The Mythical Miss Staveley and the Bamboozled Bar Benevolent Fund, 1927

From the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 17 March 1927:

A remarkable story of the perpetration of frauds on many prominent people both in this country and in Ireland was told at Highgate yesterday, when John LM Reddington, alias Edward McLaughlin (59), of 451 Archway Road, Highgate, was charged with obtaining £1 by false pretences from Mr Andrew Charles O’Connor, formerly Master of the Rolls In Ireland and further with obtaining £25 by false pretences from the Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland.

Accused was the son of William McLaughlin QC, who died in Dublin 30 years ago.  His father was one of the founders of the Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland.  Accused was never connected with the Bar, and had no real occupation.  He was independent up to about 1910, when his wife lost her money through speculation.  He remembered his father’s connection with the Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland, and applied to them and was assisted with £10 and £5.  He subsequently recollected that a Mr Staveley, who was a barrister, had died some years ago.  He wrote to the Society for assistance for Miss Staveley.  He said she was going blind, and he received £25 from the Society for the purpose of getting her into a Thanet home for the blind.  For this purpose he also obtained money from Lord Carson, Lord Atkinson, and other people.  Miss Staveley was a myth so far as he was concerned.  He was sorry now he had done it.

Mr Andrew Charles O’Connor, formerly Master of the Rolls in Ireland, giving evidence, said he sent the accused £1.

When asked if he pleaded guilty, the accused said ‘I am guilty,’ and in reply to a further question said ‘I don’t want to speak.’

Detective Inspector Parsons said the accused had been carrying on a remarkable series of frauds for a number of years, and had obtained money from a large number of people.  In 1923 he wrote in the name of Mary McLaughlin to a very old and retired Judge of Ireland, who was also bedridden, stating that she was very ill and under the care of a Dr Nash.   The Judge sent some money.  Eventually, Mary McLaughlin was supposed to have died, and ‘Dr Nash’ then wrote to the judge for money on the plea of need.

Detective Inspector Parsons said that the accused had a daughter living with him; and, as far as he understood, the daughter had done no work, but had been supported by her father.”

Mr McLaughlin was subsequently sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.

The Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland – established in 1895 for the purposes of providing a fund applied wisely, delicately and prudently in aid of less fortunate members of the profession overtaken by sickness and distress – was the brainchild of Irish barrister Edward Gibson, who, in his later incarnation of Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, presided over its initial meetings.   Gibson was an enthusiastic chairman with no compunction about imposing pressure to donate; at the 1901 AGM he publicly regretted the fact that, in contrast to their High Court brethren, members of the County Court Bench were still displaying a ’rather temperate enthusiasm’ as regards their annual contributions.  Presumably they mended their hand the following year!

Lord Ashbourne, first President of the Bar Benevolent Society

Gibson’s brother, John, also a judge, left a large donation to the Society when he died in 1923, although, as one newspaper remarked, like many another famous judge and lawyer he failed to comply with the requirements of the law in his own will and an affidavit of due execution was required before it could be admitted to probate.  John Gibson’s will, made shortly before his death, expressed his sadness at having with deep regret quitted Ireland and having finally decided to make England his home for the rest of his life, ‘which cannot now at my advanced age be long.’        

A separate Benevolent Society was formed by the Northern Irish Bar following Partition, chaired by Sir James Andrews, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.  In 1930, Hugh Kennedy, the first Chief Justice of the Irish Free State, reached out to Sir John Ross, the last Lord Chancellor of Ireland, to ask him to act as President of the Society of the Bar of Ireland.   A letter of refusal was read out at the Society’s AGM of 1930, in which Sir John, now resident in Tyrone, stated that, although gratified and honoured by the invitation, 

‘I belong to, and represent a system and a state of things that has passed away, a return of one from the Shades to take part in the actual work of the present is hardly likely to advance the admirable work your committee has in hand.’

The blow was softened somewhat by Sir John’s statement that he was pleased to note from his continued reading of the Law Reports that Free State judges were continuing the great traditions of strict justice and impartiality and the Bar of Ireland was upholding the traditional courage and skill for which it was at all times famous.

Sir John Ross

The Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland is still active today.  One unresolved mystery, the answer to which may perhaps be found in its records, relates to the death of a ‘Mrs Laura Wingfield’ from gas poisoning in Ealing, London, in January 1927 – shortly before Mr McLaughlin’s arrest. An inquest subsequently found that she had taken her own life as a result of temporary insanity.  An accompanying note read

“Will the finder of my dead body communicate with the Honorary Secretary of the Benevolent Society of the Bar of Ireland? My poor effects here I desire to be sold to defray funeral expenses. The contents of my life story I wish to be published in an Irish paper, or in ‘The Daily Mail’ or ‘Daily Sketch.

Presumably the mysterious Mrs Wingfield must have had some family or marital connection to the Irish Bar. According to the policeman who investigated her death – subsequently found to have been as a result of temporary insanity – there was no sign of any MSS among her papers, I wonder what her life story would have told?

Image Credits: (top left) (top right) (middle)(bottom)

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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