William Hole was born in Hythe in 1793, the son of John and Elizabeth Hole and was the younger brother of James Hole, who is buried in St Leonard’s churchyard (see The Hole Family Part One). His father was a fisherman. Like his brother, he was intended for a life of shop-keeping and was apprenticed to a Hythe trader. He then went to London to establish his own business but failed several times and was declared bankrupt on 30 April 1827, when his wax and tallow chandlery in the Edgware Road was unsuccessful. After that, he kept an Italian warehouse in the same street. In 1822, he had married Harriet Whittaker.
A fellow-townsman lived nearby. He was Thomas Knowles, eleven years older than William and was the son of George and Ursula Knowles of Hythe. His father worked in the brewery. When young, Knowles was a footboy and afterwards a footman in London. He was declared insolvent in 1819 and again in 1825. In April 1829, he was admitted to a debtors’ prison in Whitecross Street as he owed one George Vincent £40. He was discharged as insolvent in August but did not leave prison until November. He then, with tears in his eyes, asked for a loan to redeem a suit of clothes from the pawnbroker. The governor lent him £4 9s. A few weeks later, the governor met him in the street, very smartly dressed and reminded him about the loan. He never got the money back. During this time, Knowles was living at 2 Lion Terrace Edgeware Road. He was married and had a son.
In 1836, Knowles and Hole set up the Independent and West Middlesex Assurance Company. This was a business for which they were entirely unfitted, but that was irrelevant. Hole was the secretary. The directors included Knowles; George Williams, a solicitor who had been declared bankrupt in December 23 1832; and the appropriately named James Devereux Hustler, surgeon, who had been in the King’s Bench prison in January 1835 in ‘utter destitution’. Another dozen names were added to the official list, but these were, alas, all fictitious. George Edward Williams, the son of George Williams was the auditor and Knowles’s son worked as a clerk in the offices, which were in Portman Square, off Baker Street in London. It was, and is, a very grand location.
London’s Portman Square, little changed since the 1840s
A little later, more genuine (at least as far as their names were concerned) directors were taken on. Hole’s brother-in-law, William Whittaker, was one. Another was his wife’s sister’s husband, William Edward Taylor, a journeyman locksmith and bell-hanger. He was appointed a director and attended the office on Fridays. His job was to sign anything put in front of him and for this he was paid £80 a year. He was told to dress smartly and to wear rings on his fingers. Hole actually gave him a ring to wear to the office and docked his pay if he did not. Then there was George Wilson, who kept a school in Edgeware Road and applied to be a clerk at the firm. He was accepted and his name was placed on the list of directors. He also attended one day a week and signed policies and annuity deeds.
An advertisement (Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)
The Company’s prospectus was lavish. They offered annuities at an astonishing 10% per annum and insurance policies. They claimed to have £1 million in funds, raised by selling shares at £50 each and that the Duke of Wellington was among their clientele.
Hole, Knowles, Williams and Hustler agreed to appropriate a certain number of shares to each of them for what they called their vested rights. They drew money on these and bought carriages and smart grey horses with the cash. They settled shares on their respective wives, too.
Then Hole and the solicitor Williams fell out and there were mutual recriminations. Hole was eased out, but got an impressive golden handshake: £20,000 with an annuity of £600, the freeholds of houses in Gloucester Street, Surrey Place and Maida Vale and ‘a splendid silver cup with lid’. He went in 1839.
The next year, rumours started in the press that the company was not what it seemed. Hole was recalled. He asked for a statement of business since his departure and was told that the company had received £38,000-£40, 000 and it had all been spent. He refused to get re-involved.
Williams also retired from the business leaving it in the hands of Knowles and Hustler and went abroad. Hole was then persuaded to put his signature on two promissory notes for £500. Inevitably they were refused. Hole made it clear that he intended to leave the country and was promptly arrested. He spent a month in prison and his goods were seized and sold. He had put the property he had acquired in 1839 in trust for his wife and children, but this was overturned in court and the houses were forfeit, too.
Knowles disappeared. It was rumoured that he was abroad and that he had been seen playing ‘rouge et noir’ in Baden-Baden.
The gaming tables of Baden-Baden. Was this where Knowles spent his ill-gotten gains?
The business had been a sham from the start, though it did, occasionally, actually pay out on policies and annuities were paid until 1840. Many people lost their life savings. A Dr Harrison had been persuaded to part with £600 to buy an annuity, some of which was his wife’s. He said she died of a broken heart after the money was lost. A man called Thomas Higgs killed himself after losing £100. The company had issued over three thousand worthless policies and the total swindled was reckoned to be £300,000. The press called it an ‘atrocious system of robbery’, ‘villainous’ and ‘plunder’, though one journalist thought ‘it is most astonishing how any man in his senses could be lured into the gilded but clumsily baited snare’.
In 1842, Hole was sued by eleven investors who hoped to get their money back. He was found liable for £5000. He tried to avoid payment by claiming insolvency, saying he owed £80, 732. The case was dismissed.
William Hole died, destitute, in 1849. His widow Harriet, now fifty-nine, had little option but to go into service as a monthly nurse.