|The History of Arson Induced Fraud in the Light of the Trial of Leopold Harris
It has taken 30 years since the death trap fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade football ground in 1985, when 56 fans were burned to death, for the story of a serial fire raiser, Stafford Heginbotham, to come out.1 Martin Fletcher has detailed nine fires in 18 years netting the Bradford businessman £2.74 million, the equivalent of £27 million in today’s money. He quotes a Los Angeles Police Department fire investigator: “It’s rare to have a coincidence. If we start having multiple coincidences then it’s not a coincidence.” 2 Arson if conducted by a professional and the conflagration is sufficient to wipe out the evidence may be hard to detect but the resources put into detecting it are lamentably low.
According to the latest statistics deliberate fires account for 46% of the annual £1 billion paid out for fire claims.3 But the statistics published by the Fire Protection Association give no breakdown for fraudulent claims and of reported cases of arson the clear up rate by the police is the lowest of any crime. It is a low priority for the police and the cooperation between police and fire services has in this country never been close.
The so long unrecorded fire raising career of Stafford Heginbotham prompts one to wonder how many other cases of fraudulent arson have been achieved without detection. The greatest reforms in addressing the dangers of man’s most unruly servant, that of fire, have only been addressed as the consequence of a notable disaster, such as the Great Fire of London, which prompted the rebuilding of the City in stone and brick or of the great fire of Tooley Street in 1861 which prompted the establishment in London of a municipally controlled fire brigade. The current political mantra of cutting red tape has led to a relaxation of building regulations and the fall in both crime and fires generally has led to cutbacks in both fire and police services. As to fraudulent arson it is a crime, which draws a poor UK comparison to other countries in the developed world. Its greatest exponent, Leopold Harris, has been largely forgotten. The lessons, though drawn at the time, were not taken and perhaps only a new clear-cut disaster, such as Piper Alpha in the North Sea will prompt reform.
The trial of Leopold Harris and his gang of fire raisers was one of the newspaper sensations of 1933. The Committal stage, which opened on 3 February at Bow Street Magistrates Court lasted 25 days, a record. A special dock had to be built to make room for the 17 defendants and the proceedings devoted to taking the evidence of the prosecution encompassed 180,000 words taken down by the magistrates’ clerk in longhand notes.
The case itself opened at Number One Court of the Old Bailey on 4 July and, despite six of the defendants changing their pleas to guilty as the trial progressed, it did not finally close until 19 August. Apart from the trial of the Tichborne Claimant in 1872 it was the longest trial yet recorded. In a sequel, the chief officer of the London Salvage Corps, Captain Brynmor Eric Miles was convicted of corruption in February 1934 and sentenced to four years penal servitude. That same year the events leading up to the trials were recorded in Dr Harold Dearden’s book, The Fire Raisers4 and a film with the same name, directed by Michael Powell and starring Leslie Banks was also released in 1934.
Harris’s crimes of arson for profit have never been exceeded. In this paper the purpose is to put Harris and the protagonists in the context of the 1930s, explore his subsequent career and that of his company LS Harris and chart the subsequent developments in the insurance industry and the attitude of the public authorities relating to fraudulent arson.
There is a great deal of literature on business fraud, embezzlement and financial chicanery but fraudulent arson is a substratum with remarkably little coverage. In the UK there are just two acknowledged experts, Michael Clarke, formerly a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, but long retired, and Paul May, a prominent loss adjuster.5 In George Robb’s book, White Collar Crime in Modern England6 fraudulent arson merits no mention whatsoever and coverage of insurance fraud itself is absent despite his definition of white-collar fraud as breeches of trust. Trust of course is the very essence of insurance.
Historically, arson, with its attendant danger to life as well as property, has always been regarded with horror and without any ‘white collar’ attributes. Its motives are usually from revenge, malice or the attempt to cover up another crime. Murderers have attempted to dispose of the body of the victim by burning the premises, hoping that those who find the charred remains will assume they are the result of a fatal fire, and employees guilty of theft or fraud have set fire to premises, hoping that the forged books and other evidence of their crime will be destroyed. There is also wide study of pyromania, the uncontrollable impulse to start and watch fire.
