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“...he dabbled in business...”

Alexander Lindsay in the Midlands

Bernard Sellin’s biography The Life & Works of David Lindsay contains a very brief summary of David’s brother Alexander’s working life before becoming an author (publishing short stories and novels under the pen-name Alexander Crawford), followed by his death in 1915 at the age of 46:

“Alexander Lindsay left London, at quite an early stage, for the Midlands, where he dabbled in business before emigrating.”

The Life & Works of David Lindsay by Bernard Sellin, p. 14

J B Pick adds only an air of ne’er-do-well-ness to the picture:

“Some of [Alexander’s] adventures had repercussions on the family that deeply disturbed David. He never forgot them, but preferred not to mention that side of his brother’s life.”

— “A sketch of Lindsay’s life as man and writer” in The Strange Genius of David Lindsay by J B Pick, p. 7

Researching in the British Newspaper Archive, I’ve been able to find some more detailed information about Alexander Lindsay’s “dabbling” in business in the Midlands, which also perhaps throws light on the origins of his third novel, The Alias (1913, reviewed on this site), which displayed quite a technical knowledge of the mechanics of some dubious business dealings. Most of what follows comes from newspaper reports of hearings at the Birmingham Bankruptcy Court of which, sadly, Alexander Lindsay was the subject.

In 1901 (aged 32), Alexander Lindsay was living in Lewisham, working as an insurance clerk earning £160 a year. The Kentish Mercury for 17th May 1901 contains a classified ad in which he’s selling the freehold of his home at 6 Radford Road. (By the next census, in 1911, his cousin Ernest Edward Joyce is living at the address.) But he’s evidently still in Lewisham in the latter half of the year, because on the 2nd of November he’s in court for fare-dodging: on leaving the Ladywell to Cannon Street train (i.e., travelling from Lewisham to the centre of London) on the 23rd October, he handed the guard a ticket dated the 12th, and couldn’t produce one for the actual day of travel. At this time, his address is still Radford Road.

classified ad for the sale of 6 Radford Road

Alexander Lindsay selling his Lewisham home, The Kentish Mercury, 17th May 1901

According to his own story, though, (given to a Birmingham court a few years later), he moved to Birmingham (in the West Midlands) in 1901, hoping to better his clerk’s salary by working as an insurance agent — going from business to business, trying to convince them to buy policies. It proved a poor move. In his first year, he made about £50, and the next still only averaged about £2 a week. It was at this point he was approached by a Mr Watson who “asked me if I could register a company.”

The firm of Watson (Walsall) Ltd was formed in November 1903, with a nominal capital of £4,000 in £1 shares. Alexander Lindsay was the promotor (among other things, he would have been selling the shares), and was also appointed the secretary at a salary of £1 10s a week. Associates in the business were Fred Watson, A C Watson, W Baker, Leonard Smith and a Mr Sidney Fowler Wright — of whom we’ll be hearing more later.

In January the following year, Alexander took ownership of another business, Fane and Miller, a chairmaker and upholsterer, which he acquired for nothing because it was, in his own words, “in a hopeless condition”. The intention was to turn it into a limited liability company, i.e., one whose directors were protected from personal responsibility for its losses should it fail. Alexander Lindsay was, again, its promotor and secretary, again at a salary of £1 10s a week. An overdraft of £150 was arranged with the company’s bank, which was guaranteed by Alexander, Sidney Fowler Wright and Mrs M Couchman (Alexander’s aunt). The fatal mistake Alexander made was in agreeing to make himself personally liable for the business’s trade debts in the period between his taking it over and its becoming a limited company.

The London Gazette

Title of The London Gazette, where, among other things, bankruptcies were announced

In the meantime, Watson (Walsall) Ltd was not doing (whatever it was supposed to be doing) well. A compulsory winding-up order appeared in the London Gazette for 18th March 1904. Fane and Miller — not yet a limited company, so still the personal responsibility of Alexander Lindsay — followed later the same year. The failure of Fane and Miller was announced in The Birmingham Mail on 30th September, and a notice appeared in the London Gazette for 4th October 1904 announcing Alexander Lindsay’s bankruptcy. (At this time, his address is given as 116 Lewisham Road, Lewisham, but his address while in the Midlands was 10 Laburnum Grove, Moseley, a suburb of Birmingham.)

