Two weeks after the death in December 1868 of the long-standing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, one of the small team of detectives at Scotland Yard, Detective Inspector George Clarke, found himself handling a crime that was linked to a defence-procurement contract. However, it had nothing to do with the purchase of sophisticated (or unsophisticated) Victorian weapons, or the latest version of an ironclad battleship; instead, it concerned a supply contract for 300 loads of elm timber for the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Dockyard.
On 15 January 1869, Antonio Brady, the Registrar of Contracts at The Admiralty, Somerset House, had been told by a potential contractor, Nicholas Maxwell, of an attempt to extract a bribe from him. Maxwell had been informed that he would only secure the timber-supply contract if he paid a £30 fee to a member of the Admiralty staff. The member of staff concerned was William Rumble, the Admiralty’s ‘Inspector of Machinery Afloat’. Antonio Brady promptly contacted Scotland Yard and sought the assistance of the Detective Department and the case was allocated to George Clarke.
The first task for Clarke was to find out more about Rumble and to determine whether he alone was in a position to guarantee a contract, or whether other Admiralty staff members were involved. A meeting between Maxwell and Rumble was arranged at Maxwell’s office on 18 January, where Clarke listened from a side room. Rumble stated that he had an unnamed friend in the Admiralty who was in a position to influence the contractual arrangements. Clarke’s next step was to maintain surveillance of Rumble and to identify any acquaintances. Clarke and Detective-Sergeant Sayer started to follow Rumble for part of each day. Fortunately, it did not take too long to make progress. On 20 January, at Waterloo Station, Clarke saw Rumble meet an unknown man at 10.30 a.m.:
“Rumble went up to him and commenced a conversation – they walked down the back stairs into York Street, and over Waterloo Bridge into Lancaster Place, and there they parted, and [the unknown man] went into Somerset House by the entrance in Lancaster Place.” (Old Bailey Proceedings, April 1865; t18690405-432)
Rumble’s contact was quickly identified as James Gambier, a clerk in the Admiralty storekeepers department, who was the first to know when a tender had been accepted, and also had the responsibility to write to the successful contractor. Thus, by delaying the issue of the formal contract letter Gambier could create a window of opportunity to extract a ‘fee’ from the successful contractors.
Clarke and Sayer maintained regular surveillance at Waterloo Station, and confirmed that Rumble and Gambier met there on at least eleven occasions. However, the police had no specific evidence linking Gambier to attempted bribery. A decision was therefore taken, with Maxwell’s agreement, for the £30 ‘fee’ that Rumble had asked for, to be paid to him. Obtaining a £30 cheque from the Admiralty, Clarke cashed it into three traceable £10 Bank of England notes and, at a meeting at Maxwell’s office on 2 February (at which Clarke again listened from the side room), Rumble was handed the money by Maxwell. By 3 February, Maxwell received confirmation that he was the successful contractor. The police had to wait only a short time for the bank notes to filter through the system; one was paid in to the Church of England Insurance Office by Gambier to cover a life insurance premium, and the other two were paid in by Rumble, one to a warehouseman and the other to a wine merchant.
Armed with this information and a warrant, Clarke arrested the two men at Waterloo Station on Wednesday 17 February. Both were taken to Bow Street Police Station and were charged with having conspired to obtain £30 from Nicholas Maxwell by false and fraudulent pretences. A search of the men revealed that both had pocket books; Gambier’s proved particularly interesting, in the form of abbreviations and ciphers that were suggestive of other financial transactions of a similar kind. By the second magistrate’s hearing, Clarke had found a means to translate at least part of the cipher in the pocket books, and it was said, at the hearing, that all the persons whose names were supposed to be identified by initials in Rumble’s notebook had denied being party to any transactions involving the payment of any ‘fee’ to gain a contract (now there’s a surprise!). The prisoners were committed for trial at the Old Bailey.
Rumble’s defence against the charges was that he had “merely acted as an agent, and that he had no intention to commit a criminal act”. Gambier’s defence counsel contended that “although [Gambier] had acted indiscretely and improperly in taking the money from Rumble for giving information relative to this contract he had not contemplated or been guilty of a criminal act”. The jury did not take long to disagree, bringing in a ‘guilty’ verdict against both men who were each sentenced to 18 months hard labour. (The Times 10 April 1869)
Something that did not appear in any of the hearings or newspaper accounts of the case, was that Rumble had an interesting track record. In an unconnected case, he had been previously charged, in 1864, with an offence relating to the fitting out of a gun-boat for prospective use by the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Originally named the Scylla, it had been sold by the Admiralty in 1863, ostensibly for the China trade, but in reality it had been bought by an agent acting for the Confederate States Navy. Rumble had been put on trial at the Queen’s Bench, Westminster between December 1864 and February 1865, charged with offences under the Foreign Enlistment Act, which included the accusation that he had been actively involved in repairing and fitting out the ship at Sheerness, engaging crew, and being on the ship on its testing voyage to Calais, on which occasion the Confederate flag was raised and the ship re-named as the CSS Rappahannock. (Ultimately, the ship did not go into active service as it was detained in port by the French authorities.) Though found ‘not guilty’ at this earlier trial, Rumble had nonetheless been punished subsequently by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who had reduced him to half-pay, giving him a motive for his subsequent crime.
It seems likely that Clarke and others must have been aware of that situation, and yet the newspapers did not refer to it in their coverage of Rumble’s 1869 trial, perhaps because of the ‘not guilty’ verdict in 1864. Whether any reference to the CSS Rappahannock case was also suppressed, to avoid further embarrassment to the British Government on the sensitive issue of breaches of neutrality during the American Civil War, might also have been a consideration. The ‘Alabama claims’ by the United States, based on the building in Britain and supply of ships to the Confederacy during the American Civil War, ultimately led to substantial financial reparations being paid by Britain to the USA in 1872.