Successful arson is difficult to detect because the fire will have destroyed all evidence but where a prompt call and a quick stop have been made the signs are usually obvious to the experienced fireman. Deep charring in more than one place point to simultaneous outbreaks sometimes not fully joined up, the smell of petrol may linger on the air, or even the apparatus used to start the fire an hour or more after the incendiarist had left the building may survive.7 In the last 70 years there have been major changes in terms of fire prevention and government regulation to make arson increasingly difficult.
But Harris was an expert, a fire assessor to whom nobody knew better how to devise and organise such a complicated crime of arson combined with insurance fraud. Because fraudulent arson is such an esoteric subject and the recall of the events of the early 1930s have been largely forgotten it is necessary to relate the events as they occurred. Newspapers also give a flavour of the surrounding atmosphere.
We are in fact dependant almost entirely on primary sources and the newspaper reports of the time. Bearing in mind that most of the participants in Harris’s gang, including himself, were Jewish, it is worth exploring the anti Semitism of the period. According to Michael Clarke there still is an ethnic dimension for fraudulent arson though in recent years it relates to South Asians.8 In the Jewish community there remain jokes about burning the business when times are hard and warehouse fires on both sides of the Atlantic have been referred to as “Jewish lightening”. And so before we return to an analysis of subsequent actions let us detail the actual events leading up to the trial of Leopold Harris and put it in the perspective of the times.
Like crosswords, crime, whether real or imagined, had an enormous fascination in the 1930s and Dr Dearden, the only person to provide a full chronicle of “the Fire Raisers” was a typical exponent. While serving in the trenches he claimed to have come across another officer whose father had owned a mental asylum at the end of the last century and who had admitted a man who was none other than Jack the Ripper!9 He also wrote a biography of the famous Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury whose expert evidence was enough to convict Dr Crippen in 1912 and whose legendary court testimony had the air of papal infallibility.10
Dearden dedicated The Fire Raisers “to William Charles Crocker in friendship and admiration”. Crocker was the mastermind behind the conviction of Harris and his gang and gloried in the sobriquet of the Sherlock Holmes of insurance. He qualified as a solicitor in 1912 and built his own practise on the instruction of Lloyd’s underwriters and insurance companies.
Lord Chief Justice Bingham in an essay entitled Lives of the Law11 described Sir William (knighted after serving his year as president of the Law Society in 1953) as “colourful” a word often used by journalists to mean colour in a shady sense. Indeed Crocker is as colourful as his main victim Leo Harris to whom there is warmth of affinity, which he expresses in his autobiography.12
Though careful not to expose it, Crocker did free lance work for the security service and through his friend Sir Joseph Ball13 was briefly deputy director general of MI5 in 1940. Also through Ball, Crocker was a director of Truth Magazine, of which Ball had secretly arranged the purchase for the Conservative party in 1937. The paper became overtly pro German and even found an art critic to praise Hitler’s watercolours. In 1940 it promoted peace feelers with Germany, was virulently anti-Semitic and championed the cause of fascist sympathisers imprisoned under rule 18B of the Defence of the Realm Act. Crocker was forced to resign his magazine directorship because he was appointed to the secret Swinton Committee, which, ironically, was responsible for counter measures against 5th column activity in Britain.
