Embezzlement of King's Stores.
Whilst William James makes insinuations relating to the abuse of stores etc., in HM dockyards in his Naval History of Great Britain 1793-1827, and one reads of Admiralty reports along the same lines, until now I've not come across anyone being punished : the following starts to rectify that situation. However, whilst Owen and Mardle were found guilty I've yet to discover the punishment they received ? One is aware that in such cases capital punishment was invariably dished out to the poor, but one wonders how these 2 were treated ; in theory, on social terms, Owen and Mardle, were little more than upper class rag and bone merchants, but, nevetheless, seemed to be able to afford an expensive legal team. Ed.
The following is a trial relating to a system of malpractices that has been too long and extensively existing :
Sitting at Guildhall, 10 July 1801
The King versus Owen and Mardle.
This was an indictment against the defendants, for knowingly having had in their possession certain naval stores, marked with the broad arrow.
Mr. Attorney-General said, this prosecution was carried on to repress a practice of the most alarming nature. If the rapacious and unprincipled were to be allowed to pillage the public with impunity, it would be vain that we voted large sums of money, and submitted to the greatest privations.
The jury would hear with astonishment, but it was a fact capable of the strictest proof, that the depredations upon the King's naval stores did not annually amount to less than £500,000. The defendants were partners, and two of the most considerable copper-merchants in London.
He regretted to find it necessary to enforce the law upon men in their station of life ; but, if they were guilty, they were certainly more deserving of punishment than others in meaner circumstances, and their punishment would have a more powerful effect in the way of example. To shew that they were not altogether free from suspicion, he should read a letter which had been found upon one of them when he was arrested. This letter was written by a man of the name of Paul, and dated from Chatham gaol. Paul informs his friend that he is about to be tried for purloining King's stores, and requests the loan of a small sum of money to enable him to fee counsel. He expresses very little uneasiness about his fate, as he says several friends were summoned upon the jury which was to try him, upon whom he could implicitly rely.
The Right Honourable and Learned Counsel said, he had no doubt that this illegal traffic had been carried on by the defendants for years, and that they had long encouraged all the workmen about the dockyards to acts of dishonesty. But it was not till April last that their infamous practices had been detected.
About the beginning of that month, a Mr. Mottley, Inspector of Embezzlements at Portsmouth, observed several casks directed to Messrs. Owen and Mardle, which excited his suspicion, and, upon breaking them open, he discovered that they were filled with copper sheathing and bolts, pilfered from the King's yard. He immediately posted to town, laid his information before my Lord Mayor, procured a search warrant and the assistance of several City Marshalls, went to the manufactory in Houndsditch, and there discovered an immense quantity of copper of a similar description.
The defendants were immediately taken into custody, and this indictment was preferred. He was happy to think that the clearest proof of guilt would be adduced, and that the jury would be able to confer a benefit upon the public, without a doubt being once excited in their minds, or the least violence done to their compassionate feelings.
Mr. I. C. Mottley, Inspector of his Majesty's Stores at Portsmouth, two City Marshalls, and several gentlemen from the dockyards, were called, by whose evidence the above statements were fully substantiated. The sheathing and bolts, marked with the broad arrow, were found in large quantities, publickly exposed in the shop. When the search took place, Mr. Owen only was at home, and if behaviour upon such an occasion were a conclusive proof of innocence, his innocence had been satisfactorily proved. He remained quite cool and unembarrassed. He shewed the officers the greatest politeness, and gave them every facility in prosecuting their inquiries. To all the questions that were put to him concerning the manner in which he had become possessed of these stores, he carelessly answered that he should explain these things in another place.
Mr. Erskine, the gentleman's Counsel, laid hold of this and every circumstance on which he could found an argument, to repel from his client the guilty knowledge with which he stood charged. Mr. Mardle had the benefit of the acuteness and skill in criminal proceedings of Mr. Gurney.
Several witnesses were called, but, except one, they spoke merely to character ; and the character of the defendants, from their testimony, appeared to have been hitherto unimpeached. A brother coppersmith pretended that the King's mark might be easily overlooked ; but he had great reason to lament that he had entered the witness box. He said inadvertently, that he had seen copper bolts, such as those found in the possession of the defendants, and was quite unable to say satisfactorily where. Having made several unsuccessful attempts to clear up this, and to laugh it off, he was obliged to confess that he had had dealings with a Mr. Missing, at Portsmouth, a noted stolen copper-merchant, who has lately fled the country from the fear of punishment.
Mr. Garrow was following up this line of cross-examination with great dexterity, and laying open a shocking system of peculation and dishonesty, when Lord Kenyon put it to his humanity, whether he would ask the witness questions, in answering which he might criminate himself.
His Lordship then proceeded to sum up the evidence, which having done with his usual ability, he concluded by praying God to forbid that he should press the proofs of guilt against the defendants farther than they ought to go ; but he should be extremely culpable, he said, were he not to give them their due weight.
The Judge or the Juror, who from want of fortitude, or from a false humanity, would retire from doing his duty, however painful to his feelings, ought at the same time to retire from his situation. Mistaken mercy to the individual was cruelty to the public.
The jury, without turning round, found both the defendants Guilty.
As it appeared that the coppersmiths have regular correspondents at Chatham, Deptford, Portsmouth, &c. Lord Kenyon expressed great astonishment that all commerce in copper with the towns in which the chief dock-yards are situated, is not prohibited by the Legislature.
Mr. Erskine and the Attorney-General said, that a bill for that purpose was to be brought in early next Session of Parliament, and that the Earl of St. Vincent had in contemplation an extensive plan to remedy the abuses of the dock yards.
Lord Kenyon observed, he had no doubt that every branch of the service over which the Noble Earl presided would be strictly attended to, and regulated in the most able manner. His Lordship had given an earnest of what might be expected from him, in appointing to be Counsel for the Admiralty a young man (Mr. Jarvis), who did honour to the appointment.
Naval Chronicle vol. 6.
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