At a creditor’s meeting, reported in The Birmingham Mail for 24th November 1904, it was established that, at the time of its failure, Fane and Miller’s accounts “showed a deficiency of £522 18s 7d”. Alexander’s assets at this time were a mere £1 18s. On top of this, he’d borrowed £40 in June, secured against his (presumably the business’s) furniture, the sale of which in September came to £40 18s, which the lender deemed “a sum insufficient to satisfy his claim including interest”. There were also questions about sums owed to Fane and Miller at the time Alexander Lindsay took it on. As a result, Alexander was told to produce detailed accounts so the Official Receiver could work out where the money had gone.

His public examination took place on 21st December. The report in The Birmingham Mail for that day starts to make it clear this isn’t just an unfortunate mess Alexander Lindsay has got himself into; rather, it becomes obvious he’s involved in something disreputable. The hearing was in the hands of a presiding Registrar and a prosecuting Official Receiver:

Official Receiver: Before the winding up of Watsons, Limited, was the business of Fane and Miller acquired?

Lindsay: Yes; I acted as intermediary pending the formation of a company, and made myself liable for the trade debts.

Official Receiver: What were you to give for Fane and Miller?

Lindsay: Nothing; it was in a hopeless condition at the time.

The Registrar: Was that the reason for turning into a company? (Laughter.)

The Birmingham Mail. 21st December 1904, p. 3, (reformatted)

The Registrar’s remark and the laughter that follows makes it obvious the situation is clearly being taken to be more than a little dodgy. Immediately after, the newspaper report states:

In answer to further questions, the bankrupt said that, in consequence of his connection with the two companies, he had lost everything.

The Birmingham Mail. 21st December 1904, p. 3

After the court’s laughter, this makes Alexander sound rather defeated and sheepish, a sorry figure.

The examination continued on January 18th the following year, by which time Alexander was supposed to have produced his accounts. He hadn’t, however. What he had done, it seems, was write a letter to the Official Receiver, which was brought up in court:

Mr Sharp [the Official Receiver] took exception to one of the expressions used by the bankrupt in the letter.

Mr Whitelock [the Registrar]: Yes, I think such things are better left unsaid, but, when once said, one can afford to pass them over.

The Birmingham Gazette and Express, 19th Jan 1905, p. 3

What did Lindsay write? We can’t know, but evidently it overstepped the bounds of propriety, and shows the kind of mental state he must have been in at the time.

The hearings dragged on, and Alexander was at the Birmingham Bankruptcy Court again on 22nd February 1905. This time, he had produced some of the accounts he was asked for, but not all. Crucially, an “account concerning some transactions with Mr Fowler Wright had also been supplied, but concerning some moneys paid to that gentleman the defendant had failed to give information.”

Again, an adjournment was asked for, this time because:

There were other proceedings pending by and against Mr Fowler Wright.

Mr Blackham [representing Fowler Wright]: Pardon me; not against, but by Mr Fowler Wright.

Mr Sharp [the Official Receiver] replied that proceedings were being commenced against Mr Wright today.

The Birmingham Gazette and Express, 23rd February 1905, p. 3

The Registrar agrees to an adjournment in part because he feels this case is in danger of degenerating into “a fight between two persons with whom that court was not concerned, and would constitute a preliminary trial to an action to be heard elsewhere” (i.e., beyond the Bankruptcy Court, so presumably in a criminal court). When Alexander Lindsay’s representative Mr Stoddard says that dragging out the case will only further harm his client, the Registrar says:

You must be able to see the course this will probably assume. Both sides in this action will be seeking to cross examine this man [Alexander Lindsay] as to certain transactions, and it will be difficult to shut out those questions. I fear to go on would be an immense waste of time.

Again Mr Stoddard objected, but the Registrar remarked, “Don’t you see your client is only a pawn in the game?”

The Birmingham Gazette and Express, 23rd February 1905, p. 3

I can’t help feeling that the Registrar, Official Receiver, and the lawyers present had seen this sort of situation before, and knew exactly what was going on, but couldn’t come out and say it because they had to stick to their official roles, reacting to evidence rather than pointing fingers.