The fact that Crocker was given such a responsible job at MI5 does seem extraordinary. The organisation’s official biographer, Christopher Andrew, has very little to say on the matter but as their apologist he would perhaps be unlikely to do so. The man brought in to shake up the service in 1941, Sir David Petrie, however, said of Crocker, “the evil this man did lives after him”14
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Dearden himself went to work for MI5 serving as a psychiatrist at Latchmere House (Camp 020) in Ham Common, the interrogation centre for would-be German spies.15
However, in contrast to Dearden, Crocker’s own autobiography does not show any trace of anti Semitism. Published in 1967 perhaps it reflects the change of times. In contrast, Dearden’s Fire Raisers, published in 1934, has the casually anti Semitic references so prevalent of the racism of those days. On just the second page he describes Louis Jarvis (who “had started life as Jacobs”): he had a round fleshy, clean shaven face and from behind his tortoise shell spectacles his eyes heavy lidded and unmistakably Hebraic eyes, gazed at….”
His story starts with Jarvis and Capsoni starting a fire in Deansgate, Manchester in November 1927. The latter gentleman having been the torch of a further three fires and having gone on to relentlessly blackmail the leader of the conspiracies, Leopold Harris, ultimately turned King’s evidence and brought about the gang’s downfall.
According to Charles Roetter, “between 1925 and 1933 ’the Prince’ as Harris was known to his accomplices “swindled the insurance companies out of £1.5 million.”16 Bearing in mind the purchasing power of one pound was close to 50 times what it is today (using the Retail Price Index) it was a great deal of money. But says Roetter, he had to pay huge sums in bribes to an ever widening circle… and after being sentenced to 14 years penal servitude he came to draw up a balance sheet and discovered he had made more money from his legitimate fire assessing business than from his ingenious and tortuous fire-raising conspiracy.”17 Bearing in mind that Harris is believed to have returned to his fire raising activities in the 1950s and 60s that is debateable.
According to Dearden, Harris started his career in crime shortly after the First World War with a failed claim for an alleged burglary of his home in Southend. Mr Justice Bowman said his claim “looked to him like a bogus one and he said so brutally when dismissing the case.”18
Dearden recounts the number of fires and their pattern might have limited Harris’s success but points out that insurance underwriters and what were known as “the Tariff Companies” (large general insurance companies) always worked in competition and at arms length. “It was upon this fact that Mr Harris’s immunity to a large extent depended.” Furthermore “suspicion is one thing and proof to satisfy a jury quite another.”19
The chief witness for the prosecution, Camillo Capsoni, had come to join the party through Jarvis who had premises in Margaret Street close to the Italian’s flat in London’s West End. When the latter heard Jarvis had suffered a fire he was “warm with his sympathy” only to learn that “there were fires and fires”20 and one thing led to another.
An important cog in the organisation was Leo’s brother in law, Harry Gould, a salvage merchant, whose offices were close to Leo’s family firm of fire assessors, LC Harris, in Wilson Street, parallel to Moorgate and a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station in the City. Pictured in Dearden’s book with the caption “Harris Goldstein, known as Harry Gould”, Gould’s business was admirably complimentary. He could and did recycle stock from one fire to another, which earned the title of “old soldiers.” He could also supply stock on very favourable terms to any business Harris proposed to set fire to for their mutual benefit.
“Moreover the fact that Mr Gould would be in a position not only to supply the raw material but subsequently to acquire of Mr Harris’s incendiary efforts the residue … for an additional and entirely altruistic reason. Mr Harris had the characteristic anxiety of his race to keep all business as far a possible in the family.”21 (Actually the fact that he didn’t keep it in the family turned out to be a disaster)
Unfortunately, the next fire they planned in Leeds, a shop under the auspices of Capsoni’s yet to become wife was not a success. Called, Continental Showrooms, the fire went splendidly but the insurance claim ran into the implacable opposition of the loss adjuster and “Yorkshire as a business centre proved a bitter disappointment.”22
Capsoni was again the torch of another clothing business in Manchester with a satisfactory result and the insurance adjuster accepted “a handsome fur coat.”23
Harris now financed Capsoni for a conflagration of his own business the “Franco Italian Silk Company” at 185 Oxford Street. Capsoni had jibbed at the appointment of William Herivel to oversee the finances. He in turn had objected to a £25 wedding present to his wife that Capsoni had put through the books but after a row Herivel considerately dropped out of the picture. Herivel was one of the saddest figures in the ultimate trial at the Old Bailey. Then 70 years old the press noted the tears pouring down his face for the 18 months sentence for his relatively minor role in the conspiracies.24
On the night of the fire, Cappa (as his gang associates called him) had for the sake of an alibi taken himself off to Birmingham, his new wife acting as torch and Harris, of course, was the claims assessor. The claim was a heavy one, £22,000. They had the fortune of an amenable insurance adjuster, Adam Loughborough Ball who identified the plausible cause as a discarded cigarette from a workman, whom he interviewed. The insurers wrote out a cheque for £21,966 18s. 4d. Harris took £10,000 for himself Gould £3,000 and his salvage and Capsoni £2,000, and, according to Dearden, Ball was paid £600,25 though this may be open to question.
