The Millwall Docks Scandal

The Millwall Docks’ original ‘business model’ (in modern parlance) was to rent quay space to other companies. Wharves close to the City, but without the disadvantages of Thames wharves. On offer were modern, spacious quays in a secure area, and without dependence on the height of the Thames for loading or unloading.

After the docks opened in 1868, however, there wasn’t much business. Survey of London:

The first few months of business were inauspicious: little trade came to the docks and wages had to be paid out of the pockets of the directors. There were no subscribers to a new issue of capital, and creditors were filing suits for the payment of debts.

George Raymond Birt, previously Superintendent at the Victoria Dock, was appointed General Manager and immediately set about trying to attract imports and exports.

George Raymond Birt

In 1893, the 70 year old Birt was appointed Managing Director and Chairman of the Millwall Dock Company and oversaw a period of revenue growth for the company.

Millwall Docks, Circa 1890

In truth, though, the revenue had for years been overstated in the accounts. Concerns had been expressed on occasion, and by 1899 the board felt it necessary to invite Birt to explain at the February 6th board meeting how the revenue was calculated.

Birt could not attend the meeting as he was unwell. The former chief clerk and by now ‘inside superintendent’, John Smithers Woods, was invited by the board to answer questions about the ledgers:

After I left the directors, I went to Mr. Birt’s private house—I told him that the directors had been asking me questions about the out-standings, had he any anxiety about them? —he said, “Not at all, I can justify every iota”—I said, “This matter is troubling me very much indeed, Mr. Birt, does it not worry you?”—he said, “Not at all, I have no anxiety about it”—I told him the audit was fixed for the following Thursday and that it was imperative that he should attend—he said he should be present—I took up my duties next day again at the docks.

A preliminary audit revealed that revenue had been overstated by more than £200,000 (equivalent to over £30 million in 2022) over the years. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Birt. Inspector James Murphy:

I received a warrant for Mr. Birt’s arrest on February 17th—from that date till March 16th I endeavoured to execute that warrant, but was unsuccessful.

Birt had disappeared!

The Metropolitan Police issued a photo and description of Birt in the Police Gazette (the photo used is above in this article).

Birt, using a false name, had moved into furnished lodgings in Islington. Landlady, Josephine Wright:

I remember the defendant coming to my house—he engaged a room at 10s. a week; he paid in advance; he did not give his name—he said he had come from the country to wait the arrival of some friends who were coming from abroad—he did not have any visitors—he only left the house once – he remained with me five weeks and two days.

Birt’s stay in Islington ended after a tip-off to the police. Inspector Murphy was able to execute the warrant:

On March 16th I went to 9, Thornhill Square, Barnsbury, and there found Mr. Birt—Inspector Holmes was with me—I saw the defendant in the front room—I said, “We are police officers; I believe your name is Birt?”—he said, “Yes”—I said, “I hold a warrant for your arrest”—I read it—he made no reply—he was conveyed to the Minories Police-station.

At his Old Bailey trial, where he was found guilty of fraud, it became apparent that Birt was not motivated by personal gain. He did it to make the business appear larger than it was in order to attract new investment and customers.

Birt was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The sentence would have been far harsher were it not for Birt’s ‘high character for honesty and his old age’.

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19 Responses to The Millwall Docks Scandal

  1. jonrr45 says:

    Great story Mick

  2. Chris Rogers says:

    Interesting. Readers might be interested in my piece illuminating (I hope) the ‘lost’ final years of Dockland, before redevelopment, when every effrt was made to update and improve facilities, technology and so on:

  3. agolds2387 says:

    a very interesting story, thank you.

  4. Rich says:

    Very Interesting story Mick
    And what a great shame that a man of that advanced age with previous good character
    was only trying to improve the prospects for his company.

    If he could only see what has happened since he would be turning in his grave

  5. james hurley says:

    Hello, Another fascinating tale from the Island’s past. Thank you, James Hurley

  6. Bill Wiseman says:

    Fascinating, thank you.

  7. Geoff Marshall says:

    Many of thanks

  8. Mike Digby says:

    very interesting,thank you,love your storys on here

  9. Neil S says:

    Only just catching up on this story, Mick. Interested to know what happened to Birt after his imprisonment if it’s known?

    • “Birt served his sentence and in the 1901 census he had moved to Durham where he was living with his four children and two servants. His wife Constance had died the year before the trial. When Birt died in 1904, he left £13,179 (today worth about £1.3M), to his two sons. So although he was disgraced and his lifelong service to the company ended, he was still a wealthy man. ”

  10. Neil S says:

    Excellent, thanks for letting me know!

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