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Saturday, 13 April 2013


How times have changed. It used to be that the three pillars of the community in which you could trust absolutely were the school-teacher, the vicar, and the bank manager. From 1858 here’s the tale of a banker and a minister that would undermine your faith in both, had events in the early twenty-first century not already done so.

I’m related by the marriage of a Davis (my 3x great grandmother’s family) to the Gotch family of Kettering; but family or not, I have to admit the Gotch banking skills left much to be desired. Gotch’s Bank, the family firm, didn’t even notice that it had been broken into in 1812 until the burglar’s accomplice turned on him and blurted it out in court. That was under the presidency of John Cooper Gotch. When John died in 1852, his sons Thomas Henry and John Davis Gotch took over a bank which was technically insolvent, with debts of over £28,000.

One of the main debtors was the Reverend Allan Macpherson, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, a village four miles outside Kettering in which the Gotch family’s assets included a brewery. Maybe the reverend had some sort of understanding with Gotch the father which he didn’t have with Gotch the son; when Gotch senior died, Macpherson – who owed the bank £2,900 – effectively did a runner, abandoning his parish and moving to Brussels “to retrieve himself,” as he put it. There he set himself up in comfortable apartments, from which in 1853 he got back in touch with the bank, writing: “I shall be obliged by your addressing me as Monsieur Macpherson as I have not brought my clerical designation with me to the continent.”

The reason he gave was that, surprisingly, he had not described himself as a clergyman on his passport; and that he was engaged in secular business in which being a man of the cloth might confuse matters. He now began to borrow relatively small amounts from the bank in support of those secular business activities, holding out always the imminent success of them as the point at which he would be able to repay the bank for all its trust in him.

Holy Trinity, Rothwell, Northhants, where Monsieur Allan Macpherson preached before exchanging the cloth for the con

His letters to the bank, some 450 of them over the next four years, are short on hard facts and long on vague self-aggrandisement and any-day-now. His get-rich schemes revolved around a series of patents (including improvements to gas lighting and the recycling of human sewage) which he purchased at the bank’s expense in several European countries. He was also involved in various slate, iron and lead ore mining projects and a scheme to dig a canal from Hanover to Holland.

How much of this is true (I have found one record of one patent registration by him, in 1856, “for improving and applying motive-power”) and how much a Macpherson fantasy I cannot tell, and neither could the bank. All they had to go on were his own reports – he had “conditionally sold for £1,000 his French patent for double fish-tail gas burners;” he had “actually asked £20,000 for only one of his mines;” he had “orders for 123,000 slates;” “gentlemen of experience who had visited his various works said, that in a few years he must be a man of large fortune;” he had “very large contracts for the delivery of stone to the Government and the Luxembourg Railway, at large profits.”

A Gotch’s Bank note of 1856 signed by Thomas Henry Gotch – in 1857, not worth the paper it was printed on

None of these, it seems, ever came to anything. Yet on his word alone the bank continued to honour cheques for anything from £20 to £200 right up to the point, on 9th June 1857, when they filed for bankruptcy with a deficit of £82,000. Of that enormous sum, Macpherson’s debt amounted to £25,000.

Bankers always bounce back, don’t they? Thomas and Henry Gotch rebuilt the family fortunes – not in banking but in shoe manufacture. By the time of the bank’s collapse, Macpherson was almost seventy years old. With the bank's funds no longer available to him he turned to his family. They might have forgiven his financial incompetence, but when they learnt that he had fathered an illegitimate child back in Rothwell they cut him off. He died in Paris in poverty in 1864 at the age of 76. A full account of his spree comes in an edition of the Monetary Times of 1858.

The Market House, Rothwell, Northhants, now the town council chamber - begun c1578 by Sir William Tresham and completed 1895 by John Alfred Gotch (1852-1942) eldest son of Thomas Henry Gotch

It is possible, I suppose, that the death of his daughter Matilda in 1843 at the age of nine, or of his wife Caroline a few years later, may have set him off on his criminal path. The church of Holy Trinity may also have played its part – a once great thirteenth century building, it was far too big for its parish and had fallen into such disrepair over time (aided by an eighteenth century earthquake and a seventeenth century bolt of lightning which toppled the steeple) that by 1819 it was considered fit only to house the Rothwell fire engine! Perhaps his early borrowings were on its behalf.

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