The next most important development was the enlistment of Captain Brynmor Eric Miles MC, the chief officer of the London Salvage Corps. The Corps was established to protect the interest of the insurance companies whose responsibility for putting out fires in London was superseded by the transfer to the Metropolitan Board of Works. This happened after the passing in 1866 of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act following on from the disastrous fire of Tooley Street in 1861.26 The corps’ duty was to guard and save property as far as possible after a fire.
Miles, after a glorious army career, a five-year stint in the London Fire Brigade and, having joined the corps as its deputy chief, was at the age of 32 promoted to be its chief officer in 1928. He enjoyed an annual salary of £1,050 free of income tax, free lodgings including fuel and light at the corps’ headquarters in Watling Street and the use of a car and batman. Unfortunately he got into hock with moneylenders after some injudicious speculation on the stock exchange.
He approached Harris when both were bystanders at the Central Criminal Court at the trial of two men who had attempted to bribe “an invincibly honourable assessor, a Mr Sydney Cohen” in May 1930.27 After Harris visited Miles at the latter’s request at his office Miles then visited the assessor in his home and laid out how he could help. Not only could he help in lining up assessor jobs at fires but also he was in a position to help Harris when he put in his report on any selected outbreak of fire to the Fire Office concerned. Harris agreed a monthly stipend of £25 and from then on the two regularly met for lunch in a private room at Frascati’s restaurant or Harris home at 5 Mapesbury Road, Brondesbury NW2.
As an assessor Harris had already been in the habit of bribing Salvage Corps officers for information on the outbreak of fires so much so that he often arrived on the scene before even the arrival of the Fire Brigade. The system of claims assessing tended to work on a cab principle of first come first appointed. But the Corps chief became a more vital source of intelligence.
Harris’s Christmas list for the gift of a turkey or cigars was a long one and he claimed to have both police and fire officers in his pocket but the Salvage Corps was a particular object of corruption. At Miles’s trial in 1934, when cross-examined by Mr Temple Morris, Harris said, “I still say that from the age of 15 when I entered my father’s office it was a seething mass of corruption….” He recounted how men would come to the office for payment and if they did not get it the jobs went to the opposition.28
Notwithstanding his advantages, as Harris’s web widened so did his overheads. A devotee of greyhound racing, he owned a winsome dog called “Lucky Liar” and says Dearden, it would give him pleasure to place a bet on behalf of certain individuals “on a dead cert” and hand them “twenty, fifty or a hundred pounds.” But “every member of this dismal train-band who foraged so assiduously in the service of their leader, in reality represented a permanent liability.. Moreover if you sow bribery you must expect to reap blackmail,”29 which was what ultimately became the case. Harris had another problem “he was a confirmed and consistently unsuccessful flutterer on the Stock Exchange.” Unlike Capsoni who could go to the Continent on holiday after his little earner, “Mr Harris must perforce remain at home with his nose so to speak, to the tinder box.”30
Beside Capsoni, Harris’s most dangerous associate was to be a blabbermouth called Harry Christopher Priest. He had been the front man of a business called Christopher Brothers, fired with successful results in Staining Lane EC2, as well as another fire at a printing business in Goswell Road, both financed by Harris. Priest’s problem was that he could not resist boasting of his exploits in his favourite hostelry, the Highbury Tavern, which you can still find in Highbury Fields. Worse, he chose the wrong man to try and inveigle into the gang who in turn told a friend who had once worked as a clerk in the Intelligence Department of Lloyds. The trail led to solicitor, William Charles Crocker.31
In his autobiography in the first of six chapters on what he calls the Fire Case, Crocker opens his account: “I spent half of 1931 and the whole of 1932 deep in just such a plot as Edgar Wallace might have used had he not found the truth of it too tall for fiction.” He tells how a man called Matthews “who had spent some years on the staff of Lloyds Registry…. decided I was the person most likely to obtain the results on which his heart was set – prison for the culprits and a reasonable reward in hard cash for himself.”32 After some cosy gossip with Priest in the Highbury Tavern, picked up by Matthews, Crocker learned of a fire due to occur in a fortnight’s time. The location was a jewellery and bric a brac shop in Poland Street, just off Oxford Street. The organizer was Capsoni.