Poor Alexander Lindsay. He was obviously involved in something dodgy, and whether he knew it going in or not, he had borne the brunt of it. Later on in the hearing, one of the creditors pipes up and says that the whole thing had been “a swindle from beginning to end”. Frustratingly, though a date is given for the next hearing (April 10th), I haven’t been able to find any record of it, nor any further hearings relating to the case, so at this point it’s impossible to know more about Alexander Lindsay’s immediate fate.

There are two more angles on the story to explore, though. One is Alexander’s novel, The Alias, which can’t be taken as evidence but does have some parallels with the case; the other is Mr Sidney Fowler Wright.

Sidney Fowler Wright

An associate in the formation of Watson (Walsall) Ltd, and a guarantor of Fane and Miller’s overdraft, Mr Sidney Fowler Wright is obviously tangled up in this somehow. The court is interested in “certain transactions” between him and Alexander Lindsay, evidently suspecting something. Wright’s name pops up in several other newspaper articles around the same time, always in connection with court cases, often about bankruptcy and debt, though not, at first, his own. Instead, he’s the creditor calling in bad debts. His name is linked with a lot of different companies, but it’s not until 1910, when he’s in court for his own bankruptcy, that I can find more detailed information about the man.

He started out as an accountant in 1895, but since 1900 “had been engaged almost entirely in promoting companies”, earning between £300 and £400 a year. At the time of his 1910 hearing, he’d been served “seven or eight bankruptcy notices in the last three months”. In the hearing, a lot of company names are thrown at him and he denies having anything to do with them. None of them are the companies Alexander Lindsay was involved in, so it’s clear Mr Sidney Fowler Wright had, or was suspected to have had, his fingers in a lot of pies.

One example is a case heard on 1st December 1904 (in the midst of Alexander Lindsay’s bankruptcy proceedings). It was brought by one Edward William Manton, whose business, The Victoria Furnishing Company, was supplied goods by Fowler Wright. On not being able to pay for them, Manton entered into an agreement that the business would pass into Fowler Wright’s hands in return for Fowler Wright cancelling the debts. The case came to court because Manton claimed Fowler Wright agreed to take on all debts, but Fowler Wright said he only agreed to write off some of them.

Again, the court seems to know the sort of person they’re dealing with. Cross-examined, Fowler Wright admits “he had floated several companies”:

Mr Dorsett [representing Manton]: I put it to you that you have never floated anything but a bogus company?

Mr Fowler Wright: It is an absolute lie.

Mr Dorsett: Can you mention one sound, successful company that you floated?

Mr Fowler Wright: I don’t float them, as a rule. I never floated a public company.

Mr Dorsett: You did the introducing, and let the bankrupt bluff the public?

Mr Fowler Wright: Certainly not.

The Birmingham Daily Mail, 1st December 1904, p. 2, (reformatted)

To add further complication, at the time of Fowler Wright’s taking over Manton’s business, another man had an option on it, and this other man, according to Manton, was actually working for Fowler Wright.

The name of this other man? Mr Lindsay.

Before moving on to look at Alexander Lindsay’s novel The Alias in the light of all this, it’s worth pausing to ask if the name “Sidney Fowler Wright” sounds familiar. There was a science fiction author called Sydney Fowler Wright (1874–1965) (Wikipedia article here) — Sydney with a “y” instead of an “i” — who, like this Sidney Fowler Wright, worked as an accountant “before the Great War” (as mentioned here), and who was born near, and educated in, Birmingham.

The same man? It’s an intriguing idea.

The Alias

The Alias by Alexander Crawford, 1914 Shilling Edition

Reviewing Alexander Crawford’s 1913 novel The Alias on this site, I said “the business details (including the exact nature of the scam that powers Edward Bevington’s latest business) are convincing, indeed quite technical in places”, and wondered if this related to Alexander Lindsay’s own business experience. It would, of course, be wrong to take anything in a novel as evidence of fact, but it’s worth noting how much Alexander Lindsay’s novel and life story at this point overlap.

