row, whose carriage comes regularly every morning to the foot of Cornhill, from which a mysterious gentleman alights, winds his way to an insurance office, where he receives the whole of £199 20s. per annum, about enough to pay his wine merchant’s bill. But then there is the £ 12,000 per annum “parquisites,” or to speak more charitably, borrowed money, which he will refund when his theatres pay. Who is he? A felon at Newgate, committing suicide the day after he is sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. Poor man, this Walter Watts, who died 10th July, 1850, more egregiously mistaken in the purpose of life than if the orb of day should become bankrupt in buying “farthing candles” to add to its light.14

Royal Olympic Exterior 1850One wonders if perhaps, Walter Watts, with his penchant for the dramatic, might have appreciated the way theater critic Godfrey Turner framed the last act of his life theatrical terms:

The Ides of March had come for Mr. Walter Watts, and all but gone.  He had carried on his game at the insurance office to the tune of seventy thousand pounds before the trick was “blown.” Then was Mr. Watts endowed very suddenly by a plains-clothes constable with iron bracelets. The Olympic closed its doors just when Douglas Jerrold had a five-act play in rehearsal – there was quite a Jerroldmania at the time – while  a tragedy by Westland Marston had been accepted; and poor, knavish, light whiskered, light hearted, convivial Mr. Watts was called upon to appear on another scene, and to be the central actor in another tragedy.15

Whether or not there was any truth at all to the rumors that there was anything more between them than a warm professional relationship, it is probable that Walter Watts would have appreciated most the tribute paid to him by his favorite actress in her dedication to the play, “Fashion” that was published after his arrest in 1850:

One of the most liberal supporters of the Drama, whose desire to elevate and purify it – whose appreciation and patronage of its humblest as well as highest talent – whose liberality and consideration to all with whom the profession connects him – and whose efforts to establish harmony amongst them, while he promotes the interests of all, are beyond eulogium, the Comedy of “Fashion” is respectfully dedicated, with the grateful acknowledgments of Anna Cora Mowatt.16



1.       Old Bailey Proceedings Online (https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18330411-199-defend1492&div=t18330411-199#highlight ) Trial of Robert Byers (t18330411-199). 1859.  Page 82-83.

2.       Evans, David Moirer. Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal. London: Groombridge. P 91.

3.       Ibid, p 98.

4.       Pearce, Charles E. Madame Vestris and her Times. London: Stanley Paul & Co. 1900. Page 295.

5.       Maycock, Sir Willoughby. Celebrated Crimes and Criminals. London: Temple Co. 1890. Page 74.

6.       Yates, Edmund Yates. His Recollections and Experiences, Vol I.  London: R. Bentley and Son, 1885. Page 195.

7.       Mowatt, Anna Cora. Armand: The Peer and the Peasant. New York: Stringer and Townsend. Page 8.

8.       Escott, T.H.S., City Characters Under Several Reigns. London: Effinham Wilson: 1922. Pages 54-57

9.       “Town and Country Talk.” Examiner (April 6, 1850). Page 219.

10.   Toynbee, William (ed) The Diaries of William Charles  MacReady (1833-1851). (London: Chapman and Hall) Vol II, p. 461.

11.   “News of the Week.” The Leader, No. 17. Saturday, July 20, 1850. Page 386.

12.   Hollingshead, John. “Convict Capitalists.” All the Year Round Vol 3-4. June 9, 1860. Page 203

13.   Review.  Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal. The Athenaeum. No 1632, Feb. 5, 1859. Page 184. Col. 1

14.   Cheshire, Thomas. Shams and Realities in Dress, Manners, and Religion. London: Elliot Stock, 1873. Page 19.

15.   Turner, Godfrey. First Nights of My Young Days. (London, 1877). Page 124

16.   Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion; or Life in New York. London: W. Newberry, 1850. Page 7.

Cover for "The Lady Actress"

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