Thanks to Priest’s indiscretion “over pots of ale” Crocker had priceless information and because of the failure of a payment on the Poland Street fire the Italian was pressed for money. Because of these forewarnings it had in the meantime become easier to repudiate claims where Harris was the claims assessor.
Capsoni’s consequent indigence led to him making financial demands on Harris who angrily brushed him aside (he had £20,000 of stock market losses to cope with). The consequence was that in late September 1932 Mrs Capsoni approached the Sun Fire Office with information and was referred to Crocker. Both she and her husband soon unburdened themselves to the solicitor.
By the end of the year, Crocker, whose investigations had been funded by both Lloyds and the tariff companies (Fire Offices Committee), had put together a dossier of 15 fires on which the prosecution was to be based.33
The case was complicated by the fact that unbeknownst to Crocker many of his plans were being betrayed by Captain Miles. On two occasions Miles met Harris in Hyde Park and advised him to leave the country besides advising him to destroy incriminating documents.
Crocker had become aware that his offices were being watched and that news of his investigations had leaked. He hastened to prepare the arrests with the collaboration of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police.
Dearden describes the arresting policemen, “the forty young men” as looking “more like Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates than anything else.”34 The arrests were planned and executed with consummate precision. One of the most noted features of both the Committal hearing and the trial was a document that Crocker put together which he called Willesden Junction. It was a diagram with circles itemising the fires with lines to various circles labelled Harris Finance, Harris Relative and H Gould & Co. “Lines curved from fire to fire to indicate… for example where stock (‘old soldiers’) surviving their baptism of fire had passed along to be burned again.”35
When the trial finally opened on 4 July 1933 Mr Roland Oliver KC opened for the prosecution. “Our allegation,” he said, ”is that in the heart of this city, there exists a combination, a gang of people, of whom those in the dock are specimens only, although we believe they include the heads of the gang. We say that their object has been to establish fraudulent, bogus businesses, grossly to over-insure them, to equip them with false documents and to furnish them with largely useless merchant’s stock, much of which has been through fires before, bankrupt stock and stuff like that, and having so over-insured and equipped the premises, to set fire to them for the purpose of defrauding insuring companies and underwriters of their money…”36
The trial finally concluded on Friday 18 August with all defendants convicted and sentences handed out the following morning. After the judge, Mr Justice Christmas Humphreys had completed his 13 hours summing up the jury retired at 12.30. They returned at five o’clock to give their verdicts when the 16 remaining defendants were brought to the dock. The Daily Mail reported that three beautiful bouquets of roses, carnations and gladioli lay on the juror’s bench and were handed by order of the judge to three women members of the jury. “Mr Seymour Hicks, the actor, chatted with Sir Edward Tindall Atkinson, the Director of Public Prosecutions,” the paper commented.37
There were three separate news stories in the Mail that day as well as its leading editorial which opined: “it was the zeal and greed of Leopold Harris and his immediate associates that led to the downfall of the gang which for too long burned their way to opulence. Harris is only 36 yet it is computed that hundreds of thousands of pounds were wrung from insurance companies by fires that bore every taint of the incendiary. It can be recorded that a fire chief in an important provincial area has for the past 15 years made it his business to probe into the mystery of scores of unaccountable fires in warehouses and other buildings throughout the country. The insurance companies and other experts were well aware of the existence of fire raising organisations and although the depredations of these men were an open secret it was extremely difficult to secure information for criminal action. In the end however the work of Mr Crocker bore fruit and has, it is hoped put an end to the commercial fire raising in this country.”
