Mr Godley BL in Trouble Again, 1948

From the Belfast Telegraph, 4 June 1948:

“John Godley, 87, was placed on probation for a year at Weston-Super-Mare today, on two charges of attempting to obtain money by false pretences. Superintendent Baker said since 1934 practically all Godley’s income had been derived from writing begging letters. ‘He made a business of it, keeping books showing money received from this source,’ the Superintendent said.  The book showed that since 1936 his begging letters yielded £20 to £30 monthly.  Viscount Ashbrook and Professor Wilfred Rowland Child, lecturer in English Literature at Leeds University, both said that Godley asked them for five shillings towards his expenses in having to travel by train to Taunton for his appeal against a reduction in his old age pension. Professor Child said he had made a monthly allowance of 30s to Godley, who claimed to be a cousin of the professor’s tutor at Oxford. Godley promised not to write any more begging letters.”

This was not Irish barrister John Godley’s first occasion in the dock.  After his previous court appearance in 1903, some must have wondered whether there could be life after the Law Library for a barrister convicted of bigamy.  Particularly when his legal wife Cissie was the niece of a Lord Justice of Appeal.

There was.  A long life, and, ultimately, it seems, a financially lucrative one.  John Godley had at last discovered a way to make money.   The first reference to his new business is contained in a 1912 edition of ‘Truth’:

“In answer to an earnest request for assistance, a correspondent three years ago sent £1 to one John Godley.  A few days ago he received another request from the same individual addressed from 22 St Clement’s Road, Bournemouth, saying that he would be truly grateful if the loan could be repeated.  this was pretty cool considering that nothing had ever been heard from him in regard to the repayment of first £1.  But Godley is a cool hand.  In May last he was occupying a drawing room flat at 2 Upper Woburn Place, and was appealing for a loan of £25, and to an inquirer he said that he had an income of £400 a year and a house at Henley.  Presumably he has adopted begging letter writing as a light gentlemanly occupation for his leisure hours.”

Was Godley’s co-bigamist Lilian Pritchard with him in Bournemouth?  It seems not.  In 1905 she married a contemporary from Lymington, a catering manager on the ill-fated Lusitania subsequently fortunate enough to survive its sinking.  They went on to have several children.

Meanwhile, back in Dublin, Cissie Godley had been occupying herself with legal disputes.  In 1902, she threatened to evict Celbridge (No 2) Rural District Council for arrears of rent mistakenly paid by its officials to (who else?) John.  In 1905, she had the satisfaction of triumphing over a Lucan neighbour in an easement dispute involving a well.  In December 1912, she and her daughter Clara attended the Leopardstown Races, Cissie in purple tweed and Clara in a costume of fawn broadcloth.  Clara’s marriage the following year, unattended by John, marked the end of the Godley presence on the Dublin social scene.

Like many Anglo-Irish families, the Godleys had connections in the West Country, and we next hear of John (described as Captain Arthur John Godley) before the Bath Bench in 1927, defending a summons by his landlord for breaking a window.  The reason?  To provide proper ventilation for Mrs Godley and guests.  Could John and Cissie have reconciled?

The Godley name featured in another case before the same Bench in January 1933 when one Leopold Gabriel Berman was summoned for illegally carrying on the business of receiving letters for reward for other people without giving notice to the police.  The letters in question were for a retired army officer named John Arthur Godley stated to be making investigations for divorce purposes.  His own or others?

Whether together or apart, both Godleys seem to have ended up in Weston-Super-Mare at some point before the Second World War. Cissie died there in June 1938 and is buried in Saltford Churchyard.  In all the circumstances, one can understand how she might have wished to avoid the Godley family vault in St Catherine’s Church, Bath.  

St Catherine’s itself was the subject of a letter from John published in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of May 1947 accompanied by the following note from the editor:

“Captain Godley, who at the age of 85 retains a lively interest in Bath, reminds us that his family has more than a century’s association with the city. He served during the Boer War, the First World War and during the last war with the civil defence.  We congratulate Captain Godley on his proud record.”

The following month, the same publication reported that:

“Captain J.A. Godley, of Weston-Super-Mare, who will celebrate his 86th birthday next week, sent his congratulations to Queen Mary on her 80th birthday.  Captain Godley, whose regiment was the Royal Inniskilling Fusileers, served in the Boer War and the First World War and in the last war was with the civil defence.  A letter was received in reply from Queen Mary’s lady in waiting expressing the Queen’s great pleasure at receiving good wishes from one who has served his country so loyally and has worn the uniform of four sovereigns.”

Permitting oneself to be featured in the media can be a risky business, and the police raid on Godley’s home which occurred a few weeks later may have been prompted by fallout from this coverage. The Somerset Guardian and Radstock Observer may not have been aware of Godley’s recent conviction when, on the 11th June 1948, it published a note extolling his work as unpaid secretary of two savings groups at Weston-Super Mare which had raised a total of £21,425 – an average collection of 7s 3d an hour for seven years. 

John Godley died in 1951 and it seems appropriate that the last reference to him is in an Irish publication.  The Belfast News-Letter of 24 December 1949 writes as follows:

“It would be hard to beat the war service record of Captain J.A. Godley, formerly of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who is now living in Weston-Super-Mare.  Captain Godley, who was once Secretary of the Irish Patriotic Union, which had headquarters in Dublin, was a spectator in the House of Commons in 1886 when Mr Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill was discussed.  In 1871, when he was 10, he saw German Uhlans enter the town of Coutances in France, where he was on holiday with his mother.  When the Boer War began he joined the army, and he served again in the Great War of 1914-18 with the 49th brigade of the 16th Irish Division.  Captain Godley, who is now 88, also ‘did his bit’ in the Second World War as a leader in a fire guard section of the civil defence from 1939 until the end of hostilities; and he received a medal for seven years’ work in the National Savings Movement.”

The Forces War Records are circumspect on the subject of Godley’s military career – though whether this is because it never happened or because of this writer’s ineptitude in searching them is unclear.  But, no matter how commendable, his war service record is almost certainly the least interesting part of a life story spanning ten decades, two bankruptcies, several failed election bids, two wives, three convictions and – it seems – thousands of successful begging letters!  

Farewell John Arthur Godley BL, 1861-1951. What a man! What a mystery! What a life!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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