The people of Tunbridge Wells put a great deal of trust in Benjamin Lewis. Not only was he Clerk to the Commissioners, he also acted as secretary and collector for the gas and water companies, as vestry clerk for the Parish of Speldhurst and as collector for numerous other organisations. In total he held around 14 different appointments. Then on 13th June 1851 50-year-old Benjamin left town and it became apparent that this trust had been misplaced.
In the first part of the nineteenth century retired army and navy officers and East India Company officials began making Tunbridge Wells their permanent home. (Previously the town had a large number of summer visitors, but only a small resident population). A building boom took place to create homes for these new occupants, and for the servants, shopkeepers and other workers who moved here too. This in turn placed demand on the town’s infrastructure, which now required more effective management. In 1835 a new Board of Commissioners took responsibility for matters such as lighting, water, cleaning and law and order. Around seven years later Benjamin Lewis was appointed as their Clerk. The job involved many administrative duties – for example when new regulations were drawn up for the local Fire Service in 1845, it was he that signed them. But his main role was the collection of local taxes and other payments. He proved very good at this and over time he was appointed as collector for more and more local bodies.
When, at some point, Benjamin began to siphon off a large proportion of the money he was collecting, he did it with such confidence that most people suspected nothing. However, members of the Speldhurst Vestry realised that something was wrong and at a meeting on 11th June one of them made allegations of dishonesty against him. These were withdrawn when he agreed to give up the Vestry books, retire from office and never seek employment at any other parish. However, the event seems to have made him fearful that other misdemeanours would be uncovered (one of the vestry members was also a proprietor of the gas company) and so two days later he fled.
It was quickly established that Benjamin had left Tunbridge Wells by the 5 o’clock train. An employee of the Gas Company encountered him the following morning on a train from London Bridge and reported that he got off at Godstone in Surrey. After that the trail went cold and there was no further clue to his whereabouts, although he was rumoured to have sailed to America. The story of his disappearance was reported in newspapers across the country and a reward was offered for his apprehension.
When the Speldhurst Vestry’s books were examined it was found that £500 was missing. The gas and water companies reported that they had each lost a similar amount and shortfalls were found across all the organisations Benjamin had worked for. It was reported in the press that he had embezzled as much as £4,000 in total (around £400,000 in today’s money).
Word spread rapidly round the town as the extent of the thefts became apparent and there was general amazement that such a well-respected man had turned out to be a thief. Given that his annual income had been as much as £400, people wondered why he had taken this course.
In early July the Commissioners, rather surprisingly, appointed Benjamin’s son William as temporary clerk in his place, the Chair having testified to his good character. Arrangements were made for the appointment of a permanent new clerk, with the Commissioners clear that, whoever was appointed, they would not be paid the same generous salary as Benjamin. William applied for the position, but was unsuccessful, receiving 25 votes compared to 45 cast for bookseller John Elliott, who was duly appointed.
You might assume that Benjamin would not think of showing his face in town again. However, the following February the West Kent Guardian reported that one of his sons had written to the Tunbridge Wells gas company on his behalf, asking their permission to return from ‘a foreign clime’ and offering to cash in a life insurance policy so that he could, on some future occasion, ‘make a grateful return for their leniency’. Unsurprisingly this offer was refused and the message was sent back that, while they would not pursue him, if he did return to Tunbridge Wells the law would be allowed to take its course. There is no evidence that he ever ran the risk of that happening.
By the time of the 1871 census Benjamin was back in England. Now 70 years old, he was described as a Gentleman and recorded as living in Lambeth, at the home of son William. His wife Sarah and two of his other children were at the same address, so it seems that his family at least had forgiven him.
The 1835 Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act entrusted the town’s running to a Board of Commissioners, who were responsible for ‘lighting, watching, cleansing, regulating and otherwise improving the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent and Sussex, and for regulating the supply of water and establishing a market within the said town’. All men who owned or rented a property worth more than £50 a year were entitled to sit on the board and members were a mixture of gentry, professionals and tradesmen.