It was of course the height of the silly season for newspapers. On the same day it was reported that Yorkshire beat Notts by ten wickets to secure the county championship for the third year in succession; that Brown Betty, the winner of 1000 guineas romped to victory in the Richemont stakes at Hurst Park and 26 new laid eggs could be bought for a penny. Lord Rothermere’s favourite politician Sir Oswald Mosley was pictured with seven women over the caption: “this is the first time that the women’s section of he British Union of Fascists has appeared in a press photograph.”
The front cover of the News Chronicle on Saturday, a collage of press photographs, had a picture of “part of the large crowd which waited for hours outside the Old Bailey yesterday to hear the verdict of the fire conspiracy trial.” It reported: “the News Chronicle understands that Lord Trenchard, Commissioner of Police, has sent a letter of thanks to police chiefs in the provinces for their co-operation during the investigations and that officers in many forces were to receive promotion.” This was typical of the obsequious attitude of the press and the establishment towards the police in those days. The paper also reported that the cost of the prosecution was over £100,000 and that Mr Roland Oliver’s brief was one thousand guineas.
Furthermore it reported that “following the verdicts Mr Roland Oliver leading council for the prosecution said that Mr Gould (he had changed his plea to guilty) quite voluntarily had come forward after his committal for trial with information which had enabled the prosecution to establish the £1 notes sent to Ball. He considered the conviction of Ball one of the most important of the case. For that reason he desired to recommend Gould for mercy. The DPP, he said, wished to be associated with that recommendation.” The judge didn’t take much notice. Gould got eight years and Ball’s conviction to some seemed the least satisfactory.38
Other items included a news item of a jackdaw injuring a baby, a review of JB Priestley’s novel, The Wonder Hero, and a picture caption – “Lobby Lud loses £20 at Bournemouth. Lobby will be at Torquay and Paignton today when £10 will be paid to anyone who correctly challenges him.”
On 22 August when the sentences were reported, the News Chronicle pictured a row of the defendants all wearing hats, mostly bowlers. In its leader the paper commented, “For years the underwriting of fire insurance has been fraught with great risk because of Leopold Harris’s operations and at least one City underwriter was ruined because of the immense sums that had to be paid out on fires for which Harris was believed to have been responsible.” It also said Harris had been “a marked man for seven years.”
Also On 22 August The Daily Mail wrote that there were plans afoot to foil future incendiarists. It reported, “The Home Office is considering the introduction of a Bill to make all fires the subject of compulsory inquiry. The proposal is that: the City of London Fire Insurance Act (1888) under which the City coroner holds an inquest on every fire within his jurisdiction in which there is loss or injury should form the basis of a national enactment. Other – unofficial – proposals to defeat the activities of any future ‘firebugs’ are the organisation under the auspices of the insurance companies of an assessors association with a special department charged with inquiry into all fires of a suspicious nature; and the establishment of a governmental fire assessors office, the agents of which would investigate all fires and report direct to the Public Prosecutor.”