The hero of the novel is Neil Wishart, a gentleman expelled from Cambridge after (falsely) being accused of theft. At the start of the novel he is, like Alexander Lindsay after his move to Birmingham (the novel is set in London), working as an insurance agent, tramping from business to business, trying to convince them to take his policies. Like Alexander Lindsay, he’s unsuccessful.

Also like Alexander Lindsay, he’s approached by a man with an offer that can save him from looming poverty, and as a result he’s made secretary of a new business. In the novel, this man is Edward Bevington, though he’s going under the alias “Edward Dittany” because he’s fresh out of prison for bankruptcy and, as a bankrupt, isn’t allowed to run a business.

In the novel, Bevington sets up a company whose entire purpose is to find struggling businesses in desperate need of money, lend it to them, then charge exorbitant fees till they’re forced into bankruptcy, after which Bevington’s firm, as their chief creditor, moves in and makes as much money as possible from the remaining assets. (This, to me, sounds similar to the case between Sidney Fowler Wright and Edward Manton I mentioned above.) Bevington, and his cynical accountant Maplin, know that all this, though immoral, is within the law. Meanwhile Wishart, an innocent as far as the world of business goes, thinks they’re genuinely in it to help struggling businesses.

Was Alexander Lindsay caught up in a similar situation to Wishart? It’s impossible to be sure from the details we have, but it certainly sounds like something similar was going on. Money was being made from the bankruptcy of struggling businesses, and some people (Alexander Lindsay, for instance) got stung, while others (Mr Sidney Fowler Wright, perhaps) walked away richer.

It’s highly likely that, if Alexander Lindsay was basing The Alias on aspects of his own experience, he might have skewed it so as to exonerate himself — as I say, his position seems closest to the falsely-disgraced gentleman Neil Wishart, who’s entirely innocent in the matter. But the basics of the situation — certainly the technical details of how such bankruptcy schemes worked — could well have come from what he was exposed to during his time as a businessman.

“Repercussions on the family”

To tie all this up with the statements in Sellin and Pick’s biographies of David Lindsay, it seems Alexander’s “dabbling” in business can certainly be described as unsuccessful, and perhaps even dodgy. What about the “repercussions on the family that deeply disturbed David” which Pick mentions?

It’s possible this merely relates to having a bankrupt in the family. Bankruptcy in Edwardian times wasn’t as devastating as it was in Dickens’s day, but it still carried a heavy association of public shame, which would certainly have affected a middle-class family like the Lindsays. When Alexander Lindsay was declared bankrupt, his name was printed in The London Gazette, The Edinburgh Gazette, and a number of other newspapers, including not just The Birmingham Mail but The London Daily News. It wasn’t something that could have been hidden, even though it happened in another part of the country.

There’s also the possibility that the £150 overdraft co-guaranteed by Alexander Lindsay, Sidney Fowler Wright and Mrs Couchman — David and Alexander’s aunt, in whose house David was living at the time — might have resulted in Mrs Couchman having to pay up after her nephew went bankrupt. In a house where David would have been the only one earning a full working wage (his mother and aunt were both widows, his sister worked at the Post Office, but wouldn’t have been paid much), he might even have felt this as a personal blow.

We also don’t know what happened to Alexander Lindsay as a result of his bankruptcy. In the hearings, he says he’s looking for another position in Birmingham, but the 1911 census has him living in rooms in a house in Lewisham, making a living as a writer. (And living alone. His wife of 16 years appears on the census as a servant engaged in needlework at the Northern Fever Hospital, Winchmore Hill, which raises more questions than it answers.)

Sellin says that, after dabbling in business in the Midlands, Alexander emigrated. It would be good to know where, how long for, and what for — in part because, in The Alias, Edward Bevington tells everyone he’s been “abroad” as a cover for his being in prison for bankruptcy. I don’t know if prison would have followed bankruptcy for Alexander Lindsay, but part of me can’t help thinking that Alexander Crawford’s description of a man being discharged from jail in The Alias has a similar ring of convincing technical detail to Edward Bevington’s business scams in the same book. But this is just a supposition; he could have found out these details in other ways.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about Alexander Lindsay’s life, and probably most will remain unanswered, but this information does throw a little more light on David Lindsay’s brother, the strained relationship between them, and the sort of world and conditions both grew up in.

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© Murray Ewing 2019