Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

Baron Albert Grant (1831 – 1899) - A Pioneer of Public Relations

One of the more mysterious financial rogues of the Victorian Age was the self-styled Baron Albert Grant. This curly-haired hoodwinker started life in Dublin’s Jewish Quarter where he was known as Abraham Gottheimer. His father Bernard had moved from Prussia during the 1820s and operated as a pedlar on the streets of the city.

When young Abraham was born, the Gottheimer’s were so poor that their neighbours apparently had to club together to provide swaddling clothes. He claimed that he was subsequently educated in London or Paris but much of his life was mythology.

Little is known of his younger years but he evidently developed a passion for money early on, setting himself up as a wine merchant. He was also extremely charming which is a vital trait for a swindler.

In 1863, he changed his name by deed poll to Albert Grant. He soon began to make his mark as a promoter of companies, talking them up, convincing investors to come on board. His targets were clergymen, widows, retired army officers and other small-time patrons. By attracting large numbers of these small speculators, he was able to amass an astonishing fortune with great speed. As soon as he had enough backers to float a company, the unscrupulous Dubliner moved on to the next ship of fools.

He would have made a formidable player in 21st century Public Relations industry. He understood that presentation is the key to success. And to prove that he began to present himself as an increasingly impressive figure. He began engaging in what has been called ‘targeted philanthropy’, patronising all the right art galleries and earning a valuable thank you from Parliament when he purchased a portrait of Walter Scott for the National Gallery.

He published his own newspaper (The Echo) and, in 1865 and successfully stood for Parliament as Liberal MP for Kidderminster. In Italy, his patronage of slum clearances in Milan earned him a Baronetcy from King Victor Emmanuel which he rapidly inserted before his name. He simultaneously purchased a Portuguese baronetage for good measure.

As his personal stock increased, so his fortune rose. In 1867, he calculated his wealth at over half a million sterling. By 1870, the Baron was promoting mining and industrial companies across Europe, as well as foreign railways and public utilities such as the Lisbon Tramway. (When the Lisbon Tramway failed, the Baron’s luckless investors included Disraeli’s friend Lord Henry Gordon-Lennox who was obliged to resign as First Commissioner of Works). His combined portfolio had a market value of STG£24 million. Whenever his flotations began to lose his investors money, he would side-step the issue with another extravagant flurry to showcase his financial wizardry, such as purchasing and opening a new music hall for his constituents.

In 1874, the Baron became the talk of Disraeli’s London when he developed a chunk of the city into Leicester Square and gifted it to the City as a public garden. A wag commented that this was the only thing ‘square’ that the Baron had ever been associated with. [1]

However, he had already pushed the boat out too far and things began to slide for this exceptionally voracious financier. The day after Leicester Square was officially opened, he was unseated as MP on a charge of bribery and kicked out of Parliament, much like John Sadlier a generation earlier.

He managed to hold his head above water but his day of reckoning came in 1879 when the Emma Silver Mines Scandal broke. The Baron had been the foremost promoter of this grand Utah scam, puffing up the company profile with unashamed bombasticism. One million shares were issued and sold for $100 each. Within a year, the mines were proved to be completely empty of silver. It also emerged that Grant had been aid $500,000 for his promotional role. Others embroiled in the scandal included the US Ambassador to Britain (who received $50,000 to sit on the Board of Directors) and the Financial Editor of The London Times (who was sacked for promoting the venture).

Before any charges could be brought, Grant was declared bankrupt. His bankruptcy was hotly pursued by allegations of misrepresentation and fraud. In 1885 the London Bankruptcy Courts deduced that he had liabilities of £217,000 and assets of £74,000. Everything he owned was sold including the large Horstead estate in Norfolk and a splendid marble palace in London’s West End (which he built at a cost of $5 million). The staircase, which was his particular pride, was sold off to Madame Tussaud's. In 1883 the house was demolished. Two years later he was back to the bankruptcy courts.

He lived the remainder of his day ‘in utter seclusion and comparative poverty’. He died in Bognor in 1899 aged 68. The New York Times declared him ‘The Hooley of his Day’. He is said to have been the model for Trollope's Melmotte in The Way We Live Now.[2]

FOOTNOTES


[1] Second Chance, by Werner Eugen Mosse, Julius Carlebach

[2] Trollope's Augustus Melmotte MP in The Way We Live Now, published in 1875, was another modern Midas: "From the moment in which Mr Melmotte had declared his purpose of standing for Westminster in the Conservative interest, an attempt was made to drive him down the throats of the electors by clamorous assertions of his unprecedented commercial greatness. It seemed that there was but one virtue in the world, commercial enterprise - and that Melmotte was its prophet." He also has a hint of John Sadlier. His empire, too, is founded on fraud; he, too, dies by suicide.

 
 

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