It also revealed that an inquiry under the 1888 Act “was the genesis of the Old Bailey trial for it was then that the ‘arch villain’ as Mr Justice Humphreys branded Leopold Harris first came under suspicion. In 1926 “he was a witness and admitted that he had acted as assessor to three men who in the previous year had been sent to penal servitude in connection with false fire and burglary claims. ‘I desire to show that this fire assessor is disreputable and a help and associate of incendiaries’, declared Sir Albion Richardson who appeared for the underwriters concerned with the insurance. Dr FJ Waldo, the coroner sent the papers to the Public Prosecutor but there was not sufficient evidence for the authorities to take action.”
The newspaper went on to say: “Leopold Harris was an amazing man – a veritable Jekyll and Hyde. In his home at Brondesbury he was an ideal host and a generous friend while in his legitimate profession as a fire assessor he was an acknowledged expert. But with the other side of his personality that of head of one of the most dangerous gangs of criminals ever operating in this country he was another being.
‘”In Adam Loughborough Ball they had a confederate who was invaluable. He was an assessor of the underwriters, and it was on his recommendation that some of the bogus claims were paid.”
This may be open to doubt. It would have been fairer for him to be tried separately as his counsel Norman Birkett39, one of the most famous KCs of his generation had requested and his defence got subsumed amidst all the others.
Ball wrote his account, which was published when he came out of prison in 1936.40 “I have written this book not only for my own vindication but to open the eyes of the average man to the danger which he may be called to face. The danger is real especially if a conviction following an arrest is deemed to be of paramount importance.” He commiserated with the jury over the length and complexity of the trial “they sat through seven weeks of brilliant summer sunshine in No 1 court at the Old Bailey. Think of the soporific dullness of it all, the never ending figures and then pity them as I did.”41
Ball had a substantial business employing four other loss adjusters and enjoyed a substantial income in relation to which he claimed the alleged bribe was derisory. Besides the examples in the Harris trial, which covered a period of eight years, he says he rejected many claims, which either then or subsequently was shown to be fraudulent. “In many of these cases Leopold Harris or other members of his firm figured in the claim makers opposed to me.”42With regard to the Oxford Street fire he says he asked Harris in Maidstone Prison whether he should have seen through the deception to which Harris replied: “your own Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have found out.43”
Most disconcerting to Ball was his discovery that his secretary, who had worked for him for 17 years, was on the Harris payroll and he was even unluckier in that she was unable to testify during his trial, dying after an operation during the trial.
In Maidstone Harris enjoyed every privilege imaginable, while shopping all his former associates. “The scourge of the insurance companies had become their devoted servant, and I recall with what amazement I listened to him as he read to me the report of a well-known firm of loss adjusters upon a current fire in 1935. He told me that the general manger of the company interested had sought his advice upon the case. He may have reformed, but this is not the general impression.”44
Along with Harris, Ball was called to testify at the trial of two former associates of Harris at the Old Bailey in March 1935, an old school friend of Harris called Henry Joseph and an umbrella maker called Frederick Rickards. The first of three fires was at Rickards’ premises in Fore Street, in the City, on 4 July 1930, where Ball was the adjuster representing the insurance company. The two others were in City Road on 5 June 1931 and in Farringdon Road on 7 March 1932. All three fires were ‘financed’ by Harris. At the first a claim of £16,000 was settled for £12,900. Ball was indignant that he had advised against settlement and yet in the trial it was suggested that his action had been fraudulent despite Harris also exonerating him.45 The trial was also notable for the evidence of another witness, Sidney Balcombe, like Gould also a brother in law of Harris. He was the Company Secretary and two of his sons also worked for the business. Balcombe gave his opinion of Harris: “He is a callous liar. I am sorry to admit in open court.”46 According to his grandson, Nick Balcombe, Sidney had no idea of the frauds going on under his nose and was deeply shocked.47
Harris was also the main witness for the prosecution of Captain Miles, whose prosecution by the Attorney General, Sir Thomas Inskip, in February 1934 provoked further sensational publicity